Welcome to the twenty-second installment of my Avatar: The Last Airbender rewatch! Today’s post will be covering “The Cave of Two Lovers.” Episode 2.02 turns what could be horrible romantic filler into one of the most quotable episodes in the series. This is ATLA comedy at its best, folks!
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.
Our heroes have taken a break by the river so Katara can teach Aang some more waterbending moves. Today’s lesson is the octopus stance, and Aang’s form needs work. Katara helps move him into the proper position, which causes our young Avatar to blush. She tests him on the form by hurling giant icicles at him. Aang defends himself well and gets her by the ankle with one of the tendrils of water.
The sounds of singing and music head toward our heroes. They look over to see a troupe of Earth Kingdom nomads, and it’s apparent pretty quickly that this episode is going to be a comedic one.
Iroh has a staredown with a pretty flower while Zuko rants about not being meant to live like a fugitive. When Zuko asks what he’s doing, Iroh reveals that the flower is either a plant that makes great tea, or it’s poisonous. Zuko leaves his uncle to mull over the problem and goes fishing instead.
Why yes, that is Katara looking sexy and correcting your form. Hands on.
In the meantime, the nomads have put braids in Appa’s fur and Katara’s hair. They’ve been entertaining our heroes with stories about different places around the world, but Sokka points out that they need to get to Omashu ASAP. Chong, the nomad leader, thinks Sokka has a case of destination fever, and he and his wife, Lily, try to get him to care about the journey.
Katara finally sides with her brother since Aang does need to be somewhere safe while learning earthbending. Chong says they should go to Omashu, which makes Sokka facepalm in frustration. The nomads tell them there’s an old story about a secret tunnel through the mountains—and launch into the best television song ever about lovers and secret tunnels.
Sokka says they’ll stick to flying as they can handle the Fire Nation. Aang says that Appa hates going underground, so they need to do whatever makes Appa most comfortable.
We cut to the Fire Nation launching fireballs at poor Appa and our heroes screaming in terror. The kids return to the nomads and decide to give the secret love cave a try.
Perhaps the secret love cave is a better idea. There may even be less screaming involved. Maybe.
Zuko returns from a spectacularly unsuccessful time fishing to find Iroh covered in rashes and swelling up. The plant was poisonous, but Iroh has found another plant. This one either cures the first poison or causes blindness. Zuko declares that there will be no more plant experimentation and says they need help.
Iroh points out (while scratching himself in increasingly distracting poses) that they’re enemies of the Earth Kingdom and fugitives from the Fire Nation. Zuko says that the Earth Kingdom will kill them, but Iroh counters that if the Fire Nation captures them, they’ll be turned over to Azula. They decide to take their chances with the Earth Kingdom.
Our heroes and the nomads walk to the caves. Chong reveals that the two lovers built an entire labyrinth, which does not make Sokka happy. Lily says they just need to trust in love to make it through—according to the curse.
They arrive at the labyrinth entrance, and Sokka asks about the curse. Supposedly only those who trust in love can make it through the caves. Otherwise you’ll be trapped in there and die.
Sokka pitches a fit about this, but smoke from approaching Fire Nation troops forces their hands. Aang reconfirms that all they need to do is trust in love, and after glancing at Katara, he declares that they can make it. Sokka orders everyone into the caves.
The Fire Nation troops stop at the entrance. They know about the song and decide to just collapse the tunnel entrance.
I challenge you all to write the best caption for this picture. It makes me giggle too much to write one of my own.
Appa freaks out about being trapped underground. Sokka declares they need a plan and quickly takes charge. He pulls out supplies and starts making a map. They’ll keep track of where they’re going and use the map they build to solve the labyrinth.
At a nearby Earth Kingdom village, Iroh gets treated for his poisoning by Song, a healer. She guesses they’re not locals as the locals aren’t stupid enough to make the white jade plant into tea. When Song asks what their names are, Zuko fumbles for the names Lee and Mushi. Iroh doesn’t look happy about his alias and claims that Lee was named after his father, so they just call him Junior. Song invites them to stay for dinner; Zuko refuses. She makes sad noises about extra roast duck, and Iroh quickly accepts the invitation.
Sokka is confused and frustrated. They’ve hit yet another dead end, even though they’ve already been through this area. Chong says they don’t need a map—they just need love. Sokka realizes that the tunnels are changing on them. As soon as he makes that ominous pronouncement, the tunnels rumble.
You’re all doomed. Now taking bets on which nomad Sokka kills first.
Iroh and Zuko enjoy their first good meal in weeks. Song and her mother reveal that they were once refugees. When Song was little, the Fire Nation attacked their village and took away all the men, including her father. Zuko empathizes with her and says he hasn’t seen his father in years, either. Song asks if his father is fighting in the war, and Zuko says that he is.
