In the seventh episode of the second season of Avatar: The Last Airbender, Zuko ventures off to an Earth bending village when he befriends a young boy. There, we get flashbacks to Zuko’s heartbreaking childhood as he struggles with hiding his identity. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Avatar.
Anyone who’s been reading Mark Watches (and Mark Reads, of course) is at least somewhat familiar with my life. That’s sort of a weird thing because I was raised to keep all emotions to myself, that all that mattered was doing good in school and not expressing anything that wasn’t TOTES MASCULINE DESIRE or OBEDIENCE. And now that’s changed completely, as I have gotten used to sharing nearly everything about my life with complete and utter strangers.
I like it, for the most part, as it helps me feel a bit less like I’m swimming in a pool of cosmic loneliness, and it’s allowed me to face things I had chosen to ignore for many, many years. The one thing I’ve been able to come to terms with the most over the past year is how I was raised, and how it wasn’t what most people experienced, but it also wasn’t something that no one experienced.
I chose to watch “Zuko Alone” right before bed, after a particularly frustrating bout of playing Borderlands and getting stuck because of a stupid glitch where one of the Lance troopers got trapped BELOW THE FUCKING FLOOR and seriously, video game, what the hell are you doing, I cannot shoot bullets through the floor i just wasted three hours of my life. So suffice to say that I was in a bit of a ~sensitive~ position when I curled up in bed, one of my cats in my lap, and started watching this episode.
I have been lucky enough to pick series for either of my sites that have enabled me to find things that I can relate to in these really uniquely personal ways, but generally it’s not an entire episode. I was initially quite excited to get an episode about Zuko’s journey after parting from Uncle Iroh, but in no way was I prepared for the story that I was given.
There’s a part of me that almost things this episode should have had a trigger warning, but only for me: WARNING. MARK THIS IS YOUR ENTIRE CHILDHOOD IN ANIMATED FORM. But the shock of seeing this unspoiled absolutely helped me to appreciate it more. (I’ll repeat myself forever: This is why it’s so important not to tell me little things like, “Oh, I can’t wait for you to get to Zuko’s backstory!” and such. Even those tiny, subtle hints can lead my brain in the right direction, possibly ruining the experience.)
I know this feels a bit ramble-like, but I’m doing my best to explain how this episode basically feels like someone took me off of the track I was on and threw me down a mountain. And in a good way, because it’s so refreshing and cathartic to feel such a loving and intrinsic care for a mere television show. At the same time, it’s been hard for me to think about the many details of my life and how “Zuko Alone” expands on them.
I’ll start like this: I can point to multiple instances and characters in this episode and use nearly every bit of detail to apply it to my experiences. I was Zuko, very much in the sense that I was a young boy, consumed with the conflict of being not-as-masculine as I’d like to be. I sought affection from both of my parents, and I got it from neither of them. (That’s one difference from my life, as I didn’t have a positive force like Zuko did here. WE’LL GET TO HEARTBREAK.) And I had to deal with a sister who had an attitude and predilection towards tormenting me.
Are you getting the picture yet? Seriously, this episode should have just been called, “Mark Alone,” AMIRITE AMIRITE
But this story starts off very much like a traditional western, and a lot of what is written here reminds me of the movies I used to watch with my father. This is the first time we see a landscape that seems to stretch forever that isn’t water, and the dry desert extends out farther than we can see. Zuko is a lone rider, shuffling aimlessly down the road, suffering from hunger, exhaustion, and dehydration. What this sets up is represented visually here: this is going to be an incredibly lonely journey for Zuko, and no matter what he does, it’s going to be something he has to do alone.
Zuko, more than any other character in this show, has to face what his past head-on in order to move forward. I feel that Aang has largely already done this, but Zuko is still plagued by the memories of his father and what got him to the place he is in. One top of that, he seems to be willing to deal with his violent temper; we watch him hesitate as he touches the sword at the side when his hunger wants to get the best of him.
That small gesture is a sign of how his conscience starts to struggle throughout the episode, and when Zuko finally meets Lee, it sets in motion the events of the story. Lee, the main side character of “Zuko Alone,” must remind Zuko of himself in a few ways, the least of which is the fact that Lee is also a young boy who seeks out the approval of male figures in his life. It’s adorable to watch Lee admire Zuko and ask him all of those slightly irritating questions out of pure interest. What’s great is that Zuko doesn’t want to crush the boy’s spirit, and then the writers show us why.
