In the ninth episode of the second season of Avatar: The Last Airbender, we once again see the writers at play. There is strong continuity between this and the previous episode, “The Chase,” when Azula scorched Iroh good. Now Zuko rests and nurses his wounded uncle back to health. Meanwhile Aang, who has been on the run since episode 206, finally gets the chance to take a break and learn from his new earthbending master, Toph. Problems arise when Aang discovers that learning Earth, an airbender’s opposite element, is not as easy as it looks. In a flashback in a later episode, when Avatar Roku must learn water, his opposite element, he describes the task as “bitter work.”
After the action-packed episode last week, “Bitter Work” slows the pace and quiets down. This episode represents a quintessential scene in most heroic journeys. Training. This is not the first training episode we have seen. Previous episodes to feature training include “The Traitor” and “The Waterbending Master.” Despite Katara’s pleas for positive reinforcement, Toph acts much more like the grizzled old men who have taught Aang in the past: condescending, impatient, rough. On the other hand, when she speaks philosophically about feeling the earth, Toph reminds me a bit of Yoda. She’s even short and green.
Aang’s big problem this episode is fascinating for a number of reasons, the main one being that the most powerful person in the world is kind of terrible at something. It’s a novel idea, because it is not the token “useless” ability that the hero fails at. In lesser stories, the hero would be a bad dancer, or singer, or some equally “frivolous” artistic ability. But here, earthbending is a key skill that must be learned. Earth represents Strength, Resilience, Constitution, and other attributes Fighters think are important. It is deliberate that the agile and clever Aang would have trouble with the thing most heroes excel at the most—head on attacks. Aang the Avatar is the anti-Conan the Barbarian. Aang doesn’t throw mountains. He artfully moves out of the way as someone throws mountains at him.
When Toph starts training Aang, look at the way she stands, the way her curt nods encourage Aang. You expect the music from Rocky or a Shaw Brothers movie to start pumping. Katara does not approve of Toph’s strange teaching method, which seems to be part Mr. Miyagi, part R. Lee Ermey. The way she finally gets through to Aang is to create a dangerous situation that Aang has to fix. In order to save Sokka, Aang has to earthbend. We have seen this in the series before. But now, even without entering the Avatar State, Aang rescues his imperiled friend. The climax of this episode raises an interesting point about Aang. His greatest strength as a bender, and what distinguishes him from past Avatars, is friendship. Katara, Sokka, and now Toph are dear to Aang. They give him strength, comfort, and joy. They serve as constant reminders of what he is fighting for.
Meanwhile, in another plotline, Iroh provides additional comic relief and wisdom. He’s good at that. Iroh teaches Zuko his technique to redirect lightning, which we have previously seen him display in “The Storm” and “The Avatar State.” What do you think? Is this set up for later? I wonder if we are going to see more lightning redirection this season. Hmm...
Zuko can’t help but play the rebel, and goes off to practice the technique against his uncle’s wishes. But it looks like even weather hates Zuko, and taunts him by not zapping him with a bajillion volts. Zuko is becoming more and more desperate for acceptance, for approval from anyone. As the storm beats his face, a heavy tear is lost in rain.
Some random thoughts:
- How does Aang still have waterbending to learn? If a waterbending lesson meant alone time in the pool with a half-clothed Katara, you’d spend every waking moment training, am I right, people?
- Sokka has a small arc in this episode, and a pro-vegetarian one at that. There do not seem to be many edible plants sitting around the barren canyon. But even desert weeds probably taste better than juicy meat cub when a sabre-tooth moose-lion is ready to gore you for having a snack.
- There are no adversaries in this episode, unless you count the sabre-tooth moose-lion.
Attention First-Time Avatar Watchers: Our posts will be spoiler-free (except for the episode we’re discussing), but be aware that spoilers for future episodes may abound in the comment thread below. We wanted to keep the comment threads future-spoiler-free as well, but it will likely prove impossible and it would impede our ability to analyze the series in retrospect.
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Matt London is an author and filmmaker who lives in New York City. He is a graduate of the Clarion Writer’s Workshop, as well as a columnist for Tor.com, Lightspeed, and Realms of Fantasy. His fiction is out right this second in the anthology The Living Dead 2. He holds a BFA in Film Production from New York University.