By Dr. Carol Panetta
Now that Avatar: The Last Airbender is streaming on Netflix, we thought we would revive this older blog post highlighting the ways that Uncle Iroh demonstrates psychoanalytic concepts in his relationship with Prince Zuko. Enjoy!
This post contains spoilers.
“It’s time for you to look inward, and begin asking yourself the big questions: who are you, and what do you want?” It’s not exactly the stuff of your average American cartoon program, but this quote captures the essence of Avatar: The Last Airbender, an animated TV series aimed at 6-to-11 year olds that aired on Nickelodeon from 2005 to 2008. The series wonderfully combines elements of Chinese martial arts such as kung fu and tai chi, which provide the action and excitement, with Tibetan Buddhist philosophy. More surprisingly, it presents the audience with an unexpected level of character development, revealing a psychoanalytic process of unconscious conflict, repetition, and emotional resolution through relationship.
In the series, the primary lessons in psychoanalysis reside in the relationship between the antagonist, the young and impetuous Prince Zuko, and his uncle, the staid but clever Uncle Iroh. As the viewers come to know Prince Zuko, they learn about the internal, unconscious conflicts that bedevil him. They watch him fight the same inner battles over and over in a colossal repetition compulsion. Zuko’s Uncle Iroh demonstrates a psychoanalytic posture with Zuko, refraining from passing judgment while Zuko rejects his uncle’s guidance and projects his conflicts onto Uncle Iroh. Through the relationship between nephew and uncle, Prince Zuko gradually comes to internalize his uncle’s guidance and face his inner demons, demonstrating an analytic process of transference, resistance, and working through his conflicts.
We first learn about Prince Zuko as he is hunting down the protagonist of the story, Aang. Aang is a twelve-year old boy who has been deemed the “Avatar,” and is hence the namesake of the series, Avatar: The Last Airbender. The Avatar is like the Dalai Lama, a continuously reincarnated person who is meant to bring peace to the four nations of the world (the Air Nomads, the Water Tribe, the Earth Kingdom, and the Fire Nation). The Avatar is meant to accomplish this by becoming a martial arts prodigy, mastering the “bending” of all four elements: air, water, earth, and fire. As Wikipedia explains, “Each nation has a distinct society, wherein [some] people known as ‘benders’ have the ability to manipulate and control the element of their nation using the physical motions of martial arts” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avatar:_The_Last_Airbender, accessed on March 30, 2016).
So, an air-bender controls the flow of air as a martial art form, a water-bender controls the flow of water as a martial art form, and so on. Aang was born an air-bender, while Prince Zuko was born a fire-bender.
At the beginning of the series, Prince Zuko is pursuing Avatar Aang on behalf of Prince Zuko’s father, the Fire Lord, who is the vicious ruler of the Fire Nation and a formidable fire-bender. The Fire Lord has waged war, even genocide, on the other three nations. Knowing very well that the Avatar will seek to defeat him, the Fire Lord wants nothing more than to capture Avatar Aang.
Prince Zuko is therefore hunting Avatar Aang in order to bring him back to the Fire Lord. His mission, however, is not simply that of a son helping his father. In fact, his father has banished him from the Fire Nation, after Zuko spoke out of turn in a war strategy meeting. When a high-ranking officer suggested a plan to sacrifice some Fire Nation soldiers to gain an advantage in the war, Prince Zuko, who was fourteen at the time, vocally challenged the morality of the strategy. His father punished him by brutally burning and scarring him in a duel, and banished him for his weakness and lack of respect.
Now sixteen years old, Prince Zuko has spent the last two years on an angry quest to capture Avatar Aang in order to save face with his father and regain his honor. He is accompanied on his quest by the Fire Lord’s brother, Uncle Iroh.
Prince Zuko’s Unconscious Conflict
At the beginning of his journey, Prince Zuko demonstrates one of the most basic principles of psychoanalysis: unconscious conflict. The idea here is simply that, like the rest of us, Zuko consciously wants one thing (to capture the Avatar for his father), but he has other, less conscious motives that conflict with his conscious desire. These unconscious wishes sneak out in devious ways.
