rough rhinos

Avatar: The Last Airbender - The Blind Bandit

The best television shows do not always begin as the best television shows.  They can definitely begin as great shows, but sometimes a show that is good can be made immeasurably better by a tweak or a change to it.  In the case of Avatar: The Last Airbender, it evolved from a good show to a great show with the introduction of Toph Beifong. Toph is the blind daughter of one of the wealthiest individuals in the known Avatar world, and a walking contradiction of what one presupposes the daughter of a rich and powerful family would be.  She’s tough, unforgiven, at times rude, and an incredibly powerful earth bender.  Did we mention blind?

Originally, Toph was intended to be portrayed as a male character but before Season 2 of the show went into production, it was quickly decided that a change should be made and because of that change, the show and the audience benefited immensely. Toph’s character was foreshadowed in “The Swamp,”  as a vision of a laughing girl accompanied by a boar with wings which Aang saw in the depths of the might swamp.  At the time, Hu, the pant less and shirtless swamp guru told Aang that in the swamp one might see visions of those they have yet to meet.  The show moved on with no indication of what Aang’s vision truly had in store for the avatar and waited until two episodes later to cash in on them.   When it does, not only does it pay down on the visions, but also called back King Bumi’s instructions and advice for Aang when seeking a new master of earth bending in “Return to Omashu.”  Yes, a television show not only had the collective memory to connect two separate episodes, but also the episode before the other.  As a nice touch, the episode opens with a callback to the previous episode: it’s serialization, baby!

We find Aang, Katara and Sokka, in a shop with Sokka intensely debating the purchase of a bag to replace one lost to the Rough Rhinos in the previous episode, “Avatar Day.” It’s the first sign that the episode is serious about upending gender expectations with the near immediate introduction of Toph the girl, not Toph the guy.  Sokka’s purchase and post-purchase behavior has many cues often associated with stereotypical feminine shopping purchases.  This is played up even later in the episode when Sokka gains a belt and talks accessorizing.   At about the same time, Aang see’s an earth bending school and hopefully enlists in it to see if it might be the place for him to learn earth bending.  

The earth bending school is overseen by a master who comes across as less than devoted to the proper technique of earth bending, when he offers Aang a quick promotion in rank for purchasing his uniform and paying in advance for classes.  It’s a critique of any martial arts academy where the focus is more on the instructor making money than earnestly teaching his art to the students.  Needless to say, Aang quickly exits, but not before he encounters two older students who excitedly mention a fighting event for earth benders.  This leads us to the professional wrestling equivalent of the avatar world.

While the fighting appears to be authentic in its outcome, the participants carry nicknames, costumes, and attitude.  Among them is The Boulder, a character voiced by long term pro-wrestler Mick Foley, who replaced Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson who was unavailable to play the character. While Sokka is immediately addicted and wrapped up in the entertainment, the Boulder quickly makes his way to the final round of the tournament where he will face off against the returning champion, The Blind Bandit.  Then the girl appears.  Full of sass and confidence, it becomes clear that she can both back up her words of mocking dismissal toward the Boulder and do so while blind.  As Aang watches, he notices she fulfill Bumi’s prescribed attributes of waiting, then responding.  In a hurry to meet her, he leaps into the ring as she claims her prize of a bag of gold, but the Blind Bandit is not a fan friendly competitor and attempts to earth bend toward Aang, who promptly air bends her off the platform. Money in hand, she flees the arena, while her apparently easy defeat causes the competition’s organizer to be suspicious of some form of cheating.

Outside of the arena, the gang quickly track down the mysterious girl by the symbol of her family, a flying boar.  Aang finds her in a walled garden, dressed in the finery he had seen her wearing in his vision, and pleads for her to teach him.  She flatly refuses and tells him to scram.  Unrelentingly, Aang invites himself in the role of the Avatar and becomes her wealthy parents’ honored guest to dinner.  Yes, dinner.  Once again and not for the last time, a prosaic moment such as dining gets to be the setting for further action in the avatar stories.  It’s only when Aang and friends see Toph in the presence of her parents do they realize that she plays the role of vulnerable blind daughter, not powerful and smug earth bender.  While Aang and Toph engage in the equivalent of a cold bending war outside of the perceptions of her parents, ultimately, the dinner comes to a close.  Later that evening, Toph invites Aang back to the garden for a more honest discussion.

Toph tells Aang that she cannot be his teacher, but does tell him how she can see and bend so well. The former comes from her ability to feel the vibrations of everything in the ground and the latter comes from meeting badger moles (which we met in “Cave of Two Lovers,” as the originally earth benders).  Thus, our blind fighter learned the art of bending from its originators.  Before much more can be said, the organizer from the earth bending competition, along with the competitors, surprise and kidnap Aang and Toph.  Katara and Sokka then join Toph’s father and her supposed earth bending teacher, and rush to the arena to pay her ransom.  

