Welcome to the twenty-ninth installment of my Avatar: The Last Airbender rewatch! Today’s post will be covering “Bitter Work.” Episode 2.09 feels a lot like level grinding, only we get Foo Foo Cuddlypoops and some hilarious lines from Sokka. Oh, and Zuko throws a hissy fit at the universe.
Please note that while the summary will remain spoiler free (aside for everything up to and including the current episode, of course), the subsequent commentary (and comments) will not be. If you haven’t already seen the series, go do it now. This post will be waiting for you when you come back.
Note: I would like this rewatch to remain spoiler free for The Legend of Korra. Please choose your comments wisely. If you wish to discuss Korra, you can do so on these posts.
Aang wakes up early in the morning, extremely excited to start his earthbending lessons. Sokka is less than happy about being woken up, and Toph only compounds it by earthbending him to a rude awakening. Aang is enthusiastic about learning fancy moves; Toph tells him they’ll start with learning how to move a rock. Katara follows Toph and Aang to the practice site, though she is a little jealous that Aang calls Toph sifu and not her.
Toph tells Aang that the key to earthbending is the stance. One must be steady and strong—like a rock—in order to earthbend. Aang puts on his game face and tries to earthbend, but only ends up throwing himself backwards and into Appa.
Iroh dreams of older days, when his son, Lu Ten, was a little boy. Lu Ten “blasts” Iroh, and the two of them tumble to the grass, laughing. The scene then changes to a hill with a single tree and Lu Ten’s grave. While it rains, Iroh promises that he will see his son again.
Zuko’s voice pulls Iroh back to consciousness. The prince reminds Iroh that Azula blasted him in a surprise attack, which Iroh remarks is not that surprising. Zuko offers his uncle a cup of tea, and while his intentions are good, the tea is not. Iroh calls the tea “bracing,” and when Zuko hands him another cup, Iroh ninjas it out of the window.
Zuko tells his uncle that it’s only a matter of time before they run into Azula again. He is going to need to learn more advanced firebending techniques if he’s going to have any chance of standing against her. Iroh climbs to his feet and tells Zuko that it’s time to resume his training.
Thanks for breaking my heart, show. I’m sending you the repair bill.
Katara wonders why Aang’s earthbending attempt failed, and Aang starts babbling at coming at the rock from a different angle. Toph, however, puts that line of thinking to a halt. The problem is that Aang was thinking like an airbender. There are no alternate angles of attack or tricks or clever solutions that will move the rock—you have to face it head on.
Toph demonstrates by headbutting a boulder into pieces. Aang is disheartened by this, so Katara runs over to Toph to do some damage control. She tells the younger girl that Aang responds very well to positive reinforcement, kind words, and gentle nudges. Toph says she’ll try that.
So we cut to Toph yelling at Aang and forcing him to carry a boulder while she moves the earth under his feet. It doesn’t go so well as the training montage proves, though by the end of the montage, Aang at least gets a few approving nods.
In the meantime, Sokka has gone off a-hunting. He comes across a cute baby animal and leaps down to attack it. Unfortunately, today is yet another day in which the universe hates Sokka; he lands in a crevasse and gets stuck. The little animal is adorable and wags its tail at him.
Sorry, Aang, but I’m totally rooting for Toph right now.
Iroh lectures Zuko on the nature of lightning generation while brewing a new batch of tea. Lightning is a pure expression of firebending, without aggression and fueled neither by rage nor emotion like other forms of firebending. He calls lightning the “coldblooded fire” and tells Zuko that it is precise and deadly, like Azula. In order to generate lightning, one needs peace of mind.
They switch locales so Iroh can continue his lecture. He explains about yin and yang energy and how the separation of these two creates an imbalance. Since the energy wants to restore balance, they come crashing back together. If you provide the release and guidance, this will create lightning.
