Zuko is arguably the most popular character in the entire Avatar franchise. And it’s easy to see why when you consider his journey through the series.
The story arc of the Fire Nation prince is probably the most complex of any character in the series. He first appears as the main antagonist, winding up as one of the main heroes.
The story most people know is Zuko’s story as depicted in the Avatar: The Last Airbender series. And that’s understandable. The most engaging elements of his story are arguably from that series, anyway.
But the reality of Zuko’s story is NOT the simple “happily-ever-after” implied at the close of The Last Airbender. The complexities become even deeper in our anti-hero’s journey later in his life.
This article re-tells Zuko’s life story. You can use the contents to skip to any particular time during Zuko’s life that you most wanted to read about. And for a summary of Zuko’s legacy, then skip to the last section of the article.
Zuko’s Life Story
Zuko Before The Last Airbender
Zuko’s father, Ozai, was the second-born son of Firelord Azulon and the grandson of Firelord Sozin. But Ozai had ambitions of power, despite his older brother, Iroh, being true heir to the throne. Zuko’s mother, Ursa, was the granddaughter of Avatar Roku (the Avatar that preceded Aang).
Understanding Zuko’s family tree is essential to understanding the complexities of his character. It is at the very core of his conflicts. But more on that later…
Zuko, although powerful as a firebender when we met him in Avatar: The Last Airbender, didn’t show bending skills until much later than most newborns. He apparently lacked the “spark in the eye” of firebending infants, a fact that caused great anger and disappointment in his demanding father. Ozai was ready to kill the child, such was his disappointment at his own son’s shortcomings. Ursa, Zuko’s mother, intervened to prevent Ozai’s disposal of Zuko – the only reason he stayed alive. Amazingly, that wouldn’t be the last time her actions saved Zuko from his father. But more on that a little later…
The Eagle and the Turtle-Crab
As he grew up, the family sometimes took holidays to Ember Island – memories Zuko remembered as the few happy experiences he had growing up. On one such holiday, as a three-year-old, Zuko witnessed an eagle attacking a turtle crab. He saved the turtle crab from being eaten by the eagle. It was one of Zuko’s first displays of empathy.
But Zuko looked back at the eagle. It occurred to him, then, that predators such as eagles would starve without eating other animals: deep-rooted moral conflicts grappled within the young Prince for the first time.
Just then, a wave surprised him and pulled him into the ocean. He drowned and became unconscious. But Ozai actually saved his life, retrieving him from the water. Ozai was angry all the same, perceiving weakness in Zuko’s mind. That his son was concerned so much with helping the needy disappointed the future Fire Lord. For the rest of the day, Ursa comforted Zuko while he vomited sea water. Zuko’s mother, so often, was the only consolation in his harsh upbringing.
Ember Island was the only place where Zuko remembered feeling part of a family. Clearly, though, it wasn’t all happy-families for him there…
Growing Up with Azula
Zuko’s sister, Azula, is an extraordinarily cold and clinical villain throughout the Avatar franchise. As a child, she displayed natural intelligence as well as skill in firebending – Ozai’s dream child, you could say. Her emergence as a infant prodigy estranged Ozai even further from his firstborn, Zuko. Taking Azula under his wing, the girl would grow to be as much a frightening prospect as Ozai himself.
Naturally, then, Zuko didn’t draw much comfort from having a younger sister. Quite the opposite. There were several instances where Azula made his life more difficult than it already was.
She once set his butt on fire for telling their mother about her setting a bush on fire (I must admit, I did laugh a little bit at that one!!). Another time, she devised a plan after noticing a mutual attraction between Zuko and her friend, Mai. Azula’s plan consisted of setting an apple on fire atop Mai’s head, knowing that Zuko would act to protect her – and act he did! In trying to knock the apple off her head, Zuko knocked her into a fountain and landed on top of her. Azula and Ty Lee laughed at their misfortune, with Azula also telling Ty Lee: “I told you it would work!”
Their mother would often bemoan Azula’s ruthlessness. Her own mother thought of her as a “monster,” Azula herself would later reflect. Ozai was thrilled by her natural flair, conversely.
“You Were Lucky to be Born”
Azula once described her’s and Zuko’s firebending teacher as a “dummy” during a family dinner.
Zuko responded: “He’s not a dummy! He just thinks that proper firebending technique has to start –“
But Ozai cut him off.
He snapped at Zuko. Azula had mastered 14 more firebending techniques than Zuko had at that point, despite being two years younger.
Ozai’s went on to tell Zuko that he was lucky to be born, whereas Azula was born lucky.
Fierce words from a fierce father…
Positive Male Role Models
Ozai wasn’t the only male influence in Zuko’s life, though (luckily).
Piandiao – who later taught Sokka (of Team Avatar) the art of swordsmanship – taught Zuko to fight with two broadswords. Piandiao encouraged Zuko to nurture his great potential. Ozai was unable to even recognize that potential.
But it was his uncle Iroh – “the Dragon of the West” – who was clearly Zuko’s most notable male influence.
Iroh recognized that his younger brother, Ozai, treated Zuko harshly. He kept an instinctive eye on poor Zuko whenever he was around. After his own son, Lu Ten, died in battle, Iroh grew even more attached to his dear nephew. In essence, Iroh treated Zuko like his own son.
