Welcome to the thirty-third installment of my Avatar: The Last Airbender rewatch! Today’s post will be covering “The Drill.” Episode 2.13 showcases Sokka’s smarts, magically avoids any mudwrestling jokes, and pushes a troubled young man over the edge.
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.
The drill and assorted Fire Nation tanks head straight for the outer wall of Ba Sing Se. Inside the giant machine War Minister Qin brags to Azula, Mai, and Ty Lee about the drill’s capabilities. The minister claims that no one can stop the drill, but Ty Lee spots dozens of earthbenders getting ready to attack. Azula decides it’s better to be proactive than to see if the minister is right, so she sends Mai and Ty Lee out to deal with the enemies.
Aang returns to the rest of our heroes and the refugees. Katara is surprised to see Aang since he was supposed to be searching for Appa, but Aang says that something big has happened. He and Toph use earthbending to get everyone to the top of Ba Sing Se’s outer wall. From this vantage point they can see the giant drill, which gives the new momma refugee a moment of despair.
Some nearby soldiers take issue with a bunch of civilians suddenly appearing on top of the wall. Aang reveals himself as the Avatar and orders them to take him to whoever is in charge. General Sung greets our heroes warmly, but he insists that Aang’s help is not needed. He assures them that the Fire Nation cannot breach the wall—no one ever has. Toph is quick to remind the general that the Dragon of the West got through before.
General Sung brushes off that piece of relevant information and tells our heroes all about the elite team of earthbenders he’s sent to handle the drill problem. The Terra Team is able to take out a few tanks, but their earthbending isn’t strong enough to trap the drill. To make matters worse, Ty Lee and Mai appear. It only takes a couple of seconds for Ty Lee to take the entire team down.
Now that is how you stand triumphant over the bodies of your fallen enemies.
General Sung immediately declares that they’re all doomed, so Sokka slaps him and tells him to get ahold of himself. The general finally asks for Aang’s help. Aang consults with his friends about how they’re going to stop the drill, and both he and Katara turn to Sokka for ideas. Sokka is a bit annoyed at being the idea guy—it’s a lot of pressure to always come up with the plans—but he’s okay with being the complaining guy.
In the meantime, Iroh and Zuko are having their (fake) passports reviewed by a Ba Sing Se official. Iroh flirts his way through a rough spot, much to Zuko’s discomfort.
The freedom fighters are further back in line, and Jet comments on how he thinks Lee (Zuko) would be a good addition to their team. Smellerbee is more cautious about recruiting a stranger. Jet points out that Lee didn’t get his scar from a waterbender, and brushes over Smellerbee’s concern about their group “going straight.” When Jet asks Longshot for his opinion, the archer gives Jet a solemn look. Jet says he can respect that opinion.
Smellerbee is totally giving Jet the stink eye.
Our heroes have moved to an infirmary where Katara is using her waterbending on one of the Terra Team members. She announces that his chi is blocked and asks the soldier who did this to him. The soldier recounts the fight, and Katara recognizes his description of Ty Lee. She says that Ty Lee knows the human body’s weak points and can take a person down from the inside out.
That’s all it takes for Sokka to get his epiphany. He tells the rest of our heroes that they’ll take down the drill from the inside out, just like Ty Lee did to the Terra Team. Our heroes need to hit the drill’s pressure points in order to take it down.
Toph raises a giant cloud of dust to give everyone cover as they head for the drill. Ty Lee spots the dust cloud through the periscope, but Qin tells Azula it’s nothing to worry about. The princess looks rather suspicious.
Toph earthbends a tunnel for everyone and leads them to the underside of the drill. Sokka spots an opening, and he, Aang, Katara, and Momo quickly head inside. Toph refuses to join them since she won’t be able bend or see inside the drill. Instead, she tells them that she will try to slow the drill down from the outside. She earthbends a giant spike and slams it into the underside of the drill.
Toph has had a lot of practice with trying to keep things from moving lately, hasn’t she?
Sokka tells Katara and Aang that he needs the drill’s schematics so he can figure out where the machine’s pressure points are. He then chops off a valve, causing steam to spew everywhere. Aang is horrified by this—someone could hear them—but Sokka tells him that’s the point. With a machine as large as the drill is, it probably has a team of engineers. Katara realizes that means that people will be coming to fix the problem.
