Previously, Zuko was inexplicably happy, Azula was planning a coup and struck a deal with Long Feng (who has NO idea who he's fucking with), Aang gave up on mastering the Avatar State to go save Katara from the Teen Girl Squad, and Avatar Roku told Aang that if he was killed in the Avatar State, the Avatar itself would cease to exist. That last bit must have gotten in by accident. There's no way that would in any way be relevant to this episode, or a GLARINGLY BLATANT SPOILER, or anything.
Aang and Sokka have almost made it back to Ba Sing Se, and Sokka would like to know just what kind of danger Katara's in. Aang: "She was chained to a wall. That's all I got." Sokka: "I'm going to start charging you money for being vague." Sokka spots what looks like a roadrunner, zipping across the landscape, but when they get closer they realize it's Toph, still chugging away on her Earth treadmill. When they call out to ask if she needs a ride, she, well, she gets distracted. And crashes. But she is The Motherfucking Toph, Greatest Earthbender in the World, and nothing hurts her. (Also her tears cure cancer.)
Underground somewhere, or at least in a building with no windows, Azula is addressing the Dai Li, basically telling them that nobody trusts them because they are creepy. "This coup must be swift and silent. The Earth King and each of his five generals must be taken out simultaneously." She goes on to say that the very instant she senses weakness, she will "snuff it out". Which means she will kill your ass. I think that one guy just wet himself. Ty Lee offers Azula what I assume is traditional post-terrifying-speech tea, enthusing over how commanding and scary she is. This is not a healthy relationship. Azula says there are still a few loose ends: "The Avatar, and my brother and uncle."
The scene fades to Iroh and Zuko getting out of a carriage in front of the palace. "Many times I imagined myself here," Iroh says. "I always thought I would be here as a conqueror. Instead, we are the Earth King's personal guests, here to serve him tea! Destiny is a funny thing." Right. Funny.
Zuko is still being creepily upbeat, so let's go over here to these guys. Toph asks if Aang's mastered the Avatar State. Aang flashes back on the Guru telling him that if he left, he wouldn't be able to enter the Avatar State at all...and him promptly leaving. Aang: "It went great! I completely mastered the Avatar State! I am all Avatar'd up! Eheheh. Yeah." Oh, Aang. You're a terrible liar. That's why no one liked "The Great Divide".
Back at the palace (I assume we cut away just long enough to avoid an endless walking scene, a la The West Wing), Iroh is pouring tea and Zuko is wondering where the Earth King is. Just as Iroh says he might have overslept, as kings are wont to do, the Dai Li surrounds them. Zuko, who is shown here as his alter ego, Captain Obvious, says something's not ri - SURPRISE IT'S AZULA. Azula very politely introduces her new friends the Dai Li, but Iroh isn't having any of this shit. He came here to serve tea, and someone is by-god going to drink some tea, even if it's him. "Did I ever tell you how I got the nickname 'Dragon of the West'?" He asks, very politely. Azula wants none of his old-people stories, but, as he says, it's more of a demonstration. And, as Zuko kind of smirks and ducks behind him: HOLY SHIT FIRE BREATH. He busts a hole in the wall and he and Zuko run for it, narrowly avoiding getting stabbed to death by Dai Li rock hands. (Incidentally, that is the toy I want. I mean, the glidey stick is cool, but dammit, I WANT ROCK HANDS.) Another hole in the wall (of the palace, which I'm thinking isn't the best plan, though I suppose it beats getting Azula'd), and Iroh jumps into the bushes below. He calls for Zuko to follow, but Zuko says he's tired of running. "It's time I faced Azula!" Iroh: "D'OH." No, seriously. There is facepalm involved. Zuko, you special, special little boy. Azula is more amused than anything: "What, are you going to challenge me to an Agni Kai?" Zuko: "YES!" Azula: "No thanks." Zuko attempts to Firebend at her (with a suspiciously Waterbender-looking move - I think we've seen Katara do it before), but the Dai Li block it with a rock slab before pinning his feet and one of his hands as Azula just walks away. One day, Zuko will realize that Azula is fucking crazy, and there is nothing more terrifying than someone who knows they're fucking crazy.
Three quarters of the Gaang have reached the palace! And the Earth King is reassuring them that Katara is fine. I'm beginning to wonder if this coup is such a bad idea. He tells them that she's off with the Kyoshi Warriors, which Sokka says is a good thing, because Sokka doesn't know any better. Earth King: "Believe me, if there was any danger at all, Bosco's animal instincts would sense it." Bosco: "I'm not speaking to you."
Look, there's Katara! She's in a cave, full of shiny crystals. This doesn't sound familiar at all, does it? She's stomping around in a vaguely annoyed fashion when a pipe opens up and Zuko gets shoved down into the cave with her. Oh, crap, it's Cave of Two Lovers 2: Ship Tease!