Iroh motions for Zuko to take a step back and then unleashes a giant blast of lightning. Zuko is impressed and declares that he’s ready to try it. However, Iroh cautions him that once the yin and yang energies have been separated, you cannot command them. He tells Zuko to breathe first, and then lets him try.
Zuko’s first attempt blows up in his face. Iroh shakes his head.
Iroh, you are awesome. Just in case you’d forgotten.
Toph has decided to try new tactics since moving rocks are out of Aang’s reach right now. She tells him that he will be stopping a rock instead—a rock she’s going to roll down at him from the top of a cliff. If he has the attitude of an earthbender and stays in his stance, he will be able to stop the rock.
Aang is clearly unhappy with this lesson, and Katara steps in on his behalf. When she questions whether or not this is really the best method to teach Aang earthbending, Toph decides there is a better way. She blindfolds Aang and tells him that he will really have to sense the vibrations of the boulder now in order to stop it. Aang is displeased.
Toph sends the boulder down at Aang. He panics and jumps up out of the way at the last minute. Toph runs down to him and gets right in Aang’s face. She chews him out for chickening out, and his apologies don’t go over well. When Toph asks if he has what it takes to face the rock as an earthbender, Aang admits he doesn’t.
Katara goes over to console him. Aang can take a break, work on his waterbending, and go back to earthbending when he’s ready. Toph is dismissive of this attitude, but she lets them go.
Let me just say that I’m so glad I’m not Aang right now.
Zuko despairs over the fact that he still can’t generate lightning. Like everything else in his life, it just keeps blowing up in his face. Iroh admits he thought that this might happen. Zuko won’t be able to generate lightning until he has overcome the turmoil inside of him.
The prince denies his turmoil, but Iroh points out that he won’t be able to get rid of his anger until he lets go of his shame. Zuko counters that he’s not ashamed—he is as proud as ever. Iroh points out that pride isn’t the opposite of shame; rather, pride is the source of shame. Humility is the only antidote to shame, and Zuko admits that his life has been nothing but humbling lately.
In order to cheer Zuko up, Iroh announces that he’s going to teach Zuko a firebending move that even Azula doesn’t know. The princess doesn’t know this move because Iroh invented it himself.
In a less angsty part of the world, Sokka has to endure having a cute creature sitting on his head. His rambling, one-sided conversation with the animal touches on the natural order of the hunt, among other things. Sokka decides to swear off meat in favor of vegetarianism if he gets out of his predicament alive.
I’ll get back to you when I’m done giggling.
Katara leads Aang through some waterbending forms and tries to get him to talk about this earthbending problem he’s having. When she points out that avoiding the issue is his problem, he gets upset. He doesn’t know why he can’t face this head on. Katara guesses that the reason he’s having so much trouble is because he’s working with earth, his natural opposite. She reassures him that he will get it, and then she ambushes him with a reed. He slices the projectile in two, and she praises his reflexes. Aang thanks her and calls her sifu Katara.
It’s time for an info dump and art lesson with Uncle Iroh. He explains to Zuko that fire is the element of power. The people of the Fire Nation have desire and will, plus the energy and drive to get 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, freedom, and a sense 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, which holds them together through anything.
Iroh tells Zuko that it’s important to draw wisdom from many places. If you only draw knowledge from one source, it becomes stale. Understanding other elements, people, and nations will help you become whole.
Zuko points out that this is sounding like Avatar stuff, and Iroh tells him that it is the combination of the four elements in a single person that makes the Avatar so strong. Understanding these things can make other people more powerful as well. Iroh reveals that the technique he’s going to teach was one he learned by watching the waterbenders.
Why are you making that face, Zuko? I’ve screencapped far less dignified things than your uncle poking you with a stick.
Toph interrupts Aang’s meditation by announcing she’s gone through his things and is going to eat his food whether or not he cares. Aang says he doesn’t mind sharing, which prompts Toph to reveal that she’s also going to use his glider as a nutcracker.
That Aang minds. He tries to persuade her to stop what she’s doing, but she won’t. Toph calls him a delicate instrument and then wanders off with his glider, taking great delight in smashing it against rocks as she walks.
