Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Cave of Two Lovers

The second episode of Season Two of The Last Airbender, “The Cave of Two
Lovers,” at first blush appears to serve as a means to develop the feelings
that Katara and Aang hold for each other, and while it does so, the more
important job the episode does is to further the progress of Zuko along his
path of redemption.  The title of the
episode references the ‘real’ legend of two lovers who were forced to meet each
other inside the caverns of the mountain because their villages were at war
with each other.  It’s reminiscent of
Ovid’s tale of Pyramus and Thisbe,
two lovers forced to converse through a crack in a wall because their families’
feuding.  Thankfully, as surprising as it
sounds, the Tale of Two Lovers has a happier ending.  

Underneath the
tale, as learned by Katara and Aang, is the story of a connection between two
people from two warring groups.  Those
groups eventually establish a city together, albeit coerced by ferocious earth
bending.  In “The Cave of Two Lovers,” we
can see the analogy between the Fire Nation and the Earth Kingdom, both hostile
to each other, but in a reverse trend of we viewers learning that not every
Fire Nation citizen is wicked, an exiled Fire Lord prince begins to understand
that the Fire Nation’s quest of conquest is by no means a just one.  But let’s get to the episode and go from
there!

It opens with Team
Avatar relaxing in a calm river.  Aang is
learning a water bending move from Katara, while Sokka floats around on a big
leaf, anxious to get on their way to Omashu and Aang’s earth bending
education.  From out of the nearby woods
emerge nomads, free spirited individuals that some might call the hippies of
the Avatar world.  For those familiar
with the Original Series of Star Trek, an episode involved the Enterprise essentially being taken over
by similar minded and behaving folk who placed faith in a paradise that awaited
them.  For them, it was the destination,
which ultimately proved fatal.  For our
Avatar nomads, however, it’s all about the journey.  The best part about their journey is their
musical appreciation with this episode inserting classic songs and the score
even hinting with the tune of ‘Four Seasons, Four Loves,’ sung by Iroh in
Season One.  

The nomads, after
learning that Team Avatar were just people, not river people, suggests they
take a short cut through the mountain named after the legendary lovers who used
it.  Initially, Aang and the Gang
politely decline, preferring to simply fly to Omashu.  A fierce Fire Nation attack provides an
impetus for reconsideration and soon, Aang, Sokka and Katara, along with the
nomads enter the tunnel of two lovers.
The group is barely inside the cave when a wolfbat appears, startles
Appa, who promptly freaks out and causes the ceiling to collapse, separating
Aang, Katara, and Appa, from everyone else.
Prior to this division of characters, the group had been running into
dead ins, despite Sokka’s smart decision to make a map of the tunnels to avoid
becoming lost.  As Sokka complains, the
tunnels appear to be moving.

From this point on,
not a lot happens with Sokka and the nomads.
The crux of Sokka’s subterranean adventure is an encounter with the
giant badger moles, the original earth benders, who have been responsible for
the shifting tunnels.  Sokka accidentally
discovers that song and music win the intimidating creatures over, and with
their help, the group rides the tunneling masters out of the cave to the
outside of the mountain.  For fans of Legend of Korra, this was called back in
Season 4 with Prince Wu, with arguably Sokka the better singer.

If Appa was a
person, as opposed to an air bison, one might call him a third wheel in the
following scenes with Aang and Katara.
One note about this episode, it arguably, until “Appa’s Lost Days,”
provides the most characterization to our favorite air bison in the total
series, touching upon Appa’s fear of the underground and how it affects
him.  Like a thousand things about the
Avatar series, it’s something that did not need to be done, would have been
fine if it hadn’t been done, but it adds so much because it was done.  Appa manages to be a breathing character,
despite taking a second billing to Aang and Katara, who find themselves in the
tomb of the two lovers after some wandering around.

The tomb provides
the true story of the lovers, a man and woman separated by a mountain and a war
that divided their villages.  In the
course of their ill-fated romance, they met the badgermoles who taught them how
to earth bend, and thus, they were the first earth benders.  Their relationship was then cut short, the
man being killed in battle against her village.
Enraged and in grief, the woman used a fierce and incredible display of
earth bending to bring peace to the villages and promoted the building of a
city, Omashu.  Thus, a tragic romance and
an origin story for Omashu, named after the woman, Oma and man, Shu.  Despite learning the history of the lovers
and King Bumi’s city, Aang and Katara were still lost inside the cavern.  

The only clue for
the duo was an inscription, indicating love will find its way in darkness and a
kiss.  What follows is a classic example
of the guy missing the signals sent by the girl he loves, the result being an
angry Katara and a confused Aang.  Pro
Tip guys: Never tell a woman that you would rather kiss her than die.  IT DOESN’T GO OVER THE WAY YOU THINK.  Ahem.
Despite the frustrating moment where it appeared Aang and Katara would
share their first romantic kiss only to be spoiled by the air nomad contracting
foot in mouth disease, the two find themselves on the brink of darkness and
another chance of a smooch.  Before the
kiss happens, darkness falls, and the ceiling of the cavern lights up in
glowing crystals.  The crystals form a
guide out of the cave and the mystery of how the lovers were able to use the
caverns without getting lost was revealed.
Despite the fact a kiss never happened, a sense exists between both
Katara and Aang that their relationship was nudged a little bit closer by the
experience.  They emerge out of the cave,
to Appa’s relief, and are soon joined by Sokka and the nomads.