Chong starts flipping out about the tunnels changing and the curse. Katara tells everyone to be quiet—there are strange noises. A wolfbat swoops out of the darkness and attacks the group. Sokka fights it off with the torch, but the wolfbat knocks it out of his hand.
The torch hits Appa, and the flying bison goes ballistic. Appa slams into the walls and causes the roof to start caving in. Aang uses airbending to blast Sokka and the nomads to safety. He also tackles Katara out of the way of the falling rocks.
When the dust settles, Aang, Katara, and Appa are on one side of the cave-in, and Sokka, Momo, and the nomads are on the other. Sokka almost has a breakdown over this configuration.
Song approaches Zuko after dinner. She says that they’ve all been through the same thing. The Fire Nation has hurt him, but when she tries to touch his scar, he grabs her wrist. Song tells him it’s okay and then reveals that the Fire Nation has hurt her, too. She shows him her lower leg, and Zuko is shocked by the scars he sees.
Chong sings Sokka a song about not letting the cave-in get him down. Sokka is not amused.
Katara and Aang find a door, which Appa headbutts for them. Instead of the exit, they find the tomb of the two lovers. They find the two lovers’ story carved in the stone, so Katara reads it aloud.
The two lovers were from enemy villages, but they loved each other despite the war. They learned earthbending from the badgermoles and built the tunnels so they could meet secretly. However, the man was killed in the war. The woman unleashed a frightening display of her earthbending power, but instead of killing everyone, she declared the war over. The villages helped her build a new, peaceful city, which they named Omashu after the two lovers (Oma and Shu).
Katara and Aang stand before a display of the two lovers. The display says that love is brightest in the dark.
“You will stop fighting, or I will kill you all.”
Sokka and the nomads run into another dead end. Chong suggests that if love is the way out of the caves, then all they need to do is play a love song. Sokka facepalms again.
Aang wonders how they’re going to get out of the cave. After some hemming and hawing, Katara suggests that maybe the way out would be for the two of them to kiss. She tries to pass it off as a joke, and Aang sticks his foot in his mouth repeatedly in his attempt to laugh it away. Katara storms off.
Iroh thanks Song and her mother for their hospitality. Sadly, he has to prod Zuko into thanking them. Song tells Zuko that there is still hope in the world—the Avatar has returned. Zuko tells her he knows that.
As they leave, Zuko spots the family’s ostrich horse and takes it. Iroh initially objects to the theft, but he gets on the ostrich horse anyway. Song watches the two of them ride off.
Wow, this isn’t awkward at all.
Aang and Katara’s torch is about to go out, and they don’t know what to do. The two of them lean toward each other as if to kiss as the light flickers out. After a second, the crystals in the ceiling light up and illuminate their way.
Sokka and the nomads hear growling. A flock (pack?) of wolfbats fly straight for them. Instead of attacking, the wolfbats go right past them. Sokka realizes that the wolfbats were trying to get away from something.
Before anyone can prepare for the incoming danger, two giant badgermoles appear and begin earthbending. Sokka gets separated from the nomads and knocked to the ground. He tries to crabwalk away and accidentally hits one of the instruments.
The music stops the badgermoles’ threatening behavior, and Sokka picks up the instrument and starts playing it. Chong realizes that the badgermoles like music. Sokka and the nomads start singing to the badgermoles.
“Badgermoles coming toward me, come on guys, help me out!”
Katara realizes that the two lovers used the glow-in-the-dark crystals to find each other. She and Aang hug and head for the way out. Aang tries to bring up whatever did or did not happen in that split second of darkness, but Katara charges for the exit. He and Appa follow her.
Appa is the first to reach the open air, and he is ecstatic. Aang and Katara follow him, but before they can get too worried, Sokka and the nomads bust through the mountainside on the badgermoles. Sokka asks how they made it through the labyrinth. Aang says they let love lead the way, and Sokka says they let huge, ferocious beasts lead their way.
Cutest Appa moment ever.
The badgermoles head back into their mountain. Appa and Momo have a cute reunion while Sokka and Katara hug. Katara asks why Sokka’s forehead is all red, which is precisely when Chong pops up to say that he thinks Aang is the Avatar. Sokka facepalms again.
Aang asks if the nomads are going to go to Omashu with them, and the nomads say no. Aang wishes them goodbye, while Sokka endures a hug from Chong and some advice on not letting the plans get in the way of the journey. Sokka tells him to just play his songs, and Chong and his nomads sing their way into the distance.
Our heroes climb the last mountain, and Sokka is pleased about finally arriving at their destination. As they clear the rise, the kids see that Omashu has been taken over by the Fire Nation.
