Aside: The Missing Case of Toph Bei Fong
This betrayed the problem the writers seemed to be having with the character. Episodes such as Cold Fire and Persistence of Vision seemed less concerned about Kes as a character than her abilities and how they could be played with. Kes certainly achieved things in those stories and demonstrated where her loyalties lay. But Cold Fire in particular seemed to reserve all of its Kes moments for the obvious: getting new powers, choosing between Janeway and her people. Very obvious and non-informative as far as her character went.
The subject of our study
Like my writeup on Katara's issues, I've built this one up for some time now. But oddly enough, the main thrust of this rant is not going to go in the direction you think. First, I'll provide a recap, then I'll talk about the obvious, and then I'll segue into the real issue.
So, Toph only has three scenes in The Guru
. Her first scene comes right after Pathik gives Aang his new diet. Toph is in a metal box, being pulled on a Chocobo-and-buggy, while Xin Fu and Master Yu ride up front. They reach a fork in the road and start bickering about which way to go. Because petty bickering is the best way to show the villains as capable threats.
Toph interrupts them, telling them that she has to go to the bathroom. Yu almost goes and unlocks her, but Xin Fu saves him from his own idiocy. Toph delivers a threat, but Xin Fu shuts her up by saying, "You might think you're the greatest earthbender in the world, but even you
can't bend metal."
And if you didn't know where this was going after such a leading line like that, you really need to get out more. For her part, Toph looks... worried? Constipated? It's not exactly clear. She does reach out and touch the metal though.
We cut back to Toph in the middle of that scene I mentioned last time, where Pathik is opening up Aang's Light Chakra. He tells Aang that the greatest illusion is the belief that things are separate. Everything is connected. Pathik says that even the four elements are one and the same. Then, the camera fades in to Toph while Pathik conveniently says, "Even metal is just a part of Earth, that has been purified and refined."
We see through Toph-Vision that she's banging her hands against the metal. FYI, writers: banging your fists against steel hurts.
At some point, she sees speckles of something in the metal. Um, somehow. She does a foot plant and then pushes the backs of her hands into the metal in the most painful way possible. And then, she bends the metal, followed by a bit of ego masturbation.
That's the money scene. But let's finish Toph's contribution before we tear this down. Between Aang leaving Pathik after seeing Katara captured and Aang finding Sokka, we have the final scene. Master Yu and Xin Fu hear something like metal screeching. So they head back to check, finding that there's a gaping hole in the metal box. Toph appears behind them, effortlessly earthbends them into the box, metalbends it shut, jumps on top of it, and proclaims herself "THE GREATEST EARTHBENDER IN THE WORLD!" Then she runs off, surfing a wave of earth, leaving the two of them to die trapped in a metal box.
Now that that's done, let's start with the basics. We established all the way back in the sixth episode of the series that earthbenders cannot bend metal. This is a rule. From a Doylist perspective, having Toph spontaneously develop metalbending represents a shattering of the established rules of the continuity. As previously stated, this is equivalent to a firebender bending trees because they catch fire. Just because it comes out of the ground does not make it earth.
Now, you could try
to play the chemistry card. Pathik is technically correct: many metals are a part of the silicate structures that form rocks. Therefore, metal could be seen as a form of earth. Even though metal has nothing in common with rocks besides being composed of some of the components of them. Even though that also, in terms of mass, stones are primarily composed of oxygen
, not metal ions.
There's a problem though. Back in Imprisoned
, we saw that earthbenders were able to bend coal.
Coal is made of carbon, hydrogen, a bit of oxygen and a few other impurities; chemically, it is very different from stone, which is primarily composed of silicon and oxygen (lots of oxygen). But one could accept coalbending because coal comes out of the ground and shares many of the physical properties of stone (fairly sturdy, breaks rather than bends, etc). This suggests that "earth" is based on physical properties, not chemical ones. But now we're expected to buy that metal, which has very different physical properties from stone, can be bent by earthbenders. Again, even though the series has repeatedly said that this is impossible. So can they bend things that are physically like stone or things that are chemically like stone?
Also, wouldn't this all mean that earthbenders could bend people?
Considering that coal has a lot of hydrogen and carbon in it, and that silicates are primarily oxygen, shouldn't Toph be able to peoplebend? If we're talking chemistry-based bending, the human body has a lot more in common with coal and stones than metal does.
But I'm going to cede the chemistry argument; this is a fantasy world, so I'll let it go. However, from a Watsonian point of view, this is still very bad. Every
earthbender, from King Bumi all the way back to Oma and Shu, was completely incapable of bending metal. And yet Toph can do it. She learned how to do it in a day
spent locked in a metal box. This makes every other earthbender, especially those who were trapped by metal, look all kinds of stupid. This includes King "I'm the most powerful Earthbender you'll ever see!" Bumi, who's similarly locked in a metal box but never develops metalbending.
