Toph Bei Fong; a blind, strong willed, brutally honest, straightforward, and fearless earthbender. Plus she's from the richest family in the world. Just the person that was missing in the gang. Next to that, words will have a tough time capturing and encompassing the awesomeness of this episode.
We start out with a "Previously on Avatar" recap. This is the second such recap in the show; the first one was in 'Avatar Roku', and that was the second part of a two-parter. This can only mean that for this season, we can hope for the plot to thicken to such a degree that the episodes will build upon each other much more firmly, creating a much more strung-together, and engaging, story. Since a good story was already the case in season one, this can mean that the standard of season two will reach sky-high levels.
From the recap, we can tell that Aang is now going to look for, and probably find, his earthbending teacher. And indeed, most of this episode is then used to characterize Toph by making her the star of this episode. We find out quite a bit about her in the short amount of time she's on screen: Her life, her earthbending abilities, her parents, her attitude, her personality. That last bit is, to me, the most surprising one.
I'm not saying her choice of personality was a poor decision, in fact, it's brilliant and brings fresh wind into the gang. But when we first get to see Toph as the Blind Bandit, her facial expression hints at a quiet, reserved, maybe even timid person. Which is why, to me, her sudden outbursts and trash-talk with the Boulder was very surprising.
In terms of visuals, we get some very stunning effects. One of them is of course Toph's way of seeing things using a seismic sense of touch. The visualizations are pretty cool, and even though there are only two instances of it, they are enough to up the animation by a great deal. The other visual is Toph's fighting style. After having seen some earthbending, we now get a completely new style being used with the same art. Normal earthbending moves are rigid, big, and powerful, but Toph's moves are smooth and small.
Even though the Earth Rumble Six tournament is something akin to a big joke, we get a display of cool earthbending along with all sorts of quirky characters, and a completely hyper and slightly too modern Sokka ("hurt in the dirt"??). Overall, Sokka seems a bit out of it, and is worrying more about his Earth Rumble than the dire events transpiring right in front of him.
The first time I watched this episode, Toph rejecting Aang was not what I had hoped for, but the resulting tension that is built between those two characters is well worth it. And Aang learns to use his status as Avatar.
The ending was a very quick resolution. Usually something so rushed would be awful, but here, it fits perfectly to what the ending is supposed to create: A feeling of Toph running away to escape her sheltered life as quickly as possible. But the most significant moment of the ending, for me, is the very last shot of a relieved Toph closing her eyes as Appa flies away into the night.
This episode had the difficult job of introducing a new main character into a running show. There are probably millions of places where this can go wrong, most of all by having a weak new character and a weak introduction. 'The Blind Bandit' pulls both off exceptionally well. The miraculous thing here is that for season one, the gang seemed complete. Now, with the entrance of Toph, the gang is still complete. It does not feel like there's an added outsider, but someone who just melds into the existing group effortlessly. This is what makes up the excellence of this episode.
Introducing a new main character into an established cast is a hard thing to do. After a season or so a show generally develops its own rhythm and equilibrium of interaction between the main characters. New additions can prove fatal to a previously successful mix. The creators and show staff not only avoided such a disaster in the much acclaimed episode, "The Blind Bandit", but also managed to make one of the best episodes of the program to date.
This episode, of course, is the debut of the sightless earthbender, Toph Bei Fong, and the story is a well balanced mix of action, humor, and drama. Most importantly, the plot was well constructed both to entertain and deliver a solid introduction to Toph's character.
The earthbending tournament is largely a take off on WWF wrestling matches, complete with testosterone drenched taunting and over the top acting by the contestants. Mick Foley's "The Boulder" is a hilarious stand in for professional wrestling's "The Rock", including constant references to himself in the third person. Unlike the WWF, however, the matches in "Earth Rumble VI" are not fixed and the animation of the combat is excellent. The short sequence when The Boulder rapidly defeats several opponents uses a stop frame technique I mostly associate with Teen Titans, and since I'm a Titans fan I appreciated that bit of nostalgia. The final battle with Toph against Xin Fu and his gang is even better than the tournament, though, and I particularly appreciated Toph's manipulation of the huge circular Earth Kingdom symbol on the arena floor.
I was amazed at how much the creators were able to show the audience about Toph in just 22 minutes. She's not just a spoiled brat, or an earthbending prodigy. Neither is she simply the "poor little rich girl" who wants to live a wild life out from under her parent's watchful eyes, nor is she just the smarmy young tart with a ready supply of zingers. She's all of these things, and oh yeh, she's blind too. And she can still kick your butt and laugh. Can you tell I'm a Toph fan?
No episode is perfect, of course, and I was not thrilled at the addition of Xin Fu and Master Yu as recurring characters. From the get go the whole bounty hunter subplot seemed weak and tired. The only question of interest connected to this lead balloon seems to be whether Aang, Katara and Sokka bought Toph's lie about her parents changing their mind. We'll find out about this at some point, but if we have to suffer through too much of the Xin Fu / Master Yu subplot I doubt the answer will be worth it.
Despite this minor drawback, "The Blind Bandit" is hands down one of the best episodes of the series. Toph made a glorious entry, quickly dispelling any doubts about whether the new character would damage the show's equilibrium, in an episode which arguably has yet to be equaled for humor and action.