Prince Zuko’s conscious longing is to win his father’s admiration, which he desperately craves. Through Zuko’s memories and flashbacks, we learn that he always felt inadequate in his father’s eyes, even before his banishment. As a youngster, he was slower to learn fire-bending than his talented sister, and his lack of aggression made Zuko seem weak in comparison to her and their father. (Avatar: The Last Airbender, Season 2, Episode 17)
Zuko has the fantasy that capturing Avatar Aang will give him the feelings that he wants: the gratification of being admired by his father, and a feeling of acceptance. He is so driven by this need that he is convinced that capturing the Avatar is his “destiny.” (S2E17) His blinding idealization of his father shoves out of his awareness other feelings that he has for his father, unconscious feelings of competition and resentment that were revealed by his speaking out of turn in the first place. (S1E12) Most of the time, all Zuko can see is his father’s power and control; he ignores the evil and treachery that accompany that power. Likewise, he disavows his craving for love and connection – the kind that he occasionally remembers sharing with his mother. Unlike his father, who injures him in order to teach him a lesson, his mother protects him (in a massive fusion of love and aggression that you have to see to believe) and sees his mistakes not as failures, but as perseverance: “That’s who you are, Zuko. Someone who keeps fighting, even though it’s hard.” (S2E7)
Unconsciously, Zuko knows his father is a tyrant, and although it bothers him, he turns a blind eye. His need to please his father conflicts egregiously with his wish to show him up, defeat him, and in the end, be a better, more compassionate person than his father. On some level, he would rather identify with his mother’s values, but consciously he is ashamed by his benevolence, as it is a sign of weakness. In one episode, a competitor speaks one side of the conflict for him: “If your father wanted you, he would have called you home long ago.” Zuko challenges his rival to a duel, and when Zuko wins, he fails to deliver the final blow – an act of mercy. His opponent jeers, “That’s it? Your father raised a coward.” Zuko looks down in shame, accepting the equation between murderous aggression and strength. But Zuko’s mentor and protector, Uncle Iroh, speaks the other side: “Even in exile, my nephew is more honorable than you.” (S1E8)
Consciously, Zuko believes he should behave like his father, espouse his father’s values, and identify with his unbridled aggression, in order to win his father’s admiration. Less consciously, though, he does not share those values. He questions his father’s supremacy, and, to a certain extent, he hopes to be a better person.
The Repetition Compulsion
Psychoanalysts emphasize how people repeat their unconscious conflicts over and over until the conflict is resolved, and Prince Zuko is no exception. His conflict reveals itself through a repetitive, unsuccessful compulsion to capture Avatar Aang.
Although his father and his grandfather before him have attempted to capture the Avatar and failed (so the project is an inevitable setup for failure), Prince Zuko is determined to capture Aang and thereby regain his honor. His quest, like any repetition compulsion, feels involuntary, as though he has no control over his behavior. As he insists to his Uncle Iroh, “I have no choice, Uncle.” (S1E8) And, as is also the nature of the repetition compulsion, Zuko’s efforts constantly arouse the original feelings inherent in the conflict. At the end of Season One, Prince Zuko finally captures Avatar Aang but is stymied by the weather, and can’t transport him: “I finally have you, but I can’t get you home because of this blizzard. There’s always something.” (S1E20) He perpetually feels inadequate, powerless, and frustrated by his failure to achieve his mission, as he always felt with his father.
While repeating his feelings of defectiveness, Zuko also plays out his ambivalence about his father by getting in the way of his stated goals. When his rival successfully captures Aang, Prince Zuko, dressed as the “Blue Spirit,” tries to steal Aang away, so his rival will not have the glory. Aang and Zuko end up cooperating to escape together, rescuing each other in successive turns. They end up together in a swamp, where ultimately, bared of his “Blue Spirit” mask and exhausted, Zuko lets Aang go. Zuko’s father will not yet have his prize. (S1E13) Such is the character of the repetition compulsion: it provides the same conscious feelings over and over again, while yet revealing the unconscious side of the conflict.
