Chapter Twenty-Six: “The Blind Bandit”
(Rating Out of 15)
Yes! We finally made it! This is when Avatar: the Last Airbender truly began to hit its stride and became a consistently great show. Naturally, the average Avatar fan would dispute this claim, stating that the series never hit a stride because it never had to, being perfect and all. But since I’m above the average (heh, heh), I stand by my belief that “The Blind Bandit” is where everything truly came together.
And it’s all thanks entirely to one character: Toph, the blind, twelve-year-old Earthbending extraordinaire and master of neutral jin who will be Aang’s Earthbending teacher. She’s also a fantastic character, one of the best things about the show as a whole.
You may think I’m overstating the importance of Toph’s joining the group. Well, here’s my thinking on the matter.
The series typically divides the overall story into Aang’s arc and Zuko’s arc. In theory, Aang’s brighter side would balance out Zuko’s darker and angstier so as not to overwhelm the kiddie audience with too much emotional devastation. Of course, on occasion, Aang and friends would have to come to grips with harsh reality, but for the most part, they were the ones having all the fun.
The problem was—for me, anyway—that the quality of Aang-centric stories varied enormously; there was no consistency in how well these plots were put together. Because the humor and the conflicts had a tendency to get too childish, that dampened the enjoyment of the average Aang adventure. Again, when he and his friends truly had to face some emotional turmoil, then his story became interesting. But this was deliberately made rare, and many pre-Toph episodes suffered as a result. Zuko-centric stories, on the other hand, were always consistent and emotional, so rather than Aang’s stories relieving us from the numbing torment of Zuko’s, it was often times the other way around.
The Aang stories just weren’t entertaining in and of themselves most of the time. Aang, Katara, and Sokka just weren’t that dynamic of a group. I’ve already discussed in detail why Aang and especially Sokka (more specifically, Jack De Sena) don’t move me too often. And poor Katara was more often than not the voice of reason and the straight man, which was not her strongest quality. Katara was most endearing when she was pissed and/or focused solely on herself and her own peace of mind rather than when addressing the needs of others (which is why episodes like “The Painted Lady” are unbearable, but episodes like “The Puppetmaster” are so damn enjoyable).
How desperately they needed another teammate to bring some life into their “family.”
Enter Toph, who provided the edge that the Aang group was sorely lacking. Toph’s inclusion to the Aang stories is akin to Mick Taylor first joining the Rolling Stones: suddenly an entire realm of possibilities was opened, and her own individual greatness, rather than detract from the qualities of the other kids, enhanced them.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. “The Blind Bandit” merely introduces Toph and sets up why and how she ended up accompanying the kids on their quest to save the world. I’ll save the more in-depth analysis of Toph herself for “The Chase,” when her personality and interactions with the others kids are fully unleashed.
But she’s wonderful here in “The Blind Bandit,” too. In fact, it’s rather surprising just how tiresome the episode is when she’s not on-screen or the center of attention. Sokka is annoying as usual (although his bag dilemma, which I’ll get to later, is amusing). Aang doesn’t really do much here, but that’s by design, so I don’t blame him. Katara gets only one moment to truly shine: when she freezes two boys to a wall when they refuse to give her information. This is the devious side of her personality that is rarely allowed to show itself. I guess DiMartino and Konietzko and company didn’t want to wear out its welcome. Fine by me, because that’s what makes her character so damn interesting.
The kids discover Toph at an Earthbending tournament, where the objective is to knock your opponent out of the ring. Hilariously, the matches here are as staged and as pompous as they are in real-life professional wrestling. The Boulder is even played by professional wrestler Mike Foley, doing his best Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson impression.
At one point, an Earthbender dressed in Fire Nation clothes appears as obvious audience bait, just so he can get his ass kicked. What makes this bit even stranger is the Earthbender’s undefinable accent. Is he French or is he Russian? Do such nationalities even exist in the Avatar universe?
It’s entirely possible that Toph, as the reigning champion, is the only one not in on the joke, and made her way to prominence by skill only. But what skill! Her defeat of the Boulder is one of the most brilliantly conceived and executed bits of visual poetry I’ve ever seen: a slow-motion sequence that explains how Toph sees things around her through the vibrations in the ground, and how she masterfully uses this to her advantage. The Art of Avatar: the Last Airbender informs us that Bryan Konietzko storyboarded this sequence personally. Couple that with the fact that Michael Dante DiMartino wrote the episode and I’m perfectly willing to accept that these guys are capable of true genius.
When a challenge is proposed that anyone who can defeat Toph (known here only as the Blind Bandit, of course) will win a huge deal of prize money and the championship belt, Aang accepts, if only to try and persuade Toph here and now to become his Earthbending mentor. This is a pretty lousy strategy, especially since it takes place in front of a crowd that wants to see blood. Thus, Aang is forced to defeat Toph to get her attention, but that backfires as well.
