From the very first episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender, Zuko was a character that intrigued us. A noticeably large scar marred his features, and his drive to find the Avatar was all-consuming. He was a villain that we as viewers could enjoy. But as the next episodes rolled out, we found that perhaps Zuko was not as villainous as he appeared to be. With the help of his Uncle Iroh, Zuko was on a wavering path that could lead either to heroism or infamy.
We cheered at every moment that he appeared even slightly good. He had a temper, but his flaws made his better attributes shine through. His troubled past made him an empathetic character. We couldn't relate as much to Aang; for the most part, none of us were raised by monks. But we could all understand what it feels like to have a father who is disappointed by you or a sibling who is better than you. Granted, we never experienced the extremes in each of those scenarios like Zuko did, but we could more or less grasp at the current of feeling that sparked Zuko into action every time he was on our TV screen.
Like it or lump it, Zuko is a character with a troubled past. We would go so far as to say that this is what makes him so captivating as a character. He's an unwilling hero who makes plenty of mistakes along the way. As such, his story is riddled with disturbing elements. In this list, we pick out some of the darker aspects of Zuko's history. Whether this makes him a more interesting character or not, is entirely up to you.
20 Death By Lightning
Zuko is not the most cautious of persons. His temper is partially to blame for that, but underneath his rage is a sadness that runs deeper and stems from his troubled past. This might sound like we're stating the obvious, but on at least several occasions, Zuko's disregard for his own life has called into question how much he values remaining among the living.
When he first separated himself from his Uncle Iroh, he placed himself in a very uncertain situation. Food wasn't easy to come by, and that placed Zuko on the edge of starvation. During the Harmony Restoration Movement while he reigned as Fire Lord, Zuko overworked himself to the point where he collapsed and did not wake up for four days. And we all remember when Zuko was barely learning to redirect lightning and he rushed to a storm-clustered mountaintop to encourage lightning to strike him. Zuko has a streak of self-harming behavior that he carries with him, even when he became Fire Lord. Luckily for us fans, we never get to see him fulfill that hidden wish.
19 Hidden Half-Sister
Zuko's mother, Ursa, married his father, Ozai, unwillingly. Back in her home village, she was in love with a man named Ikem, and they were the happiest of couples together. But when Fire Lord Azulon and his son, Ozai, came calling for her hand, Ursa had little to no choice but to accept and marry Prince Ozai. So eventually, when Ursa was banished, she took that opportunity to rekindle the romance she once shared with Ikem. After that, it was only a matter of time before little Kiyi came along.
When Zuko goes on a quest to find his mother, he discovers her, and her new life, and finds little Kiyi as well. He reacts so admirably in finding out that she is his half-sister. Even prior to finding out Kiyi was related to him, he treated her well. Still, it can't be easy finding out that while you have been agonizing over the fate of your missing mother, she has created a whole new family, complete with a well-adjusted replacement child.
18 Zuko... I'm Not Your Father
After marrying Ozai unwillingly, Ursa attempted to continue a correspondence with the family she had left behind. However, none of her letters made it to them because her servant secretly worked for her new husband. When she became suspicious of this, Ursa wrote a letter to Ikem, her former lover, claiming that Zuko was his son. When Ozai angrily confronted Ursa with this knowledge, Ursa had the evidence she needed to prove her servant was under Ozai's orders.
Of course, this letter reaches Zuko's hands while he's searching for his mother, and it gives him the completely wrong idea about his legitimacy. He actually appears relieved at the idea that he might not be responsible for taking on the mantle of Fire Lord. When he does find his mother and she explains things to him, his hopes are shattered, but that's the way we prefer it. As much as he might try to deny it, we all know that Zuko was meant to be Fire Lord.
17 That Uncontrollable Anger
From the very first episode, we are introduced to a villain that thrives on rage. As the series progresses, it becomes clear that rage is a flaw that our anti-hero must deal with constantly. He explodes at his Uncle Iroh willy nilly. He fumes at the smallest mishaps that occur along his way. While this is used in a comedic manner occasionally, Zuko's fury is a deep-rooted problem that often gets in the way of him achieving his goals, whether that's to capture the Avatar or to become a good person.