And that is where we start to approach the true issue. Why can Toph Bei Fong
do this? What is so spechule about Toph that she is able to do what has heretofore been deemed impossible?
That's a very good question. One that neither this episode nor the series ever answers. And therein lies the path to the heart of the problem.
First, we have no idea how Toph even developed this power. Oh, we see
it happening. But that's like saying that a gun spontaneously emerging from out of someone's anus
is just fine because we see every step of the sphincter contracting, the gun slowing being pushing out until at last the person draws it and dispenses some justice. That tells us nothing about how the gun got there, just as Toph's scene tells us nothing about how Toph was able to develop this ability.
And this means...?
We don't see a scientific investigation. She's banging on walls, she suddenly sees crystals in them, then she can metalbend. That's the sequence of events. Because there is no logical connection from one step to the next, no path that we can follow that shows us where this ability comes from, it falls into being a Deus ex Machina
. There must have been blind earthbenders in the past, so it can't just be her blindness.
But even that is minor compared to the fundamental issue. See, this is a stock scene; we've seen this scene in many other works before. Person X is captured. Their captors taunt them, saying nobody's ever broken out of here before, all your fantastic powers are useless, or something to that effect. Person X is beaten. Dejected. Made humble by their circumstances. Then, they find the inner strength to soldier on. To try again. To use their skills in some new way, or maybe even call forth heretofore unseen powers and escape.
What's the difference between that and Toph's story? She's never beaten.
When Xin Fu makes his little remark about her not being able to bend metal, the absolute most
you can say about Toph's response is that she looks worried. Slightly.
Contrast this to how she was after Appa was taken in The Desert
. Her super-confidence was broken. Her self-assuredness was gone. She could barely stand up to Aang's tirade against her, and Toph's not one to back down easily. Toph was truly vulnerable. Toph said that she could always use Toph-Vision. Which means that, there in the desert, this was probably the first time she truly felt blinded, unable to see, fumbling in the dark, not knowing where things were.
Now? If her confidence failed her at all, it was only for a moment. She touches the metal wall, and then decides to just do the thing that's impossible. She has boundless confidence. The problem?
We already knew that about Toph!
Character development is not
repeating the same character traits over and over.
So what we have here is a scene that doesn't jive with established rules of the series. It makes every other earthbender look like a hack. It's clearly a Deus Ex Machina for a problem that was invented solely to use this Deus Ex Machina to solve, and by C-list villains no less. And it doesn't even give Toph any character development; it just reinforces traits we already knew about her.
And it is that last part that's the biggest problem. I could forgive the rest, theoretically. It'd still be stupid, but I might have been more willing to overlook it
. But there's not even real character development from Toph.
It is at this point where we hit the real issue. Because this Toph moment is a microcosm of everything that is wrong about Toph Bei Fong's character.
Ever since the end of her story from Tales of Ba Sing Se
, Toph's character has become, well, pretty much nonexistent. This will be more pronounced in third season, where she will get precisely one episode and perhaps 2 moments in other episodes. Outside of that, Toph will be three things: Blind, Snarky, and an Earthbender. We can see this process in some recent episodes already.
Look back at The Earth King
, when the Gaang was trying to decide whether to leave or to try to see the Earth King. Sokka suggested optimism. Katara was cautious. Aang reminded her of the fact that they weren't bound by the Dai Li's restrictions anymore. What did Toph contribute to this conversation? Nothing. She hates Ba Sing Se, so she wanted to leave. She contributed Snark and nothing more. Did she contribute anything else to that episode, besides her Earthbending? Nope; she didn't suggest where to take the Earth King or how to help convince him or anything.
And here's the best part. When the Gaang decides to go see him, she isn't even consulted.
All it takes for them to decide to go is to convince Katara; Toph's desire not to go back is noted, logged, and ignored, as though she had said nothing at all.
What did Toph do in The Drill
? The absolute best you can say is that she gave Aang some advice that he used to help disable the drill. Of course, this giving of advice happened off-screen, so it does nothing for her character (and is antithetical to who she is and how she acts/fights). Everything else she does is either Snark or Earthbending.
What is Toph's contribution to the Gaang in Lake Laogai
? Earthbending and Blindness. She used her earthbending Toph-Vision to see that Jet was telling the truth, and later she used it to see that both Jet and his Posse were telling the truth. Oh and she found the entrance to the underground base. She kept the plot going, but only by her abilities, not her character
Katara isn't "the waterbender;" she's a character who can waterbend. She was a character before she was a waterbender (of significance). And she remained a character even after she learned how. Many of her character moments have been around
waterbending, but waterbending itself does not define who Katara is.
From Lake Laogai
to the end of the series (25 episodes. Almost half the series and most of the episodes where Toph appears), the part of Toph Bei Fong will largely be played by the Blind, Snarky Earthbender. When conversations of plot importance are going on, Toph will either add facts that anyone could have or add snark. She'll use her earthbending, whether stone or metal, to help move the plot forward. And sometimes her blindness will factor into things. But outside of a very few exceptions, that's what she will be. Toph becomes like the furniture.
