Behold, the much-anticipated re-watch of episode 2.07, “Zuko Alone,” in which everyone’s favorite anti-hero takes center stage, wins our hearts, then breaks them. We learn why Ozai’s older brother Iroh isn’t the Fire Lord, but the answer raises a dozen new questions. If your friends don’t believe Avatar is different from other cartoons, show them this episode to prove them wrong.
Since the rewatch began, I’ve been waiting to review this episode the way Fire Lord Ozai has been waiting for Sozen’s Comet. But now that the episode is here, I feel like a lot of the stuff I was eager to talk about is self-evident. Is this episode modeled after samurai films, anime, and westerns? Of course. In every shot there are references, from the lonely rider on a dusty road, to the quiet main street, the wooden water tower in the background of many shots, the homestead, and the showdown. Zuko spends half the episode riding a Chocobo for pete’s sake.
What makes this episode stand out is its exploration of Zuko’s character. Here is the villain of the series, given childhood flashbacks and a noble purpose. We have empathy for him. Imagine an episode of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles where we are asked to feel bad for Shredder. It would never happen.
Was anyone surprised when hungry Zuko left the pregnant couple alone? Maybe you were. Zuko has been known to steal from helpless people before. Robin Hood, he is not.
As the prince with no name wanders into town, he recalls a memory of his childhood. He feeds turtle-ducks with his mother, Ursa, who is sweet and kind; she is more like Katara than she is like Zuko’s other relatives, in fact. I focus on this flashback more than the others because most of flashbacks struggle to cram a lot of (albeit important) backstory into brief scenes. I’m a fan of the beat where Ty Lee executes a superior backflip, only to be shoved on her face by a bitter young Azula. The scene where Azula shows up Zuko in the throne room is even more depressing. It is strange to see such an innocent-looking young girl say such venomous things. Her mother ponders, “What is the matter with that girl?” We will all be asking that question more than once before the series is over.
But back to the flashback at hand. Zuko’s embarrassing encounter with the turtle-ducks and his mother’s reaction ring true for me in a way few scenes on any TV show have. It’s something we’ve all been through. Someone teases you, thinking it’s funny. You feel bad, and want to be cool, so you tease someone else, hoping they will get the joke, but they just end up hating you. So it is with Zuko and the ducks. The previous scene is easy to imagine. The sororial sociopath throws rocks at ducks. Zuko tells her that’s not cool. Azula tells Zuko he’s not cool. Zuko runs off and cries. And then in the scene shown in the flashback, Zuko tries to be cool, but his heart isn’t in it. He offends his mother, and angers one grumpy turtle-duck. The message here, in scenes shown and implied, is that sometimes you just can’t win. His life has been an endless string of losses and failures. He loses his mother, his pride, his face, his birthright. He loses the Avatar every time Zuko captures him. Even when he helps a small Earth Kingdom family, even when he defeats the bullies, he still loses.
I may sound like a broken record talking about Kurosawa, but this episode in particular radiates homage. Two quotes from Kurosawa’s masterpiece Seven Samurai have special significance in this episode.
“Find hungry samurai.”
“So, again we are defeated…The farmers have won; we have lost.”
The first quote comes early in the film, when the village elder encourages the farmers to seek out hungry samurai, as people down on their luck are often more willing to do things they normally wouldn’t. So it is with Zuko, whose hunger and desperation are apparent from the opening frames of “Zuko Alone.” We see Zuko making concessions he never would have before, like accepting a young boy’s help, and standing up for those in need. He even gives away a personal possession—the knife Iroh sent him from Ba Sing Se. It’s the same knife Zuko used to cut his top knot in “The Avatar State.” I can’t imagine Zuko parting with something so precious to him in Season One. His hunger puts him in a place where he is willing to make sacrifices and other tough choices. It sets him up for catharsis and change.
The second quote is tied even closer to this episode, and refers back to Zuko’s failures. Zuko can win the battle, but if he doesn’t win the hearts and minds of those he fights for, he will still lose. This sums up the whole episode, and perhaps the whole of Zuko’s story. In order to please one family member, he must fail another. We will see this pattern echoed over and over again throughout the show.
