In the sixth episode of the second season of Avatar: The Last Airbender, OH MY GOD TOPH AND OH MY GOD WRESTLING HOMAGES AND OH MY GOD BADASS BATTLE SCENES AND OH MY GOD HOW DID I NEVER WATCH THIS SHOW. If youâ€™re intrigued, then itâ€™s time for Mark to watch Avatar.
SERIOUSLY, HOW DID I GO SO LONG WITHOUT WATCHING AVATAR.
My god, in light of the previous episode, I think my brain may have exploded from the sheer awesomeness of â€œThe Blind Bandit.â€ And while there are so many things this episode does beautifully, I think I was most in awe of the fact that it payed one giant homage to professional wrestling.
I believe that this is largely an American social phenomenon, and itâ€™s one I grew away from as I got older, but I can recall many an easy weekend afternoon plopped on the couch while wrestling was on the television. I wasnâ€™t as into it as my brother and my father, but it was a constant in my household. It was entertaining on such a base level that, until I got it into my head that it wasnâ€™t cool to like wrestling, that it never bothered me that I had to watch it so much. It was such a casual experience for me, and I enjoyed the absurdity of it, the spectacle of the performance.
I went through a weird â€œrebelliousâ€ period where I tried to tell my parents that watching wrestling was sexist and I LEARNED THAT WORD IN SCHOOL TODAY, AND THEY ARE NEVER WRONG AT SCHOOL. But it took me a while to realize that most of my life, I lived in this vacuum-like bubble and wrestling was far more popular than I ever though it was. At heart, itâ€™s not all that different from what many of us find entertaining: these wrestlers play a role, thereâ€™s drama, there are twists and turns, and throw in a dash (okay, to be fair, itâ€™s more like a few gallons) of violence, and itâ€™s really not that far from a lot of dramas and sitcoms people watch.
But anyway, it was this weird, constant institution in my life, and I imagine that for a lot of people, they may not realize how present professional wrestling was in their lives as an American. In that sense, â€œThe Blind Banditâ€ reminded me just how fun the concept was, and, like the nomads in â€œThe Cave of Two Lovers,â€ these characters are all written with a bit of love in the intent of the writers. Which is actually pretty rad, considering that the bulk of the wrestlers are kind of assholes in the story.
I did not expect for us to have Aangâ€™s vision from â€œThe Swampâ€ answered rather completely just two episodes later. Team Avatar is still searching for an earth bending master for Aang when they come up a possible teacher at an â€œacademyâ€ run by Master Yu in some unnamed village. I put â€œacademyâ€ in quotes like that because itâ€™s not really quite what the name entails, as Aangâ€™s free lesson introduces him to a master whoâ€™s a bit too flashy than what heâ€™s looking for. (Plus, his â€œlessonâ€ involves him getting a rock thrown into his stomach, which I cannot imagine feeling good on any universe ever.)
The group thinks theyâ€™ve gotten a lead on a possible earth bending master when they overhear two young men discussing Earth Rumble VI. (No, seriously, even the name is very pro wrestling. Bless this show.) Weâ€™ll talk about Kataraâ€™s spectacular badassery later, because I really, really need to gush about what happens next.
I truly believed that we were seeing yet another one-off episode with only hints to the larger story at hand, but I was thoroughly enjoying myself this time. The design of the arena was my first indication that this was something special, as the spacious, angular design reminded me of the arenas Iâ€™d seen on TV, though at the time, I wasnâ€™t aware yet that this was going to be a reference to pro-wrestling. That became obvious when the first two competitors were brought out, The Boulder and The Hippo, and I knew their names and their performances were these loving references towards something that was a part of my childhood. (My god, The Boulderâ€™s character in the ring is MAGICAL. I love that he speaks about himself in third person. SO SPOT ON.) Sokka only adds to the realism here, and I adore that he becomes the Boulderâ€™s biggest fan in just one match.
