Re-Avatar State: “The Chase” & “Bitter Work”

The Chase

The thrill of season two of Avatar is that you can have an episode like “The Chase”: a fun, thrilling, and action packed adventure that would be a highlight from the first season, sandwiched between two of the best episodes in the whole series. It speaks to the hot streak that the writers found themselves in that an excellent entry like “The Chase” is merely a great installment.

Though I shouldn’t discount what “The Chase” accomplishes, after two episodes that focussed on singular ideas, “The Chase” manages to pull all the threads of the season together into one story. We have Toph’s introduction to the dynamics of Team Avatar, Azula’s pursuit of both Aang and Zuko, and Zuko’s ongoing turmoil with himself and his family. All of this is mixed in with another dollop of genre exercises: a replication of the great Battlestar Galactica episode “33” and more Western tropes. It’s an episode where once again the writers and animators get to indulge in their genre stew while also pushing their own narrative forward.

With Toph now a part of Team Avatar she has to adjust to being a part of the group. For Aang and Sokka things seem to go swimmingly, Toph’s tomboyish behavior fits right in with their adolescent shenanigans. Even going so far as to joke about with Appa’s recently shed fur. Things aren’t so hot with Katara though, Toph’s impetuousness is butting up against Katara’s more maternal instincts, and the two come to fight over Toph not helping set camp.

The internal tensions of the group is strained even further by the pursuit of a mysterious vehicle. A thundering steampunk vessel that brings exhaustion and fear to our heroes. When Team Avatar finally decides to confront their foes it turns out to the be the Trio of Terror: Azula, Ty Lee, and Mai are here and ready to rumble. With the heightened danger Team Avatar further fractures. Toph huffs off after further argument with the group, Aang tries to bait the Trio of Terror away with Appa’s fur, while Sokka and Katara try to sneak our favorite flying bison away.

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Unfortunately Azula is clever, she follows Aang and sends Mai and Ty Lee after the Water Tribe siblings. Toph has a much better go of it as she unwittingly bumps into Iroh. It’s a moment of such beautiful serendipity for our characters that magnificently puts their current position in perspective. Toph, without prejudice or foreknowledge, is able to openly communicate with Iroh and effectively gain his wisdom. Iroh is frustrated that Zuko decided to go it alone, that he thinks he can carry the burden of his life with no outside help. Toph connects, realizing that her outbursts against the team is from a similar place. Her life cloistered away made her think that whenever people ask her for help or help in return it’s a response to he disability, not a genuine push to work together. With such a revelation Toph understands she must go with Team Avatar.

This calm is cut together with another bought with Ty Lee and Mai. It’s another demonstration of how powerful non-benders can be, as Sokka and Katara are almost bested by their combatants. It’s an excellent way to further walk through Ty Lee and Mai’s abilities. Mai is able to keep her opponents on the defensive, and Ty Lee shows that her chi blocking not only removes bending but can also paralyze foes. Her little duel with Sokka is a brilliant piece of physical comedy, with perfect animation to back it up.

All of this coalesces into a fantastic climax. You can tell that the creators haven’t fully shaken their western jitters yet, as they construct a beautiful set piece of classic Leone confrontation. Aang awaits Azula in an abandoned town. They confront each other (and he reveals her relationship to Zuko), but not before Zuko interrupts. Now we’ve got our Mexican stand off. Three foes each glancing and ready to pounce on each other. And when they do everything explodes. Here we get great storytelling through action. Aang tries to evade Azula’s pursuit, while Zuko keeps pushing things as much as possible. My favorite bit is when Aang floats above an empty room, Azula catches herself while Zuko rushes in and falls flat.

Our other characters come rushing in, and for the first time every one of our main players is on the same stage. Everyone pushes in to face Azula, but her cunning gets the edge. Iroh notices Toph is with Team Avatar, Azula recognizes this moment of hesitation and blatantly attacks Iroh. Such a move is a bald faced move on the show’s most genteel character, and puts everyone in attack mode. Azula escapes the blast. Zuko is left to lash out about Iroh’s injury, and Team Avatar is pushed away from the Fire Prince and his family.

After the ordeal Team Avatar finally gets some rest, fully knowing the story of who their enemies are and the challenges they face ahead.

Odds and Ends

  • Azula disappears in a similar fashion as Jeong Jeong. Seems like a classic firebender move.
  • Katara offers to help heal Iroh. It’s a bit odd considering this is the first time Team Avatar has seen Zuko and Iroh since the season one finale.
  • “Zuzu”
Spoiler

  • I love that this episode perfectly sets up the showdown at the end of the season. We don’t see these characters all in the same place again until the finale and once again we see similar decisions confronting our characters. Such as Katara offering to help heal Zuko, reflecting the her offer here.

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Bitter Work

Another series highlight materializes in the form of “Bitter Work,” but its reputation as a sterling entry in the show is a bit odd. Not because of anything wrong with the quality of the episode, which is high, but because of its content. For “Bitter Work” is the tale of two lessons, a professorial piece of storytelling that is meant to inform as much as it is meant to entertain. It lacks much of the thrilling stakes, character revelations, or high powered action of recent entries, but what it divulges is perhaps more important, because the show finally sits down and formally contemplates what bending means.

