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Jocelyn (The Reading World)

I love to read and can get very attached to my opinions, but recently I've been learning not to completely lose my head when people disagree with me, so feel safe to argue with me whenever you wish ;) 


Zuko in Avatar: The Last Airbender

So, I've been watching and rewatching Avatar: The Last Airbender recently and I had a weird thought. Spoilers ahead.


In book 3, episode 11, Zuko confronts his father Fire Lord Ozai, holds him responsible for his terrible parenting, and announces that he's going to join the Avatar. This is one of my favorite scenes in the entire show, not just because it's so emotionally powerful to see Zuko finally find the right path all on his own after all that pain and struggle, but also it's just so thoughtfully crafted artistically--the animation, the voice acting, the characterization--to bring out every bit of meaning possible. Check out one of the lines he throws at Ozai:


"After this, I'm going to free Uncle Iroh from his prison and I'm going to beg for his forgiveness."


Dante Basco's voice acting is just brilliant here. If you listen to it again, there are parts he emphasizes slightly more than others--"and I'm going to BEG for his FORGIVENESS."


It occurred to me that begging for forgiveness is not the most dignified to do. It usually means you've done something terribly wrong, something unforgivable. Yet Zuko is throwing this in his father's face at the very point when he's finally learned to be proud of who he is, rather than the person his father forces him to be. If Zuko were to beg forgiveness from Ozai (which he actually did before he got his scar and was banished), you can imagine Ozai would just laugh in his face. It would degrade Zuko's position as his son, damage his self-esteem, and give Azula an edge in their ever-going sibling rivalry. In other words, it would be really embarrassing. Zuko's goal for most of the show up to now is to be accepted, to have a cemented status in the rigid hierarchy of his family, to the point when he doesn't have to struggle anymore when he thinks about his sense of belonging. Yet, the true completion of his character arc comes not when he achieves that goal, but when he realizes that what he's always wanted and needed is what he's always had from the beginning: his "real" father Iroh who loves him for who he is, and his own individual sense of morality that came from seeing the world for himself in his long exile.


So back to the begging for forgiveness bit. When Zuko declares his intentions toward Iroh, it's not humiliating in the sense that one would usually think begging for forgiveness would usually be. Not the least of which is because Iroh loves Zuko unconditionally and believes in his ability to be strong, as opposed to Ozai's clinical, dehumanizing assessment of Zuko as the ideal son. But also because Zuko is humbling himself for someone he's chosen to respect--from someone who was always there for him without ever needing to be asked, who patiently withstood Zuko's frustrations and struggles and pains with patience and understanding, and who Zuko was never conditioned to honor as an authority outside the Fire Nation but learned to love anyway through everything they'd been together. That Zuko is choosing to follow his own code of morality rather than the one he was raised with is the key point here. Thus, Zuko begging for forgiveness represents not his degradation, as Ozai and Azula would probably think, but the final discovery of where his real dignity and destiny belongs. And this ties into one of the major lessons of ATLA that arrogant pride usually comes from shame, but true pride comes from humility. After this, Zuko still has a lot to struggle through--earning the trust of the Gaang, and facing his uncle after all his mistakes--but this time, he's chasing after people whose approval are actually worth getting, and whose approval he can get without sacrificing his identity.


Anyway, that's pretty much it. Like I said above, I've been re-watching ATLA a lot recently and I find something new to admire about it every single time after my first impression of the show already swept me off my feet. Zuko's story to me is the most powerful of all the character arcs because it's just the most human. He can be frustrating at times, so angry and temperamental and always throwing fireballs at everything, but the one thing the audience never loses track of throughout his journey is his internal struggle. And watching this episode is so emotionally satisfying and mind-blowing and unbelievable all at the same time because I still can't wrap my mind around how the directors manage to portray the messiness of human development so darn accurately and still make it meaningful.