Chapter Twenty-Nine: “Bitter Work”
(Rating Out of 15)
This would have been a great episode of Avatar: the Last Airbender to have seen first. “Bitter Work” exemplifies qualities that transcend arbitrary rating systems and individual episode scores. Of course, since I’ve obligated myself to a rating system that is probably too weird–not as weird as its source, though–I’m also obligated to explain why, despite having “transcendental” qualities, “Bitter Work” is denied a perfect rating. Let me get my nitpicks out of the way so I can explain.
I said I’d stop complaining about Sokka, but in this episode, he seriously reaches a new low.
He attempts to hunt a baby saber-toothed moose lion—did I mention before that I HATE hybrid animals?—but ends up getting himself stuck in a hole in the ground, his limbs too constricted for him to free himself. This is a gag inspired by a similar one in the film The Money Pit starring Tom Hanks, but where that gag was funny, this is just painful at times. And, of course, it’s because of the supreme incompetence of Jack De Sena.
He’s probably one of the few “comedians” I know who can take a potentially funny joke and absolutely ruin it. His delivery is so self-aware, overblown, and laboured. Perhaps part of the problem is that he’s an improvisational comic who absolutely needs his physical presence to be funny (he was a regular on All That! not long before being cast in Avatar), but I wouldn’t know. The only times Sokka is ever funny is: 1) when physical humor is involved (and of course, De Sena would have nothing to do with that); 2) when his delivery is actually (and rarely) appropriately; and 3) when he’s the butt of the joke.
The other complaint I have has to do with the amount of physical pain that characters are somehow able to sustain, often times solely for comedic effect. I simply don’t understand how I’m supposed to believe these people—Zuko and Iroh excepted—are capable to pain. I’m not going to try to dissect how Bending causes little physical harm—I’ve long ago accepted that Firebending and Earthbending were never going to be taken to their logical and nightmarish conclusion—but if Sokka can be launched ten feet into the air by a jolt of earth and then land without so much as a broken vertebrae, then how am I supposed to be fearful of these characters’ well being?
At one point, Toph attempts to get Aang to Earthbend by rolling a huge boulder at him while he’s blindfolded. A funny concept, but not a particular suspenseful one, because we don’t feel the danger of the situation. And let me make this clear: the lack of danger is not because Avatar is a cartoon, but because the reality of the cartoon too often changes on a whim for a joke or a crazy moment that on the long run probably wasn’t even necessary.
And my last complaint goes to Toph. As much as I love her character and how much she brings to the group, Jessie Flower is just not the perfect voice actress for her. She’s too restrained and comes across more as a wannabe tough girl than the real thing. I have absolutely no way of knowing if this ambiguity was deliberate, but if it was, then I think it was a mistake. Besides, we’ve seen child actors like Chloë Grace Moretz and Natalie Portman in her earlier years who could pull off alternatively charming and frightening performances with full conviction, so there’s really no excuse for Flower’s sometimes limp acting in this show.
My God, I just can’t be satisfied, can I? “Ambivalent” is the word for me, I suppose. All right, enough negativity: here’s why I regard this episode so well.
One of the great things about Avatar is its emphasis on the learning process. At no point in the series—except possibly in the finale—is a character simply granted new or special abilities for the convenience of the plot; they have to work for and actually earn them. And in order to earn them, they must be capable of change, like real human beings. That’s practically nonexistent in any other kids’ show I’ve seen, or just any other show for that matter.
While I stand by my belief that Aang’s story loses some of its emotional impact because he was doomed to succeed from the start, it’s nice to see him have to work at becoming the Avatar. The Earthbending training sequences in “Bitter Work” are fun to watch and rather insightful, especially once they address one of my main issues with Aang’s character: his main solution to any problem he encounters is to run away.
He may have lucked out when running away saved his life from the genocide of the other Airbenders, but DiMartino and Konietzko and company are smart to emphasize again and again how feeble this tactic is on the long run. In “The Deserter,” he decided to never Firebend again; in “The Avatar State,” he decided to never go into the Avatar State again; in this episode, Katara actually calls him out on this after he fails at Toph’s Earthbending challenge. If he’s going to become the Avatar, running away can no longer be an option.
And who better to teach him that than Toph, the most in-your-face person he’s ever met? Her methods are interesting, to say the least.
When Aang is feeling down about not being able to Earthbend, Toph picks on him by using his glider staff to crack open nuts, since he’s obviously too much of a wuss to do anything about it. As she leaves him to his meditation, she whacks his staff against the rocks around her. Now, for the longest time I thought she was doing that simply because the staff was, as Aang put it, a “delicate instrument,” and thus every little bit of damage was harmful. But when you take into account that Toph is blind, you realize she’s mockingly using the staff as a walking stick. This is probably the most subtle blind joke in the series, which is saying something because those jokes typically aren’t subtle at all.
Also, the emasculation continues. Can’t Aang’s staff be considered phallic, and that he can only get it back when he mans up?
Thankfully, Aang does recover after finding Sokka stuck in the ground. He’s been talking nonstop to the little baby saber-toothed moose lion, which has been making these passages watchable with its cuteness. At that point, the baby’s mother finally comes around and is as ready to massacre Sokka as I am. Aang saves the day, unfortunately, in what I suppose counts as the episode’s last-act action sequence.
The reveal that Toph was there to “watch” the entire event without bothering to help is great, as is Aang’s resolve to finally stand up for himself and not take any of Toph’s shit. And then, what do you know? Aang can Earthbend now! Wicked!
At the end of the episode, we learn that Toph actually took Katara’s advice from earlier about positive reinforcement being a good way to teach Aang anything. You could interpret this as a sign that in the grand scheme of things, Katara is the one manipulating everything for the better and that this is really her story—it’s her voice that opens every episode, remember—but I’m not prepared to back that theory up with any hard evidence, so I’ll just hold off on that until it’s clear as day.
Besides, I haven’t talked about Zuko yet, who has his own learning curve through the course of the episode. Only his story doesn’t end on quite an upbeat note (but than what Zuko story does?).
This may be the talkiest Zuko story so far, but that’s not a detriment, because its Iroh doing the talking, and what he has to say is almost always interesting. In resuming Zuko’s training for a next encounter with Azula, Iroh basically distills his life and Bending philosophy into something tangible enough for someone like Zuko to grasp—which is not to say that Zuko is stupid, but he can be so thick sometimes that it’s not funny.
Zuko appears to get what his uncle is saying, but when it comes to applying those lessons into new techniques, it’s easy to see that he hasn’t learned anything. He fails to shoot lightning, which Iroh notes is an indication that Zuko has yet to resolve the inner turmoil he has (no kidding) and get rid of his feelings of shame. If Zuko can humble himself, he can overcome this problem, but it doesn’t look like that will happen anytime soon. Shame, too: I’m more desperate for this guy to succeed than I am for Aang.
After Iroh teaches Zuko a move he made up long ago—redirecting lightning, that is—Zuko eagerly wants to try out his newly discovered skill by requesting that Iroh shoot him with lightning. We know as well as Iroh does that if Zuko actually got his wish, he would be dead in an instant. So when Zuko goes high up in the mountains during a thunderstorm and dares the universe to strike him—like it’s done so many times before—it’s as funny as it is heartbreaking; it’s almost Shakespearian.
That’s the price you pay if you don’t learn to change. That’s the message I get out of “Bitter Work,” and it’s definitely a good one. By the end of the episode, Aang has taken another big step in the right direction, while Zuko is stuck exactly where he’s always been. The latter concerns me more, but is that really a surprise anymore?
All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.