When I was a kid watching reruns of the first season of “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” my favorite episode was undoubtedly “The Storm.”
In the episode, audiences find out why Zuko was sent on a seemingly futile mission to find the Avatar. His father, Fire Lord Ozai, had banished him for speaking out of turn at a war meeting. In a flashback, Zuko cries out for mercy to his cruel father. The moment is undoubtedly moving, even when I watch it again today.
“Avatar: The Last Airbender” hit Nickelodeon in 2005 and ran for three seasons to critical and commercial success. The fantasy cartoon spawned a follow-up series (“Legend of Korra”), a live-action movie that we don’t talk about, and a whole bunch of merchandise. Demonstrating the show’s staying power and the ever-present desire for nostalgia, Paramount+ is currently developing three movies based on the franchise, and Netflix has its own live-action version in the works — 14 years after the original aired.
Today I wonder if there was another reason a fire-throwing cartoon prince resonated so deeply with me as a kid.
Perhaps Zuko’s story spoke to the same way I was constantly walking on eggshells in my own home. Punishments were doled out swiftly for losing games that I didn’t realize I was playing. While I was never banished to a wintry abyss, I knew what lashing out, manipulation and gaslighting all looked like — even if I didn’t have the words for it at the time.
I knew what it meant for love to be conditional. When I begged my father to stop calling me a failure through my locked bathroom door, it was my hand that ended up scarring myself. My own emotional mangling was clear from a young age, and I ended up taking myself to a therapist at the National Health Service in the U.K. — alone at age 16 — for depression, self-harm and anxiety.
I didn’t watch the entire TV series until I got to college. The Zuko I saw in earlier seasons was one driven by rage, fear and pain. But over the course of the show, Zuko makes the crucial decision to hold himself accountable and be “good.”
It is not an easy decision by any means — and Zuko’s progress isn’t linear, just as it isn’t linear in real life. He releases Appa at the end of the “Lake Laogai” episode only to side with Azula in “The Crossroads of Destiny.” He famously is “so bad at being good.” He is awkward, uncool, goes back on himself, has to earn forgiveness, atone for his harms, and make mistakes. Despite his past, he is able to find redemption through the guidance of Iroh and his own resolve. By the end of the series, I almost always shed a joyful tear when he’s crowned Fire Lord.
It’s this part of Zuko’s story that makes him a crucial character for children to look up to. You probably don’t need an essay on “Avatar: The Last Airbender” to remind you that childhood is far from rosy for many. One survey found that 1 in 6 people has experienced at least four potentially traumatic adverse childhood experiences in their youth. Yet, the majority of kids’ entertainment — even when it tackles these topics — puts its characters into boxes of fundamentally “good” or “evil.”
I understand the pull toward simplicity and wholesomeness for children’s content. I’m not disparaging the inspiring content that already exists (or suggesting we throw a copy of “Game of Thrones” at children the moment they exit the womb). But I find that too much of the rhetoric around children’s shows dismisses the actual lived experience of kids — which, as with Zuko, can involve abuse and estrangement.
Seeing myself through this lens, I’ve made the decision to work on myself, through copious therapy and support groups — which I am privileged enough to have the resources to attend. I do my best to help others and hold myself accountable for my mistakes whenever I can. And I know I’m choosing to let go of so much of the pain that once fueled me.
In “The Firebending Masters,” Zuko loses his ability to firebend once he joins the Gaang. It’s an episode I discussed recently with a trusted friend and spiritual mentor by the beach in Brooklyn. We mulled over the idea of being inspired by the light and life of fire, rather than its burn — and she had never even seen an episode of “Avatar: The Last Airbender.”
Now I look at Zuko with wiser eyes. I see a child cast out and hurt by those who should have cared for him, doing his best to earn approval. Maybe if I can be kind to Zuko, and believe in his goodness, I can believe in myself, too.