Opinionated Guide to Avatar: The Last Airbender


The Drill

Sorry, Momo. Appa's gonna have to wait.
Aang, the teaser from the last episode

At the end of the last episode, Aang flew off to the outer walls of Ba Sing Se. We see him flying up the wall, past several cloud layers. Which shows that the writers of this show have no sense of scale. When he gets to the top, he looks out and sees a giant cylindrical drill with the Fire Nation emblem on the top of it.

That's where the last episode ended, with Aang speaking the page quote.

Let's play "Spot the weakpoints"

We open with shots lovingly detailing how the drill works. I have no idea why they put these in, because it completely undermines the story by showing us obvious points of weakness. Basically, we see that it uses caterpillar-like motion. The drill is made of interlocking sections. Each section can extend forward, but only after the previous sections have braced themselves into the ground with numerous spikes. When each segment is fully extended, the rear sections can contract, pulling itself forward.

For various reasons, people consider this thing to be phallic. Seriously? Grow up, people.

A large tower extends above the drill structure. We get a zoom-in shot of the top of the tower, then cut to inside it. Guess who? That's right: it's Azula and her Angels. They're accompanied by War Minister Qin, the guy from The Northern Air Temple that was working with the Machinist.

Oddly, there are three seats in the back of the conning room that look perfectly designed for Azula and her Angels. There's no reason for there to be 3 seats arranged like that otherwise.

Qin proudly proclaims victory. He says that they'll tunnel through the wall, storm the city, and Azula can claim Ba Sing Se in Ozai's name.

Sorry, this plan makes no sense. Oh, it would work if it happened in the real world. But that's because real world walls aren't manned by earthbenders. What will happen in the Avatar-verse is that the drill will enter, make a hole, and after it passes through, the earthbenders will just fill the hole in again. The only people who can make it through are the ones actually inside the drill. They will be quickly surrounded and killed by earthbenders.

If they try to keep the drill half-embedded in the wall, the earthbenders can just surround the drill with stone. It would have to keep moving forward to get a clear path, and they can keep filling in the back of it.

Anyway, Qin says that nothing can stop them. For some reason, Ty Lee is manning the periscope. Um, Azula, Ty Lee's an idiot; maybe she shouldn't be doing important work like monitoring for attacks. Ty Lee asks about "those muscley guys": a group of earthbenders in various trenches in their path. Qin says that the metal shell is impervious to attack.

Is everyone in the Fire Nation stupid except Azula? Is that what's going on here? Is nobody allowed to be even slightly competent except her? Not being a blithering idiot, Azula decides to do something. By "do something," I mean she sends Mai and Ty Lee to take care of the earthbenders.

Meanwhile Aang heads back to rejoin the Gaang. Toph and Aang use earthbending to lift a platform up the walls. Which makes one wonder how secure these walls were to begin with if a couple of earthbenders can just scale them with ease, but whatever. Aang shows them the drill.

The Gaang are immediately accosted by Earth Kingdom soldiers. Aang introduces himself and asks to be taken to the person in charge. They meet General Sung, who tells them that he has the situation well in hand. He says that the walls of Ba Sing Se have never fallen, which Toph immediately counters, pointing out Iroh's little incursion. Sung says that Iroh was "quickly expunged." Yeah, right after you killed his son and he decided to give up the siege.

Guys, that's not helping

General Sung has deployed his elite unit, the Terra Team, to deal with the drill. We get shots of the Terra Team attacking the drill. They quickly dispatch the phalanx of tanks guarding the flanks, and they try to use stone pillars to stop the drill from advancing. It doesn't work.

This was their plan? The elite Terra Team's best plan for attack was to push pillars of stone against the drill? Let's be honest here: there are plenty of ways earthbenders could stop this drill.

It needs braces to move forward. So simply dig trenches around the drill, so the braces can't brace themselves against the ground. Or dig a trench in front of the drill, so that it wouldn't be able to advance beyond a certain point. Or dig tunnels underneath the drill, so half of it would fall into a hole; that would effectively break the drill in two, since the center almost certainly isn't designed to bear the weight of the front half.

But these things would resolve the plot without the Gaang's involvement. This is a prime example of bad writing. If you're going to write a threat into the story like this that requires the heroes to do something, don't write one that would easily be solved without the main character's involvement.

