Avatar: The Last Airbender aired on Nickelodeon from February 2005 to July 2008. The story follows the return of the Avatar, a young airbender named Aang, and his year-long quest to master all four elements before the Fire Nation’s final invasion of the world. He teams up with Katara, a waterbender of the Southern Water Tribe, her older brother and warrior Sokka, and the blind earthbender Toph. Along the way, he is pursued by Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation and later Zuko’s younger sister Azula.
In my humble opinion, one of the more notable characters in Avatar: the Last Airbender is Zuko. Zuko’s arc is the most interesting because he starts as a spoiled exiled prince, becomes a wanted prince in hiding, and is finally a traitor of his home country, all the while dealing with some serious inner conflict regarding his issues with his family. His journey includes an alter ego known as the Blue Spirit, a masked ninja that appears whenever it is convenient. I have come to the conclusion that the Blue Spirit is more than just Zuko’s alter ego–it is a symbol. A symbol of what, though? So I took a look at some of the Blue Spirit’s more notable appearances to see what I can discover.
Season 1 Episode 13: The Blue Spirit
This is the Blue Spirit’s first appearance. In this episode, recently promoted Admiral Zhao of the Fire Nation captures Aang who is on his way to get medicine for his sick friends. The Blue Spirit infiltrates the Fire Nation camp and rescues Aang but is knocked unconscious immediately after escaping. Aang discovers that the Blue Spirit is actually Zuko, who has been hunting him down the entire season to date. Although Aang seems willing to extend the hand of friendship, Zuko is not, so Aang runs away.
Thus, the writers plant the idea that Zuko is secretly be a good guy. For one, he donned a mask to anonymously rescue the Avatar from the Fire Nation despite his actual intentions. Secondly, there is the scene where Aang is willing to extend that hand of friendship to Zuko, which foreshadows events much later in the series. As for the meaning of the Blue Spirit mask, I don’t think it’s clear at this point in the series. I’m pretty sure it correlates to Zuko needing to separate himself from something (his history? his duties as a prince?) to justify rescuing the Avatar from a Fire Nation camp. Although Zuko’s intentions weren’t really noble after the rescue: Zuko only “rescued” Aang so he can be Zuko’s prisonerinstead of Admiral Zhao’s. But it’s the correlation with the possible friendship that counts.
Season 2 Episode 4: The Swamp
In the second appearance of the Blue Spirit, Zuko and Iroh are now forced to live in poverty as refugees in the Earth Kingdom. Fed up with this new lifestyle, Zuko dons the Blue Spirit mask and resorts to stealing in order to get by. Iroh discovers what Zuko has been doing, and disapproves. In the end, Zuko decides to travel on his own for a while. (Meanwhile, Aang and company discover waterbenders in a mysterious swamp.)
The Blue Spirit here is something for Zuko to fall into during desperate times. Iroh disagrees with his nephew’s actions, and this rift eventually leads to Zuko’s decision to part ways with his uncle. Thus, Zuko embarks on a life-changing field trip with himself where he learns of the effects of the 100 Years War on the Earth Kingdom populace. I believe this later part is when Zuko starts to really question his country’s imperialistic tendencies, which adds to his inner turmoil later in the season. The mask here is a catalyst for Zuko’s personal journey.
This journey lasts quite a while. Although Zuko is later reunited with his uncle, he continues to struggle with discarding the title Crown Prince of the Fire Nation, which he’s always associated with honor and father’s affection and all that is meant to be good in his life. Zuko is essentially forced to cast aside his life ambition as an angst-filled teenager; I don’t think an adult would take kindly to that sort of thing either.
Season 2 Episode 17: Lake Laogai
In Ba Sing Se, Aang and company discovers Lake Laogai, the secret headquarters of the Dai Li agents. Meanwhile, Zuko sneaks into Lake Laogai as the Blue Spirit while looking for Appa, who was previously separated from Aang and company. Although he intended to use Appa to find the Avatar, Iroh convinces Zuko to give up his search to start a new life away from his associations with the Fire Nation. In the end, Zuko frees Appa and discards the Blue Spirit mask into the lake. This is the last we see the Blue Spirit. That is also the moment I realized the Blue Spirit is a symbol for Zuko.
By discarding the mask, Zuko discards his life’s ambition to regain his honor and reclaim his throne. He immediately comes down with a fever that Iroh describes as a battle within himself. The two sides at war are Zuko Reclaiming the Throne and Zuko Discarding Life Ambition. These sides aren’t done warring when the fever breaks, however, as Zuko goes on to betray his uncle and regain favor with his father and nation (thus claiming what he had been striving for the entire series).
Even then, Zuko is conflicted with himself. Zuko is never without inner conflict, and this is what makes him so interesting as a character. If he’s not trying to outperform a decorated soldier, he’s trying to come to terms with his place in life, or he’s trying to fix the rift between himself and Team Avatar. Giving Zuko an alter ego like the Blue Spirit emphasizes this conflict for most of the series, but it does not represent the entirety of Zuko’s conflict.
In Conclusion . . .
The Blue Spirit symbolizes Zuko’s search for the Avatar to regain his honor. By discarding the mask at the end of the second season, Zuko makes the conscious decision not to search for the Avatar for his own personal gain. Rather, when next Zuko seeks the Avatar, it’s to be Aang’s firebending teacher.
And so the Blue Spirit is the mask Zuko wears when his search for the Avatar includes malicious intent. What he really wants to do is befriend the Avatar (we all know this to be true), and that is why the mask is necessary–it hides Zuko’s associations with the Fire Nation.