Zuko's temper was forged through the most tumultuous childhood a kid's TV show can offer. One of his parents was a steely-eyed dictator who physically abused his child with fire, while his other, loving parent disappears and is never seen for the rest of his growing years. Plus, he has a psychopath for a sister. Zuko's wrathful attitude is the culmination of a dysfunctional family life, and he can't be blamed for that. His struggle to master it is a noble pursuit, and another reason why we love him.
16 Look At Them Parenting Skills
One of the darker stories from Zuko's past is the story of how he got his scar (cue Joker impersonation). While attending a war meeting at a young age, Zuko spoke out against a general's plan that would involve the sacrifice of a whole division of fresh soldiers. His father, presiding over the meeting as Fire Lord, demanded that Zuko participate in an Agni Kai, a duel of honor. Zuko agreed, but to his dismay, found that instead of fighting the general, he would be fighting his father.
As any normal kid would do, Zuko cried and begged for his father's forgiveness. But Fire Lord Ozai was having none of that. He looked into his son's tear-filled eyes, aimed a fist full of fire at him, and scorched half of his son's face. Decency prevents us from calling him any words less milder than "jerk."
15 Where In The World Is Ursa?
It's always the ones left behind who suffer the most. After his mother left the palace and her children on a dark night (for reasons we'll detail later on out list), Zuko was left with huge abandonment issues. This could partially explain why for the majority of the first season, Zuko rarely acknowledges his close relationship with his uncle. Iroh was there for him after his mother left and after Zuko himself was banished. But for the first season, Zuko remains stubbornly antagonistic towards him.
This distancing, seen through his mother's departure, is a defense mechanism that Zuko puts up. His mother was his only real close relation that he had while he was at the palace. His relationship with his sister, Azula, was strained because she was a blossoming psychopath. After losing his mother for unexplained reasons, Zuko loses his ability to trust that a person he is close to will stay by his side. Lucky for us and for him that he gets over this.
14 Criminal Associates
The dark path that Zuko's narrow-minded goal of capturing the Avatar led him down is actually darker than most would suspect. While searching for the Avatar, Zuko comes across some pirates that are infuriated with Aang and the gang after they stole a waterbending scroll from them. The scroll, however, had been stolen by the pirates from the Northern Water Tribe. Regardless, Zuko teams up with them to find and capture the Avatar.
Conspiring with thieves doesn't sound like a hefty accusation, but how about conspiring with murderers? While not explicitly stated in the show, when we're next introduced to this group of pirates, it is revealed that they accepted a large amount of coin to kill Prince Zuko from the reprehensible Admiral Zhao. Clearly this is a pursuit that the pirates have partaken in before. Zuko's drive to find the Avatar led him to ally himself with less than savory characters.
13 Your Firstborn Child
The beleaguered Prince Zuko also has to contend with the knowledge that his grandfather, Fire Lord Azulon, ordered his death as a punishment for Ozai. We doubt Ozai considered this a great punishment. Azulon's firstborn son, Iroh, had recently lost his only child, which left the heir to the throne childless. Seizing this opportunity, Ozai, the secondborn son of Azulon, argued to his father that he should receive the throne instead of Iroh because he had children to carry on his lineage.
This angered Azulon greatly, and as a punishment, he ordered Ozai to kill his firstborn, namely Zuko. Azula overheard all of this, and being the sadistic little brat that she was, she immediately tells Zuko that their dad wants to kill him. Zuko shuts her down at first, stating that she's lying, but you can see on his cartoon face that he believed her. What kind of childhood is that, where if you hear that your father wants to end you, it's believable?
12 Two Years Is A Long Time
Two years doesn't seem like that long of a time, especially when those two years transpired before we ever got a look at them. But looking at it from Zuko's perspective, two years saw the passing of 730 days. That's how long Zuko spent scouring the globe in search of the Avatar without finding even a clue of his whereabouts. He found him in the end, so you might say those two years don't matter, but those two years whittled Zuko's good nature to a splinter.
Immediately after receiving his infamous scar from his father, Zuko took off on his banishment, accompanied by his Uncle Iroh. His only hope of ever returning was if he found the Avatar. But he had been sent on what most considered a fool's errand. And for two whole years, Zuko had no guarantee that he would ever reclaim his honor.
