“Zuko Alone” (Book 2, Chapter 7; originally aired May 12, 2006)/“The Chase” (Book 2, Chapter 8; originally aired May 26, 2006)
Holy pig-cow, is “Zuko Alone” a fantastic episode. In fact, both of these episodes are fantastic—but “Zuko Alone” takes Avatar to another level. It references iconic movies like Yojimbo, The Samurai Trilogy, Kagemusha, A Fistful Of Dollars (which is, to be fair, a remake of Yojimbo), and High Plains Drifter, all while maintaining its own story and identity. The direction and editing are visually stunning throughout, and the writing is pitch-perfect. It is a masterful television episode, a tour de force that breaks all of the rules while still somehow exemplifying what the show is about. “The Chase” is also a delight, although not quite as perfect as “Zuko Alone.” In the second half of the episode, it makes a spaghetti western reference, too, although it draws more from The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. Together, they pack a one-two punch that leave me wishing we were stopping here instead of going forward for another week or two. The mid-season break is after episode 11, but this would be a great place to leave Avatar for a little while. Ah well, best laid plans and so on.
When we last saw Zuko, he was leaving Uncle Iroh to set off on his own and find himself. This quest for self-knowledge hits a big push this week as Zuko, starving and broke, stumbles into a beat-up little town that looks quite similar to the town in Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, the samurai film based on Dashiell Hammett’s novels Red Harvest and The Glass Key and shot with a heavy nod to director John Ford’s westerns. In Yojimbo, a nameless ronin wanders into a town devastated by two warring families and pits them against each other. “Zuko Alone” keeps the feel and look of Yojimbo, but it has its own story to tell.
Sergio Leone is another major touchstone for this episode. It opens with a wide shot of a tiny lone rider in the hot sun, but immediately cuts to an extreme close-up of Zuko’s face. Zuko’s cheekbones are quite prominent, suggesting that he is literally starving. He smells food and reaches for his sword, thinking of stealing it, but his hand is stayed by the sight of the pregnant woman waiting for the food to cook.
At the Village of the Week (which we first see from a high perch, with a nod to High Plains Drifter), he discovers that he doesn’t have enough money to buy a hot meal, although he can afford feed for his chicken-horse-thingy. However, even this feed is stolen by a small gang of thuggish Earth Nation soldiers who are, as it turns out, running the town like small-time mobsters. As a way of saying thanks for not turning him in to the soldiers, a kid named Lee invites Zuko back to his cow-pig and pig-chicken farm. (Mmm, bacon-flavored chicken.) Zuko hesitates when asked his name, and it’s a testament to the life of people at war that Lee’s father not only allows Zuko to remain nameless to them, but actively discourages any questions about Zuko’s past. While Zuko works ineptly on their barn, his mind turns to his childhood at the Fire Nation palace.
We learn in rapid succession that his mother was very protective of him, that Azula was always a competitive monster, and that Iroh sent Zuko the knife with the inscription that he used to cut off his topknot some episodes back. Iroh took that knife from an Earth Nation officer during the seige of Ba Sing Se, and the inscription reads, “Never give up without a fight.” That does sound like a fitting gift for Zuko.
The episodes continues to cut between Zuko’s experiences in the town and his memories of his childhood. He gives Lee a lesson in using the dual swords. Lee’s family learns from the thugs that Lee’s older brother, who is off fighting in the war, has been captured. The thugs laugh about it, because they are thugs and we cannot forget that. After flashing back to the news that his cousin Lu Ten, Iroh’s son, was killed in the war, Zuko gives Lee his knife.
We move on to the most important revelation of this show. Zuko remembers an argument with Azula, where she is mocking Iroh as a loser and quitter for his giving up on the seige of Ba Sing Se after his son died. Their mother interrupts them because they have an audience with Fire Lord Azulon, their grandfather. Azula mocks her grandfather, too, saying that he will soon be replaced. Their mother is appalled by Azula’s callousness. In the Fire Lord’s Great Hall, Azula correctly answers a history question that Zuko cannot, and then demonstrates her prodigious firebending forms. When she whispers to Zuko that he’ll never catch up, Zuko stands up to demonstrate but falls while trying. His mother comforts him, saying he’s someone who keeps fighting even though it’s hard. Azulon is less impressed, calling Zuko’s failure a waste of time, and sends everyone but Ozai out.