It was unfortunate for Zuko that Iroh was so often occupied as a War General during his childhood. The confidence boosts Zuko so needed throughout a childhood riddled by put-downs from his father and sister may have come regularly from a consistently present uncle Iroh. Notably, however, Iroh did send Zuko a dagger which had the words “Never Give Up Without a Fight” engraved into it – a gift that Zuko would hold dear for many years. It was gestures like this that would stick with Zuko during challenging times
Uncle Iroh’s influence would go on to be a crucial factor in Zuko’s character arc, as you will soon see. But not before Zuko received even crueler treatments from his father…
Azulon Calls for Zuko’s Sacrifice
When Zuko’s uncle was still known as General Iroh, his son, Lu Ten, died in battle. Iroh subsequently retreated from his siege of Ba Sing Se as a result of his utter heartbreak. His motivation for battle had all but fizzled out. Ozai subsequently called for a meeting with his father – Fire Lord Azulon.
During the meeting, he bid Azula showcase her firebending skills and war strategy nous to impress the Fire Lord. Feeling left out, Zuko volunteered to showcase his own firebending skills. But he embarrassed himself, falling flat on his face during his demonstration.
Unimpressed, Azulon dismissed Zuko, Azula, and Ursa (who comforted Zuko in his embarrassment) to speak in private with Ozai. Azula and Zuko eavesdropped on this meeting, though … and didn’t expect to hear what they heard.
Ozai requested that he be made Azulon’s new heir to the throne, given Iroh’s loss of a natural heir to carry on his own line. Azulon was disgusted. He told Ozai that he should learn to understand Iroh’s suffering. At that point, Zuko ran away – frightened by what he might hear next. Azula, though, stayed to listen to the juicy details.
Azulon asserted that the only way Ozai could understand Iroh’s suffering is if he lost his own first-born son. The implication, of course, was that he should sacrifice the underwhelming Zuko.
When Azula proudly told Zuko and his mother about Azulon’s request, Zuko refused to believe it. Ursa, meanwhile, went to speak directly with Ozai.
Given their poor relationship, Ursa could only negotiate with Ozai. She eventually agreed to leave the Fire Nation and never return if he would spare Zuko’s life. Ozai reluctantly agreed.
As of the next day, the kingdom assumed Ursa missing or dead. As for Zuko, his only consistent source of love had left him at just 11 years old. He wouldn’t learn any more about her disappearance for many years.
And Zuko’s emotional turmoils didn’t end there.
Two years later, after Ozai had taken his place as Firelord, Iroh permitted Zuko to join the other generals in a war meeting. Iroh insisted that Zuko keep quiet during the meeting, but Zuko – a fiery teenager – couldn’t resist. He criticized the proposed strategy of an established war general, infuriating his father, Fire Lord Ozai.
As we’ve seen, it never took much to trigger Ozai’s pent-up anger at Zuko. But what happened next nobody could’ve expected. Ozai called Zuko to fight in an Agni Kei – a combative firebending duel for the honor of the participants. Zuko agreed … but didn’t realize that it was his own father that he’d be dueling.
Zuko begged his father not to fight him, down on his knees. But the Fire Lord proceeded to burn his son’s eye, leaving the permanent scar that is synonymous with Zuko’s character in the Avatar franchise.
Ozai then stripped Zuko of his birthright and banished him from the Fire Nation. Ozai told him that he must capture the Avatar if he were to regain his honor. A virtually impossible task considering the fact that the Avatar hadn’t been sighted for almost 100 years.
Still, Zuko set forth. Fortunately for him, his uncle Iroh couldn’t bear to see his dear nephew roaming the world lost and alone. So he joined the Prince in the obsessive search for the Avatar that followed…
Zuko in Avatar: The Last Airbender (Book One: Water)
For two years, the banished Prince searched all over the world for the Avatar. He looked in all the four air temples and in the most obscure of places, leaving not a rock unturned.
While sailing close to the Southern Water Tribe, Zuko noticed an ethereal blue light in the distance – shooting from the ground up into the sky. He instinctively knew that a phenomenon so powerful couldn’t have come from anything but the Avatar … and how right he was.
Not long afterward, he saw a flare coming from an old Fire Nation shipwreck. He looked closer with his telescope. And there he was: The Last Airbender. It surprised Zuko to see him floating over the shipwreck like a young whippersnapper, though. After all, the Avatar ought to have been more than 100 years old by that point.
The Avatar moved towards a nearby Water Tribe village with a Water Tribe girl; Zuko pursued him.
Avatar Aang handed himself over. Finally, Zuko felt he would be able to earn his father’s respect! But Katara and Sokka atop Appa, the flying bison, saved the Avatar after the ship has set sail. It wouldn’t be the last time Zuko’s Avatar hunting would disappoint him so much, either.
Zuko frustratedly continued that chase of Aang for the majority of Book One: Water. His pursuit was not without distraction, though…
Agni Kei with Zhao
Zuko and his uncle Iroh crossed paths with Zhao – Commander of the Fire Nation Navy and a powerful firebender. Zuko hoped to avoid such an audience. But their ship needed repairs after the battle during Avatar Aang’s escape. When they found Zhao’s fleet, there was no choice but to ask for help.
Realizing that Zhao would certainly try to capture the Avatar for himself, Zuko urged Iroh to help conceal knowledge of the Avatar’s return from the Commander. But Zhao knew something was wrong. He had Zuko’s crew interrogated and learned of their mission.
Zhao then asserted that the task of capturing the Avatar was too important to entrust to a teenager. Naturally, Zuko angrily challenged the Admiral to an Agni Kai.
To be fair, though, Zuko handily defeated Zhao. He even also spared the Commander’s life at the end of the duel. But Zhao attacked Zuko as he walked away. Uncle Iroh blocked his cheap shot, though. Iroh then told Zhao that, even in banishment, Zuko was honorable than he was. Zuko clearly appreciated the encouragement from his loving uncle.
