Chapter Twenty-Two: “The Cave of Two Lovers”
(Rating Out of 15)
“The Cave of Two Lovers” is the episode with the hippies in it. I won’t even ask how or why these people somehow evolved into existence in the mostly Oriental universe of Avatar: the Last Airbender. If those pirates in “The Waterbending Scroll” could exist, then surely these hippies could. To be honest, though, I was more forgiving of the pirate intrusion because they turned out to be pretty entertaining. These hippies, on the other hand, are anything but.
They’re kind of cool in the beginning, but by the time they and the kids get to the titular cave, they have long since exhausted their welcome. But here’s the strangest thing about them: despite how perfectly well the writers capture the benign uselessness of the average hippie, they rarely utilize it for actual humor. More often, they’re played unbearably straight, and are just plain annoying. But when they are the butt of the joke, it’s pretty funny. My favorite moment in the episode is when one of the hippies fails to realize that lighting all five torches does NOT extend their individual light life.
Could it be that I’m biased? Does my general dislike of hippies prevent me from enjoying the episode? I mean, I don’t hate hippies. Certainly they’re not all like this—one of the most endearing hippies I ever met was my high school English teacher. I don’t even have any issues with their cause: we can always use a little more peace, love, and understanding in this cruel world. No, it’s not hippie ideology so much as hippie habit that tends to irk me. Maybe you tolerate the average hippie more than I do. In that case, feel free to raise my episode rating up a point or two. Personally, these hippies nearly ruin an otherwise good episode.
On the way to Omashu to learn Earthbending from King Bumi, the three kids meet the hippie nomads. They tell the kids of the Cave of Two Lovers that can take them to Omashu while avoiding the Fire Nation. That is, if they can navigate the cursed labyrinth within and not be trapped forever.
It doesn’t help at all that the Fire Nation destroys the cave entrance, trapping them inside anyway.
Once again, Sokka gains my total sympathy in the company of more despicable folks. His slowburning frustration is a joy to behold. While still in the cave, the group gets separated by a fallen wall of rumble, and Sokka finds himself alone with the hippies. The agonized scream he unleashes upon realizing this fact is probably the funniest thing that ever came of Jack De Sena’s mouth. That said (and I still stand by this), if this is what it takes to make Sokka sympathetic and/or funny, then count me out.
Aang and Katara (along with Appa) make their way through the cave and discover the tomb of the two lovers, as well as a wall that contains their legend. The following sequence presents that legend to us in a nicely done flow of images that mimic the ancient Chinese art style. (I have no idea why it’s in widescreen, though.) The legend explains why the lovers had to build the cave, how war killed one of them, and the other ended that war by creating what would became the great city of Omashu. (Her name was “Oma” and his was “Shu.” Isn’t that lovely?)
The secret of the cave is apparently found in this oft-mentioned line: “Love is brightest in the dark.” This, of course, plays on Aang’s crush on Katara, especially when Katara suggests that that maybe to find the way out, they should actually kiss.
Bashful Aang, of course, says all the wrong things and winds up making Katara angry. But here’s the thing: I could never understand actual Katara’s stance on the issue. The lines as written suggest one thing, but the manner in which Mae Whitman read her lines suggests something else entirely. I can’t tell if Katara’s being sincere, sarcastic, flirtatious, manipulative, offended, teasing, or whatever. Unless the writers were going for the old “I’ll never understand girls at all” approach, but I doubt it. (Then again, what do I know? I’m a guy.)
Later on, in a well-conceived and well-timed moment, they actually do attempt to kiss as the torch goes out.
But the extinguished torch reveals the stones that glow in the dark and lead the way out. Very clever.
Notice, too, that Aang, while disappointed that the kiss never happened—or did it?—he’s just happy that Katara’s happy. That’s kind of touching.
They make it out of the cave, and, soon, so do Sokka and the hippies. Turns out they were attacked by giant badger-moles (the original Earthbenders, we’re told), but thanks to the hippies’ musical instruments, were somehow able to tame the beasts and ride them to the outside. Huh?
The point is the kids can finally complete their journey to Omashu. Only to find it under new management.
Now, there was something I forgot to mention in all this.
Those songs that the hippies play suck.
No, that wasn’t it.
Oh, yeah! Zuko and Iroh are in this episode!
Surely you can forgive my forgetfulness. Zuko and Iroh’s story feels like it’s from another episode entirely (which is a step up from Book One, in which a Zuko story might as well have been from another series). They’re busy trying to figure out how to survive as fugitives, which is extremely difficult considering that the Earth Kingdom and the Fire Nation wants them dead. (Hilariously, both agree that being killed by the Earth Kingdom is more pleasant than facing Azula’s wrath.)
Uncle Iroh winds up making tea out a poisonous plant, and they go into town to get him better before he dies. They meet a very friendly girl named Song, who attends to Iroh’s rash, and also invites them to dinner.
To say this dinner sequence is uncomfortable is saying nothing at all. There’s almost too much irony here, as Song and her mother describe how they were once refugees, and how Song lost her father in a Fire Nation raid. Song tries to cheer Zuko up by telling him that the Avatar has returned. She even shows Zuko the scar she received from the Fire Nation. It’s hard to tell what’s more painful. The fact that Zuko is realizing just how brutal the Fire Nation can be, or the fact that those are the people he was trying to get back in favor with all these years.
For all the hospitality they receive, though, Zuko insists on stealing Song’s dodo(?) for easier and faster transportation. It’s a dick move, for sure, but even Iroh begrudgingly accepts that this is for their own survival. It really breaks my heart to know that Song witnessed this hijacking of her dodo(?). The fact that this is the last time we see her in the series makes it even sadder. This is the only really emotional moment in the episode.
I know I sound like a broken record, but I honestly believe that Zuko is the main character of Avatar. While Aang and the gang are off goofing around with musically deficient potheads, Zuko is experiencing the true ups and downs of what life dishes out and working through them as best he can. When Aang runs away from something, it’s because he’s afraid of it. When Zuko runs away from something, it’s because he has to. Therein lies the difference.
Post-script: The lead hippie named Chong (get it?) is voiced by Dee Bradley Baker. Normally, Baker provides the sounds of animals such as Appa and Momo. He should really stick to that.
All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.