In the twelfth episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender, Zuko experiences a loss of his fire bending ability due to his new alliance, so Toph suggests they find the source of the original fire benders for inspiration. Also: BADGERMOLES. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Avatar.
I could honestly watch an entire day’s worth of interactions between Aang and Zuko. Like the addition of Toph, the new dynamic between the characters is so fascinating and interesting to me, and I really am saddened that there are so few opportunities left for these people to be all on the screen at the same time without wanting to destroy one another. I have certainly enjoyed season three a lot, but this episode and the last seem to exist on another plane compared to the others. Adding Zuko to the bunch has easily made this season so much better than everything else we’ve seen.
It’s almost a surreal experience, really. I never thought we’d actually see Aang and Zuko alongside one another, Zuko trying to teach the Avatar fire bending. It’s still a little weird to me, but it’s not going to be hard to get used to. Thankfully, though, the writers haven’t forgotten who Zuko is. While we saw his more good-natured and guilt-ridden side in “The Western Air Temple,” I appreciate that Zuko’s temper is not forgotten. Just because he’s on the path to his true destiny doesn’t mean he isn’t easily riled, and we see small bits of that familiar attitude of his. at the same time, though, he’s much, much more subdued than before, and his outbreaks are confined to some understandable bouts of frustration.
The main frustration that fuels “The Firebending Masters” is Zuko’s sudden inability to produce fire bending at all. It’s expected that Aang is going to be terrible at it, but why can’t Zuko do what he’s been able to do for years? When he confronts the rest of the group with this fact, Katara and Sokka can’t resist being as sarcastic as possible to him. Which…I get it! I honestly do! How else are they going to deal with the reality of their past? I imagine I’d do exactly the same thing. Still, there’s a part of me that just wants everyone to get along so that everything is just unicorn bending and cookies. Or something.
The first sign that this episode was going to be one of my favorites was when Toph suggested that Zuko should find the source of fire bending, since he no longer wanted to bend out of anger or rage. That’s actually a fascinating idea to me, too. I’m at a point in my life where I’ve been angry for nearly fifteen years, and I’m starting to let go of a lot of that. Being angry or full of rage is just so…tiring after a while. And I’m tired. So I loved that I got to see Zuko actively trying to change that, which makes Toph’s suggestion all the more fascinating.
On top of that, she shares with the group the origin of earth bending: BADGERMOLES! I will always celebrate the return of those glorious creatures. It’s beautiful that, like Toph, they are blind creatures who used their lack of sight to develop these amazing powers of earth bending. I honestly wish that we could have gotten more, but the real focus of this episode is the untold story of where fire bending actually came from. Zuko claims it originally came from dragons, but that the Fire Nation wiped them out, along with the ancient Sun Warriors, who had their techniques stolen and warped into a more aggressive style.
And so, Zuko and Aang head off to ruins of the Sun Warriors in the hopes that something is left behind that might help them learn about the true source of fire bending. Don’t get me wrong; I love the setting here, I love how mysterious and suspenseful the journey into the Sun Warrior temple is, and the parallels to Aztec culture. I really do. BUT. This episode’s real treat is seeing Aang and Zuko work together for twenty minutes straight. It seems Aang has entirely warmed up to the idea of Zuko helping him out, and I’m so glad to see how well they get along together.
In the process of watching these two interact, we get more history about the world of Avatar. I was initially shocked that of all people, Uncle Iroh was the person to bring about the end of the dragons, having conquered the last one and earning his namesake as the “Dragon of the West.” It seemed…out of character for him. But Zuko corrects Aang, who makes the same observation. Iroh had a complicated past, he says. It seems like a statement about himself as well. oh gosh it’s like Zuko is a mini Iroh.
The two work their way into the temple after Zuko “tricks” the sunstone on a locked door using one of his swords. Aang immediately complements Zuko’s intelligence, and it’s a remarkably tender scene between the two of them, despite how short it is. They’re not around the rest of the group, and the two feel comfortable enough to speak openly with one another too. It’s also a part of the greater theme for “The Firebending Masters.” The obvious reference in the title is towards the masters that Aang and Zuko meet at the end of the episode, but it’s also about these two young men who have to work together in order to achieve their goal of defeating the Fire Lord.
Working together doesn’t mean perfection, though. It’s still a bit awkward for the two of them, and it’s not like they’ve been friends their entire lives. The two enter the Sun Warriors temple, and Aang asks Zuko to dance. Millions of fanfics popped up later that day. But it does highlight how these two characters are still quite different. Aang is used to keeping his sense of humor just within reach (I blame that on Sokka), where Zuko is still a deeply serious person. (Actually, on that note, I thought he was going to FINALLY laugh at the very end of the episode, but he didn’t. JUST LAUGH ONCE, ZUKO.)
