“Bitter Work”/“The Library”/“The Desert”

“Bitter Work”/“The Library”/“The Desert”

Bitter Work (book 2, chapter 9; originally aired June 2, 2006)
The Library (book 2, chapter 10; originally aired July 14, 2006)
The Desert (book 2, chapter 11; originally aired July 14, 2006)

Hokey jokes. Ponderous references. Convoluted syntax. Embarrassingly dim attempts at insight. Long ago, the many nations of TV Club Classic lived together in harmony. Then, everything changed when the Fall TV Season attacked! Only the Avatar coverage, master of all four elements of critical bullshit, could stop it. But when the TV Club Classic readers needed it most, the Avatar coverage vanished!

Some months from now, many TV Club Classic readers will discover some new Avatar coverage, from the same old bullshit-bender named Childs (at least, he sure hopes so). Even though—or, more appropriately, because—his bullshit-bending is sometimes awkwardly mediocre, he has a lot to learn before he’s ready to save anything. The rest is between the reader and the reader’s own personal belief system.

As destined, we have reached the greatest of all places to put this coverage on hiatus: the mid-season break. Yes, it may take a little rulebending to fit three episodes into this sacred place meant for only two, but our aim is a poetic breaking point, and nothing is more poetic for our champion Aang than to leave him angry, bitter, scared, and guilty. These three episodes are particularly powerful and wrenching, as our little Aang finally begins to learn earthbending and discovers an unexpected boon in his struggle against the Fire Lord, only to pay one of the heaviest prices he could pay for this knowledge. Let’s dive in, shall we?

“Bitter Work” opens with Aang’s excitement over finally beginning his earthbending training. He even calls Toph “Sifu” right away, much to Katara’s jealous surprise. However, Aang has a tougher time with earthbending than he expected. Meanwhile, Iroh dreams about a tree where he played with his son when both were young. That same tree is where he buried his son, and he dreams of himself before the grave, promising to see Lu Ten again. Then he awakes to poor Zuko, his substitute son, and Zuko’s crappy tea. Were I in his shoes, I might be a tad annoyed that in all of our time together, Zuko somehow learned nothing about the art of tea. But Iroh is a better man than I. Noting that Azula is crazy and must go down, he tells Zuko that they must start his training again right away.

Zuko wants to learn to make lightning, but he is as bad at it as Aang is at earthbending, the bitter work of the title. In an excellent example of the different mentalities involved in bending arts, Katara advises Toph to give Aang a positive learning environment with gentle nudges. Toph doesn’t do Montessori, though; she’s more of a boot camp type. I could listen to her calling Aang “Twinkle Toes” all day. It only takes a short training montage, however, for Aang to improve. However, when it comes to a situation where he must earthbend or be crushed, Aang chokes.

Similarly, Iroh tells Zuko that lightning is a pure expression of firebending, free of rage and emotion. To make lightning, a firebender must have a clear mind and be able to separate positive and negative energy. Predictably, Zuko’s attempts blow up in his face, and even he cannot fail to see the metaphor. To cheer him up, Iroh teaches him to redirect lightning, a move that he invented himself. How he teaches it to Zuko may be the most important thing Iroh ever imparts to the boy. Iroh has always been wise and very forgiving towards his impetuous nephew. In this episode he pulls back the curtain a bit and reveals that he is actually training Zuko to be the Fire Lord, and has perhaps been doing so since the beginning. Consider how definitively he says that Azula must go down, which he follows by teaching Zuko how to defend himself against her greatest weapon, all overlaid with the kind of wisdom that a Fire Lord should have. After describing the qualities of the Four Nations, Iroh says, “It is important to draw wisdom from many different places. If you take it from only one place, it becomes rigid and stale. Understanding others—the other elements and the other nations—will help you to become whole.” It’s too bad that this kind of wisdom is tough for a headstrong young person like Zuko to fathom. Iroh then reveals that he learned to redirect lightning by studying the waterbenders.

