Avatar: The Last Airbender Newbie Recap: Book Two—”Zuko Alone,” “The Chase”
Backstory more like backsobby.
It’s like the writers of Avatar invented a time machine, came into the present day, looked deep into my soul and found out what would cause me the most emotional pain, went back to 2006, and wrote all that awful, awful stuff into a one episode. 100% ZUKO ANGST. No, it’s OK. I didn’t need my heart.
Oh, and “The Chase” was pretty good too.
We start with Zuko, who’s left his Uncle Iroh behind, riding through the countryside all poor and hungry and alone, alllll alone. In his ongoing evolution toward Not Being a Dick, he decides not to attack a pregnant woman and take her food. Baby steps. He’s in such a bad way that he hallucinates someone who must be his mom, and holy hellcakes, are we going to find out about Zuko’s mom this episode? I am in no way prepared for this.
He rolls into what’s basically a Wild West village and covers for a kid, Lee, after he throws at egg at some local jackass Earth Nation soldiers. As a thank you, Lee takes Zuko back to the ol’ homestead, where his parents keep up the Western theme by refusing to pry into Zuko’s past or even ask his name. In exchange for food, Zuko will spend some time doing work around the farm, which has piled up a bit since Lee’s older brother went to fight against the Fire Nation.
Also, there are ANIMALS THAT ARE ALSO OTHER ANIMALS:
It’s at about this time we have our first flashback. I’m going to go ahead and recap the entire past portion of this episode in one go. Like a bandaid, right off! First thing we learn: little kid Zuko is adorable, and his mom is basically the quintessential Kind Mother Figure Who Protects Her Young.
Second thing we learn: Azula is a LITTLE PSYCHO who likes to hurt animals and is a mean little shit even to her friends when they dare be better at her than something. There’s a little bit of explanation into the fact that Little May had a big ol’ crush on Little Zuko and Little Azula knew about it and was basically a little shit about the entire thing.
Seriously. Azula is scary this episode. Even at a young age, she’s able to lay on the charm to get whatever she wants. My love, my heart, my killer seven (or whatever)-year-old.
Mama Zuko gets a letter from Uncle Iroh in which he explains that the siege of Ba Sing Se is going well, thank you very much. He also sends along presents for his nephew and niece: An inscribed (“Never give up without a fight”) dagger for Zuko. And for Azula… a doll. She’s not pleased.
See, Iroh, this is why you shouldn’t ascribe to typical gender norms. You should’ve gotten her a Child’s First Torturer’s Kit, or at the very least a dagger like Zuko’s.
I was feeling a twinge of sympathy for Azula until she opened her mouth and asked her mom, “Heyyyy, if Iroh were to die, dad would be the next Fire Lord, right? He’d be much better at it.” Her mom’s response is a much nicer version of “Oh my God, what is wrong with you?!” Zuko agrees. And anyway, it’s not likely the succession will become an issue anytime soon, as Fire Lord Azulon (Zuko and Azula’s grandfather) is in absolutely perfect health.
Then we find out what went down at the siege of Ba Sing Se—after Iroh’s only son dies the fight goes out of him, and he returns to the city with his military mission unaccomplished. Azula tells a grieving Zuko that their uncle is a quitter and a loser. She must’ve gotten her charming temperament from Ozai, who immediately requests an audience with Azulon to ask whether he might be the next Fire Lord instead.
But first, humiliation for Zuko! Azula impresses Azulon with her knowledge of military history and her prodigious firebending skills, while Zuko just ends up making a fool of himself, which angers his father besides. Azula laps that shit up with a spoon, while Zuko’s mom tries to comfort her son, telling her that he keeps fighting even when things are hard, and that’s wonderful. Also, your sister’s a preteen little shit. Something’s fucked up there. So, y’know, you’re OK.
Azula and Zuko hide behind a curtain and listen to their father’s proposal, which is summarily rejected, because what the fuck, Ozai, you opportunistic little shit, your brother’s son just died. Azulon’s really pissed and appears to threaten Ozai with some sort of physical harm, though we don’t find out exactly what goes down as Zuko, who’d rather not see his dad be beat up, runs away. Azula has the opposite reaction.