The Blue Spirit: Rescuing the Avatar
It dismayed Zuko to learn that what he hope to prevent had come to fruition … Commander Zhao succeeded in capturing the Avatar.
In response, Zuko dressed up as ‘The Blue Spirit’, sneaking riskily into Zhao’s quarters and ‘rescuing’ the imprisoned Avatar. He couldn’t stand the idea of Zhao delivering the Avatar to his father. That would ruin the chance of Zuko himself regaining his honor by completing the task his father had set him. It would only be another reason for his father to deem him surplus to requirements.
After their escape, Aang soon realized that the Blue Spirit that helped him escape was none other than his nemesis, Zuko. Aang suggested that the two of them could be friends … but Zuko attacked him. Aang quickly escaped but it wouldn’t be long before their paths crossed again…
Capturing the Avatar
Zhao destroyed Zuko’s ship after learning that he was responsible for the Avatar’s escape. But Zuko managed to evade Zhao’s notice while hiding aboard the commander’s ship.
Zuko eventually managed to escape the ship and captured Avatar Aang while he meditated into the spirit world.
He tied the Avatar up and carried him on his shoulder while trekking across the treacherous iced-over landscape around the North Pole. As the ground broke beneath his feet, Zuko sought refuge in a cave. There, he spoke to the unconscious Avatar, giving air to his turbulent emotional past.
Zuko pointed out the irony that, when he finally captured the Avatar, a snowstorm stood between him carrying him to the Fire Nation. Then he compared Aang to his sister, whose life, he explained, always went smoothly and according to her plans. And he referred again to his father’s harsh statement that Azula was born lucky while Zuko was lucky to be born – then going on to claim that he doesn’t need luck.
“I’ve always had to struggle and fight, and that’s made me strong. It’s made me who I am.”Zuko, in Avatar: The Last Airbender, Book One: Water, ‘The Siege of the North Pt. 2’ (Episode 20)
When Aang returns to consciousness, though, he attacks and traps Zuko under a pile of heavy snow. Team Avatar turns up to save him, but Aang insists on saving Zuko from under the snow – recognizing that his foe would surely die if they did nothing.
During the Siege of the North, Zuko attacked Zhao again for trying to kill him. But Zhao got dragged to his death by the hand of the great water spirit, La, combined with Aang in the Avatar State. Zuko offered a hand to pull him back to safety, but the stubborn Admiral refused.
After the battle, Zuko left the scene with his uncle Iroh. It took Iroh by surprise that Zuko no longer seemed obsessed with capturing the Avatar. “I’m tired,” Zuko told Iroh.
“A man needs his rest,” Iroh explained, as Zuko – worn out – lay back and fell asleep.
Zuko in Avatar: The Last Airbender, Book Two: Earth
Azula Inviting Zuko Home
Princess Azula tracked down Zuko and Iroh – now branded as traitors by Firelord Ozai – convincing Zuko that his father wants him back home again.
Excited at the prospect of being back in his father’s favour, and of going home, Zuko happily joins Azula on her ship. But when the captain of Azula’s ship accidentally refers to Zuko and Iroh areas “prisoners,” the Prince and his uncle realise that they need to escape Azula’s grasp.
Their ties and links to the Fire Nation: completely severed. Using the dagger Iroh had gifted to Zuko as a boy, the pair cut off the topknots of their hair. They realized that it was time to assume new identities separate from their royal heritage.
The pair traveled through the Earth Kingdom together, with Iroh begging for change and Zuko dressing up again as the Blue Spirit to steal food from locals.
After growing frustrated with Iroh’s passiveness, Zuko decided to leave his uncle behind and pursue his own path. In the popular episode ‘Zuko Alone’ (Book Two: Earth, Episode 7), he worked with a poor Earth Kingdom family who regularly struggled in dealing with the local soldiers. Despite actually being Earth Kingdom soldiers, they treated local people poorly. When Zuko stood up to a group of those soldiers, local people display real gratitude toward him. He is fed and sheltered by the family, forming a close emotional bond with their young son, Lee.
Zuko had regular flashbacks to his childhood during this, the first time he had spent away from his life as a Fire Nation prince. He remembered Azula’s tormenting; his father’s cruelness; his mother’s love.
He realized, in the present, that he would need to move on eventually. And Zuko left the young Lee a parting gift: the pearl dagger that Iroh had gifted to him as a child.
Reminiscent of David Carradine’s Kwai Chang Caine in Kung Fu, Zuko slumbered (like a true nomad) in a humble pile of hay. But Lee’s mother unexpectedly awoke him. She told him that the village soldiers stormed their home, demanding food, and her son pulled a dagger – the one Zuko had gifted to him – in defense. With a sense of obligation, Zuko returned to the village.
He bravely fought the soldiers alone, without the use of firebending. But the large group overwhelmed and knocked him down. After another flashback – of his mother telling him “never forget who you are” – Zuko awoke and defeated the soldiers with his firebending.
Despite his help, the town – including the family he had returned in order to help – turned against him. He fled the village once more, with glares of hatred burning in the back of his head from the villagers he left behind.
Back to Iroh
Zuko’s experience riding solo clearly taught him a lot. He was able to experience the goodness that exists within people from other nations, and the difficulties they face. The people the Fire Nation were invading, he learned, were good, proud people. Zuko slowly realized that he didn’t want to be part of the tyrannical empire that his father was building.
Still, Zuko’s journey from ‘villain’ to ‘hero’ was far from over.
