The Firebending Masters
What was that?! That was the worst firebending I've ever seen!
—Zuko, now failing at things he used to be able to do.
It was bound to happen sooner or later. Here we are, the episode I hate more than any other in the entire series.
Oh sure, I hate the fact that Imprisoned
made Toph's nonsense from The Guru
not only possible but inevitable. I hate the Godawful writing from The Great Divide
. The Chase
gave us A-Sue-la, The Drill
was filled with stupid, and The Avatar and The Fire Lord
was both superfluous and insulting. But this episode?
This is the only episode of the series that I categorically refused to rewatch for this review. I'm covering this based on online transcripts, and even just rereading some of this crap pisses me off.
The episode opens with Zuko starting to teach Aang firebending. Zuko sounds a bit reassuring to the nervous Aang, but then makes a comment that causes him to recoil in fear. What a great teacher. Then, he has Aang show him what firebending he can do. Which again, shows that Zuko kinda sucks at teaching; he should start from square 1 with Aang, since Aang's so apprehensive about the whole thing.
Aang nervously does a move (where did he learn that?) that creates a puff of smoke. So Aang asks for a demonstration. Zuko tells him to take a few steps back, for some reason. Isn't Zuko trying to teach him control? And doesn't control mean not accidentally burning people who happen to be too close? You know, not having to tell people to stand back when you're firebending? Anyway, Zuko does a move and... a tiny tongue of flame emerges and sputters out.
Aang applauds, but in a way that's clearly trying to be supportive. I have no idea why; he's seen
Zuko's firebending before. Zuko suddenly being unable to firebend should be very alarming.
Zuko speaks the page quote. Aang again tries to prop his ego up, and now suddenly this conversation takes on impotence implications. The dialog really sounds like Aang is trying to make Zuko feel better about not getting an erection.
We get a cut to Zuko failing to firebend some more. Aang again tries to be encouraging, but Zuko takes it as Aang being patronizing. Sokka shows up for some Komedy!
Cut to that night, at dinner. Zuko then says that he's lost his firebending. Katara then utters a laugh that really sounds like someone making fun of a guy for not getting it up. Is this inference really here? Am I reading too much into this? Or did the writers contrive the dialog in these scenes to emulate that kind of conversation? Because nobody seems to be concentrating on the fact that Zuko has suddenly stopped firebending. This should be alarming and disconcerting, yet it's played for Komedy! and humiliation.
Anyway, Katara says that she was laughing at the irony. Yeah, I'll bet she was. Specifically, how they wished he had lost his firebending earlier, but now that he's ostensibly on their side, he's useless. When Zuko says that his firebending is weaker (even though he just said it was "gone" before), Katara fires back by saying that he's not a good as he thinks he is. Even though they've all seen
how strong his firebending is.
This entire sequence of dialog is terribly contrived and nonsensical. Oh, I get that Katara's still got a mad-on for Zuko, but that doesn't explain everyone else's behavior.
Zuko speculates that it may be because he changed sides. Aang figures that his firebending came from rage, and he doesn't have enough of that anymore. After a bit of Komedy! with Sokka, Zuko says that he doesn't want to use "hate and anger" anymore, thinking that there must be some other way.
Why does he think that? As far as everything we've been told about firebending is concerned, that's simply how firebending works. Iroh was really clear on this back in Bitter Work
. And I quote, "fueled by rage or emotion the way other firebending is." So why is there suddenly talk of some other way, when there has been no indication up until now that any such way exists.
Because now it does. Over 5/6ths of the way through the series. Though to be fair, it was only halfway through the series that we even learned that firebending was fueled by rage and emotion; before then, they talked about the sun and breath.
Toph then talks about finding the original source of firebending. Again, even though as far as anyone knows, that is
the original source. Anyway, Toph talks about her teachers, the original earthbenders: the badgermoles.
Here we go: one of the prime reasons I hate this episode. This is all so stupid, I'm going line by line on this one.
