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Recap / Avatar: The Last Airbender "Bitter Work"

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Aang begins his earthbending training under Toph.

"What's there to tell? I threw some rocks at the Avatar, he got all whiny, and Sokka fell in a hole."
Toph, recapping the episode 74 years later

In the aftermath of the previous episode, both groups of main characters take time to recuperate. Zuko aids Uncle Iroh in recovering from his wound at Azula's hands, and Iroh tries to teach him to generate lightning; when Zuko is unable to achieve the necessary mental calm, Iroh instead teaches him a technique to redirect lightning, which he invented by observing Waterbenders. Aang also begins lessons, learning Earthbending from Toph. It's very difficult for him because Earth is an Airbender's polar opposite; Airbenders go with the flow by nature, while Earthbenders tend towards directness and stubbornness. Thus, the title of the episode refers to both Aang and Zuko struggling to master attitudes and techniques that are psychologically and elementally opposite to their normal mindsets.

Meanwhile, Katara continues some of Aang's training as a counterpoint to his difficulty with Earthbending, whilst Sokka carries on the meat-and-sarcasm tradition by trying to hunt a baby sabretooth moose-lion.



  • Advice Backfire: Katara suggests to Toph that rolling a huge boulder downhill at Aang might not be the best teaching method. Toph agrees... realizing the lesson would be more effective if Aang was blindfolded.
    Toph: Thank you, Katara.
  • Angrish: Sokka's reaction to Toph waking him up. In the script, he had actual lines, but Jack De Sena improvised Sokka's unintelligible ranting in one take. The writers thought it was funnier than what they'd come up with, so it was kept.
  • Bilingual Bonus: The title is a rough translation of what "kung fu" literally means.
  • Bottle Episode: The animated nature of the show makes it less obvious, but it's one of the few (if not only) episodes in the whole run that involves no guest voice actors or characters.
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  • Bittersweet Ending: Fitting for an episode called "Bitter Work". On the Sweet side, Aang has finally unlocked his earthbending powers. On the Bitter side, Zuko looks for lightning to redirect, but it won't strike him, leaving him feeling more angry and lost than ever before.
  • Butt-Monkey: Sokka ends up trapped in a hole in the ground up to his fingers, left totally helpless all day long and late into the evening trying to get out. Although it never comes up, imagine if he had been holding in an urge to take a leak...
  • Cool Teacher: Uncle Iroh is able to teach Zuko about the strengths and characteristics of all four elements, because he's traveled the world and studied them. He also teaches Sokka the technique he used to redirect Azula's lightning blast in "The Avatar State".
  • Cub Cues Protective Parent: Sokka finds a baby saber-toothed moose-lion cub. Inevitably its mama is near, and has to be fought off by Aang.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Iroh gets a good one immediately after waking up, when Zuko tells him it was Azula's surprise attack.
    Iroh: Somehow that's not so surprising.
  • Die or Fly: Invoked by Toph when she rolls a huge boulder down a cliff at Aang to try and get him to earthbend. Aang defies the invoking by jumping out of the way. Played straighter later in the episode, when successfully stopping an angry Sabertoothed Mooselion gives him the proper "stand your ground" mindset needed for earthbending.
  • Dramatically Missing the Point: Zuko thinks that Iroh teaching him how to redirect lightning means he's ready to redirect it for real. The dramatic part is that Iroh didn't teach him that technique so he could go actively look for lightning to get struck by.
  • Drill Sergeant Nasty: Toph's training methods are harsh and intense. It makes for a contrast with Katara's gentler approach.
  • Elemental Armor: Toph covers herself in a coating of rock while trying to teach Aang how to earthbend.
  • Elemental Rock–Paper–Scissors: Katara figures out that the reason Aang is having so much trouble mastering earthbending compared to the other elements is because it is completely antithetical to his airbender philosophy. It's only once Aang stands his ground to both the Sabertooth Mooselion and Toph that he finally has the attitude necessary to earthbend.
  • Foil:
    • Aang to Zuko. Both are subjected to the same bitter work, but Aang succeeds where Zuko succumbs to his own sense of victimhood.
    • Katara and Toph are this in addition to Opposed Mentors.
  • Gilligan Cut:
    Katara: I've been training Aang for a while now. He responds well to a positive teaching experience. Lots of encouragement and praise. Kind words. If he's doing something wrong, maybe a gentle nudge in the right direction.
    Toph: Thanks, Katara. A gentle nudge. I'll try that.
    (Cut to intense Training from Hell.)