Azula and Zuko sneak behind some curtains to listen, and overhear their father engaged in some serious Jacob and Esau-style betrayal of Iroh. Azulon is appalled, and threatens punishment for Ozai, which terrifies Zuko. He runs off while Azula smiles that creepy little mastermind smile of hers. She finds Zuko in his room later, and singsongs to him that their dad’s going to kill him. Then she leans in and says, “Really.” This is the punishment that Azulon has ordered of Ozai. Their mother catches this, and Azula plays innocent, but their mother pulls her out of the room for a talk. “Azula always lies,” Zuko tells himself, both in the past and the present. It is important for him to remind himself of this, although it is not exactly true.
Lee’s mother finds him and says that Lee pulled Zuko’s knife on the thug-soldiers. They’ve taken Lee, intending to press him into military service. Lee is tied to the tower at the center of town when Zuko rides in, the sun behind him. Zuko makes a little speech, telling the thugs who they really are. They attack, but Zuko makes short work of them without even drawing his sword. The chief thug is more of a challenge, as an earthbender with giant hammers as weapons. Zuko can block two out of every three boulders the guy throws at him, but that’s not enough. He is knocked down, where he remembers his mother waking him in the middle of the night to tell him that everything she’s done, she’s done to protect him. “No matter how things seem to change, never forget who you are,” she says. And then she’s gone. That’s some heavy stuff to lay on little boy.
Zuko jumps up and firebends the crap out of the chief thug. There’s a bit of a false moment when the thug asks Zuko who he is, but Zuko’s proud and defiant response justifies it. “My name is Zuko, son of Ursa and Fire Lord Ozai, Prince of the Fire Nation, and heir to the throne!,” he shouts. That is the first time we’ve heard him mention his mother and state that he believes the throne should be his. The citizens of the town, accustomed as they are to hating the people of the Fire Nation, are stunned. Someone calls him a liar, knowing a surprising amount about Zuko’s backstory himself. Zuko tries to return his knife to Lee (in a thematic move, Lee’s mother tries to protect the boy from Zuko), but Lee refuses, telling Zuko that he hates him.
In his memory, Zuko is looking for his mother, but Azula, who is playing with Zuko’s knife, says that she has disappeared and, what’s more, their grandfather is dead. She refuses to give Zuko the knife, taunting him, “Who’s going to make me? Mom?” Zuko runs to where his father is staring at the turtle-duck pond. “Where is she?,” he demands. Ozai has no answer. At Azulon’s funeral, the priest announces that according to Azulon’s dying wish, he will be succeeded by second son. Hail Fire Lord Ozai! Azula does her creepy smile thing again, as in the present, Zuko rides out of town to the hateful stares of the town’s people, out into the sun, alone.
Clearly, there is a lot to unpack here. The story in the present shows Zuko choosing, for the first time since we’ve met him, to do the right thing for the right reasons, although he still faces hatred and opposition even for his selfless actions. He also proclaims himself to be the heir to the Fire Nation throne, giving him a new reason to fight. His memories, though, show how his mother shaped him into the person he is, while Azula took after her megalomaniacal father. Ozai is shown to be a scheming bastard, but his final scene is hard to read. Is he regretful about his wife? Does he regret murdering his own father, as it is implied? Who knows? Ozai is a mystery. An evil mystery. Zuko longs to live up to his father, but as we’ve known all along, his father is not worthy of Zuko’s admiration. His mother, however, appears to be. We’ve longed for Zuko to redeem himself, and here is a path for him to do so, built right into his DNA.
Consider also how poorly some of the Villages of the Week are in comparison to this one. Most have had some defining quality that the people all share: a fortuneteller, a hatred of a sister tribe, a reverence for Kyoshi, a hatred of the Avatar. This village is just a poor, oppressed place. It’s hard to talk about the realism in the magic world of the Avatar, but what “Zuko Alone” exhibits is just this: realism. Zuko has always been one of the most realistic and compelling characters in Avatar, and this episode gives him meaningful backstory and a meaningful arc. It may have little to do with the main action of the show, but it has everything to do with the emotional growth of Zuko.
“The Chase” starts out quite reminiscent of Battlestar Galactica’s “33” as the Teen Girl Squad Tank (thanks for the suggestion, folks!) show up every time the Aang Gang tries to grab a few winks. After a night without sleep, the Gang and Appa are exhausted. Not helping matters is Toph’s stubborn independence from the Gang’s camping to-do roster, which is getting on Katara’s last—and bossiest—nerve. We know from the beginning of the episode that Appa is shedding as Aang explains about spring while birds and butterflies hover around his head.