Aang returns to his meditation only to be interrupted by Katara. Apparently they’ve only just noticed that Sokka has been missing all day, and they split up to find him.
The little animal is enjoying tugging on Sokka’s ponytail while Sokka tries to bargain with whomever is in charge of the whole karma thing. He offers to give up both meat and sarcasm—the two key parts of his identity—if he gets out of the crevasse he’s stuck in.
Aang shows up immediately after and tries to pull him out. Sokka is stuck tight, so Aang tries and fails to use airbending to get him out. When Sokka tells him to do a little earthbending, Aang admits that he can’t do it.
It just wants to play with you, Sokka!
Sokka tells Aang to go get Toph instead, but Aang says he can’t as that would be too uncomfortable. The younger boy then sits down next to Sokka and angsts about how earthbending has him very confused. If he tries, he fails; if he doesn’t try, then he’ll never get it.
Sokka takes a moment to introduce Aang to Foo Foo Cuddlypoops, and Aang identifies the creature as a saber-tooth moose lion cub. Aang is overcome by the cute and picks it up—just in time for the momma saber-tooth moose lion to appear.
Iroh lectures Zuko on how waterbenders turn their opponents’ energy against them and says that’s how he figured out how to redirect lightning. Zuko is amazed that Iroh knows how to do this and is eager to learn. Iroh tells him that he will need to direct his own chi (and the lightning) from one arm, to the shoulder, down to the stomach, and back up and out the other shoulder and arm.
The stomach detour is the most critical component as the energy from the lightning cannot cross the heart. Otherwise, the damage could be fatal.
Admit it, you just wanted to see if you could get Zuko to dance.
Iroh walks Zuko through a physical motion so he can focus his energy along the proper pathways and let it flow. After some time, Iroh declares that Zuko has learned the technique. Zuko decides that he is ready to try to redirect actual lightning.
Understandably, Iroh says no. Lightning is dangerous, and he’s not about to start shooting it at his nephew for practice. With any luck, Zuko will never have to use the technique. This displeases Zuko, but lucky for him, there’s a storm brewing off on the horizon. The prince declares that he’s going to find his own lightning and rides off on Song’s Stolen Ostrich Horse.
Aang releases Foo Foo Cuddlypoops, who runs back toward its mother and disappears into the bush. The Avatar tries to talk the momma down, but she charges Aang and Sokka instead. Aang narrowly manages to airbend her up and over Sokka.
Sokka begs Aang to earthbend him out of the ground, but he can’t do it. Momma saber-tooth moose lion gets ready to charge for a second time. Aang tries to get her to follow him away from Sokka, which doesn’t work. He’s forced to deflect her with airbending again.
When the saber-tooth moose lion charges for the third time, Aang stands his ground and blasts her back with air. The creature finally decides she’s had enough and wanders off into the bush after her cub.
Poor, poor Sokka. But hey, that’s what you get when you immediately renege on your promise to give up meat and sarcasm.
Toph appears suddenly and applauds Aang’s performance. She reveals she was there the entire time, much to the boys’ annoyance. Toph tries to use Aang’s glider as a nutcracker again, but he grabs it away from her. Then she demands that Aang earthbend for her now—after all, he stood his ground against a crazy beast and her, which means he has what it takes to earthbend.
So Aang moves his first rock, finally, and Toph proclaims that he is an earthbender. She frees Sokka from the crevasse (Aang is not allowed to as he is still a novice and might accidentally crush Sokka). The three of them return to camp and find Katara, and Aang shows off his newly acquired earthbending skills to her and Appa.
In the meantime, Zuko has found a thematically appropriate stormy mountaintop. He yells at the world that he can send back whatever it chooses to send his way and dares it to strike him.
But the world ignores his challenge, and Zuko screams his frustration at the sky.
What, did you think the universe would actually have you get struck by lightning if you wanted to be struck by lightning? The universe hates you too much to do you a favor.
