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Avatar: the Last Airbender and What We Talk About When We Talk About Redemption

(This article will contain spoilers for the original “Avatar: The Last Airbender” show, as well as for “Princess Mononoke,” “She-Ra,” “Lord of the Rings,” “Babylon 5,” “Star Wars: Rebels,” “Treasure Planet,” “Teen Titans,” and the three “Star Wars” trilogies.)

Redemption arcs, where a character goes from being an antagonist to an ally, a selfish villain to a caring hero, or a “bad” person to a “good” person, are a frequent movie theme. For this article, I’ll focus mostly on antagonists who switch sides, though protagonists on a redemption quest are another common manifestation of this trope. Redemption arcs have been featured in classics such as “Pride and Prejudice,” science fiction like “Star Wars” and comedies like “The Princess Bride.” Viewers often debate the effectiveness of various redemption arcs, and the arguments can get fierce. How effective a redemption arc is, and whether a given character “deserves” redemption are topics of much debate. However, one thing that most people in these conversations who have seen the original “Avatar: The Last Airbender” animated TV series agree on is that the gold standard for redemption arcs is Prince Zuko. In fact, I’ve rarely come across a discussion of redemption arcs that doesn’t mention Zuko. His redemption arc is one aspect that made the show so enduring to the point that Netflix just released an eight-part live action adaptation of the first season to much anticipation. We don’t know yet whether the new version of Zuko’s arc will live up to the mastery of the original. But either way, with the arrival of a new live action adaptation, now is a fitting time to reflect back on the original version of Zuko’s arc and what we talk about when we talk about redemption.

Many shows in recent years have been preoccupied with the concept of redemption, sometimes in a very concrete religious sense. “Hazbin Hotel” centers Princess Charlie Morningstar of Hell working to redeem sinners, proclaiming “Any soul can change … everyone can be redeemed, from the evil to the strange” and “Just because someone is dead it doesn’t mean they can’t resolve to change their ways.” “Lucifer”—staring about the least likely literary character for redemption, the literal devil—tackled similar ideas in its final season, and “The Good Place” explored this concept in a more abstract, philosophical way based upon Christian ideas of Heaven and Hell. The popular imagination is fascinated by the concept of redemption.

But there are many different ways a redemption arc can look, and many different things people mean when they talk about redemption. Different versions of redemption appeal to different audiences. Some of the vitriol in arguments about redemption arcs can stem from the fact that the people talking about redemption are not always talking about the same thing, and often don’t realize it. One reason Zuko’s arc is so good is that it has elements of many different types of redemption.

Redemption as Forgiveness

Some people hear “redemption” and immediately think about forgiveness. An antagonist can be forgiven by the protagonists, the narrative, and/or the audience.

Many are quick to remind that survivors have no obligation to forgive those who hurt them, even if those people change. As Martha Minow writes in her book When Should Law Forgive, “The choice not to forgive can also be empowering … Forgiveness is and must remain the exclusive prerogative of the individual; forcing or even pressuring a victim to forgive causes them to experience a new harm, loss of autonomy, and subordination arising from prior harm. Privately or publicly pressuring a victim to forgive can be a new victimization, denying the victim her own choice.” By that principle, a character who undergoes a redemption arc might be forgiven by other characters, the narrative, or even the audience, but not by their direct victims.

In “Princess Mononoke,” the narrative framing and the protagonist Prince Ashitaka see the nuance and positive traits of the industrialized human town, its leader Lady Eboshi, and the monk Jigo, who are all damaging the forest. When the forest spirit’s stolen head is returned, the spirit spares those who harmed it, which is a kind of forgiveness. Some viewers might see that as a type of redemption for the movie’s antagonists, and could debate whether they’ve done enough to “earn” that forgiveness. But San, who has lived her whole life in the shadow of this environmental harm, declares: “I can’t forgive the humans for what they’ve done.” And that’s okay—she is not made to. The movie can show forgiveness, a type of redemption, without demanding all harmed characters forgive.

When Zuko first asks to join the heroes, he is forgiven by some members of the Gaang, especially new members like Toph who weren’t there for some of his more vicious attacks, but not by others, like Katara, who he directly betrayed after she offered him kindness.