As The Boulder effortlessly moves through each of the challengers, Aang is confident that this dude is not the one who needs to teach him, as he is not one who â€œlistens to the earth,â€ as Bumi recommended to him.
Thatâ€™s when The Boulder has progressed to the final round and is set to fight The Blind Bandit, the previous Earth Rumble champion. And out steps a small little girl. Who is blind. Who has no qualms about insulting a sighted man who is certainly five times larger than her. And then she laughs when she calls her opponent The Pebble. And then HOLY FUCK WHAT THE SHIT IT IS THE GIRL FROM AANGâ€™S VISION IN â€œTHE SWAMPâ€
Oh my god it is so perfect and so fitting and I just sat on my couch and giggled to myself for like ten seconds straight. THIS IS AMAZING. AMAZING.
Having already done an episode with a disabled kid in â€œThe Northern Air Temple,â€ and doing it quite well, I wasnâ€™t worried that they would tokenize or fuck up The Blind Banditâ€™s life, and yet I still wasnâ€™t prepared for the incredible message this episode tells other kids: You are not a lesser human being if you are disabled.
Iâ€™m sorry in advance if I just turn into a gushing, dripping mess, but this entire scene where we are introduced to Toph is just…supreme. Fantastical. Magical. Amazing. Unbelievable. The animation gives me chills, as the colors rush from the world and bright waves of sound reverberate through the earth and Toph is able to listen to the earth, to wait patiently for the right moment to strike, and strike she does, forcing the Boulder into the splits and then smoothly knocking him right out of the arena.
I just…I canâ€™t. I WAS SO UNPREPARED.
OH GOD IT JUST GETS BETTER. Because then, Xin Fu, the showâ€™s host, offers a bag of gold to anyone who can defeat The Blind Bandit, and Aang is the only one to speak up. I find it hilarious that he chose a ring of fighting to try and talk to The Blind Bandit. Aang has a unique advantage over her, too: because he can air bend, he can float above the earth, making it incredibly difficult for Toph to hear him. When he accidentally wins the match (no, seriously, it totally looked like an accident!), she is incensed by the loss and leaves the arena in a huff, preventing Aang from talking to her.
Of course, my brain was running at a million miles an hour this point. TOPH HAS TO BE AANGâ€™S MASTER, RIGHT? OH GOD HOW AWESOME WOULD THAT BE. CLEARLY THIS MUST HAPPEN. And I think the writerâ€™s were totally aware that people would react this way, and they did something FUCKING AMAZING with this expectation: They showed us how unfair this line of thinking is.
I think Aang expected Toph to uproot her life to teach him, and Team Avatar all anticipated that, thinking that just by mention that Aang was the Avatar would mean theyâ€™d get what they wanted. While Aang is a tad excited by the prospect, I imagine the whole trio was a bit flabbergasted after visiting Toph at the Bei Fong estate and listening to her harshly reject the opportunity to teach Aang. Why wouldnâ€™t she want to teach the Avatar? they were probably thinking.
Well, the writers then promptly show us why: Because she is not simply a tool to be used to advance their cause. She has an entire life and entire experiences that they know nothing about and she certainly does not have the privilege to just up and leave her family.
The way that Tophâ€™s family treats her is simply horrifying, probably the most depressing thing this show has ever given us. We learn that all of the fantastic earth bending she does is all one giant secret, that her family does not want Master Yu to teach her anything â€œdangerous,â€ and that she should stay at the basic level. In short, her family not only doubts that she is talented, but they want to restrict her from trying to be so, believing she is too â€œfragileâ€ and â€œweakâ€ all because she is blind.
Excuse me while I curl up and sob myself to sleep.
This gives the entire dinner sequence a completely new subtext. While the passive-aggressive war is slightly funny, I couldnâ€™t help but feel that this was Tophâ€™s way of violently telling Aang that he needs to knock it the fuck off and stop pretending like he has any right to invite himself into her house like he does and try to ruin the system sheâ€™s built to cope with her parents. Granted, she does explain this to him in person that night, long after dinner, but at the time, it was a very clear message to Aang: Her life is not a strategy or a teacher. Itâ€™s hers and hers alone, and he needs to respect that. Thatâ€™s not to say that Toph doesnâ€™t want to run away with Team Avatar, as she makes it clear that she is also envious of the freedom that Aang has. Itâ€™s just that this situation is not at all as simple as Aang imagined.
