[Part One; Part Two; Part Three.]
And so we set off on the second stage of our journey, the Our Heroes' Adventures in The Earth Kingdom. This is the season where Avatar really starts to live up to its feminist good intentions. With that in mind, I'm going to stop cataloguing in so much detail when the show treats the female characters as full human beings or serious badasses in their own right. It's just too commonplace. Heck, it's easier to number the eps that fail the Bechdel test than those that pass it. Also, I'm going to stop noting it every time the cartoon defies ageism. Just assume that anyone with gray hair can end you. Only the most salient examples from this point on – that and intros to the characters that make this season what it is.
The Avatar State – As promised, this is where we meet the most terrifying 14-year-old you will ever encounter in any medium. Her name is Azula and she's Zuko's little sister, but from the first moment we see her, we know we're not dealing with an essentially decent anti-villain like him. Her first speech is pretty standard villain stuff – even think of questioning my orders and I'll kill you myself, that sort of thing – but it's in a conversation with the captain afterward that we learn just how cold a customer we're dealing with.
Captain: Princess, I'm afraid the tides will not allow us to bring the ship in to port before nightfall.(Quote taken from Avatarspirit.net.)
Azula: I'm sorry, Captain, but I do not know much about the tides. Can you explain something to me?
Captain: Of course, Your Highness.
Azula: Do the tides command this ship?
Captain: Uh…I'm afraid I do not understand.
Azula: You said the tides would not allow us to bring the ship in. Do the tides command this ship?
Captain: No, Princess.
Azula: And if I were to have you thrown overboard, would the tides think twice about smashing you against the rocky shore?
Captain: No, Princess.
Azula: Well, then, maybe you should worry less about the tides who've already made up their mind about killing you and worry more about me, who's still mulling it over.
Captain: I'll pull us in.
Note that the guy showed no sign of being lazy or disrespectful (though he does later turn out to be stupid). It's entirely possible she's risking everyone's lives because she's impatient. She is on a mission to bring in her brother and her uncle (whom her father blames for the Fire Nation's defeat at the North Pole – not without justification, though Ozai is ignoring the minor detail that Zhao's strategy would have devastated the planet), and she's not having any delays.
And it only gets worse from there. She's a firebending prodigy who can throw lightning and toss Zuko (who beat Zhao – an acknowledged master firebender – in one duel and was well on the way to winning the second when the Ocean Spirit intervened) around like a hacky-sack, both physically and mentally. She's so incredibly precise and determined to be perfect that a single hair out of place during lightningbending practice infuriates her. From this point on, we the audience know that playtime is over for Our Heroes. But even we don't know just how much trouble they're in yet.
Meanwhile, while all this is going on, Pakku has acknowledged Katara as a fellow waterbending master, and some fool tries to induce the Avatar state in Aang by attacking her, which means she isn't available to calm Aang down when it works. A-whoops. Also, we learn the primary drawback to the Avatar State: because the State is caused by tapping into all the power of the previous Avatars at once, if an Avatar dies while in the State, the chain of reincarnation is broken and the Avatar entity itself ceases to exist. This is why more experienced Avatars use the State sparingly. Keep this in mind, it's important.
Return to Omashu – In this episode, Azula decides that she needs a small, agile force to track Zuko and Iroh, rather than hauling the royal procession along with her.
The first member of this "force" that we meet is Ty Lee, an old school friend. Ty Lee has apparently run away from home to pursue a career as a circus acrobat since they last saw each other, but Azula has no trouble finding her. At first, Ty Lee makes the mistake of thinking that Azula is asking her to help hunt Zuko and Iroh. She (very, very politely) declines, saying that her aura has never been pinker than it is here, at the circus (if Ty Lee lived in our world, she'd have racks of crystals for waving and shelves of books about spirit guides from Atlantis. The aura stuff would be about the same). Rather than make it an order, Azula attends that night's show and orders all of the animals released and Ty Lee's safety net set on fire (all of it in the name of making the show more exciting, of course). Unsurprisingly, Ty Lee promptly decides that the universe is trying to tell her something, and enlists with Azula. She spends the rest of this season and much of the next not only obeying Azula's orders and agreeing with every word that Azula utters, but gushing over every single tiny little thing that Azula does. Some attribute this to vapidity or affection – and it's true that Ty Lee can be a bit of an airhead and she just adores everyone in the world that she isn't actually locked in combat with at the moment (and in Sokka's case, even that caveat goes out the window) – but I think it's more likely that she's just plain terrified (with good reason), and trying to keep on Azula's good side.