This is, hands down, one of my favorite ATLA episodes ever. On paper, “The Cave of Two Lovers” is “The Fortuneteller” all over again, an episode I particularly loathed. Both episodes are all about the Aang/Katara romance, something that still skeeves me out on some level, and have Sokka as the primary source of comedic entertainment. What makes “The Cave of Two Lovers” superior to “The Fortuneteller” in every way is 1) this episode is actually funny and 2) the writers were smart enough to know that they needed more to this episode than just (pre-)teen romantic hijinks.
The humor in “The Fortuneteller” didn’t work for me because it was mostly physical and it depended on the entire universe hating on Sokka. And while that was funny maybe the first couple times, it got old quickly. It didn’t help that he kept getting into the same arguments with the really stupid people in Aunt Wu’s village. I got pissed off every time Sokka tried to reason with the fate/fortune-obsessed villagers because they were entirely inflexible, even when their rationale would totally have led them to dying via angry volcano.
Which would have made my day, to be honest.
In “The Cave of Two Lovers,” the humor comes from Sokka’s interaction with the Earth Kingdom nomads, who are pretty much the best hippies ever. And while we essentially see the same three jokes over and over (the nomads are slow on the uptake about something, totally random song numbers, and Sokka’s facepalming), it works because the nomads are just so earnest about it all. Where Aunt Wu’s villagers were all smug in their fate/fortune-over-science/reason superiority, Chong and company just…live their bizarre, good-natured, song-filled, undoubtedly-hallucinogenic-dependent, nomadic lifestyle.
When Chong sings don’t let the cave-in get you down/don’t let the falling rocks turn your smile into a frown at Sokka, he totally means it. He is legitimately trying to cheer Sokka up about the fact that they’ve been separated from Aang and Katara, lost in a labyrinthine series of tunnels, and are desperately trying to get out before something eats them or their lights go out.
It’s hilarious to see Sokka reduced to face-palming over and over again because there is nothing he can do about it. What makes Sokka’s suffering even better is that the thing that keeps them from getting squished by the badgermoles is the singing he’s despised the entire episode. It’s a beautiful reversal when Sokka is forced to pick up the instrument and start singing in order to save himself.
Guys, this episode is probably the most quotable episode in the entire series. Even now, six years after it first aired, I can text/post secret tunnel, secret tunnel, through the mountains, secret secret secret secret tunnel to my friends, and I’ll always get someone to send AND DIE right back to me.
Of course, what helps this episode along immensely is that we don’t spend the entire time dwelling on the Aang/Katara romance or Sokka and the nomads.
(Does anyone else think that Sokka & the Nomads would be an awesome band name?) We also move the storyline with Zuko and Iroh, whom we last saw running for their lives and cutting off their topknots. This third storyline is what ultimately saves “The Cave of Two Lovers” from being nothing more than (highly entertaining) romantic filler.
I have never been a proper fangirl in the sense that romantic pairings are high on my entertainment priority list. I don’t have the patience for it, especially when it gets in the way of plotful things. Generally my shipping meter maxes out at “oh, they’re cute together” or “I can tell you’re supposed to end up together, may as well enjoy the ride” which is what made “The Fortuneteller” so loathsome to me. That episode is nothing more than a thinly plotted excuse for (one-sided) romantic filler. If it weren’t for the fact that Aunt Wu makes a brief cameo in “Bato of the Water Tribe,” “The Fortuneteller” would be just as easily removable from canon as “The Great Divide”—as it should be.
On the Aang/Katara front, “The Cave of Two Lovers” is better if only because we can see that Katara might, in fact, reciprocate some of Aang’s feelings (if not their depth). That plotline also is more interesting because Aang and Katara stumble upon the truth behind the legend, as it were, about Oma and Shu. While their history isn’t important in the long run, their story is an excellent excuse for some beautiful animation, and I am all for that. I was also pleased by the ambiguity about whether or not Aang and Katara actually kissed.
But enough with the A Plot—let’s move over to the B Plot: Iroh and Zuko’s hijinks. What I love about their first two scenes is how heavily they lampshade the fact that these two men are royalty and have never needed to survive all on their own. They have had cooks and subordinates to take care of their food and shelter needs which means they are entirely unprepared. Zuko might be able to burn someone’s face off, but he doesn’t know how to fish; Iroh might be able to lay siege to a city, but he can’t correctly identify plants. Left to their own devices, the men would probably have starved or poisoned themselves (again).
What makes those scenes even funnier is when the two fugitives go over their options—risk being killed by the Earth Kingdom or being turned over to Azula—and choose Azula without a second thought. They’d rather hide among their enemies than be caught by the princess, and that is hilarious and completely in-character for what we saw of Azula. She is far scarier than anything the Earth Kingdom could throw at them, and that’s a clever way for the show to remind us of that fact (especially since Azula is not in this episode).
