Zuko: The Prince Who Came Home
Updated: Jun 15
Over the past month, Avatar: The Last Airbender rocketed to the top of the Netflix charts. A decade-and-a-half after its release, the series seems to be undergoing a renaissance. Huge audiences, new and old, are more fascinated than ever with this mythic story of a war between four nations.
While the whole cast of Avatar can boast an adoring fan base, the Fire Nation's Prince Zuko is undoubtedly among the most popular. Zuko's redemption arc has transcended its purpose in advancing the narrative of the show and has become an almost sacred point-of-contact between fans' own lives and the show.
Except, Zuko's story is not a redemption arc at all.
Zuko does indeed move from being a "bad guy" to being a "good guy." Redemption, though, doesn't have anything to do with such a transformation. Redemption, properly speaking, refers to when something that was purchased is claimed. Most famously, Christian theologians speak of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as "redeeming" humanity. God purchases eternal life for human beings by taking the penalty for their wrongdoing on himself. We might think of this as "pure" or "loving" redemption. Redemption itself, however, is not intrinsically pure. There is such a thing as "corrupt" redemption. Enter Prince Zuko.
Shamed and abused by his father, Zuko is cast out of his country as a disgrace. Driven by a powerful sense of honor, Zuko embarks on a redemptive journey: By killing Avatar Aang and ensuring the victory of his country over all others, Zuko can earn redemption. With the life of another, Zuko can purchase back his own life. He can return home with his head held up high. If he can kill the Avatar, Zuko will be redeemed.
Warning: Large spoilers ahead.
Eventually, Zuko appears to succeed. While the Avatar secretly survives, he appears to die in battle with Zuko and his sister Azula. Hailed as a hero, Zuko returns home only to find that the life he redeemed is not worth having. Zuko's redemption, corrupted by his willingness to sacrifice the life of another rather than his own, is poisoned. He returns to the land of his birth only to find that it is not truly his home.
I suspect much of Avatar's resurgent popularity is because of the fact that Zuko grapples with one of the most prominent human fears: The loss of belonging. The great writer Thomas Wolfe supplied one of his novels with the grim title You Can't Go Home Again. Wolfe's title speaks to the deep-rooted human concern that, at the end of the day, we will never be able to be properly redeemed.
Fortunately for Zuko, he has an angel on his shoulder. Zuko's short, pudgy Uncle Iroh--a failed Fire Nation general and former crown prince--accompanies the prince throughout his exile and loves Zuko like his own son. Unlike Zuko's father, Iroh never recommends a journey of redemption to Zuko. Instead, Iroh advocates a different heroic arc: Repentance.
Redemption occurs when something purchased is claimed. Redemption is an act of transaction. Repentance, on the other hand, literally means turning the face towards a different direction. Repentance is an external manifestation of an internal decision. Repentance is not concerned with object but with destiny. Destiny, after all, is merely direction plus time. We have a sense of this in everyday speech when we say someone has "reached a turning point." We know, instinctively, that repentance is every bit as important as redemption.
The importance of repentance is why Iroh refuses to try to push Zuko towards what Iroh knows to be right. Repentance must begin internally, not with a mere act. In Iroh's own words, "It's time for you to look inward and ask yourself the big question: Who are you and what do you want?"
We can go home, but not by trying to appease others. We can go home, but not by purchasing back honor or privilege. We can go home, but not by living up to external expectations. Before we can go home, we have to decide what home should be. In Shakespeare's Henry V, the titular king expresses this statement to his men when they appear to face certain death in battle with the French. Henry, walking among the ranks, tells the common footsoldiers that by choosing to stand and fight with him they have become his brothers. Home was not to be found in a geographic location but in any place where like-minded individuals stood side-by-side with Henry.
For Zuko, repentance does eventually lead him back to the land of his birth. Zuko finds his home in the Fire Nation only when he is willing to stand against its tyranny. The first step in coming home, then, is knowing who is coming home.
So decide who you wish to be--and turn towards that life.