Next, he followed Azula’s tank train trail, revealing himself during her own face-off with Avatar Aang. The face-off quickly exploded into an all-out battle in which Team Avatar (now including Toph Beifong), Zuko, and Iroh quite ironically fought together against Azula, the common enemy.
The six of them cornered Azula, who feigned a surrender. But she slyly shot lightning at her uncle Iroh, badly injuring him. Team Avatar came to help, but Zuko firebended at them and told them to leave.
In the following days, Zuko took care of his uncle, while Iroh taught him how to redirect lightning.
Feeling confident that he had mastered the technique, Zuko asked Iroh to shoot lightning at him for practice. When Iroh refused, Zuko left in a rage.
Seeking out a thunderstorm, he stood at the edge of a high cliff. He screamed at the heavens. “You never held back before!” he declared, urging the universe to somehow retaliate to his anger. Zuko fell to his knees and burst into tears. No lightning struck him.
After returning to Iroh, the pair headed to the walls of Ba Sing Se…
Ba Sing Se
Iroh’s positive, friendly demeanor – along with his obvious passion for tea – landed himself and Zuko jobs in a tea shop.
After impressing with tea-making skills, an entrepreneur offered Iroh the opportunity to open a new tea shop. He offered Iroh a higher pay rate, creative freedom to build the shop however he please, and even a fancy new apartment. Post-banishment, Iroh couldn’t have imagined a better situation to unfold for him … unfortunately, Zuko didn’t feel the same way.
Zuko continued to sulk and whine about how his life was panning out. Iroh, then, made it his business to shake Zuko’s leg on his behalf.
When a regular customer to the tea shop – a teenage girl called Jin – showed interest in Zuko, Iroh convinced his nephew to go on a date with her.
Although reluctant at first, Zuko had an enjoyable (albeit awkward) time with Jin. Upon returning to the tea shop, he even told Iroh that his evening was “nice” (shock horror!).
It wasn’t long, though, before Zuko learned of the Avatar’s presence in Ba Sing Se…
He dressed up, once more, as the Blue Spirit and managed to find the Avatar’s flying bison – Appa – locked up in captivity. But during the process of claiming Appa, Iroh turned up.
He confronted Zuko:
Iroh: What do you plan to do now that you have the Avatar’s bison? Are you going to keep him locked up in our apartment? Should I make him tea?
Zuko: First I have to get him out of here…
Iroh: AND THEN WHAT?! You never think these things through…Zuko & Iroh in Avatar: The Last Airbender, Book Two: Earth, ‘Lake Laogai’ (Episode 17).
Iroh talked Zuko down expertly. He referred back to when the Avatar’s friends saved him back at the Siege of the North, suggesting that Zuko is not in his right mind. Iroh challenged Zuko to look deep within himself to discover what it is that he really wanted in his life. Zuko eventually freed Appa, returning to the apartment with his uncle and dropping the Blue Spirit persona forever.
Zuko then fell into a deep fever. He slept and hallucinated for a number of days, his inner conflicts playing out visually in his mind’s eye. So far removed from his usual behaviour, freeing the Avatar’s bison plummeted Zuko into what Iroh described as a “metamorphosis.”
Zuko was changing. He started out as the tyrannical Firelord’s son; he was becoming a hero that the war-stricken world so badly needed.
And when he awoke from his fever, Zuko was a much friendlier and positive companion for Iroh.
Azula locked Zuko in the Crystal Catacombs during her siege of Ba Sing Se… where he was accompanied by Katara of Team Avatar. Katara expressed extreme anger towards him, which Zuko clearly understood the reasons for.
After talking together for a while, Katara began to sympathize with Zuko’s personal plight. So convinced by Zuko’s transformation, Katara almost applied some of her limited supply of Spirit water – that she had been saving for something important – to Zuko’s face burns. But before she could, Avatar Aang showed up (with none other than Zuko’s Iroh!), distracting her.
Not long after, Azula arrived at the scene. And she warped Zuko’s mind again with promises of acceptance from their father – the promise of happy family life at home, where she told him he belonged.
In spite of his metamorphosis, his experiences of later, and his encounter with Katara, Zuko betrayed his uncle and Team Avatar. Regaining his honor in his father’s eyes remained his top priority.
Before leaving the scene, Azula struck Aang in the Avatar state – with the belief that this would kill the airbender and end the Avatar’s cycle of reincarnation.
Azula assured Zuko that he had made the right choice and had restored his honor; the Prince, though, didn’t feel very honorable…
Zuko in Avatar: The Last Airbender, Book Three: Fire
Zuko soon learned that Azula had told their father, Firelord Ozai, that it was Zuko who killed the Avatar, not her. She explained that there was nothing for Zuko to worry about if what he told her was true – that there was no way the Avatar could’ve survived. Of course, in the back of Zuko’s mind was the fact that Katara possessed a powerful and healing Spirit water … but he didn’t tell Azula that. For sure, though, Azula knew something was on Zuko’s mind. That’s why she was so willing to sacrifice the glory that comes with killing the Avatar.
Nervous about the Avatar’s potential survival, Zuko hired an assassin – who Team Avatar would later nickname “Combustion Man” – to finish the job.
Nevertheless, Ozai did accept Zuko back into the kingdom. He did restore his son’s honour, that Zuko had sought after for years prior. But Prince Zuko still felt the same as before – torn, angry, conflicted.
Indeed, the only saving grace for Zuko’s stay in the Fire Nation was being reunited with Mai. The pair shared an intimate, romantic relationship upon his return. But even his loving girlfriend caused moments of grief for Zuko.
