Avatar: The Last Airbender The Runaway “, The Runaway

Welcome back for another weekly review of Avatar! This week, the gang gets involved in some scams as we finally get a Toph spotlight.

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1. Toph spotlight!

The joy of the first half of this season lies in the spotlights on every member of the cast. By now we’ve had a spotlight on Aang, Katara, Sokka, and even the Fire kids, so it’s about time we made it to Toph. First off, I feel like Toph often gets the short shrift. She was the last main character to be introduced, she’s the last to get her spotlight in this season, and her overall arc is often sidelined for everybody else’s. That said, this episode works well to catch us up on her development.

What better way to spotlight Toph than to have her scam some scammers? It lets her make use of her unique skillset, plays with her gray ethics and anti-establishment tendencies, firmly portrays her as “one of the boys,” and puts her into direct conflict with ethics-minded Katara. These are all essential aspects of her character, showing her strengths as well as her flaws, and they highlight the conflict that she brings to the group dynamic.

2. New structure techniques!

Hello everybody, the Structure Junkie is back to talk about this episode’s use of the “start at the climax, then rewind to the beginning” technique. This is the only time the show uses this structure for an episode, and I’m not sure that it was necessary. I usually find this trope to be an excuse for not strengthening the chronological beginning of the story. In other words, it’s often used because the writing team thinks the true beginning is too slow or uninteresting, so they show a bit of the action-packed climax to hook you at the start of the episode. Luckily, Avatar uses it in a slightly more interesting way.

The scene we see, Katara handing Toph over to the police, isn’t the climax. Further, it’s a situation that seems out of character, and it makes us think the episode will build up to this strange betrayal. We go on watching the episode as tensions rise between the two, but the story subverts expectations when we realize the “betrayal” was not only a ruse, but also Katara’s way of trying to mend her relationship with Toph, as opposed to a climactic end to their relationship. The “start at the end, then flash back” technique is used about as well as it could be, even if it wasn’t wholly necessary.

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3. “Do I act like a mom? Stop rubbing your eye and speak clearly when you talk!”

Unexpectedly, this episode becomes important for Katara’s development. Since she opposes Toph’s scams, Katara’s motherliness is brought into question, and Katara, Sokka, and Toph all have separate and meaningful reactions to this. Katara regrets that she feels so much like a mother and wishes to be more of a fun-loving kid like everybody else; Sokka reflects on how, since their mother died, he truly has seen Katara as a mother figure (“Now, when I try to remember my mom, Katara’s is the only face I can picture”); and Toph admits that she appreciates Katara for seeing her real self, which her own mother never did.

It’s apt that the only perspective that goes wrong is Katara’s. In trying to prove she can pull off a scam like the rest of the kids, she ends up causing bigger trouble. The end result is a strengthening of her motherly traits, and an affirmation that those traits are a net positive for everybody.

4. Sparky Sparky Boom Man!

I don’t have quite as much to say about Sparky Sparky Boom Man. I mean, yes, that name is wonderful, and it’s a little disappointing that we have to settle for the streamlined “Combustion Man” by the end of the episode. But the character really doesn’t have much going for him besides looking cool (dat metal arm and leg) and having a strange power. I think that’s okay, though. He doesn’t need to be anything more than a source of action and plot complications. The episode was pretty full already, and just the fact that Zuko hired him is enough. Sparky Sparky Boom Man is a hired gun, so there’s no reason for us to think about him any more than we would any other gun. He still has motivation for being there, it’s just that the motivation is Zuko’s.

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Continued below

(Side note: Make sure to remember that bit about the pebble striking his forehead. Something tells me that will become important. And by “something,” I mean “the fact that I’ve seen this show over a dozen times.”)

5. Unconventional use of bending.

The true climax of the episode, Katara and Toph stuck in prison while Combusion Man chases Aang and Sokka, gives us the strangest use of bending yet: sweat bending. If earthbending gives way to metal bending, and firebending gives way to lightning bending, then it’s even more logical that waterbenders would be able to use the water in human sweat. The only forms of waterbending we’ve seen so far have been pure water, ice, and bending the water in swamp vines, and it’s a little surprising we haven’t seen something like this before. The human body is, after all 60% water. I wonder if all that will become important in, I don’t know, the next episode…?

That’s it for me. What did you think of Toph’s long-overdue spotlight? The discussion of Katara’s motherly qualities? Any thoughts on Sparky Sparky Boom Man or sweat bending? Let me know in the comments!

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