“Zuko Alone” relies heavily on flashbacks, but interjects them in the narrative the way that LOST did, making sure to contrast these moments with what’s happening in the present. Looking at Lee and seeing that wonder in his face, Zuko flashes back to his life when his family was all together. I knew that Zuko’s history was tragic, but I could not have anticipated just how awful things were for him. Zuko’s relationship with his mother is loving, supportive, and beautiful, something that we’d only seen from Iroh, though Zuko was never quite as accepting as he was as a child.
(Side note: TURTLE DUCKS TURTLE DUCKS TURTLE DUCKS TURTLE DUCKS TURTLE DUCKS.)
But this whole story is about Zuko trying to find his identity. He sees throughout his childhood that Azula’s cruel behavior and tendency towards violence is rewarded by Ozai and the current Fire Lord, yet he doesn’t ever quite feel as home being exactly the same as her. He tries multiple times, both when trying to feed the turtle ducks and when trying to demonstrate his fire bending skills to Lord Azulon. I love that throughout this, Zuko’s mother (who is strangely unnamed at this point) always is as positive and supportive as she can be towards her son, affirming that he can be whomever he wants to be.
What is so heartbreaking to me is the fact that despite trying his best, and despite trying to be a good person, Zuko is summarily rejected by nearly every one around him, and it’s these moments that strike heavy in my heart. I know this episode is depressing enough already, and it’s not my intent to RUIN ALL OF YOUR DAYS, but I know what this feels like. I know the dissonance of having the whole world tell you that you are to love your family, that this is supposed to be who you feel connected with, and experiencing some of the most intense and traumatic feelings from the people who are supposed to love you. I know that my perspective was perhaps a bit skewed in those days. I know now that my parents did indeed love me and just chose a fairly awful way of showing that, but it took me many years to see this and forgive them. Still, I look at families presented to me on TV, in movies, and in books, the ones that seem at least slightly stable and supportive, and I, quite literally, cannot imagine what that feels like. I don’t know. It’s sort of like how I feel about God. I literally cannot describe a moment in my life where I knew what it felt like to have some sort of being or thing or entity looking out for me, some cosmic father or mother or creator, and there’s always going to be a part of me that feels envious of those that experience this. I will never know that feeling, and it’s too late to know what a “complete” family will feel like, either. (It must be said that my brother, my mother, and I get along fantastically these days, and I do love them with all my heart.)
But of everything that I was able to latch on to, I was absolutely flabbergasted in the show’s portrayal of Azula. This episode didn’t change how intrigued I am of her as a villain, but it is making it rather difficult for me to like her, and I feel compelled to share the reason why: Azula is the most accurate depiction of my sister I have ever seen in any form of media. She is selfish to an extreme that it is literally inconceivable for her to think about a world that doesn’t revolve around her. She takes great joy in the very notion of violence towards me, she enjoyed watching me suffer, and she did whatever she could growing up to emotionally pit my parents against me. This generally involved her playing one of two roles: a pathological liar, either lying to me to make me believe my parents were un-adopting me (no, seriously, she did this) or lying to my parents to get me in trouble. She had this inane ability to manipulate my mother’s religious sense of conservatism and her fear of my failure in nearly any situation you could think of. She would convince my mother of the most detailed and absurd fantasies about my life, and that frequently got me punished. (Punishment, as I’ve shared before, was rather physically and emotionally strict in my household, and I lost count around age fourteen of how many times a lie of my sister’s caused my mom to withhold dinner from me.
She simultaneously played off the authority of my parents, respecting it whenever it could get me into trouble, and she reviled it, constantly making it obvious that she knew that she was spoiled and could get away with anything she wanted.
It is harsh to say, and it is with great sadness that I say it, but I hate my sister. She helped ruin so much of my life, and she continues to do things to interject her specific brand of narcissistic fury into my life. And while I think I am doing a good job appreciating the depth to which Azula is written, this episode made it incredibly difficult for me to not see my sister in every scene she appeared in.
