So, yes, I am not overly surprised the Earth Kingdom fell in this episode. Azula has been shown to be very smart, and a lot of people follow her since she exudes authority and scares the crap out of people in equal measure. She knows how to speak to people to always get what she wants, and since it really is just her and her two friends, it doesn’t seem too surprising she conquers Ba Sing Se using stealth and smarts instead of massive armies and brute force.
But I want to talk a bit about respect.
See, if there’s one thing that seems to set Azula apart from, oh, everybody, it’s the extreme disdain she holds for, oh, everybody. Long Feng thought he could use the Dai Li to betray Azula when the time was right. The Earth King (along with Momo, Toph, and Sokka) had been captured, and the two co-conspirators came face to face. Feng ordered Azula’s arrest and…nothing happened. Instead, Azula took the Earth Kingdom’s throne, sealing her image in the minds of the Dai Li that, like so many others, were following Azula now out of fear and a bit of awe for her confidence and authority. She claims it comes from being naturally born to royalty, but as an American, I don’t buy that argument. She just has…it.
Feng, to his credit(?), accepts that he lost at the game he’s been playing his whole life since he was born a peasant. Game respects game. He’s ashamed, but he didn’t resort to shouting or anything along those lines.
And Azula, she replies that he was never really a worthy player.
Feng showed Azula respect and deference when he realized he’d lost. Azula, well, she thinks he’s too insignificant to even look at.
Meanwhile, Iroh actually went to Aang for help, and after Toph had vouched for the old man, he agreed to help Iroh rescue Zuko and Katara, the two locked up in the same cell beneath the Earth Kingdom’s palace. Aang has respect for his elders and since he was confused by the Guru’s advice for attaining the Avatar State, asks Iroh his thoughts, and Iroh admits he doesn’t know much about the Avatar State, but he does think giving up loved ones is a bad deal. That doesn’t exactly clear up Aang’s confusion, but it does show he’s willing to listen to people who might know a thing or two.
Heck, Zuko demonstrates respect too. Rather than flee from Azula’s trap, he challenges her to a fight, one-on-one, as the Fire Nation has always done because Zuko cares about forms and honor and all that. Azula, she doesn’t, and has the Dai Li gang up on Zuko to capture him. Sure, he switches to her side at the end of the episode, but that was due to her claiming she needed him, and he could go home once the Avatar was dealt with.
Is it disappointing to see Zuko turn on Katara and Aang after they helped him? Yes, but it’s also on-brand. It’s not something he did lightly. He really wants to go home right about now.
And then, during a four-way duel between Aang, Katara, Zuko, and Azula, Aang hits the Avatar State and Azula kills him.
Only two things save Aang. One is Iroh sacrificing himself to provide cover for Aang and Katara’s escape on Appa’s back with Sokka, Toph, and the Earth King. The other is Katara’s sacred water, good for one good healing, and she uses it to bring Aang back.
Now, arguably, this is where our heroes are at their lowest. Zuko, after making so much progress, joined with his sister. Aang nearly died. The Earth Kingdom fell after a century’s worth of resistance. Iroh is going back to the Fire Nation as a prisoner. It really is a bad place to be for the Aang Gang.
See, when protagonists are at such a low point in their journey, an eventual triumph will be that much sweeter when it happens. We can expect more set-backs as the story progresses, but this is a show aimed at young kids, so when they do triumph, it will be that much more awesome than if the lot of them just swept in and took out the Fire Lord during the solar eclipse.
Besides, Aang still needs to learn firebending. And Book Three is titled “Fire”…