Then Mai and Ty Lee appear. What follows is one of the most ridiculous face-stomp battles in the series. And the only reason it isn't the most ridiculous is because we still have one coming up that will put this to shame. Mai and Ty Lee, two teenagers I might add, proceed to decimate the elite Terra Team. All thirty or so ostensibly badass earthbenders are taken down without much actual effort by a pair of teenagers.

I could buy this if they hadn't played up the fact that this was an elite unit. It would even make sense that the weakest troops in the Earth Kingdom would be defending the walls, while all the elite units were out there fighting the war. But no; they clearly said that this was an elite unit. And I should point out that Ty Lee does all of the actual work; Mai was just there for the initial ranged attacks. So it's really one against thirty.

What's the point of this? Why not just have a bunch of firebenders come out and beat them? Why did it have to be the Angels?

Because if it wasn't, we wouldn't have a really stupid way for the Gaang to develop a plan of attack.

Anyway, General Sung decides he needs Aang's help. Aang then asks Sokka for a plan, but he asks why he has to be the one who comes up with the plans. Because the rest of the Gaang are generally stupid, Sokka.

Cut to Iroh and Zuko. Because what you really need in an episode about an impending threat to the last major holdout against the Fire Nation is... Komedy! Jet is stalking his man-crush Zuko. He says that they could use a guy like Zuko (obviously using Zuko's alias of Li). When asked about his opinion, Longshot gives another stare of communication. Which Jet can respect.


Back to stuff that matters. Katara is treating the earthbenders who were taken out by Ty Lee. How'd they get back here? What, did the Fire Nation just let other earthbenders go and retrieve the bodies? Katara says that the man's Chi is blocked.

OK, how could she possibly know that? Since when did "healing water" come to mean "medical tricorder water"? And since when did she know how to detect that sort of thing anyway? Was it during her half-day of instruction with Yugoda and the children? Did she have more instruction off-screen?

This is here because it needs to be, so that Katara can determine that Ty Lee was the one who beat them (even though General Sung watched the whole battle through a telescope). And that only exists so that Katara can say that Ty Lee takes people apart from the inside. And that only exists so that Sokka can use that to say that they'll break into the drill and take it apart from the inside (Screw You, Aunt Wu: 4+Yue, for Sokka coming up with a plan that saves Ba Sing Se).

So, to recap. The reason the Angels had to take out the earthbenders was so that Katara could examine them afterwards. She then magically develops diagnostic healingbending that allows her to exposite about Ty Lee's abilities some more, which gives Sokka the idea for a plan to attack the drill.

In short: padding. To make the episode take longer. Sokka could have simply looked at the drill and said that it would be easier to sabotage it from the inside. But no, we've got to stretch things out.

This is some seriously sloppy and lazy writing.

Toph, that's still not helping

Cut to the Gaang preparing to infiltrate the drill. Toph whips up a cloud of dust to hide their approach. When War Minister Qin is told of this dust cloud, he assures Princess Azula says that it's nothing. Because only Azula is allowed to be even marginally competent. Granted, she's not even that in this case because she does nothing about this.

After going through the effort of whipping up a dust cloud, Toph decides to dig a tunnel. Great forethought, Toph. They emerge underneath the drill. The Gaang climbs in, except for Toph, who says she can't bend in there. So she's going to try to slow it down from the outside. Rather than attacking the tank treads, which would prevent it from moving, she simply jams a large rock into drill's belly and tries to slow it down physically. It doesn't work.

Thanks Toph. You've contributed so much this episode; you appearance here was definitely worth it...

The members of the Gaang who aren't useless go inside. Sokka starts smashing a machine, while Aang asks what he's doing. Um Aang, you're here to break stuff; what, did you think you were sight seeing? Sokka explains that he's breaking things to lure an engineer down there to fix it. The engineer will have to have schematics to do the repair, and they can steal them from him.

Sokka, notice all of those machines there in the center?

Katara steambends and freezes the engineer. Sokka studies the schematic. The drill has two layers to it: an inner cylinder and an outer shell. The two layers are connected by braces. Sokka figures that they can cut through the braces to cause the machine to collapse. Which is obviously a better plan than, I don't know, destroying all of the boilers so that they can't power the drill anymore. Or using Katara's steambending to burst all of the steam pipes to the major mechanisms, so that they can't move anything. Or any number of other, much easier ways you can sabotage the machine.

