Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Guru

The penultimate episode of Season Two of Avatar: The Last Airbender returns to a
topic that was the subject of the very first episode of Season Two, the Avatar
State.  It does so with the injection of
further Buddhist philosophy, which in turn builds upon the Buddhist teachings
interwoven into “The Swamp.”  Its
application in “The Guru,” is conveyed in the sense of helping Aang complete
his transformation into the Avatar, at least spiritually (still needs that fire
bending!), and it comes logically on the foot heels of “The Earth Kingdom,”
which concerned itself with Zuko’s own metamorphosis or transformation.  Coincidentally, Toph also experiences her own
transformation by the conclusion of the episode.

It begins with Iroh and Zuko in their new, much
finer, apartment in the Upper Ring.  Zuko
has recovered from his feverish bout between his personalities, and for the
rest of the episode, is essentially a brand new Zuko.  He’s relaxed, happy even, and excited about
his uncle’s success as a tea shop owner.
Not to disparage Zuko’s development, but for the purposes of “The Guru,”
it exists to reveal the version of Zuko that Iroh had always hoped for, as
several times during the scenes dedicated to the Fire Nation prince involve his
uncle smiling, pleased.  It’s a personality
that might have always been Zuko’s if he had been raised by his mother, and the
side revealed in this episode, one that comes across as surprisingly
uninteresting.  It’s great for Zuko, but
not so great for the viewers, who find almost a complete stranger in our
scarred prince who gets excited at the prospect of his uncle being invited to
serve tea to the Emperor.  More on that
later, but for now, that essentially sums up our smiling, happy Zuko.

Sokka is dropped off by Aang where we finally get to
see father and son together.  We
establish that Sokka’s since of humor apparently comes from his father, who
also appears to have given him his touch for strategy.  There’s not a lot to Sokka’s side adventure
other than the novelty of meeting his father and Sokka being acknowledged as a
man of the Southern Water Tribe.  His
time is interrupted by Aang, who returns abruptly after seeing a disturbing
vision while working with the Guru from “Appa’s Lost Days.”  But, more on that later, as Katara quickly
has her own problems back in Ba Sing Se.

Left to essentially liaison between the five
generals of the Earth Kingdom’s war council and the King, himself, Katara is
delegated to a relatively simple role and assignment in the story, until, that
is, she decides she would like a cup of tea.
In this regard, the timing of Iroh and Zuko’s opening of the tea shop in
the upper ring could not be more fortuitous – for viewers craving some kind of
conflict.  With the battle strategy laid
out by the generals on the defeat of the Fire Nation on the day of the eclipse
in hand, Katara on her way to get the King’s seal of approval makes the decision
to get a drink on her way.  The tea shop
she chooses to go into is none other than Iroh’s, where she spots both Zuko and
Iroh engaged in the midst of tea selling activity.

Horrified to discover that her and her friends’
worse enemy is not only in Ba Sing Se, but in the Upper ring, she dashes to the
Earth Kingdom throne room to warn the King of the grave danger posed by their
presence.  Inside, the King is gone, but
three Kyoshi warriors kneel at work.
Katara quickly shouts out for Suki, telling her that Zuko is in the
city, only to discover the subterfuge of Azula and company.  Before she can defend herself, Ty Li drops
her with pinpoint strikes to her body and Katara is captured. She’s not the
only one in the state of captivity in “The Guru.”  

Locked inside a large metal box on the back of a
wagon is Toph Beifong.  Outside, her
captors bicker back and forth on the proper route back to the Beifong estate,
while she frustratedly hunts for a way out.
Toph’s situation doesn’t improve and the wagon leads her farther away
from her friends and closer to her home.
But, more on that later, as we turn to the other non-Aang plot carried
in this episode: Azula’s deception of the Dai Li.

Informed by the Earth King of Long Feng’s and the
Dai Li’s disloyal acts, Azula hatches a plan to have her brought before the
former minister of culture.  Mai and Ty
Lee are instructed to break character, seemingly unaware of the presence of an
eavesdropping Dai Li agent, who quickly reports the presence of the Fire Nation
princess.  Feng orders her capture and
the trio are brought before him, where he promises Azula the Avatar in exchange
for her help to take back control of the city. At the conclusion of this
conversation, a messenger arrives at the tea shop to invite Iroh and Zuko to
the palace to serve tea.  Finally, on the
topic of serving food, we turn to Aang.