In ‘The Beach’ (S3E6?), Zuko and Mai’s relationship encountered some issues. Meanwhile, Mai, Ty Lee, Azula, and Zuko all opened up to each other emotionally, revealing their individual emotional traumas.
When it came to Zuko, the group pressed him to answer a simple question: who are you angry at?
After struggling with the question, Zuko finally responded by yelling: “I’M ANGRY AT MYSELF!”
It became quite clear at that point that Zuko was not satisfied with the choice he made in Ba Sing Se. It seemed as if he regretted his decision to join forces with Azula, betraying his loving uncle as well as the Avatar.
Despite the therapeutic holiday, including this collective release of emotions, Zuko’s turbulence continued. Things with Mai were much better when they got back to the Fire Nation kingdom, but Zuko self-loathing wouldn’t end until he made one big decision in his life.
In spite of acquiring his father’s approval, Zuko still felt the same levels of inner-conflict that he had done before. Nevertheless, he was close to completing the metamorphosis that he began back in Ba Sing Se…
Discovering His Roots: Fire Lord Sozin & Avatar Roku
Zuko began visiting his uncle Iroh, who had been imprisoned as a traitor to the Fire Nation after the events at the Crystal Catacombs.
Iroh’s influence guided Zuko to discover something he didn’t expect: that the previous Avatar – Avatar Roku – was his great-grandfather.
Iroh explained to Zuko that understanding the conflict between his two great-grandfathers – Avatar Roku and Fire Lord Sozin – was critical in understanding the conflict within himself:
Avatar Roku and Firelord Sozin were the closest of friends growing up. They did everything together! Practiced combat, studied, even pursued romances. They were like brothers. When it was revealed that Roku – who was usually less skilful than Sozin – would be the Avatar, Sozin wasn’t bitter. He was excited for his friend.
But Sozin, after becoming Fire Lord, offered a proposition to Avatar Roku. He suggested that, together, they could usher in an expansion of the Fire Nation. The prosperity that they have built could be shared with all the nations.
When Roku refused this proposition, explaining that the four nations should remain separate, the pair were at odds with each other until Roku died. When Roku did pass away, Sozin had an opportunity to pursue his dream of a Fire Nation empire … and to make matters worse, Avatar Aang disappeared. The rest, as Zuko well knew, was history.
After more friction between him and his father, Zuko finally spoke his mind.
He openly criticized his father’s beliefs and mission, declaring his own intention to leave the Fire Nation and teach the Avatar firebending.
He also assured his father that he would help Team Avatar to end the Fire Nation’s assault on the rest of the world. This, he believed, was his destiny. Ozai then struck lightning at Zuko, who stunned the Fire Lord by redirecting his strike to the ceiling. What a way to stand up to a controlling father!
Joining Team Avatar
He left a letter for Mai, explaining his decision to switch sides, and promptly left.
Finding the Avatar wasn’t too hard – after all, he’d been tracking the Avatar for years prior to making this decision.
Convincing Team Avatar that he was trustworthy, however, was much more difficult.
As a result of his betrayal back in Ba Sing Se, Team Avatar were extremely reluctant to accept him – Katara in particular.
Zuko had to defeat the assassin, “Combustion Man” – who he previously hired to kill Aang – to prove that his intentions were good. Even after that, though, Katara continued to act extremely hostile towards him. She assured him that, if he gave even the slightest impression that he might hurt Aang, then she would kill him there and then. Ouch.
The Sun Warriors and The Firebending Masters
Zuko’s firebending skills all but disappeared as soon as he started teaching Aang. Katara mocked him and joked about the inconvenience. His firebending not working would’ve helped Team Avatar back when he was hunting them, after all.
All the same, his firebending wasn’t working. Zuko suggested that the reason could be that he’d changed sides and that he needed to draw his firebending power from another source. He didn’t want to take strength from anger as he had done before.
Therefore, he went with Aang to visit the Sun Warriors – who introduced the pair to the last living dragons in the world. After Zuko and Aang were deemed worthy, the dragons – a.k.a. “The Firebending Masters” – showed them the source of their firebending power. Fire was not merely a destructive thing, they realized. It was the source of all life.
With the knowledge and understanding gained from the masters, Zuko proceeded to teach Aang. He taught him all he could about firebending in the short time they had before the arrival of Sozin’s Comet – the comet which would give Firelord Ozai the power he needed to overwhelm and conquer all four nations.
Bonding with Team Avatar
Zuko helped Sokka to rescue Hakoda and Suki from the Fire Nation’s Boiling Rock prison. In the process of escaping, he betrayed his girlfriend Mai once again and matched his previously overpowering sister in battle. In spite of his betrayal of Mai, though, she saved Zuko’s life by betraying Azula, who was about to cut the line of the cable car carrying Zuko and co. to safety.
Meanwhile, Katara still couldn’t warm up to Zuko. Even though he’d taken Aang to see the dragons and helped Sokka to rescue her father, she simply couldn’t bring herself to trust him. It was fitting, then, that the two of them would take a trip together … to find the man who killed Katara’s mother.
Zuko witnessed Katara’s use of her brutal ability to ‘bloodbend’, as she showcased the dark side of her personality. But when Katara finally met with her mother’s killer, she couldn’t bring herself to kill the man that she had wanted to murder for years.
Finally, after helping her on this mission, Katara accepted Zuko into Team Avatar. His redemption was complete … almost.
When Aang disappeared in the days prior to the comet, Zuko – identified as the “expert” of the group at tracking down the Avatar – led Team Avatar.