Zuko’s trusted companion, Uncle Iroh, stays with Zuko through recurrent disappointments, and Iroh comes to recognize another element of the repetition compulsion. When explaining Zuko’s self-centered behavior to his crew (who are put in harm’s way by the compulsive search), Iroh notes, “The important thing is, the Avatar gives Zuko hope.” (S1E12) Indeed, every replication of the conflicted situation provides another opportunity to work it through.
The Analytic Stance
As mentioned, Prince Zuko is accompanied on his travels by his Uncle Iroh, who is the Fire Lord’s older brother and himself a former Fire Nation general in the war. In addition to training Prince Zuko in fire-bending, Uncle Iroh serves as Zuko’s analyst in many respects. The role of the psychoanalyst is to reserve judgment on his “patient,” adopt a stance of analytic neutrality, and seek to understand. The analyst discourages rash behavior, asking the patient to reflect before taking action and talk through the impulses behind behaviors. By adopting an open and accepting posture, the analyst conveys that all feelings are acceptable and can learn to be tolerated and understood in order to make constructive decisions.
Like the analyst, Uncle Iroh accepts Prince Zuko for who he is. He stays with Zuko through repeated trials, and (unlike Zuko himself) he sees all sides of Zuko’s personality (including his failings, but also his hope and his honor). Perhaps most importantly, Iroh downplays the importance of capturing the Avatar, without diminishing his support of Zuko. While travelling alongside him, he encourages Zuko to eat, to drink tea, to take safety in a storm, and to rest: “A man needs his rest.” (S1E20) He acknowledges Zuko as a man, while he models the value of pausing and reflecting before jumping into compulsive action.
Uncle Iroh also serves as a great model for tolerating feelings without allowing them to run your life. Like Zuko, Iroh has been disgraced, through the loss of his throne, and has suffered an immense tragedy, through the loss of a terrible battle in which his only son was killed. Unlike Zuko, though, Iroh is not drawn by his grief and suffering to repeat his feelings of shame or guilt. As a way of sublimating his pain, he connects with a cross-national group of peace-seeking individuals through a secret society, the Order of the White Lotus. He weeps at the memory of his son, and dreams about him, but he learns from life’s mistakes, makes sound choices, and finds joy in running his own teashop. Uncle Iroh is able to feel the full range of emotions without being tortured by them, and to make constructive decisions in his life.
In a scene that highlights both Iroh’s forbearance and his humor, he reveals his capacity to manage destructive action through a verbal technique referred to by some psychoanalysts as joining. While separated from Zuko, a mugger approaches Iroh with a knife, looking scared while attacking. Iroh asks, “What are you doing?” The assailant replies, “I’m mugging you.” Iroh asks, “With that stance?” He suggests to the mugger how he should correct his stance to be stronger, then adds, “But to tell you the truth, you do not look like the criminal type.” By joining both his defense (of being an aggressor) and his unconscious resistance (that he’s not very capable), Iroh helps the mugger feel less defensive, which reduces his need to be aggressive. In the end, the mugger conveys how much he would like to be a masseur, and how grateful he is that Iroh believes in him. (S2E15)
Over time, Uncle Iroh relies less on his humor and analytic distance and becomes much more involved with Prince Zuko’s development. He emphasizes not only the need to tolerate affect, but the importance of being open to all feelings, and drawing wisdom from all aspects of human nature. “Understanding the other… nations will help you become whole,” he tells Zuko. “It is the combination of the four elements in one person that makes the Avatar so powerful. But it can make you more powerful too.” (S2E9) In order to communicate this, though, Uncle Iroh needs to rely on an emerging relationship between himself and Zuko, which develops in the context of what analysts call the “transference.”
