Opinionated Guide to Avatar: The Last Airbender
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A man's past is his business.Welcome to the only episode of Avatar that does not involve the Gaang in any way, shape, or form. Well, not unless you consider Zuko part of the Gaang (and let's face facts: you should). Since we didn't get any Zuko-love in the last episode, the writers decided to give us a whole episode of nothing but Zuko. The episode opens with Zuko on his Chocobo. The area is rather barren and arid; Zuko's stomach growls at him. He sees a man at a campfire, cooking something, so he reaches for his swords. What stays his hand is that he sees that the man is traveling with a pregnant woman. And Zuko hasn't fallen to the point when he'll steal from pregnant women yet. As Zuko continues on, he almost passes out and sees a vision. He sees a woman walking away. Eventually, Zuko comes to a town. He goes to buy some food, but he doesn't have enough money for people food, just animal food. Maybe when he left Iroh, he should have taken some of the money he stole with him. Anyway, some kids hit a nearby soldier with an egg and run off. When the soldiers accost Zuko about who threw it, he says he didn't see anyone and then pats the hilt of his swords to let them know what will happen if they keep pushing him. But since it's Zuko, they ignore him and take his food, telling him to leave town. As Zuko gets ready to leave, the kid who threw the egg shows up, offering Zuko food for not telling the soldiers what happened. Zuko reluctantly agrees. The kid introduces himself as Li. Li's parents own a pig farm, apparently. Li introduces Zuko to his parents, but Zuko has some trouble with his false name. Probably since the kid already uses his usual name. So Zuko has to look silly and think up a new fake name to avoid violating the One Steve Limit. Li's father gets him off the hook, saying that if he doesn't want to say his name, he doesn't have to. We get a bit of exposition about the soldiers back in town. Apparently, the rear-guard of the Earth Kingdom in this area has degenerated into a pack of thugs. The family has an older son who's actually on the front lines. Eventually, Zuko is invited for dinner and to stay the night, in exchange for helping with some housework. This turns out to be a bad idea, as we cut to Zuko failing at the art of driving a nail into a board. Li comes by and asks him questions about who he is, but Li's father speaks the page quote. This, being a Zuko episode, nicely segues into a flashback. We see LilZuko sitting around a water pond. His mother is there, and she's apparently the woman we saw in that 2 second flashback at the start of the episode. To let us know that Azula was always evil, Zuko kindly demonstrates how Azula feeds Turtle-Ducks by throwing a large piece of bread at them. The mother Turtle-Duck responds by biting him in the leg. Zuko's mother then says that this is what happens when you mess with a mother's child. Yeah, that's not FORESHADOWING or anything... Speaking of Azula, we see a shot of LilAzula playing with LilAzula's Angels. We see Azula trying to do a series of cartwheels, but falls on her butt. LilTy Lee performs the maneuver perfectly, so Azula pushes her down and laughs. As Zuko and their mother walk by, Azula gets an idea and whispers something to Ty Lee. She then manipulates her mother into letting Zuko play with them by pretending to be sweet and innocent. Azula then gets LilMai (already Emo) to stand still while she puts an apple on her head. Then she sets it on fire with some non-blue firebending (obviously she researches Infernal Pre-Ignighter sometime later). This prompts Zuko to run to Mai and try to put the fire out, as though Mai couldn't just remove the apple herself. But he falls into her and they both end up in a fountain, exactly as Azula planned. Azula and Ty Lee laugh while Zuko storms off. The mother (named Ursa, which we eventually find out) announces that they got a letter from Iroh at Ba Sing Se. We cut to a flashback-within-the-flashback where we see Iroh penning the letter. He makes a joke about burning Ba Sing Se to the ground, and Azula, Zuko, and Iroh all share a laugh (even though they're not in the same place). Yes, Iroh is such a paragon of virtue, isn't he? Zuko and Azula get gifts. Zuko gets a knife, taken from the general who surrendered after they broke through Ba Sing Se's outer wall. The knife has an inscription, "Never give up without a fight." Azula gets a doll. LilAzula is not amused. So she starts immediately daydreaming about Iroh getting killed in battle, saying that it would make Ozai the successor to the throne. Ursa upbraids her for that, but Azula still says that