Since Aang defeated her with Airbending—which no one could see—and not Earthbending, the host of the tournament, Xin Fu, believes that Toph and Aang worked together to cheat him out of his money. His resolve to find the two and hold them for ransom (the prize money, that is) is not terribly unreasonable, especially since it gives us a fantastic last-act action sequence.
Now, this last-act action sequence is basically more of the same to the tenth power, demonstrating Toph’s awesome Earthbending abilities and how she “sees.” Although the thrill of that first demonstration is diminished, DiMartino and Konietzko and company still manage to make this sequence exciting by cleverly altering the circumstances under which the action proceeds.
For example, both of Toph’s fight scenes is in take place in the tournament ring. This is pretty much the only similarity between the two, and it’s the key to why the second one works. Any other random place for the fight would have been suitable from a bare-bones plot standpoint, but the tournament ring makes the differences between the two fights meaningful and resonant.
This may be the territory of the Blind Bandit, but the one doing the fighting is Toph, the daughter of a man who believes she is weak, blind, and helpless. She’s even still wearing the soft, fancy clothing from home: the juxtaposition between that and her true personality is truly brilliant.
In the first fight, there was a huge audience who wanted nothing more than to see two Earthbender beat the shit out of each other. Now, however, the only audience available—and, really, the only audience that matters—is Toph’s father, who finally sees his daughter for what she truly is. The Earthbending tutor is also present, and he’s more accepting of Toph than her her father is. Then again, this acceptance is based solely on her Earhbending talent; his interests are purely technical. Besides, she’s not his daughter.
(It’s also worth noting that Aang is totally left out of the action here. This isn’t his battle to win.)
But despite single-handedly defeating her kidnappers and then confessing how she really feels to her parents, Toph’s father not only refuses to let her go off with the Avatar—where her incredible skills would most benefit the needs of the many—but he opts to further her restrictions and totally shelter her from the outside world. The parents says they’re doing this for her own good, and while one could interpret this as narrow-minded yet loving behavior, I think such an interpretation would be wrong. We’re told earlier that Toph’s family, the Bei Fong, may just be the richest family in the world, and we learn that no one outside of Aang, his friends, and the Earthbending tutor even knows that the Bei Fong have a daughter. There could very well be a rather sickening sexist subtext to all of this; would the Bei Fong have been so secretive and overprotective of Toph if she had been born a boy? (Even if he was also blind?)
Thankfully, Toph manages to get away and go with Aang and the others. This has dire consequences, though: her father believes Aang has kidnapped Toph, and hires Xin Fu and the Earthbending tutor to get her back. If memory serves me correctly, this odd coupling will be a great source of entertainment for the rest of Book Two.
One of the last things I’ll mention is the continuation of the emasculation of Sokka.
It’s not even subtle anymore. Now he’s buying purses and getting ecstatic about how they match his newly acquired champion belt. This emasculation doesn’t go unnoticed by the characters either. When Sokka scolds Aang for answering to such an unmanly name as “Twinkletoes,” he’s quickly reminded by Katara that he’s the one “whose bag matches his belt.” Additionally, he’s way, way too invested in those Earthbending tournament matches. It’s as if he’s trying too hard to affirm his manhood, and it’s quite embarassing.
But Sokka’s not the only one, either. When Aang accepts the challenge to fight the Blind Bandit, Toph delivers this classic, but revealing line:
Toph: Do people really want to see two little girls fighting out here?
I may have to set aside an entry on the Essay page to explore this more, because I do find it peculiar that the more feminine the males (Sokka, Aang) become, the more masculine the females (Toph, Katara) become. This is even more interesting when you consider that DiMartino and Konietzko’s initial conception of Toph was as a male character. Head writer Aaron Ehasz suggested he be a female instead. They wisely took his advice, thus providing us with the most entertaining character in Aang’s little team. But is it really a coincidence that she’s the manliest as well?
There’s also something I always wondered that’s not addressed here, probably for good reason: just how do these people manage to take so much damage? Those Earthbenders don’t ever seen to be too bruised or suffer any serious injuries after their fights. Do people in the Avatar universe just have a high tolerance for pain and bodily destruction? Is this an evolutionary trait brought on by the existence of Benders?
Who knows? Besides, what matter is—and I think I can safely say this—“The Blind Bandit” is one of the best episodes of the series. And a good thing, too, because I ended up watching the damn thing three times–once with a friend, once alone, and once sober*. It’s also a good sign of things to come. I honestly can’t wait until I get to “The Chase!”
* Inebriated viewing is neither a standard nor a recommended procedure. That said, Lord knows I’ll need a drink to get through “The Painted Lady.”
All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.