The best television shows do not always begin as the
best television shows. They can
definitely begin as great shows, but sometimes a show that is good can be made
immeasurably better by a tweak or a change to it. In the case of Avatar: The Last Airbender, it evolved from a good show to a great
show with the introduction of Toph Beifong.
Toph is the blind daughter of one of the wealthiest individuals in the
known Avatar world, and a walking contradiction of what one presupposes the
daughter of a rich and powerful family would be. She’s tough, unforgiven, at times rude, and
an incredibly powerful earth bender. Did
we mention blind?
Originally, Toph was intended to be portrayed as a
male character but before Season 2 of the show went into production, it was
quickly decided that a change should be made and because of that change, the
show and the audience benefited immensely.
Toph’s character was foreshadowed in “The Swamp,” as a vision of a laughing girl accompanied by
a boar with wings which Aang saw in the depths of the might swamp. At the time, Hu, the pant less and shirtless swamp
guru told Aang that in the swamp one might see visions of those they have yet
to meet. The show moved on with no
indication of what Aang’s vision truly had in store for the avatar and waited
until two episodes later to cash in on them. When it does, not only does it pay down on
the visions, but also called back King Bumi’s instructions and advice for Aang
when seeking a new master of earth bending in “Return to Omashu.” Yes, a television show not only had the
collective memory to connect two separate episodes, but also the episode before
the other. As a nice touch, the episode
opens with a callback to the previous episode: it’s serialization, baby!
We find Aang, Katara and Sokka, in a shop with Sokka
intensely debating the purchase of a bag to replace one lost to the Rough
Rhinos in the previous episode, “Avatar Day.”
It’s the first sign that the episode is serious about upending gender
expectations with the near immediate introduction of Toph the girl, not Toph
the guy. Sokka’s purchase and
post-purchase behavior has many cues often associated with stereotypical
feminine shopping purchases. This is
played up even later in the episode when Sokka gains a belt and talks
accessorizing. At about the same time,
Aang see’s an earth bending school and hopefully enlists in it to see if it
might be the place for him to learn earth bending.
The earth bending school is overseen by a master who
comes across as less than devoted to the proper technique of earth bending,
when he offers Aang a quick promotion in rank for purchasing his uniform and
paying in advance for classes. It’s a
critique of any martial arts academy where the focus is more on the instructor
making money than earnestly teaching his art to the students. Needless to say, Aang quickly exits, but not
before he encounters two older students who excitedly mention a fighting event
for earth benders. This leads us to the
professional wrestling equivalent of the avatar world.
While the fighting appears to be authentic in its
outcome, the participants carry nicknames, costumes, and attitude. Among them is The Boulder, a character voiced
by long term pro-wrestler Mick Foley, who replaced Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson
who was unavailable to play the character.
While Sokka is immediately addicted and wrapped up in the entertainment,
the Boulder quickly makes his way to the final round of the tournament where he
will face off against the returning champion, The Blind Bandit. Then the girl appears. Full of sass and confidence, it becomes clear
that she can both back up her words of mocking dismissal toward the Boulder and
do so while blind. As Aang watches, he
notices she fulfill Bumi’s prescribed attributes of waiting, then
responding. In a hurry to meet her, he
leaps into the ring as she claims her prize of a bag of gold, but the Blind
Bandit is not a fan friendly competitor and attempts to earth bend toward Aang,
who promptly air bends her off the platform.
Money in hand, she flees the arena, while her apparently easy defeat
causes the competition’s organizer to be suspicious of some form of cheating.
Outside of the arena, the gang quickly track down
the mysterious girl by the symbol of her family, a flying boar. Aang finds her in a walled garden, dressed in
the finery he had seen her wearing in his vision, and pleads for her to teach
him. She flatly refuses and tells him to
scram. Unrelentingly, Aang invites
himself in the role of the Avatar and becomes her wealthy parents’ honored
guest to dinner. Yes, dinner. Once again and not for the last time, a
prosaic moment such as dining gets to be the setting for further action in the
avatar stories. It’s only when Aang and
friends see Toph in the presence of her parents do they realize that she plays
the role of vulnerable blind daughter, not powerful and smug earth bender. While Aang and Toph engage in the equivalent
of a cold bending war outside of the perceptions of her parents, ultimately,
the dinner comes to a close. Later that
evening, Toph invites Aang back to the garden for a more honest discussion.
Toph tells Aang that she cannot be his teacher, but
does tell him how she can see and bend so well.
The former comes from her ability to feel the vibrations of everything
in the ground and the latter comes from meeting badger moles (which we met in “Cave
of Two Lovers,” as the originally earth benders). Thus, our blind fighter learned the art of
bending from its originators. Before
much more can be said, the organizer from the earth bending competition, along
with the competitors, surprise and kidnap Aang and Toph. Katara and Sokka then join Toph’s father and her
supposed earth bending teacher, and rush to the arena to pay her ransom.
What follows is one of the finest displays of earth
bending up to this point in the show, as Toph uses her blindness to her
advantage by creating a dust cloud, then nearly takes out all her competitors
one by one to the astonishment of her father.
When the dust literally settles, Toph is the undisputed champion and everyone
returns to the Beifong manor. Before her
parents, now that her skill has been revealed, Toph makes an impassioned plea
for her parents to understand that she is not the vulnerable blind child who
needs to be watched over constantly.
That not only is she an earth bender, but a great one. For a moment, had this been any other show,
when the parent acknowledges and finds pride in their child’s abilities, we
would have had a happy ending for Toph and her parents.
Instead, because this is Avatar: The Last Airbender, we do not get the ending we
expect. Toph’s parents are horrified at
what their daughter has said and done, and instead of respecting and praising
her overcoming her blindness and abilities, double down on treating her as a
child who must at all costs be kept safe and secure. Life just got worse for Toph Beifong. Thus, it’s no surprise that as Aang, Sokka
and Katara prepare to fly away on Appa, Toph suddenly appears, claiming her
parents had changed their mind. In
truth, she has run away mirroring Aang’s own decision in “The Storm” to leave
behind the world he knew to avoid remaining in a world that would be devoid of
the things he loved. As an incident of
humor to this darker aspect, Sokka tosses Toph a champion’s belt she had won
earlier (one he wore earlier as an accessory to his bag), but since it’s coming
through the air, Toph is unable to see it and gets bonked on the head.
“The Blind Bandit” is an incredible episode of the
show and one of the best of many great episodes in Book 2. It stands out for a number of reasons. It provides us with the character of Toph
Beifong, a blind earth bender who allows no room for her inability to see to
stop her from being the best at what she does.
Likewise, in Toph, it takes gender expectations, dramatically vocalized
through her parents, and upends them, with a female character who behaves in
what popular culture would find crude and arrogant – qualities that women are
generally expected not to possess. More
so, Toph’s earth bending power, inversely related to her size, is exhibited
overwhelming and besting the powers of grown men. In every sense, society expects none of these
things from a girl. Arguably, Toph is
the proto-Korra, the embodiment of a powerful woman who does not neatly fill
the lines of what or how a woman is supposed to behave. In a much more subtle sense, the episode used
Sokka, who was instructed quite painfully in why his misogynistic perspectives
were wrong by the Kyoshi Warriors, as a means to show that boys can act and
behave in the same manner generally attributed to girls, and there’s nothing
wrong with that.
In the end, when Toph flees her home, it’s a symbol
of her rejection of what society, the world of the Avatar’s, and our own, expect
of someone in her situation. Going
forward, Toph is not defined by her blindness or her gender, but her ability to
earth bend and her personality, in an incredible addition to a great show,
making for something even better.