Transference is the word used to describe the way a person feels about other people (most especially his or her analyst), which reflects the way they felt about themselves and the important people in their lives during their childhood. (Freud originally used the word to describe patients “transferring” their feelings for their caretakers onto him.) By paying attention to transference, the analyst can understand their patient’s unconscious conflicts and early emotional states and figure out when and how to intervene. The trick for the analyst is not to react unwittingly to transference. This requires tolerating “countertransference” – that is, the feelings that the transference arouses in the analyst.
Uncle Iroh is a master at managing Prince Zuko’s transference and Iroh’s own countertransference. This helps him ultimately build a constructive and influential relationship with Prince Zuko. At the beginning of their relationship, Zuko is totally demeaning of Iroh, who is, after all, his uncle and the rightful heir to the Fire Nation throne. Zuko bosses Iroh around: “Show me the next set.” “Take this to my quarters.” (S1E1) He denigrates him: “You’re out of your mind, Uncle.” “I don’t need your help keeping order on my ship.” (S1E12) Zuko treats Iroh as his father would treat Zuko, or as Zuko feels he should himself be treated – as a useless peon. Analysts refer to this as narcissistic transference – that is, Zuko treats Iroh as Zuko feels about himself.
As we’ve seen, Iroh tolerates feelings well, and his countertransference – his reactions to Zuko’s narcissistic treatment of him – is no exception. He recognizes Zuko’s need to have the upper hand. When Iroh predicts a big storm that Zuko wants to ignore, the storm turns almost deadly. A crew member snaps, “Looks like your uncle was right about the storm after all.” Iroh quips, “Lucky guess,” not wanting to disturb Zuko’s transference to him. Now is not the time to intervene. (S1E12)
Very gradually, Zuko begins to develop a different relationship with his uncle, establishing a level of trust. After leaving Iroh for a personal quest filled with memories and a renewed sense of identity, Zuko returns to him, commenting, “I’ve realized lately that being on your own isn’t always the best path.” (S2E12) Zuko starts to fluctuate between relating to his uncle as a real person and treating him no longer as an extension of himself, but as an extension of his (terrible) father.
At the beginning of Season Two, Zuko’s sister, a carbon copy of their father, convinces Zuko that their father wants to welcome him home. Zuko is so happy: “He cares about me!” Iroh, realistically suspicious, responds, “I care about you!” Zuko regresses: “You don’t know how my father feels about me – you don’t know anything!” Iroh calmly explains, “I only meant that in our family, things are not always as they seem.” Zuko fires back, “I think you are exactly what you seem: a lazy, mistrustful, shallow old man who’s always been jealous of his brother.” (S2E1) At this point, Zuko is confusing Iroh with his own father, who is indeed a mistrustful, shallow man who’s always been jealous of his brother. Prince Zuko is now fully in the throes of the “object transference,” in which he transfers the feelings about an early object (his father) onto the analyst (Uncle Iroh). Iroh, though, has been a true father to Zuko, and continues to take care of him. Iroh helps Zuko escape from his conniving sister, who becomes their common enemy.
When Zuko’s sister later attacks Uncle Iroh, severely injuring him, Zuko begins to take care of Iroh, with a deeper level of appreciation. He makes him tea and tends to his burns. He genuinely asks Iroh for help for the first time, requesting training to learn to defeat his sister. “I know what you’re going to say: She’s my sister and I should try to get along with her,” says Zuko. Iroh, perfecting his joining technique, responds, “No, she’s crazy and she needs to go down. It’s time to resume your training.” (S2E8) They are now a team. In analytic terms, this means that the transference is beginning to dissolve, which paves the way for Zuko to resolve his resistances to fully knowing himself and his true destiny.
Resistance is the term that analysts use to describe the forces that get in the way of the patient’s progress. Most often, resistance takes the form of a person’s unconscious interference with his or her own self-understanding. Transference is, in fact, a resistance, because for as long as the patient sees the analyst through self-tinted lenses, she does not recognize her true self.