Anyway, cut to Jet and Zuko. Jet makes Zuko an offer to join his group, but Zuko declines. However, Jet sees that Iroh had heated up some cold tea he bought, and he realizes what this means. Zuko upbraids his uncle for firebending in public. And then, in a dethroning moment of suck, Iroh actually cries because Zuko knocked over his tea.

Well, after a bit of character assassination, back to the Gaang. They find one of the braces, but it's rather larger than Sokka thought. Katara and Aang use Katara's water to start cutting through it.

Stop. Since when could water cut steel? I don't care how much you're bending it or how sharp an edge it has; it's not cutting metal. Water is allowed to cut steel, but earth can't? What the hell is wrong in the Avatar-verse anyway?

Anyway, the pair are breathing heavily after only cutting half-way through. But when they finish the job... nothing happens. The brace slides a bit, but no boom. Katara says that they won't break enough of them before the drill reaches the wall. Aang says that he doesn't know how many more of those he can cut through. They hear a loud metallic grinding noise that Sokka assumes is the drill's death throws. Even though they don't see anything. As they start to flee, an announcement from Minister Qin informs the crew that they have reached the wall. Oops.

We get another series of shots showing various machine parts that do nothing more than show other ways the Gaang could have attacked the machine. It cuts back to Sokka pushing on the huge brace, trying to make it fall. Now, they could just cut another section out of this brace, which would cause the thing to collapse. But why do that when we can bring in silly martial arts crap into this?

Aang decides that they don't need to cut all the way through. He then talks about how Toph has been teaching him not to give 100% of your energy into any single attack. He demonstrates this on Sokka: hitting him a bunch of times to put him off balance, then delivering a final hit to push him over.

First, show, don't tell! You did a whole Goddamn episode about Aang learning earthbending from Toph, and you couldn't slip this nugget in? Second, show, don't tell! We've seen Toph Bei Fong fight before, and we will see how she fights more later. This isn't an accurate description of it. Toph fights by basically destroying people; subtlety isn't exactly her strong suit. Most of the time, she hits people with big rocks and they go down. Or animates the floor at them. Or something like that. The closest Toph got to fighting the way Aang suggests is when she beat the Boulder, and even that was just a 1-2 punch. Also, we never see Aang doing this either. Not in the fight that's coming up, and not in later fights.

Anyway, Aang's plan is to weaken a bunch of braces, then he'll go to the top and deliver a final blow. And what if that's not enough? It's not like they make any precise calculations about how many braces to weaken or which ones or precisely where to land that final blow. Oh well, it's a kids show; they can just wing it.

Cut to Toph, being useless.

Cut back to the Gaang. Suddenly, Katara and Aang are able to cut through the braces with ease. They're not breathing hard like they were halfway through the first one. Yes, they don't cut completely through, but their exhaustion was so played up before, and now it doesn't exist. Thank God for bad writing.

After a scene of earthbenders futilely dropping rocks on the drill, rather than doing something useful, we cut to Minister Qin learning that one of the engineers was frozen. And that a brace was cut through. Azula, overhearing this, decides to take the Angels to investigate. And why doesn't she take a platoon of firebenders, who must naturally be inhabiting this massive structure, just waiting to storm Ba Sing Se?

As the Gaang are cutting into a brace, the Angels appear, introduced with a bit of blue firebending. Why Azula didn't just shoot them with lighting (which would have conducted through the metal and killed the three of the Gaang), I don't know. Ty Lee plays up Azula's awesomeness by saying that she was right in thinking that it was the Avatar.

The Gaang flees, splitting up. Aang's going to finish the plan, while Sokka and Katara will... something. It's not exactly clear. Katara even gives Aang her water pouch. The Angels split up too, with the non-benders following Sokka and Katara, while Azula goes after Aang.

Sokka and Katara find their way to a pipe containing mud pulled from the wall. Sokka suggests that they can get out that way. Unless the drill compacts the rocky mud before expelling it, of course. But that doesn't happen. When the Angels catch up, Ty Lee says that they have to follow them in the mud. Mai refuses, on the grounds that it's disgusting.

On the one hand, this is pretty silly grounds for a fighter to break off pursuit of an opponent. It shows that Mai is incredibly shallow and dainty. On the other hand, it shows that Mai is willing to defy Azula. Which isn't the healthiest mental attitude for one of Azula's friends to have.

Aang, notice all of those machines you just ran by?

