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Prince Zuko's entire backstory explained

Avatar: The Last Airbender is proof that everybody loves a good redemption story. The beloved children's series has seen a significant increase in consideration since being added back to Netflix in the United States, with fans rewatching the show, relitigating old beefs, and remembering why they loved the story of Aang in the first place. Part of what makes Avatar so memorable, and lodged the show in viewers' minds in the first place, is its complexity. Rather than focusing on the arc of a single savior who failed the world when he was needed most, the show is an interlocking puzzle of characters all working to regain their own sense of self-worth. 

We see this in the absentee messiah arc of the Avatar, of course. But just about every character goes on a journey to learn to accept themselves and is, in turn, accepted by the people around them. We see it in the story of the uncouth, blind aristocrat Toph, the heartbroken former leader of a ruthless army Iroh, and the cunning but powerless Sokka. In a world where man frequently has an inborn harmony with nature and those men are stalemated in an endless war, the writers of Avatar created a cascade of "man vs. self" conflict.

Outside of the Avatar, few of these storylines are more rewarding than the tale of Prince Zuko. The exiled heir to the throne of the Fire Nation grappled with concepts of loyalty, family, and pride in one of the most fleshed-out arcs we've ever seen for an antagonist. This is Prince Zuko's entire backstory explained.

Sins of the father

Prince Zuko's story begins as most of ours do: with his parents. He was born into the Fire Nation royal family, as the honorific suggests, the son of Prince Ozai and Princess Ursa. Zuko was born well after his great grandfather Sozin upset the balance of Avatar's world by waging perpetual war on the Earth Kingdom, the polar Water tribes and the nomadic Airbenders. Still, the weight of leading a nation in an eternal war did not weigh heavy on young Zuko. He wasn't in line for the throne. 

Zuko's father was a nakedly ambitious man, however, and the pressure of one day leading the Fire Nation would come crashing down onto him in a single disastrous night as Ozai unfurled his machinations and schemes. Ozai successfully plotted to have his older brother Iroh removed from the line of succession, but not without severe consequences. 

Iroh was a general in the Fire Nation army whose incredible prowess as a firebender had earned him the nickname "The Dragon of the West." He was leading a siege on the walled Earth Kingdom capital of Ba Sing Se when his only son Lu Ten was killed in action. The formerly fierce general felt the fire leave him and he called off the siege and returned home in grief. Where another brother and uncle would feel loss over the death of his nephew and empathy with his brother, Ozai only saw an opportunity.

Ursa's disappearance

Ozai immediately met his father in the throne room, requesting that he revoke Iroh's status as the heir to the throne. He laid out his case to the current Fire Lord, noting that Iroh abandoned his duties and had no heir of his own. Fire Lord Azulon was nowhere near as callous as his son, though, and he flew into a rage over Ozai's calculating demeanor. He commanded Ozai to kill his own son, so that he might know the pain that Iroh was experiencing. 

This made no difference to the would-be Fire Lord. He had despised his son from birth, feeling that he lacked the fire in his eyes that was the mark of powerful firebenders. He much preferred his oldest daughter Azula, who was similarly conniving and an incredibly gifted fighter. Zuko's mother carried enough love for Zuko for the both of them and protected her young son from the rest of the family's casual cruelties. She shielded Zuko one last time, convincing her husband to spare his life in exchange for her participation in a plot to take the throne. She poisoned Azulon and was banished by her now-Fire Lord husband, ostensibly for treason but really to keep their secret safe. 

Without the comfort of his mother, Zuko was left to a life of avoiding his family. He kept from getting in his father's way to draw his ire or being spotted by his sister Azula, lest she torture him. 

In his sister's shadow

Prince Zuko had good reason to fear Azula. She was a powerful firebender from a young age, eventually mastering rare techniques that let her control lightning. Like her father, she had little time for sympathy or feelings of familial love, seeing them as impediments to her ultimate desire for power. She used her prowess and her father's favor to mock and harass young Zuko.

Zuko's father Ozai viewed his son's comparatively slow development of firebending skills as shameful and didn't feel the need to mince words about it. In one particularly formative dinner, Ozai scolded his son for siding with the Fire Nation's bending masters over his sister. While the masters wanted Azula to learn patience and control before moving on to building more powerful techniques, Azula only saw them as holding her back. When Zuko objected, Ozai revealed a devastating fact about his son's birth. 

