It’s not often a television show allegedly targeted toward children will explore the moral, “Is it right to cheat the cheaters?” Much less, then throw its proverbial hands in the air and evade the morality of the question all together, it’s unexpected. It’s also exactly what happens in “The Runaway,” an episode which runs heavily on the Toph Beifong’s sense of rebelliousness and the motherly aspect of Katara’s character. The episode’s loyalty to the moral that arguably floats around weakly like bubbles around a kitchen sink is best summarized when Aang makes a vow as the Avatar not to participate in shenanigans again, only to immediately break it. Does it make for entertaining television, yes. Does it make for a particularly strong episode, not necessarily.
It begins with the gang visiting yet another Fire Nation town and with the rare trope of immediately jumping backward in time. We see Toph captured by Fire Nation soldiers and an angry Katara scolding her for having it coming. Then, TIME JUMP. Eight years ago, time jumping as a means to tease something up front to get viewers to watch and figure it out may have been a bit more novel, but the trick is quickly becoming tired as time passes and so does the point of where it goes from interesting to humdrum. It’s not the show’s fault, so we won’t blame it for using it then, but it sticks out now upon later rewatch.
Now in the past, we see Katara and Toph in the middle of training Aang, who’s blind folded himself with the intention of fighting both at once. Instead, the training session results in a literal mud wrestling match between the earth bender and water bender. Were our two female heroines three to four years older (and dressed in less) and it would boil down to a gimmicky and exploitative scene, but here there’s an amusing symbolism with mud representing a substance that both can control because it represents the mixture of their respective bending elements. In order to cool down the moment, Toph, Sokka, and Aang head into the Fire Nation town with but one silver piece left.
The question of what to do with that silver piece is quickly answered when Toph notices a man running a con game of hiding a pebble under moving cups. She convinces Sokka and Aang to give her the coin and by using her earth bending powers, cons the conman. The ante quickly climbs with Toph putting Sokka’s precious sword on the line, but naturally, in this exchange of skills, Toph comes out on top winning two hefty bags of silvers. The trio return to camp loaded down with supplies and find Katara making Appa lunch.
Katara quickly condemns the con and suggests that they shouldn’t make a habit of swindling swindlers. This leads to an immediate accusation by Toph that Katara doesn’t like fun. That, in turn, leads to Katara draping Momo on her head, because, you know, fun. Aang vows they will never do it again and we’re treated immediately with a montage of the trio going to town in a number of gambling street games, up to and including faking Toph being run over by a carriage. This highway robbery is only justified when the carriage occupant attempts to bribe Sokka, disguised as a policeman. The question not asked, what if there had been no attempt at bribery? Toph just inflicted emotional pain on an innocent bystander.
It’s all in the name of fun and for the purchase of Hawkey, a carrierhawk purchased by Sokka with his excess amount of funds from their cons. Not long after this procurement, Sokka discovers wanted posters for “The Runaway,” with a Sokka approved drawing of Toph. When he tells Toph, she takes a guilty pleasure in it and tells him not to show it to Katara, who will just rain on their parade. Yet, somewhat like a mother ‘cleaning’ her child’s room, Katara goes through Toph’s things and discovers the poster. This leads to the worse confrontation between the two since “The Chase,” when Toph walked away from the group. In the midst of it, Toph accuses Katara of trying to be everyone’s mom and telling them what to do. Once again, the two decide to give each other the silent treatment, despite Aang and Sokka’s attempts to reconcile the duo.
Reconciliation comes when Katara overhears Sokka and Toph talking, in which Sokka admits that he can no longer remember his own mother’s face and how much he appreciates Katara stepping into the role of mom after their mother’s death. Likewise, Toph admits that she likes that Katara actually cares for her, more so than her own mother. Based on hearing this, Katara later approaches and instantly Toph apologies for her behavior, promising to end the cons. Katara, in turn, tells Toph she’s there to run the biggest con – give Toph up for the reward money and then let her bust free with her earth bending. And like that, we’re back to the beginning of the episode with Toph’s capture.
The con against the Fire Nation authorities runs well enough until Toph finds herself thrown into a wooden jail cell, unable to bend her way out. Katara, equally, is captured and thrown into the cell when she arrives to take the reward money. Only then do they realize that they represent the bait for a bigger trap, a trap for Aang. The man behind that trap is none other than Combustion Man, he who blows things up with his mind. A fight breaks out in the middle of town as Zuko’s paid assassin attempts to end Aang, while Aang and Sokka desperately try to avoid him. In the middle of it all, Katara works up a sweat.
While contemplating their imprisonment, both women have a frank discussion where again they are able to better understand each other and offer honest analyses of why they have behaved the way they have been to each other. It’s a character building moment which helps to bond the positive and negative electrons of the group together, and with that bond cemented, their thoughts turn to escape. Toph might be separated from her earth, Katara realizes she’s not separated from water as she wipes a sweaty brow. Hyperactively, she exerts herself by running in place to develop enough sweat to water bend and cut their way free. In short time, it’s enough and they join Aang and Sokka in the ballet of running away from the assassin. In the process, Toph bends earth toward the Combustion Man and a single pebble hits him in the third eye tattooed on his forehead. The result is nearly catastrophic as his ability to project his explosions vanishes and he nearly blows himself up. That allows for the gang to escape to Appa and fly a safe distance away, where Katara writes a letter for Toph and send it to Toph’s mother by way of Sokka’s carrier hawk.
As episodes go for Avatar, “The Runaway,” is not a strong one, but it’s entirely by comparison. It’s jokes, both visible and spoken, are fluid and amusing, and even if the story arch didn’t push forward with plot development, it did take time to help Katara and Toph better understand and respect each other. Also, how often does a kid’s show drop the moral of the story as being unimportant halfway through?