Every couple of months, I am overcome with the urge to re-watch Avatar: The Last Airbender (henceforth referred to as Avatar). Even now, over ten years since its final episode, Avatar still holds up. It was the rare children’s show that managed to perfectly balance age-appropriate humor with mature themes, touching on the horrors of colonialism, genocide, and warfare in a way that was accessible to pre-teens. It made a whole generation of Asians feel like they could save the world. Avatar was to child me (and let’s be real, current me) what Game of Thrones is to adults, except Avatar is fun to watch.
Without Avatar, I wouldn’t have the love for stories that I do today. One of the reasons for this is the character arc of Prince (later Fire Lord) Zuko. Over the course of three seasons, Zuko grew from an antagonist you loved to hate to a fan-favorite hero. I have searched far and wide, and I have yet to come upon a redemption arc as satisfying as Zuko’s.
“I thought I had lost my honor, and that somehow my father could return it to me. But I know now that no one can give you your honor. It’s something you earn for yourself by choosing to do what’s right. All I want now is to play my part in ending this war. And I know my destiny’s to help you restore balance to the world.”
Perhaps the most obvious reason why Zuko’s redemption arc is so well-received is because he chooses to be better. Many redemption arcs fail (or are simply too implausible to begin in the first place) because the character being redeemed does not genuinely, actively choose to be better. Take Harry Potter’s Severus Snape, for example. Though JK Rowling seemed to intend Snape to be redeemed, after all this time the Harry Potter fandom remains divided on whether he truly deserved the hero status he received or not. Much of the anti-Snape camp argue that Snape was not the hero Rowling intended him to be, because his motivations for doing good were never clear.
At the end of the Harry Potter series, it is revealed that everything Snape did was out of a love for Harry’s mother, Lily. While this may seem like a pure motivation, the question remains whether Snape would have done good if not motivated by the often creepy and possessive love. Let us not forget, Snape once called Lily a slur and worked for the Harry Potter equivalent of a white supremacist organization for much of his adolescence. His so-called “turning point” happened when Lily was put in danger, and he only switched sides to ensure her safety. However, it is doubtful that he would have truly become good had the woman he loved not been in danger.
Regardless of how one feels about the Snape/Lily relationship, it is undeniable that Snape was a terrible person to be around. He bullied the majority of his students, even bullying one student – Neville – so badly that he eventually came to be Neville’s biggest fear. Regardless of his “double agent” storyline, there was truly no need for him to bully eleven-year-olds just trying to get a good grade and survive wizard school.
Ultimately, though he ostensibly died a hero’s death, Snape did not actively choose to be good. If anything, he was forced into it. His switch to his “heroic” side was borne from possessive love (he hated Harry because Harry was a reminder that Lily chose somebody else. Gross, much?). One could even say that his genuinely good work to help defeat Voldemort after Lily died was performed out of guilt more than anything else. Through all of this, even when the First Wizarding War had ended and Snape was Team Good, he still went out of his way to be mean to his students. Though the narrative tried to redeem Severus Snape, he will never be truly redeemed nor worthy of redemption in the eyes of fandom.
In contrast, when Zuko did good, he did good out of a sense of selflessness and moral duty. For example, in the episode “The Day of Black Sun, Part 2: The Eclipse”, Zuko stands up to his father and announces his attention to join Aang and Team Avatar, to help save the world instead of destroying it through imperialism. In doing so, he throws away all that he has been seeking for the past two and a half seasons (his honor, his father’s love). He abandons his selfish motivations for selfless endeavors. He chooses to do good, even when it inconveniences him—even when his father threatens to kill him for stepping out of line.
From that point onward, Zuko actively chooses to be a better person every step of the way. For one thing, he makes amends with Aang and Team Avatar, who he had spent the past two and a half seasons hunting and trying to hurt. He apologizes for his actions. He teaches Aang firebending so that Aang can save the world. He helps Sokka rescue Suki. He helps Katara find closure for her mother’s death.
Zuko also actively chooses to improve himself internally. After he joins Team Avatar, he stops trying to rely on anger and hate to fuel his power, instead finding a new fuel for his fire: “for so many years hunting you was my drive. It was my purpose. So when I joined you, I lost sight of my inner fire. But now I have a new drive. I have to help you defeat my father and restore balance to the world.”
However, this is not to say that Zuko’s redemption arc was easy by any means. Throughout his time on Avatar, Zuko made many mistakes: one of them was betraying his uncle Iroh. In the season two episode, “Crossroads of Destiny”, Iroh asks Zuko to abandon his quest to capture the Avatar and instead choose good. However, Zuko betrays Iroh in an effort to regain his honor.
Though Zuko made a deep mistake, what matters is that he actively tried to fix it. During his stand-off with his father in “The Day of Black Sun, Part 2: The Eclipse”, Zuko explicitly expresses that he plans to beg for his uncle’s forgiveness. Moreover, the amount of good he did throughout the rest of the series shows that he truly took his uncle’s words to heart. Ultimately, what matters is not all the bad Zuko did, but how he eventually, consistently chose to do good when it really mattered.