They couldn’t find Aang. But they did find The Order of the White Lotus. Here, Zuko was reunited with his dear uncle Iroh.
Crying apologetically for his betrayal of his uncle, Iroh embraced Zuko. He forgave the betrayal far more easily than Zuko expected.
“I was never angry with you, Zuko. I was just sad because I thought you’d lost your way.”Iroh in Avatar: The Last Airbender, Book Three: Fire, ‘Sozin’s Comet Part 2: The Old Maters’ (Episode 19).
During the last great battle of the Avatar: The Last Airbender series, Zuko fought Azula again. This time, though, they fought in a comet-fuelled Agni-Kai. Zuko got the better of his sister – who showed early signs of her oncoming insanity – and forced her to admit defeat. True to her treacherous character, though, Azula aimed one last bolt of lightning at Katara, who stood nearby. In the last step toward his redemption, Zuko blocked the lightning by diving in front of Katara, seriously injuring himself in the process.
Katara managed to finish off Azula, thanks to her waterbending prowess and rapid creative thought processes. After neutralizing the Princess, she healed Zuko’s new wounds and thanked him for saving her life. No doubt about where Zuko’s loyalties lay existed for her anymore.
Aang was victorious in defeating Firelord Ozai, the comet passed, and the world saved. Team Avatar was a success!
Zuko’s crowning as Fire Lord followed. During the coronation, he promised the four nations that he would work with the Avatar to ensure world peace and harmony are restored. He made it his mission to restore honor to the disgraced Fire Nation.
And the icing on the cake for the new Fire Lord: his girlfriend, Mai, forgave him for betraying her (twice!). Everything came up Zuko 🙂
And that was the end of Avatar: The Last Airbender…
…but Zuko’s story was FAR from over!!
Zuko in the Avatar Graphic Novels
Fire Lord Zuko: First Actions
Zuko visited his father in prison as soon as his coronation was complete.
He insisted that Ozai tell him what had happened to his mother … the outcome of that particular narrative reveals itself later, though (patience, dear reader!! We’ll get there).
The first of his major, official acts as Fire Lord was to help usher in the Harmony Restoration Movement. The movement removed all of the Fire Nation colonies from the other nations, allowing the Four Nations to re-continue their previously harmonious relationships together.
Zuko made Aang promise to “end him” if he ever became a Fire Lord similar to what his father had been. In spite of his redemption, Zuko was still concerned that he could turn bad again.
Assassination Attempts & Yu Dao
Restoring the Four Nations to their previous glories through the Harmony Restoration Movement was a popular policy … until it wasn’t.
Six assassination attempts on Zuko’s life shook up his peaceful demeanor. The last attempt came from Kori Morishita – daughter of the mayor of Yu Dao, one of the Fire Nation’s main Earth Kingdom colonies prior to the Harmony Restoration Movement.
The people of Yu Dao were furious with the Movement. They claimed that the decision forcefully removed innocent people from their homes. Zuko decided to investigate further.
When he arrived at Yu Dao, it came as a surprise to him that the mayor’s wife and daughters were actually earthbenders. In fact, Yu Dao was a great example of how Fire Nation and Earth Nation natives could live together harmoniously. Fire Nation people had been living there peacefully for generations.
Zuko, therefore, canceled the Harmony Restoration Movement. In other words, he allowed Fire Nation colonies to remain in Yu Dao and elsewhere. This perplexed Avatar Aang and Katara, who confronted the Fire Lord for his apparent U-turn.
But after some discussions directly with Zuko, as well as a brief conflict between the Fire Lord and Katara, Aang tried to convince the Earth King to change his mind about Yu Dao.
Mai Breaking Up with Zuko
During the complicated situation in Yu Dao, Mai grew impatient with Zuko’s lack of attention towards her.
Following the several attempts on Zuko’s life, the Fire Lord suffered from nightmares regularly disturbing his sleep. Mai, then, hired the Kyoshi Warriors as his bodyguards.
When Zuko went to Yu Dao, though, he forgot to tell Mai he was leaving. This lack of communication upset her immensely.
Later, Mai learned that Zuko had been holding secret meetings with his father Ozai (in his prison cell). Zuko had originally been meeting with Ozai to learn about his mother’s whereabouts; those meetings, though, had turned into counseling sessions for Zuko’s role as Fire Lord.
When Mai found out about these secret meetings, she broke up with Zuko.
It was yet another challenging and confusing life situation for Zuko to navigate.
The Battle of Yu Dao
After Mai broke up with Zuko, the Earth King marched an army towards Yu Dao in an attempt to reclaim it from the Fire Nation. In turn, Zuko took a Fire Nation army of his own to Yu Dao, prepared for battle.
The battle could easily have escalated into a war, if not for the intervention of Aang. The Avatar headed to Yu Dao, suspecting that he might have to fulfil his promise and “end” Zuko. Luckily, Aang separated the armies by entering the Avatar state and was able to strike an agreement with the Earth King.
Then he turned to Zuko…
Zuko went into metamorphosis again, just like he had in Ba Sing Se when staying with his uncle Iroh. He woke up after 4 days and felt much better. That relieved Aang, who no longer needed to fulfill his promise of killing his friend if he became like Fire Lord Ozai.
After those events unfolded, Zuko tried to get back to the mindset that he had before becoming Fire Lord. This started with re-setting one intention in particular…
Zuko’s Search for Mother … with Azula
He returned to his father’s cell to insist Ozai share more information about Ursa’s whereabouts. But when Ozai refused to help, Zuko turned to Azula – living in a mental asylum.