Ozai would be a better Firelord than Iroh. Then she incinerates her doll. See Iroh? Next time you send Azula a gift, think first. Do not earn this woman's eternal ire. Well, the flashback is over; back to our Western. Zuko's sleeping in the barn, and Li comes in and swipes his swords. Li is outside playing with them, but then Zuko comes out and corrects his technique. There's a bit of SYMBOLISM with Zuko's dual nature and his spiel about his weapon being dual swords. Li talks about how his older brother used to show him moves like that. The next day, Zuko is getting ready to leave when the soldiers come to the farm. They inform the family in about as dickish a manor as possible that their oldest son was captured. They even start talking about how the Fire Nation tends to dress their prisoners in Fire Nation uniforms and put them in the front lines. Which doesn't seem likely for earthbender soldiers, at least, but these guys are being dicks here. Zuko gets them to back off with nothing more than a stare. This naturally triggers another flashback. We see Ursa, Zuko and Azula hanging around the pond from before. Ursa gets a message saying that Iroh's son, Lu Ten, was killed in the war. Zuko is shocked by the news, while Azula just stands there in the background. Back in the present, Li's father says he's going to find his son. Um, why? He either has escaped or is captured. They're not going to give up a prisoner of war just because his father shows up. Anyway, Li wants Zuko to stay as a surrogate father while he's gone, but Zuko declines. Instead, he hands Li the dagger he got from Iroh. We also find out that it has a second inscription: "Made in Earth Kingdom." Because what this moment of pathos and emotion really needed was some meta-humor. Zuko leaves and has another flashback. He's playing with his knife, and Azula is heaping abuse at him for, you know, being Zuko. She says that Iroh's coming home, but not after taking Ba Sing Se. Which to her, makes him a coward and a quitter; she'd have burned it to the ground for killing her child. Ursa shows up to inform them that they'll be having a formal meeting with Firelord Azulon. Azula is disrespectful of him, saying that he'll probably be replaced soon. Ursa is not pleased, wondering what is wrong with Azula. Lady, you're her mother; if you don't know, who does? In the throne room (the one with the wall of fire in it), the family is seated before Azulon, who is quite old looking. Ozai asks questions of his children, which Azula answers correctly. Then he has Azula perform a series of firebending moves to show off her skills. We can now see Ozai's mouth, but nothing above that; he smiles at Azula's performance, saying that she is a prodigy like the grandfather for whom she's named. This smile is instantly wiped away when Zuko, goaded by Azula, decides to try to out-perform her. Um, Zuko, when your dad's the Joker, do nothing that puts that expression on his face. Pro tip. Being Zuko, he screws it up. Ursa tries to comfort him, saying that she likes the fact that he keeps trying even though it's hard. Azulon dismisses everyone but Ozai so that he can find out what Ozai wants. As they leave, Azula pulls Zuko around a corner and behind some tapestries so that they can listen in. Ozai flat out asks Azulon to revoke Iroh's birthright and anoint Ozai as the heir to the throne. He even says that he is Azulon's "humble servant." Ozai's got balls to just come out and ask for something like that. Azulon is not pleased. He's anger enflames the wall of fire, and he says that Iroh has suffered enough, but Ozai's suffering is about to begin. Zuko, terrified, runs off, but Azula sticks around. Cut to Zuko in bed. Azula shows up, saying that Ozai's going to kill him. Really. She says that Azulon said that his punishment was to find out what it was like to lose your first born by killing his own. Naturally, Zuko doesn't believe her. Ursa appears, wondering what everyone is talking about. She then takes Azula away to have a talk. After they leave, Zuko repeats to himself, "Azula always lies." Which shows you how much he understands his sister. She doesn't always lie; she always manipulates others for her own purposes. Information, real or feigned, is simply the tool to that end. Oh, and where the hell was "Azula always lies" back in The Avatar State, huh? You know, when she was lying? We fade out of the flashback with Zuko in the present repeating that mantra. He's lying on some grass, taking a rest when Li's mother comes running. Apparently, Li pulled a knife on the soldiers when they tried to shake him down. Good job, Zuko. The soldiers are holding the kid now, saying that they'll send him to war since he's old enough to