"One day, when I was little, I ran away and hid in a cave." So, joining Aang was not the first time she'd run away. No wonder her parents wanted to keep her under scrutiny. Also, she looks like she's about five years old here. A blind, 5-year-old daughter out alone in the world, God know where? That sounds like the stuff of a parent's nightmare.
I'm really starting to wonder who is the actual victim here: Toph, or her parents.
"That's where I met them." The last time we saw badgermoles, they were pretty feral. The only reason Sokka's party avoided being eaten by them was with music. Which Toph didn't bring. Naturally instead of being mauled, the badgermoles just lick her. Though to be fair, caring for child-like things tends to be a trait of many mammals, even those not of their own species.
"They were blind, just like me. So we understood each other." Because that's all it takes for a wild animal to understand a human: to have a single physical trait
in common with them. This is such trite horsecrap. Also, I love the implication that Toph's blindness means that she got to learn from them far better than Oma and Shu. I guess if you want to be a totally badass earthbender in the Avatar-verse, the first thing you should do is poke out your eyes and find some badgermoles.
"I was able to learn earthbending, not just as a martial art, but as an extension of my senses." Um, no. Toph already knew
earthbending, remember? Back in The Blind Bandit
, Toph very clearly said, "Even though I was born blind, I've never had a problem seeing." This very clearly says that Toph always
had Toph-Vision and earthbending. Can the writers not stick with their own backstories here?
"For them, the original earthbenders, it wasn't just about fighting. It was their way of interacting with the world." And then we see one of the badgermoles doing some earthbending. We see Toph and the badgermole crawling in the same way. Then we see Toph stand erect, adopt her usual bending pose, and earthbend a rock, like a pro.
These two are not the same
That last sequence really illustrates the stupidity of this idea, because her pose and movement look nothing
like what the badgermoles did. Now, let's be fair. Back in The Cave of Two Lovers
, the badgermoles' earthbending looked really unnatural for a four-legged animal. Here, their moves look much more legitimate for animals that have that kind of posture.
But that just emphasizes how learning from badgermoles makes no sense, as the way Toph does her
earthbending move looks absolutely nothing like the badgermoles. Just look at the palms of their hands for comparison. The badgermoles keep their palms pointed down, away from their bodies. Toph has her palms facing upwards and towards her body. Badgermoles don't move that way; they don't have that kind of posture. So how did Toph learn this move that badgermoles simply aren't built to perform, if she supposedly learned from them? Also, she earthbended with her foot
, while we have only ever seen badgermoles earthbend with their forelimbs (ie: arms).
The really confusing thing is that they juxtaposed these two scenes together on purpose
. As though they were presenting the closing argument to some grand thesis, not utterly ruining the very purpose of the scene. Toph having a one-off line about learning from badgermoles might fly. But once you see how they bend right next to how she bends, it's immediately obvious why it makes no sense. The juxtaposition undermines the whole point of the scene.
Well, after that stream of nonsense, Aang says that it's amazing. It certainly is amazing, since it's not actually possible, as the episode quite clearly demonstrated. Aang says that the original airbenders were the Sky Bisons. Because we totally see Appa performing moves that look like what Aang does.
Zuko says that the original firebenders, the dragons, are extinct. Aang is perplexed by this, as there were plenty around "when I was a kid". Oh, you mean 7 months ago, Aang? Did the writers forget that this wasn't very long ago to him? Zuko simply cuts him off, saying that they're dead now.
Zuko suggests instead that they look for the ancient Sun Warriors, the first people to learn firebending from the dragons. They died off thousands of years ago, but conveniently
their civilization was not too far from their current location. So now, either they find their defunct civilization and learn something from the ruins, or Aang finds a new teacher.
Cut to Appa, carrying Aang and Zuko off to adventure. Eventually, they spot a city made of stones, with architecture that seems borrowed from many things. It is evocative of Mayans, but a few other cultures as well. The duo land, and Zuko says that the architecture reminds him of the Fire Sages' temples.
