Avatar: The Last Airbender: Zuko Alone
June 8, 2015 9:08 AM - Season 2, Episode 7 - Subscribe

Zuko arrives in a dusty small Earth Kingdom town where he encounters Earth Kingdom soldiers who behave more like bandits than soldiers, and a small boy with an older brother off to war. In the course of interacting with both, Zuko's childhood is revealed in flashbacks, which include how his father rose to the throne of Fire Lord and an introduction to one of the greatest mysteries of Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Note: This is the only episode not to feature Aang, Katara and Sokka (Aang is seen in a flashback unconscious).
posted by Atreides (26 comments total)
 
My notes from the beginning of the episode were as follows: Poor chocobo ) : Pigcows! Pigcows! Pigrooster!!! Turtleducks! Bite him, turtleduck!

I think it is probably pretty clear that I wasn't exactly in the right frame of mind for this episode. (That pigrooster, though - he is best animal by a mile.)

Has Ozai's face been visible yet? I only remember seeing him from behind, or through flames, or at a far distance. I've checked the wiki and his face doesn't look familiar at all.

I do feel sorry for Zuko, but I felt like I would've liked this better over a few episodes. Too much concentrated Zuko doesn't work for me, most especially without Iroh. There were a few lighter moments with the animals and the guy yelling during the fight (oh, and "made in Earth Kingdom"), but it just felt too flat and subdued. Even the villains (Ozai and Azula aside) aren't particularly villainous. They're just bullies.

Note to Ursa: good on you for getting the hell out of there.
posted by minsies at 11:12 AM on June 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


Has Ozai's face been visible yet?

Ozai's face is, for whatever reason, definitely not revealed to the audience until book 3. It's kind of a weird choice, since he doesn't have any horrifying scary things going on, a distinguishing look, or a shocking secret identity to hide. He is who the narrative says he is, from the beginning to the end. He's one of the least surprising characters, really.

Makes me wonder if they were planning something and then decided to just make him look like another regular Fire Nation guy after all between books 2 and 3, or if they kept his face concealed in the first two seasons in an attempt to make him seem scarier.
posted by Kosh at 11:29 AM on June 8, 2015


I actually really liked this one and I think the tension of the Zuko vs Town Bullies where Zuko finally shows them who he is was really great. It could have gone so many ways and he could have reacted so many ways. I like that, even when rejected by the kid at the end, he still didn't break down. I think that says a lot about his inner drive and strength and stubbornness.

I thought Azula was just wickedly evil as a younger girl. Wicked and clever. And Zuko was coddled by his mother. (For the record, I am a mother who coddles the crap out of her kid.) What happened there? Was Zuko the beloved first born son and Azula the female second child who was better at everything but not loved or snuggled?
posted by jillithd at 11:40 AM on June 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


Even the villains (Ozai and Azula aside) aren't particularly villainous. They're just bullies.

Well, sort of...Azula also does stuff like throw rocks at baby turtle ducks and sing gleeful songs about how her brother is allegedly going to be murdered to propitiate granddad and even more gleefully explain that mommy killed granddad and is gone forever. That's a bit beyond bullying and pretty far into what we'd call sociopathy. Azula isn't the unfavored child, in any case; Zuko is the mother's favorite, and Azula is the father's "model child" and showpiece.

As to Ozai, I thought the idea was to hide his face, getting the viewer (and Aang) to imagine him as a scary villain-typew, and then they show us a relatively youthful, even handsome guy. The idea was to show that there was a reason the guy could maintain the loyalty of an entire nation. And of course it helps set up the finale, where it's pointed out early on that even Ozai is still a person, not some fabulous monster.
posted by kewb at 1:57 PM on June 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


and even more gleefully explain that mommy killed granddad and is gone forever.

Wait, is that what happened?!? It always seemed so vague to me that both Azulon and mom were gone at the same time, but I guess it never occurred to me that mom would have been the one who killed Azulon. I always thought they were hinting that Ozai did it sneakily or maybe Azula did with Ozai's blessing/suggestion.
posted by jillithd at 2:12 PM on June 8, 2015


Wait, is that what happened?!?

