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"Bitter Work" is the ninth episode of Book Two: Earth of Avatar: The Last Airbender and the 29th of the overall series. It debuted on June 2, 2006.


Aang finally begins his earthbending training with Toph, but loses confidence in himself when he encounters difficulty with the earth element, the natural opposite of air. While Toph is teaching, Sokka becomes stuck in a hole and spends the whole day trapped. The group begins to get worried and searches for him. Aang is the one to find Sokka and is forced to save him from a saber-tooth moose lion. Toph uses the situation to prove that Aang has the attitude and mindset required to learn earthbending. Meanwhile, Iroh resumes his firebending instruction with Zuko, showing him how to re-direct lightning in an attempt to better equip him to fight Azula.


In a rocky quarry within the southeastern Earth Kingdom, Aang awakes from his sleep, excited that today is the day he will finally commence his earthbending training with Toph, waking up a weary Katara and a cranky Sokka in the process. After Toph also awakens, bursting from her stone tent, Aang greets her as his sifu; however, the formal greeting makes Katara jealous, considering Aang has never referred to her as such. The Avatar enthusiastically questions what high-level techniques he is to learn first, only to have Toph reply that they will start by learning simply how to move a rock.

As the tutelage begins, Toph imparts to Aang that the key to earthbending is a firm, steady stance. She continues to tell him that because rock is a stubborn element, one must essentially be "like a rock" in order to move it. She demonstrates the actual motion by sending a rock into a wall. Believing to have grasped the basic concept, Aang attempts to emulate her, but ends up blasting the rock with air and propelling himself backward into Appa, leading Sokka to remark that "rock beats airbender."

On a grassy hill, a much younger Iroh runs past a tree, being chased by his now-dead son, Lu Ten. Lu Ten imitates a firebending motion with his hands, which Iroh playfully pretends to get hit by and falls to the ground. Lu Ten falls on top of him and the two share a warm laugh. Years later, an older Iroh kneels in the rain before Lu Ten's grave set under the same tree, telling his beloved son that he will see him again. Iroh awakens from his dream to find his nephew Zuko watching over him within a partially destroyed home not too far from the previously visited deserted town.

Zuko explains to Iroh that he was knocked unconscious after a surprise attack by Azula. After serving him some tea, Zuko goes on to state that he has contemplated the situation and has come to realize that it is only a matter of time before they encounter Azula once more. He feels the need to learn more advanced firebending techniques if he is to stand a chance against his sister. Much to Zuko's surprise, his uncle agrees with him and decides it is time to resume their training.

Toph teaches Aang

Toph teaches Aang earthbending.

Back at the quarry, both Katara and Aang are perplexed as to why he was not able to move the boulder, as he executed exactly the same motion as Toph. Aang suggests trying to find an alternate solution such as coming at the rock from a different angle, but Toph explains that his thinking like an airbender is precisely the problem, since earthbending requires a simple, head-on approach rather than a clever, elaborate solution. As Aang shows signs of being unsure of himself, Katara takes Toph aside to explain that as his waterbending teacher, she has come to notice that Aang responds well to positive teaching methods, which includes plenty of encouragement, praise, kind words, and "a gentle nudge in the right direction" if he is doing something wrong. After thanking Katara for her advice, Toph proceeds to engage Aang in several rigorous activities involving earth, including carrying a heavy boulder on his back, punching solid rock, and balancing on stone columns, yelling at him to be more "rock-like" all the way. After a few initial failures, Aang gradually starts to become successful with the many different training activities.

While the others oversee Aang's training, Sokka goes hunting alone in a small forest near the quarry. Hiding in a tree, he spots a small, cute, but unidentifiable creature. Sokka casually states that even though the creature is cute, it also happens to be made of meat. Once it is close enough, he jumps down from the tree to deliver a killing blow; however, he falls through a crevice straight into the ground, becoming buried up to his waist in the earth. He tries attacking the creature again, but this causes him to sink further into the ground. Now buried up to his neck and deprived of the use of his arms, Sokka is unable to do anything but wait.

