Ah yes, the lead-in episode to the season finale. Unlike 'The Waterbending Master', though, this one stays very closely to the overarching plot and introduces yet another character who might very well have a big impact in the upcoming episodes: The Earth King. But this episode mostly just clears up a lot of the little things littering the story to prepare for the finale.
This episode can be neatly divided into four parts: the gang's assault on the palace, convincing the Earth King of the war, arresting Long Feng and assuring the Earth King's support, and the ending. Interspersed are scenes of Zuko fighting with himself in his fever, especially his dream sequence of being the Fire Lord, with the two dragons, probably his conscience, trying to sway him to their side.
So what does this episode take care of? Mainly moving the plot onwards and tying lose ends together. With Appa back, the gang's primary goal has once again become telling the Earth King about the upcoming solar eclipse. Along the way, they also manage to free the King of the Dai Li's conspiracy and have Long Feng arrested. So far, so good. Then the story divides itself up again into a high degree of complexity.
The gang, after receiving the various letters, splits up to follow their individual goals. Zuko finally awakes from his fever after some very disturbing and enigmatic dreams. But most of all, it's right after Sokka's bold claim of everything turning out fine that things go terribly wrong. The three ending scenes completely destroy the vibe of the positive attitude that prevailed throughout the rest of this episode: the Dai Li still being loyal to Long Feng, Toph's capture, and Azula gaining access to Ba Sing Se, disguised as a Kyoshi warrior. That this will provide plenty of material that the finale will have to deal with should be evident.
One thing to note is Aang, once again, trying to confess his feelings for Katara. Anyone who has been in a similar situation is likely going to feel for Aang. It had to be put into the episode for some reason (everything irrelevant just takes up time), and it might just be to continue the prevalence of Kataang (from Aang's side) that has been present in season two. And displaying it here could mean that it will have an effect in the finale, especially since Aang doesn't get to finish what he started.
While this episode is very much about political intrigues and diplomacy, the beginning where the gang storms the palace has a lot of beautifully animated action in it. The variety of earthbending moves that both Aang and Toph perform is stunning, and it pits the gang against a large number of opponents, not just a small group. Along with the background music, this is an action-packed scene with great eye-candy.
Another plus point for this episode are the little snippets of the various themes from the show, such as the Avatar theme, the Kyoshi theme, the Kataang theme, the Fire Nation theme, and so forth. Although none of them really make up a huge part of the background music on their own, they still add a nice effect to the scenes they are fitted with.
So why does this episode get an A grade? It had its silly moments that would not justify this, and aside from the beginning, there's no good action. But what it lacks in seriousness, it makes up more than enough with a very powerful story. This chapter is but the lead in to the big finale, and as such, 'The Earth King' does its job tremendously well.
As the prelude to the series finale, the Earth King has a lot of ground to cover, tying up all the loose ends established by the ending of Lake Laogai. Fortunately, it does an excellent job and sets up the dramatic finale wonderfully, giving us tantalizing new developments regarding the Dai Li and the Earth King, while still teasing us by leaving a cliffhanger ending; Azula, Ty Lee and Mai infiltrating Ba Sing Se under the guise of the Kyoshi Warriors.
As the gang rushes to inform the Earth King about the coming solar eclipse, they engage in one the most well-choreographed and fast-paced fights in the series to date, only to be met with Long Feng and the uncooperative king. It is very amusing to see the gang try to convince the endearingly oblivious king of serious conspiracy matters as well as his reactions as he leaves the palace for the first time. However, the conflict with the Earth King did seem to be resolved a little too easily, considering the King had never known about the war, had just met Aang and company, and seemed totally inept at military affairs. This is minor, though and doesn't detract from the overall plot. Overall, the Earth King (as well as Bosco) is great additions to the secondary cast. Additionally, sokka's reaction to seeing his father again shows his rarely seen sensitive side.
Zuko's and Iroh's half of the plot is also very important. After collapsing, Zuko's feverish visions offer a great deal of insight into his character. The dragons accurately represent Zuko's inner demons and his struggle over his destiny. The symbolism of Fire Lord Zuko being confronted with a sinister blue dragon voiced by Azula and a concerned red dragon voiced by Iroh is remarkable. They not only portray the divide in Zuko's heart and soul, but the divide in the Fire Nation royal family, as well. The dream ends in a very foreboding manner as Zuko is sucked into a black hole, unable to answer his mother's plea for help. Zuko's final dream involves him seeing himself without his trademark scar, but with Aang's bald head and airbender tattoos, an unmistakable reference to his fateful connection to the Avatar. The foretelling dreams are both startling and mysterious, leaving Zuko's destiny still very uncertain.
Aang's side of the story is foreboding as well, with everything looking uncharacteristically optimistic for the gang. The irony in the final scenes is what makes the Earth King such an impactful episode. Aang looks forward to a possible relationship with Katara, who seems to reciprocate his feelings and Sokka anticipates reuniting with Suki. However, Aang will ultimately be faced with detaching himself from his romantic attachments to Katara permanently and Sokka will find out that the warriors of Kyoshi are actually wolves in sheep's clothing. Long Feng is also not eliminated as a threat and Master Yu and Xin Fu finally succeed in kidnapping Toph.
Ultimately, The Earth King is one of the best-written episodes in season 2, leaving many unanswered questions and open-ended avenues for character growth and plot twists.