Things move towards the climax of season two in episode 218, “The Earth King.” It’s not the best episode of the series, but it has its moments, including an incredible action setpiece on par with the siege of the North Pole in season one and the Day of Black Sun in season three. It’s not that the episode is bad, it’s just that after so many knuckle-biting episodes in Ba Sing Se, the show treads water here to gear up for the finale. It’s all wind up and no pitch.
With Appa’s return, the gang now has the muscle to break through the palace’s defenses and confront the Earth King. They don’t want to hurt His Highness, they just want to talk to him. But to do that, the gang has to break through a legion of top notch earthbenders. This predicament results in one of the show’s funnier battles. As stones fly and water whips flail, the gang apologizes profusely to all the soldiers they knock down.
This scene reveals a dual nature of our heroes that may be uncomfortable to analyze, but this is the re-watch! We don’t shy away from debate. In Avatar and most adventure cartoons there exists this strange contrast. On one hand, by all accounts, the heroes are kind, dutiful, and a bit goofy. But when “bad guys” show up, the heroes turn into ruthless warriors and knock down everyone in their path. Maybe it works when the enemies are robotic foot soldiers, putties, skeletons, or what have you, but what about here? The Earth Kingdom soldiers are not bad. They are just doing their jobs.
Just when the gang makes it to the king, Long Feng appears to thwart their plans. The king has been a prisoner in his own castle for his entire life. He is not quick to believe Aang’s claims that the Fire Nation is at war with the Earth Kingdom. The gang tries to explain that Long Feng is a manipulative liar, but the king requires proof. Aang shows that Long Feng’s leg still has the bite marks Appa gave him in the last episode. The king is not totally convinced, but he grants the gang more time to prove their case.
Meanwhile, in the Zuko plot, Zuko is sick because of his conflict with himself. He no longer knows what his purpose is supposed to be. Does he continue to fight the Avatar to regain his honor, or make a new life for himself? In most shows, once a character makes a decision, that’s it. Not so in Avatar. Last episode, Zuko swore to go his own way, but now, perhaps, he is regretting his decision. In Zuko’s dream, a red dragon and a blue dragon urge him in different directions. These dragons could be references to Ran and Shaw, the last living dragons who make an appearance in season three. The blue dragon speaks with Azula’s voice, and the red dragon speaks with Iroh’s voice. Ran and Shaw were the original masters of firebending. Could it be that in Zuko’s mind, Azula and Iroh are the masters of his destiny?
The main story of this episode gets wrapped up quickly. Aang proves to the Earth King that Long Feng has conspired against him, and the villain is arrested. The end. Right? Wrong. A lot still has to happen. With the help of the Earth King and his soldiers, the gang discovers that Long Feng kept secret files on everyone in Ba Sing Se, including the gang. In Aang’s file they find the note that the guru attached to Appa’s horn in “Appa’s Lost Days.” Toph finds a letter from her mother, who is in the city and wants to see her daughter. There are also reports that Sokka and Katara’s father may be nearby.
After some discussion, the gang decides that the best course of action is to split up. Sokka goes to find his father, Toph to find her mother, Aang to find the guru, and Katara pulls the short straw and stays behind with the Earth King. The gang receives word that Kyoshi Warriors have arrived in the city, much to Sokka’s obvious delight. We learn that Aang’s feelings for Katara are stronger than ever.
And then things start to go wrong. Zuko has a nightmare in which he has an arrow tattoo just like the Avatar. His obsession will not go away easily. We learn that although the army is loyal to the Earth King, the Dai Li are loyal to their leader, the imprisoned Long Feng. It turns out Toph’s mother is not in Ba Sing Se at all—rather, the two goons who have been chasing her the whole season spring a trap on the little earthbender, encasing her in a metal box. (This scene makes me wonder: how long ago did Long Feng intercept the letter from “Toph’s Mother?” Have the goons been chilling in the rafters of their abandoned house for days, weeks? I think they would get bored waiting up there.
The worst news of all is that the Kyoshi Warriors who have come to pay their respects are not Suki and her friends, but Azula, Mai, and Ty Lee in disguise. The last we saw the deadly trio, they were locked in heated combat with the real Kyoshi Warrors. Their appearance here in the garb of their enemies does not bode well for Sokka’s paramour.
Now the stage is set. Only two episodes remain in Book II: Earth. And here’s the pitch.
A few random thoughts:
- Continuity of objects: Appa’s saddle was lost many episodes ago, so the kids have to ride bareback. Toph voices her discomfort with this predicament.
- When Aang and company attempt to see the Earth King, the Dai Li cuff their hands behind their backs with rock fists. (Fisticuffs?) At a certain point, Aang playfully reveals that he can use earth bending to escape the gloves at any time. This reminds me a lot of Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
- Phil LaMarr is the voice of the Earth King. This blew my mind the way John Travolta’s gun blew Phil’s mind in Pulp Fiction. Phil LaMarr has unparalleled voice acting credentials. He has over 240 credits on IMDB, including regular stints on Futurama and Family Guy, a gazillion sci-fi video game roles, and performances as Green Lantern, several Jedi knights, and my personal favorite, the deep-throated assassin Vamp in the Metal Gear Solid series. If you’ve heard some of Phil LaMarr’s menacing performances in the past, you will understand just how impressive his timid high-pitched performance as the Earth King is.
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 Avatar’s Yoda teaches Aang the way of the Bender. Toph is so hardcore she teaches herself. Chakras unleash in next week’s episode, “The Guru!”
Matt London will be on A Dance with Dragons hiatus until further notice.