Aang triggers a trap, but his airbending and reflexes allow him to avoid death. Zuko wonders at the centuries old trap that still works. Yeah, that can't possibly be an indication that someone's still alive here or something.
Eventually, they find a large stone relief of two dragons breathing a wreath of fire around a guy. Zuko feels that this is pretty good evidence of the dragons being angry when firebending. This segues into Aang getting Zuko to tell him how the dragons died out.
Apparently Sozin happened. Of course. Because everything bad that ever happened in the last 100 years
was due to him. No, he can't have had even one redeeming feature. Nor can there be one evil thing that happened under his rule that was not his personal
responsibility. Sozin started a tradition of hunting dragons for sport. It couldn't have just started on its own of course. No, Sozin himself must have personally promoted the notion. Because without Sozin, killing off an entire species is not evil enough
During this time, killing a dragon would make one's firebending legendary. I don't know, it seems to me that subduing and riding a dragon to dispense death from the skies would be far more legendary than just killing one. You know, LIKE SOZIN DID!
But I'm clearly injecting more thought into it than the writers. This obvious retcon
exists for the sole purpose of explaining why there aren't divisions of firebenders on dragonback, which would have made taking Ba Sing Se much easier.
Zuko says that killing a dragon earned one the title of "Dragon," and Iroh apparently slew the last dragon. Um, last time I checked, Iroh said that he got that title from firebreathing. But who gives a damn about continuity; we've got stupidity to get across!
Aang wonders about the Iroh retcon
, thinking that he was a good guy. Zuko just says that he had a complex past. Complex character in this
episode? Feh; we'll see how long that lasts.
Anyway, the pair come to a large building, with a big courtyard in front. There are some stones in the area, forming a celestial calendar. It's designed to open the door on the solstice. Too bad the most recent one passed already. Zuko gets the idea to use his swords to reflect light onto the sun stone, which shows how good the security on these "locks" are. The doors open.
They enter a chamber with statues of people with headdresses resembling Native Americans. The statues each have various poses, and circle the outside of the room. Aang reads an inscription on a statue. Because obviously he's 100% fluent in the ancient language of the Sun Warriors. Apparently, the statues show something called the "Dancing Dragon". When Aang adopts the same pose in front of the statue, a pressure plate he's standing on sinks. So he gets Zuko to perform the Dancing Dragon with him, as it conveniently requires two people.
Apparently, the Dancing Dragon is some kind of firebending form, with each pose being a firebending move. When they finish, a golden egg-shaped thing arises on a pedestal. Aang is skeptical, since they've already found one working trap. Zuko, being Zuko, picks it up, saying that it feels alive.
Cue the trap.
The doors slam shut and a goo starts filling the chamber. It's too sticky for Zuko to move. Aang stays away from it for as long as possible, but it eventually fills up the room (cleanup for this room must be hell). The two of them are fortunately beneath the only open-air part of the ceiling; otherwise they would have suffocated. Zuko suggests staying calm to figure a way out.
Fade to nightfall. Aang reminds Zuko how stupid he was for picking up the egg, but Zuko tries to defend it by saying that he made something happened. Yes, getting the one hope for the world killed qualifies to Zuko as "something happening".
And then... a Sun Warrior appears!
Again, there is some Native American influence here, using this episode's expected level of subtlety. IE: none. He's wearing face paint. Because it's not a Native American stereotype if they're not wearing face paint at all times.
Cut to Zuko and Aang, now freed from the goo. Some kind of aardvark-type thing apparently eats the stuff. The Sun Warriors must have a lot of them around, and considering how much stuff must have filled up that room, they'd better be pretty hungry.
The pair are surrounded by Sun Warriors. The apparent chief of these people, the one we saw last scene, says that they must be punished for trying to take their "Sun Stone." Zuko tells them that they were looking for the ancient origin of firebending. If so, why did you take the Sun Stone, Zuko? It certainly didn't look like it had any secrets of firebending in it. Aang tells them that he's the Avatar.
