Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

The Avatar: The Last Airbender Detail That Makes Zuko's Story More Tragic

Each and every main character from Avatar: The Last Airbender follows a unique trajectory and changes a great deal in the course of the series, yet they still remain the same at a fundamental level — similar to the way people change in real life. From Toph (voiced by Jessie Flower) to Katara (Mae Whitman), character development in this show is incredibly believable and has major effects on the story and world. It's a huge part of what makes Avatar feel so vibrant and alive — like watching fictional history in the making.

With the exception of Ozai (Mark Hamill), who's more a force of pure evil than anything else on the show, this applies to the villains as much as it does the heroes. Zuko (Dante Basco) may seem to be nothing more than a petulant and arrogant displaced prince, but after "The Storm," episode 12 of season 1, there's no turning back for him. A key piece of his backstory is revealed: For speaking out in an important war council, Zuko is made to duel his father, the Fire Lord himself, in a ritualistic fight called an Agni Kai. Zuko refuses to fight, resulting in both his facial scar and his banishment from the Fire Nation, in force until he captures Aang (Zach Tyler Eisen), the Avatar, a task his father presumes impossible.

What makes Zuko so fascinating is that his path to redemption is long and full of unexpected twists and turns. He keeps viewers constantly on their toes, wondering what he's going to do next and defying expectations every time. It's arguable that no other Avatar character changes as much as he does, or faces a greater degree of tragedy. As Reddit user RedSunn59 aptly points out, a specific detail from Zuko's past only amps up that tragedy.

Zuko's childhood informs his future

"Zuko Alone," episode 7 of season 2, does exactly what the title implies — it isolates Zuko. Zuko has struck out on his own, and we get our first real insights into what it's like in the banished prince's traumatized mind. The events of the episode lend a certain clarity to why Zuko acts the way he does, thanks in large part to a series of flashbacks chronicling his childhood in the Fire Nation Royal Palace. These flashbacks contextualize many of Zuko's actions in the episodes yet to come.

Before his scars and his obsession with the Avatar, it's still hard to call Zuko "normal" in any sense of the word — as is the case for just about anyone raised behind the walls of a palace. He has a difficult time getting along with his sister Azula (Grey DeLisle) and her friends Mai (Cricket Leigh) and Ty Lee (voiced by Olivia Hack). His mother Ursa (Jen Cohn) is the only person that truly understands and gets along with him.

This is where RedSunn59's observation comes in: Where are Zuko's friends? Does he have any? If so, where are they during the course of Avatar? True enough, Mai and Ty Lee stay with Azula mostly because of the fear she instills in them, but they stay with her nonetheless. Both women have roles to play as the seasons progress, going through small character arcs of their own.

That none of Zuko's friends — assuming any exist — make an appearance is all too appropriate for an episode entitled "Zuko Alone." He's been a loner all his life; it's all he knows, and why he puts up walls whenever people try to bond with him, or even speak to him. His loneliness transforms from a state of being in his childhood to a defense mechanism in his adult years. There's just no room for friends in a one-man show.

Why Zuko's loneliness matters

It might be interesting to ponder what Zuko could've been had he not been so alone — an alternate Avatar timeline in which he's happier and doesn't bear his trademark burn. With how much Zuko thinks about his past, it wouldn't be surprising to find that he wonders the same exact thing about himself, no matter how hyper-focused on the present he may appear. But a Zuko with friends is not the character Avatar fans know and love. The truth is, Zuko's alone.

There's one man who shows Zuko that he doesn't have to be alone, even if it takes forever for the lesson to sink in: Iroh (Mako Iwamatsu), his uncle. It's evident from square one that the man cares deeply for his nephew, treating him more like a son than anything. No matter how far Zuko strays, Iroh believes in him and loves him, doing everything he can to provide a reliable anchor for the young man.

When Zuko finally joins Team Avatar in "The Western Air Temple," episode 12 of season 3, a memory of Iroh makes Zuko smile and believe he made the right choice. "Destiny is a funny thing," Iroh says in the memory. "You never know how things are going to work out. But if you keep an open mind, and an open heart, I promise you will find your own destiny someday." As it turns out, that destiny isn't one he can fulfill on his own — thus his decision to ally himself with his former foes.

The relationship doesn't go smoothly at first, which is to be expected of a man who's always had trouble forging connections trying to forge connections with people who don't trust him. Given time, however, Iroh's wisdom sinks in, and Zuko begins to see the light. Whether or not he had friends in his time at the palace, life moves on. Things change. People change. He can change. Being alone was never Zuko's destiny, but it allows him to appreciate what it's like to be part of a group in ways even the original members of Team Avatar can't understand.

"The world's so different now," Aang says to Zuko in one of Avatar's final scenes. "And it's gonna be even more different," Zuko responds, "when we build it together." As the new Fire Lord, there's no better promise to make than that. Zuko knows he's stronger when he's not alone.