pull a knife on them. Zuko naturally decides to do something. It's always important for your high-class jobbers to have at least a modicum of credibility with the audience. The purpose of a jobber after all is to convince the audience that the other party in a fight is a threat by losing to them. So a jobber who doesn't at least have some credibility as a fighter isn't worth much. So this scene here exists primarily for Zuko to show that he can beat people. Just not important people. So Zuko proceeds to face-stomp the three lackeys of the main soldier. He beats one guy with the butt of his sword, not even bothering to fully draw his weapons. A second guy falls by a simple dodge and face-plant. The third guy falls when Zuko breaks his spear with his foot. Then again, this same foot did shatter steel chains once. The boss pulls out a pair of hammers, so Zuko draws his swords. The guy apparently knows earthbending and can channel his earthbending through his hammers. They're made of stone, I guess; it's not entirely clear. Of course, they couldn't be made of metal, because the writers would never violate a sacred rule of their world, one that they took time to firmly establish early on in the series. *grrr* Zuko tries using his swords to block the stones, but it doesn't work out so well. Eventually, he gets knocked down so hard he falls into a flashback. LilZuko is asleep in bed and Ursa comes in. She wakes him up, saying that what she has done was to protect Zuko. She also says that he should never forget who he is. And then she leaves the confused, half-asleep Zuko behind. Forever. We pick things up after the flashback, when Zuko leaps up and firebends the guy into submission. When the guy asks who he is, Zuko says, "My name is Zuko! Son of Ursa and Firelord Ozai! Prince of the Fire Nation and heir to the throne!" Well, this is the second-most-badass moment that Zuko will ever have. I hope you enjoyed it. And even this moment is marred by the fact that everyone in the village instantly turns on him. For obvious reasons. Li hates him, not wanting to take back the knife Zuko gave him as a present. Li's mother is afraid of him, standing between Zuko and Li, actually threatening him as though she could stop him from doing anything he wanted. This prompts our last flashback. Zuko wakes up later that night looking for Ursa. He wanders around and runs into Azula who says that Ursa left and Azulon died that night. She had taken his knife and she taunts him with it, but she eventually gives it back. Zuko runs off to find Ozai, and he asks where Ursa went. He doesn't answer. Cut to the funeral of Firelord Azulon. The Fire Sages incinerate his body (it is the Fire Nation. Did you expect anything less than cremation as their internment method of choice?). The head sage then says that it was Azulon's dying wish that Ozai be made Firelord. Really? Did this dying wish happen to end in "over my dead body?" and someone took it literally? Why does nobody in the Fire Nation question this? Though who knows? Maybe Jeong Jeong left the army precisely because of this incident. Then again, maybe they know better than to question the Joker. We end the flashback with a look on Azula's face that says, "exactly as planned." After that, Zuko rides out of the town on his Chocobo, with the villagers staring hate at him (inexplicably, Li's father is in the shot). He rides off into the setting sun. I think the writers were high when they thought up this episode. Here's the thought process: "Duuude. It's like a western. In Asia!" As the title suggests, it's all about Zuko. The title itself may be a shout-out to a somewhat famous comic entitled "Wolverine, Alone!". It's part of the Dark Phoenix Saga, in which Wolverine, having been separated from the group and presumed dead, must now make his way through a fortress teeming with guards to rescue the rest of the team. It's one of the early X-Men comics that really made Wolverine's character into what it is. There's also some stuff in there with Scott and Jean, but sadly, nobody remembers that. Thematically, this episode has a lot in common with that idea. Especially considering how much we learn about Zuko here. The backstory presented here will do a lot to inform us about Zuko, his actions and choices. While on the whole, this is a good episode, there's one thing I don't like. Namely, LilAzula being already evil. Seriously? She's like 7, and she's already irredeemably evil, wishing the death of family just so she can ascend the throne? I also don't like the implication that Zuko has reasons for the cruel things he does, while Azula is simply evil. And that's only going to get worse. But there's also something else that needs to be discussed.