So why would the crown princess of the Fire Nation go to such trouble to recruit a circus acrobat? Because Ty Lee is also a master martial artist, perhaps the most dangerous non-bender we meet in the entire series (which, mind you, makes her more dangerous than most of the benders as well). She's an expert in the art of Chi-blocking, which can short-circuit bending and leave a victim paralyzed without causing any lasting damage. Useful when you're hunting members of the royal family, who also happen to be powerful firebenders.
The other member of the group that will become known to the fans as "Ozai's Angels" is in the newly-conquered Earth Kingdom city of Omashu, where her father has been appointed governor. Her name is Mai, and she's bored. There is really no fathoming the depths of her hatred for this place. She's a Fire Nation goth, and when her family is attacked by the Resistance she counterattacks with a hailstorm of thrown weapons and gives chase. Mom doesn't shout "Stop" or "Come back" when she does so, either. Mom is well aware that her fifteen-year old daughter is the most effective bodyguard she has. Heck, the girl damn near puts a shuriken through the Avatar's forehead (for the record, Aang was actually trying to help – it's his great misfortune to be in Omashu at this particular time that puts the Gaang in Azula's way and makes the rest of the season happen).
Mai goes along with Azula willingly enough – she's bored out of her mind in Omashu, and she's apparently eager to see Zuko again – but Azula still tests her loyalty. By purest accident, Mai's baby brother Tom-Tom toddles into the hands of the Resistance, who offer to trade him for Bumi, the imprisoned king of Omashu and Aang's best friend from the old days. However, when the Gaang shows up to make the trade, Azula points out that a toddler for a king isn't really a fair trade. Quicker on the uptake than Ty Lee, Mai realizes that Azula is not just sayin', and – without flinching – declares the deal to be off. It's only because Aang risks sneaking back in later that little Tom-Tom ever gets back home.
The Blind Bandit – And here's the one everybody's been waiting for. This ep starts with a nice bit of stereotype-breaking – Sokka out shopping for a new bag, experiencing buyer's remorse after he gets it, and later still being glad he got it after all, because it goes so well with another new accessory he's acquired – and just goes from there.
During Sokka's shopping trip, a street barker gives Aang a coupon for a free lesson at an earthbending school (he'd been counting on Bumi teaching him earthbending, and is now rather desperate). The only good that comes of this is that the Gaang hears about "Earth Rumble 6", an underground (literally) earthbending tournament. Katara more or less beats the location out of the boys who were discussing it (actually, she freezes them to the walls of an alley – they really shouldn't have been mean to Aang in front of her), and they all head off to the show.
One popular fighter known as The Boulder is dominating the competition, and for a few rounds the Gaang wonders if he might not be the one destined to be Aang's teacher (he doesn't really seem like the type). Then comes the final round, and we meet the reigning Earth Rumble Champion, the Blind Bandit.
She's twelve years old, she's tiny, she's blind, and she kicks The Boulder's ass in about five seconds. Literally.
Oddly enough, she has a lot more trouble with Aang when he takes advantage of the audience participation round to ask her to be his teacher, and she storms off after he wins, leaving the Gaang with the knowledge that Aang's destined earthbending teacher exists, but no way to find her.
So Katara simply bullies the information they need out of those same two earthbending students the next day (even she's acting like a pro wrestler by this point, and Sokka couldn't be more proud).
And that's how we come to meet Toph Bei Fong.