With the help of his unpredictable sister, along with Team Avatar, Zuko searched for Ursa.
There were many bumps in the road – not least a few fights with Azula (naturally!). Azula also carried with her a letter which implied that Zuko was not Ozai’s son. If true, this would’ve meant Zuko was not the true heir to the Fire Nation’s throne. This, along with a psychotic episode in which Azula was restrained by Team Avatar, made the mission far harder than Zuko wanted.
Eventually, Azula and Zuko managed to reach an agreement. “Why does our relationship have to be like this?!” Zuko lamented to his sister before they made a kind of peace with each other.
Afterward, they arrived in Hira’a – Ursa’s hometown. They were welcomed here by a man called Noren along with his wife Noriko, who also had a young daughter named Kiyi. In search for the man Azula’s letters claim is Zuko’s true father (Ikem), the team headed for Hira’a’s “Forgetful Valley,” where Ikem was rumored to have ventured.
In the valley, an ancient spirit called The Mother of Faces showed itself to them. The Mother told Zuko that she had erased Ursa’s memories and bestowed upon her a new identity. That identity was none other than Noriko – the woman who met with Team Avatar in Hira’a.
Catching Up with Mum
Azula almost immediately attacked Noriko when they arrived back in Hira’a. Zuko managed to stop her attack and restrain Azula. But his tricky sister escaped and ran off into the Forgetful Valley.
Zuko was stopped by The Mother of Faces when chasing her. The spirit asked Noriko, who also followed them, if she would like her memory restored … Zuko’s mother accepted and became Ursa once more.
Ursa embraced her son lovingly, filling a hole in Zuko’s heart that had existed for so many years. She apologised for leaving and explained the letter about Zuko’s father. It turned out that she had faked the letter to anger Ozai. Indeed, Ozai was Zuko’s real father and Zuko was the true Fire Lord.
Zuko played with the daughter of Norem and Ursa, Kiyi – who he then understood to be his baby sister. The siblings got along swimmingly well.
And Ursa finally told Zuko her life story from beginning to end. A satisfying tie up of Zuko’s loosest of loose ends!
Zuko went searching in the Forgetful Valley for Azula, but couldn’t find her (if you think she’s going to make a return … well, aren’t you smart?!).
The New Ozai Society
Zuko was threatened by the emergence of The New Ozai Society on his return to the Fire Nation. This society’s goal was simple: to reinstate Ozai’s nationalist state to power, removing Zuko from the throne in the process.
The New Ozai Society had been bubbling under the surface ever since Zuko’s coronation. But upon his low-key return to the Fire Nation, the society’s leader – Ukano, father of Mai (Zuko’s ex-girlfriend) – decided it was time to attack. Zuko was traveling home with his mother Ursa, sister Kiyi, and Norem (Ursa’s husband), accompanied nonetheless by the Kyoshi Warriors (now his personal bodyguards).
Ukano’s forces successfully captured Zuko and the Kyoshi Warriors, demanding Zuko to relinquish the throne. When Zuko refused, Ukano threatened to burn the caravan that carried the Fire Lord’s family. Disgusted by Ukano’s conduct, one of the masked society soldiers – Kei Lo, who happened to be Mai’s new boyfriend (unbeknownst to Zuko at that point) – unmasked himself and set Zuko free.
Eventually, Kyoshi Warrior reinforcements – accompanied by Mai, no less – came to the Fire Lord’s aid, easily finishing off the New Ozai Society.
The Kemurikage Spirits
A month later, Mai’s baby brother Tom-Tom was kidnapped by what she claimed looked like the Kemurikage Spirits.
The tale of these spirits was a story told to naughty children in the Fire Nation. The myth went that they would kidnap misbehaving children – a narrative used by parents who wanted to get their kids in order.
The kidnappers that took Tom-Tom, though, had taken several other young children for real (and not naughty children, necessarily … hehe).
Zuko offered to help Mai find her brother and the other missing children as soon as he heard the news. He employed the help of Aang, who he supposed would be a great help in dealing with potential dark spirits (being the Avatar and all).
A team of Zuko, Aang, Mai, and Kei Lo (who Zuko was clearly jealous of for being Mai’s love interest) worked together. They headed to the High Temple, where Aang meditated into the spirit world. There, Aang learned that the Kemurikage spirits had not left the spirit world, indicating that the kidnappers were merely dressed like Kemurikage.
A Moment Alone with Mai
During the mission to learn more about the Kemurikage, Zuko and Mai shared some moments of affection.
However, Mai was angered by Zuko when he asked her to compare her new relationship with Kei Lo to the one they had shared. She told Zuko that he broke her heart twice and they should both move on. It seemed to Mai that Kei Lo liked her much more than she liked him; that, she claimed, would prevent her from getting hurt the way Zuko hurt her.
Clearly, there were still feelings between them. But it is still unclear (to this day, reader) whether or not they ever rekindled their relationship due to gaps in the Avatar franchise narrative. You can be sure, though, that this page will be swiftly updated as soon as any such information is revealed!!
Zuko’s Response to the Kemurikage
Zuko soon learned that a military organization had started up in response to the kidnaps – the Safe Nation Society. Zuko angrily enforced that this group should be disbanded or its members would be arrested.
Not long afterwards, though, Kiyi (his stepsister) was kidnapped.
In response, Zuko locked down the entire city and ordered the homes of the Safe Nation Society to be searched. Aang expressed his concern, but Zuko continued to react emotionally. The Safe Nation Society soon kicked off a riot in the city, leading to their imprisonment.