Later Azula visits her brother and gleefully informs him that Azulon has demanded that Ozai kill Zuko so he knows the pain of losing a firstborn son. I don’t know what hurts me most here: The fact that Zuko clearly believes, on a deep emotional level, that Azula is telling the truth, even if he tries to convince himself otherwise by repeating to himself that “Azula always lies. Azula always lies.” The fact that despite Zuko’s protestations that “Dad would never do that to me!,” we know Ozai definitely would, and Zuko probably does too.
Or the fact that… was Azula lying? Because yeah, Azula lies, but Zuko’s family is kinda big on disproportionate punishment. And later that night Zuko’s mom wakes him up, tells him “Everything I’ve done, I’ve done to protect you,” and goes away, presumably for the last time. So… was Ozai really going to kill Zuko, and somehow Zuko’s mom made a deal and sacrificed herself instead? WHAT THE FUCK, AVATAR?! THIS IS A KID’S SHOW!
The next morning a nonchalant Azula, playing with Zuko’s new knife, informs Zuko no one knows where mom is, and oh by the way, grandfather died last night. Zuko’s clearly upset, and Azula jokes about their mom being missing. Damn, that’s cold. Also, did she kill the Fire Lord? On the one hand—she’s a kid. On the other, her playing with a knife while she tells Zuko the news is definitely suspicious. If she didn’t have something to do with it—lookout, maybe?—I think she at least knew Ozai was going to take care of it instead. It’s a very “like father, like daughter” situation—Ozai and Azula are both second children driven by ambition to extreme acts of violence. They both want to usurp their older siblings, though while Ozai acts fast after Iroh’s son dies, Azula plays the long game, using bullying to tear Zuko down and build herself up over a span of years.
Azulon’s dying wish, so we’re told, is that Ozai be the next Fire Lord instead of Iroh. Azula’s like “Aw, shit yeah.” Zuko is just concerned with life.
Back into the present day, for more Zuko trauma. Zuko bonds with Lee and becomes sort of a surrogate older brother, or at least as much as he can in 24 hours. Unlike Azula, Lee is not completely batshit insane. The soldiers from before, led by a man named Gao, ride up and helpfully Lee’s parents know their older son has been captured and will probably be dead soon because the Fire Nation is filled with complete and utter sadistic assholes, just so ya know! Zuko breaks up a fight with the power of his DEATH GLARE, and Gao goes away.
Lee asks Zuko to stay behind while Lee’s father goes to hopefully rescue his older son; Zuko refuses and gives Lee the “never give up” knife Iroh gave him. That turns out to be bad, as Lee later pulls the knife on Gao, who kidnaps him so he can force him to be a child soldier. Zuko, previously on the fence about being a MAN OF THE PEOPLE, DEFENDER OF THE WEAK, finally decides to be a got-dang hero and save his scrappy little youngster friend.
So he rides into town like Clint Eastwood and gets into a fight with Gao, who happens to be an earthbender. Zuko can’t firebend without revealing who he is, so he gets beat up pretty badly. Right about now in the flashback is when we see Zuko’s mom say the last thing she ever says to him: To never forget who he is, despite how things may seem to change.
And who is Zuko? He’s a firebender, dammit! And he’s going to use that power to protect people, not hurt them!
So he does—he defeats Gao and saves Lee, in the process revealing to the assembled crowd he’s the heir to the Fire Nation throne.
And then… oh, it hurts me!
The crowd, which was cheering him on moments before, rejects him. And not just because he’s a Fire Nation prince, but because—as one old man rubs in his face—he’s a banished Fire Nation prince whose own dad disowned him. So is it bad to be in good with the Fire Lord or to have the Fire Lord hate your guts? Make up your mind, people. Zuko just cannot win. Lee’s mom thinks he’s Satan incarnate, and Lee himself tells Zuko—who just rescued him and has been nothing but kind to him, if you’ll remember—he hates him.
So Zuko, who just decided to risk his life to save a little boy, rides out of town getting the stinkeye from absolutely everyone. It’s heartbreaking. Stay strong, Zuko!
No Zuko angst this episode, right? Right?!