But enough of that, let's go over here. The Gaang Minus One has returned to their partially destroyed apartment to find it empty of Katara or the Warriors. Momo's there, though! It slowly dawns on them that maybe the Earth King isn't the most reliable source in the world, and Toph senses someone at the door. And she knows who it is! It's an old friend of hers! Iroh: "I need your help." Sokka and Aang: "MY MIND, SHE IS BLOWN." Toph: "'Sup?" Toph lets him in and he tells them that Azula's in Ba Sing Se. Aang susses that she's got Katara, and when he hears that Zuko's been captured as well, he says they'll work together to rescue them. Sokka: "Woah woah woah woah woah. Woah. No." Iroh tries to convince Sokka that there's good inside Zuko. Sokka: "Why don't you come back when it's outside him, too?" Aang hits Sokka with the logic stick, telling him that working together is their best bet of saving Katara, not to mention the rest of the city and quite possibly the world. Sokka agrees, albeit reluctantly. Aang never had the mad-on for Zuko that Sokka does. Sure, he would prefer if the little angstmuffin hadn't chased him across the planet, but I think he always felt sorry for Zuko more than anything.
Iroh says he has someone with him who can help. It's a Dai Li agent. He has a Dai Li agent, tied up and just sitting on the Gaang's front porch. What the whatting what? Faced with the combined awesome of Toph and Iroh, he promptly shits himself and tells them that Azula's plotting a coup and Katara's being held in the "crystal catacombs of Old Ba Sing Se". Wait, so there's a city under the city? How very Futurama. And then they just leave him there. Just...standing there. I love that for some reason.
Down in the prison, Long Feng has the absolutely adorable notion that he's pulling one over on Azula. The Dai Li agent reporting to him says she's "terrifying and inspirational at the same time". That's because she's fucking crazy.
In the catacombs, Katara is interrogating Zuko, who would really just like to be left alone to sulk about his repeated failure to stand up to his kid sister. Katara decides it's a trap, so that when Aang shows up, he can "finally have him in your little Fire Nation clutches". Zuko: "..." Katara: "You're a terrible person, you know that? [...] You're the Fire Lord's son. Spreading war and violence and hatred is in your blood." She's bitter. I get it. She's been chased around the world and back again by this guy, and now he's shown up again, just when things were starting to look up, and also she's been in a cave for the last few hours. But what she seems to be forgetting here is that the last time she saw Zuko, he was on her side. Against his sister, no less (though does she know that Azula's his sister? I'd think she would, but I can't remember if it's actually been said). She even tried to help him! Though he Firebended at her head in return, so, eh. Zuko speaks up for the first time to tell her she doesn't know what she's talking about. Katara: "YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I'VE GONE THROUGH. The Fire Nation took my mother away from me." Zuko: "That's something we have in common." She looks around in surprise, and...
TOPH. Toph is kneeling on the cobblestones in front of the palace, saying that there is indeed an ancient city underneath it. "But it's deep." So how did she - never mind, I need to accept that her Daredevil powers are as strong as the plot needs them to be. Sokka tells Aang to go with Iroh to look for Katara and the Angry Jerk. Sokka: "No offense." Iroh: "None taken." Sokka and Toph are going to go try to talk sense into the Earth King. Again. Momo jumps in front of Sokka's face here, and it's really strange. Did they mess up his eye and need Momo to block it? I mean, it looks fine to me, but I'm not an animator.
Aang and Iroh make their way down, Aang Earthbending a tunnel and Iroh providing light in the form of a small flame. Aang: "Sooo....Toph says you give pretty good advice. And great tea!" Iroh: "The key to both is proper aging." Hee. I don't know why that makes me grin like it does, but it does. Aang asks Iroh if he was right in not giving up Katara in exchange for phenomenal cosmic power. Iroh says he thinks he was, but Aang is worried he might have given up his only chance at beating Azula. Iroh: "I don't know the answer. Sometimes life is like this dark tunnel: You can't always see the light at the end of the tunnel, but if you just keep moving - " And Aang Earthbends through the last of the rock. "You will come to a better place." Indeed. God, that's gorgeous.
Sokka and Toph make their way up the way-too-many steps of the palace, spotting General
Long Feng, looking delightfully smug, announces that this is the part where he double-crosses her. He orders the Dai Li to arrest her, but they don't. Long Feng: "OBEY ME, DAMMIT." Azula: "They're waiting to see who comes out on top. Of course, I always top." Azula summarily tears Long Feng into tiny, bite-sized chunks, telling him she can see his whole life in his eyes, that he's had to struggle and connive (vocabulary points!) and claw his way up. "But true power - the divine right to rule - is something you're born with." She says the Dai Li are hesitating because they don't know who's going to be on the throne and who's going to be kneeling at their feet. "But I know. And you know." And Azula goes right on over and sits on the throne. "Well?" Long Feng, sweating profusely at this point, falls to his knees. "You've beaten me at my own game." Azula: "Don't flatter yourself! You were never even a player."
