“Hello, Zuko here.”
Thus begins Zuko’s humbling amends in the Avatar: The Last Airbender Season 3 episode “The Western Air Temple.” After playing the cat-and-mouse game with the Gaang for so long, Zuko finally joins their side in the fight against the Fire Lord. But the road to redemption is paved with many choices along the way, and Zuko wasn’t always great at making the right ones.
By the time he joins Team Avatar in “The Western Air Temple,” the show is three quarters of the way done. Why did it take Zuko so long to turn to the good side? The answer to that lies in what it takes to write a great redemption arc — waiting for the perfect moment, even when it seems like it’s already past.
The short-lived life of tea shop owner Zuko
The Season 2 finale “The Crossroads of Destiny” pits Zuko against the two warring sides of himself. The good his Uncle Iroh sees in him, and the anger of a mistreated teenager trying to live up to unrealistic expectations. Season 2 broke Zuko down but it also built him back up into a seemingly more settled teenager, almost content just serving tea in Ba Sing Se with his uncle.
Zuko’s first real good deed came with releasing Appa — an act of good with zero motivation — the result of which caused a physical reaction in Zuko. He finally let go of the stress, hurt, and anger caused by his exile. But that was just one good deed made in a split second decision, with no witnesses and no one to entice him with anything else.
It’s nice to see Zuko working with his uncle in the tea shop, and the thought of him just being a tea shop owner for the rest of his life is cute. However, releasing Appa was nothing. The real test came from Azula, and when faced with the final choice to switch sides, Zuko failed. It was a necessary failure.
Crown Prince Zuko
Narratively, his turn in Season 3 is more earned by virtue of him finally receiving everything he wanted. It’s important that “The Crossroads of Destiny” distinguishes Zuko’s choices. In the crystal catacombs, it’s Iroh, Katara, and Aang against Azula, with Zuko still unsure where he stands.
That three against one set-up clearly paves the way for Zuko to join his uncle, who already told him he’s proud of him, and fight with the Avatar instead of against him. Zuko had a chance, but hearing Azula’s promise that he will be accepted back to the Fire Nation is too good of a chance to give up. It’s his one desire being handed to him, so soon after his first step toward the good side. Faced with it under the pressure of battle, Zuko takes the easy way out.
He joins Azula and is welcomed back in the Fire Nation as the Crown Prince. But his doubt is present even in the mere moments after the crystal catacombs battle, unsure of his sister’s promises. Still, he’s free to walk through the Fire Nation, even as his uncle sits imprisoned in the same city. Zuko’s journey in Season 3 gives him a chance to actually break free of the oppression he’s lived under and contributed to, and finally decide for himself where his destiny lies.
It’s a redemption arc successively pulled off because Avatar: The Last Airbender knows how to play its cards right. It would be easy to make Zuko change sides in “The Crossroads of Destiny.” But just like Zuko’s redemption, the easy way is not always the right way. Allowing Zuko a chance to experience what he thought he wanted just makes his eventual turn so much more palpable and dynamic. Zuko still has to earn the trust of the Gaang, but he understands now how to do the work to earn that forgiveness.
Featured image courtesy of Nickelodeon