Ozai had wanted to kill his firstborn son, believing from the look of him that he would not have the ability to firebend. It took the pleading of his wife Ursa and the mystical advisors known as Fire Sages to convince the eventual Fire Lord to spare Zuko's life. As Ozai himself put it to his not-yet 10-year-old son, "Azula was born lucky. You were lucky to be born."

The fateful meeting

Zuko manages to hold out in the royal palace for several more years. His uncle Iroh sees that the teenage Zuko is lost without the love of either of his parents and attempts to step in as a mentor for the often impetuous prince. Zuko resents Iroh's instruction, refusing to be a stand-in for his late cousin and seeing the perennially cheery Iroh as an easy target for his youthful rage. Hoping to give Zuko a sense of connection to the royal family, Iroh leverages his role as an advisor to his brother to get Zuko into a war council. 

Iroh advises Zuko to keep his mouth shut in the meeting, understanding that the Fire Lord and his generals have short tempers and that even the smallest slight or stepped-on toe could escalate quickly. Like all advice Iroh gives Zuko in this period, it's ignored. 

Zuko speaks out against a general planning to send an entire battalion to their deaths as a diversionary tactic. He fumes at the general's casual demeanor over sending young men to die and accuses him of exploiting their sense of patriotism. Fire Lord Ozai shouts his son down and rules that he take part in a Fire Nation duel known as Agni Kai for his disrespect.

Punishment

Prince Zuko accepts, believing that he'll duel the general he'd accosted. However, when he shows up at the dueling chamber of the royal palace, Zuko found that he was being challenged by his father. Fire Lord Ozai believes Zuko disrespected him personally with his outburst in the meeting, and that his conduct reflected poorly on the family. 

Agni Kai duels are fought until one participant is burned, but Zuko refuses to fight his own father. Rather than take up a dueling stance, the young prince falls to his knees in front of Ozai and the audience, begging for forgiveness. This is an intolerable display of weakness in Ozai's eyes, and he brands his son a coward. Showing vulnerability is just another instance of disrespect to the Fire Lord, who vows to punish Zuko for not showing proper deference.

"You will learn respect, and suffering will be your teacher," he says, unleashing a fireball that permanently scars Zuko's face. 

As further punishment, Ozai banishes his son from the Fire Nation. He tells Zuko that he can return home, and receive his titles and right to the throne, if he captures the Avatar. Zuko sets out with his uncle in the hopes of finding the one true threat to the Fire Nation's plan for world domination.

Making enemies

After two years of searching for the Avatar, with a crew largely loyal to his uncle Iroh, Zuko finally stumbles upon a chance to catch him. When Zuko encounters the Avatar among the Northern Water Tribe, Aang willingly gives himself up to avoid any harm coming to the villagers — but escapes after being brought back to Zuko's ship, damaging the vessel in the process. When they take the ship in to be repaired, the Fire Nation Commander Zhao learns that Zuko let the Avatar slip away. An ashamed Zuko challenges Zhao to an Agni Kai and wins, making himself an enemy for life in the process.

Throughout the rest of his search for the Avatar, Zhao tries to undermine and best the young prince. Eventually, Zuko's blind desire to capture the Avatar leads him back into Fire Nation territory, in direct violation of the Fire Lord's banishment. He helps the Avatar escape Zhao's capture in fear that he won't be allowed back if another member of the Fire Nation captures Aang. They battle all over the world to be the first to capture the Avatar, with tensions escalating to the point that Zhao destroys Zuko's ship and leaves him for dead.

Branded a traitor

Even after the attack from Zhao, Zuko refuses to give up on capturing the Avatar. He tracks Aang down several times, ultimately capturing him in the Arctic. In typical fashion, he over-commits himself in the pursuit. While he manages to take Aang prisoner, his chase leaves him in the middle of the tundra with no way to leave. The Avatar's party eventually bests Zuko and free their friend, and the team argues over whether they should leave Zuko to freeze to death. Aang saves Zuko's life, but his actions in the North lead to him being branded a traitor by his own father. 