Zuko introduces himself as the former Prince of the Fire Nation. Then he says that his people distorted the ways of firebending. When did Zuko find out about this supposed distortion? He says that he wants to learn the true way. It'd be funny if that was
the true way, that that's simply how firebending is done, and the two have been wasting their time. But no; the Fire Nation has simply fallen to The Dark Side
and now must be brought back to the light.
Zuko then says that he feels "truly humbled" to be in the presence of the ancient Sun Warrior civilization. This really doesn't feel like a Zuko line. I just don't see him feeling particularly humbled by this kind of civilization. Granted, we never really see what Zuko's preference for cultures is, but I just have a hard time guessing that he prefers "Mayan Knockoff" cultures. There is nothing special or impressive about these guys, save for the fact that they managed to remain undetected for centuries.
So the Chief tells them that, if they want to learn firebending Sun Warrior style, they have to face Ran and Shao, two masters. They'll teach them if they deem Aang and Zuko worried, otherwise they'll be destroyed on the spot.
Cut to a bunch of Sun Warriors with Aang and Zuko, before a large fire. The Chief exposites that this fire is the "eternal flame," which was the very first fire given to them by the dragons. They've been keeping it going for thousands of years. Sure why not.
So Aang and Zuko each have to take some of that fire to the masters, who totally aren't dragons by the way. Aang is a bit leery about this, since he's not really a firebender yet, but the Chief won't allow Zuko to carry Aang's fire. The Chief then exposites that the ritual is all about Sun Warrior philosophy, keeping a "constant heat". One has to make the fire big enough that it doesn't go out, but not so large that it goes out of control.
Notice how he never actually says how to make the fire bigger or smaller. Or even how to carry it at all. Wouldn't that be useful information to have before being given a ball of flame?
He hands Aang and Zuko balls of fire culled from the eternal flame. Aang takes his with trepidation, but the moment he holds it (how?), he says that it's like a small heartbeat. Unlike the last time he felt fire. Because it wasn't super-special-awesome "eternal flame" fire, just regular fire. The Chief says that "fire is life, not just destruction." Then he tells them to climb a mountain and take their fire there.
Cut to the two walking that way. As they are climbing up a mountain, Aang starts to lag behind. He's afraid that his fire will go out if he goes too fast. Zuko then tells him to "give it more juice." Again, how to give it "juice" is not explained or even touched on. Everyone just seems to expect Aang to know how to make fire bigger and smaller. Aang is afraid that he can't control it (quite reasonable, since nobody tells him how), but Zuko gives him some words of encouragement.
And this brings us to another issue. Aang's problem with firebending was not a lack of control; the fire did exactly what he wanted it to do. Aang's problem was irresponsibility.
He firebended thoughtlessly, like it was air, where an errant gust would just be mildly annoying to those nearby. But this is fire, which you have to be thoughtful and careful in your use thereof. An errant tongue of flame can hurt or even kill. Aang's problem is his fear
that he will accidentally hurt someone.
What Aang needs isn't encouragement; it's discipline.
Anyway, cut to dusk as Aang and Zuko arrive at a plateau surrounded by mountains. Apparently the Sun Warriors have learned teleportation, since they're all here before Zuko or Aang. Sure why not.
The Chief tells them that facing the titular firebending masters is dangerous for Zuko, since his ancestors killed off the dragons. Which would make the masters assholes,
since all that happened before Zuko was born. Blaming him for it would be absolutely unconscionable. When Aang says that his being the Avatar should smooth things over, the Chief reminds him that his absence was also what allowed the dragons to be slaughtered. At least that's something that is actually Aang's
Aang suggests that they leave now; after all, Aang learned how to hold a tiny ball of fire. That's progress, right? Zuko says that he wants to know what's so great about them. They're dragons, Zuko; did you not notice the fact that the Chief kept talking about your impending judgment from the perspective of the dragon's disappearance? Aang is worried about being attacked, but Zuko thinks that they can take them. Even though he doesn't have his firebending back yet.