Meanwhile, Iroh explains to his nephew the essence of lightning and how a firebender can come to engender it. Lightning, or the "cold-blooded fire" as some call it, is a pure expression of the elemental art and completely without aggression, contrasting with the other forms of firebending. Much like his sister Azula, it is precise and deadly and performing lightning generation requires having peace of mind.

Iroh generates lightning

Iroh generates lightning.

Outside the decrepit building, Iroh continues with his lecture and explains when positive energy, yang, and negative energy, yin, are separated, they create an imbalance, and only a select few firebenders can separate the energies. When the different energies recombine to restore the balance, they come crashing back together, creating lightning. The role of the firebender is to provide release and guidance, not command it, thus creating lightning. Iroh successfully demonstrates by releasing a massive stream of lightning into the distance. Taken aback, Zuko states that he is ready to try it. Though he is able to mimic his uncle's motions, rather than lightning, he instead creates a fiery explosion that throws him backward.

At the canyon, Toph decides to take a change of pace. She informs Aang that instead of moving a stationary rock, he will instead stop a moving one. After blindfolding Aang, Toph rolls a huge boulder down a steep slope straight toward him. Sensing the boulder rolling closer and closer, Aang panics at the last second and jumps over the rock. His dismay is only made worse by Toph, who berates him for his extreme passiveness and calling him a jelly-boned wimp. Katara tries to console a disappointed Aang by offering to help him work on his waterbending.

Rock on slope

Aang's earthbending test requires him to stop the boulder.

Becoming enraged as well as frustrated over being unsuccessful with lightning, Zuko comments on how it just keeps blowing up in his face, like "everything always does." Iroh concludes that Zuko's inner turmoil is hampering him from creating lightning, and that he will never be able to master the art until he lets go of his feelings of shame. Denouncing the notion, Zuko tells his uncle he is as proud as ever, though Iroh corrects him by noting that pride is not the opposite of shame, but rather its source. As opposed to continuing the lightning generation lessons, Iroh offers to teach Zuko a firebending move of his own invention.

Still stuck in the crack, Sokka scornfully converses with the moose lion. He relates that he truly does not have anything against the creature; hunting and eating meat has simply been a part of his nature. However, he states that he has convinced himself to lead a "karmically correct" vegetarian existence if he can get out of this alive, but he remains trapped inside the crevice.

In a marsh, Aang and Katara practice moving a small mass of water around and between each other. Katara reminds Aang that the block can only be temporary and tries to persuade Aang to face the issue instead of avoiding it. Aang, on the other hand, feels too dejected to even talk about his problem, let alone face it. He also expresses frustration and confusion as to why he cannot seem to do it. Katara relays her belief that because Aang is working with his opposite element, earth, it is especially hard for him. She also holds to the belief he will figure it out in the end. Katara surprises Aang by abruptly breaking off and hurling a reed at him, but Aang is able to use a wave of water to cleanly slice the reed into two halves just before it hits him. Katara congratulates Aang for having the reflexes of a waterbending master. Aang in turn bows and thanks her, affectionately addressing his teacher as "Sifu Katara", as a touched Katara bows back.

Iroh gives further detail about the four nations to Zuko and says that the Fire Nation symbolizes power and desire; the Earth Kingdom symbolizes endurance and diversity; the Air Nomads symbolize freedom from worldly concerns and adds that they also had pretty good senses of humor; and the Water Tribes symbolize love and community, especially in the face of change. He explains that people can gain wisdom by understanding each other. If wisdom is drawn from only one place, it becomes rigid and stale. Zuko interjects that this is beginning to allude toward the Avatar. Iroh goes on to claim that it is the combination of the four elements in one person that makes the Avatar so powerful, and that it can do the same for him. To punctuate his point, Iroh reveals that he created his special technique by studying the waterbenders.

Four nations' symbols drawing

Iroh draws the emblems of the four nations.

At sundown, Toph again taunts Aang by abusing his staff, using it as a nutcracker. She walks away, unopposed by Aang, as Katara arrives, worried by the fact that Sokka has not yet returned. Aang and Katara split up to search for him.

