Aang’s earth bending lessons begin in an episode which highlights key personality traits of our hero, Aang, and our anti-hero, Zuko. Particularly since “The Storm,” the duo have been contrasted against each other and “Bitter Work” is no exception. Aang’s personality is one that prizes peace and indirect confrontation. Zuko’s personality is akin to a complete opposite with the Fire Nation prince often tackling problems head on and an inner turmoil almost constantly beneath the surface of his personality. Both of these traits result in frustrations for both as they attempt to learn techniques which demand the opposite of their natures.
While the friction between Katara and Toph from the previous episode, “The Chase,” appears to have subsided, Toph leaps into the role of sifu or master of earth bending for Aang with little concern for Katara’s advice from her own teaching. The primary lesson for Aang is one of directness, an earth bender must bend head on with rock (literally at one point in the episode). Aang eagerly imitates Toph’s form and then fails miserably in his attempt to earth bend. The dichotomy between earth bending and air bending is immediately brought to light by Toph complaining that Aang was thinking too much like an air bender and avoiding confrontation. For Toph’s tough love version of earth bending school, there are few words of support and endless berating with Aang’s every failure.
In the theme of opposites, Toph has an opposite in the area of teaching in the form of Iroh, while bandaged up has appeared to survive the lightning strike from Azula no worse for wear. The light heartedness of Iroh permeates the scenes with Zuko from politely hiding the terrible taste of the tea his nephew had brewed and then deftly casting a second cup of the tea over his shoulder when Zuko had his head turned to making terrible jokes or dropping priceless quotes such as regarding fighting Azula: Zuko – “I know what you’re going to say: she’s my sister and I should be trying to get along with her.” Iroh – “No, she’s crazy, and she needs to go down.” Much of what works for Zuko’s character is his pairing with his uncle, who serves as a softening foil to his initially abrasive personality. Additional kudos goes to Iroh’s voice actor, Mako, who embodies wisdom, kindness, and humor in the character.
Iroh’s love for Zuko throughout the episode is built upon the prologue of their scenes with a flashback to him with his son as a small boy, which transitions into the grief filled scene of him mourning at his son’s grave. The loss of his son is an instrumental moment for Iroh, setting him onto a path that directly leads to his mentorship and father-like affection for his nephew that will ultimately guide Zuko to becoming a hero in this story, and not the villain.
For these multiple reasons, Iroh makes an excellent teacher to Zuko for the purpose of teaching him advanced fire bending techniques, notably, the advanced skill of creating lightning. In a process of separating positive and negative energy, a technique requiring peace of mind, Zuko is as successful as his peaceful minded opposite Aang at earth bending. Zuko’s mind is anything but calm, given both recent and past events. In the face of his nephew’s struggles, Iroh wisely changes course and decides to teach Zuko a fire bending technique that Azula doesn’t know: one of his own invention. It is a technique developed by Iroh by learning from the water tribe, elsewhere, a member of the water tribe has his own struggles.
In the midst of the two frustrated students and their lessons, Sokka ventures off on his own to hunt up a meal for the group. His focus settles on an incredible cute creature, an adolescent saber tooth moose (unknown until the end of episode) and with apologies for eating something as cute as it is, leaps from a perch in a tree to strike at the critter and abruptly lands in a hole up to his shoulders. Our fierce water tribe hunter is stuck and at the complete mercy of his prey, who, thankfully, is as peaceful as it is cute. For the rest of the episode, Sokka’s humiliation at his embarrassing predicament grows and grows until his rescue. The use of Sokka in this episode is a creative use of his character, who as a non-bender in an episode thick with bending lessons was threatened with fading into the background (similar to Toph’s own observation in the previous episode about him not being a true participant in a fight with benders). Instead, Sokka is given the spotlight in multiple scenes with a purpose to play a critical role for Aang’s own development as an earth bender. It’s a perfect example of the depth and complexity the writers bring to the show.
Concerning Aang’s earth bending, Toph’s attempts to force Aang to become more confrontational and direct continue to fail against the air nomad’s patience. Continually ignoring Katara’s own advice, Toph decides to escalate by taking Aang’s nuts and then using his staff to crack them open. Pushed to the brink, Aang does something we don’t usually expect of the Avatar, he gives up. In traditional American animation, or storytelling for that matter, the hero doesn’t give up, and so this turn of events is a striking change from the norm. Consoled by Katara, who also brings up the fact that Sokka is missing, Aang heads off to find his friend.
The search does not take long and Aang has no sooner identified Foo Foo Cuddlypoops, then Foo Foo Cuddlypoops’ mother appears, a full grown and terrifyingly large saber tooth moose. However, before this moment, the incredible character development for Aang is allowed to continue with him refusing to try and earth bend Sokka out of the ground. Why? Because he’s afraid of failing again. His ego, at least in terms of bending, has always been buoyed by his prodigal ability to quickly pick up new forms, not to mention, mastering his own air bending at an early age. For the first time, however, what should have become naturally, has been nothing but. Now his bruised ego has pushed Aang to actively deciding against trying to help his friend. It’s simply incredible. The aforementioned saber tooth moose, however, refuses to allow him to talk through his feelings any further and charges.
Aang falls back to his air bending to fend off the beast, defiantly protecting Sokka until a direct blast of air knocks it into reconsidering its aggressive stance. It flees the field of battle and then enters the sound of Toph clapping. An observer the entire time, Toph quickly points out that Aang had adopted the proper mindset of an earth bender by the end of his fight with the long in tooth moose. She immediately orders him to earth bend and to his delight, he does and succeeds. For Aang, it’s a moment of victory as he takes a step closer to mastering the four elements. Zuko has a less than happy conclusion to his lesson, but one entirely of his own making.
The technique that Iroh teaches Zuko is the ability to channel a lightning strike attack by directing it down one arm through the stomach (aka the Sea of Chi) and out the other arm. It’s a technique Iroh states he developed by learning from water benders, arguing that it’s important to learn from all the cultures of their world – a striking difference from the Fire Nation belief of superiority. Once Zuko believes he has the technique down, he asks Iroh to unleash lightning at him to practice it. Iroh exclaims that would be crazy and he hoped Zuko never needs to use it. Angrily, Zuko stormed off in the direction of a nearby lightning storm, swearing to find his own lightning. The episode concludes with Zuko on a mountain top in the midst of the storm, but with no lightning striking down at him. It’s the second time Zuko has found the not so comforting face of nature to express his feelings about his life, of having to fight for everything he has, and unsurprisingly, his inner turmoil matching the weather about him.
“Bitter Work,” is a thoughtful examination of two characters and their approach to significant lessons in the art of bending. Each has to overcome their own innate personality traits, but only one truly succeeds in doing so. Woven into it are significant moments of character development for Iroh, but also even Sokka, who sustains an incredible amount of positive, if sarcastic, spirit in the face of terrible circumstances. It’s a good episode.