So, after some ritualistic drum beating and dancing, Aang and Zuko ascend some stairs to a platform. When instructed, they hold out their hands to present their fire to the masters. As the ground trembles, Aang (who should be able to use his Toph-Vision to see what's coming) drops his fire. And then he makes Zuko drop his by trying to steal some of it.
Because this episode didn't have enough Komedy! yet.
Then the dragons emerge. Zuko needlessly tells us that they're the masters. The dragons circle them. Aang suddenly decides that they should perform the Dancing Dragon for them. So, after a bit of convincing, they do. And here, we see one of the dragons behind Zuko and Aang, mimicking the motions.
Well, kinda. Because here's yet another perfect demonstration for why learning martial arts forms from animals is stupid. The moves that Zuko and Aang are doing look virtually nothing like what the dragons are doing. Oh sure, Zuko and Aang are attacking in the same directions, but the dragons do everything with their snout. The equivalent human motion would be a head-move.
In any case, Aang and Zuko stand before the two hovering dragons. The masters look at Aang and Zuko, who are terrified by this. The two dragons land and then firebreath at them, engulfing them in swirls of multicolored flame.
Oh, I only wish. The fire just swirls around the two as they star in amazement at a spectacle of multicolored flame. Zuko simply says, "I understand." Well, I'm glad somebody
does, because this is the point when the episode jumps off a cliff. Which is an impressive accomplishment for an episode that has already hit bottom.
The pair walk back down the stairs to the Sun Warrior Chief. Zuko and Aang talk about the fire they saw. Aang says that it was "like firebending harmony". The Chief tells them that the dragons gave them a vision of the true meaning of firebending.
Writers, communication is what you do.
It is the very foundation of artistic expression. If you have to basically tell the audience what took place, after you already showed it to them, you have failed
as writers. Stopping short of communication
is not the same thing as actually communicating an idea. A swirling mass of colors of flame doesn't mean anything, and telling us afterwards that they've been enlightened doesn't sell us on that idea.
Zuko wonders at dragons still being alive, since Iroh said that he killed the last one. Aang assumes that Iroh lied, which is silly. The most likely explanation is that Iroh was mistaken; after all, how could he know that he was truly facing the last dragon?
Since we're in the hell episode, the Chief interjects a much stupider explanation than Aang's. See, Iroh was the last outsider to go through the ritual. They gave him their secret firebending knowledge. So Iroh lied to protect them.
So, to recap. This episode has introduced retconning to Sozin to make him even more evil. And now it has introduced something into Iroh's backstory that made him a more complex character, only to nullify it minutes later to make him a saint.
If the series had a fourth season, I imagine we'd find that Iroh wasn't the actual
commanding general at Ba Sing Se. It was someone else, and he was just observing and advising, as he did with Zhao. And he didn't send that letter where he joked about burning Ba Sing Se to the ground; that was someone else who forged Iroh's name for some reason. And Lu Ten wasn't part of the invading army after all. He was just visiting his father, when some cowardly Earth Kingdom assassin killed him. Likely Lu Ten died heroically protecting his noble father from a brutal assassin. And of course, Iroh let the assassin go, because the saintly Iroh would never take revenge on the man who murdered his son.
Really, what purpose does it serve? Why not let a character have a history they may not be proud of? Why did they bother to introduce Iroh as having killed the last dragon, rewriting the source of his title in the process, just to undo it a few minutes later? It did absolutely nothing
for his character. Indeed, it damaged it, for several reasons. This must have happened before Ba Sing Se (Zuko said the last dragon was killed before he was born), so Iroh took the lessons learned here and decided to go attack a city. So what exactly did he learn? It also hurts his character because...
If Iroh already knew this stuff, why didn't he teach Zuko any of it?!
