Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Earth King

“The Earth King” picks up in the immediate aftermath
of “Lake Laogai,” with Aang and company happily reunited with Appa.  For the ups and downs of Team Avatar’s
adventures, having everyone together is the best they can hope for.  Yet, the team makes the decision to reach the
Earth King and warn him of the war and Long Feng, which will set off an episode
long conversation between them and the King on the reality of the situation in
Ba Sing Se.  As this occurs, Zuko
undergoes an internal subconscious battle between his identity as the Fire
Nation prince sworn to capture the Avatar and his post-Appa release identity as
a Fire Nation prince that at least Iroh believes Zuko should have always been
in a world without his father.  Noteworthy
for Zuko’s evolution as the other hero of our story is the direct representation
and contrast of him to Aang.  “The Earth
King” is an episode about truth and the attempts either by Long Feng or one’s subconscious
to subvert it.

As mentioned above, it all begins almost immediately
after the end of “Lake Laogai”  with our
heroes trying to decide where to go from this point on.  Almost everyone is ready to simply wash their
hands of Ba Sing Se, unsurprisingly based on their experiences, but there’s one
hold out; one terrifying hold out, as Toph might say.  It’s Positive Sokka.  Usually the cynic of the group, Sokka argues
that now that they’re on a run of good luck, they should take advantage of it
and make a run for the Earth King.  Aang
eagerly jumps in, and that’s enough to convince Katara, and Toph simply
concedes that while she’s already seen enough of the city, she’s in it as
well.  

What follows this decision is an incredible display
of the bending power of Aang, Toph and Katara, as the three essentially overwhelm
the earth bending defenses of the imperial palace all on their own.  One scene after another features one or more
of the trio simply forcing the group’s way with comparative ease through the
scores of Earth Kingdom soldiers in a moving battle that begins in the air
above the palace and ends with the literal knocking down the doors to the
imperial throne room.   Seated inside is
the Earth King who is quickly joined by Long Feng, prepared to spin anything to
prevent our heroes from successfully winning over his puppet king.

While Team Avatar is busy storming the castle, Zuko
is dealing with a struggle of his own.
Following his freeing of Appa, Zuko turns feverish and collapses into
his uncle’s arms.  What follows are a
number of hallucinations or perhaps, more aptly described fevered dreams,
representing the subconscious turmoil within his mind.  At the expense of chronological accuracy, we
will simply address them all at once, as they were separated by at least two
returns to Team Avatar’s experiences with the Earth King.

The first vision finds Zuko seated on the throne of
the Fire Nation, his face absent the scar about his left eye.  This is Zuko the son of his father, Fire Lord
Ozai, the perfect incarnation of the son Zuko wants to be to his father.  He is quickly joined by two dragons, one blue
and one red.  The blue dragon speaks with
the voice of his sister, Azula, which makes sense, given her penchant for blue
fire.  Her voice at first is suggestive,
asking Zuko if he would like to retire, then more forcibly suggests he
sleep.  In contrast, the red dragon,
voiced by Iroh, warns him not to sleep and to get out.  Zuko grows alarmed as darkness encloses him
and the blue dragon commands him to sleep, just like his mother, before lashing
out toward.  This results in a cutaway to
a hooded figure in the darkness immediately revealed to be Zuko’s mother, Ursa,
who calls out to Zuko for help, while Zuko’s reflection in her eyes fills the
screen as the distraught Fire Nation prince falls out of sight.  

This vision can be interpreted in several ways with
the Azula-voiced blue dragon most likely representing the persona within him
that wants to be the son of Ozai, the proper Fire Nation prince and future Fire
Lord.  At its lightest, the dragon’s recommendation
of sleep is merely this identity attempting to silence and suppress the
contesting identity that freed Appa.  If
Zuko had gone to sleep in his dream, he would have merely awoken the next day
the same Zuko who had awoken the morning before he decided it was no longer
worth remaining obsessed over the Avatar and pleasing his father.  The darker interpretation, combined with the sickness,
might imply that Azula’s call to sleep wasn’t intended to suppress his new
identity, but instead, represented death itself.  This is compounded by the introduction of his
mother, who either symbolized Zuko’s better half, or who’s disappearance,
perhaps hinted here as believed dead, was intended to be Zuko’s fate as
well. 

The second dream is a bit more straightforward.  Zuko awakes and the scene is framed without
showing his face or head until he approaches a water basin and looks up into
the mirror after splashing his face.
Staring back at him is Avatar Zuko, or better put, Avatar Aang
Cosplaying Zuko, complete with shaved head and arrow tattoos.  Like the same incarnation that sat on the
Fire Throne, this Zuko is also absent his scarred eye.  Startled, awakes with a shout, reassuring
himself the dream is over by fingering his scar.  If the first vision was intended to show his
old identity, then the second one revealed his new identity – not an avatar or
air nomad, but the hero.  To achieve this
allusion, we’re presented with a Zuko in the appearance of one of the few
characters on the show who are undoubtedly a hero, Aang.  Zuko’s own unease with this new identity is
made apparent by his shocking departure from sleep.