11 A Parricidal Mother
The whole reason that Ursa disappeared was because she crafted the poison used to murder the Fire Lord. Rewinding for a second, remember how Fire Lord Azulon wanted to punish Ozai for his impudence by having him kill Zuko? Well, while the cruel, eavesdropping Azula tortured Zuko with her retelling of this, Ursa walked in. Zuko immediately told his mom what Azula was saying to him. Ursa sent Azula to bed, then went to confront Ozai. Ozai confirmed everything that Azula said was true.
Desperate to save Zuko's life, Ursa told Ozai that she would make an odorless, colorless poison to kill Azulon so that Ozai could take the throne for himself. Ozai agreed, but stipulated that after making the poison, Ursa would have to leave the palace forever without taking either of the children with her. Because she was a loving mother who cared that her son lived, Ursa agreed. Zuko found all this out after the fact.
10 This Is No Retirement Home
Ember Island appeared multiple times throughout the show. It's where Zuko's family vacationed when things were going marginally well. It's where Zuko, Azula, Ty Lee, and Mai went for a brief respite from Fire Nation duties. It's where Aang and his gang saw those cringe-worthy Ember Island players. It's also where those creepy twin women, Lo and Li, have a home as well.
While the episodes that take place there are not necessarily disturbing, the location has an eerie-ness to it, no doubt because of the terrifying Lo and Li. In all seriousness, Ember Island simultaneously feels superficial yet cavernous with mystery. And out of all the places that Zuko could choose to reside at after he retired as Fire Lord, Ember Island is the place he chose. The memories of momentary happiness there caused him so much rage when he was a teenager, but apparently, Zuko wants to spend his autumn years surrounded by false reminders of enjoyment.
9 The Metamorphosis Didn't Take
Zuko battled with upbringing in an effort to be a good person. His fight came to a head at the city of Ba Sing Se while he was there as a fugitive with his Uncle Iroh. The two of them had set up a cute life for themselves, working at a tea shop together. But when Zuko learned that the Avatar was in the city, it nearly ruined the normalcy his uncle had been trying so hard to give him. An opportunity to catch the Avatar using his beloved sky bison, Appa, was presented to Zuko, but he did not take it. We all gave Zuko a big round of applause as he made the difficult right decision.
And then he had to throw it all away. No, we're not too bitter about this. Zuko siding with Azula against the Avatar gave us a better third season in the end. However, what is interesting to note is that after Zuko went through his metamorphosis, turning from darkness to light, after freeing Appa, all his work was undone by the temptation to return to his "family" presented by Azula. We all knew when we watched that Azula and Ozai were not Zuko's family. Uncle Iroh for the win!
8 A Sister No Brother Could Love
As stated at least twice so far during this list, we consider Azula to be a bit of a sadistic psychopath. She takes pleasure in manipulating others to suit her whims, and she doesn't have an empathetic bone in her body. Her personality has been this way even when she was a little girl. Zuko, even though he was the elder child, was left to her tender mercies.
One of Azula's pastimes was burning flowers to a crisp. When Zuko caught her in the act, he told on her to their mother. Ursa reprimanded her daughter because the flowers were part of the royal garden. Azula's defense? The flower "deserved" it. Ursa accepted no excuse and scolded her daughter. In retaliation, Azula sent fire blazing out of her fingertips to burn poor Zuko's butt. Zuko probably endured many instances of fiery torture at the hands of his sister.
7 Fatherly Advice
Avatar: The Last Airbender ended Ozai's story by having him locked in prison without his bending and crownless. This was a satisfying end for most of us, though of course when the last we saw of him was when Zuko demanded to know what happened to his mother, we all wished we had been able to see the rest of the conversation play out. However, after Zuko was made Fire Lord, he made numerous visits to his father to ask him for advice.
Zuko, troubled with the burden that being Fire Lord bestowed on him, queried the previous Fire Lord on how to rule so that he could sleep better at night. Zuko is asking this of Ozai. We understand that Zuko was under a lot of stress and therefore looking for guidance, but he couldn't have picked a worse person to provide said guidance. Ozai made cryptic statements that just messed with Zuko's head.
6 The Great Granddaddies
Roku and Sozin's story was delved into throughly in the episode called "The Avatar and the Fire Lord." In this episode, you learn that Avatar Roku and Fire Lord Sozin were close friends before they got into a disagreement that put them at odds. After this fight, they grew apart. They spent time with their respective families, ignoring each other for years, until one night, when Roku's home was threatened by a volcano. Sozin shows up to help despite the past years' enmity. But at a critical moment, Sozin allows Roku to die so he can continue with his plan for world domination.