If Iroh had this little epiphany therapy
crap to become a super-special-awesome firebender, Sun Warrior-style, then why wouldn't he teach his favorite nephew what he had learned? Yet he was perfectly willing to let Zuko think that all firebending flowed from hate and rage; he even said that himself. It's the equivalent of a Jedi teaching a young Padawan the ways of the Sith
, knowing good and well that nothing good will come of it.
Back to the episode. Aang says that he though firebending was destruction. But now he knows it's energy and life. Which of course changes nothing about his playful attitude that caused him to burn Katara. See, Zuko's line about respecting firebending was right; it's not
something you can just play with. But somehow, Aang is now 100% perfectly fine with firebending. Because of some swirling colors of light exhaled by dragons.
Zuko realizes that his firebending failed because he lost his purpose and drive. He was focused on capturing Aang, so when he joined Aang, he lost his drive. But now he decides he has a new one: to help Aang defeat Ozai. And now he can firebend again.
The Chief then says that, since they know the Sun Warrior's secrets, they must be imprisoned there forever. But it's just Komedy!, though he does warn them not to tell anyone.
Since we're in the episode of raw stupidity, we naturally cut to Aang and Zuko telling everyone they met some dragons. Whether they explain the whole story is not shown, but there's no reason to expect that they didn't. And don't forget: this isn't just the Gaang here; the Troika are here too, and who knows who they might tell.
And the episode ends as it began
: by shaming Zuko.
That was crap
. Pure filth. It's so bad, it's not even worth swearing
Structurally, what we have is an episode that introduces a conflict just to resolve it. Zuko is suddenly unable to bend, so he and Aang go on a little quest and afterwards he can bend again. At the end, Zuko is no different than he was before the episode started; we see nothing from Zuko later that he would not have been able to do if this episode didn't exist. So the episode itself is mostly pointless; it gets Aang firebending, but that's about it.
Compare this to Bitter Work
. In that episode, we actually had character
. We have Toph's character front and center (a rare thing for the series). We see how she is as an instructor. We see how Aang is as a student under her. And so forth.
Do we get any of that here? Absolutely not. We learn nothing about Zuko as a teacher. We learn nothing about Zuko period. We learn nothing about Aang in any capacity; nothing we didn't already know (he's afraid of firebending. We had a whole episode to tell us that). There is no character development of any kind here. Aang never gets over the discipline problem that is at the heart of his firebending issues. He sees swirling colors, and boom: he can firebend. No character gained or insight exposed.
Even the guest stars have no actual character. The Sun Warriors themselves only appear in the last third of the episode; hardly enough to make an impression beyond the most broad caricatures and stereotypes. Indeed, for an episode called "The Firebending Masters", they only appear for about 2 minutes at the end. We learn nothing about why they decided to help Aang and Zuko. They just do.
Continuity is slashed and burned, to no real purpose or effect. Firebending now has a Dark Side and a Light Side. Sozin gets a pointless retcon to make him more evil, while Iroh gets a double-pointless double-retcon that makes him more angelic. Neither of these changes the audience's opinion about either character. They may as well not have bothered. Indeed, "may as well not have bothered" is the theme
of this episode.
I checked the writing credit for this episode. It was written by John O'Bryan, who was responsible for such great episodes
as The King of Omashu
, The Waterbending Scroll
, and his most infamous work: The Great Divide
. That being said, the man is also responsible for Avatar Day
, Nightmares and Daydreams
, The Library
, and of all things The Avatar State
. Somehow, the same man who introduced us to Azula gave us this utter filth. Maybe he was just having a good day for that episode, as most of his work is either bland, terrible, humorous, or focused on the plot. With that one exception, his best episodes had very little character focus. This one, being a character episode, really shows his weaknesses as a writer.
The people of the Fire Nation have desire and will, and the energy and drive to achieve what they want.
One of the many, many
things I hate this episode for is the notion that, to be great at something, you have to go back to the roots of it.