I also love the rapport Iroh and Zuko start to build in this episode, first bonding over their inability to survive and then the little ways they pick at each other while they’re with Song. I’m vaguely annoyed that neither of them thought that someone might ask them for their names, but I’ll let that go because that gives Iroh the ammo he needs to dub Zuko “Junior.” Dunno why, but it’s hilarious to me that after the indignity of “Zuzu,” Zuko then gets “Junior” attached to him.
Unfortunately, the comedy quickly disappears in the rest of Iroh and Zuko’s scenes as we get to weightier topics. In a way, Zuko’s conversation with Song is a nice little follow up to Zuko’s plotline in the previous episode. We get to see how he is still broken up about what is an absolute rejection of him by his father. According to Azula, Ozai wanted Zuko back to lock him up so he couldn’t be an embarrassment anymore. No matter how much Zuko wants to believe he can earn his way back into his father’s good graces, that is a pretty clear indication that it’s not going to happen any time soon.
I love how poor Song really does try to reach out to Zuko and help him. (This is actually quite nice foreshadowing of Zuko’s choices in the season finale: he rejects a girl’s offer of help/healing and betrays her. Great job.) She is remarkably sincere about what she says, and that is instantly endearing for me. I particularly loved her attempt to bond with him over their scars. Yes, Song, the Fire Nation has hurt you both, but Junior’s pain is a lot different than the one you are imagining.
(Small tangent: I’m really liking this subplot about the flow of refugees away from the war-torn areas of the Earth Kingdom. We had this brought up twice in the first season in “The Great Divide” and “The Northern Air Temple,” but I love that it’s going to be a lot more important in this season. War will always create refugees, and it’s another nice bit of detail that I appreciate.)
Of course, all the good will and sympathy that was building for Zuko immediately evaporated when he stole the ostrich horse. Look, I get that your first scenes in this episode were all about how you guys can’t really function in the real world. I get that you are desperate. I get that you can’t be found by the Earth Kingdom or caught by the Fire Nation. I get that you need to put as much distance between you and Azula as possible.
But did you really need to steal that ostrich horse from the people who saved Iroh’s life, took you into their homes, and gave you food and shelter? And Iroh, you don’t get a pass here either even though you objected. Why? Because you caved in less than ten seconds.
There are other people you could steal from if you had no other choice. Like Earth Kingdom troops (who are still enemy combatants), or someone that has multiple ostrich horses (who could weather this loss better), or pretty much anyone who isn’t someone that just showed a pair of strangers immense generosity and hospitality.
Whether or not you needed that ostrich horse, stealing it from Song and her mother was simply because you couldn’t be bothered to find a more deserving target. Great way to remind us that you’re still a pair of self-entitled, royal jerks. Now go disappear for an episode so I can be less angry at you when I see you next.
- Hello, octopus form! You’ll be handy in when it’s time for the season finale. Katara will use you to fight Azula, and it will be pretty neat.
- There was apparently a significant time skip between the first episode and this one—or at least enough time for Zuko to get full-coverage fuzzy hair. Anyone know how fast hair grows? Then again, maybe the animators rightfully decided that Zuko with a funky little patch of hair on one small portion of his head looked as stupid as it sounds.
- I didn’t gush about it enough, but I really love the animation style in the Oma and Shu sequence. So very cool, and yet another reminder that this is largely an Asian-inspired fantasy world.
- On that same note, it’s very neat that we get the story about humans learning to earthbend by watching the badgermoles. While it seems like a throwaway bit of worldbending that nicely parallels what we’ve been told about the flying bison and the moon, this badgermole learning is extremely important to understanding Toph’s awesomeness. Much like Aang and Zuko will go to the Sun Warriors and the dragons to learn from the “original source” of firebending, Toph did that when she was toddler. So awesome.
- Why is Zuko shocked by Song’s scarring? I get that he’s spent the last three years on a boat, wandering the waters of the South Pole, but the war has been going on for four generations now. Turns out that when you have people who can set other people on fire, there tend to be scars afterwards. Gasp! Or were you really so sheltered from injuries that you didn’t grasp the extent of the Fire Nation’s despicable tactics? You seemed to have no problem setting the city from “The Warriors of Kyoshi” on fire. Or maybe you were just scandalized that she showed you her entire calf.
- The wolfbats are really creepy, and I am so happy that they don’t actually exist.
- secret tunnel, secret tunnel, through the mountains, secret secret secret secret tunnel~
I’m almost sorry to say goodbye to this episode since I enjoyed it this much. But that’s okay, because next Monday we will cover Book Two: Earth || Chapter Three: Return to Omashu, in which Azula forms her team of deadly ladies.