Let's sum up, shall we? The fourteen-year-old psychopath just reduced a grown-ass man to kneeling at her overly pointed boots. Hell with that, she did it to LEX LUTHOR.
Cave of Shiptease. Katara apologizes for being a raging bitch. "It's just that, for so long now, when I pictured the face of the enemy...it was your face." Zuko somehow gets the idea that she means his scar, but when she tries to explain he says it's fine, he's sort of used to it. "I used to think this scar marked me. [...] But lately, I've realized I'm free to determine my own destiny. Even if I'll never be free of my mark." Katara says that maybe he could be, because of her magical Waterbendery healing shenanigans. "It's a scar," Zuko says, with the air of telling someone that water is wet. "It can't be healed." Katara: "It can with magic spirit water. Ass." She reaches up to touch his scar, and SURPRISE WALL EXPLOSION. Aang and Iroh bust into the cave, Aang giving Zuko what is probably one of the cutest glares in existence. Zuko glares back, as it only polite. Katara's glad Aang came to rescue her, while Zuko is highly concerned that his Uncle appears to have sided with the enemy. Iroh tells Aang and Katara to go help the others, while he and Zuko are going to have what I call a Come t'Jesus Meetin'. (You can't put the "g" on the end, it just doesn't work.)
Iroh tells Zuko that he's stronger and wiser and freer than he's ever been. "And now you have come to the crossroads of your destiny." Oh hey. "It's time for you to choose. It's time for you to choose good." I know what he means, but that sentence just kind of sounds like he meant to say "well". Azula: "SURPRISE MONKEY WRENCH IN YOUR PLANS." The Dai Li trap Iroh in a bunch of crystals and Azula comes striding in saying she didn't expect this kind of treachery out of Zuko. Did you miss the part where he tried to Agni Kai with you? "You're a lot of things, but you're not a traitor...are you?" She says there's still a chance for him to redeem himself, while Iroh yells not to listen. This is getting kinda familiar, doncha think? Azula says at the end of the day, if he sides with her, he'll have his honor back, as well as his father's love. Iroh tells him to look into his heart and find what it is he truly wants, but I'm already facepalming because Zuko doesn't know what he wants. He knows what he thinks he wants, which is a horse of a radically different color. Azula sends the Dai Li off and walks away, saying he's free to choose. A shot of his uninjured side, then of his scar. It's one of the most blatantly symbolic scar shots we've gotten, but my problem is I never quite figured out which side was supposed to be symbolic of what. Especially here, where he's facing a turning point - a crossroads, if you'll allow me to belabor the metaphor. The scar represents how he's been hurt, both physically and emotionally, but could also be a symbol of having survived that hurt. His uninjured side could be how he should be, whole and unmarked, or it could be his past self, eyes not yet opened to the world. (Of course, if we're going to go with eye metaphors and the fact that Zuko can't open his burnt eye all the way - *throws hands up* METAPHORS, GAH.)
So, guess what Azula walked off to do? Avatar-hunt, what else? She attacks Aang and Katara, who spend a few minutes drying to drown her, but she seems to be taking Screw Gravity 101 from Ty Lee. A brief Mexican standoff and - SURPRISE BAD DECISIONS. Zuko, suddenly and inexplicably sleeveless, comes in to aid either one side or the other, and Aang seems to know in the split second before he fires who he's teaming up with. (Seriously, that might be one of the most poignant wordless gasps on this show.) They split the fight along gender lines as Zuko fires repeatedly and a little bit desperately at Aang.
Down in the jail cells, Toph asks if there's any sign of the Dai Li. When Sokka gives her the all clear, she Metalbends the door off the hinges so forcefully it bounces around the hall. They take off, the King insisting he's not leaving without Bosco.
Enough of that, there's a fight going on. Aang shows off a trick we haven't seen before - firing a person-shaped gust of wind at Zuko hard enough to send him flying. He lands on top of a crystal formation and Zuko fires what appears to be a small missile at him. This is getting into Street Fighter territory, you guys. Aang Bends the crystal into a shield, but it's not enough, and while he's recovering Zuko busts out double fire whips. Great big ones, too, that Aang jumps around avoiding. It's like double-dutch, but in hell.
Meanwhile, Katara sends a wall of water at Azula that all but the tips of her hair avoid - and those are promptly sheared off.