  • Ignored Epiphany: Sokka gives up neither meat nor sarcasm after being saved.
  • I Resemble That Remark!:
    Iroh: "You will not be able to master lightning until you deal with the turmoil inside you."
    Zuko: "WHAT TURMOIL?!"
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Sokka, who sided with Toph in the previous episode, gets the full brunt of her rude nature (literally) in the opening scene.
  • Lethal Chef: Zuko's attempts to make tea are apparently fairly disastrous. Iroh chokes one cup down so as not to offend him, but tosses the contents of a second out the window when Zuko isn't looking.
  • Mama Bear: The mother Sabertoothed Mooselion.
  • Misplaced Kindergarten Teacher: Katara comes across this way, advocating a very supportive and affirmative teaching style for Aang. Subverted in that it is appropriate for his childish personality.
  • No Antagonist: The only sources of conflict in this episode are Aang and Zuko's blocks while learning. The closest thing to an antagonist the episode has is the mother Sabertooth Mooselion, and even it fails to qualify.
  • Nothing Personal: Sokka tells this to the creature he wants to eat.
  • Off-Model: Despite the fact that she's blind, Toph leaves a hole for her eyes when suiting herself in rock armor, rather than for her mouth to breathe. The creators admitted this was an animation error.
  • "Oh, Crap!" Smile: Katara when she realizes that she has actually encouraged Toph to push Aang even harder.
  • Opposed Mentors / Gentle Touch vs. Firm Hand: Katara goes for the soft, encouraging, positive attitude, while Toph prefers the rougher, blunter, drill sergeant style.
  • Personality Powers: One of the first episodes that addresses this issue, as Toph emphasizes the importance of how you have be "steady and strong" like rock in order bend rock to your will.
    Aang: What if I came at the boulder from a different angle?
    Toph: No, that's the problem. You've got to stop thinking like an Airbender. There's no "different angle," no clever solution, no trickety-trick that's gonna move that rock — you've gotta face it head on.
  • Plot Parallel: Between Zuko and Aang and their "bitter work".
  • Pun-Based Title: In addition to noting the obstacles both the protagonist and his parallel face throughout the episode, "Bitter Work" is also a rough translation of the term "Kung Fu".
  • Rage Against the Heavens: Zuko's final scene involves him climbing a mountain and shouting abuse at a storm.
  • Ridiculously Cute Critter: The baby Sabretoothed Mooselion. It's too young to have any of the traits that makes the creature usually so fearsome, and is quite friendly for a wild animal.
  • Rule of Symbolism: Aang and Katara's waterbending lesson in rotating water symbolizes Aang's train of thought, as he struggles with facing his problems "head on". If dropping the water is any indication, he truly doesn't want his problems on his mind right now.
  • Sarcastic Clapping: Toph, after Aang managed to airbend his way out of danger.
  • Shut Up and Save Me!: Sokka, when Aang and Toph have a talk instead of getting him out of the hole.
  • Smite Me, O Mighty Smiter!: During Zuko's Rage Against the Heavens he demands that the clouds strike him with lightning. It's not like the world has ever held back before.
  • Staggered Zoom: Onto Aang's face, when he sees Toph using his staff to crack nuts.
  • Stealth Mentor: While Toph is...hard to get along with, she intentionally tries to get on Aang's nerves by eating his food, taking and misusing his staff, and simply watched when him and Sokka were attacked by an angry wild animal. All of this, so that Aang gains the confrontational stance needed to earthbend.
  • Sure, Let's Go with That: When Zuko has the revelation that tea drinking is meant to calm the mind, Iroh agrees, even though it's clear he actually never thought of it that way.
  • Teach Him Anger: Toph's strategy for teaching Aang to "stand his ground" like an Earthbender is to keep pushing his buttons until he gets mad enough to stand up to her. It works.
  • Thicker Than Water: Zuko assumes Iroh won't help him prepare to another encounter with Azula because of this. Iroh defies it.
    Zuko: I know what you're gonna say. She's my sister and I should be trying to get along with her.
    Iroh: No, she's crazy and she needs to go down.
  • Training Montage: Aang learning earthbending!
  • Training from Hell: Toph definitely doesn't hold back when teaching Aang earthbending.
  • You Never Did That for Me: Aang acknowledges Toph as his earthbending sifu (teacher). This makes Katara jealous as Aang never referred to her as a sifu. He calls her "sifu" later, however.


Video Example(s):


Earthbending Demonstration and Duel

Toph teaches earthbending philosophy to Avatar Aang / a duel between Toph (the Blind Bandit) and other professional earthbenders.

How well does it match the trope?

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Example of:

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