On the other hand, sometimes the harmed characters do forgive. This often sparks debates about whether they were right to do so and whether the antagonist has done enough to earn that forgiveness. In the recent “She-Ra” reboot, Catra is quickly welcomed by some of the heroes when she finally joins their side. Glimmer forgives her almost at once, and while Adora takes longer, she eventually does as well. Whether or not the viewers believe Catra earned forgiveness through her redemption arc, the show gives it to her.

Katara later forgives Zuko only after he has proved himself trustworthy to her through many missions and through supporting her on a personal quest to confront their shared source of trauma.

Redemption as Sacrifice

Some people believe that for a character to be redeemed, they need to sacrifice themselves for the heroes and/or their cause, and often die in doing so (see TV tropes: Redemption Equals Death). This includes Darth Vader in “Return of the Jedi” and Kylo Ren in “The Rise of Skywalker.”

The foundational story of redemption through sacrifice is a very culturally Christian idea. It is also one of the most common depictions of redemption in media. The MCU loves this trope (it happens to Loki at least twice!). Some who emphasize the fact that survivors don’t have to forgive also favor this version of redemption arcs because it allows the character to begin to make amends without the people they hurt having to live with them afterwards.

In “Lord of the Rings,” Boromir tries to take the ring, causing Frodo to flee and abandon the fellowship. Immediately afterward, Boromir sacrifices himself protecting Merry and Pippin. He is thereafter spoken of sympathetically through the rest of the series, and by most audiences, too. He redeems his mistake through self-sacrifice, and is posthumously remembered as a hero.

When fighting his sister Princess Azula, Zuko intercepts a lightning bolt meant for Katara, risking his own death to save her. Though he ultimately survives, he came very close to losing his life to save the heroes. Even before then, he gives up his life of privilege, his repaired relationship with his abusive father, his culturally restored honor, even his girlfriend, to go do the right thing, and risks losing his life many times over in the process.

Redemption as Retribution

Some think that in order for an antagonist to be redeemed, they need to suffer. Characters are often criticized for being welcomed to the protagonist’s side without sufficiently suffering first. This is a punitive philosophy that focuses on punishing wrongdoers through figurative or literal pain—a modern eye-for-an-eye view of justice.

There is an in-universe version of this in the “Babylon 5” episode “Passing Through Gethsemane”—a serial killer was punished with “death of personality,” having all of his memories and his entire personality erased and replaced with a new one, whereupon he becomes a monk. The relatives of the people he killed decide he hasn’t suffered enough to earn this redemption, and torture him.

Zuko has been suffering since before we first meet him, and he suffers plenty more along the way. Even when he seemingly gets everything he wanted, it is hollow and leaves him unfulfilled. The first time we see him truly happy is after he has joined the heroes. One reason the audience is so sympathetic to Zuko is that we’ve seen how much he’s been suffering. One reason the Gaang takes longer to warm up to him is that they haven’t seen what we the audience have.

Redemption as Reparation

Some think that for an antagonists to be redeemed, they need to put in the work to repair the harm they have done and enact positive changes as well. This is more of a restorative justice approach. People who like this version of redemption are often opposed to the “Redemption Equals Death” trope—some say that lets the character off too easily and they don’t deserve redemption unless they’re allowed to stick around and fix what they’ve broken.

In “Star Wars: Rebels,” imperial officer Agent Kallus is one of the major antagonists for a significant portion of the show. But over time, he has a change of heart, and he uses his position to turn spy, risking everything to aid the rebellion he once fought. He spends the rest of the show materially helping the rebels’ cause, and even reconciles with a survivor of a species he helped massacre.

If anyone puts that work in, it’s Zuko. He knows that the Avatar has to learn firebending in order to save the world, and so he offers himself as Aang’s firebending teacher. He helps Sokka rescue his father and the leader of the Kyoshi warriors from the fire nation’s most heavily guarded prison (one of the worst things he ever did was burn down Kiyoshi village). He helps Katara work through her trauma about the loss of her mother to the fire nation and helps her take down his own sister the Fire Lord. And then he becomes a better leader than any of his family and devotes his life to rebuilding the fire nation’s ethical foundation and impact on the world from the top.

