By the second season of ATLA, Zuko and Iroh became more than exiles; they get branded as traitors by Zuko’s psychopathic sister, Azula, and went into hiding in the Earth Kingdom as refugees. Before this, even in exile, Zuko lived in relative luxury, having a spacious stateroom on his ship, and servants to keep him well-fed. Now, he and his uncle had nothing; they were left starving on the street, begging for change. Iroh adapted to a simpler way of life, and was grateful for the kindness of strangers, but Zuko couldn’t stomach the humiliation. Eventually, the proud prince separated from his uncle and went his own way, but Iroh shadowed him, knowing that he would eventually need his help. That time came shortly after Azula had pursued Aang and his friends to an abandoned village, at which point Zuko and Iroh both converged on the site, and temporarily teamed up with the Avatar to defeat his sister (not before trying to capture Aang himself, of course). In order to escape, Azula shot Iroh with a near-fatal fire blast, for which Zuko, wracked with guilt, forced Aang and company to leave so that he could stay behind and care for his uncle.
Eventually, Iroh recovered and taught Zuko how to redirect lightning, a special move that he had invented himself. In what is arguably one of the most potent lessons of the entire series, he told his nephew that he developed this skill by observing water-benders. This was a profound revelation for the young prince, because he grew up believing in an ideology that was best summed up by the YouTuber, DrUpauli who said, “The Fire Nation was a very proud nation. … In their mind, they were the only nation that mattered; the rightful rulers of the world.” He added, “Because Iroh was able to step back from this philosophy, he was able to develop a technique that allowed him to redirect lightning. … Iroh was one of the strongest benders of his time, who had no business mulling around with lowly water benders. He had good reason to believe that there was nothing he could learn snooping around with their art and culture. But it was because of his humility that he was able to take the water bending principles and apply it to fire bending.” Although Zuko would go on to master the technique of redirection, he would have a long way to go before he would understand the deeper lessons that Iroh tried to teach him.
The entire time Zuko lived in a perpetual rage, and that anger blocked his development, both as a bender, and as a person. He would eventually remove this blockage, but not before going on a long redemption arc, one that is widely regarded as one of the best in modern story-telling. This happens to reflect Iroh’s own story, a point that was masterfully clarified by the YouTuber, HelloFutureMe who said, “Narratively, Iroh seems to have gone through his character arc before the story of the series began. He came to understand that only ruin and pain could come from that [Fire Nation] ideology. … Iroh’s emotional journey is reflected in Zuko’s character arc; he goes through a similar change. And though we can visualize his struggle as an internal one between good and evil, I think it’s both more interesting and nuanced to see it through the lens of a struggle between what we could read as two very different ideas of what it means to be a man.”
Zuko was raised with two competing ideologies in his head; that of his father, and that of his uncle. Ozai equates submission with respect, power with honor, and pride with victory. He takes pleasure in violence, and sees mercy, empathy, compassion, and humility as signs of weakness. For him, the only way to express his will on the world is through violence, and Zuko bought into this toxic philosophy for most of his life. And although Iroh spent much of his life with the same mindset, he eventually came to stand in stark contrast to this way of thinking. What’s more, he not only helped to dismantle Zuko’s warped beliefs, he replaced them with a new kind of strength – one that didn’t rely on external endeavors for personal fulfillment.
Throughout much of the series, Zuko is so desperate to find the Avatar and have his honor restored by his abusive father that it nearly cost him his life several times over. Throughout this part of the story, Iroh continues to gently coax his wayward nephew until the moment came when he had to get in his face. After Zuko attempted to pull off another hair-brained scheme that he did not think through, Iroh stopped him and spoke directly and loudly against his nephew’s stupidity.
“I know my own destiny, Uncle.” Zuko insisted.
“Is it your OWN destiny, or is it a destiny someone else has tried to force on you?”
“Stop it, Uncle. I have to do this.”
“I’m begging you, Prince Zuko. It’s time for you to look inward and begin asking yourself the big questions, ‘Who are you? And what do YOU want?’”
The thing is, not long ago I had a definite handle on that answer, but now…I’m not so sure.
Best Iroh Moments:
Iroh’s Wisdom – Choosing Humility Over Pride:
The Philosophy of Iroh – What Does It Mean to be a Man?:
YouTube intro: https://youtu.be/4mBCCi1SNLQ