Yeah... they never fully 100% explicitly spell it out in black and white, but they come pretty close in season 3, Day of Black Sun when Ozai says something like "your mother did vicious, treasonous things that night" to Zuko.

I assume they do get more explicit about it in the comics about Ursa, but I haven't read them yet.
posted by Kosh at 2:42 PM on June 8, 2015


I assume they do get more explicit about it in the comics about Ursa, but I haven't read them yet.
posted by Kosh at 5:42 PM on June 8 [+] [!]


They do and you should.
posted by edbles at 2:47 PM on June 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


It's kind of a weird choice, since he doesn't have any horrifying scary things going on, a distinguishing look, or a shocking secret identity to hide.

This is actually one of the choices I really liked about the show. Often our worst enemies and abusers look just like everyone else. In a show that's full of so much exaggerated character design and extremes in other aspects, having Ozai look like a (fairly handsome, admittedly, but only like, politician-hot) regular Fire Nation guy gives us this complex statement without having to spell it out. And it also shows that Zuko isn't totally nutso to aspire to be like his father in the earlier seasons - he's just very unexamined. It's not like he's been raised by Emperor Palpatine and going "I wanna be just like him when i grow up, turkey claw hands and all!"

I remember hating this episode when I first watched the show ("Where is Sokka?" I cried. "What is my favorite non-bender doing at just this very moment? Why does this loser get to hang with a chocobo and not Sokka???") but then I rewatched and loved it, because I had already been won over by Zuko of the later seasons. My favorite bit is Zuko vs Hand Tools.

In retrospect I judged this episode so harshly because I was used to shows doing the woobie flashback thing poorly. Actually the memories we see are surprisingly subtle - maybe they had to be because of Nick's censors (I know famously that Batman the Animated Series had to be less explicit and so often portrayed things in a much more chilling way; limitations inspiring creativity and all that) but it feels more to me like they carefully constructed every memory to include exactly the information we needed to know, and no more.
posted by Mizu at 3:03 PM on June 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


Along with what Mizu said (not only is Ozai pretty good-looking, he's older Zuko without the scar -- the literal embodiment of his future should he reclaim his place in the Fire Nation), the audience first sees Ozai the first time a lead character interacts with him in the main timeframe of the show.

Zuko isn't totally nutso to aspire to be like his father in the earlier seasons - he's just very unexamined.

I think this episode suggests that Zuko's adoration for his father isn't so much unexamined, but a survival mechanism he hasn't been able to question because his life and psyche depended upon maintaining it. Look at his face at Ozai's coronation: he can't consciously articulate what's happening, but whatever he said to Azula about not believing her, he knows that his protection is gone and he's completely at the mercy of a father who has no qualms about killing him. (Yowch, and within that mindset, "just" burning Zuko's face would seem like mercy, making it even harder for him to come to grips with what's really happening.)

I've never had much interest in Westerns, but I love this episode, and watching it the first time is what catapaulted Zuko from "I can't believe I like the bad guy this much, I never like the bad guy" to one of my favorite characters of all time. Although funnily enough I have to agree with minsies that it's got kind of a flat affect? But I think it makes the story stronger by showing how dysfunction, abuse, and oppression is completely normalized in this family (even among the "nice" characters like Iroh and Ursa, yikes). And how because of their position the ramifications of that didn't stop at Zuko's psychological fallout, but ongoing, grinding trauma for the entire world.

The level of attention to character design on this show is amazing. I had an inkling that Zuko's character design was retooled in the later parts of the show to make him look less intimidating, which may or may not be true, but I forgot that he actually lost weight for sound, in story reasons. I also like that his hair grows consistently between episodes and that he looks noticeably better at the end of this one after a couple of square meals, a good night's sleep and some human interaction.

(Sob, he's actually pretty good at at being a teacher/older brother figure to someone who isn't Azula. And note that that knife was his last connection to his old life/Iroh and he was still willing to give it away to a kid who needed it. Zuko, you're growing as a person!)
posted by bettafish at 4:55 PM on June 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


> I've never had much interest in Westerns

Westerns and samurai movies overlap a lot (Seven Samurai and The Magnificient Seven, etc) and several times during this episode I thought of another Kurasawa movie: Yojimbo which you should totally watch. (It's on Hulu Plus.)