Welcome to the training episode, folks! It’s time to see Aang level up and Zuko…well, I guess he gets a few experience points in all this? They are very important experience points, at least.
But first to our heroes, because they are honestly the most entertaining part of this episode. This episode, while not particularly exciting, is a great look at our heroes and their personalities. Even Zuko gets some hard-won characterization in this episode. Normally training episodes or montages bore me, but I think the writers did an excellent job of making this episode a character study as much as it was a leveling up experience.
One of the great ways to define characters is to do it through contrast, and this episode has contrast in spades. The one that’s front and center this episode is the personality conflict between Aang and Toph.
As much as Toph annoyed me in “The Chase,” she really gets to shine in this episode. I love that she is basically a twelve-year-old drill instructor and Aang is her sole earthbender-in-training. She puts him through his paces, and she is as uncompromising as she is brutal. Toph is a fun character to be around because of her straightforward, determined attitude. She doesn’t feel like she needs to make accommodations for others—she expects them, and the rest of the world, to bend to her will or get out of the way.
I’m actually not really sure what half of Toph and Aang’s training montage was supposed to accomplish. Part of me thinks Toph was doing it just to rile Aang up and get him into the confrontational frame of mind he’d need in order to earthbend. Another part of me thinks that she was just enjoying bossing him around and messing with him. The rest of me thinks that these were all exercises designed to force Aang to familiarize himself with earth, though how carrying a boulder while someone constantly moves the earth under your feet is either helpful or safe is beyond me. And that goes double for making someone stand at the bottom of a cliff, waiting for a boulder to smash right into him.
Then again, that’s a pretty impressive compliment on Toph’s part. I can’t imagine she’d put Aang in a situation that dangerous if she didn’t believe he could handle it. On the other hand, she is blindfolding him and sending a ginormous boulder careening toward his face.
What I like the most about Toph in this episode is that she is determined to teach Aang, and she won’t let his pansy airbender ways keep him from becoming an earthbending master. When her initial attempts to teach Aang failed, I loved that she was flexible enough to try a different approach: pissing him off.
We so rarely get to see Aang angry in a non-Avatar-State-inducing context that it’s a lot of fun trying to figure out when exactly he’s going to snap. I will admit that I winced when Toph started using his glider as a nutcracker—no one else in the world knows how to make one of those right now, please don’t ruin it!
Toph’s tactics are, of course, in complete opposition to Katara’s teaching style. It was hilarious when Katara pulled Toph aside to give her some insight into Aang and the teaching methods he responded to. Either Toph genuinely thought she was doing the gentle nudging and praising or she didn’t care at all, and either answer amuses me greatly.
Equally hilarious is the fact that Katara must have sat and thought about both her teaching methods and how Aang responds to them. That actually makes her a really good teacher in my book, and I was pleased that Aang call her sifu. I am all about properly respecting folks when they deserve it, and as a bonus it definitely made Katara happy.
You know, I was actually quite fond of the fact that Katara was able to pick up Aang after his earthbending failure with the boulder and the dressing-down Toph gave him. It shows how well Katara knows Aang, and it’s a great testament to the fact that they’ve been friends for…well, however long the first season was. (I’m never quite sure on the timelines for this show aside from what season they’re in and how many days have passed in a given episode.) Katara knows him a lot better than Toph does, and she knows that he needs some time and some space in order to move on after all the belittling and shouting. He needs reassurance that he will learn earthbending, and Katara gives him that and further compliments him on the progress he’s made in waterbending. Yay for friends!
There is one bit from Katara in this episode that I do want to highlight, and that’s her opinion on why it’s so difficult for Aang to learn earthbending. Katara suggests that earth is his natural opposite—and leaves it vague enough that we don’t know if she means it’s his natural opposite because he is an airbender or because of his personality.
