• Avatar-The-Last-Airbender-2.09-Bitter-Work Television 

    Five Thoughts on Avatar: The Last Airbender’s “Bitter Work”

    By | July 19th, 2018
    Posted in Television | % Comments

    Welcome back for another weekly review of Avatar! This week, Aang starts to learn earthbending! Read on to see how the episode holds up.

    1. Training time!
    Now that we’ve added an earthbending teacher to the group and gotten some time to pause from the adventuring, Aang can finally start to learn earthbending! And, at least at the beginning of the episode, Aang is as excited as we are. This gives us a great opportunity to explore some of the differences between bending, most notably air vs earth.

    Fun note: this is episode nine in season two, and Aang first started learning waterbending in the ninth episode of season one. In my mind, these episodes mark the beginning of “Act 2” for each respective season.

    2. “There’s no different angle, no clever solution, no trickity-trick that’s going to move that rock!”
    I’ve said this before, but Toph’s personality is so perfect for the show’s most featured earthbender. Everything she does comes from pure intention. If she wants something done, she does it. She says what she means and she makes her choices and nobody can stop her. So, let’s compare that to Aang’s airbender personality. Aang’s all about clever solutions, the flowing nature of air, constantly in motion, constantly learning and reacting. Earth requires the exact opposite, so Aang struggles.

    It was great to have Katara around as a counterpoint to either of those, as Aang was able to learn water so quickly and easily. Air and water are both constantly flowing, even if water requires more of a solid footing to control. Katara’s training style is also completely different from Toph’s, focusing on “a positive teaching experience,” whereas Toph purposely draws Aang’s ire so he can act out of pure intention like she does. There’s a great moment at the end of the episode where Katara asks if positive reinforcement helped Aang, and Toph, who stuck to her own rough training style, slyly says, “It worked wonders.”

    So not only are the elements and the stances different, but so is the entire mindset, the personality needed to approach them, and the style through which the student must learn.

    3. Sage Iroh.
    The Zuko/Iroh plots have been largely separate from the Aang gang’s plots this season, but here there’s a clear thematic connection: Iroh is training Zuko. Where Aang’s story deals more with exploring the differences of each bending style, Zuko’s story is more about learning how they all work together.

    I love how this fits into Iroh’s backstory. Since stepping down from the royal Fire Nation line of succession, he changed his mindset of being a conqueror and started looking at the four nations as one humanity. He started to see the value in understanding each one’s teachings, and he even adapted waterbending techniques into a lightning redirection technique (note that, while Azula and others can shoot lightning, Iroh is the only one who can redirect it once it’s out). Without spelling it out, you can really see how he came up with my favorite line in the episode: “Pride is not the opposite of shame, but its source. True humility is the only antidote to shame.” Out of the shame of his past, he humbled himself to the other nations and came out stronger in the end.

    Iroh’s teachings on the four elements truly do, as Zuko notes, seem like Avatar wisdom. According to Iroh, fire represents power, desire, and will; earth represents substance and persistence; air represents freedom and peace; and water represents change and community. Note how non-judgmental Iroh is in his perspective of all the peoples, even towards the nation he defected from. All four elements, and therefore all people, each have their own unique strengths, and one can be their best self only upon realizing that. It’s a powerful message both inside and outside the world of the show, arguing against nationalism and isolationism while supporting diversity.

    4. Sokka vs Karma.
    Since we have two fairly heavy plots going on in the foreground, Sokka gets to be the comic relief as he gets stuck in a crack in the ground and has to negotiate with a cub who doesn’t understand what he’s saying. There isn’t much to say here other than that it’s funny and a great use of the character. Sokka, the pragmatist, begins to question his place in the universe and goes through a comedically heavy bargaining stage. The situation forces Sokka to examine his personality traits and consider how his personal choices landed him in this situation, providing some insight into his level of self-awareness, as well as some nice laughs to break up Iroh’s wisdom and Toph’s tough training.

    Continued below

    5. “Instead of lightning, it keeps exploding in my face! LIKE EVERYTHING ALWAYS DOES.”
    At the end of Zuko Alone, I noted how Zuko had reached his absolute lowest point. Here, Zuko is wallowing in his trough, giving us such hilariously overdramatic lines as the above. Without saying too much about future episodes, we’re almost at the halfway point in the show, and if Zuko’s arc is balanced, this means he’s about to enter a gradual upswing. It’s a good thing he’s only like this for one episode, because the lower he gets, the more insufferable he becomes.

    Luckily, he has Iroh to help him work through things. Iroh does his best to get Zuko to understand himself, but ultimately, it’s not completely successful. Zuko must choose for himself whether he wants to restart his life with a new perspective. No amount of guidance can make that decision for him.

    What did you think of the episode? Are you a fan of the expanded bending theory? How about that adorable cub? Let me know in the comments!

    //TAGS | 2018 Summer TV Binge | Avatar: The Last Airbender

    Nicholas Palmieri

    Nick is a South Floridian writer of films, comics, and analyses of films and comics. Flight attendants tend to be misled by his youthful visage. You can try to decipher his out-of-context thoughts over on Twitter at @NPalmieriWrites.


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