Opinionated Guide to Avatar: The Last Airbender


Bitter Work

Toph Bei Fong, training Aang in Earthbending

We open with Aang waking up, excited to start his earthbending training. This leads to a bit of Komedy! involving Sokka, who wanted to sleep in. Aang starts off calling Toph "Sifu Toph," which would only make sense if they actually explained what "Sifu" means. Since they don't, it doesn't. Yeah, I understand that it's some form of respectful title, but what kind of title is it?

And, as Katara points out, he's never called her that (because everything's got to be all about you, doesn't it Katara?). Indeed, this Sifu thing will only last for this one episode (except for one bit of Komedy! a season from now when Aang calls his firebending teacher "Sifu Hotman," which only makes it sound stupider). So what's the point of bringing it up?

According to the commentary, it's actually a real-world title. But that doesn't justify its sudden appearance and just-as-sudden absence in the show.

Cut to the actual training. Aang is now barefoot, which he will remain for the rest of the series. Toph talks about the key to earthbending being the stance. One must be unmovable to move earth. She demonstrates a simple push that sends a boulder into a wall. When Aang tries the same movement, he flings himself backwards. Sokka adds a bit of humiliation to this with "rock beats airbender."

Cut to Iroh having a flashback of a younger version of himself playing with his son, Lu Ten. It then moves to him kneeling before Lu Ten's grave, saying that he will see him again. Iroh wakes up to Zuko standing over him. Apparently, Zuko decided to stay in the abandoned town from the last episode. Because obviously Azula simply fled the scene and didn't bother to sick around and pick off her enemies while their defenses were down.

From Villain Sue to Idiot Ball.

Moving on, Zuko says that he needs to learn more firebending to handle Azula. He thinks that Iroh will tell him that he should be working with his sister, but Iroh's rather more pragmatic than that. Yeah, being shot in the chest will do that to you.

So both Aang and Zuko will be getting some training in this episode. It's been awhile since we had a foil episode for these two.

Speaking of Aang, he wonders why he wasn't able to move the rock when he did exactly the same move as Toph. He considers trying a different angle, but Toph quickly slams down on that idea, saying that he needs to stop thinking like an airbender. There's no different angle, no simple trick that's going to move the rock. She then demonstrates that he has to meet it head-on in the most literal fashion possible.

Katara takes Toph aside and suggests that she take a difference approach with teaching Aang. Katara says that Aang responds better to positive reinforcement and gentle nudges to get him to improve. Toph thanks her for the advice.

Smash-cut to Toph screaming the page-quote to Aang, as he tries to carry a boulder on his back while she earthbends the ground under his feet. We then get a montage of various earth-based training techniques that seem to be primarily about teaching Aang about how to feel the weight of earth and work with that weight.

Cut to Sokka, hunting some small woodland creature. He lands in a hole and becomes trapped. Komedy!

Cut to Iroh talking about lightning bending with Zuko. He says that lightning is a pure expression of firebending, without aggression. Really? Because I'm fairly certain that shooting someone with enough eletrical potential difference to cause the diaelectric breakdown of the atmosphere constitutes aggression. Iroh says that lightning isn't fueled by anger or rage like other firebending; it requires peace of mind.

Stop. Over the course of the last 28 episodes, we have had two episodes that have gone into various theories of firebending. One from Iroh himself and one from Jeong Jeong. Earlier, Iroh clearly stated that firebending comes from the breath. Jeong Jeong stated that the greatest source of firebending is the sun. Either way, nobody ever said anything about firebending being fueled by anger and rage. You'd think Jeong Jeong at the very least would have listed that among his reasons for not liking firebending. But his reasons were primarily about having to be in control at all times, walking the razor's edge. It had nothing to do with anger and hate.

All this episode is trying to do is show that firebending is like the Dark Side or some other nonsense. And if you think this is just pointing out something that is irrelevant, it will become very relevant for an entire episode in season 3 when Aang starts learning firebending. This retcon is stupid and serves only to give us a really silly episode later.

Moving on, Iroh starts to talk about the actual technique. Lightning bending works by dividing the energy around people into positive and negative energies. By separating that energy, an imbalance is created. When the energies are brought together, restoring balance, lightning is created. The firebender serves as the "humble guide" for the energy. Yeah, somehow I don't see Azula or Ozai being the "humble guide" for anything.

Iroh demonstrates that technique to Zuko, but when Zuko tries it, it only explodes in his face. Because Zuko fails at everything he ever does.

Cut back to Aang's training. Toph decides to have Aang try to stop a rock instead of moving one. So she decides to roll a boulder down a mountain at him; if he has the attitude of an earthbender, he'll stop it. She doesn't mention the mess that will be left if he doesn't. Katara interjects, asking if that's the best way to teach Aang earthbending. Toph agrees, so she blindfolds Aang.

Aang channels my feelings at this perfectly, "Thanks, Katara."