Zuko learns of this history from on old scroll that Sozin had written. He later asks of Iroh why he wanted Zuko to learn of his great-grandfather Sozin. Iroh then reveals the twist. Roku is also Zuko's great-grandfather on his mother's side. This history is one of the final pieces that shifts Zuko toward an alliance with the Avatar.
5 Bad Teacher
When Zuko and Azula were young, they both shared a firebending master to teach them the basics. Azula was not pleased with the progression of her training, or at the very least not pleased with the rate of progression. So what does she do? She sets her teacher's pants on fire. This is neither safe or helpful in a student-teacher relationship. And then she boasts about this to her father, who agrees with her. If you need any more dark tidbits about Zuko's character, this is yet another example of how messed up his sister and father are.
Zuko defends the firebending teacher, explaining that knowing the basics will help them be better firebenders. This is an awe-inspiring moment, because young Zuko is saying exactly what his Uncle Iroh will tell him when he's an impatient teenager. His father ridicules Zuko and dismisses his words, and it goes to show what a negative impact Ozai and Azula have on Zuko.
4 Once A Thief, Always A Thief?
Here we go. So not only has Zuko consorted with known thieves, he also became a thief. Remember when Iroh hilariously consumed a plant that bloated his face and left a rash across his body? Zuko rushed him to an herbalist named Song, who treated Iroh and treated them to a meal. She inquired kindly about Zuko's scar and shared the history of her own. And what does Zuko do?
Zuko steals her ostrich horse. Song and her family were not well-off by any means. They resided in a small Earth Kingdom town, and that ostrich horse was probably their most expensive piece of property. Since Zuko and Iroh are our partial protagonists (also known as well-beloved supporting characters), we don't begrudge them this grand theft ostrich horse. Though it should go on their permanent record.
3 A Pact With The Avatar
By the end of the series, it's established that Aang and Zuko have become fast friends. It took them a long time with plenty of bumps on the road, but we all knew it was going to happen. It had to happen. Even Aang and Zuko admitted while they were still enemies that if history had played out differently, they would have been friends. For more on the series in general, check out this amazing list.
After the battle with Ozai, Aang is placed in an awful situation when Zuko comes to him with a shocking plea. One of Zuko's biggest fears is that he will become like his father. As Fire Lord, Ozai was a tyrant. When the throne falls to Zuko, he becomes worried that he will end up being just as much of a despot as his father was. He calls upon Aang for "help." He asks Aang, as a friend and in his role as the Avatar, to kill him if Aang believes that Zuko is on a dark path like Ozai. This does not end up happening, luckily.
2 The Drowning Game
The haunting Ember Island is back on the list. During one of Zuko's early vacations there with his family, he nearly drowned. Clearly, his retiring to Ember Island in his old age makes even less sense now. Nothing like a near-death experience to fill you with nostalgia and longing.
Zuko and his family were spending a day on the beach. A young Zuko saw an eagle hawk bearing down upon a baby turtle crab. Three-year-old Zuko snatched the turtle crab away before the eagle hawk could get it. Even at such a young age, Zuko was trying to follow a good road. But then he started wondering about the poor eagle hawk and where it would find its next meal. This dilemma of empathy so consumed toddler Zuko that he didn't notice a giant wave rolling closer and closer. His father saved him, and Zuko spent the rest of the day with his mother.
1 Ozai Belongs In Sparta
In Sparta, there was a practice of inspecting infants to see if they would be suitable for civic duty. Children were raised to be soldier, and if they weren't deemed acceptable, they were sold into slavery or even killed. It is tragic that a similar event almost occurred to Zuko as a baby, but with Fire Lord Ozai as a father, it's almost to be expected.
When Zuko didn't appear to have any firebending abilities as an infant, Ozai was so ashamed and disgusted at the thought of having a nonbender as a son that he wanted Zuko put to death. Only Ursa's pleading and some Fire Sages convincing persuaded Ozai to relent. Later on when Zuko was older, Ozai outright admitted this to Zuko's face.
Zuko has a dark history, but that doesn't change the fact that he was one of the highlights of tuning in to watch Avatar: The Last Airbender. His father may not have wanted him, but fans across the globe adored his character and watched his growth into the hero we all knew him to be.