Aang arrives at the Eastern Air Temple to discover
Guru Pathik meditating.  After
introductions, Pathik offers Aang a less than appetizing bowl of banana and
onion soup.  The soup, mostly used for comedic
purposes, does later symbolize Aang’s advancement and acceptance of Pathik’s
teachings as the avatar begins to favor the food.  As part of Pathik’s introduction, he informs
Aang that he was a close friend to Aang’s father figure and friend, Monk Gyatso
and a spiritual brother of the Air Nomads.
The hint here is that what we are about to learn from Pathik is similar
to the same beliefs held by Aang’s people, but for their genocide at the hands
of the Fire Nation.  It’s unsaid, but the
question hangs in the air, did Pathik assume the task of helping the Avatar on
his own, or did Gyatso ask a favor of a friend, should the missing Aang ever
show up again?

Through the beautiful use and animation of pools of
water in a creek, Pathik explains to Aang the nature of his spiritual energy
and how he must clear his charkas, wells or whirlpools of energy within his
body, should he want to be able to harness and control the Avatar State at
will.  Within Aang, and all of us, Pathik
explains, are seven chakras which begin from the base of the spine and rise to
the top of one’s head: earth, fire, water, heart, sound, light, and
thought.  Over the course of the episode,
Pathik guides Aang through the cleansing of each chakra, interspersed between
the above mentioned events.  The scenes
are often short, but set in the beautiful environments of the Eastern Air
Temple, be it waterfalls or before a giant meditating statue of a female air
bender.

In each clearing, Aang is asked to deal with an
accompanying negative emotion, be it guilt, shame, and fear, for example.  Each time Aang internally meditates on his
barriers, we receive flashbacks of how those problems relate to Aang, such as
fear reflecting the Firelord or guilt touching upon his flight from the Air
Nomads or his hurting of innocents in the Avatar State.  Aang’s progression through the clearing of his chakras goes smoothly until he hits his final one, the Thought Chakra, which is his connection to the cosmic energy.  To clear it, Aang is told, he must let go of his attachments in our world.  This immediately brings Katara into his mind and our avatar angrily rejects the idea of letting go of his love for Katara.  Yet, despite Aang’s reluctance, the weight of the world upon his shoulders is enough to make him at least try to do so and we’re presented with something akin to giant cosmic Aang, a glowing black and white outlined Aang floating in space over the world with a rainbow colored bridge leading Aang to it, the representation of cosmic energy and the Avatar State.  

Unfortunately for the Guru, his student has a vision of Katara manacled to a wall, and Aang loses his concentration.  It’s a direct send up to Empire Strikes Back, when Luke in the middle of his own training and concentration with Yoda, has a vision of Han and Leia in danger.  Like Luke, Aang finds no alternative to leave, and in doing so, leaves his training incomplete.  In this case, while not a fully trained Jedi, Aang is now not a fully trained Avatar.  Without clearing his final chakra, Guru Pathik warns him, he will be unable to enter the Avatar State at all.  It’s a price Aang will pay, as he leaps onto Appa and flies away for the Earth Kingdom, stopping to pick Sokka up on the way.

We do have one happier note to conclude the episode on, Toph’s escape from her captors.  Finely paralleled with Aang’s chakra lessons, Toph’s imprisonment coincides with Aang learning about the illusion of separation, how all things are actually connected, even the elements.  In this case, Toph in her desperation to escape, pounds against the metal walls of her cell and for the first time realizes that the element of earth exists within the metal.  Armed with this knowledge, she repeatedly strikes the walls of her prison attempting to bend it until she successfully does so.  As if born a metal bender, and not just the person who moments before invented it, Toph quickly extricates herself from the cage and metal bends her captors back within it.  Toph Beifong is the greatest earth bender a live.

“The Guru” is better considered part one in the two part season finale for Season Two.  It sets out to resolve Aang’s own fear of the Avatar State, a problem established in the very first episode of the season, and in the process, complete Aang’s realization of being the Avatar.  Yet, as we learned in the process of clearing his chakras, to do so comes at a price of essentially severing Aang the person from Aang the Avatar.  Aang has to embrace the identity of savior of the four nations if he’s to truly be the Avatar and bring balance and harmony to the world.  In our last frame of Aang before he leaves the Eastern Air Temple, we see him silhouetted against a view of the temple’s towers and nearby mountain peaks.  Before him are the empty halls and homes of air benders, who died because he chose to run away from his destiny as the Avatar a century ago.  Will Aang allow his desire to remain attached to the world result in a similar tragic event?

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