Mark Watches ‘Avatar’: S02E09 – Bitter Work

In the ninth episode of the second season of Avatar: The Last Airbender, the emotional journeys of both Aang and Zuko are paralleled as they learn how how to deal with the mental blockage of their past from two different masters. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Avatar.

For an increasingly familiar pattern that this show gives us, I am continually surprised with how riveting this all is.

And for an episode that accelerates the plot forward maybe a millimeter, I’m in love with how well Avatar focuses on personal, emotional storytelling. That’s not to say that this hasn’t been happening the whole time, as I’ve come to recognize just how well the writers are able to root all of the action in concepts that are deeply heartfelt. I just simple adore the way an episode that is so “slow” can give us so much in terms of the world these characters live in.

It was inevitable that Aang begin to learn to earth bend, and I’d been confused for a bit about where exactly Team Avatar was traveling to, since they’d already found their earth bending master in Toph. But it turns out that they were simply looking for the best place for Toph to teach Aang, ending up at a rock quarry in some unnamed part of the Earth Kingdom. Aang’s excitement about this new journey in his life is infectious, though only to an extent, since Sokka’s natural interests remain rooted in sleep, food, and sarcasm. (Wonderfully so, these are actually addressed in this episode, which we’ll get to.)

However, excitement doesn’t equal talent, and “Bitter Work” is a perfect example of how a willingness to perform an action doesn’t mean that that is all a person needs. Despite that Aang feels he is naturally inclined to exceeding at his ability to earth bend, when Toph teaches him a basic stance and move to send a rock flying, he is disappointed to learn that all he can do is blast himself backwards. The rock is moving him, not the other way around.

Miles and miles away, Uncle Iroh dreams about his life with his young son, Lu Ten, and the joyous moments they shared together. In a brief scene of loss, he kneels before the grave of his lost son, claiming he’ll see him soon, and he awakes to discover his nephew kneeling before him instead. Zuko updates Iroh about what happened, and it’s obvious to see the sudden temperamental change in Zuko. I’d like to think that Zuko was served one gigantic slice of humble pie in “Zuko Alone” and that the start of this new change we see hear was inspired by his experience. Indeed, despite that Zuko certainly hasn’t released the shame and anger he feels, I do believe that he’s beginning to see how much trouble those very things have brought him over time.

We can see this in simple acts such as Zuko making tea for Iroh, and at his calm suggestion that perhaps he should learn more advanced techniques to defend himself against his sister. You can tell that Zuko expected a denial of his suggestion and was prepared for such a thing, but to his surprise (and mine), Iroh is completely on board with this. (Unfortunately, there’s another use of “crazy = bad” here, which is both irritating and unnecessary, since the unspoken suggestion is that merely having a mental illness or mental problems is enough for a person to change their entire outlook. No, Iroh, Zuko should learn to defend himself better not because Azula is “crazy,” but because she is an awful person who is much more skilled than he is.)

From this point on, the writers balance the time spent in “Bitter Work” between Aang’s lessons and Zuko’s lessons, contrasting and comparing their journeys in poetic ways. Back at Team Avatar’s temporary headquarters, Aang’s frustration at being utterly unable to earth bend continues to grow worse. I know that Katara was probably a bit hesitant to pull aside Toph and tell him how she was able to teach him, but she does it well and with tact. Still, Aang’s mental block certainly runs deeper than this, so Toph temporarily ignores Katara’s advice to run Aang through a series of increasingly tough exercises that she hopes will put him in the right emotional place to properly earth bend.  It seems that Aang is able to respond well to these challenges, but that still places both of them in a bit of an awkward situation: despite knowing the movements perfectly, Aang is still unable to earth bend at all.