Now this isn’t the first time Avatar has stopped and engaged with training. Certainly aspects of it are brought up and discussed in episodes like “The Waterbending Scroll,” “The Deserter,” and “The Waterbending Master,” but even those episodes never really got into the why of what bending is, how it truly builds off a person’s character, and how the magical martial arts of the show is more than just practice and form. It’s ideology, purpose, and philosophy all wrapped into one, and “Bitter Work” elegantly demonstrates that conceptual sandwich while also peppering in some character insight and comedic delight.

So Aang needs to learn earthbending, and he finally has a teacher who is willing to do it. With the inter-factional fighting resolved at the end of the last episode, Toph is ready to put Aang to the test with the element that is most opposed to his nature. As an Air Nomad the grounded reality of earthbending is not an easy hurtle for Aang to climb and Toph knows it.

So here’s the issue. To properly earthbend Aang needs to be solid and grounded “like a rock” to get a handle of the stubborn element. But this is opposed to Aang’s nature, not just as person who can airbend, but on a personal level. He’s a pacifist, a vegetarian, and an individual who’ll turn to direct action as a last resort. This thought process being elegantly demonstrated with his fight with Bumi in “The King of Omashu,” when confronted with a head on attack his first move is to evade, dodge, and sneak around.

It’s a skill that allowed Aang to get the upper-hand on Toph in “The Blind Bandit,” but the Twinkle Toes methodology won’t cut it when it comes to real deal earthbending. Aang can’t approach this problem from another angle. So while he gets some the skill moments down in a training montage, he flubs the final test where he must stop a boulder. Aang grumbles away to Katara, who tells Toph to try a softer form of teaching. But Toph knows better and takes Aang staff to crack nuts, if Aang wants to succeed he’ll need to stand his ground and stop the boulder.

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Luckily he gets the opportunity to because of Sokka’s grand misadventures. You see, Sokka is a mighty hunter, and when he stumbles upon a small and cute animal he can’t help but attack and bring it home for dinner. Unfortunately his sneak attack gets him stuck in a hole. Such a predicament leaves him with time to reconsider his life choices and karma. Like if he should rebrand himself as something other than the, “meat and sarcasm” guy. His problems are further heightened when he learns that his new friend Foo Foo Cuddlypoops is actually a small saber-tooth moose lion, and mama is right around the corner.

Luckily Aang is here to help, and he stands his ground to the ferocious beast, a move that demonstrates to Toph that Aang can act in a direct manner, and is thus ready to move a rock. Aang can earthebend now, though probably not well enough to save Sokka from the whole in the ground. So Toph obliges and saves Sokka and the Gaang is all set and ready to go.

But that’s not the only bitter work conducted in this episode. In the perfectly paralleled story with Zuko and Iroh we see more hard wisdom dispersed. Because of Azula’s attack, Iroh believes it is time for Zuko to learn the fundamentals of lightening. Here we get an even greater deep dive into the conceptual work of what bending means.

As the audience learned in “The Deserter” firebending is born from energy, and lightening takes that a step further by creating an imbalance of negative and positive energy in the body. It’s a bit of world building that delights in both working a pinch of real science (lightening is caused by a massive imbalance of differently charged particles) into the magic of the show. Unfortunately Zuko cannot accomplish the challenge laid in front of him.

Even through the catharsis of “Zuko Alone” and the terror of “The Chase” Zuko is still a bifurcated being, unable to balance the competing parts of his identity. And thus the lightening blows up his in his face. So Iroh has a different tract in mind and offers up his greatest secret weapon to Zuko, the ability to redirect lightening. It’s a skill that pulls from the though of the waterbenders, about causing the energy to flow through the body and release at a different angle. It’s dangerous, but could save one’s life.

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Zuko won’t get to practice it right away. Iroh refuses to shoot lightening at his nephew, which swells Zuko’s petulance and cause him to seek some natural electricity. He climbs a mountain in the rain and begs it strike him down, pleading with storm that the world has, “never held back before.” Yet the world does hold back, and once again Zuko is confronted with only himself, and he breaks down crying. The internal war still rages.

Odds and Ends

  • No spoilers here, but this might be the most angst we ever see from Zuko in one episode, and Basco’s line reading of, ” Instead of lightning it keeps exploding in my face … like everything always does,” sounds like he’s legit going to break down in tears.
  • It is a bit odd to see Iroh’s flash to time with Lu Ten.
  • “Your sister is crazy and she needs to go down.”
  • I love the rock suit that Toph makes to test Aang.
  • Sokka still can’t get a good sleep because of Team Avatar’s tomfoolery.
  • Another amazing joke is Sokka throwing his boomerang while trapped in the whole, a perfect visual gag punctuated by, “now come back boomerang.
Spoiler

  • Even though Zuko fails with lightening this season, once he comes clean in season three he is able to use it against his father at the moment where he finally centers himself.
  • Zuko notes that Iroh’s lesson is filled with “Avatar stuff,” which is true because Zuko is indeed the descendent of Roku.
  • Rock suit is a fun preview of some of the moves used in “The Drill.”
  • One thing that I wish show retained from this episode is that there’s not always a clever solution to a problem. An issue that comes up with the reveal of the lion turtle in the finale.

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