As Zuko floats away from the northern tribes on a driftwood raft, Fire Lord Ozai puts a bounty on the prince. He sends his ruthless daughter Azula to track him down and bring him to the Fire Nation to face punishment.

Adrift in the Earth Kingdom

Azula sets out with two lieutenants in search of Zuko and quickly finds him hiding in the Earth Kingdom. Playing on his deep desire to be accepted back into the family, she lies to her brother and says Fire Lord Ozai had a change of heart. She convinces Zuko that he's welcome back in the Fire Nation, but Iroh knows enough of his brother to be wary. One of Azula's underlings lets it slip that the pair are being taken prisoner just as they're about to board her ship, and the two men escape. 

Though he has repeatedly been humbled when he failed to follow his uncle's advice, Zuko's pride gets in the way of realizing that he needs to heed Iroh. Faced with being wrong yet again, Zuko pushes his uncle away, and the two disgraced members of the royal family go their separate ways. Zuko travels the Kingdom and comes across people who are facing the effects of the war on the ground. Zuko continues to be pushed away from his loyalty to the Fire Nation, especially after Azula wounds Iroh in the process of trying to capture the Avatar. The pair move to Ba Sing Se and live undercover as tea sellers. While Iroh is happy and finds meaning in his new war-free life, Zuko can't shake his commitments to the Fire Nation and his need to be redeemed.

A hero's welcome

Zuko grapples with questions of his own loyalty. At one point, he captures the Avatar's pet bison, Aapa. His nagging conscience forces him to let the animal go, and the decision runs so counter to his core values of patriotism and family that he falls into a weeks-long fever. When Azula returns and confronts the Avatar, who is also in the city seeking to gain the Earth King's trust, Zuko's hard-won morality crumbles. He sees the chance to get back in his father's good graces and turns on his uncle and the Avatar, and fights alongside Azula in a battle that leaves the Avatar near-fatally wounded. 

Believing the Avatar to be dead, the prince and princess return to the Fire Nation and receive a hero's welcome. Zuko doubts that the Avatar died in the battle. Seeing this fear in her brother, Azula schemes to embarrass him yet again, telling her father it was Zuko who dealt the fatal blow to Aang, leaving him to be disgraced if the foil of the Fire Nation turns up alive. He sends out an assassin to track and kill the Avatar. 

Confronting his father

At the same time that his assassin is seeking out the Avatar, Zuko is being allowed into his father's war councils. He's wracked with guilt in several directions, and as Iroh trains his body in the dungeons of the Fire Nation, he leads Zuko to realize that he's connected to the Avatar by blood. His mother's grandfather was the last Avatar before Aang, a firebender who was also the best friend of his great-grandfather Fire Lord Sozin. Sozin ignored Avatar Roku's advice and began the Hundred Year War, further proving to Zuko that the Avatar was on the right side of history

During another war council, Zuko mentions the resolve of the Earth Kingdom citizens and the way they will fight to protect their homes. This show of empathy enrages Ozai, and he plots an all-out attack on the Earth Kingdom. This decision ultimately breaks Zuko from his loyalty to his family, as he can't bear the guilt of being responsible for the deaths of thousands of Earth Kingdom citizens. He confronts his father while all firebenders are in a weakened state due to a solar eclipse and joins up with Team Avatar, defeating his own hired assassin and teaching Aang how to firebend. 

Sacking the capital

Team Avatar, with Zuko in tow, attacks the Fire Nation capital on the day Fire Lord Ozai hoped to launch an all-out assault. A comet is passing near Earth, making all firebenders incredibly powerful. The small team raids the royal palace, leading to a showdown between Zuko and Azula. The princess challenges Zuko to an Agni Kai, neutralizing the other members of Team Avatar as the pair duel one on one. Azula wins the duel by launching an attack one of his Zuko's teammates. He stands in front of the attack and is left wounded and immobile. 

Azula is defeated by other members of Team Avatar, who let them pass through to fight the Fire Lord. Avatar Aang bests Ozai in combat, effectively ending the Hundred Year War. As both Ozai and Azula are dead, Prince Zuko becomes lord of the Fire Nation and commits his rule to rebuilding the world, taking his cue from the elemental harmony preached by the Avatar.