What follows is one of the finest displays of earth bending up to this point in the show, as Toph uses her blindness to her advantage by creating a dust cloud, then nearly takes out all her competitors one by one to the astonishment of her father. When the dust literally settles, Toph is the undisputed champion and everyone returns to the Beifong manor.  Before her parents, now that her skill has been revealed, Toph makes an impassioned plea for her parents to understand that she is not the vulnerable blind child who needs to be watched over constantly. That not only is she an earth bender, but a great one.  For a moment, had this been any other show, when the parent acknowledges and finds pride in their child’s abilities, we would have had a happy ending for Toph and her parents.

Instead, because this is Avatar: The Last Airbender, we do not get the ending we expect.  Toph’s parents are horrified at what their daughter has said and done, and instead of respecting and praising her overcoming her blindness and abilities, double down on treating her as a child who must at all costs be kept safe and secure.  Life just got worse for Toph Beifong.  Thus, it’s no surprise that as Aang, Sokka and Katara prepare to fly away on Appa, Toph suddenly appears, claiming her parents had changed their mind.  In truth, she has run away mirroring Aang’s own decision in “The Storm” to leave behind the world he knew to avoid remaining in a world that would be devoid of the things he loved.  As an incident of humor to this darker aspect, Sokka tosses Toph a champion’s belt she had won earlier (one he wore earlier as an accessory to his bag), but since it’s coming through the air, Toph is unable to see it and gets bonked on the head.

“The Blind Bandit” is an incredible episode of the show and one of the best of many great episodes in Book 2.  It stands out for a number of reasons.  It provides us with the character of Toph Beifong, a blind earth bender who allows no room for her inability to see to stop her from being the best at what she does. Likewise, in Toph, it takes gender expectations, dramatically vocalized through her parents, and upends them, with a female character who behaves in what popular culture would find crude and arrogant – qualities that women are generally expected not to possess.  More so, Toph’s earth bending power, inversely related to her size, is exhibited overwhelming and besting the powers of grown men.  In every sense, society expects none of these things from a girl.  Arguably, Toph is the proto-Korra, the embodiment of a powerful woman who does not neatly fill the lines of what or how a woman is supposed to behave.  In a much more subtle sense, the episode used Sokka, who was instructed quite painfully in why his misogynistic perspectives were wrong by the Kyoshi Warriors, as a means to show that boys can act and behave in the same manner generally attributed to girls, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  

In the end, when Toph flees her home, it’s a symbol of her rejection of what society, the world of the Avatar’s, and our own, expect of someone in her situation.  Going forward, Toph is not defined by her blindness or her gender, but her ability to earth bend and her personality, in an incredible addition to a great show, making for something even better.

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Gene Yang (Writer of the Avatar comics) released the first five pages of The Rift: Part 2 at Wondercon! If you repost, please give credit to @eskaxdesna on Instagram. (Me) :)

Page 1/5: Picks up directly from the ending.

Page 2/5: Gene says that basically Toph’s father disowned her. He pretends to not even recognize her. In the other panel, Katara and Aang are saying “Hey don’t be a jerk!”. Gene meant this jokingly because Aang and Katara didn’t phrase it that way, but their actual words have that meaning.

Page 3/5: Satoru appears to be being reprimanded. Gene talked about a conflict that they’ll have with the guards.

Page 4/5: …

Page 5/5: After this confrontation, a huge and crazy bending battle breaks out between Team Avatar and the Rough Rhinos. Gene was joking about how giant rock balls will be flying everywhere!!

Here’s all the other new information:

In the next book (if not Book 3), we’ll see Avatar Yangchen in her childhood, and we’ll learn about why she doesn’t have the typical Airbender personality. What I mean by that is, remember when Aang was asking his past lives for advice as to what to do with Firelord Ozai? And Yangchen said that he needed to kill him? Aang was shocked by her response because he thought it was in Air Nomad culture to seek the most peaceful solution. But instead, Yangchen had found it necessary to kill Ozai. And in these childhood flashbacks of Yangchen, we’ll learn why she wasn’t like the typical Air Nomad and see some of her backstory.

Remember the statue that Aang had no idea about because he was flying kites with Monk Gyatso? It represents a spirit we’re going to learn more about in the upcoming books.

The series is called The Rift because it represents the hole/line between ancient culture and technology throughout the storyline. The Earthen Fire Refinery and Aang’s culture intertwine because it was developed on sacred ground, yet there is a huge gap between the two. The “rift” represents these two different ways of life.

Originally, Mike and Bryan were going to animate some of the plots from the comic books series, but they decided to do The Legend of Korra instead.

And finally, on Free Comic Book Day on May 3, a Suki and Sokka comic will be given out!

Hope you all enjoyed the new info!