In Which Toph Joins The Gaang
From this moment to the finale of season two, Avatar goes on a astonishing run of episodes. Perfectly balancing out singular episodic stories with grander narrative moments, blowing out our characters in new and exciting fashion, and weaving in even more intricate culutural design. It takes every step in ensuring that the audience is treated to blistering revelations, considerate world building, and evolving character dynamics. These fourteen odd episodes exemplify what can be accomplished with televised storytelling.
One of the reasons the show gets so good in this period is because we are introduced to Toph, a new permanent member of Team Avatar. Toph’s inclusion in the group rounds out what was a mostly small affair to this point. She’s arguably the strongest fighter of the Gaang, but also the trickiest to nail down, as her brash persona push everyone to certain limits. It also allows us to fully access earthbending in a way that the show has kind of eschewed until now. We could see all the other elements between Team Avatar and Zuko, but now each one is locked into place for our story.
Toph’s introduction is a masterclass in integrating a new character into the story. In fact “The Blind Bandit” ranks among Avatar’s greatest achievements. A story buoyed by sharp wit and incredible action that lays the groundwork for our new traveling companion without losing sight of our heroes. While it’s odd for Zuko to sit out for the moment, there’s nothing I would change here. This is a story that deserves the full attention of the writers and directors.
As such “The Blind Bandit” kind of reminds me of “The Blue Spirit” with the first act of the episode pointing towards a different kind of story than the one we actually get. For the opening minutes of “The Blind Bandit” play like a classic comedy episode of the show. Team Avatar are once again off in a new place-of-the-week wandering around a village looking for an earthbending teacher for Aang. The search involves a high amount of tomfoolery from everyone involved. Aang gets roped in the strip mall dojo world of Master Yu’s school before hearing about the thrilling world of Earth Rumble VI.
Earth Rumble VI, where the greatest earthbenders in the land come together and fight each other is basically just professional wrestling, with each of the combatants entering as a specific character with a certain theme. There’s the stereotypical meathead of The Boulder, the classic 80’s heel with the Fire Nation soldier, and other people popping in with luchador getups and other costuming from the world of wrestling. It’s all very silly, though Sokka immediately takes to the ridiculousness.
However Aang is struck by the appearance of the league champion, the titular Blind Bandit. She’s a small girl, who is apparently really blind and not just playing a character. And her earthbending is unlike all the other contestants instead of striking first, she responds with precision attacks against her opponents. Aang is thrilled, and realizes this is the girl that he he saw in the swamp. So he jumps into the ring to talk to her, and ends up fighter the Bandit instead. Aang triumphs as his airbending keeps him out of Toph’s vibration range. This contest puts Toph in bad mood and sets the event organizers in suspicion overdrive as they consider that Toph and Aang collaborated to win.
Team Avatar than learns of Toph’s true identity. The daughter of the wealthy Beifong family and secreted away by her parents. Toph’s cloistered life clashes harshly with her outgoing personality and earthbending prowess, and the situation has bred contempt between Toph and her parents. Leading her to adopt the moniker of the Blind Bandit and joining the Earth Rumble tournament.
This dissonance in her life leads Toph to initially thrash out against Aang, but she eventually softens to Team Avatar’s side, especially when she and Aang get captured by the Earth Rumble organizers. Toph is offered the opportunity to fight for the Gaang and save The Avatar or slink back with her parents. Interestingly it’s not just the plea of doing the right thing that turns her opinion, but instead the patronizing instincts of her father, who infers that she is weak and defenseless and fully disabled by her blindness.
This tweaks Toph to the point of retribution against the Earth Rumble crew, and in gloriously fighting game fashion she destroys the ranks to remain the top of the heap. Yet this display of bending excellency does not sway her father in any way to let her join Team Avatar. In fact he cracks down further, clamping on Toph’s freedom to the point where she has to sequester herself away late at night, running away from her family and joining the Gaang to know freedom from the first time. This is of course sets the Beifongs off, and they send some hired goons to go after and capture Toph.
All of this character work is sublimated in episode that still mostly remains a comedy. Even when Toph is kidnapped or she fights with the rumblers everything is kept frothy and fun. Toph’s problems are explicated as serious components to her being, but the bitterness here serves as an undercurrent to the fun rather than an overriding flavor. The episode also wisely uses the whole animal for its storytelling techniques, with each minor joke either turning into a running gag (like Sokka’s bag) or a plot point that pushes the narrative forward (such as Master Yu also instructing Toph in the art of earthbending). Its a clockwork narrative that doesn’t feel particularly hemmed in, indeed everything is loose and flighty. Joyfully buzzing from joke to set-piece without worry because the show is confident enough to know that everything is just going to land.
It also helps that the “Blind Bandit” is a perfect ode to the enjoyment of professional wrestling. Wrestling is one of those cultural objects that I personally don’t have the time for, but completely understand its appeal. Wrestling is both a contest of personalities and a spectacle of athletic abilities, the wrestlers must both be actors and sportsman in equal measure, playing to the audience for giddy affect. Sokka’s quick turn to Earth Rumble fan is played as a joke, but his response rings true in the real world of wrestling, how personalities of the performers can overwhelm the obvious notion that this is all staged for your enjoyment, a soap opera of the highest level.
The wrestling container is also a great excuse for some mondo fun earthbending contests. Since each rumbler has a different bit they can demonstrate different styles and skills. Whipping up dust storms, burrowing underground, and high jumping with floating boulders. Each style is unique and exciting and show the breadth of movement beyond hurling rocks. And it’s a pleasure to watch Toph take down every combatant with aplomb.
With an earthbending teacher onboard, Team Avatar once again sets for the wild blue yonder. A new friend in hand and many more lessons to learn, and the show is only better for these developments.
Odds and Ends
- I Know That Voice: The Boulder is indeed voiced by professional wrestler Mick Foley. In a bit of meta commentary The Boulder is an obvious parody of The Rock, one of Foley’s main competitors in the WWE. It’s funny to watch him rib his more famous friend in an action cartoon.
- The Big Bad Hippo character is obviously fashioned after King Hippo from the Punch Out game series.
- Love that a badgermole is used as a zamboni on the stage.
- Also love that Katara uses the trope within the show of attracting bad boys to beat up the earthbending academy mooks.
- “You’re the one whose bag matches his belt.”
- “Water Tribe”
- When Toph gets captured later this season, she uses the cages shown here to invent earthbending.
- Toph accuses Aang of being a fancy dancer, which turns out to be completely true, as we learn of his hoofing skills in season 3.