Sure enough, an engineer shows up with schematics to fix the leaking valve. Katara ambushes him and changes the steam into ice in order to freeze him in place. Sokka grabs the schematics from the engineer and runs off to consult them with his friends. The drill is made up of two main structures—an inner and an outer one—held together by braces. If they can cut through the braces, the drill will collapse.
This does not seem like a very useful schematic to someone who is already familiar with the drill. Just saying.
Jet sidles up to Zuko and starts asking about their plans in Ba Sing Se. Before the conversation can get anywhere, Iroh orders Jasmine tea from a pushcart vendor. The tea is cold, which does not please Iroh at all.
Jet asks Zuko if they can talk, and the two of them step away from Iroh for a private conversation. He tells Zuko that they have a much better chance of making it in Ba Sing Se if they stick together and offers him a position in his freedom fighters group. Zuko turns him down despite Jet’s reminder that they work well as a team.
Jet almost lets it go—until he notices that Iroh is drinking hot tea. The rage on his face is gone when Zuko glances back, and Jet walks away. Zuko goes over to Iroh and knocks the tea out of his hands. He’s upset that Iroh firebended his tea; Iroh is upset his tea is gone.
Jet’s rage mode has been activated. Nice job, Iroh.
Sokka leads Katara and Aang to the support beams and is a little dismayed by how big they are. Katara and Aang laboriously work their way through the first beam. When they finally cut through it all the way, the beam slides a little bit. Aang and Katara are exhausted.
A shudder works its way through the drill, and our heroes are excited that they’ve taken down the drill already. Before they make a break for it, War Minister Qin announces over intercom/pipes that the drill has made contact with the outer wall of Ba Sing Se. Qin orders his people to start the countdown to victory. Azula looks dubious about all this grandstanding even as the drill begins to penetrate the outer wall.
As the drill chews up the wall, the debris gets filtered into some kind of drainage system. In the meantime, Sokka tries pushing the broken beam to no avail. Katara and Sokka are trying not to panic and mostly failing.
Aang suddenly realizes that they don’t need to cut through the beams completely. He recounts Toph’s earthbending teachings about breaking an opponent’s stance before delivering a final blow. They just need to weaken the braces enough that a final blow from the top will take the drill down. Aang reminds Katara and Sokka that they have to stop the drill—everyone inside the walls of Ba Sing Se is counting on them.
What was that about an impenetrable city?
Toph fights to slow the drill down while Aang and Katara partially cut through brace after brace. On top of the wall, earthbending soldiers hurl boulders at the drill to no effect.
However, our heroes have run out of time. War Minister Qin receives reports of the frozen engineer, missing schematics, and damaged braces. Azula tells Mai and Ty Lee it’s time to go, and the minister cringes.
Our villains ambush our heroes, and the chase begins. Aang tells Katara and Sokka to get out of the drill—he knows what he needs to do. Katara throws him her pouch of bending water and heads in the opposite direction with her brother. Azula orders Ty Lee and Mai to go after the siblings; the Avatar is hers to deal with.
Sokka and Katara find the slurry pipeline—filled with a nasty mixture of water and earth debris—and escape into it. Mai refuses to go after them, so Ty Lee pursues the siblings on her own. Aang races for the top of the drill while Sokka and Katara get spewed out of the slurry pipeline.
Ty Lee emerges from the pipeline a few moments later, but Katara is ready for her. She waterbends the slurry back into the pipe to trap Ty Lee. Sokka tells his sister to keep bending the water like that. It will put more pressure on the drill and make it even more likely it will pop when Aang delivers the final blow.
I’m with you on this one, Mai.
Aang reaches the spot he needs on top of the drill, but General Song orders his men to keep throwing rocks down at the machine. This makes Aang’s job of marking the spot for the final blow all the more difficult, but he uses waterbending to slice into the metal.
Sokka (obnoxiously) coaches Katara on continuing to plug up the machine. Before the sibling bickering can get too out of hand, Toph appears. Together the two girls force the slurry back into the drill at an alarming rate. The pipes start leaking.
Aang is exhausted, but he has marked the spot he needs. Azula shows up and sends a blast of blue fire at him. The fight begins.