The nomads have no
desire to continue to Omashu, and the gang quickly make their way up over a
hilltop for a view of the Earth Kingdom city.
The city holds the promise of safety and a powerful bender in the form
of King Bumi as an instructor for Aang.
The sight of the city, however, is heart breaking.  In the time between their departure and
return, the Fire Nation had conquered the city.
While Aang, Katara and Sokka, gazed at the Fire Nation’s victory in
horror, Prince Zuko was in the process of learning of the horror caused by his
homeland on the Earth Kingdom.

Zuko and Iroh’s story
is started by Iroh succumbing to his passion for tea and purposefully making
the drink from a plant he hoped to be a variety prized for its taste, but in
reality, it turned out to be the deadly plant he was worried it very well could
be.  In need of help, the two are left
with the decision to seek it either from the Fire Nation or from the Earth
Kingdom, in a way, our two warring villages.
Earth Kingdom could mean death, but Fire Nation does mean Azula, and the
pair set off for an Earth Kingdom village.

In the village,
Iroh receives medical treatment from a young woman named Song who for Zuko’s
anxious-I-don’t-want-to-be-discovered perspective is surprisingly kind.  When she learns the two are travelers, she
immediately invites them home to enjoy a home cooked meal.  Despite Zuko’s reservations, the two end up
at the dinner table where Zuko first begins to learn the Earth Kingdom
perspective of the war against the Fire Nation, including that the Fire Nation
had taken her father away years ago.
Later, after dinner, Song reaches for Zuko’s burnt face before his hand
catches her wrist.  She quickly asks Zuko
if the Fire Nation burned him, as it did her, and she reveals a terribly
scarred leg to the Fire Nation prince.
All these revelations appear to hit Zuko by surprise.

One aspect of the
100 Years War is that at this point in the Last
Airbender
, the motivations of the Fire Nation have never been
explained.  The Fire Nation is simply the
invading enemy.  Later, when we learn
more of Avatar Roku’s past and when Aang and company visit the Fire Nation in
Season Three, we are told why the Fire Nation began its war of conquest.  By Zuko’s reaction to the woman’s stories,
though, it also appears that they do not neatly coincide with what even the
Fire Nation prince believes to be the proper narrative of the war.  Despite learning of her suffering, Zuko
steals her ostrich horse.  Iroh
disapproves and notes the kindness the family has shown them, but does not make
a stand against Zuko’s actions, perhaps sensing that it simply is not the time
to do so.  As a final act of kindness, it’s
revealed that a sadden Song saw the theft, but chose not to try and stop it.  

While Aang and
Katara learned the story of the two lovers with warring villages, we were
presented with an opportunity for two young people from warring nations to meet
and encounter each other.  Granted, Song
didn’t know Zuko’s true identity, but it was an opportunity for a symbolic
Omashu to be constructed between the potential heir to the Firelord’s throne
and a member of his nation’s enemy.  It
was a teaching moment for Zuko, not just by the Earth Kingdom kindness, but by
the fact that Song unknowingly held a mirror up to Zuko which reflected his
people’s own actions.  This made Zuko
uncomfortable and resulted in him lashing out with the theft of the ostrich
horse, temporarily assuming the perspective of the conqueror that had been
bound to his identity as a Fire Nation prince up until last episode.  

As odd as it
sounds, the theft represented the true start of the conflict of identity within
Zuko, as he transforms from the young man who yearned to capture the Avatar, to
return home a hero and receive his father’s praise, to the hero who recognizes
that the right thing to do is not always bound by birth or national
identity.   It was the action of the Fire
Nation prince before Zuko cut his hair in the last episode and Zuko’s struggle
will only grow harder as he begins to see the world through a new perspective,
guided by his uncle Iroh and the people he meets.  This transformation is easily the most
important aspect of “The Cave of Two Lovers,” because the romance between
Katara and Aang, while significant, will not have the same impact on events and
the Avatar world as Zuko’s emergence as the other hero of this story.  

Not touched upon above, but “The Cave of Two Lovers,”
is fantastically written episode, full of great comedic moments, and paced
perfectly between the two stories it sets out to tell.  It highlights everything that Avatar: The Last Airbender does so well,
humor, love, familial attachment, and clever dialogue.  It may record the most facepalms of any
animated show and respects every character introduced onto the screen,
regardless of whether they’re human or not.
It’s not an accident, either, that the story concludes with the idea of
a powerful female earth bender instructed by badgermoles.  In short time, we will meet a powerful female
earth bender trained by badgermoles who will become a beloved member of Team
Avatar.

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