Rivers are thick with pollution and forests leveled by fire, an autocratic dictator ignores the council of others, refugees are turned away at borders with nowhere else to go, and young people grapple with an uncertain future in the face of chaos. This may sound eerily similar to our world in 2020, but this is the society young people find themselves tasked with saving in Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Although the show primarily follows Avatar Aang (Zach Tyler), Prince Zuko (Dante Basco) experiences notable growth throughout the series and in the end makes the most selfless sacrifice of any character. His choice is a defining moment of the series and he, alongside Aang, plays a significant role in restoring peace to the world.
We are first introduced to Zuko as a villain, he travels the world to pursue Aang; capturing the Avatar is the only chance he has to return home to the Fire Nation. Throughout the first season, Zuko is frequently frustrated with the position he finds himself in and is desperate to return to his old life. Before his exile he lived in peace, he came from a powerful family, had a girlfriend, and was secure in the knowledge that he hailed from the best nation in the world.
When we first meet Zuko his focus is singular: he wants his world to return to normal and is willing to do whatever it takes to make that happen. Throughout the first season, Zuko captures Aang, battles him, and in one uncharacteristic moment, rescues him from the clutches of a Fire Nation general. At the time it’s unclear whether Zuko’s motive for rescuing Aang is noble or not, but it’s the first time we begin to see Zuko’s characterization as the series’ villain shift.
In the second season, we find Zuko in a vastly different place. Zuko and his uncle Iroh are essentially refugees. While it becomes apparent fairly quickly that Iroh (Makoto Iwamatsu), a retired general who lost his son in battle, has seen the error in the ways of the Fire Nation and is beginning to reevaluate his role in the war, Zuko is still intent on returning to life as he once knew it.
As the two of them wander through scorched villages, as they scrounge for food and see the destruction unleashed by the war, Zuko experiences moments of potent shock, as when he finds himself in an Earth Kingdom village and a generous family takes him in for the night. They tell him their older son went to fight in the war and has been gone for months. The family’s younger son takes to Zuko, desperate for even a shadow of his lost older brother. It’s the first time we see Zuko’s stark shame in what his nation has done, he’s no longer just an exiled prince angry with his father; he realizes he is complicit in the systematic destruction of the Earth Kingdoms.
The end of the second season shows seismic shifts in Zuko, he and his uncle have settled in Ba Sing Se and opened a tea shop. Zuko has learned more about his family’s history and the genesis of the war. In the final episodes of season two Zuko rescues Apa, Aang’s beloved bison, from captivity. We see Zuko on the precipice of a new path, when he is allowed to return home to the Fire Nation a hero. Whatever tiny spark of hope he had left to return to the comfort of his old life is reignited, and he jumps at the opportunity, to the chagrin of his uncle.
When he returns home to the Fire Nation, Zuko is in his father’s good graces again. The girlfriend he was with before his exile comes back to him, and he is once again safe within the walls of his home. Zuko is allowed in war meetings with his father—a high honor—and he travels with his friends to Ember Island, where he used to vacation as a child. It doesn’t feel right, though. After years of exile and a harrowing journey that finally lands him back home, where he always wanted to be, Zuko decides to leave the Fire Nation to help Aang.
At one point, he explains that as a child, he learned the war was a way for the Fire Nation to share their greatness with the rest of the world. After all, he has seen, he realizes that was propaganda, and he knows the truth. At long last, Zuko understands peace must be restored, but the nation he once loved has unleashed irreparable damage. There’s no going back to the way things were. There’s no normal, and really there never was.
Zuko has nothing to gain by leaving. His life will be markedly harder if he leaves, but he has grown to care deeply for others and for the world he shares with them. He doesn’t leave simply because he cares for Aang and his friends. The choice is not just a shifting of alliances or a changed preference, but a lesson in empathy. Zuko leaves because he cares for the anonymous refugees he walked alongside, and for the Earth Kingdom villagers, he cares for people he doesn’t even know. For Zuko, staying within the Fire Nation bubble where things are good and safe and ‘normal,’ while anonymous people suffer, would be an unconscionable choice.
Avatar shows us that to fight for only the people we know, for simply the things that affect us personally, is neither brave nor heroic, nor particularly useful. Real bravery and heroism are motivated by a genuine love for humankind, an investment in others’ success even, sometimes, at the expense of one’s own. Those of us who live a relatively privileged life need to take responsibility for a mess we didn’t personally make, but we know we are complicit in it, because we have benefited at the expense of others.
Indeed, many of us in 2020 find ourselves in a position similar to the fictional Zuko’s: to look the other way in a time of crisis is unconscionable. There is no normal to return to and there is no going back. We can only go forward, as a society we must work toward greater magnanimity and empathy. Toward a new world. But first, we must turn off the television.