As we’ve seen in his relationship with Uncle Iroh, Prince Zuko is loaded with unconscious resistances to knowing himself. Throughout Season Two, although Zuko seems to be maturing, he keeps making the same mistakes, and Uncle Iroh starts to challenge him. When Zuko captures Avatar Aang’s flying air bison, Iroh questions him: “What do you plan to do now that you’ve found the Avatar’s bison?… [As when stuck with Aang in the blizzard,] you never think these things through!” Zuko responds, “I know my own destiny!” Iroh probes: “Is it your own destiny or a destiny someone else has tried to force on you? … It’s time for you to look inward and begin asking yourself the big questions – Who are you, and what do you want?” (S2E17) Zuko considers, and releases the bison. Iroh tells him, “You did the right thing, nephew.” Zuko responds weakly, “I don’t feel right,” and lapses into an intense fever. Iroh makes an interpretation: “Your critical decision… was in such conflict with your image of yourself that you are now at war within your own mind and body…. You are going through a metamorphosis, my nephew. It will not be a pleasant experience, but when you come out of it, you will be the beautiful prince you were always meant to be.” (S2E18)
The above scene is an intense combination of knowing and not knowing, or more precisely, of knowing but not accepting. For a brief moment, Zuko becomes aware that defeating Avatar Aang is not his destiny, but the challenge of defining a new outcome is overwhelming. I refer to this phase of analysis as “Out with the old and in with the what?”
His resistance has begun to break down, but Zuko is very vulnerable to relapse. Shortly after his crisis-induced fever, Zuko faces an even more critical challenge. In a scene ripe with complex identifications among the characters, Zuko’s treacherous sister captures him. Although Zuko thinks he is “free to choose [his] own destiny,” his sister seduces him to fight Aang alongside her, to defeat the Avatar together. Aang is virtually killed by the siblings, with Zuko’s sister dealing a deadly lightning strike. Uncle Iroh, no longer on Zuko’s team, helps the Avatar’s friends to escape with Aang’s body before Zuko and his sister overpower Iroh. The appeal of redemption with his father proves too powerful for Zuko to bear, and a massive phase of resistance sets in. (S2E20)
Back at home in the Fire Nation, Zuko revels in glory, for his father believes he slayed the Avatar. Iroh, however, is imprisoned as a traitor. When Zuko visits him, Iroh silently turns his back, forcing Zuko to work out his own conflicts. Zuko’s emotional progress has not all been wasted, and he confesses, “I have everything I ever wanted. But it’s not at all how I thought it would be…. Please, Uncle, I’m so confused, I need your help!” (S3E2) In a later episode, he reflects on his recent days with his father. “I was the perfect prince, the son my father wanted, but I wasn’t me.” (S3E9) To some extent, Zuko has internalized Uncle Iroh’s teachings. He finally begins to recognize that he is his own person, and he begins to work on his own resistance to understanding and knowing himself.
Over time, Prince Zuko comes to recognize and accept many different parts of himself. The long process of having these recognitions sink in, reconcile, and resonate with oneself is known as working through. At one point, Uncle Iroh advises Zuko, “Evil and good are always at war inside you, Zuko…. But, there is a bright side…. Born in you, along with all the strife, is the power to restore balance to the world.” (S3E6) As Prince Zuko gradually comes to understand himself, he works through his internal conflicts, a process that helps him create his own destiny.
During Prince Zuko’s most climactic scene, during a solar eclipse when fire-benders lose their power, Zuko finally confronts his father, the Fire Lord. Recognizing his own motives, Zuko declares, “For so long, all I wanted was for you to love me, to accept me. I thought it was my honor I wanted. But really, I was just trying to please you.” Recognizing his father’s true nature, Zuko demands, “How can you justify a duel with a child [when his father burned him]? It was cruel!” He continues, “The people of the world… hate us. We’ve created an era of fear. We need to replace it with an era of peace and kindness.” His father scoffs at him, “Your uncle has gotten to you, hasn’t he?” Zuko calmly replies, “Yes, he has. He’s the one who’s been a real father to me.” He announces his plan to join the Avatar; he will become Aang’s fire-bending master and help him defeat the Fire Lord. (S3E11)
Having come to understand the many parts of himself, to identify more with his mother’s benevolent nature, and to internalize Uncle Iroh as loving protector and balanced sage, Zuko is finally free to pursue his own destiny, to teach Aang fire-bending. He encounters a serious problem, though. No longer sourced with rage, his fire-bending is weak. Where once there were explosions, there are now little poofs ending in wisps of smoke. (S3E13) This scenario represents a further, less fraught development in the phase of “Out with the old and in with the what?” Having finally discarded his repetition, symbolized by his throwing away the “Blue Spirit” mask (S2E17), Zuko needs to build himself anew. He will do it by developing symbolic understanding.
