#72: Zuko vs. The Earth Kingdom Army (AtLA 207, "Zuko Alone")
“If we know anything, it’s that Zuko never gives up.”
—Sokka, “The Siege of the North, Part 2”
The war-ravaged, lawless condition of the rural Earth Kingdom makes early AtLA Book 2 ground zero for western movie tropes, which happen to be some of my favorites. This episode, it’s “a stranger comes to town”—Zuko, through whose eyes we see both the oppressed Earth Kingdom village and the memories of his past it reawakens. (I use the term “Earth Kingdom Army” loosely, of course… because, as Gansu says, Gow and his men are only a bunch of thugs who “should be ashamed to wear [Earth] Kingdom uniforms.” Which makes it perfectly okay for them to get beaten up by our deuteragonist Fire Nation prince.)
“I don’t need luck. I don’t want it. I’ve always had to struggle and fight, and that’s made me strong. It’s made me who I am.”
The setup for Zuko’s present-day troubles is carefully rooted in his past. Once the flashback has shown us the significance of the Earth Kingdom knife Zuko carries, we watch him hand it on to Lee with thoughtless generosity (and with another of my favorite bits of dialogue ever: “I want you to have this. Read the inscription.” “‘Made in the Earth Kingdom.’” “…The other one.” “‘Never give up without a fight’”).
The kid, of course, promptly uses the weapon to get himself in trouble with some local paramilitary bullies.
“That’s who you are, Zuko—someone who keeps fighting, even though it’s hard… Never forget who you are.”
Finally, we see how the Zuko’s sense of responsibility, and his burning desire to strike back against the fate whose favor he claims not to want, leads to one of his most awesome displays of pure nonbending fighting skill, in a duel that pits Gow’s earthbending mallets against the dual swords Zuko used as the Blue Spirit.
“It doesn’t matter who I am, but I know who you are… You’re sick cowards messing with a family who’s already lost one son to the war.”
Azula’s utter lack of empathy for Uncle Iroh’s loss of his son, her sick pleasure in messing with people’s minds, her pathological lying… all reappear, without her compensating intelligence, in Gow and his men, chipping away at Zuko’s determination to remain anonymous. In a universe seemingly determined to beat him down, the only resource he has is his sense of being “someone who keeps fighting.”
That, and his incredible combat firebending ability.
“My name is Zuko. Son of Ursa and Fire Lord Ozai. Prince of the Fire Nation, and heir to the throne!”
Zuko may not be completely aware of his destiny yet, but he’s tired of hiding the things he does know, the things that make him proudest—his parentage, and his determination to rule the Fire Nation one day. It’s terribly important that Zuko is not, and never will be, the sort of hero who deserves power because he doesn’t want it. He most certainly does want it—even more so because it looks like Azula will be his replacement as future Fire Lord.
I admit that this wasn’t my favorite episode the first time I saw it, as it took me a long time to warm up to a character even Iroh admits is an “angry jerk” (in Sokka’s words). But this episode does give us viewers a hint of the heroism Zuko will be capable of once he throws off the worst aspects of his past, and that alone makes it worth a write-up.
[Screenshots from screencapped.net.]