'Bitter Work' is a well-chosen title for this episode, even though it only really fully applies to one part of it. Although the main plot is Aang learning earthbending, what this episode is really about is a great deal of philosophy about bending and the elements.
In the beginning, Toph gives Aang (and us) a very nice introduction to how earthbending and its martial art actually work. On the same note, Iroh gives us a wonderful description of the four elements and their people, as well as how firebenders produce lightning. While probably not crucial to any plot points, it is nevertheless very interesting to find out more about the background of this strange yet familiar world.
The episode is split into two stories, like so many. While this episode does not work with juxtaposition, it does work with duality. Both Aang and Zuko are going through a time of training, but while they are both learning completely new things and having a tough time with it, they are handled very differently. Aang's training is put into a not so serious light, whereas Zuko's training is displayed as morbid and frustrating.
In accordance with that, it seemed to me as if his scar was drawn with much greater detail, making it look that much more horrid. We also get a lot of clear frontal shots of his face, as a good comparison between his good eye and his burned one.
In the middle of all this learning, we get Sokka having an interlude with a cute little saber tooth moose lion. While this is mostly for comic relief to lighten up the spirit of the otherwise gruesome training the other two are going through, it also serves as a plot hook. Only in the moment of facing great danger and protecting his helpless friend does Aang summon his ability to act like an earthbender.
In this episode we also learn that Iroh is indeed a master firebender. Not only is he able to create lightning, something only a very small number of firebenders are able to do, but he has developed a new move all by himself, the act of redirecting lighting. He has performed this technique twice already in the show, and we finally get some description of it.
While the entire episode is nice, it is the ending that leaves a very powerful vibe. And again there is a duality here. In the end, Aang overcomes his mental block and manages to earthbend, giving us a happy ending and a good amount of progress. Zuko, on the other hand, does not really achieve anything. He might have learned to redirect lightning, but this skill is still untested. And here we also get many things crashing together at once.
Zuko rides into the middle of a great storm and cries out against it. We see his pent up emotions and inner turmoils boiling over, with the storm adding into this explosive mix. The lightning in the distance mocks his determination, and in the end we have a picture of powerful and unresolved frustration. The episode leaves this issue hanging there, ready to be tackled in future chapters.
Though not necessarily a plot-heavy episode, this one was still a real treat. I personally love any background info and Avatar philosophy that is revealed, and we also receive a nice display of Toph's and Zuko's characters. Next to that, this episode has some stunning background art. Definitely worth the show's standard.
Almost halfway through season two the time has finally come for Aang to learn earthbending from his new earthbending master, Toph. Will Aang be an earthbending prodigy, like he was with his waterbending, or will this be a different kind of ordeal altogether? Let's find out!
Well, to be quite honest: earthbending doesn't go as easy for Aang as waterbending did. I remember being disappointed in that, because in my opinion, Aang got the hang of waterbending way too fast. Heck, he even surpassed Katara at one point, which to me, was just plain silly. But this episode doesn't suffer from such an unlikely occurrance. Though Aang starts out positive, thinking that earthbending will be a walk in the park for him, Toph manages to crush his initial enthusiasm under an avalanche of hard training.
It's very interesting to see this happen, as, when you think of it, Aang never really walked into any hardships along the way before. But it's just as Katara points out: if fire is the opposite of water, then earth would be the opposite of air. Not only is this true for the bending that Aang will have to master, but it's also true for the personalities of Aang and Toph. Both don't get along very well at the start, because Aang's just too nice a guy, and Toph is simply too hard on him. It is the difference between the two that provides much of this episode's refreshing narrative.
But we shouldn't forget about Zuko and Iroh as well. While Zuko tries to master lightning, like his sister Azula, Iroh clearly tells him that his state of mind an his emotions are in turmoil, hence he can't master lightning. This is of course very hard on Zuko, and it also means that his sister is not only more talented at firebending, but also emotionally much stronger. Eventually, Zuko learns a move from Iroh to redirect lightning, but when his uncle refuses to shoot lightning at him so that he can practice, Zuko finds himself a thunderstorm, and challenges it to strike him. It is one of the strongest emotional scenes in Avatar yet, along the lines of Aang finding monk Gyatso's corpse in 'The Southern Air Temple'. This scene represents the inner turmoil and anger Zuko's currently in, and it is almost painful to watch how the lightning doesn't strike him down - yet.
Meanwhile, amongst all the serious bending problems, is our comic relief Sokka, who's been trapped in a hole in the ground from which he can't get out. These scenes, in which Sokka tries to rethink his life as a "meat loving sarcasm guy", with a little adorable cow-thing next to him, are possibly some of the funniest scenes you'll ever see in Avatar. It also gives the viewer a break from the quite serious plot of the rest of the episode, which is needed to keep things in balance.
All in all this episode provides something that Avatar as a series has been lacking for quite a while: Aang having to struggle to learn something (we don't count 'The Avatar State', as it wasn't something that Aang was supposed to learn at that point). It is also very nice to see some other personalities, like Toph, bringing some fresh air to the group, which they needed very much. This episode is all about the bitter work both Aang and Zuko face, and although only one of them succeeds, it is indeed very enjoyable to see someone struggle to accomplish something hard, like anyone should in real life. I'd give this episode an 'A', but it isn't quite as epic like 'The Siege of the North' or as emotionally loaded like 'The Storm', but otherwise, it is a very nice episode, that does a really nice job in teaching Aang how to earthbend.