The wrestlers from earlier in the story then make everything even more interesting, as Xin Fu is convinced that Aang and Toph purposely threw the fight to split the winning gold. After kidnapping the two of them and asking for the gold back, Sokka, Katara, Master Yu, and Tophâ€™s father all show up at the wresting arena to get their friends/daughter back, which Xin Fu obliges. However, he states that he is not going to give the Avatar back, as the Fire Nation will pay him nicely if he turns Aang over. (Side thought: REALLY. Ok, I guess this isnâ€™t the first time weâ€™ve seen this, but I was slightly shocked that these earth benders were totally fine turning over the one dude who could stop the Fire Nation.)
Few things I have ever seen on television have made me leap up in joy and thrust my fist in the air as if I was watching a game-winning shot in basketball quite like the moment that Toph rejects her fatherâ€™s definition of her abilities. I mean, I already wanted to reach through the screen and…well, Iâ€™m not a violent person soâ€¦.scold him loudly? Shake my finger at him? That sort of thing. But he outright tells Katara that Toph is weak and helpless and fragile and she cannot assist Aangâ€™s fight against the earth benders and he does this all while she is standing next to him.
Seriously. I cheered. Such a huge moment, and THIS IS FOR A SIDE CHARACTER, TOO. Bless you, writers, for giving this much attention to someone who is not even on the main cast. Oh, and for making her the greatest earth bender ever. How unbelievably rad is her technique??? Watching her decimate each and every one of Xin Fuâ€™s minions/fighters is cathartic.
Oh, but this episode is not done with me. Not at all. As Toph confronts her parents, apologizing for lying to them, I honestly believed weâ€™d see this huge redemptive moment where Tophâ€™s father apologizes for all the awful things heâ€™s done to her.
NOPE. NOT AT ALL. He instead declares that he doesnâ€™t feel any different about her, that he loves her just the same, so heâ€™s going to make sure that she is confined within the house and guarded at all times.
Heartbreaking until the end of time. As Tophâ€™s father tells Team Avatar to leave the house, we see tears flow down Tophâ€™s face and we know that her father just took away the last bit of agency from her. Her fighting in the Earth Rumble was her only bit of independence, and now itâ€™s been taken away from her.
Just when I was prepared to never heal again, upset at the very thought that this mega-rad girl was introduced and that she would not be traveling with Team Avatar, the writers metaphorically punch me in the face. Because guess who comes running up to Appa, claiming her parents have changed their minds about her? Oh, Toph, I tried to resist comparing myself to you, but after living in an absurdly strict, abusive household where my parents berated me to my face, I finally had to run away, too.
Seriously, thereâ€™s no doubt in my mind that Toph will become one of my favorite characters on this whole show, possibly even #1.
Nah, just kidding. UNCLE IROH FOREVER.
- I LOVE KATARA. The fact that a girlâ€™s â€œwaysâ€ are freezing silly boys to a wall is the greatest statement of our modern era.
- â€œItâ€™s on the island of Nunâ€™ya…Nunâ€™ya Business!â€ Sorry, I laughed almost as hard as Sokka.
- Could Sokkaâ€™s bag stay around this whole episode. That thing is fierce.
- UGH. FIRE NATION MAN. THE OBVIOUS VILLAIN IN A WRESTLING MATCH. My god, the trope is wonderful.
- â€œI donâ€™t really want to fight you. I want to talk to you.â€ â€œBOOO! NO TALKING!â€ Bless, Sokka.
- â€œThe Boulder knows how to put the hurt in the dirt!â€
- MICK. FOLEY. WAS. THE. BOULDER. my god seriously this episode is so amazing.