Redemption as Change

Some say that redemption depends upon the character fundamentally changing and proving that they’ve changed. In “Treasure Planet,” Silver initially betrays Jim and shows his willingness to do anything to get Flint’s treasure. In the climax, he has to choose between the treasure and saving Jim, and he chooses Jim, giving up his “lifelong obsession.” While he remains a pirate and flees legal justice, he proves that he is no longer solely driven by pursuit of riches and there are now people he cares more about than himself. He even gives some of the small handful of jewels he managed to snag to Jim so that his mother can rebuild the inn Silver burned down at the start of the film.

Zuko certainly changes a lot over the course of the show, which is represented visually by his changing hairstyles and clothing (for instance when he and his uncle cut off their top knots when they first formally break from the fire nation). While he never stops wanting to restore his honor and please his father, the meaning of those goals changes—he realizes that the system he was trying to be accepted back into isn’t the type of honor he wants and that he can restore his own honor through making moral choices. He realizes that his father is a child abuser who asked too much of him and hurt him terribly, and that the uncle who has guided and cared for him is a much better father figure to want to please. He even had to change his whole style of fire bending and learn to draw upon a power source other than anger in order to help the heroes. Though the seeds were already in him from the beginning, he learns patience and kindness and humility over the course of his journey, and he is wiser for it.

When he approaches Team Avatar, he tells them, “I’ve changed, and I, uhhh, I’m good now, and well I think I should join your group.” Some of them don’t believe him at first, but through his actions from then on, he backs up his statement by proving that he truly has changed, and that he has become a very different person from the angry teen who attacked them in the pilot episode.

Redemption as Choice 

Possibly the rarest version is the idea that redemption is linked to free will—that no matter what someone has done or how far they’ve fallen, it’s never too late for them to make a different choice and do the right thing (see Darth Vader’s last-minute change of heart).

In the classic animated “Teen Titans” TV show, Jinx is a villain because she believes that she has to be given her bad luck powers. But Kid Flash shows her that she has a choice, and once she realizes that, she chooses to give up her villainous ways. She helps the heroes in their final epic battle of the series, and is made an honorary Titan.

Zuko is faced with many choices about whether to stay antagonistic or choose a different way. At the end of season 2, he has a chance to turn away from his current pathway and join the heroes. But he rejects this chance, betraying Katara. That doesn’t make him irredeemable, though—he regrets his decision, lives with the consequences of it, and eventually he makes the hard choice to change sides. In the end, Zuko becomes a hero because he chooses to.

What makes a redemption arc work or not work? Whichever conception of redemption we focus on, it can be done effectively or not effectively. A character who gets compared to Zuko often and who is frequently mentioned in conversations about redemption arcs is Kylo Ren. Although there are superficial similarities between the two angsty, dark-haired bad boys, with a closer look, they are very different and are a good case study for the extreme ends of the scale for effective and unsatisfying redemption arcs. In addition to comparing Kylo Ren to Zuko, it may be even more instructive to compare Ren to his hero, Anakin Skywalker. While Kylo Ren certainly has a strong fan base, I’ve witnessed many internet arguments about his character vs. more unified takes on Zuko. Perhaps it is because several additional elements which help Zuko’s redemption arc really land are not present in Ren’s story.

The Zuko Principle

The first of those elements is what my friend Grace has named The Zuko Principle: “It’s easier to redeem a character if they’re not the main antagonist in their original intro.” While Zuko is a major antagonist for all of season 1 of “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” he is not the main antagonist of the season—that would be Admiral Zhao. From the beginning, the audiences sees someone worse than Zuko, more dangerous to the protagonists, more cruel and dishonorable and all around more dislikable.

Meanwhile in the “Star Wars” sequel trilogy, Kylo Ren is the main antagonist of the movie where he is first introduced, and we are not given sufficient reason to sympathize with his frustrations and power struggles within the First Order.

In the original “Star Wars Trilogy,” Dark Vader is also the main antagonist in his first appearance in “A New Hope,” however, he is not the main antagonist during his first appearance in the internal chronology of the movies. In the prequel trilogy, we first meet Anakin as a scrappy kid fighting the larger evil of the emperor, and viewers who witness that before watching his tenure as Vader may be more willing to accept or even expect his ultimate return to the light side.

The Power of Point of View (POV)

In “Avatar: TLA,” as mentioned before, it also helps the audience’s sympathy that we get to see Zuko’s perspective and witness parts of his story absent the protagonists. We see his own struggles against worse dangers, such as Zhao. Even though we don’t want Zuko to triumph over the main characters, there are other struggles in his life where we do root for him. Very early in the show, we want him to win the duel against Zhao and show up that arrogant admiral. We also witness his moments of kindness, like when he gives up his chance to regain his honor out of concern for the safety of his crew. This also means that we get to see Zuko grow over the course of the story and we understand why he makes the decisions he makes and what leads him ultimately to change sides.