She's rude. She's crude. She's gross. She's hilarious.
She picks her nose, she picks her toes, she swears (as well as she knows how), she spits, and she likes to maintain "a healthy coating of earth" at all times. Her favorite methods of expressing affection are punching arms and making up insulting nicknames ("Don't answer to twinkletoes! It's not manly!"). Someone in an earlier thread mentioned that she's like a larval/miniature Starbuck, and I can get on board with that – once she discovers the joys of sex and hard liquor, she's going to run some people into the ground. Perhaps literally. Because in addition to being twelve years old, tiny and blind, she's arguably the greatest earthbender alive.
It's this last that is both the reason and the result of the fact that her blindness isn't as debilitating as it otherwise might be. Unique among all the earthbenders of this world, earthbending isn't a mere tool or martial art to her, but an extension of her senses. She can actually "see" with earthbending.
Like Teiresias, Daredevil and other characters who've used their superpowers to compensate for their physical challenges, Toph's "vision" has its plusses and minuses in comparison to the normal version. She can "see" in 360 degrees and around corners, but if something isn't touching the ground (as Aang wasn't at Earth Rumble 6), it's invisible to her. Worse, if the surface she's standing on isn't earth or stone, her feet are as blind as her eyes, and even in the best of conditions she's illiterate (no Braille in this world). All in all, I'd call it a net negative, but she's so capable (and her unusual senses prove so useful so often) that the other characters often forget that her eyes don't work.
Just one problem: her parents had no idea about any of this. As far as they're concerned, she's the "tiny, blind and helpless" girl that they've hidden from the world (for her own protection, of course) for the last twelve years. When they find out what she's been up to, they're ready to restrict her movements even more. When she runs away, they hire a couple of skilled and greedy earthbenders to go after her. Remember that, it's important later.
Zuko Alone – When he found himself an exile, Zuko chose the path that many disinherited noblemen in similar situations have chosen: banditry. A natural choice when your primary skill is fighting and you believe the world owes you. When Iroh expressed his disapproval (he prefers begging – if all he needs to do to get what he needs without hurting anybody is trade away his dignity, he's fine with that), Zuko chose to go his own way. As he wanders, we get flashbacks introducing us to Mom and Grandpa, and showing us the truly fucked-up family dynamics of the Fire Nation royal family.
Mom is named Ursa, and there was never a woman more aptly named. She's a devoted mother, doing her best to encourage her sometimes-hapless son, deeply worried about her budding young sociopath of a daughter. Not that Azula wants her concern. She's daddy's favorite, largely because she's a firebending prodigy like he is, and like grandpa was before him. The family dynamic is summed up perfectly in one scene: Azula has just put on a stunning (especially considering she's maybe 8) exhibition of firebending for grandpa. Zuko steps up to give his own and falls flat on his ass. Azula smirks, Ozai frowns, and grandpa gets annoyed. Only Ursa offers any comfort. Because it's not enough to be hard-working, intelligent, determined, and desperately eager to please. If you're not a prodigy, you're not good enough.
Like I said, there's a definite danger that kids might see something real if they watch this show.
Anyway, grandpa is Firelord Azulon (yes, Azula was named for him), an ancient (95, canonically) and obviously fragile man when we meet him. The circumstances of that meeting are less than auspicious: Iroh's son Lu Ten has just been killed in battle, and Ozai is arguing, on the grounds of his two living children, that he should be made crown prince. Azulon is Not Amused. He decrees that Ozai must learn how Iroh feels: he must kill Zuko.
Azula overhears this and responds by dancing around her brother's bed, chanting "Father's going to kill you". And why shouldn't she be happy? With Zuko dead, she becomes the heir to the Fire Nation throne. Oh, sure, it's possible that Iroh or Ozai might produce another boy before that time comes, but no one takes that for granted, and no one seems to care (and I don't know enough about Fire Nation politics to know if a penis trumps the fact that Azula would be eldest anyway). The next Firelord (after Iroh) would be a woman, and what of it? I've seen fanfic where her taking the throne is contingent upon her marrying and producing an heir, Princess Diaries 2 – style, but that's flatly contradicted by the show.
