Back when I was making the Banished Prince Funk vid, and reviewing all of the footage from Book one with Zuko in it, something really stood out to me that I hadn’t realized before. Zuko’s exile isn’t just unhappy because of his father’s rejection, and how much he wants his father’s love and to go home. His exile itself is pretty miserable independent of how it contrasts with what Zuko wants. Being at court with his father and sister was bound to be pretty humiliating for Zuko, never measuring up, constantly being put down, but you would think that as much as Zuko hates exile, it might have been a break from that. No, Book One tells us, it was not.
If Zhao is any indication, and I think he probably is, even fairly minor officers feel free to treat Zuko to ever more indignities, and carry on that same dynamic he grew up with in the Fire Nation palace. And the structure of Zuko’s exile doesn’t help. He isn’t stripped of his title, and he isn’t sent to some remote estate somewhere. He’s sent to hunt the Avatar which we all know is a cruel spiteful joke, and so do all of the moderately well connected officers and colonial officials. Zuko is a prince, and when he makes port, he’s probably expected to visit with the highest ranking Fire Nation official like he does with Zhao. Sure, Zhao is particularly odious, and some of the officials may even sympathize with Zuko, but all of them know that his father won’t stop them from treating Zuko any way they please, and a high percentage of them probably treat him with a great deal of more or less well mannered contempt. This means Zuko regularly gets his nose rubbed in the fact that no one respects him.
Zuko’s own crew doesn’t respect him, and he is woefully ill equipped to earn their respect. Even Iroh, who loves his nephew so much does not respect Zuko’s mission, and in Zuko’s eyes, probably doesn’t respect him. Throughout Book One and into Book Two, Zuko does everything he can to force other people to take him seriously, and clings desperately to any trace of dignity he can get his grubby little hands on. And yeah, he throws his weight around and has tantrums, and doesn’t respect anybody else, so when every tiny ounce of dignity he manages to gain is knocked away from him repeatedly, it’s hard not to laugh.
It’s also hard not to feel bad for him, and not at all hard to see why Iroh’s lessons about pride and humility don’t sink in. Iroh probably never faced anything like the kind of sustained attack on his self respect that Zuko is facing, at least not until he was an adult, and it’s a lot easier to be humble, and not cling to scraps of your pride when other people treat you like you matter. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Zuko doesn’t start really understanding Iroh’s lessons until he’s back at court being treated like a prince.