After waiting for six episodes, Toph finally gets her moment in the limelight. But even though this chapter seems like it's one that focuses only on Toph, it's really much more than that. There's a lot of gang development, and in fact, the one character that receives the least attention is Aang himself. Talk about a change of focus. The title character steps aside and lets his friends take center stage.
There are two things that are noteworthy in the beginning. The first one is the recap. It brings up the old issue (from all the way back in 'The Chase') of Toph and Katara being unable to get along. Something, and this is what makes it strange, that seemed to have been resolved in the past. Tying to that is an even more astounding event: The very first scene of the episode, where Toph gets betrayed by Katara. Why would Katara stoop so low as to get rid of Toph using the Fire Nation? What caused this sudden uproar of their animosity? What the hell happened?!
Lucky for us, the episode then jumps to three days before this incident, and we get to see the plot evolve. As brilliant as the beginning was, the exposition that follows it doesn't start at the beginning, but sort of jumps in with renewed friction already present between the two girls. Although this sounds like a flaw, it's actually not that big a deal, as the rest of the episode manages to highlight Katara's and Toph's characters, and thereby show the reason behind their enmity.
And the interplay of their personalities, the very heart and soul of this episode, is what makes it so great. A lot of speculations and character traits (such as Katara's motherliness) are laid bare in a brutal fashion. It does a lot to make the characters seem a lot more human, and even though they are the "good guys", trying to bring peace to the world, they have their own problems to deal with, their own little faults that make the gang look less perfect, something that allows viewers to connect to them much more.
Next to the wonderful character development present, this episode also features some beautiful art. The gang's campsite, with the city in the background and the waterfall, is spectacular. The different posters Sokka passes after buying Hawky once again show the attention to detail the creators keep demonstrating. And the coloring of the city, especially in the end, is very atmospheric.
One thing that struck me as interesting is the title of this episode. Throughout the series, the titles have been pretty simple. But at least this once, the title has two meanings. Of course it's Toph's nickname, given to her by the townspeople. But in a way, it's also Toph herself, running away from home, something that comes up during the episode. Maybe it's just me, but I found this tidbit pretty clever.
I have one big gripe about this episode, and it stems from Aang. After their first scam, he promises Katara to stop them, but the casual way in which he disregards this promise is, for me, very disturbing. Aang was always portrayed as a very upright and honest, albeit playful and, and times, naive, person. His lying to Katara, especially Katara, seems very wrong. It might look like a small issue, but for me, it breaks Aang's continuity.
Overall, this episode is a thing of beauty. After developing everything else (the Fire Nation, the history of the war), and even after giving Azula's gang an episode, now, finally, the gang itself is analyzed. It brings up the many aspects of the characters that we love (double meaning intended), and allows us to fully bond with them one more time before the overarching story (hopefully) takes off.
To put it simply? Possibly the best episode of the entire show. I was unable to find anything that I disliked in the episode.
From the very start, the episode establishes its own, completely unique, identity, with Toph getting captured while accusing Katara of betraying her. In this manner, the viewer is immediately curious, and the episode proves that the show is capable of starting things in media res. Following up by showing apparent tensions between Katara and Toph, within the first two minutes of the episode, the viewer is completely pulled into the story and provided with a clear image of the characters' relationships for this one. After a mud fight and some earthbending practice, we move on to the next stage for the show--the town. Here, we see, once again, the Avatar crew's attention to detail and making connections to the real world by having a genuine gambler's trick in a shell game--which proves no match for Toph's earthbending. Katara's disapproval sets up the episode's ultimate conflict perfectly, and before the end of the first act, "The Runaway" has nothing more to do except head for the resolution.
The ride is nothing short of fantastic. The Track Team is stellar in the musical montage featuring many well-known scams with a touch of the Avatar universe thrown in. Aang and Sokka mainly linger in the background for most of the first two acts, a job that they accomplish brilliantly (Sokka's antics with a new messenger hawk allows for an amusingly hopeless plan that is only made more amusing by Aang's enthusiastic support). And though Jack DeSena continues to shine as Sokka, the ones who really stand out are Katara and Toph. Mae Whitman and Jessie Flower are both unbeatable--their arguments are driven by intense emotion and perfectly written dialogue, and it is all visualized incredibly by Moi Animation. Throughout the course of their spat, Toph and Katara both take a new perspective of themselves--Katara has her mother-like tendencies brought out in an accusatory manner, and Toph's normally-impenetrable shell is cracked open to reveal that she actually does care about her parents. Character portrayal and development both receive a check-plus for this one.
Perhaps the most impressive part of this episode, though, is the fact that it twists dramatically right when it seems to be winding down--Katara and Toph's mega-scam turns out to be a disaster as the previously-nameless Combustion Man (forever immortalized in this episode with the name "Sparky-Sparky Boom Man") walks through the door in a moment that caused me to stammer out loud at the TV until about halfway through the next scene. The entire drama finishes up with an explosive, heart-racing battle resembling something more along the lines of Jurassic Park. Katara and Toph come to the rescue, though, the former having pulled out yet another surprise by using her own sweat to waterbend (which actually effectively sets up the next episode), and the latter delivering a rather ominous blow to the assassin's forehead. Action? This episode has that, too.
The episode concludes with Toph sealing the character revelation she provided in this episode, leaving no loose ends from the "Hawky" B-plot, and reaffirming the two girls' friendship. In short, this is an episode that stands tall and stands on its own.