In Which This Man Does Have a Name
Avatar has always excelled at being a show of genre, a blending of multiple influences and ideas that synthesizes them instead of merely replicating the experience. Avatar is a melange of Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and a whole lot of anime, and even with those inspirations clear, it is wholly unique in its world and execution. Layering out its own story and mythology that is considered and idiosyncratic. What’s amazing about “Zuko Alone,” arguably the show’s greatest episode, is that it replicates this synthesis of influences again on a micro instead of macro scale, and proves that it can tell its own story in the process.
“Zuko Alone” is singular in the series, the only episode not have Aang in it, let alone any other member of Team Avatar. Its focus falls solely on the shoulders of our exiled prince, and in the process exhumes the demons of Zuko’s psychology. If “The Storm” revealed the fuel that drives Zuko in his quest, than “Alone” provides the engine that the fuel energizes. The structure of his life, and the contours of his history that has led him to this place of isolation.
Avatar achieves this deep character study through another prism of genre blending. Here it’s a myriad of classical film touchstones. “Zuko Alone” is at once Yojimbo, Shane, Leone’s Dollars Trilogy, with a heaping of palace intrigue. All of this seems like a lot for a single 22 minute episode, but writer Elizabeth Ehasz pulls off the difficult balance of layering in complicated plots within plots while also allowing room to delve into the thought process of Zuko. So at once “Zuko Alone” is an elegant genre exercise, and a cornerstone piece of development for one our main characters.
After leaving Iroh, Zuko makes his way through the desert and canyon lands of the Earth Kingdom. He’s isolated and hungry, he thinks of robbing a couple of their meal, but relents when he notices that the woman is pregnant, eventually he stumbles into a ramshackle town.
Here he notices the citizenry are being held in ransom by a group of thuggish Earth Kingdom soldiers, a group of men that are more interested in extorting villagers than fending off Fire Nation attacks. The set up is pure Leone, a powerful stranger wondering into a town and at immediate odds with the powers that be. Zuko even refuses to divulge his name, he’s become as sullen and reclusive as his classic Eastwood counterpoint. But Zuko can’t quite let his morals slip, as he vouches for a precocious kid that pranks the soldiers.
His stiff act of consideration wins the kid’s favor, and Lee brings Zuko to his family farm. There Zuko is greeted warmly, offered a hot meal for a bit of manual labor. As Zuko works on the farm he is greeted to a series of remembrances of his life in the royal palace of the Fire Lord, and all of the politicking and backstabbing that occurred there. You see Zuko’s childhood was not always a slog of miserabalism.
In fact Zuko’s mom, Ursa, provided a blanket of comfort for Zuko to protect himself. In flashback Zuko is portrayed as a more empathetic being, a person acutely aware that emotions are broiling under the surface of more mundane activities. Zuko sense’s it when Iroh’s son dies, and when his mother mysteriously disappears.
The court intrigue adds a shockingly dark edge to the proceedings of Zuko’s life. While Ozai scarring his son was abominable act, we see here that machinations are deeper and crueler than we ever could have expected. You see Ozai was not always in line to be the Fire Lord, indeed Iroh had the rightful position to sit upon the throne. But Ozai is a capricious man, and singularly focused on fulfilling the legacy that Sozin started 100 years ago.
So when the family learns of Iroh’s son’s death, the wheels begin turning. Ozai asks Fire Lord Azulon if he can usurp Iroh in line for the seat of power. At first Azulon refuses, but the clandestine meeting continues, with Zuko and Azula looking on (Zuko in horror and Azula in delight). Zuko leaves before the full plan is revealed, but Azula insinuates that his death is near. Much more troubling is a late night visit from Ursa, who tells Zuko she is leaving and that all that happens was done for him. Ursa then promptly vanishes from the scene.
The dawn breaks and we are treated to troubling news: Azulon has died, Ursa has disappeared, and Ozai has claimed the right as Fire Lord. Thus the events that animate the rest of the series are put into motion. The thrill of “Zuko Alone” is the deftness of which balances the present day genre riff with the twisty corridors of his past, before coalescing in a climax that serves as a definitive statement of the character.
Zuko gives the knife he received from Iroh to Lee, who promptly uses it to attack the soldiers. This causes Zuko to find his consciousness and retaliate on behalf of his companion. With his broadswords he can take out a few soldiers handily, but the leader has the power of earthbending, and Zuko needs to break out his fire skills to gain the upper-hand and win.
Here is where the genre smoothie of the episode reveals itself to be a clever sleight of hand. In the Western the hero is stoic, unidentified, and cool: able to handle the corrupt powers that be and turn the favor of the town towards them. But that doesn’t happen, Zuko isn’t Clint Eastwood, Toshiro Mifune, or Alan Ladd. No, he’s a sad, angry teenager who has yet to fully process the trauma of his childhood. So in unbridled rage he strikes out with fire against the Earth Kingdom soldier and boldly proclaims his name, “My name is Zuko. Son of Ursa and Fire Lord Ozai. Prince of the Fire Nation, and heir to the throne.”
In this moment it’s made clear that Zuko is still on his quest to regain what he has lost. That his trauma is still bundled up in the knots of his past. He may have acted out of benefit for an innocent child, but he can no longer move in this town under false pretenses, his existence must be known. It’s an important step in his evolution but it’s notably only a step, a cathartic burst that for now will only earn him scorn.
So even if he is the last gun in the valley Zuko is rejected. He is an individual that can bring only pain to those around him when the truth is revealed. Lee bluntly states his hate, and it’s all that can be laid upon Zuko in the Earth Kingdom. No matter his actions, he is, for now, the enemy of the people. And there seems to be little he can do to change that, so might as well ride into the sunset, and on to whatever the next destination provides.
Odds and Ends
- Didn’t have the right time in the main piece, but I love how Azula is contextualized here. She knows that the love of her father is only constituted on total fealty to his cause and identity. She’s a prodigious child, but one who walks on the knife’s edge of knowing everything she has is entirely conditional.
- Also buried deep in the background is the hint of Iroh’s arc as person. In his letter from Ba Sing Sae he sounds clear and malicious, and though he doesn’t appear again in the episode the implication of his sorrow is palpable. We can feel how the loss of his son changes his life.
- Ursa notes that Zuko is, “someone who keeps fighting, even though it’s hard.” A sentiment that Zuko explicated to Aang in “The Siege of The North.”
- It’s a tad odd that young Zuko is voiced by a different actor (Elijah Runcorn) while everyone else in the flashback just pitches their voices up a bit.
- Also, don’t know if it’s a continuity error, or the world of the show has changed, but it’s weird that a random villager knows how Zuko got his scar, but Fire Nation soldiers in “The Storm” did not.
- Turtleducks are the cutest animals yet in the show.
- Once again this episode serves as a perfect setup for the events of the finale, for as much as Zuko is forced to reckon with the damage he is done, he cannot completely give up on his identity just yet.
- Oh Ursa, the greatest mystery of the show (though solved in the comics), I love how Ozai refers to her actions in “The Day of Black Sun” as, “vicious, treasonous things.” You can tell that even Ozai is still trying to process what Ursa did, even is he doesn’t want to admit it.