“Growing up, we were taught that the Fire Nation was the greatest civilization in history, and somehow, the war was our way of sharing our greatness with the rest of the world. What an amazing lie that was. The people of the world are terrified by the Fire Nation. They don’t see our greatness. They hate us, and we deserve it. We’ve created an era of fear in the world. And if we don’t want the world to destroy itself, we need to replace it with an era of peace and kindness.”
One of the other reasons that Zuko’s redemption arc was so successful is how well the writers of Avatar understood how Zuko functioned into the broader Avatar universe. Though Zuko was introduced as the series’ primary antagonist, the series took made it obvious that Zuko was not the biggest fish to fry. More powerful and threatening than Zuko was Ozai, Zuko’s abusive and imperialistic father. When his father wanted to send countless Fire Nation soldiers to their doom in a deadly attack, a young Zuko argued against it, saying: “Those soldiers love and defend our nation. How could you betray them?”
When seen with in comparison to his father, Zuko’s character is put into perspective. At his core, Zuko was just a naïve sixteen-year-old boy thrust into a warzone and making some misguided decisions. The fact that Zuko was not the Big Bad made it easier for the audience to sympathize with him once his redemption arc got going; he was the lesser of many evils, and equivalently, he was much closer to good.
Moreover, the writers were careful to make Zuko’s motivations sympathetic without excusing his mistakes. While many other Fire Nation characters in the show displayed clear tendencies toward conquering and imperialism, Zuko was primarily concerned with capturing the Avatar. Zuko’s only reason for wanting to capture Aang was to regain his honor and the love of his abusive father. Despite Zuko’s initial mistakes, his not-so-terrible motivations made viewers want him to get a win, even if they didn’t necessarily want him to win the entire thing.
It is not only Zuko’s motivations that gain him sympathy, but his moral code. Even while he was technically a villain, he displayed moral sensibilities not unlike those of Avatar’s heroes. When he is not blinded by his quest for honor, his sense of compassion extends to people of all creeds. For example, while traveling in the Earth Kingdom in the episode “Zuko Alone”, Zuko acts as an older brother to a young Earth Kingdom boy and tries to help the boy’s family with no real ulterior motive of his own. His actions in “Zuko Alone” show that behind his rage and hatred, Zuko is just a compassionate sixteen-year-old in over his head.
Zuko’s compassionate moments create a believable foundation for his later redemption arc, but these moments do not create his arc alone. Instead, the writers of Avatar crafted a believable explanation for Zuko’s less than kind behavior. During his youth, Zuko suffered emotional (and in one instance, scarring physical) abuse from his father. As a result of his childhood, it makes sense that Zuko would have a warped worldview and lash out in unhealthy ways. It makes sense that he would be driven to extreme lengths to please his father. The creation of a sympathetic backstory for Zuko emphasizes that he is not a bad person, which makes a redemption arc more believable.
However, Zuko’s past and place in the world of Avatar are explanations, not excuses, for his behavior. Instead of using these things to speed up Zuko’s redemption arc, Avatar’s writers played the long game. They sent Zuko on a journey in which he learned what he did wrong, paid for his mistakes and made amends to the people he hurt. He even verbally rejects the imperialist ideology of his home country, setting him apart from people like his father and putting him firmly on the side of the heroic Team Avatar.
“Why am I so bad at being good?”
Ultimately, what sets Zuko’s redemption arc apart from so many others in popular culture is the sheer amount of work put into it, both on-screen and in the writers’ room. It takes hard work to write a good redemption arc. One has to factor in the character’s motivations, what the character will do to atone, how difficult it will be to gain the trust of people once betrayed, and who the character is now that their villain status is gone.
Many redemption arcs fail because they are lazy. Writers will assume that the characters will do one big heroic act and all is forgiven, or they will give a character a sad backstory and assume that that excuses everything. Lazy redemption arcs such as these are why technically “redeemed” characters such as Once Upon a Time’s Regina, Zelena, and Captain Hook still have extensive Tumblr tags dedicated to talking about why they don’t deserve redemption.
Zuko’s character arc was the rare example of a redemption arc done well, in which the writers truly understood the character that they were writing for. The writers understood that in creating Zuko as an abuse victim, it was necessary to write him overcome the abuse, call his abuser out and establish his sense of self outside of his abuser as part of his redemption arc. They understood both Zuko the child soldier and Zuko the awkward teenage boy. They understood that making up for mistakes is hard and uncomfortable, but necessary work. They understood that redemptions should not be handed out like Tic Tacs, but instead that redemption stories are stories of earning.
The writers of Avatar understood what so many people don’t: good is not a thing you are, it is a thing you do. In the end, maybe the best way to write a good redemption arc is to figure out how to best get a character to choose good in a world that is unrelentingly bad.