In any case, when Ursa overhears Azula's taunts, she drags her off, determined to get to the bottom of all this. The next day, Azulon is dead, Ursa has vanished into the night after one last goodbye to Zuko, and Ozai has been declared Firelord, supposedly by Azulon's last wish.
Make of that what you will.
The Chase – Ozai's Angels nearly run the Gaang into the ground, coming closer to beating them in a straight-up fight than Zuko ever did. As everybody gets tired, they start behaving in some seriously assholish ways, as will happen: Toph, unaccustomed to a communal life, doesn't quite grasp yet that "pulling her own weight" means more than taking care of her own needs. Katara reaches surprising depths of nastiness when Toph slams a door in her face. Aang absolutely Will. Not. Hear. Any criticism of Appa.
But forget all that. I'm more interested in the scene (transcript taken from Avatarspirit.net) that opens the episode, where we learn that on this show, women aren't assumed to be killjoys too prissy to perpetrate or enjoy gross-out humor.
Episode opens with a shot of the sun setting over a range of hills that have trees and a creek spread out before it. The camera tilts down to show Appa and the gang, now including Toph, sitting in what looks like a dried up section the creek. There is a bunch of white fur around Appa's feet. Cut to a shot of Appa from his right side at an angle so his back is closest and his head is furthest. Aang sits in the basket and is passing a sleeping bag down to Sokka. Katara walks around Appa's head to the same side. Toph appears from the left and is closest to the camera.Bitter Work – Toph's earthbending bootcamp for Aang. Aang addresses Toph as "sifu". When Katara asks him why he never called her that, he says he doesn't know (my guess: it never occurred to him because they started out as students together), but that he'd be glad to if she wants him to. Then he does.
Toph: Hey, you guys picked a great campsite. (Cut to a shot of Toph's feet in the pile of white fur.) The grass is so soft.
(Cut to a shot that shows the full of Appa from his right side showing all four of them.)
Sokka: That's not grass. Appa's shedding.
Katara: (Lifting her right foot out of the fur and balancing on her left.) Oh, gross!
Aang: That's not gross; it's just a part of spring. (Shot cuts to Aang atop Appa as a light melodious tone plays softly. A blue bird lands gracefully on his head and a yellow butterfly flutters by his right ear which Momo jumps up in an attempt to snatch.) You know, rebirth, flowers blooming, and Appa gets a new coat!
(Cut to a shot of Appa's head, Katara stands to its left.)
Katara: Ah, the beauty of spring. (Appa, who sticks his tongue out to reveal it's covered in fur, sneezes, blowing fur everywhere.) Stop, Appa, stop!
(She coughs, and waves her arms to stop Appa from covering her in hair even more. Shot pans over to Sokka who is kneeling and rubbing fur on his head.)
Sokka: It's not that bad, Katara. (He stands to reveal he has piled the fur on his head to form a tall pillar of hair in a very Marge Simpson like fashion.) It makes a great wig!
Aang: (Dropping into the shot from atop Appa, he has arranged the fur on his face to form a large mustache and beard.) And a great beard!
(Sokka and Aang point and laugh at each other. Shot changes to Katara who is not smiling and begins to whip the fur off her sleeve.)
Katara: (unamused) I'm just glad we finally have another girl in the group because you two are disgusting.
(Cut back to Aang and Sokka who are both slightly hunched with one arm over the other's shoulder.)
Toph: Excuse me. (She walks in between the two breaking them apart.) Does anyone have a razor… (she lifts both arms to reveal a mass of white fur emerging out of both of her sleeves, under her arms) …because I've got some hairy pits!
(All three of them laugh until Aang gives one of his powerful airbending sneezes, thrusting him backwards into Appa's leg and then falling face down on the ground. He lifts his head to reveal his beard and mustache are gone but he now has a large mass of fur sticking jaggedly up on his back. All three begin laughing again. Cut to Katara who at first looks disgusted, but quickly joins in the laughter.)