We get some shots of Aang doing his speedrunning thing. Then we see Katara and Sokka falling out of the back of the drill with the rest of the mud. Ty Lee follows, but Katara is able to bend the mud, keeping her and the rest of the mud trapped in the pipeline. Sokka says that this will help the overall plan by building up pressure in the drill.

Um, OK, but I don't see how Aang hitting a particular spot on the drill will do anything to the pressure in this one pipeline.

Cut to Aang. He gets to the top of the drill, walks to an area, then decides that it's a good spot. Right, because you don't need any measurements or anything; any place is as good as any other. You wouldn't want to focus your attack on a specific, weakened point on the drill.

Aang almost gets hit with rocks that the earthbenders are ineffectually dropping on the drill. After a bit of dodging and Komedy!, Aang starts digging into the metal with water.

Cut back to Sokka and Katara. Sokka does some cheerleading, because it's funny. Katara gets pissed at him, because it's funny. Toph shows up to help Katara plug the mud line; wow, you mean Toph gets to be useful? We get shots of the inside of the drill as the pipeline bulges. Now, by all rights, this should stop the drill right here. Those pipes are how it gets rid of the earth that it carves out of the wall. With those pipes clogged, the drill should no longer be able to remove the earth and therefore cannot tunnel anymore.

Oh, but that would take away from Aang saving the day. So the drill still works. Somehow.

Speaking of whom, Aang digs in, wishing that he was a metalbender. Silly Aang, there's no such thing as metal bending. I mean, that would be in direct contradiction to the established rules for bending. Such an ability would be a fundamental violation of the foundational rules of the Avatar-verse. The writers would never do something so crass and asinine as to allow something like that to come up, not after having emphasized these rules so insistently.


Anyway, Azula interrupts his musings with firebending. Aang actually acquits himself reasonably well in this fight, at first. He uses his water to bat Azula's hands whenever she tries to throw fire. Granted, this only leads to her using kicks instead, which causes Aang to block with his water. Which gets turned into steam. Aang builds an earthen fort out of the bits of boulders and hurls stones from behind it. Azula uses a powerful fireblast to break through it and send him into the wall. This leaves Aang unconscious.

Now, by all rights, the fight should be over. Azula should just perform the Avada Kedavra and get it over with. But because we're in bad writing central, Azula has to slowly walk over to him, pick him up, hold him against the wall, and prepare to deliver the coup de grace.

Naturally, this gives Aang enough time to wake up, pull together a stone fist like Hellboy's, and fight back. This fist somehow gives him super-strength, because it pushes Azula several dozen feet away with a simple shove. As Azula rushes him, the mud pipelines finally burst, expelling slippery mud all over the two of them. This sends both of them sliding down the side of the drill.

Azula stops herself from falling by... something in her shoes? I don't know, her shoes seem to have high friction or something, even though that should have stopped her from slipping in the first place. Aang is helped by Momo and his own airbending, allowing him to get back there first.

With Azula somehow climbing up the side of the drill, Aang takes the time to get a big boulder and shape it into a wedge. Aang then airbends his way up the wall as high as he can, then airbend-runs his way down to slam down on the boulder as hard as possible. Azula tries to stop him, but for some reason aims for him and not the stone wedge he's heading for. And she misses. From like 8 feet away.

Naturally, this destroys the drill. Somehow, in its death throws, the drill expels more mud than it could possibly carry in terms of water. The drill did push through the wall, but it's only embedded in the wall. So nobody can get in.

We get various reaction shots from people. We see Azula reunite with Ty Lee and Mai (still dry, even though everything else is covered in mud). Mai says that they lost. Yeah, we didn't need your input, Mai.

Cut back to Jet and his gang. Smellerbee tries to convince him that he didn't see what he thought he saw, but Jet isn't buying it. He's certain Zuko and Iroh are firebenders. We see Zuko and Iroh boarding earthbending-powered trains to get to the city proper. They even run into the couple that the Gaang guided through the Serpent's Pass.

Cut to the Gaang looking at the sunset from Ba Sing Se's wall. We get some ending Komedy! with Sokka coming up with team names that nobody likes.

My God, what happened this episode? This is just... bad writing, on so many levels. The plot makes no sense. It could easily be resolved without our cast members, but it isn't. The villain has to be made equal parts smart and stupid for the plot to work. The contributions of Toph are functionally meaningless (despite the rest of the Gaang all getting something to do), and the plot is basically swiss cheese in terms of plot holes.