With the Aang Gang back in the A-plot, this is a much wackier episode than “Zuko Alone.” The fight between Katara and Toph is funny, as is Sokka freaking about not sleeping. The plot is serious, though. The Gang doesn’t know who Ozai’s Angels are or why they are chasing them. The lack of sleep is driving rifts between the classic Gang and their newest member, Toph. When Toph rightly points out that Azula can follow them because Appa is leaving a trail of shed fur, Aang explodes at her, giving her cause to leave the group. As it turns out, leaving the group wasn’t too bad of a move as Toph runs into the wisest man in Avatar land, Uncle Iroh. After they get to know each other, he lets her know that there is no shame in taking help from others. He draws a comparison between Toph’s independence and Zuko’s. As she knows neither Zuko nor Iroh, Toph isn’t as upset as you might think. Uncle Iroh scenes are the best.
Finally taking Toph’s advice a little too late, the Gang washes Appa, and Aang takes a pouch of fur to lead the Teen Girl Squad astray. He flies to a deserted desert town which appears to be nowhere near the deep forest where most of the action takes place. But whatever. After trailing Appa’s fur to the middle of the town, Aang makes to leave, but changes his mind. Instead he sits down to wait.
As we see, Aang’s ruse doesn’t fool Azula for a second. She sends Ty Lee and Mai after Appa while she goes after Aang herself. Appa is exhausted and about to crash-land. Sokka believes that crash-landing on the other side of a river will stop Ty Lee and Mai, but, awesomely, their lizards are water walkers. Katara and Sokka are no match for Ty Lee and Mai, with Ty Lee, hilariously, taking out three of Sokka’s limbs. They are saved by Appa, who smacks the girls into the river with his tail. When they surface, Ty Lee tells Mai that she think Sokka is cute. Man, that guy gets all the girls.
Azula rides into the abandoned town. Aang demands to know who she is, and Azula does a funny impression of Zuko. Aang is nonplussed. “It’s okay, you can laugh,” says Azula, “It’s funny!” Anyway, they make to fight, but Zuko shows up right then. Oh, if only they were in a graveyard to bring home the reference to The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. The three engage in a classic Mexican standoff. We cut to a close-up of their eyes, Zuko and Azula shifting and suspicious while Aang just looks sleepy. There’s a great scene of Aang dancing around between the red and blue fire blast from Zuko and Azula. In the battle Aang runs into the second story door of a building with no floor. In a rather revealing moment, Azula maintains her composure and finds footing, but Zuko rushes right in and crashes to the floor below. In the final moments, Katara and Sokka arrive, followed soon after by Iroh and Toph. Iroh, in a funny move, uses his belly to knock Azula down. All six, with Iroh and Zuko allied with the Gang for the time being, advance on Azula. She stops them by saying that she knows when she is beat, but then sneak-attacks Iroh, of all people, and vanishes in the confusion. Zuko, distraught, refuses Katara’s help. It’s possible that he doesn’t know she has healing powers. I can’t remember. The episode ends with the Aang Gang fast asleep at last.
Although “The Chase” is quite a strong episode, it is not quite as tightly wound as “Zuko Alone.” The early story about the Aang Gang’s interrupted sleep drops away for more Spaghetti Western tropes that seems held over from “Zuko Alone.” This is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, few Spaghetti Western references in any context are unwelcome. It’s just a little less coherent than “Zuko Alone,” which is, admittedly, a high bar to meet and a tough act to follow. The individual moments of “The Chase,” though, are just great. I especially love Toph and Iroh’s exchange, a little warm moment between my two favorite characters where they each give the other some excellent advice. That the Avatar staff can stop the action to include a scene like this one is a testament to this show’s excellence. These two episodes may be the high point of the show for me, but they are also evidence for the continued wonder and pleasures of this show.
- Cow-pig. Chicken-pig. Turtle-duck.
- Zuko: “Read the inscription.” Lee: “‘Made in Earth Kingdom.’” Zuko: “The other one!”
- Toph: “Excuse me, does anyone have a razor? Because I’ve got some hairy pits!”
- Toph: “It feels like an avalanche, but also not an avalanche.” Sokka: “Your powers of perception are frightening.”
- Toph: “Look here, Sugar Queen, I gave up everything I had so that I can teach Aang earthbending, so don’t you talk to me about being selfish!”
- Katara: “What’s wrong with ponytails, Ponytail?” Sokka: “This is a warrior’s wolf tail!” Katara “Well, it certainly tells the other warriors that you’re fun and perky!”
- Toph: “We can take them! Three on three!” Sokka: “Actually, Toph, there’s four of us.” Toph: “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t count you, y’know, no bending and all.” Sokka: “I can still fight!” Toph: “Okay, three on three plus Sokka!”
- Mai: “Victory is boring.”
- Iroh: “Sharing tea with a fascinating stranger is one of life’s true delights.”