Does it count as passing the Bechdel test when two women are talking about training techniques…for their single, male student?
Also, Iroh teaches Zuko how to redirect (as opposed to generate) lightning. Remember that. It's important.
The Library – Nothing political, but Our Heroes make an interesting discovery: firebenders lose their power during solar eclipses. And hey, what do you know? There's one scheduled for a few months from now, before the arrival of Sozin's Comet. Keep that in mind. It'll be important later.
The Desert – Appa is stolen by a group of desert-nomad "Sandbenders", and Katara's "Team Mom" persona becomes full-blown team leadership as she tries to get them all out of the desert alive. Aang spends the entire episode hovering on the edge of berserk fury (he comes the closest we ever see him come to killing somebody of his own free will – that is, without being controlled by the other Avatars or a pissed-off Ocean Spirit. Not that the sandbenders don't deserve it – stealing someone's transportation in the middle of the desert is essentially slow, cruel murder. He does kill a hornet-buzzard when it tries to steal Momo). Toph can see very little through the sand. And Sokka spends the entire episode high on peyote. That's right. I told you this show got a lot of crap past the radar, didn't I? Cactus juice – it's the quenchiest! Just watch those side effects.
At one point, the Gaang spots a cloud (at first, Aang thinks it's Appa). After a moment, Katara realizes: Huzzah! Water! – and sends Aang up to waterbend the cloud into her waterskin. Not much water results, and when she expresses her dismay, Aang snaps back that he did his best, and demands to know what she's doing. Her answer:
"Trying to keep us together."Just like she did back at the South Pole. Just like she's always done. It's who she is, and who she's been for years. Once again, don't think about it too much – it'll break your heart.
The Serpent's Pass – Not that much in this episode. Katara is glad to revert to being fourteen years old (using waterbending to do the greatest cannonball ever at a swimming hole).
Our Heroes are on the way to the Earth Kingdom capital of Ba Sing Se, and they run into three refugees: a man named Than, his wife Ying, and a younger woman who I'm going to guess is somebody's sister. Ying is heavily pregnant, and they want to get to Ba Sing Se before she has her baby (a little bonus for those of you bothered by this – Than doesn't say "our" and he certainly doesn't say "my". He says "her"). They convince the Gaang to join them on a ferry that carries refugees to Ba Sing Se, instead of taking the (extremely dangerous) Serpent's Pass. While waiting in line: we run into a familiar face.
(Sokka is grabbed from behind and spun around by an attractive young woman in Earth kingdom uniform.)This scene is amusing enough in its own right, but it's important later. Keep it in mind.
Young Woman: (firmly) Tickets and passports please. (Holds out hand.)
Sokka: (intimidated) Is there a problem?
Young Woman: (menacingly) Yeah, I've got a problem with you. (Pokes finger at his chest.) I've seen your type before, probably sarcastic, think you're hilarious, and let me guess, you're traveling with the Avatar.
Sokka: Do I know you?
Young Woman: You mean you don't remember? (Yanks him close by his collar.) Maybe you remember this. (She places a kiss on his cheek.)
Suki: (delighted) Sokka, it's good to see you!
Of course, Our Heroes don't get their peaceful ferry ride, and of course poor Ying doesn't make it to Ba Sing Se in time. Fortunately, Katara is an experienced midwife, and the birth goes off without a hitch. One thing I appreciate here: although Sokka faints, Than does just fine (mostly just holding Ying's hand and helping her sit up, but still). I've always hated the joke that men – no matter how brave or competent they might be at other times – always cease to function the second the woman in their life goes into labor. Birth is a very big deal, no question, but there's no reason it has to be A Mystery No Man Can Face instead of just another medical emergency. Patriarchy hurts men, too, and all that.
Also, Zuko and Iroh make their way to Ba Sing Se as refugees.