In no field of human endeavour has this ever
been true. I highly doubt that Einstein wasted precious time measuring the circumference of the Earth with the only the tools available to Eratosthenes. All progress is based on progress that came before; you don't have to have used stone knives and bearskins to build nuclear reactors. Indeed, not having to redo everything from first principles is the very foundation of human civilization.
But not in the Avatar-verse. For bending, the animals are the true source. They are the arbiters of proper bending; any deviation from the way they do things is a corruption of the pure art. Obviously, the animals carry the purest form of bending, because it's not like animals are known to change, adapt, or learn anything at all. No, only us human, who are totally not animals, are capable of that.
Similarly, humans can't possibly use their intelligence to improve
on bending forms, because that would be improving on purity, which is not possible.
No, humans can only corrupt
; they can't make things better.
So let's look at the origin of firebending. The Sun Warriors, for all 10 minutes that we see of them, seem to be a fairly simple people. While they've built a large, stone city, they certainly don't seem to be using their firebending for anything. Well, anything substantive that we can see, at any rate. The reason the Fire Nation is so big in metal is because firebending allows them to more easily work metals than it does other people. But the Sun Warriors don't do that. There's no evidence of a "metal culture" here.
And that is the foundation of my problem with them. They, and this episode as a whole, remind me a great deal of another Avatar
. And don't get me started on that
piece of crap; I can bitch about that movie from here to the end of time.
See, of all of the cultures and nations of the Avatar-verse, the one I like the most is the Fire Nation. Sure, they're engaged in a war of aggression to conquer the world, but that's a matter of leadership, not culture. What I like about them is exactly what Iroh said: they actually want stuff
, and are willing to go get stuff done. Whether beneficial or negative, the people of the Fire Nation get things done. They progress.
Just like the fire for which they are named.
The Sun Warriors don't use their firebending to improve their lives; not that we can see. And they certainly
don't take advantage of it as much as the Fire Nation does. The Sun Warriors are content with their small, ragged culture. If they weren't, then they wouldn't be a secret. They'd be out there, fighting the Fire Nation for control of territory to live on. If they weren't insular and isolated, they'd have been out there fighting to protect the dragons when Sozin started having them killed for sport.
At best, the Sun Warriors are a broken people, slowly allowing their uniqueness to be lost and forgotten by the world. At worst, they actually like
hiding from the world. They want to remain a secret, because intercoursing with others would pollute their oh-so-perfect society. Yes, that perfect society that has accomplished nothing, while the Fire Nation has been out there in the world, creating great things.
Terrible things, to be sure (at least under the current management). But great.
The Sun Warriors are a cultural dead end, the culture of stagnation. One that this show is trying to promote as being the proper way for the Fire Nation to be. And that's the biggest crime the episode commits.
The problem with the Fire Nation is that they're run by assholes. Their culture is fine; they have the right attitude. They just need new leadership, one who will show the greatness of the Fire Nation by allowing them to actually be great. Not by trying to conquer other lands. This episode is trying to say that the culture of the Fire Nation is fundamentally broken, down to the very way that they use firebending, and it is in need of repair. That it needs to go back to some of that Sun Warrior philosophy and such.
This episode shows that the essence of firebending, it's true source, is desire and will, purpose and drive. Something the Sun Warriors have none
They may have the sun inside them. But it is nothing more than a pulsar, a dead star wanting desperately to remember its former brightness.
Interestingly enough, the original series bible by Mike and Bryan always had this "right and wrong" way of firebending in mind and the twist was that Iroh was DELIBERATELY teaching Zuko the wrong way of firebending because (in conception) Iroh was a bad guy under orders from his brother. In the finished product, Iroh became the total opposite of that, yet they still have him essentially lying to Zuko by teaching him all that hate and rage stuff for firebending. I find it weird that they never found a better way of fixing that.
^ When he gets to Sozin's Comet, I bet he's going to conclude it with "This series was fun, but filled with terrible writing."
Re: learning martial arts from animals - plenty of real life martial arts styles claim this. Of course, the efficacy of said styles in a real fight or even a simulated fight is...dubious, at best.