Naturally, Aang jumps out of the way of a two-ton boulder being rolled down a hill at him. Toph starts angrily yelling at him, saying that when it came to it, he didn't have the guts to actually stop it. Right Toph, because a great day 1 lesson for earthbending is stopping a two-ton boulder coming at you at 60mph while blindfolded. Toph then asks if he "has what it takes to face that rock like an earthbender?"

Aang says he doesn't. Katara consoles him by saying he'll get it when he's ready, and they can do some waterbending in the meantime. Right, because Aang coming to terms with his own failure would be such a terrible thing; obviously coddling the wunderkind who has never has to work hard at anything is exactly what he needs. Thanks, Katara. Thanks for helping.

Cut to Zuko, blowing himself up a few more times. Iroh suggests that Zuko won't be able to lightningbend until he deals with his turmoil. He needs to let go of his shame for his anger to go away. Wait, didn't Iroh just say that anger is what fuels most firebending? Wouldn't his anger going away mean that he would only be able to bend lightning and not regular fire anymore?

Anyway, Zuko says that he's as proud as ever. So Iroh tells him that pride is not the opposite of shame; it is its source. Zuko mulls this over for a time, then Iroh says that he will teach him a firebending that he made up himself.

After a bit of Komedy! with Sokka trapped in a hole, we cut to Katara and Aang doing waterbending. Katara tries to get him to talk about his problems, but Aang doesn't feel like it. She says that air and earth are opposites, like water and fire. Which is the first we've heard of this bit of elemental logic. Anyway, that's why Aang is having problems with earthbending. She says that she has faith that he will work it out.

Then she throws a reed at him, which he cleanly slices in half with waterbending. Katara then says that he has the reflexes of a waterbending master. Yeah, like she would know. He then calls her "Sifu Katara," and she gets anime-eyes at him.

Cut to Iroh. He delivers some good exposition about the four elements and the four nations:

Fire is the element of power. The people of the Fire Nation have desire and will, and the energy and drive to achieve what they want.
Earth is the element of substance. The people of the Earth Kingdom are diverse and strong. They are persistent and enduring.
Air is the element of freedom. The Air Nomads detached themselves from worldly concerns and found peace and freedom. Also, they apparently had pretty good senses of humor.
Water is the element of change. The people of the Water Tribe are capable of adapting to many things. They have a deep sense of community and love that holds them together through anything.

Iroh points out that understanding the other elements will help him become stronger. That is the secret of the Avatar's power; the combination of the four elements in one person. And Iroh's new move was something he learned by watching waterbenders. So much for Katara's elemental-opposites theory.

Probably not a metaphor for Aang's scrotum...

Cut to Aang, mediating on a rock. Toph shows up, saying that she took his bag of nuts; even if he did mind, she says he's too much of a wimp to stop her. He says that he doesn't mind, so she says that she's using his staff as a nutcracker. Aang is concerned, since it's a hand-crafted antique that she's slamming into nuts and things. Even though we've seen Aang put that staff through far more abuse than that. Toph wanders off, using the staff as a blind-person's cane, obviously for the purpose of pissing him off.

Katara shows up, looking for Sokka. The two go off to find him, but neither thinks to ask Toph to help.

Cut to Sokka, having a Komedic! moment with the animal he was hunting. Aang shows up, but is unable to pull him out. He tries to airbend him out, but it doesn't work. Sokka suggests earthbending, but Aang says he can't. He also decides that he can't get Toph, because it would be... uncomfortable.

So... what's Aang's plan here for freeing Sokka? Apparently, it's to sit down beside him and talk about his problems. He says that he's under a lot of pressure, that everyone expects him to get it right away. Um, no; that's just your earthbending teacher being a 12-year-old, socially maladjusted psychotic child that has never actually taught anyone earthbending before. Aang talks about how he fails when he tries, but if he doesn't try, he won't get it.

I would like to point out that this is after one day of training. Not a month or two. A single day. Aang fully expected himself to learn earthbending in a single day.

The animal Sokka had been hunting shows up. Aang says that it's a baby Sabertooth Moose-Lion. Of course, its mother takes that moment to make its presence felt.

Instead of dealing with mortal danger, we cut to Iroh and Zuko, doing waterbending-style moves like what Aang and Katara did earlier. SYMBOLISM! Iroh says that waterbenders deal with the flow of energy, and that he can use that flow to redirect lightning. He says that lightning will follow the flow of energy through your body, thus allowing you to conduct it through yourself safely. But he warns that you have to route it around the heart, or the damage can be fatal.

The two practice hand movements to help feel the flow of energy. When Zuko thinks he has it, he asks to try it for real. Naturally, Iroh objects to shooting his beloved nephew with lightning. So Zuko, seeing an approaching storm, decides to go off and find his own.

Aang and the Moose-Lion fight. Aang tries his typical airbending-style moves to turn aside the beast, but to no avail. With Sokka as a sitting target, Aang has no choice but to hit it full in the face with an airblast. It scurries off.