This "character moment," which some people dare
to call her Crowning Moment of Awesome, is nothing of the kind. Oh, she gets to be awesome in terms of power, shaming every earthbender who ever lived by mastering something in the space of a day that everyone else thought was impossible. But the only ramifications of this event is that she will be able to bend metal later on. This allows her to be a more useful tool for the Gaang; nothing more. No character growth, development, or revelation. Just a power upgrade.
The sad part is this: I like
Toph. I liked her back when she had actual character. Aka: before Lake Laogai
, back in the days when she wouldn't take Katara's crap, and when she had to confront her own blindness for the first time. My problem with all this is that I want to see more
of Toph Bei Fong and less of the Blind, Snarky Earthbender. She has so much unexplored potential, and it truly annoys me that the writers dropped the ball on this one.
Speaking of the writers, how did they let this happen?
This is all speculation of course; take from it what you will. Part of it probably comes from the fact that Toph is a fifth wheel to the main story. The story, as structured, is about Aang, Katara, Sokka, and Zuko. They
are Team Avatar. They are the ones who have always been there since day 1. They are the ones that the writers planned out a story arc for.
By the structure of this story, they knew that Toph had to exist. But their story didn't really include
her. Just look at the way parents are handled.
Hakoda will become an important supporting character in season 3, making several appearances. Katara and Sokka will both have some character moments around him. And you can see that the writers probably had vague plans for him back in season 1, since Bato of the Water Tribe
if not earlier.
Zuko's parents and family are important characters. Villains, to be sure, just like he is currently. But important characters nevertheless. They won't just be obstacles; they will have actual characterization. In season 3, we'll even get to see Ozai's face. We get to learn about his interactions with his father, his sister, and her friends. These people all matter to the overall story. This allows us to explore Zuko's relationships with them and feelings about them, thus enhancing our understanding of his character.
What of Toph's family? There's certainly plenty of room for exploration there. There are many theories for their behavior. Are her parents ashamed that their daughter is blind? This is certainly a possibility; they kept her so secret from the rest of the world that nobody knew she existed. That suggests a level of shame. They also seem to cling to the "my daughter is blind" thing rather tightly, allowing it to excuse anything they want to do to her.
At the same time, the Bei Fongs are very rich and highly influential; they travel to Ba Sing Se often, and simply showing their seal can open doors. They probably have a lot of enemies. If their enemies knew that they had a blind
daughter, that's a weakness. Something those enemies can strike at. Indeed, the fact that she was being "taught" earthbending by Master Yu suggests at least that they were concerned for her safety. The fact that the Bei Fongs had guards on their grounds also suggests that security was an issue for them.
And maybe they simply hadn't fully assimilated what she had done in the Earth Rumble arena when Toph asked to go with Aang, so they restricted her even more. Don't forget: Toph was just captured and ransomed, which was their worst fear
, their ultimate nightmare. Getting clingy is very natural in those circumstances. Imagine how much damage Toph did to these people by running away. Could they ever possibly forgive her?
This is a very fertile ground for exploration. Will they explore it? Not really. Why? Because the series isn't designed to.
Toph was something that they needed to have. Note that I said "something," not "someone." There was always a need for the Gaang to pick up a traveling earthbender to teach Aang. But the specifics weren't defined. And without planning, there was no way that they could really integrate her into the story.
Season 3 will be the Book of Fire, so they'll be spending it (mostly) in the Fire Nation. And even though many characters get to have adventures that go pretty far afield, the writers couldn't spare a single episode that would allow Toph to encounter her parents directly. The most we get is her sending a letter to them, and we never even see the reaction to it.
Indeed, Word of God
is that in early concepts, Toph was male. This fact alone shows just how little character art they had for the character, when they could just casually swap her sex. Zuko, Aang, Katara, and Sokka all have planned romantic relationships with other characters; they couldn't just be sex-swapped (not without ramifications
). Does Toph have any romantic entanglements? Of course not; it's not like she has a character or anything. She was a guy a little while ago, after all. Personally, I'd like to know what kind of guy she would find attractive or interesting.
Sadly, unlike their mistakes with villains, this is something that's only going to get worse. Toph will usually be like a potted plant the Gaang carries around. Pretty, useful, but never really important.
It even extends to her fighting. She's the most powerful earthbender in the world, and in the season 2 finale, she's the only bending member of the Gaang that doesn't get into a major fight. Sure, she gets to take out a couple of scrubs, but that's it. Notice how Toph was sidelined in The Drill
; she existed, was useful as an enabler, but she never gets to be the hero.
That's Toph's role now.
I'm sorely tempted to just call her the Blind, Snarky Earthbender (BSE for short) from now on, unless she's actually demonstrating character, but that'd get old fast. So I'll just do it sometimes.