It didn’t become clear to me until I thought about “Bitter Work” after it was over, but there’s a nice parallel between what happens with Aang and Zuko, and Sokka’s own little journey off on his own. We know that the ongoing gag is that Sokka is inherently prone to creating situations and problems entirely of his own doing, so while he tries to hunt down THE CUTEST CREATURE KNOWN TO HUMANKIND, he accidentally gets stuck in a bizarre crack in the earth. There, completely alone and hopelessly wedged into the earth, he has an entirely one-sided conversation with that cute creature (later named Foo Foo Cuddlypoops, a stroke of pure genius) that forces him to reflect on his own mental blocks. And while you might be able to claim that Foo Foo is Sokka’s teacher, I still think that this situation is a chance to think about his own identity. I think it’s great that all of his scenes are laced with exactly the kind of humor that make up his character as well; the writing is treated as a loving homage of sorts to what Sokka represents to the entire show.

We switch back to Zuko and Iroh as Iroh gives Zuko (and, by nature, us) a lesson in exactly how a fire bender is able to produce lightning instead of fire. I knew that it was probably a much more focused effort to do so, but Iroh explains in detail about the positive and negative nature of the energy that must be separated and how, unlike normal fire bending, this act is devoid of the emotional aggression that is inherent with fire bending. As soon as Iroh said this, I know that this would show us why Zuko would probably have a hard time conjuring up lightning himself. Zuko’s growth has been slow since we were first introduced to him, so it would be unfair to expect him to magically “get” the lightning effect. So the writers instead draw that direct visual parallel to Aang’s teaching: Zuko tries to bend lightning, and is instead violently thrown backwards, despite perfecting the move itself. In that moment, it’s clear that both of these acts are tied to a mental state that neither Zuko nor Aang can reach.

Toph takes the chance to change her approach with Aang, just like Iroh will do later, instead forcing him into a situation where he’ll have to stand his ground like a real earth bender. Setting up a boulder high on a hill, she plans to roll it down at Aang and make him stop it with earth bending. When Katara vocalizes her hesitation about this plan, Toph admits this is not ideal.

SO SHE BLINDFOLDS AANG INSTEAD. Oh god, bless her heart forever. Believing that Aang will “listen” to the earth and hopefully get to the mental state he needs to be in, she’s dismayed that he instead chooses to jump over the rock at the last minute. In complete contrast to what Katara suggested, Toph provides no positive reinforcement at all. I don’t think that she realizes how this techniques is not good for Aang at this moment, but it might have been part of the tipping point for her. She knows that Aang is a courageous and brave bender, yet time and time again, he cannot seem to get past whatever it is that’s blocking his mind from being an earth bender.

Unlike Toph, though, Iroh decides that he needs to change his approach to Zuko, as merely demonstrating a move is not allowing his nephew to learn anything. His lesson about the emotional base of each of the four elements is fascinating and I was happy to see that Zuko, while initially somewhat offended at the reference to the Avatar, seemed to be willing to listen to his uncle for once. (Also, I know this is absurd of me at this point, but every chance I get to dearly wish for it to happen, I will: OH MY GOD WOULDN’T THIS BE AWESOME IF THIS LESSON WAS FORESHADOWING THE FACT THAT ZUKO AND IROH WERE ON TEAM AVATAR. I realize that this is ridiculous and at this point, it would kind of ruin the awesome storytelling dynamic we have right now, but omg I JUST WANT THEM ALL TO BE FRIENDS omg all the tears) Iroh then states plainly to Zuko that he’s going to teach him a move that no one else knows, since by studying the water benders, he was able to create it himself. (!!!!)

Sokka, meanwhile, has faced the utter absurdity of his predicament, believing that this is a case of the universe speaking to him about his life and his choices, like some cosmic Sassy Gay Friend. Is he stuck in this crevasse as a test of will power? A message of moral certainty? Is the world telling him that his life is a complete lie? In a moment of understanding, Sokka tells the universe that he will give up both meat (and later sarcasm, two of the main identifying factors of who he is, if he is freed from this earthly prison. The moose-lion thing wags its tail. Sokka is stuck. THE JOURNEY CONTINUES.

For Aang, though, one journey does finally come to an end. After taking a much-needed break from earth bending, Aang spends some time working on basic water bending with Katara. He initially refuses to talk about his inability to earth bend and Katara wisely claims that this is precisely the problem: as Toph had said, earth bending is about dealing with things head on, about rooting one’s self in a way that posits you as stronger than a rock, and this is an example of how Aang is failing to do just that.