Also, if I'm suggesting other media to consume: there's a series of books called Tales of the Otori that take place in a fictionalized version of feudal Japan -- a bit like Avatar takes place, more or less, in a fictionalized China. And if you want actual fictionalized China, check out Guy Gavriel Kay's Under Heaven.
posted by dsquared at 7:09 PM on June 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


Azula isn't a simple bully, she's a psychopath:
Psychopaths, in general, have a hard time forming real emotional attachments with others. Instead, they form artificial, shallow relationships designed to be manipulated in a way that most benefits the psychopath. People are seen as pawns to be used to forward the psychopath’s goals. Psychopaths rarely feel guilt regarding any of their behaviors, no matter how much they hurt others.
If she was a bully, she'd push Zuko around. Instead, she taunts him to the point of breaking, solidifying her position as The Favorite Child. Is there really any reason they both can't be looked upon with favor by their father?

Their mother, on the other hand, is overly supportive in my eyes. One line that really struck me: when Zuko tries to duplicate the moves that Azula pulled off flawlessly, he sucks at it, and falls down. He says "I failed." His mother says "No. I loved watching you. That's who you are, Zuko. Someone who keeps fighting even though it's hard." Those first to parts ("No. I loved watching you.") are what stood out - instead of saying "that was a good start, and I'm sure you'll improve with more practice," she tells him he didn't fail, when he clearly did. He looks like he is well beyond the point in his life that everything he attempts to do should be applauded.

Still, he shouldn't throw rocks at turtleducklings. That's another reason Azula is a psyhchopath, first hurting harmless little things, then setting Zuko up to do the wrong thing and get (ever so lightly) scolded for doing that.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:50 PM on June 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


Whoops. What I wrote was unclear. I wasn't saying that Ozai and Azula were bullies, but that they were much worse than the Earth Kingdom soldiers, who were just bullies (and not very villainous).

I don't think that's all that's wrong with Azula or Ozai - they're horrible!
posted by minsies at 10:23 PM on June 8, 2015


Poor turtleducklings!

Poor Ursa!

Poor Zuko!

I tend to think of this episode as pretty slow, but it's also incredibly necessary. It's subtle, but it shows exactly what is needed to get across who these people are. We need to know that Azula will be this way. We need to know that Ozai is definitely this way. We need to see what happened when Iroh came back from Ba Sing Se. We need to know how Zuko was and what happened before his Angi Kai, so that we understand what moulded him into what he is today.

It is very classic Western, and it works, but, again, it's slow, and Zuko isn't my favourite character, and it's right after "The Blind Bandit", which I adore, so I just sort of go "Yawwwwn" and wait for the next one.
posted by Katemonkey at 1:07 AM on June 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


I've definitely come to appreciate this episode, too. It's a major pivot in Zuko's heroic journey from bad guy to hero. The Search is fun read, like all of the Avatar comics, and it goes into detail about Zuko's mother, how she became the bride of a Fire Nation prince and what happened after that night.

On a small note, for those who are familiar with Legend of Korra it was confirmed by Bryke that the opening scene battlefield that Zuko travels through with the giant stone discs, is the place where Avatar Wan died, ten thousand years ago.
posted by Atreides at 5:03 AM on June 9, 2015


Sob, he's actually pretty good at at being a teacher/older brother figure to someone who isn't Azula.

Isn't he younger? That's part of Azula's problem with him he's younger and by her standards weaker and worse at everything, but he will grow up to be Fire Lord because he's male. It's in her best interest to attack and undermine him if she wants to achieve any political power later in life.
posted by edbles at 6:51 AM on June 9, 2015


Isn't he younger?