Desperate, Sokka is prepared to give up meat and sarcasm in order to escape from the crack in the ground as well as to change his karma. He abruptly abandons all ideas of reformation, however, when Aang suddenly finds him: Sokka immediately asks Aang if he has any meat. Aang attempts to use airbending to free him, but it proves to be ineffective. Sokka asks for earthbending to be used to free him, but Aang sadly says he cannot. Sokka requests Aang to bring Toph to help him, but the latter describes the notion as uncomfortable. He goes on to share with Sokka his feelings toward learning earthbending and the pressure he feels, with Sokka interjecting dry, deeply sarcastic responses along the way, all of which Aang seems to miss. Suddenly, the critter, whom Sokka introduces as Foo Foo Cuddlypoops, returns, and Aang identifies it as a saber-tooth moose lion cub. Aang asks the cub if he had lost his mother. In a moment, the fully grown mother of the cub arrives, furious, as she assumes that the boys stole her cub.

Iroh begins to teach Zuko how to redirect lightning and explains that the lightning goes through one arm, into the stomach, and out through the other arm. They practice the hand motion to feel the pathway. When Zuko thinks he has mastered it, he demands that Uncle Iroh strike him with lightning. However, Iroh refuses because of the possibility of hurting his nephew, stating that if he is lucky he will never have to use the technique. Gazing at the dark clouds approaching, Zuko states to his uncle that he will "find [his] own lightning", before riding off.

The mother saber-tooth moose lion roars and charges at Aang and Sokka. Aang initially tries to avoid the beast and distract it away from Sokka, but all that serves to do is leave Sokka open for attack. Determined not to leave his friend again, Aang stands his ground before the crack as he faces another of the mother's charges head-on. With a strong gust of air, he manages to blow back the beast, which loses interest and walks away. Toph, who was silently observing the conflict, claps and half-heartedly congratulates Aang and continues cracking nuts with his staff. Incensed that she callously stood by and did nothing while Sokka's life was in danger, Aang forcefully demands that she return his staff. Toph says that Aang is thinking like an earthbender by standing his ground and orders him to move the rock again. When Aang is successfully moves the rock, Toph deems him to be a true earthbender. Aang offers to remove Sokka from the crack, but Toph, not wanting to risk accidentally crushing Sokka, drags him out of the hole herself.

Aang earthbends

Aang is finally able to earthbend.

Aang, Toph, and Sokka eventually make their way back to the campsite and reunite with Katara, Appa, and Momo, with Katara being relieved that her brother is safe. Sokka tells them that being in trapped in the fissure so long gave him time to think and he came to a realization. Before he can go any further, he is interrupted by Aang, who wants to show off his new skill to Katara. After witnessing Aang's newly acquired earthbending ability, Katara takes Toph aside and questions if she tried the positive reinforcement. Toph replies that she did, adding that it "worked wonders." Aang then tells Appa that he can earthbend now and that the key is to remain unmovable. He tries to show Appa how unmovable he is, only for the flying bison to move him with ease, much to the amusement of everyone else.

Standing alone at the top of a mountain, Zuko yells defiantly into the raging thunderstorm as lightning crackles overhead. He challenges the storm to strike him, yelling that he can take whatever it throws at him and that it has "never held back before". The storm does not oblige, however, and Zuko falls to his knees in tears, crying out in anguish.


Production notes[]


Main article: Transcript:Bitter Work

Avatar Extras[]

Main article: Avatar Extras for Book Two: Earth

Series continuity[]

  • Roku refers to his training in the element opposite to his own as "bitter work",[1] though the phrase is never actually uttered in this episode, despite its title.
  • Prior to this episode, Iroh had used his lightning redirection technique twice before on screen: once to defend Zuko's ship from an actual lightning bolt[2] and again to block a lightning attack Azula aimed at Zuko.[3]
  • In the episode "The Day of Black Sun, Part 2: The Eclipse", Zuko is finally able to use the lightning redirection technique he learns here.
  • The dance Aang performs to distract the mother saber-tooth moose lion from charging Sokka is the same one he performs in "The Deserter".
  • This is the episode where Zuko first learns how to redirect lightning, which he later teaches to Aang in "Sozin's Comet, Part 1: The Phoenix King".
  • As of this episode, Aang has consciously bent all four elements.
  • Iroh warns Zuko that allowing the lightning to pass through your heart can be deadly. In "Sozin's Comet, Part 3: Into the Inferno", Azula fires lightning at Katara and Zuko jumps in the way. He attempts to redirect the lightning, but it passes through his heart and he falls to the ground.
  • This is the first episode in which Iroh is actually seen generating his lightning himself. Prior to this episode he was only seen redirecting it. Iroh's lightning will be seen one more time, generated offscreen, in "The Crossroads of Destiny" to break down a wall while trying to escape the Dai Li. He has never been seen using it in combat.