This is when we see how Katara’s positive reinforcement works well on Aang, too. She gives him hope: she tells him that she’s sure he’ll figure it out and he smiles in response, probably the first time that entire day that he was able to. She then surprises Aang by hurling a reed at him and, in an instant, he’s able to water bend so quickly that he slices it in two before it reaches him. As Katara congratulates him for having the “reflexes of a water bending master,” he bows and refers to her, for the first time, as Sifu Katara.

SEE THIS SORT OF STUFF WORKS. And we finally get to see this in action when Katara realizes that Sokka hasn’t returned, and her and Aang decide to split up to look for him. Just in the nick of time, Aang finds Sokka stuck in the ground and, almost hilariously so, this still doesn’t mean that Sokka is going to get out of the ground. We haven’t seen much of these two hanging out alone, and it was actually kind of calming to listen to both of them talk to one another and expressing such polar attitudes about things. I mean, think about it: Sokka normally would have been yelling his guts out at Aang not freeing him from the ground while he is making constant unintended references to Sokka being stuck in the earth. Usually, Aang is the positive one, and here, he’s absolutely dejected about the fact that he cannot figure out how to earth bend. That’s precisely when Foo Foo Cuddlypoops returns to Sokka and he introduces the creature to Aang, who is quite excited to see a sabertooth moose-lion cub. Who is away from their mother. WHO IS NOW STANDING AT THE END OF THE CLEARING. And this becomes a real test for Aang, who is faced with a gigantic, angry creature, threatened by the mere presence of these two, and he has to do something both to free Sokka and protect him from the sabertooth moose-lion. After so many lessons about what it means to be an earth bender, this is the first time in the entire story that Aang truly gets it. He stands his ground to protect Sokka, and even if he air bends to save him, the point still stands. Instead of a rock plunging towards him, this moose-lion represents that force that Aang needed to root himself against. As the moose-lion quickly loses interest and walks away, Toph reveals that she’s been watching this whole time. In a moment of rage, Aang stands up to her, too, even as she (sort of) congratulates him for standing up against the moose-lion. And without even realizing it, he’s mastered that very first mental step towards becoming an earth bender.

Bravo, Aang!

I wish the same could be said of Zuko. We watch as he patiently listens to Iroh’s lesson about guiding light through his body, which we’d seen him do once in each season so far, and this is how we learn exactly how he was able to do that. Surprisingly, after much practice, Iroh believes that his nephew is actually prepared to pull off the move, but he refuses to shoot lightning at Zuko himself. The move is a last resort, he claims, ones that he hopes Zuko should never have to use himself.

While I do view Zuko’s choice at the end of this episode to be a relapse of sorts, a way for him to cave-in to the horrific inner turmoil that he feels, it’s hard to criticize the guy for doing what he does. He takes off to find lightning on his own, always certain that these things must be done alone, but when he makes it atop a large mountain, a storm raging above, he is disappointed. As he begs this very storm to strike him, recalling how willing the universe has been to harm him time and time again, no lightning falls upon him. As tears fall down his face, you can see that this young man desperately wishes just one thing would go right for him.

But for now, it doesn’t, and Zuko collapses in anguish. He is alone in the universe once more.


  • “Now come back, boomerang.” Seriously, Sokka, you are my hero.
  • As a sign that the events in “The Chase” mattered, I love that Toph concedes that Katara was right about positive reinforcement. CHARACTER GROWTH, I LOVE YOU DEARLY.
  • “The Air Nomads detached themselves from worldly concerns and found peace and freedom. Also, they apparently had pretty good senses of humor!” Well, we’ve seen Zuko tell a joke. will we ever see him laugh
  • “So that’s why we are drinking tea. To calm the mind.” “Oh, good point! I mean…yes!” UNCLE IROH FOR PRESIDENT, 2012.
  • Uncle Iroh did the wave. Completely anachronistic, and I don’t care.
  • “The stomach is known as the Sea of Chi. Or, in my case, it’s a vast ocean!” One day, my review will be filled entirely with just Iroh quotes.


About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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