On General Iroh
He found out his son died, and he just fell apart. A real general would stay and burn Ba Sing Se to the ground, not lose the battle and come home crying.
—LilAzula, the cutest little sociopath
One question that this bit of backstory raises is this: why did Iroh not march back to the Fire Nation at the head of his army to reclaim his rightful place on the throne? We have no reason to believe that Iroh would have bought that Azulon had disinherited him, not without legitimate evidence. And since the murder was planned and executed quickly, there would likely be something suspicious lying around. Also, Iroh was a general in a time of war. Ozai, as far as we know, was not. That means Iroh should have the support of the military behind him. And therein lies the problem and the reason why Iroh didn't take back the Fire Nation. According to what we've been told, Iroh laid siege to Ba Sing Se for six hundred days. That's the better part of two years. Then, we see in this episode that Iroh was able to break the outer wall. We'll find out later that the reason Ba Sing Se can withstand a siege indefinitely is because the place is gigantic. The outer wall covers farmland and everything that's needed to support the city proper, which itself is protected by the inner wall. By breaking the outer wall, Iroh would have been able to execute a proper siege. That is, cut off the people from their farmland and starve them out. That's generally how castle sieges are won. Getting past the outer wall was the hard part; from there, winning would be relatively easy. Well, right up until Iroh gave up. Nothing in this episode suggests that Iroh's army was actually forced out (later episodes suggest he was, but those were from Earth Kingdom sources and thus could be face saving or propaganda). The clear implication is that Iroh stopped after the death of his son. Think about what it must have been like to be a soldier under his command. For six hundred days, you and your cohorts laid siege to these walls. You saw good men and women (the Fire Nation army is unisex, remember?) die to take those walls. Maybe you lost good friends in those fights. All the while, General Iroh is urging you ever onward. Instilling you with hope. Just get past the wall; that's all it takes, just get past the wall and we win. That likely would have been his mantra to his troops to keep them motivated and fighting. Just get past the wall. And then, after over a year and a half of trying, you do. More good men and women die, more friends gone forever, but you finally, finally breach the walls. Victory is within your grasp. But General Iroh says to leave. All because of the death of one person: his son. I wouldn't be surprised if some of them revolted and tried to kill Iroh on the spot. How many Agni Kais did Iroh have to fight off from his subordinates who felt that his orders dishonored the people under their command? Regardless of any of this, he would have instantly lost the respect of all of the officers under his command. So the reason that Iroh did not march on the Fire Nation at the head of his army is because he had no army to be at the head of. That's probably why he's also not a general anymore.
I liked this episode. You do a good job of pointing out the Fridge Logic on Iroh, which I wouldn't have picked up on. But I did enjoy this episode, and seeing Zuko living as a fugitive in the territory of the very people his country wishes to invade. As for Azula always being evil, there are rare instances of kids who are just fucked up early on. In college, I read a book once about psychopaths that I found interesting, and while a real psychopath in the clinical definiton of the term would be unlikely to plan as well as Azula, one thing real-life psychopaths have in common is that even as young children, they have no remorse and take pleasure in other people's pain. I can buy Azula being evil as a child. Though ages aren't mentioned here, so how old was she when possibly being involved in Azulon's murder?
A western in Asia? Sergio Leone's spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars is directly based on Kurosawa's Yojimbo, a movie set in feudal Japan. Zuko Alone bears a close resemblance to both. Man, you need to watch more movies.
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