Symbolism is a key feature of psychoanalysis, because when people can’t communicate their unconscious using language, they communicate it through other forms of symbolism. Dreams, fantasies, play, and other communications can suggest to the analyst, through symbolism, hidden aspects of the patient’s psyche. When a person develops a greater capacity to put all parts of themselves into words, they also develop a greater ability to use symbolism to make meaning, as with language, poetry, or insight. In Zuko’s case, he uses dragons to develop a symbolic understanding of aggressive, destructive, and constructive forces.
Zuko and Aang, now fire-bending master and pupil, set out to learn anything they can about the original fire-benders – dragons – now believed to be extinct. They stumble across an ancient society of Sun Warriors, the first people to learn fire-bending. The Sun Warriors are secretly protecting the last two living dragons, one red, and one blue. Zuko had dreamt about these dragons during his raging fever. In the dream, the blue dragon was associated with his sister, pulling him towards death. The red dragon accompanied Uncle Iroh, who commanded his sister to leave, pushing Zuko towards life. (S2E17)
The Sun Warriors give Aang and Zuko a test: to each carry a flame up a high, steep set of stairs to present to the dragons. The chief warrior advises, “You must maintain a constant heat. The flame will go out if you make it too small. Make it too big, and you might lose control.” When Aang receives his flame, he exclaims, “It’s like a little heartbeat.” The chief agrees, noting that “Fire is life, not just destruction.” (S3E13).
Filled with anxiety about confronting the masters, Aang loses his flame and knocks out Zuko’s as well. They are faced by the red and blue dragons, flameless. Aang suggests they present the dragons with something else – a rendition of a “dragon dance” that they learned in a stone temple down below. The dance requires the two of them – fire-bender and air-bender, hunter and hunted – to move through a variety of forms in symmetry around a circle, in homage to the balance of energy between life and destruction. With a blaze of red and blue aurora, they pass the test. Gazing at the light, Zuko says, “I understand…. All the time I thought fire-bending was destruction…. It’s energy, and life, like the sun, but inside of you.” The Sun Warriors chuckle at this insight, but the realization, attained through symbolic representations of metaphor and simile, is profound. Zuko turns to Aang. “Hunting you was my drive. When I joined you, I lost sight of my inner fire. Now I have a new drive. I have to help you restore balance to the world.” Having recaptured some aggression towards a constructive goal, his fire-bending is now rejuvenated, disciplined, and stronger than ever. (S3E13)
As the series draws to its conclusion, Zuko does help Avatar Aang restore balance to the world. Aang defeats the Fire Lord by removing his bending powers and rendering him helpless. Prince Zuko becomes the new Fire Lord and pledges to usher in a new era of peace with his friend, the Avatar. (S3E19, E20, E21)
Through his personal struggle, Prince Zuko offers a rich and accessible lesson on the elements of psychoanalytic transformation. Faced with tumultuous inner conflicts, he initially plays them out through repetitive and ineffective actions. With the help of Uncle Iroh, his non-judgmental role model onto whom he projects his feelings about himself and his father, Zuko gradually learns to tolerate and assimilate the most painful parts of himself. By integrating his aggression with his life-promoting drive (symbolized by his well-controlled fire-bending) he develops new, constructive relationships with himself and others and frees himself to choose a new destiny. He has my vote as Best Cartoon Character Ever (with Uncle Iroh not far behind).
Click here to watch Avatar: The Last Airbender on Netflix