Nov 11 2010 3:31pm

Avatar Rewatch: “Bitter Work” (episode 209)

Avatar: The Last Airbender episode

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.

Up Next: “The Library”!

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, 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.

Avatar: The Last Airbender Rewatch on ‹ previous | index | next ›
1. AlecAustin
As an idiomatic note, "Ku Li" - literally "Bitter Strength/Work" - is the idiomatic Chinese term used for hard labor of the sort linked to the word "Coolie".
Soon Lee
2. SoonLee
"Bitter work" translated into Cantonese is a homophone of "Kung fu"
Matt London
3. MattLondon
Something I neglected to mention is that this episode has an interesting dream sequence where Iroh recalls happy times with his now-deceased son Lu Ten. Who is ready to cry during "Tales of Ba Sing Se"?
4. Maac
This is one of my favorite episodes. The Aang and Toph interplay is hilarious, I love "Foofoo Cuddlypoops" and deadpan Sokka, and the rare moment of calm with Zuko learning from Iroh, allowing himself to be calmly taught -- I just adore it.
Eugenie Delaney
5. EmpressMaude
I hafta say, the saber-tooth moose lion was awesome.
Jennifer B
6. JennB
Hey, I didn't know you were doing these again! Yay!
Not too much to say about the episode though.
Cait Glasson
7. CaitieCat
This is a really great episode - the scenes with Sokka and Foofoo Cuddlypoops are brilliant comic relief and sneaky character growth, while Aang's struggles with his "bitter work" (as Soon Lee noted, a homophone for "kung fu" in Cantonese, which is definitely intentional) are revealing about both him and Toph. Plus we get Toph and Katara's conflict, smoothing the edges of both of them a touch.

AAND (see what I did thar?), we get Zuko and Iroh doing a calm and funny bit of "betcha can't do this!". And yes, Matt, I'll be bawling my eyes out at Iroh's singing in Tales of Ba Sing Se.

Eeeeeexcellent - layers on layers, and several threads woven at each level. I really liked your comments about the archetypical questiness, and their departures from the beaten path, Matt.
8. Sandrinepi
I really enjoyed this episode. The parts with Sokka are HILARIOUS. He's Sokka, the Meat and Sarcasm Guy.
9. a.v willis
Worth noting is that we later see the technique for redirecting lightning being used to redirect volcanic gases by Sozin in a flashback. This seems to imply that it was in fact commonknowlege at one point but that it was just another one of the aspects of tolerance that gets tossed to the curbside in the name of tolerance.

Also interesting to note, this may well be the first time we've actually seen praying in the Avatar universe and we see it twice-once by zuko on the mountain and once by sokka in his hole.
10. kjhass
Did I miss the rewatch of The Blind Bandit (ep 2.06)? In which we are first introduced to the awesomeness that is Toph? (OK, technically, we first meet her in The Swamp, but she's not being awesome in that one.)
Irene Gallo
11. Irene
Awesome Toph and all episodes covered here:
Avatar re-watch index.
12. blocksmash
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.

I don't really see how you get that. Roku specifically says of his earth bending master that they had a life-long friendship, and it is pretty strongly implied that he had a similar relationship with Gyatso. We know almost literally nothing about any other Avatar's friends. The only thing that we can know for sure is that the difference between Aang's friendships and those of every other Avatar is his age.
(You could argue that the circumstances were new, but since the Avatar Cycle was so well known, I kind of doubt it.
16 years from the death of the previous Avatar till the next is told + 12 years(for Roku) for training in the other elements
= a huge gap for anyone wanting to make trouble.
I find it really unlikely that no other Avatar had to go off and fight some extremely powerful enemy before they were ready, and enlisted the help of the people training them in the other elements. )
12 is very different from 16, is very different from 25(aprox) when Roku most likely meets the earthbender for the first time. None of which is to say that Aang's friendships aren't incredibly central to who he is as a person or bender. In a world where he doesn't end up frozen, what are the odds that Bumi and Kuzon are not his instructors.

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