Azula stands triumphant over the unconscious Aang as the drill breaks through Ba Sing Se’s outer wall. She hauls Aang up so she can kill him, but the motion wakes him up. He bends a glove of earth around his arm to block her blow. They face off again—only for the slurry pipes to burst. The two of them flounder about in the mud and slide toward opposite sides of the drill.
Momo helps Aang get back on top of the drill. A boulder from one of General Sung’s men lands nearby, and Aang earthbends it into a giant wedge. He lodges the rock into the little hole he made with waterbending. Aang air scooters his way up as high as he can on Ba Sing Se’s outer wall, and then he turns around and speeds back down.
Azula climbs back on top of the drill and realizes what Aang is trying to do. She shoots a blast of fire at him, but it’s too late. Aang smashes into the wedge of earth and gives the drill its death blow. Azula gets thrown back by the force of the impact, the support beams snap, and the slurry pipes explode everywhere.
And the drill, basically, falls apart.
Just a hair faster, Azula, and you could have hit him. Oh well, maybe next time.
Aang wipes the mud off his face while War Minister Qin looks horrified at what just happened. General Sung is equally surprised but unlucky enough to have gotten covered in mud. Azula finds Ty Lee in the mess of slurry at the back of the drill, and Mai pops her (clean) head out of the drill to point out the obvious: they lost.
Smellerbee tries to get Jet to relax—Iroh was just an old man with some hot tea—but Jet is having none of that. He declares that Iroh and Zuko are firebenders and leads Smellerbee and Longshot onto the same monorail train that Iroh and Zuko get on.
Iroh and Zuko take some empty seats. Zuko looks rather put out by this all, but Iroh takes time to interact with the refugees and has a cute millisecond with Hope. The monorail takes off, and we get our very first glimpse of the outer ring of Ba Sing Se.
Sokka congratulates the rest of our heroes on taking down the drill. He tries to call them Team Avatar again, but Katara shoots him down. None of his subsequent attempts at nicknaming the group are met with much approval.
You sure you’re not going to listen to Smellerbee, Jet? ‘cuz I really think you should.
Some of my favorite moments in this series are when our heroes get to be clever and proactive, and “The Drill” is no exception. I particularly love this episode as it is the first to officially dub Sokka as the idea guy.
Sokka has been all sorts of clever throughout the series (see “Avatar Roku,” “Jet,” “The Northern Air Temple,” “Return to Omashu,” “Avatar Day,” and “The Library” just to name a few episodes so far), and it was immensely satisfying that both Katara and Aang have realized it. Sokka’s plans might not always have their intended effect, but they are almost universally good plans so far as our heroes are concerned. While Katara and Aang are often clever in their fights, they’re generally focused on their immediate surroundings and not the bigger picture. It’s nice that even though Sokka doesn’t have the same magical abilities that the rest of the group has, he is still a vital component in their success. I’ve always had a soft spot for clever characters, and Sokka’s ability to execute a plan is just one more reason to love him.
What’s more impressive to me is that Sokka hasn’t ever had a chance to examine Fire Nation tech up close, but he is still able to realize that something as gigantic as the drill has to have weak points. General Sung simply orders his men to try to stop the drill from advancing or rain rocks down on it. Those are brute force tactics, and like most brute force tactics, they’re horribly ineffective against something that’s significantly stronger.
Sokka has had few opportunities to engage with advanced technology, with the possible exception of whatever schematics he looked through in the mechanist’s workroom. The largest contraptions he’s been on are probably Water Tribe and Fire Nation ships, and those pale in comparison to the drill. But when Sokka looks at the drill, he doesn’t see an unstoppable monster or a harbinger of death—he sees something that was built by people. He knows instinctively that something as large as the drill cannot possibly be maintained by a handful of people like a Water Tribe ship. He knows that something on this scale is too big for most people to have memorized every nook and cranny and how to fix all the complicated systems that must power the machine. Sokka deduces that there must be teams of engineers who oversee the maintenance and that it’s likely those engineers have to consult schematics in order to do their job.
That is one of the reasons that Sokka is so brilliant—he can get past his intimidation to figure out all the little pieces that make something like the drill work. And while Aang was the one who thought of the final blow scenario (thanks to his earthbending training), our heroes would not have been in a position to use that tactic if Sokka hadn’t gotten them halfway there already. Huzzah for Sokka!