For me, it does bring Zuko’s story to a much more sympathetic (and in my case, empathetic) point, as it reaches to an emotionally difficult place in his past to explain the supreme loneliness he feels. It’s no longer hard to imagine what he was thinking in all of those past episodes where he simply scowled off into the distance, silent and pensive. If anything, this backstory has re-contextualized nearly every moment we’ve seen of Zuko’s.
It also must be said that “Zuko Alone” doesn’t ignore the other main part of his life: Uncle Iroh. I’m at a point where I demand that we get a story about what the hell is in Ba Sing Se, especially after this story. But knowing how hard Iroh worked to break the walls of that city, and then knowing how Lu Ten’s death broke Iroh, explains exactly why Iroh has taken Zuko on as his metaphorical son.
They are both alone.
But perhaps nothing represents this most than the end of “Zuko Alone.” I was talking to my friend Roshan about this episode while I was writing the earlier parts of the review, and zie mentioned something I could not put into words: this story is a fantastic representation of how privilege works. Zuko has benefited from a life of luxury at the hands of the Fire Nation. It is also undeniable that he is trying to do good here. But as Zuko fights the unnamed thug and is slowly losing, he remembers that his mother told him, before disappearing, that he must never forget who he is. In a rage of fiery fury, Zuko lashes out at the bully who’s been tormenting this town for years, sending waves of fire with every swing of his dual blades. It’s truly an awe-filled moment, but there’s another meaning to Zuko’s defeat of the thug: he’s just outed himself as a fire bender. As he announces who he really is to the town, showing his mother that he is refusing to forget who he is, you can hear the expectation in his voice. He is anticipating validation and acceptance. He gets derision. The crowd rejects him, just as his father had rejected him for trying to do something good. As he faces Lee and tries to get the young boy to accept the dagger he wants to give him, Lee rejects Zuko, too, telling him that he hates him.
Zuko is alone. He cannot depend on people who he and his nation have oppressed to find his way, to find his identity, and to right the wrongs that he has done. He is reminded of the brutal and violent past he came from, and he is reminded that hatred brings the very rejection that his life seems to revolve around. He sets off into the red sunset at the end of the episode, and there is a crowd of spectators viewing him with a muted disgust.
Zuko is alone.
- There are going to be a LOT of these, as I didn’t get to talk about many of the amazing details in this episode, so BUCKLE YOURSELF IN, WATCHERS.
- I am quite excited that Zuko outright names what those rogue army men in the Earth Kingdom village are: bullies.
- “Read the inscription.” “‘Made in Earth Kingdom.'” “The other one.”
- TURTLE DUCKS TURTLE DUCKS TURTLE DUCKS TURTLE DUCKS
- WHAT ARE THOSE PIG HYBRIDS. I think I liked the pig rooster the most.
- Lee’s father is a totally fascinating side character who I’d like to see more of. I like that he just sort of understands Zuko, especially when he tells Lee that a man’s business is his own. Is Lee’s father hiding something in his own past, too?
- Actually, on that note, I imagine we might see this family again, since Lee’s father is off to find Sensu, no? YES PLEASE.
- SERIOUSLY, AZULA, WHAT DID TURTLE DUCKS EVER DO TO YOU
- omg a young Mai and Ty Lee THIS IS CLEARLY THE BEST EPISODE EVER
- The entire bit of internal politics involved with Lord Ozai and Lord Azulon are INTRIGUING. But one question is entirely unanswered: Azulon threatened Ozai after Ozai asked for the thrown, but we’re not shown what it was. What happened between then and Azulon’s death?
- Ok, maybe this is intentional, but this was the most of Lord Ozai’s face that we’ve ever seen.
- I mean, it should be evidence enough not to like Azula since she doesn’t like Iroh. THAT IS BLASPHEMY.
- Ok, seriously, Azula literally tells Zuko that HE IS GOING TO BE SACRIFICED. My god, she is just so EVIL.
- Zuko is particularly talented with his double swords and I truly love watching him fight with them, but GOOD GOD HE IS SO AMAZING WHEN HE FIRE BENDS AT THE SAME TIME. Simply stunning.
- Why did Zuko’s mother leave and where on earth did she go?
- I honestly think this is one of the least funny episodes of the entire series so far. Good god.