In the C-plot, Sokka hunts a super-cute little critter and winds up stuck in a crevice. Ironies abound as the creature befriends him and Sokka bargains with the karma-person-or-thing, whoever’s-in-charge-of-this-stuff (who knew he was religious?) to give up tasty, tasty meat if only he can escape. Aang finds him, but cannot get him out without earthbending, which he’s reluctant to do. However, when Foo Foo Cuddly Poops’ mother shows up, Aang proves he has the stones of an earthbender by standing his ground.

“Bitter Work” packs a lot of enjoyment into some fairly minor plots. Aang is, after all, the Avatar, and there is little doubt that he will be able to earthbend at some point. Zuko’s quest to make lightning has a bit more urgency to it, given that Azula struck out at his beloved Uncle Iroh and he’s desperate for revenge. Additionally, he and Iroh have not gone far from the town in “The Chase.” It’s in the backdrop during their training sequence. So Azula could probably find them without much trouble at any point in this episode. Sokka being trapped in the hole, though, which is one of the slightest subplots in the show, is also a strange highlight. It’s not even a great moment of character development for him. Sokka often plays comic relief, just as he does here. It is simply a funny scenario, written so well that it lingers.

In “The Library,” the Aang Gang are amusing themselves while Aang continues his earthbending training by taking mini-vacations around the Earth Kingdom. At the beginning of the episode, we’re treated to singing prairie dogs. A hop, skip, and jump over to a less-than-pristine oasis later, and the Gang has a purpose: to find a lost library—the same one where Zhao learned how to kill the Moon Spirit—and glean some intelligence about the Fire Nation. 

“The Library” was written by the same person who authored “The Great Divide” and “Avatar Day,” but I have few complaints here. Aang’s a little blasé about lying to a spirit, let alone Sokka stealing from that same spirit, but the central conceit of the sunken library seems ripped from a Borges short story and the many funny lines are entertaining enough that I am willing to ignore one or two little characterization problems. The freaky owl spirit seals the deal, because while owls are quite cool at a distance, up close they are seriously creepy. Consider this. Or this. Yikes!  

Well, okay, the episode has a few more problems. It’s a little silly that while the whole library is collapsing, Aang and Sokka have enough time to run to the planetarium and do the necessary mechanics to manually run through every single day for what? A couple of months? Even if it takes them only a minute to adjust the wheel and pull the lever, and then for the planetarium to run through its day-to-night cycle, that’s a good 60 minutes that the episodes waves away with a montage. Problematic as this is, the planetarium itself is a fantastic idea. Toph’s decision to save the Gang at the expense of saving Appa is a powerfully tough sequence, too. The episode, though, is really Sokka’s. He is in top form throughout, demonstrating excellent tactical skills and leadership as well as the delightfully silly moments. Don’t get me started, however, on the academic who chooses drowning in sand, or worse, being pecked to death by an eight-foot spirit owl, over escaping from the library.

“The Desert,” directed by the always-excellent Lauren MacMullan, actually ups the cinematic ante over “Zuko Alone.” This episode’s sense of space and time are brilliantly precise, and the camera angles, cinematography, and editing emphasize that this is one of the most psychologically dense episodes of Avatar. While I still love “Zuko Alone” more, “The Desert” pushes the Aang Gang to their extremes. We see that a grieving Aang is quite capable of being a petulant child. We see that what makes Sokka the most creative member of the Gang is the same impulse that makes him the most likely to barge headlong into a peyote trip. We see that with Toph’s bluster peeled away, she is only a guilty and mopey (and rather defeatist) little girl. And we see that Katara is the heart of group, the one who rallies to save them despite the odds and the one who loves Aang so purely that she can ease his anger with a well-needed hug.

Meanwhile, Zuko and Iroh have an encounter with the Rough Rowdy Rhino Boys, a troupe that I still find ridiculous. I didn’t notice before that one is either a Yu Yan archer or a juggalo. As tough as the show claims these guys are, Zuko and Iroh make short work of them. Zuko suggests that all of Iroh’s old friends want to attack him, and the old man is momentarily stumped by the idea. They find their way to the frozen oasis where the Gang set out through the desert in the last episode, only to be immediately recognized by Xin Fu and Master Wu, who are still looking for Toph but not above apprehending some Fire Nation fugitives along the way. The white lotus tile, so important to Iroh back in “The Waterbending Scroll,” is finally revealed to be his way of signaling to a secret society to which he belongs. It appears to be somewhat like the Freemasons, and Iroh and Zuko now have the passports and means to sneak into Ba Sing Se, where they plan to hide in plain sight. The scene where they escape in two big jars is rather charming, too.

