why zuko had to screw up at ba sing se
[ or: all hail cognitive-dissonance-lord zuko ]
When I watched Avatar for the first time, I did it totally out of order. The first episode I saw was Cave of Two Lovers, I watched the finale before Western Air Temple, and the first episode was one of the last I saw. I was mostly at the mercy of the whims of Nickelodeon’s Saturday morning marathons.
So I knew from almost the beginning that Zuko (spoiler alert) was going to grow his hair out and switch sides, and I knew it happened mid book 3. Watching Crossroads of Destiny, then, was a totally different experience. When Azula gave him the ultimatum, I knew which side he’d choose, and I was so frustrated and angry. I wanted Zuko to be good already, dammit. After all of the development and the “metamorphosis” he’d gone through only a few episodes ago, I was convinced that his mistake in CoD was in there purely for shock value (and for me, knowing how it ended, I didn’t even get to experience that) and to draw out the angst. I was bitter because I felt cheated out of a half season’s worth of Redeemed!Zuko hanging out with the gaang.
(It’s also worth mentioning that I was like 12.)
But now I know I was completely wrong. Whenever I try to think about what would have happened with the rest of the series if Zuko had sided with Aang instead of Azula, it just doesn’t work. Zuko needed to make that mistake in the crystal catacombs, and I can’t imagine his story without it.
Zuko developed a lot as a character through his travels in the Earth Kingdom up until his moment of truth under Ba Sing Se. He was rejected by his father, who sent Azula to imprison him and put out wanted posters that permitted anyone to kill him on site. He experienced true poverty and saw first-hand the horrible effects of the Fire Nation’s war. He’s been on his own. And, at last, he even gave up his search for the Avatar for a little while– not because realized it was wrong, but because realized it was hopeless.
But let’s think for a minute about what it would have meant for Zuko to side with the Avatar and fight Azula in Ba Sing Se. It would have made him a traitor. To side with Aang would be not only to acknowledge that the war was unjust and the fire nation the oppressor, but it would also be to actively fight against his own nation. And, implicitly, it would mean acknowledging the truth that his father did not and would never want him back. Zuko, at the end of Book 2, has had many experiences that point directly to these truths and in light of them, Zuko siding with the Avatar doesn’t seem that far-fetched. In fact, it was what a lot of people watching for the first time expected.
Here’s the catch: even though Zuko had had all of these experiences, he hadn’t yet processed them and fit them all together to form their logical conclusions. Sure, he knew the horrors the Fire Nation had committed in its war for prosperity, but he still wouldn’t have denounced his nation ; he knew that his father had declared him a traitor and sent Azula to lock him up, but he wouldn’t have admitted at that point that his father would never love or accept him and preferred him dead. Zuko pre-redemption is the king of cognitive dissonance. He has a lot at stake with the processing of all of these experiences—basically, his entire world-view. Somewhere in his mind, he knew that trying to reconcile what he saw in the Earth Kingdom with his current world-view could easily bring everything he knew and considered sacred crashing down around him. And there was one thing in particular that Zuko would protect at all costs; one truth that has been at the center of his world and forefront of his mind ever since his banishment — that he had a home to return to and there was a place for him within it, that if he just didn’t screw up for once everything would be okay again. This is the one thing Zuko clings to throughout his entire banishment, despite all the evidence and logic to the contrary, because if this one truth falls away what does he have left?