An important piece of dialogue from Zuko’s story in “The
Earth King,” is Iroh’s description of Zuko’s condition: metamorphosis.  It literally means a change or transformation
from one thing to another.  Since at
least “The Storm,” when we were provided a sympathetic background to Zuko, and
then with the introduction of “The Blue Spirit,” there has been no concrete
description of who Zuko is.  Instead, we
have had a slow evolution from Point A, the Avatar obsessed Fire Nation prince
intent on restoring his honor and pleasing his father to the Fire Nation prince
who reflects his mother, recognizing the good and bad in the world, and acting
from a position of the former.

It’s a shift from villain to hero, wherein Zuko in
the middle has been the anti-hero.  From
this point on, Zuko is the other hero of our tale and every step he takes will
cast against his own identity, subconscious or not, as the hero.  When he feels guilty about something, it will
be because it goes against who he is now, and likewise, he will be inspired to
act in the same manner.  Does it mean our
Fire Nation prince is comfortable with who he is and what’s expected of him?
Not at all, he still has a long way to go, but at least within his mind, his persona
and identity have been irreversibly changed.

Back in the Earth King’s throne room, the dust still
settling from our heroes’ impressive and forceful entry, the Earth King is
immediately suspicious of the armed strangers before him.  Before he is willing to hear them, he
commands them to drop their weapons, a decision that Team Avatar agrees
completely with.  Dai Li agents promptly
handcuff them in stone, while they attempt to make their argument that Long
Feng is a traitor to the city and a liar to the king.  In the process of explaining their position,
Aang deftly earth bends his way out of his bindings before bending them back, a
nod to his imprisonment in “The Avatar State,” and a joke that will eventually
be carried into the next Avatar franchise.
Another incredible building block for The Legend of Korra is Long Feng’s dire warning to the Earth King,
that Aang and company are nothing but anarchists out to destroy the
monarchy.  We won’t go into spoilers, but
needless to say, it’s jaw dropping that the kernel for one of the best
storylines in that show was planted this early.

In a bid to prove their story of an evil Dai Li and
a war at large, Aang points out to the Earth King that Long Feng held his air
bison prisoner.  Feng responds he thought
the creatures extinct and had never seen one.
Sokka brilliantly points out that Feng was bitten by Appa earlier that
day and thus, the marks would be on his leg.
Through some apt air bending from Aang, Appa’s teeth marks are revealed
on Feng’s leg, to which he claimed were embarrassing birthmarks.  Team Avatar counters by bringing Appa into the
throne room and comparing the marks to the air bison’s teeth.  Point Team Avatar.  The Earth King’s acknowledgment that they
appear to be right sets off one of the most comedic scenes in Season Two with
the gang cheering in response, only to hang their heads and groan when the
Earth King followed up with concern that it was not quite enough evidence to
win him over, but, then with a statement that it was worth investigating.  The final statement earns a somewhat reduced
murmur of “I think that’s good news…?”  

What follows is an attempt by Team Avatar to reveal
the lies of Long Feng and the Dai Li.
Step one, show the Earth King the secret facility at Lake Laogai.  This results in the Earth King leaving the
Imperial palace for the first time in his life, but upon arriving at the lake,
the realization that the Dai Li had destroyed any evidence of the facility (or
at least the means to reach it).
Crushed, it appears their chance to win the Earth King over has been
lost, when Sokka recalls the Fire Nation drill in the outer wall. Bribed with a
ride on Appa, the Earth King becomes the first such monarch to stand on the
outer wall and gazes down on the massive weapon.  At this point, Long Feng’s spin of the truth
falls flat and the Earth King orders the Dai Li to arrest their leader.  They exchange their glances and do so, to the
protest of Long Feng.

For a moment, it appears that the heroes luck has
continued and now Sokka’s plans to strike the Fire Nation on the day of the
eclipse, first referenced as the Day of the Black Sun, will happen with the
full force of the mightiest Earth Kingdom city.
Letters are discovered in Long Feng’s quarters which reveal a guru
waiting for Aang in the Eastern Air Temple, Toph’s mother’s presence in Ba Sing
Se hunting for her daughter, and Katara and Sokka’s father not far away with
his fleet.  In short time, the gang
finally reunited (Appa’s return) is split, as Katara remains with the Earth
King, allowing Sokka  to go see their
father, Toph departs to see her mother, and Aang heads off to meet the guru who
promises to help him control the Avatar State.  
Just before Sokka’s departure with Aang, a messenger arrives announcing
the visit of warriors from Kyoshi Island.
The group immediately vouches for the Kyoshi Warriors and the Earth King
proclaims they will be honored guests.

At this point, the season which had been spiraling
toward a dark ending, only to bounce back with a series of victories, abruptly
returns to its darker conclusion.  It’s
revealed the Kyoshi Warriors are none other than Azula, Mai and Ty Lee in
disguise, equipped from their battle against Suki and her warriors in “Appa’s
Lost Days.”  Elsewhere, Toph enters the
house where her mother promised to be only to have a metal box swing shut down
around here – trapping her inside and in the hands of the two men sent by her
father to hunt her down.  In a heartbeat,
everything which had been promising an episode away from the season finale, was
turned upside down.  It’s a dramatic
setup for the two part season finale in the spirit of none other than Empire Strikes Back.  At least Zuko is on the right track, right?

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