Toph applauds; apparently she was there the whole time. Aang is upset that she didn't do anything, and she continues to act blaze about everything. She pulls out the staff to crack another nut, but Aang forcefully takes it back. She then tells him to earthbend, since he stood up against a crazy beast as well as herself. And he does.

I was kinda hoping that this episode would be about putting unreasonable expectations on yourself and learning things at your own pace. But no. Aang is now an earthbender, after a single day of training. It's just that easy for him. But then again, when you've got less than 6 months before you need to be a master of 3 elements, there isn't a whole lot else the writers could do here.

At least he's not a perfect earthbender; Toph suggests that he let her earthbend Sokka out of his hole, as he might crush him. We get a final scene of Katara getting back together with the rest of the Gaang. When Aang shows off his earthbending, Katara thinks that Toph used her positive reinforcement methods. Because every episode must be about you, Katara. Toph is a good sport and lets her think this.

Cut to Zuko, yelling at a storm to strike him down. Um, SYMBOLISM? No really, what are they trying to say here?

This is a pretty good episode, for the most part. Toph probably comes out worst, as she's clearly deranged. I don't care if the whole boulder thing was a Secret Test of Character or not; you don't hurl boulders at people who can't earthbend yet.


Sifu is the Chinese version of sensei 22nd Jul 11
''Because obviously Azula simply fled the scene and didn't bother to sick around and pick off her enemies while their defenses were down.

From Villain Sue to Idiot Ball.''

If she HAD stuck around to attack Zuko and Iroh, I bet you'd say she was being to obvious. 22nd Jul 11
plus why would she even think they were still there 22nd Jul 11
Apparently, Zuko decided to stay in the abandoned town from the last episode. Because obviously Azula simply fled the scene and didn't bother to sick around and pick off her enemies while their defenses were down.

How do you propose Zuko travel with a heavily injured Iroh? Iroh can't exactly ride the Chocobo, and he's kinda too heavy for Zuko to carry over his shoulder. Not counting that, ya know, he's badly injured.

It's basic first Aid that you don't move someone critically injured (especially if you are no doctor, which Zuko ain't) unless they are in an immediate danger, such as in a burning wreckage or something like an unstable building (which Iroh is not).

And before you say "He could have put him in a cart or something like that" it's still dangerous, especially since a wooden cart ain't exactly a smooth ride.
Ghilz 22nd Jul 11
"If she HAD stuck around to attack Zuko and Iroh, I bet you'd say she was being to obvious."

Because attacking an enemy when they are at their weakest is certainly not Azula's style. No, Azula's the kind of villain who likes giving her enemies a sporting chance and would never kick someone when they're down.

All I'm asking for is consistency. Azula does not seem the type of character to ignore a weakened enemy.

My point is that, while she did escape, that doesn't mean she should have simply disappeared into the aether. She's found her quarry; why isn't she stalking them?

It's too easily accepted that she just fled and isn't a problem for the immediate future. Especially after having been pretty close to omniscient in the last episode. If she can track the stray hairs from a flying beast while riding a train, it is strange that she would be unable to tell that Zuko and Iroh are still in that abandoned village.

I'm not saying that Azula absolutely would have stayed; odds are, she considers Zuko to be a lower priority than Aang. But Zuko just ignores the possibility that she might show up and kill him and Iroh in the middle of the night.

"How do you propose Zuko travel with a heavily injured Iroh?"

My point is that Zuko is operating under episodic logic. Azula was a problem last episode. This episode, she's not a problem, even though she was last seen in the area. Because that was last episode.

I don't know about you, but injured Iroh or no, I wouldn't want to stick around in a place where Azula might be lurking about, just waiting for when I fall asleep to shoot me full of lightning. Traveling with an injured man would be hazardous, but not as hazardous as having a pissed-off Azula in the region.

Zuko staying in the area only makes sense if Zuko knows for a fact that Azula's simply not going to be a problem.
Korval 22nd Jul 11
The Aesop of this episode is, "Sometimes the direct approach is best." Aang keeps on dancing around looking for the easiest method of achieving his goals, and 95%+ of the time that will work wonderfully, with maximum observation resulting in minimal effort - but sometimes you just need to take a deep breath and kick the damned door in.

Oh? And as for the whole "learn all three elements in a year" thing Aang does that no other Avatar seems to? He's only learning combat techniques(and the occasional joke). Bending isn't just blasting things with elements, it's a lifestyle. Every bender also uses their bending to do things besides fight.

Aang would use airbending to hang-glide everywhere if he could.

Earthbenders mine and landscape and manipulate industrial gear such as mail chutes and trains. They also act as carpenters for their stone cities.

Waterbenders do the same for their ice cities, as well as learn how to heal (and purify drinking water I'd imagine).

Firebenders smelt glass and steel, and power their machines.

Aang only learns how to fight, because his entire purpose in learning Bending is to duel the Fire Lord. He'll have to catch the rest later.
Kalaong 12th Feb 12