The Drill – You know how, in far too many movies and shows, women remain all pretty and perfect regardless of whatever yuck they might be crawling through? Maybe a few aesthetically-placed smudges?
No. Not here.
City of Walls and Secrets – The Gaang enter Ba Sing Se, where they are honored guests (or prisoners – not that there's much of a difference in Ba Sing Se). Zuko and Iroh get an apartment in the city's outer circle and a job at a tea shop. We meet Long Feng, head of the Earth Kingdom's secret police (the Dai Li), puppet master who really rules the Earth Kingdom, and this season's secondary villain. Remember him.
Tales of Ba Sing Se – A day in the life in Ba Sing Se. Everybody gets a segment, but the only ones we're really interested are Zuko's, and the one Katara shares with Toph.
The Tale of Toph and Katara: Katara takes Top to The Fancy Lady Day Spa. Yes. Apparently there were some coupons in that guest house. Toph is reluctant to try anything "girly", but except for the part where some fool tries to give her a pedicure (violence ensues), she comes to enjoy the pampering. Afterward, they end up having to deal with some rich girls who apparently have a problem with Outsiders wearing makeup in the same style as their betters. This turns out about as well for the rich girls as you'd imagine. A simple, Bechdelicious good time, and…
The Tale of Zuko: Zuko goes on a date. Why do we care? Because she (a really wonderful – cute, affectionate, cheerful, friendly, curious, eager to show a newly-arrived refugee boy all the wonders of her city – girl named Jin) asks him out. No comment is made about this. There is no Ba Sing Sadie Hawkins' dance going on, she's not presented as unusually bold, and she certainly doesn't wait for him. She takes him places, she initiates kisses (i.e. the closest thing to sexual activity we're going to see on Nickelodeon) and there's no hint that even someone as old as Iroh thinks this is unusual. It's almost like the people in this universe (outside the Water Tribes, of course) take it for granted that women have their own desires and the right to act on them, instead of waiting around for the honor of becoming male property.
Appa's Lost Days – The story of the time between Appa's bison-napping and his arrival in Ba Sing Se. Be warned: you will blub. At one point, he's found and nursed back to health by the Kyoshi Warriors. When Ozai's Angels happen upon the lot of them, the Warriors fight them off while Appa escapes. The last thing we see is Suki and Azula running at each other…
The Earth King – The Gaang achieves what seems to be victory as they finally manage to get through to the Earth King and convince him of what Long Feng is doing. Of course, that can't be allowed to last. By the end of the episode, Toph has been captured by her father's bounty hunters and Ozai's Angels have shown up, dressed in Kyoshi Warrior uniforms. Uh-oh.
By the way: both Toph and Long Feng are imprisoned in metal cells. That's because even the most powerful and skilled earthbenders can do nothing with metal. Remember that.
The Guru – Remember how I – and, I assure you, the show – kept mentioning that earthbenders can't do anything about metal? Very specific, very definite, no exceptions, not even masters like Bumi, Long Feng or (in the next episode) the Earth Kingdom high command – Earthbenders cannot, not ever, never-ever-ever bend metal. Want to capture an earthbender? Use metal restraints and prisons.
Unless you've got Toph.
Because in this episode, Toph bends metal.
That's right. The tiny, twelve-year-old blind girl is officially superhuman even by the standards of a world where a significant minority of the population can control the elements.
Crossroads of Destiny – In this episode, Azula, princess of the Fire Nation, with only her two ladies-in-waiting-slash-ninja, subverts an enemy nation's secret police (intimidating Long Feng into submission after thoroughly playing him), bringing down from within the one city that her own nation's armies could never defeat, effectively ending the war.
The only people who even come close to stopping her are Katara (who was actually winning until Zuko interfered) and Aang…who she lightning-blasts in the back just as he's starting to manifest the Avatar State, temporarily killing him and cutting off his access to the Avatar State (and even at that, the world counts itself lucky that the Avatar itself didn't cease to exist).
At the age of 14.
That is all.