Eventually, the team discovered that it was none other than Azula (surprise, surprise!) who led the faux-Kemurikage all along. Zuko fought his sister again, this time being defeated by Azula who seemed to have regained some stability/control in her time outside of the mental asylum.
Zuko told Azula that she was wasting her time fighting him. Even if she killed him, she would never be Fire Lord. But Azula laughed, explaining that taking the throne was not her goal. Her goal was to influence Zuko to become a leader like Ozai, ruling with strength and fear … she also claimed that she had already achieved that goal, citing Zuko’s recent behavior as evidence.
As she told him this, Zuko noticed that his friends had found and saved the missing children. Azula then disappeared in a cloud of smoke. Incidentally, Azula is yet to appear in the Avatar franchise since.
Zuko reflected upon his conduct of late. Azula’s suggestion that she had changed him to be more like Fire Lord Ozai before gave him yet another feeling of guilt. In a speech to the people of the Fire Nation, Zuko apologized for his recent performance as Fire Lord, promising to do better from now on.
The Southern Reconstruction Project
Some years later, Hakoda (leader of the Southern Water Tribe and father of Katara and Sokka) called for a meeting between world leaders. In the meeting, the leaders – consisting of Head Chieftain Hakoda, Fire Lord Zuko, and Earth King Kuei – discussed plans to redevelop the post-war Southern Water Tribe.
This was a project that Zuko was eager to help out and fund. The Earth King, though, was hesitant.
Regardless, Zuko was welcomed with intense hostility by the Water Tribe citizens. They clearly hadn’t forgiven the Fire Nation for the war just yet.
The protestors managed to kidnap the Earth King, luring Zuko into crossing a broken bridge to rescue him. Luckily, Avatar Aang was at hand to help rescue Kuei and things worked out okay.
But it was clear that echoes of the war were still ringing around the minds of people worldwide.
Zuko in The Legend of Korra
Later Reign and Fatherhood
Zuko’s controversial decision to abort the Harmony Restoration Project ultimately proved to be one of his best decisions as Fire Lord.
The Yu Dao example of Fire Nation and Earth Nation citizens living together harmoniously acted as a precursor to the development of Republic City. He was also one of the key figures in initiating the United Republic of Nations, which oversaw more than 50 years of world peace.
Very little has been written of Zuko’s life between the beginnings of the Republic and his appearances in The Legend of Korra (which will be covered in the next section). As with other topics in this article, however, any events that are described in future Avatar franchise installments will be updated into this article as quickly as those events are revealed!
Possibly the most burning questions for fans is that of Zuko’s lovelife.
The Fire Lord did have a daughter named Izumi. However, Izumi’s mother is never revealed during The Legend of Korra, or anywhere else for that matter.
Speculation that Mai was Izumi’s mother has certainly done the rounds on the internet. And the existing Avatar literature leaves plenty of room for that possibility (given that Mai broke up with Kei Lo not long after the events with Azula’s Kemurikage). But Izumi’s mother remains an unanswered question for the moment.
Nevertheless, Zuko did have a daughter. His relationship with her would seem to have been quite positive, too. He eventually abdicated his throne, entrusting it to Izumi in his retirement.
Izumi also bore a grandchild for Zuko, too – Iroh (named for Zuko’s uncle, of course). Iroh would become a general of the United Forces.
One more noteworthy development in Zuko’s life is that he adopted a dragon, which he named Durk.
Helping Avatar Korra
Zuko remained a close friend of Avatar Aang, who would regularly come to the Fire Lord for counsel. On the flip side, Zuko learned to trust Aang’s intuition.
After Aang’s death, Zuko ensured that he was available to the aid of Avatar Korra whenever necessary. Most notably, he helped defend the Republic against the threat of Zaheer and the Red Lotus.
Korra came to Zuko for advice herself after her connection to the spirits of previous Avatars was severed by Zaheer’s brutal assault on her. During a visit to the spirit world, she happened to meet with Zuko’s uncle Iroh, who suggested that she go to Zuko for guidance (as Aang had done before her). Iroh explained that Zuko had a connection to the Avatar spirit himself.
Zuko was stunned that Korra had communicated with his uncle.
Such was Zuko’s good reputation in the Republic, a statue was erected of him near Central City Station.
Zuko’s death is yet to be described in the Avatar franchise. And knowing the topsy-turvy nature of his story, there can be no guarantees that he died peacefully in his sleep!!
That being said, Zuko moved to the paradisal Ember Island after handing the Fire Lord title to Izumi. The idea was that he could relax and retire there … we sure hope that he was able to! And we’re sure that we will hear more about Zuko in the future.
Undoubtedly, Zuko’s character arc in Avatar: The Last Airbender left a lasting impact on watchers of TV series’. Not only is it considered one of the best redemption arcs in animated and/or children’s TV history – it is considered one of the best in all TV history.
Zuko’s story is comparable to other epic redemption arcs such as Jaime Lannister and Theon Grejoy in Game of Thrones, Severus Snape in Harry Potter, Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars. Being held up alongside such esteemed company as that would surely be a compliment to any character from any piece of literature!
Avatar: The Last Airbender is a marker point to which all other animated series are compared to. And Zuko is – in no small measure – an important reason for that.
After all, Zuko embodies one of the key themes of the entire series: that good and bad/light and dark exists within everything and everyone. He displays a tendency to be thoroughly hateful, while also proving that he is simultaneously a loving, empathetic character. Don’t we all have such conflicting feelings/morals between love & hate, like & dislike? Zuko represents the human struggle as a whole.
He’s as 3-dimensional as they come.