To me it looks like it’s a personality issue more than anything. While Aang’s training montage is largely unexplained, it appears to me as if he’s getting the “feel” for earth, if that makes any sense. What he’s lacking is the mindset necessary to make the earth bend to his will. As Toph pointed out, there aren’t any other angles of attack when it comes to earthbending—he has to face it head on and force it to do what he wants it to do.
Aang is not a very aggressive person, and initiating confrontations is not his thing. When he fights, he spends most of his time dodging or shielding when he can’t get out of the way in time. He doesn’t want to fight unless he has to, and when he fights he’d much rather do it from afar than get up close and in his enemy’s face. All things which make him a fantastic airbender and our loveable Avatar, but things which make it really hard for him to be an earthbender. In contrast, waterbending probably comes to him so easily because waterbending is also a highly defensive style. It hinges on taking your opponents’ attacks and turning the energy back on them, which is something Aang is more comfortable with. Before now, Aang really only gets into the earthbending mindset when he—or someone he cares about—is cornered.
Which brings us over to the last of our heroes: Sokka. Oh, Sokka. You had me grinning this entire episode, and I love you for that, even if it’s because the universe is hating on you yet again.
Sokka and Foo Foo Cuddlypoops are my absolute favorite parts of the episode. Yes, it’s a convenient way to keep Sokka busy while the real work in this episode happens, but it is hilarious. I love how very self-aware Sokka is in this episode. Not only does he know his situation his implausible and ridiculous, but he also is very aware of his role in the group as the sarcasm and meat guy. I always have a soft spot for characters that are aware of the absurdity of their lives, so Sokka makes me very happy.
Also, it’s adorable that he tries to bargain with the universe and offers to give up both meat and sarcasm in exchange for escaping—and then reneges on the deal immediately. Equally endearing was his interaction with Foo Foo Cuddlypoops. You cannot tell me that that little creature sitting on his head was not the most squee-worthy thing we’ve had since the turtle ducks. I just love how earnest Sokka is when he speaks to Foo Foo Cuddlypoops—as if the creature could actually understand what he’s saying and could, if it decided to, talk back.
And I love that Sokka even bothered to name the creature in the first place. While Toph gets a lot of attention for the nicknames she doles out like candy, Sokka also isn’t shy to assign names to other people/objects. I’m looking forward to the appearance of Sparky Sparky Boom Man/Combustion Man for just that reason.
Sokka’s saber-tooth moose lion dilemma is the kick Aang needs in order to find his earthbending mindset, which saves Sokka’s plotline in this episode from being entirely filler. It’s actually very well done—Aang repeatedly deflects the angry beast away from Sokka, but the nudging off course isn’t enough to override the animal’s protective instincts. Aang quickly realizes that his airbender tactics aren’t working and is forced to either abandon his friend or stand his ground. Since Aang is our hero, he stands his ground and blasts the creature directly the face, which is finally enough to drive it away.
And while that’s a good ending to Aang’s earthbending problem, the best part is the little coda where he stands up to Toph and takes his glider back. (Her line about him standing up to a crazy beast and her almost made my jump cut.) Aang has learned that it’s okay to be assertive and confrontational when the situation calls for it, and that is what finally lets him start earthbending. I love how proud Toph is of him, and I further love that Katara thinks that Toph followed her advice re: positive reinforcement.
I guess saving a friend from a crazy momma saber-tooth moose lion is a positive experience, but I’m pretty sure that’s not what Katara had in mind.
Now with our heroes and their A-plot out of the way, it’s time to get to our traitors and their B-plot. We’ve had hints previously that Iroh has had experiences and adventures that have been important to him before now—like the fact that he has an unexplained tie to the spirit world—but this is the first time we see that Iroh has made a point to study the other nations.
It’s one thing to study their tactics and their fighting styles (Iroh did reach the rank of general, after all, and used to be the crown prince), but his lecture to Zuko about the characteristics of the bending elements and the four nations was something else entirely. We don’t know how long it took Iroh to return to the Fire Nation after the death of Lu Ten, so there’s an ill-defined length of time that’s completely unaccounted for.
