Starting this week is the first in a series of posts on the characters in Avatar: The Last Airbender. The reason is simple; they’re a fantastic and eclectic bunch that merit some discussion and analysis. First up, Prince Zuko and Uncle Iroh. Needless to say, there are spoilers ahead.
They’re the odd couple in many ways. The young, brash Zuko and the calm, sage Iroh. Yet these characters are two peas in a pod and their relationship is one of the best in the entire series. The story behind it is simple, Zuko is banished and Iroh is sent to accompany him as a pseudo trainer/chaperone but the underlying tension is what makes things so wonderfully complex and human.
Zuko is the heir to the throne, but he is a young, abrasive, naive prince. The kind one expects to find within a royal family. From the onset of the series, it’s made clear that despite his royal privileges, his life has been a bit of a struggle. Living in the shadow of his sister, Azula, has given him a bit of a chip on his shoulder and causes him to challenge almost anyone he meets.
Iroh in stark contrast is a former heir to the throne but since his son was killed in the war, has become more of a background figure in Fire Nation politics. A self-confessed “changed man”, the reason for Iroh’s pairing with Zuko only becomes more apparent, and meaningful, as the series progresses.
Why We Like Them
It is the sparks that constantly fly between the two characters that provide the entertainment with Zuko often being on the receiving end of a lesson. Both characters are flawed although only Zuko’s is readily apparent and relevant to the vast majority of viewers. Iroh’s flaw is hinted at over the course of the first two books but only in book 3 is his character, and its flaw, fully revealed. That is to say, he was once as egotistical as Fire Lord Ozai, for which the price the price was paid with his son’s life. Ever since, Iroh has resolved to be a different, better person. Age and experience has helped bring him whole, as it does Zuko.
Zuko’s lessons over the course of the series make for especially riveting viewing, although it is only in the confrontation with Iroh at the end of Book 2 do we see how he fails to learn from them. Only in Book 3 do we see Zuko actually peer within himself to determine who he truly is. A noble feat for any character, but especially so for one as conflicted as Zuko.
What Makes Them Great Characters
Although both Zuko and Iroh are relatively complex characters, they are the simplest of all the main characters. Their motivation is simple (although Zuko’s changes over time) and their actions are influenced from obvious sources. For much of the series, it is Zuko’s desire to reclaim his honour and his belief that capturing the Avatar will accomplish this. For Iroh, it is the fact that he views Zuko as the son he lost, and therefore needs to protect him, sometimes from himself.
Zuko’s anger and frustration with those around him make for many memorable scenes throughout the series but none more so than his confrontation with the Fire Lord in Book 3. Here we see Zuko realising how wrong he has been and how he intends to make amends. From a character standpoint, it is the pinnacle of Zuko’s presence within the series. Yes, he has an agnai kai with Azula in the finale, but it is his father with whom his frustrations are based on the most. Actively returning the lighting which Ozai himself created is symbolic of Zuko’s rejection of his father aims as well as a foreshadowing of how Ozai’s actions will result in his own downfall.
The reunion of Zuko and Iroh remains one of the most poignant in the series as we see how readily Iroh forgives Zuko but also how Zuko’s character has strengthened to the point where he feels able (if unsure) about seeking said forgiveness.
Why these two are great example of characters isn’t hard to see. For one, they are a team, second, they are opposites and lastly, they provide ample sources for humour throughout the series. Conflicted characters like Zuko make for riveting viewing for simple reason that as the viewer, we are hoping that Zuko makes the right choice. Thankfully, he makes a few bad ones before he finally comes around in the end. The way Iroh’s past is pieced together in such a sublime way constantly keeps us guessing as to who he really is and just why he is even present in the series. Ultimately, we learn that his place in the series is essential and without him, Zuko becomes lost, flat and an altogether unlikeable character.
Together, Zuko and Iroh provide the ideal mirror to Team Avatar throughout the series and provide much additional fodder for story that the series uses to its maximum advantage.
Tune in again next week when we take a look at Sokka.