Because fans should be critical, too

Chapter Thirty-Eight: “The Earth King”

13

(Rating Out of 15)

I realize that not every episode is created equal, so as much as I try to give each episode a fair and detailed review, some really don’t require one. Concerning “The Earth King,” I could probably just say, “This is a great episode, and if you’ve read my past reviews, you’ll know exactly why,” and be done with it, seeing as the people likely to read this review have read the previous ones and know my critical standards. By the same token, they’ll probably expect the usual fair and detailed review, so why change now?

All right. “The Earth King” is a great episode, and if you’ve read my previous reviews, you’ll probably have a good idea as to why. This episode does almost everything right, and is never offensive nor boring. And it flies by pretty fast. Maybe too fast. The episode shows the kids, having finally reunited with Appa, flying straight to the Earth King’s palace in order to finally give him that information from “The Library” on how they can end the war with the Fire Nation. Of course, they have to convince him that Long Feng, his adviser, is the leader of the conspiracy to cover up the war, and that won’t be too easy.

That’s the whole episode in a nutshell. Do the kids succeed? No shit. Is the Earth King a nice but easily susceptible guy? Yes, and thanks to the voice acting of Phil “Marvin” LaMarr, he’s a believable character as well: his love for large animals such as his pet bear Bosco is well utilized when he takes an interest in flying Appa. Are there any surprises in the plot at all? Not really, it’s fairly straightforward.

If there’s anything unique about this episode, it’s that the last-act action sequence occurs at the beginning of the episode and not in the end. (So technically it’s not a last-act action sequence, but since it’s a standard component of the Avatar formula, it’ll keep its full name.) The kids fight their way into the Earth King’s palace, taking down probably hundreds of guards and Earthbenders. I’ll admit, I wasn’t very thrilled this time around like I was with certain other big action sequences (the ones in “Avatar Roku: Winter Solstice, Part Two” immediately come to mind), but it’s still a cool scene. I’d say it’s more or less like a harmless jam session where Aang, Katara, and Toph get to show off their wicked Bending abilities for its own sake. Not emotionally investing, but often amusing to witness.

And while we’re using musical analogies, here’s the best way I can describe this episode: “The Earth King” is to Avatar: the Last Airbender as A Hard Day’s Night (the album, not the movie) is to the Beatles’ entire discography. Both of these works show the creators in top form as they breeze through material that does absolutely nothing to highlight what makes them such geniuses in the first place. There’s nothing going on beneath the surface beyond the fact that these are just perfectly crafted products with little of the personality that used to make them so interesting.

And yet still better than everything else.

A large part of the Beatles’ allure is that, with each subsequent album, you could chart their development as songwriters, musicians, and human beings. It’s pretty difficult to do this with any other bands like, say, the Rolling Stones, who simply got older, or Led Zeppelin, who somehow got dumber with each release. In the same way, each episode of Avatar brings us closer to the characters and shows how they evolve as individuals throughout the course of the series, which almost never happens in a kids’ show. “The Earth King” simply doesn’t provide that sort of interest like previous episodes (even relatively lightweight ones like “The Chase”) did.

Not that the episode is completely devoid of character moments. At the end of the episode after all the plot business is taken care of, Katara and Sokka become very excited to learn that their father, Hakoda, is harbored close by with other members of the Southern Water Tribe. Unfortunately, only one sibling can go see him because someone has to stay and look after the Earth King. Sokka volunteers to stay, but Katara kindly allows him to go since it means more to him—if only a little bit—than it does to her.

On top of that, we do have a Zuko side story that is, as always, the most interesting part of the episode. And it’s basically the kid having a fever because he is at war with himself. Letting Appa go free really did a number on him, and he goes through a metamorphosis into a new person. That’s how Iroh describes it anyway.

Despite how interesting it is, even this bit feels routine. Of course Zuko is having yet another emotional crisis: that’s what he does. Perhaps the only new thing about it is that his nightmares produce some genuinely creepy imagery.

Of course, there could be a very good reason this episode is so faceless: it is all setup for the big Book Two finale, where the real major plot points and, most importantly, the real emotionality and character interest lies. This was probably a deliberate attempt by DiMartino and Konietzko and company to get the audience’s guard down for a moment and then prep them up for when the shit gets real.

Hell, the episode ends on yet another downer note. Well…not necessarily a downer, but definitely one of dread. And how could it not? Especially after Sokka’s brilliantly idiotic line: “Everything’s gonna work out perfectly, from now on and forever.” Uh huh.

Soon after, Toph is tricked into meeting up with her mother, only to be captured by the odd couple.

And who should show up by ATM, disguised as the Kyoshi Warriors? WHAT?! What happened to Suki and the real Kyoshi Warriors? What’s going to happen next?! Oh no!

Yeah, “The Earth King” is a lot like “The Waterbending Master” in the sense that it serves as a prologue for the big two-parter finale. Only “The Waterbending Master” combined its setup with really neat character development. At this point, I guess DiMartino and Konietzko and company decided they needed a break from all that heavy lifting of previous episodes. I suppose they deserved it, especially since the finale would live up to and far exceed our expectations. Thanks, guys!

P.S. “The Earth King” was written by John “JOB” O’Bryan. Maybe that’s why I found so much to complain about in an otherwise great episode. Poor JOB…

Pictured: NOT John O’Bryan

All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.

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