Back in the desert, Aang is off looking for Appa, and their water supply is dwindling. Sokka solves the problem by drinking cactus juice with Momo, which leads to the druggiest sequence in a kiddie show that doesn’t involve Sleestaks. Sokka turns to rubber, and Momo chooses to fly in circles or, in a lovely visual moment, to fly backwards while Sokka holds his tail. There are actually plenty of lovely visual moments in “The Desert.” Aang’s shadow as he flies over the desert floor, flitting here and there among the dunes, is quite arresting. Aang’s mushroom cloud of frustration is also quite well-conceived. In the most visually striking scene, there are the deep reds of the desert at sundown, and Katara’s moment of truth as she has to pull more from her dwindling reservoir of will to keep the Gang from perishing in the desert. There is Toph’s snow angel in the rock.

In the character-defining moments, Sokka’s wild emotional outbursts indicate his ambivalence about stealing from the library, the trait that was unfortunately missing in “The Library.” We see Aang’s vengeance against the vulture-bee that took Momo. It looked to me like he sliced it in two, and it looks like he is not sorry at all. And oh, that final scene. We have Aang, filled with rage and hate, arms twisted into the fury of the Avatar State, while Katara refuses to run away, pulling him back to earth and back into the hug he so clearly needs. Aw, man. There’s been a lot of talk about shipping between the two and whether her relationship with him is too maternal, but here, we see an action that is less maternal than a selfless act of pure love. And this is the moment on which we much pause for some months: Katara risking her life to comfort her friend Aang, who is hurt and torn and as helpless as we have ever seen him.

Stray observations:

  • “Keep your knees high, Twinkle Toes!”
  • “You’re awfully cute, but unfortunately for you, you’re made of meat.”
  • “Yeah, whatever, go splash around until you feel better.”
  • “Pride is not the opposite of shame, but its source. True humility is the only antidote to shame.”
  • “That’s all I got; it’s pretty much my whole identity. Sokka the meat and sarcasm guy.” But I’m willing to be Sokka the veggies and straight-talk fellow. Deal?
  • “Aang, this is my friend, Foo Foo Cuddly Poops. Foo Foo Cuddly Poops, Aang.”
  • B’wana Beast tally: Sabertooth Moose-lion. Lion-turtle (Spoiler: !). Vulture-bees.
  • “The stomach is the source of energy in your body. It’s called the sea of chi. Only in my case, it’s more like a vast ocean!”
  • “I’ve been training my arrow off!”
  • “You’re a living relic!”  “Thanks! I try.”
  • “Aang, it’s my turn. I do believe I’d like to spend my mini-vacation... AT THE LIBRARY!”
  • “If you’re going to lie to an all-knowing spirit being, you should at least put some effort into it.”
  • “That’s called Sokka Style. Learn it!”
  • “You think if we dig out the giant owl, he’ll give us a ride?”
  • “Colonel Mongke and the Rough Rhinos are legendary. Each one is a different kind of weapons specialist. They are also a very capable singing group.”
  • “Drink cactus juice! It’ll quench ya. Nothing’s quenchier. It’s the quenchiest!”
  • “She’s wanted dead or alive.” “No she’s not! I’m pretty certain her father wants her alive.”
  • “Yesterday my mouth tasted like mud. Now it tastes like sand. I never thought I’d miss the taste of mud so much.”
  • “Who knocks at the guarded gate?”  “One who has eaten the fruit and tasted its mysteries.”
  • “Agh! Tastes like rotten penguin meat! Aw, I feel woozy.” “You’ve been hallucinating on cactus juice all day and then you just lick something you find stuck to the wall of a cave?” “I have a natural curiosity.”

More TV Club