The dance that the two act out produces a pedestal. With a golden age? Was there a dragon inside of it? Whatever, all I know is Aang is totally and completely right. You never take a gem or treasure off of a pedestal! Haven’t you seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, dude??? It’s always a trap!
I honestly thought that this episode would be like “Bitter Work,” except it would be Aang and Zuko stuck for the entirety of the story, talking through their differences and whatnot. Which would not have been a bad thing, now that I think about it! So you can imagine my surprise when the Sun Warriors arrive to free them, but not necessarily for a good reason. HOW ARE THEY ALIVE BY THE WAY.
From here on out, “The Firebending Masters” is one of the most gripping and amusing episodes of the whole show. God, I love this so much. Again, the parallels to the Aztec culture are done incredibly well, first of all, and I love how respectful the people who run this show are of other cultures. More important, though, is the fact that Aang and Zuko are given a task to see if they are worthy of being taught by the two original firebenders. For them, it’s a chance to develop what they lack, as both are on opposite ends of the spectrum concerning firebending. Aang, still a bit traumatized from harming Katara, is timid and reluctant to even try to bend fire himself, where Zuko is too willing to let fire take over everything without any sense of control.
As the two head up a mountain to meet with Ran and Shaw, the two masters, it’s the first chance for us to see Zuko having more control and power than Aang does. While Zuko is dealing with his own problems, he at least is innately familiar with fire. Aang, on the other hand, is still terrified of the concept, moving slowly up the hill in fear of putting his flame out. But Zuko gives him an unexpected statement of encouragement, giving Aang his faith that he can do this.
So the two head up the top of the mountain, where a circular and impressive lair spreads out before them. It’s time for the two of them to face the firebending masters and be judged. Which….sounds incredibly terrifying? I mean, they aren’t even given the terms of what they’ll be judged by! Even though Aang has faced unknowable terrors and some pretty gnarly enemies in the past, I do understand why this completely freaks him out. He’s so set on the fact that fire can only really destroy that he worries both about facing and possessing that sort of power.
And he lets his fire burn out.
I like that as serious as this all, this episode still has a few stellar moments of humor; watching Aang try furiously to get just a bit of Zuko’s fire was both hilarious and a way to show how tense this situation was. Of course, when Zuko’s fire went out, I thought for certain that this was not going to end well.
Oh, then the dragons showed up.
Not just any dragons, but they look exactly like the dragons in Zuko’s dream back in Ba Sing Se. You can see the awe and horror in Zuko’s eyes as he gazes upon creatures he believed to be extinct. As the two dragons, one red, one blue, begin to fly around Aang and Zuko in some sort of complicated choreography, Aang suddenly has an idea.
He asks Zuko to dance. Again. I only now just realized it, but what Aang and Zuko lacked was harmony. By working together to do the dance of the dragons, both of them realized what they were missing and what they needed. When the two dragons send a jet of fire at the two of them and it spirals up into a column of multi-colored fire, I honestly couldn’t believe what I was watching. This was one of the coolest moments in the whole show.
The problem with both Aang and Zuko was that they had failed to realize that fire is both energy and life. It seems that Zuko has found the way to finally shed the anger and rage he’d lived with for three years by fully pursuing his destiny of helping Aang defeat his father. For Aang, though, he’s clung to fully to the idea that fire bending is one-dimensional, that it serves only one person. I get why he did that, but it took the dragons to help him realize that there’s a beauty to fire, and he needed to accept that to move on. Now, Aang and Zuko, able to firebend, are now ready to begin further training, standing on the right side of history. They learn that they’re also not the first: Iroh, it turns out, obviously did not kill the last dragon; instead, he swore to the Sun Warriors that he would keep the place a secret, lying to the rest of the world in order to protect the last two dragons. Ugh, Iroh, you are seriously my favorite.
Oh, and seriously, don’t tell anyone.
- “Still think we can take them?” “Shut up, I never said that!” LOL NOW IT’S A BAD IDEA, OF COURSE.
- Oh god, the look on the Sun Warriors’ faces when Aang and Zuko are fighting over fire. PRICELESS.
- “Now that you have learned about the secrets and the tribe’s existence, we have no choice but to imprison you forever. Just kidding! But seriously, don’t tell anyone.”
- I’m going to start exclaiming, “Monkey feathers!” when I’m upset.
- SIFU HOTMAN. my god.
- Only Sokka would come up with “jerkbending.” Bless!
- “No, Zuko needs to go back to whatever the original source of Firebending is.” “Sooo….is it jumping into a volcano?” RIGHT? It totally makes sense!
- Sokka trying to make Zuko angry = true love.