Is that when Iroh learned about the other nations? I honestly don’t know, but it makes sense to me that Iroh would walk the earth then, have a run-in with the spirits, get involved with the Order of the White Lotus, and learn about the peoples he conquered and killed.
We don’t get quite enough of Iroh’s past and the bad things he’s done for him to have a proper redemption arc in the show, unlike Zuko, but I like that we have hints at one. Something changed to turn him from the warmongering crown prince of the Fire Nation to the Grand Lotus and best uncle in the history of uncles. Part of me wishes we knew what that was, and the rest of me is pleased by the fact that at least one adult in this series had a life before our heroes showed up. It makes the world a lot richer when other characters had full, if not completely explained, lives before they began interacting with the main characters.
At first I wanted to complain about the lecture that Iroh gave—shouldn’t Zuko already know this stuff? And then I realized that this isn’t the kind of information the Fire Nation would have ever thought to teach, not in the last century of war. We’ll see in season three the kind of deplorable “facts” that pass as education in the Fire Nation, so it makes complete sense that Zuko wouldn’t have encountered this compassionate, positive view of the four nations and the Avatar.
So good on you, Iroh, for having an open mind. Also for thinking outside of your firebender box and inventing lightning redirection.
(As a quick aside, I don’t think it ever really registered before, but this time when I got to Iroh’s line about how he learned his lightning generation technique from studying the waterbenders, I got a bit creeped out. It’s not like a Fire Nation general just waltzed into Water Tribe territory and was able to study them up close and personal. The Water Tribes really aren’t bastions of cultural exchange and openness, and their remoteness makes it a bit difficult for people to visit them.
So how could Iroh have seriously studied waterbenders? My first thought was Hama and the other Water Tribe POWs. He could have had access to them as a general, and the Fire Nation surely did something else with the waterbenders than just keep them locked up in cages the whole time.
…so yeah, I’m going to stop there. Enjoy those images, folks.)
We first saw lightning redirection back in “The Storm,” and there it was played for comedic effect. It came back again in “The Avatar State” when Iroh redirected Azula’s lightning, and it’s about time that he taught it to Zuko. Since both Ozai and Azula aren’t shy about crispifying the boy, it’s a good idea for Zuko to learn the skill. I cannot wait for the Ozai and Zuko showdown during the eclipse. So. Amazing.
It was fun to see Zuko as an eager pupil, even if he couldn’t generate lightning. The boy can do things other than angst, though both attempts at lightning generation and redirection resulted in angst in the end. My heart aches for Iroh—he says everything that Zuko needs to hear, but Zuko just isn’t ready for either the wisdom or the healing his uncle has to offer. And he won’t be ready for a long time.
But even I think Zuko’s Smite Me, Oh Mighty Smiter moment was a bit over the top. Not as bad as his NOOOOO in “The Chase,” but wow does Zuko love dramatics.
- Toph has now doled out four nicknames—Sokka is now Snoozles, at least for this episode. I’m quite enjoying counting all of these.
- Why would Toph bother leaving a window for her eyes when she suited up earthbending style? She can’t see, and it’s not like she left the rest of her face uncovered so she could breathe/talk at all. (Well, not in all the frames, at least.)
- Zuko just doesn’t laugh at Iroh’s jokes, which is a shame. Sometimes Iroh is really funny, and I wish he had a more appreciative audience in-universe.
- Also, was I the only one wondering how on earth Zuko got the unconscious Iroh out of the deserted town and to the little deserted cabin not far distant? As Iroh himself points out in this episode, he is not a small man.
- So what were the really important things that Sokka kept thinking about while he was trapped? Any favorite guesses? I’m a little sad that he apparently had some kind of epiphany during his trial and we never find out what it was.
All right, our training montages are done for a while. Tune in next week for Book Two: Earth || Chapter Ten: The Library, in which everyone decides it’s a great time to visit the desert.