(It is a little sad that once the planning is all done Sokka is reduced to being a rather obnoxious cheerleader. Couldn’t they have thrown some Fire Nation mooks at him so he could do some fun fighting?)
As for the rest the drill itself, I have a few points I want to comment on. I’m assuming that this was the secret project the Fire Nation was working on (which Suki referenced in the previous episode), unless there’s something I’m completely forgetting between now and the finale. So far as secret projects go, the drill is a pretty good one.
The Fire Nation obviously learned from Iroh’s six hundred day siege several years ago. They realized that aside from the problem of getting through the largest wall in the world, there was another big problem with tackling the wall: how to protect the troops. General Sung ordered his earthbenders to hurl boulders down at the drill, and one can easily see how this could go poorly for any invading Fire Nation soldiers, especially since there’s no practical way to scale the wall and take out the earthbenders.
The drill solves both of these problems easily: it can bore through the wall while protecting all the soldiers inside of it. Once the drill has broken through completely, the soldiers can jump out the exit hatches and have a fun time setting the agrarian part of Ba Sing Se on fire. Sure, there would still be the Dai Li to contend with in the settled parts of the city, but the Fire Nation troops would be just as rested and unhampered by the need/orders to protect any of the citizenry.
If Iroh had had the drill, there wouldn’t have been any need for a six hundred day siege. His son wouldn’t have been killed trying to breach the wall. His troops would not have started to lose morale over the course of the siege. He would have returned home a war hero, as the conqueror of Ba Sing Se. He would have kept his birthright, replaced Azulon on the throne, had to deal with a backstabbing younger brother with unchecked ambition and an unquenchable thirst for power…
Oh, and the Fire Nation would have ruled the world in pretty short order. So that would have been bad.
Even if it’s fun to think about. I can’t be the only one who thinks that the Fire Nation royal family having a little civil war while Aang reappears and tries to restore balance to the world would have been a fun story, too. Also, am I the only one who wonders what happened to all the troops, engineers, other Fire Nation folks on the drill? I’m guessing there’s probably a missing scene where the Fire Nation troops abandon the drill and the earthbenders smash them into tiny bits with their boulders. Probably best we didn’t see that massacre.
I don’t have a ton to say about the rest of the events that went on in and on top of the drill, other than Azula does an excellent job of being suspicious. She is careful and cautious, and I appreciate that she sent Mai and Ty Lee out to deal with the Terra Team. She probably should have sent them out to investigate the plume of dust, but what with this being a giant drill and all that probably wasn’t an uncommon occurrence. To her credit, the instant the sabotage was discovered, she, Mai and Ty Lee went to investigate.
I’m not sure if I should be amused at Azula’s correct guess that the Avatar was behind the sabotage or not. So far as we know, Azula lost our heroes’ trail back in “The Chase.” Presumably she got caught up in the plan with the drill because she got wind of it being completed and decided to oversee the invasion attempt. So how did she even know to guess that Aang and company were here to stop her? I doubt she had people tracking our heroes through the desert. Then again, it’s possible the soldiers on the Fire Nation ship near the Serpent’s Pass realized that the kid leaping off the cliff and sending the fireball back at them was probably the Avatar.
I suppose I can forgive Azula for making that assumption, especially since it’s probable she knew Aang was in the area. She may as well plan for the most powerful person in the world showing up to stop her plans and then be disappointed it was someone of lesser caliber, right? Mostly I’m amused by the implied arrogance that no one else besides the Avatar could be clever or strong enough to sneak into the drill and sabotage it.
Which is true with General Sung in charge of the wall.
The last thing I want to touch on is Jet. Oh, Jet. Even though I know exactly how this is all going to turn out, I can’t help but wish it would go differently this time. Jet probably had some ego bruising when Zuko turned down the invitation to join his freedom fighters, but he was going to let it go.
Until he saw Iroh with hot tea.
Now I’m not about to argue whether or not Jet’s rage and hate re: all things Fire Nation are justified. What I am really upset about is the tragic trajectory Jet’s story ends up taking. Yes, Jet will get more than a little unhinged in his attempt to unmask Iroh and Zuko as Fire Nation citizens and firebenders in particular. Grounding his suspicions based on Iroh having a cup of hot tea sounds a little far-fetched to normal people.
