Avatar: The Last Airbender – Book 2 “Earth,” Episode 9 – “Bitter Work” – Learning to Stand


     “Bitter Work” is a favorite episode. This is the episode that explores the philosophies of Firebending and Earthbending and through these learning about Airbending and Waterbending and how all of them are connected and can help strengthen whatever Bending a person is born with. It is within this quest of balance that we get to see just how wounded Zuko is as well as see Aang changed by the teaching of Toph to find the balance within himself in order to accomplish Earthbending.

    The episode was directed by Ethan Spaulding and written by Aaron Ehasz.

    The story involves Toph teaching Aang how to Earthbend and his trouble doing so since Airbending is Earthbending’s opposite and Iroh helping Zuko learn how to bend Lightning so that he can take on Azula. Each goes into the philosophy of the practices and deals with the dilemmas both Aang and Zuko face within themselves.

The Pros: Katara – Katara’s learning is compassionate and we see how receptive the pacifist Aang has always been to it compared to the blunt and brutal Toph. They have a great dynamic and we see just how much she cares about Aang both as a friend and teacher.

Sokka – Sokka gets trapped in the ground and it is up to Aang to rescue him. We see him swear he’ll be a vegetarian and after not as he tries to negotiate with the little animal he was trying to catch. When it’s giant mother arrives he panics and even trapped he listens to Aang rant even though Aang’s metaphorical situation is where is currently. He really shows how great of a friend he is.

Toph – Toph is a brutal teacher and we see that she is of the mindset that a person needs to discover what she is teaching on their own. In this way she eggs Aang on until he stands up for himself as Earthbending is all about holding your ground and not letting anyone knock you down.

Iroh – Iroh is truly a Bending Master. He learned how to bend Lightning away and redirect it from studying Waterbenders and we see that the other benders philosophies inform his own. This is why he has such great balance and tries to help Zuko experience healing too as after he was hit by Azula Iroh relived the memory of his boy and the loss of him at Ba Sing Se.

Zuko – Zuko is imbalanced because of the abuse he experienced from his father. To him the world and how unfair it is is his Father and him learning the Elements is not only to defeat Azula but to impress his father and gain his honor back. This leads to him leaving Iroh to seek death in the storm as he rages as how the world has never let off on him and always punched him down, the world in this case is clearly Ozai, the demon who haunts his past and present.

The Philosophy of Bending and Finding Balance – Balance is acceptance of the past, being able to adapt like a Waterbender, passion of a Firebender, tranquility of an Airbender and strong and steady as an Earthbender. This is Aang’s quest and metaphorically the quest of all our characters for it is only in balance that inner and outer victory is achieved.

This is a great episode that shows us that even though Iroh has been through so much loss with his exile, the death of his son and wounded Zuko that he still manages to find balance within himself. He is the example that all our characters strive to be in each of their own ways as it is only through balance among all the Elements that Ozai and Azula can be defeated. This is never stated outright but it is implied in the power that comes from knowing all the Elements and the power revealed when all are working together or philosophies from them are used by Iroh to strengthen his own Firebending. Seeing Zuko’s pain was powerful too and you realize just how much damage his father did too and that he hasn’t fully faced the abuse he grew up with.

Final Score: 10 / 10


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