  • When Toph shoots Sokka into the air using earthbending, the rock she uses is directly beneath him, but in the next frame, it is missing.
  • When Toph is lecturing Aang about thinking like an airbender, she pushes him to the ground away from Katara, but in the next frame, when Toph breaks the rock with her head, Aang is standing next to Katara.
  • While Aang is tossing a rock up and down, he is shown barefoot. In the next frame, Aang has his boots on.
  • When Toph was forming her rock suit to charge at Aang, the hair covering her face disappears for a panel.
  • Also when forming the rock suit, Toph leaves her eyes uncovered despite her blindness.
  • When Aang is using Sokka's club for his earthbending training, he uses his belt as a blindfold, but there was another belt on his waist. In the next frame it is gone. The same thing happens when Toph rolls a rock downhill at Aang.
  • When Toph is yelling at Aang and Katara offers to work on waterbending with him, her wristband disappears for one shot.
  • When Aang and Katara are training in the lagoon; Katara reaches behind her back to break off a the water plant to throw at Aang and the top of her braid briefly disappears as the camera pans down to show her action.
  • When Iroh is teaching Zuko lightning redirection and tells him that he should not let the lightning pass through his heart, he points to his right lung, not his left one.
  • When Toph is seen eating nuts while taunting Aang, Momo is on her right wrist in which she is holding nuts, but when she walks away in the next frame, Momo is sitting on her shoulder and she is carrying a bag with that hand.
  • When Aang finds Sokka stuck in the ground, Sokka's club and boomerang are to his left, but after Aang drives the saber-tooth moose lion away, both are missing.
  • After Aang earthbends, Sokka, who was previously standing next to Katara, suddenly disappears and is replaced by Toph.
  • While fighting Aang, Toph creates a rock suit with a cutout for eyes. As Toph is blind, this cutout was originally designed to be a breathing hole around her mouth, however, the mistake "slipped" past the team during retakes and made it into the final episode.[4]
  • When Aang earthbends for the first time after taking his staff back from Toph, the staff disappears.


  • In "The Avatar and the Fire Lord", Avatar Roku refers to mastering all four elements as "bitter work".
    • Additionally, in an interview with AvatarSpirit.net, Sifu Kisu referred to martial arts training in the old-school Chinese tradition as "bitter work".[5]
  • This is the first time Aang earthbends outside of the Avatar State.
  • When Toph was using Aang's staff as a nut cracker to get him to fight back, Aang claimed that it was a "delicate instrument" and an "antique handcrafted by the monks". Despite this, Aang has been seen using his staff for much more demanding tasks, such as when he used it to break a metal chain he had frozen in ice.[6]
  • This is the third episode in which Zuko cries.
  • While talking about airbenders, Iroh says, "Also apparently they had pretty good senses of humor." This is exemplified by Gyatso who is seen pulling pranks on others twice: first in "The Southern Air Temple" when Gyatso and Aang shot cakes at meditating Air Nomads, and second in "The Storm" when Gyatso airbent Aang's hood over his eyes and swapped the places of Pai Sho pieces during their game.
  • The title refers to both Aang training with earthbending, and Zuko training with lightning. Due to their natures, it is very hard for both of them.
  • The term Sifu used by Aang to greet Toph and later Katara is a Cantonese word meaning "teacher" or "master".
  • In this episode, Katara suggests Aang has trouble with earthbending because earth and air are opposites; however, in the The Legend of Korra episode "A Leaf in the Wind", Tenzin specifies that the Avatar has the most trouble with the element that is the most opposite of their personality, which can, but does not have to be, the natural opposite element.
  • In The Legend of Korra episode "The Calling", Toph summarizes the events of this episode by saying, "I threw some rocks at the Avatar, he got all whiny, and Sokka fell in a hole."