But first: Team Avatar (or, as I’ve been told they’re called, the “Gaang”) drama! Turns out Toph’s not much of a people person—she’s hung up on the idea of “carrying her own weight,” a result of everyone in her life prior to this point treating her like she’s weak. It’s understandable, but the way it manifests—in her refusing to work with Aang, Katara, and Sokka—isn’t exactly helpful. There’s a ton of friction between Toph and Katara, who accuses Toph of being “selfish and unhelpful.” Meanwhile, Aang’s peacekeeping abilities aren’t up to the task of moderating a dispute between two teenage (or almost teenage, in Toph’s case) girls. And Sokka just wants to sleep.
Sleep turns out to be a bit of a problem, because Azula, May, and Ty Lee—or “Ozai’s Angels”—are following the Gaang in a tricked-out tank.
Toph uses her earthvision to sense the tank whenever it comes near, so the Gaang is able to stay a few steps ahead, but still, they just cannot lose this thing. Add sleep deprivation to the mix, and things between Katara and Toph get even more tense.
Ozai’s Angels track the Gaang to a top of a mountain (where Toph’s given a brief intro on “angry freak with a ponytail” Zuko), where they disembark from their supertank on GIANT LIZARD THINGS.
Toph’s all ready to fight, noting it’s three against three and completely discounting my baby Sokka and his boomerang, but eventually they have to run away again. The sun rises, and Sokka freaks out because he’s never gone 24 hours without sleep before. He and I have a deep spiritual connection.
Appa falls asleep and plummets out of the sky (I feel you, buddy), meaning running away is no longer an option. There’s a massive argument, with Katara blaming Toph for their lack of sleep and Toph laying responsibility on Appa, explaining that his shedding is the reason they’re so easy to follow. And Aang may be a sweet little cupcake, but right now he’s a stressed, sleep-deprived little cupcake, and you do not talk shit about Appa.
He goes off on Toph, saying they never had any problems when it was just the three of them, and how dare you disrespect Appa! So Toph is like
and leaves. Aang’s immediately shocked at how he behaved and admits Toph was right, Appa’s shedding is why Ozai’s Angels are able to find them so easily. Katara regrets being mean. And Sokka, who’s been very zen this entire episode, is basically just like “Yeah, you two were assholes.” Katara says they need to find Toph and apologize, but first they give Appa a bath and lay a fake trail.
Azula—who, as previously mentioned, is not fucking incompetent—realizes something’s up and sends Ty Lee and May in one direction, while she goes off on a different path. Ty Lee and May end up fighting Katara and Sokka, who get saved by an Appa tail whomp right in the nick of time. A short distance away it’s Azula vs Aang, the latter having plopped himself down in an Old West ghost town, determined to get it over with and just confront whatever mysterious badass has been following them since Omashu. Azula reveals her identity by way of making fun of Zuko. Aang is not amused. Zuko, you don’t know it yet, but Aang has already adopted you. It’s OK. You’ll get there.
Meanwhile, whom should Toph come across but Iroh, who’s been tracking Zuko, who in turn has been tracking Azula—it’s a parade of family dysfunction! A chat and a cup of tea helps Toph get over some of her own issues, because Iroh is magic like that. Toph in turn recommends that, instead of following his nephew around like a creepster, Iroh just tell the little whippersnapper that he (Iroh) needs him (Zuko) too.
Back in the Old West village, there’s only 4:30 left in the episode, which isn’t nearly enough time for Zuko to swoop into town, have a big character moment, save Aang, defeat Azula, reunite with Iroh, and skip off with the rest of the Gaang into the sunset braiding each other’s hair. Instead we get Aang, Azula, and Zuko in a three-way fight, each Fire Nation sibling determined to capture Aang themselves.
Dammit, Zuko! Give it up!
Azula traps Aang in a burning building, and Katara shows up to save his ass. Sokka’s there too, of course. Iroh pops in to save a passed-out Zuko. And then BAM, Toph is there too. Azula’s severely outnumbered—you just can’t defeat Iroh’s stomach attack:
Azula, surrounded, says she’ll surrender quietly. But remember that whole “Azula lies” thing? Yeah. She blasts Iroh before doing this funky lightning attack thing and disappearing. Zuko is not best pleased.
Katara offers to heal Iroh, but Zuko gets all ragey and yells at everyone to leave. They end the episode sleeping in a puppy pile while Zuko presumably stands watch over his absolutely-not-dead-or-dying-nuh-uh-absolutely-not uncle/substitute father.
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