But you know what? Jet was right.
If Zuko had not been in Ba Sing Se, the season finale—and ultimately the fall of the city—might have turned out very differently. Iroh is absolutely a war criminal by Earth Kingdom standards and is undoubtedly responsible for the deaths of thousands of soldiers and possibly civilians. Zuko is the traitor prince of the Fire Nation who has done his fair share of endangering (and stealing from) Earth Kingdom citizens.
Speaking of, Song’s Stolen Ostrich Horse has disappeared. I’m pretty sure “The Desert” was the last time we saw it. I’m going to pretend that the Order of the White Lotus folks used it for good in the world and that at some point in his life Zuko repaid Song. By the laws of pretty much everyone that’s not Fire Nation, both Iroh and Zuko deserved to be arrested.
Jet is absolutely right to want to expose firebenders disguising themselves as refugees. For all he knows, they’re spies and soldiers. He doesn’t know that the men are officially traitors and that Iroh is completely sincere about getting away from the war and starting over. And so far as this season goes, Jet was entirely right to want Zuko arrested.
Jet traveled with Smellerbee and Longshot to Ba Sing Se in order to get a fresh start, and his second chance ends up ripped away from him through little fault of his own. However misguided (and increasingly unhinged) his tactics, Jet tried to save the city—and died for it.
I’m really not looking forward to the rest of this tragedy. It’s going to be rough.
- Entirely unrelated to the bulk of this episode, but I rolled my eyes at the momma refugee. Last episode you were all about hope and positivity, and at the first sign of the drill you are all despair. Nice way to undercut last week’s message of hope in spite of adversity.
- Whatever failings her parents might have had, Toph was at least given an education that included recent history. She was able to call General Sung on his claim that Ba Sing Se’s outer wall had never been breached. It makes sense that neither Katara, Sokka, nor Aang would have known that information. I’m rather pleased that she used Iroh’s title of Dragon of the West, too.
- Toph had a wonderful sarcastic line in this episode about being in the dark. It was a nicely timed bit of humor in the middle of a tense sequence, and it made me smile.
- I love that Iroh is a confident middle-aged-lady-killer. It was an adorable moment, but what made it even better was Zuko’s reaction to it. Oh, Zuko. Don’t be jealous of your uncle’s success with the ladies.
- This episode lampshades Longshot’s elective muteness yet again. I’m half convinced at this point that Longshot is at least partially telepathic since both Smellerbee and Jet clearly understand the silent-yet-profound/nuanced things he says. Of course, this only means that the time he chooses to speak will be all the more powerful.
- I really like the contrast between Mai and Ty Lee in this episode. Mai actually doesn’t do a whole lot. Part of that is that we can’t show her killing people on screen (which is kind of difficult when her skill set involves hurling pointy objects at people), and the other part is that we need Ty Lee to showcase her chi blocking more in order to give Sokka the epiphany he needs to take down the drill. Plus, I like the fact that Ty Lee totally doesn’t care about diving into a slurry pipeline and that Mai refuses (despite the likelihood that Azula will throw lightning at her over it). Mai has lines she will not cross, and getting coated in mud is one of them.
- I find it a little odd that Katara would call Ty Lee a circus freak. I have no idea how Katara would have found out that Ty Lee spent time at the circus—was it just a lucky guess? This is actually a nice bit of continuity for “The Beach” where we’ll see Ty Lee’s reaction to those same words from someone else.
- Speaking of Ty Lee, her little half-flirty moment with Sokka was hilarious, especially since he gave her this cool-guy wave back.
- And hello first mention of metalbending! Sure, Aang means it as a desperate sort of wish, but it’s a nice bit of foreshadowing for the finale.
- Watch the scene where Jet offers to let Zuko join his group, only this time pay attention to Iroh in the background. You can see him looking around to check if anyone is watching him before he firebends his tea. (He has his back to the camera at that moment, but you can see the steam rising from his cup when he turns back around.)
That’s enough for today! Come back next Monday for Book Two: Earth || Chapter Fourteen: City of Walls and Secrets, in which it becomes apparent that Ba Sing Se isn’t actually a safe haven.