Conversely, we do not get that with Kylo Ren. George Lucas’s early ideas for the “Star Wars” sequel trilogy apparently included showing the descent into the dark side of the character who would become Ben Solo, which could have gone a long way to helping the audience understand why he took that path. Unfortunately, we didn’t get any of that, and his point of view sections don’t make us root for him the way Zuko’s do. Instead, we watch him deliberately reject every olive branch. His “pull to the light” is told not shown, and none of his actions back it up. And so when he changes sides, we don’t have a clear idea why.

Regarding Anakin, though again initially we didn’t get to see his backstory in the original trilogy, the prequel trilogy features Anakin’s point of view a lot and is centered on showing how a good kid became a dictator. By witnessing his struggles we the audience can understand if not forgive what led him to become Darth Vader, which casts additional new context on his final redemption in “Return of the Jedi.”

Even Evil Has Loved Ones

Another important element of Zuko’s redemption in “Avatar: TLA” is the presence of Uncle Iroh. We the audience see someone who cares about Zuko and believes in him. Iroh is funny and likable, which makes it easier to care about him, and about the people he cares about. Zuko also cares about people. In addition to his crew, he cares about his girlfriend Mai, and some of the people he meets along the way, but most salient is that he cares about Iroh. He loves Iroh as much as Iroh loves him, and his attempts to please and protect his uncle go a long way to making the audience sympathetic to him.

In the newest “Star Wars” trilogy, Kylo Ren certainly has people who care about him—both his parents and even Rey. But he rejects them over and over again. He has a fixation on Rey but he also tortures her and betrays her. He doesn’t care about anyone else in the First Order. Does he change sides because of love for Rey? His mother’s love for him? Or just the power of the Force? It’s anyone’s guess.

In the original “Star Wars” trilogy, Anakin Skywalker definitely does find redemption through love. Anakin is an iconic example of “redemption as choice.” When Luke reaches out to him, asking him to “let go of your hate,” he claims, “It is too late for me.” But in the end, he proves it is not too late when he makes the decision to save Luke by killing the emperor. This decision was set up earlier in the story. In “Empire Strikes Back,” we see Vader reaching out to Luke, asking him “join me and we will rule the galaxy as father and son.” So when it seems his son is about to die, we understand why he saves him. While Kylo Ren also asked Rey to join him, her imminent death is not the trigger for his heel-face turn the way Luke’s is for Vader.

Moral Event Horizon

An additional element in Zuko’s favor is that the severity of an antagonist’s crime is directly related to their capacity for redemption. And Zuko never actually crosses the moral event horizon. The worst thing he does might be to negligently burn down Kyoshi village. He tries to capture the Avatar over and over but never quite manages it. He betrays Katara but he makes up for it. He does nothing that cannot be undone. That makes it easier for him to atone and for us to want to see him redeemed.

Meanwhile Kylo Ren is complicit in the destruction of all of the Republic worlds. Zuko never does anything nearly as bad, so his crimes are much easier to come back from than Ben Solo’s.

Darth Vader also crossed the moral event horizon, and that also determines what kind of redemption he gets. Vader’s redemption is an example of Augustinian ethics, in which “Good wins by renouncing evil, not by overcoming it” and evil destroys itself. Luke wins by renouncing the dark side, and Vader is still a huge part of that evil, so he falls along with the emperor in a classic case of Redemption Equals Death. But Kylo Ren does a full 180° into hero mode as Ben Solo and fights alongside Rey not as an agent of evil destroying itself, but framed as a hero.

Whatever you may think of each of these stories and their treatment of redemption, I believe each of them can help us do the important work of thinking about what redemption means to us and what we’re talking about when we talk about redemption. In this era of callouts, cancellation, purity culture, and with an election coming up, it is especially important for us to think about what redemption means to us in real-world contexts, and fiction can help us do that. How long will we hold a grudge? How much does someone have to change for us to forgive them? When is something unforgivable? What can we learn about how we judge others, and ourselves, from having sympathy for a character like Zuko? 

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