BUT BACK TO ZUKO. (Show, I understand that we need to know what the others are doing. Can we having them doing something for more than THIRTEEN SECONDS AT A TIME?) Aang is running around kicking stalactites at Zuko like he's a gimmicky video game boss fight, and one eventually throws him back into a bunch of crystals, probably giving him a concussion. Knocks the wind out of him, at least. Azula gets an arm and a leg trapped by Katara's...water...tentacles...but Zuko busts her out as Aang crawls out of a crater of his own making with a groan that sounds like it translates to "I did not think that through." Azula goes after him and Zuko goes in for what I'm pretty sure is Round Three with Katara. They fling their respective whips across the canal dealie, Katara screaming that she thought Zuko had changed. Zuko says he has, though what that means is anybody's guess.
Azula vs. Aang! Azula decides that she's a rocketship now, propelling herself at Aang at ludicrous speed. Aang wraps himself in crystal and does the same, resulting in him getting himself thrown into the side of what used to be a building.
And now we're in the palace again. I'm going to duct-tape the Gaang together so they can never split the party like this again. Sokka, Toph, and the Earth King bust into the throne room as Ty Lee is walking on her hands (in an attempt to teach Bosco to do it) and Toph traps her hands and feet, leaving her in a back-bend that's going to hurt like hell after a while. Mai decides that the bear isn't worth the trouble and tells them to just take it, which they do.
Zuko is still trying to deep-fry Katara, but it's not really that effective until Azula joins in, and Katara gets smashed into some crystals. Know what would have made this fight really interesting? If the crystals exploded. Seriously, it'd be like a Michael Bay film in here. Aang is displeased with this turn of events, and goes shooting across the cavern on a mound of rock until SURPRISE DAI LI AGENT. Aang gets knocked off his earthy mount and they get surrounded, Katara using the Octopus Form to defend herself. There's four million Dai Li agents, Zuko, and Azula, who just knocks the entire thing into Nightmare Mode all by herself. Aang hears the Guru's voice - the only way is to let her go. Aang: "...I'm sorry, Katara." He makes himself a crystal teepee (never mind that these same crystals have been easily shattered by a well-placed blast of fire several times already) and takes a meditative pose, centering himself in that big purple orb from earlier, and enters the Avatar State.
...I thought the Guru said he wouldn't be able to enter the Avatar State if he didn't open the last chakra right then? I call shenanigans!
Anyway, everyone is sufficiently cowed by the light show Aang's got going on...except Azula, who Lightningbends him right in the back. The glow fades. Giant Purple Cosmic Aang falls over. Real World Aang heads straight for the ground, Katara's eyes filling with tears as he falls. She conjures up a tidal wave to get across the cavern, toppling Zuko and several rows of Dai Li agents in the process, and catches him before he lands. As she sits there, horror-struck, in her Pieta pose, Zuko and Azula advance on her. SURPRISE IROH CAME BACK. He jumps between Katara and the others, telling her to get out, and that he'll hold them off as long as he can. He does indeed fend them off, even as he's getting beaned with rocks, as Katara uses a nearby waterfall to get to the surface. (Watervator just doesn't have the same ring to it as Earthavator, sorry.) He surrenders as soon as they're safe, getting himself encased in crystal for the second time that day. Azula couldn't be more pleased. Zuko...is slightly more conflicted, and Iroh can't even look at him right now.
As Appa flies them the hell out of Dodge, Katara uses her spirit water on Aang's lightning scar, and his arrow glows briefly as he wakes up. They have an echo how they first met - Aang in a state of newly-undead grogginess, and Katara smiling down at him.
Azula is in the Earth King's throne, Zuko at her side. "It's taken a hundred years, but the Fire Nation has conquered Ba Sing Se." Zuko is more fixated on having betrayed Iroh. Azula tells him he'll be welcomed home as a war hero, but he's just concerned about the fact that he doesn't have the Avatar. To be fair, I think they both think he's dead. Azula tells him he restored his own honor, and he turns away for another one of these shots - okay, so the scar is in shadow, which makes it the bad, right? And the uninjured side being in the light makes it the good. But that could just be how Zuko sees it, again with the scar representing pain. Being a film major ruined me for television forever.
The Earth King looks back as Appa flies away from Ba Sing Se. "The Earth Kingdom...has fallen."
Okay, here's the deal. Avasnark is taking a two-month break. I'm doing this for three reasons.
1.) To recharge my batteries. Recapping has been coming slower and slower, and it's because I'm burnt out. I'm much less familiar with the third book, having only seen it once, so hopefully it'll feel more like new ground instead of retreading the conversations I had in fandom about the second book.
2.) To launch a couple of projects that have been tugging at me and adding to the difficulty of recapping. Given my ADHD nature, recapping when my brain is going over a new idea is akin to having class the day a movie comes out. "I'm doing this BUT I WANT TO BE DOING THAT". That kind of thing. So getting a couple of them out of the theoretical stage will help.
TL;DR: Book Three will start APRIL 18TH, if I've got my calendar straight. See you then.