Nothing is said of Zuko’s relationship with his cousin Lu Ten, Iroh’s son, who dies in the Siege of Ba Sing Se. But from the horrified expression on Zuko’s face when he hears the news of his cousin’s death, we can guess the two were close. Lu Ten is older, so I imagine their relationship was similar to the one between Zuko and the young boy Lee. To Zuko, Lee represents the sibling he needed but never had. To Lee, Zuko represents the sibling he had but now is gone. The beautifully drawn scene in the field at night brings these two together, and they form an unexpected bond. Zuko must feel good to teach the boy about fighting, the way Iroh has taught Zuko about so many things.
But all of that comes to an end when Lee is captured by crooked Earth Kingdom soldiers and Zuko attempts to rescue him. He makes short work of the leader’s goons, beginning the fight with a form of swordplay called iaidō, known for its fluid, controlled movements. The display of this fighting form indicates that Zuko is more in control of himself than he once was. The erratic combatant who once dueled with Aang and Admiral Zhao is gone, replaced by a more confident young man.
The last Earth soldier proves to be too much for Zuko’s Blue Spirit skills, forcing the prince to display his firebending power, looking quite a bit like another emo supervillain in the process.
That’s Sephiroth from Final Fantasy VII, for those of you who don’t know.
Zuko defeats the bully, but the crowd’s cheers turn to boos at the sight of Zuko’s power. Declaring his status as Fire Prince only makes matters worse. Lee’s face falls. Does he hate Zuko? He is terrified of him. The engraved dagger ends up in the dirt. Zuko has no choice but to ride on.
I’d like to conclude the main part of this rewatch with a third quote from Seven Samurai.
“This is the nature of war. By protecting others, you save yourselves.”
In other words, even if Zuko can’t win the hearts of the people, he can save his soul.
Zuko travels along a road lined with stone wheels that look identical to the ones General Fong hurled at Aang in the season premiere. Could these be the same ones? Or do these round stone discs with square holes have some other history?
Early shots of the Earth Kingdom soldiers pay a lot of attention to the leader’s hammers. This is subtle foreshadowing, and a gun on the mantlepiece. These hammers will be important later! And they are.
Let my imaginary scene about Azula torturing turtle-ducks serve as a lesson to any would-be writers out there. One line of dialogue conjures a whole character history. It’s all the set-up you need. No lengthy character set-up scenes necessary. One line: “Wanna see how Azula feeds turtle-ducks?” It tells us all we need to know about the Fire Princess.
The mash-up animals are out in full force this episode. Sheep-pigs. Chicken-pigs. Turtle-ducks.
Is it a trend in westerns for married women to have crushes on young strangers? Maybe I’m crazy, but Lee’s mom seems to have quite a thing for the Fire Prince. It must get lonely on the ranch.
Any Alan Ladd fans in the house? Around the episode’s mid-point, Zuko gives the dagger to Lee and rides off. As Zuko fades into the distance, the boy watches from the foreground. “Shaaaaaaaaane!!!!” The shots are almost identical.
Along with empathetic antagonists, the other thing you don’t see in many kids shows is ambiguity. It is never quite clear what happens with Zuko’s mother, nor is it ever made clear. Does she offer to have herself killed in exchange or Zuko’s life? Or is she banished with the same intent? Does she slay Azulon in the night and flee before she is captured, or is the old Fire Lord’s death merely a coincidence? Shoot me your theories in the comments.
Attention First-Time Avatar Watchers: Our posts will be spoiler-free (except for the episode we’re discussing), but be aware that spoilers for future episodes may abound in the comment thread below. We wanted to keep the comment threads future-spoiler-free as well, but it will likely prove impossible and it would impede our ability to analyze the series in retrospect.
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Matt London is an author and filmmaker who lives in New York City. He is a graduate of the Clarion Writer’s Workshop, as well as a columnist for Tor.com, Lightspeed, and Realms of Fantasy. His fiction is out right this second in the anthology The Living Dead 2. He holds a BFA in Film Production from New York University.