I don't know if it's ever explicitly stated in the show, but this discussion mentions both a Nick.com profile and a comic source saying Zuko is older.
posted by Kosh at 7:20 AM on June 9, 2015


Nope, Zuko is older, and the heir by order of birth. He's 16, Azula is 14. I don't think it's ever explicitly stated whether Fire Nation primogeniture is gender-biased or not, although a lot of fans have assumed at least some implicit bias given the lack of women in power we see in the war meetings and suchlike. And certainly Iroh appears to be making some gender normative assumptions about young Azula.

On a small note, for those who are familiar with Legend of Korra it was confirmed by Bryke that the opening scene battlefield that Zuko travels through with the giant stone discs, is the place where Avatar Wan died, ten thousand years ago.

I was assuming it was from earlier in the Hundred Year War. Damn, that site's pretty well preserved for 10,000 years.

Westerns and samurai movies overlap a lot (Seven Samurai and The Magnificient Seven, etc) and several times during this episode I thought of another Kurasawa movie: Yojimbo which you should totally watch. (It's on Hulu Plus.)

Haha, I was actually going to say Seven Samurai is the only Western that's held my attention, but my comment was long enough already.

If we're talking other sources Zuko's scarred-yellow-eyed-swordsman-on-a-redemption-journey idly reminds me of Rurouni Kenshin, especially with Lee's dad's talk about not pushing people about their secrets. Only idly, since Kenshin is much more like Aang if anything, but I thought it was funny since he's another one of my long-time favorites.
posted by bettafish at 7:21 AM on June 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


Nope, Zuko is older, and the heir by order of birth. He's 16, Azula is 14. I don't think it's ever explicitly stated whether Fire Nation primogeniture is gender-biased or not, although a lot of fans have assumed at least some implicit bias given the lack of women in power we see in the war meetings and suchlike. And certainly Iroh appears to be making some gender normative assumptions about young Azula.

Oh wow. I read their interaction pattern as Azula being older, because of how Zuko models on her in the turtleduck scene and her better control of firebending and assumed primogeniture was gender biased BECAUSE I though Zuko was younger and still the heir.
posted by edbles at 7:36 AM on June 9, 2015


One other thing that is relevant to this episode, but which I don't think the show ever makes explicitly known: Zuko and Azula are descended from Avatar Roku on their mother's side... he was their great-grandfather. The show (rightly) focuses on Sozin's lineage, since it's basically the main driver for the story, but it adds an extra layer to Aang's interactions with the two of them if you think about it, since his last incarnation was their recent ancestor.
posted by Kosh at 8:15 AM on June 9, 2015


The Roku lineage is made clear in season three - there's an episode that covers the topic.

I always like this episode, although it gives me the sads for Zuko and the turtleducklings.
posted by angeline at 8:21 AM on June 9, 2015


I also thought Azula was older, mainly because of their interactions during this episode and when they'd appeared together previously, but also because she was named after Azulon.
posted by minsies at 9:26 AM on June 9, 2015


I want to say there's a scene where present day Azula references Zuko as "Big Brother," but it might just be "brother." But canon-wise, Zuko is supposed to be the elder. It's generally depicted by their size, height-wise, for example, with Zuko being quite a bit taller than his sister. This also reinforces Azula's prodigy status as a fire bender, because she exceeds her older brother. Likewise, its her own self-confidence and demanding presence which leads littl' Zuko into imitating her behavior.
posted by Atreides at 8:21 AM on June 10, 2015


Yeah that means Azula is WAAAAY better than Zuko WAYYYY earlier.
posted by edbles at 12:25 PM on June 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


Yeah that means Azula is WAAAAY better than Zuko WAYYYY earlier.

Though by the show's end, we learn that her "better" serves her rather poorly once the context that makes her powerful is gone. Ditto Ozai, albeit in far more literal fashion.
posted by kewb at 6:25 AM on June 11, 2015


Heh. On a rewatch (because damn, this episode), I just now noticed that "spider-snake eyes" is double 5's.

Which of course it is. Because spider-snakes are a thing that exists in this universe.
posted by Mrs. Davros at 12:10 AM on June 12, 2015 [4 favorites]


Longer thoughts here...(running out of time...but intend to come back and re-read everyone's thoughts!)
posted by Atreides at 2:46 PM on July 1, 2015


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