Netflix's Avatar: The Last Airbender's burning heart isn't Aang, but the wise Uncle Iroh

(Image credit: Netflix)

As the only person capable of bending all four elements, the Avatar is responsible for maintaining harmony among the four nations, not to mention the balance between our human world and the spirit realm too. Yet when it comes to The Last Airbender's fandom, it's not 12 year-old Aang who unites us all, it's Uncle Iroh, an old man from the Fire Nation who loves tea and corny jokes almost as much as he loves Zuko, his impulsive young nephew.

Iroh is so much more than just a harmless old uncle figure, even if his own country can't see it. But even if he was the weak underdog of this story, that still wouldn't be the reason why fans have embraced Iroh so readily when his own people could not. No, instead Iroh is beloved because he embodies strength of a very different kind, a warmth that his brother, Fire Lord Ozai, and the rest of the Fire Nation could never hope to understand.

When we first meet him, Iroh is travelling in exile with Prince Zuko in search of the Avatar, but really he's there to guide and protect his nephew, no matter how impulsive or hot-headed he might be. Whether he's helping the Prince tie up his shoulder guard laces or fighting back against commander Zhao in The Siege of the North, Iroh is there for Zuko because beyond the Fire Nation's borders this unlikely pair only have each other, and most crucially of all, Iroh believes in his nephew when no one else will.

On their journey together, Iroh teaches Zuko to work through his rage and transform the embers of his past into healing and redemption. Much of this support comes in the form of sage advice such as "failure is only the opportunity to begin again, only this time, more wisely," but it's not just Zuko who benefits from such insights. Toph, Aang's earth-bending bestie from the cartoon, and even Aang himself, both take counsel from Iroh at various points throughout the story, even if he is technically fighting for the other side. These wise words also transcend death when Iroh speaks to Aang's successor, Korra, from the spirit realm in her own follow-up series. And then there's us.

Avatar: The Last Airbender

(Image credit: Netflix)

Iroh's everlasting wisdom — usually delivered with a knowing wink or smile — speaks to viewers without ever speaking down to us, and that's true whether we're watching different versions of the show as adults or children. Entirely without ego or a need to prove himself, Iroh is utterly sincere in his approach to helping others. Failure is something to learn from rather than avoid, and his desire to always see the best in people marks him as the polar opposite of men like Ozai, a textbook example of toxic masculinity at its most dangerous. 

Iroh is as in tune with his emotions as he is fire-bending, yet even with all that burning power at his fingertips, Uncle is able to find joy in the smallest of things, be it a nice cup of tea or a humble game of Pai Sho. There was a time when Iroh was much more like his brother, obsessed with victory above all else, but his journey following the tragic death of his son, Lu Ten, proves that change is possible, and it's only through being open to change that we can become the best version of ourselves as Zuko — and we — learn through spending time with Uncle. 

Iroh might not be the titular Avatar, the star of the show in all its forms, but like Aang, Iroh understands the need for balance. He too has an affinity for the spirit world, and he also travelled when he was younger to discover how the four elements complement each other, as exemplified best by Iroh's love of tea, which combines water, fire, earth, and air to create harmony. Regardless of who's playing him, whether it's Paul Sun-Hyung Lee in Netflix's live-action adaptation or voice actors Makoto Iwamatsu and Greg Baldwin (who took over after Mako died), Iroh will always be the burning heart of The Last Airbender because it's through him that the characters and fans alike discover the true meaning of what it is to be in harmony with oneself and the world around us too.

Avatar: The Last Airbender is on Netflix now. For more, here are our guides to the best Netflix shows and the best Netflix movies.

David Opie

With ten years of online journalism experience, David has written about TV, film, and music for a wide range of publications including Indiewire, Paste, Empire, Digital Spy, Radio Times, Teen Vogue and more. He's spoken on numerous LGBTQ+ panels to discuss queer representation and in 2020, he created Digital Spy's Rainbow Crew interview series, which celebrates queer talent on both sides of the camera via video content and longform reads. Passions include animation, horror, comics, and LGBTQ+ storytelling, which is why David longs to see a Buffy-themed Rusical on RuPaul's Drag Race.