Thu
Sep 16 2010 3:51pm

Avatar Rewatch: “Zuko Alone” (episode 207)

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.”

And…

“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.

Observations:

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.

Up Next: “The Chase”!


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.

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13 comments
shdwfeather
1. shdwfeather
In the Day of Black Sun, where Zuko confronts his father, he says, "Your mother did vicious, treasonous things that night."


From this, I think it's actually rather strongly implied that Zuko's mother arranged for the death of Azulon as well as coercing him to name Ozai as his heir, or as I more strongly suspect, forging his will.
pete hindle
2. petehindle
I took that line to be Fire Lord Ozai lying, rather than anything else.

But back to the episode: I totally loved it! What's not to love about an episode that humanises the bad guy so much? It sets up the end of this season in an amazing way, knowing what we do about Zuko's capacity for compassion and heroism.

And yeah, chocobo. What's with that?
Cait Glasson
3. CaitieCat
I think she was responsible, somehow, for Azulon's death (Zuko's mother, I mean), and had to flee that strong suspicion. It would help explain why his father might want to scar him - Zuko represents his mother's betrayal of Azulon whenever Ozai sees him. Azula was never close to her mother, and doesn't seem to remind us of her in any way; being closer to her father, she might escape the association's taint.

I thought it was interesting that Iroh's son was named Lu Ten, because it puts me in mind of a Lieutenant (in the American pronunciation, anyway), which Lu Ten was to his father in a way.

The old stone discs are, I believe, an ancient battlefield where earthbending happened, according to the pop-up video version of Avatar that Nick ran when that unwatchably horrible dreck of a movie adaptation foisted on us by Shyamalan The Last Airbender came out. We see remnants of how the various benders used to fight in all sorts of places: the Airbenders who cast down the bridges to their temple, the waterbenders who froze a Fire Nation ship in ice at the South Pole, burnt areas attacked by the Fire Nation, and these broken stone discs (also reminiscent of traditional Chinese coins, note) on an old Earth Kingdom battlefield.

The focus on the hammers *and* specifically the gun on the mantlepiece is a reference to Chekhov's writing about drama, where he said that if he sees a gun on the mantlepiece in the first act, he'd better see someone shot with it by the third (I'm paraphrasing). This is a very direct lampshading of that dramaturgical trope. It's also a continuance of the oft-noted permanence of things in this series: by putting Chekhov's gun quite literally into the episode, they're saying to the observant and in-this-educated: "Hey, things matter in this show."

I love this episode, if you can't tell.
Jennifer B
4. JennB
Love, love, love this episode.

Zuko's mom killed Azulon. She did it to protect Zuko because Ozai was going to kill him on Azulon's orders. Ozai was pretty indifferent to Zuko, so despite the fact he was willing to kill him to please his father, he left him alone since his father was dead.

I think that Ozai became Fire Lord because his brother became a deserter and completely disappeared. Can't crown him if you can't find him. I think he was probably missing for a couple of years. Once he came back he was disgraced and only held a position close to the Fire Lord because of his family connection.

We know that Iroh and Lu Ten were both very close to Zuko. On Ember Island we see a picture of Iroh sitting on a blanket, tossing a giggling baby Zuko in the air, while Lu Ten happily watches. It looks like a picture of a man playing with his two sons.
shdwfeather
5. tzjones
Favorite line of the episode, and most malicious:
"Dad's going to kill you. Really, he is."
- Azula

The comment proves how evil she really is. She's joking about Zuko's father killing his son. Not cool.

To what Ursa did, I think she must have had something to do with Azulon's death, considering what Ozai said in The Day of Black Sun Part Two: The Eclipse. Then she could have either been killed, banished, or she fled the Fire Nation. In the final minutes of the final episode Zuko asks Ozai where his mother is, implying she's probably not dead and Zuko found out. The Ursa problem is definitely a large unanswered question of the series.
shdwfeather
6. TomR(mac)
My thoughts on the 'Zuko's mum' story line are that somehow knowing that Ozai would rather kill his own son than kill Azulon she took it into her own hands or convinced him like Lady Macbeth to kill Azulon. Then rather than face what she did or possibly rather than let Ozai hang that guilt over her head, controlling her, she left.

Love the ways that preganant couple show up through the rest of the season.
shdwfeather
7. Iskah
I never could decide on an interpretation of Ursa's actions to stick with. There are several equally plausible, and I was hoping it would get resolved eventually, though that's looking less and less likely...

As to the "Chocobo" (officially an ostrich-horse), a lot of shows/games/whatever like to use giant birds for transportation. Though to pick a specific example as 'inspiration' for Avatar, I'd point to Nausicaä before Final Fantasy, given Mike and Bryan's general love for Miyazaki's movies...
Interestingly, giant ostrich-like birds really did exist once:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phorusrhacidae

The giant stone wheels are in the shape of the Earth Kingdom symbol, which (as someone mentioned earlier) is based on old Chinese coins.
shdwfeather
8. Cibby
I find it very, very interesting that we only hear the outcome of Azulon and Ozai's argument about revoking Iroh's birthright through what Azula tells Zuko. He thinks she is lying when she says Azulon intends to kill Zuko as a way of punishing Ozai - and there is a very good chance that she really is lying. There is no way of knowing for sure what truly happened then, and I think this is an example (yet another :>) of what makes the writing on this show so fantastic.

As pointed out in the comments, the fact that Ying and Than (the pregnant lady and her husband) come back later in several episodes is also great. When you first see them by the road, you think they are just there to show that Zuko has a code of honor and is more than just a petty villain, and you hardly pay any attention to them. And then, on 2.12 - one of my very favorite episodes in the whole series - here they are again! Such attention to continuity is another great strength of Avatar.
shdwfeather
9. JWmilk
It makes me so sad to see no updates on this since september :(
shdwfeather
10. Teddroe
So...is this thing still going? No offense, but it isn't like this is all that time-consuming a rewatch. Maybe if Mr. London can't do it he should pass it off.
Matt London
11. MattLondon
New post should be up soon. Pardon our dust.
shdwfeather
12. crfavre
"I find it very, very interesting that we only hear the outcome of Azulon and Ozai's argument about revoking Iroh's birthright through what Azula tells Zuko. He thinks she is lying when she says Azulon intends to kill Zuko as a way of punishing Ozai - and there is a very good chance that she really is lying." Cibby

This is what i myself wondered. Azulon didn't seem the friendly grandfathery type, but would he really be rash enough to kill Zuko, one of only two possible heirs to the throne, simply out of annoyance? (It's not like Ursa's popping out quintuplets here.) Perhaps Ozai plotted to trick Ursa into thinking that Azulon would kill Zuko, and Azula was parroting this. Ursa would of course have acted in desperation, egged on by Ozai.
Francis Uy
13. Foobar
I don't see why anyone is confused about Ursa. She said it herself, regarding the turtle-ducks: "That's what moms are like. If you mess with their babies, they're going to bite you back!"

Azula was telling the truth this time. Azulon did order Ozai to kill Zuko, and Ozai was going to do it (reluctantly perhaps, but he was willing to trade his son for the throne). Upon learning this, Ursa immediately bit back, hard, no matter the cost to herself.

Never underestimate what a mom will do in defense of her children. Especially a fantasy mom that with lethal powers that she rarely gets to use.

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