And while we're at it, why is this drill here at all? Sozin's Comet is just a few months away. Once it arrives, the Fire Nation can easily take Ba Sing Se. They couldn't just wait until the comet came? Or was the idea to take Ba Sing Se now, and then use Sozin's Comet to stage another attack on the Northern Water Tribe?

This is the most brainless of the brainless action pieces in the show's history. It works OK unless you give the episode even the slightest bit of thought. At which point, everything falls apart. Apparently, there were a number of writers, all uncredited, for this episode. That always is a bad sign, suggesting the script has been through hell and back. And it shows.

Also, one of the uncredited writers was apparently JJ Abrams. This explains so much. The rampant plot holes. The way the story makes sense unless you think about it even slightly, then it disintegrates into confetti. The circuitous route to developing a plan of attack sounds exactly like Abrams script diarrhoea. And Azula was clearly possessed by the spirit of Captain Nero from Star Trek 2009. Just like his encounter with Kirk, Nerozula steadfastly refuses to actually kill him, even though she has every chance to do so.

Speaking of Azula...

Why is Azula Here?

That's a very good question. What exactly does Azula contribute to this episode?

Nothing. The Angels take out some earthbenders, but that's nothing that regular Fire Nation soldiers couldn't have done. She fights the Avatar, but there's nothing special about their fight. Indeed, if anything, it makes her look worse, because she didn't just kill Aang when she had the chance. And that's not Azula's style.

Furthermore, Azula isn't an army person. Yes, she's the Princess, but she's more of a special forces commander than regular army. She deals with hunting individual people down. It makes no sense that she would stop pursuing the Avatar and/or Zuko for the sole purpose of overseeing this drill project. Especially considering that she goes right back to hunting that person.

The episode doesn't play to her strengths. There's no clever deception. There's no relentless pursuit. There's none of Azula's personality on display here. She's just... here. Even her Angels don't really get to do anything, Mai's bit of character establishment (defying Azula) notwithstanding. Ty Lee takes out some red shirts, yes, but she does nothing else besides that.

The function that Azula serves in this episode is to put a human face on the drill. She's here so that it's not just about the Gaang taking out a metal leviathan. Azula is a functional obstacle to the drill's destruction, another wrench in the Gaang's plan that they must overcome.

But why did it have to be Azula's face in particular? Especially since it's not very appropriate to her character. Well, think about it: who else is left? And I therefore consider this to be the closing argument of my Zhao-was-supposed-to-live-past-season-1 theory. Why? Because this episode is perfect for him.

Think about it. He's an army guy. Technically navy, but whatever; he's regular military. He's worked with land units before (the Yu Yan Archers). He would make much more sense as the leader of this project. He's spoken out about breaking through Ba Sing Se before, back in The Blue Spirit. Obviously, after the failure at the Northern Water Tribe, this would be a good way for him to regain his honor and prestige.

Think about every arrogant line War Minister Qin speaks. Doesn't that sound a bit like Zhao? He's the kind of guy who would freely ignore a suspicious cloud. Zhao is also exactly the kind of guy who would luxuriate in his enemy's defeat. He'd want to pick Aang up, press him against the wall, and kill him that way.

And the destruction of the drill would make for a perfect final death scene. Aang wouldn't have to directly kill him, of course; he'd die inside the drill as it was destroyed.

So why is Azula here? Once they retooled season 2 to be about her as the main villain, they still had to do something with Ba Sing Se. Ever since The Library, the show has been about getting to Ba Sing Se. You need an action climax for when they get there, and The Drill was always intended to be that.

Killing Zhao didn't change the fact that they needed this action climax. It just meant that they had to put someone in it who didn't fit.


It works OK unless you give the episode even the slightest bit of thought. At which point, everything falls apart.

So it's like the majority of any Ben 10 Series. BAH-ZING!

I really agree with you on the Curb-Stomp between the Terra Team and Azula's Angels -1. That kind of thing is a pet peeve of mine in any given media. It's one of the reasons I liked The Briggs Army Vs Sloth in Fullmetal Alchemist so much, in that it actually showed how strong Briggs was without making Sloth look weak and visa versa.
Emperordaein 25th Jul 11
Ty Lee is a Bad Ass Normal. Even if she, Mai, and Azula for that matter are teenagers, they're still dangerous.
ManwiththePlan 27th Jul 11