Opinionated Guide to Avatar: The Last Airbender


The Desert

You muzzled Appa?!
Aang, right before going into the Avatar State

This episode functions as something of two parter with the previous episode. But it's not about one contiguous story; it's two stories that happen chronologically back-to-back. So I'm reviewing them as separate pieces.

The episode begins where the last one ended. Aang immediately jumps down Toph's throat for letting Appa get captured. He accuses her of never liking Appa; Aang is needlessly and uncharacteristically viscous about this.

For Toph's part, she tries defending herself against the accusations, but she's clearly been deflated by this. And that's something that deserves inspection.

This is the first time that we've seen, and quite possibly in Toph's life, where Toph was weak. Where things were happening and there was nothing she could do about it. Where she was really blind. And how does she respond? She loses her characteristic boundless confidence. She feels vulnerable, and she withdraws into herself.

Back to the episode. Aang decides to fly off to look for Appa. By himself, leaving the rest of the Gaang to start walking in a random direction.

Cut to Zuko and Iroh. Remember them? They're riding their Chocobo when they are accosted by those Fire Nation guys from Avatar Day. After some introduction and banter, Zuko and Iroh dispatch them and flee. Since those were old friends of Iroh, Zuko asks if he has any old friends that don't want to kill them.

Cut back to the Gaang in the desert. After a bit of hijinks, Sokka sees a cactus and drinks the fluids inside it. I'm going to ignore the fact that Sokka was raised in the south pole and should have little to no knowledge of cactii or what they might contain. After having a drink, he goes on a drug-fueled hallucination trip. Oh good, because we haven't had enough of Sokka being the butt of the joke.

Cut to Aang looking for Appa. He blows his bison whistle, but Appa doesn't answer. He eventually lands and, in a fit of rage, airbending-slams into the ground, raising a large mushroom cloud. We get a shot of the Gaang seeing the cloud, some Komedy! with Sokka, and that's it.

Cut to the ice oasis from last episode. We see Master Wu and Xin Fu (Bending Mc Mahan), looking for Toph as instructed by Toph's father. They found out that the Gaang went out into the desert. They see Zuko and Iroh, and Xin Fu recognizes them from a wanted poster.

Cut back to the Gaang. Aang shows up, but is being very defeatist, saying that they're all going to die without Appa. Everyone is willing to give up, except for Katara. She gets them all to keep marching, holding hands to keep everyone going.

Eventually, they decide to stop and rest. After a bit of Komedy!, Katara asks Sokka for some of the maps he swiped from the library. And I can no longer ignore this point.

This is a Katara episode. And that's fine. The episode is primarily about how Katara keeps them together. Also fine. The problem is one simple fact: about half of the stuff Katara does in this episode is stuff Sokka would do. She's going to use the maps of the stars to point them in the way of Ba Sing Se. Even though the stars rotate at night, and thus cannot possibly point them in a single direction (the North Star works because it doesn't rotate relative to the Earth). But that can be ignored for the sake of the story.

What cannot be ignored is that Sokka ought to be doing that. Indeed, in a bit of Komedy! in a future episode, the Gaang will be functionally incapable of reading maps without Sokka (an episode written by the same guy who wrote this one, no less). This is clearly Sokka-territory that Katara is encroaching on.

Sokka would be doing all of this, if he weren't hallucinating. And that's why that silly little sub-plot exists; to deliberately sideline Sokka (in the most idiotic and Komedic! way possible, of course) so that Katara can come to the forefront.

Pushing one character down to elevate another? Yeah, I'm not really a fan of that sort of thing.

Anyway, Katara tells them to try to get some sleep. They'll be walking at night and resting in the day.

Cut to Iroh and Zuko in a bar. Iroh sees an old guy sitting at a Pai Sho table, and decides to have a game. Xin Fu and Master Yu are watching. Xin Fu is impatient, wanting to attack in the middle of the bar, but Master Yu cautions that if the other patrons found out that they were after wanted men, they might have to fight through all of them to collect.

Iroh sits down. He places the white lotus tile (remember? From like 20 episodes ago?) in the center of the board, and his opponent calls this the "White Lotus Gambit." It is apparently one of the "old ways." Iroh says that those who cling to the old ways can always find a friend.

Then the two rapidly start making moves, ultimately forming the shape of the white lotus tile across the board. The opponent then says, "Welcome, brother. The white lotus opens wide for those who know her secrets."

Xin Fu then decides to interrupt. Iroh's opponent decides to interfere and let on that they are wanted criminals with a large bounty on their heads.

Cue the bar fight. This exists primarily to sell Xin Fu and Master Yu as being credible threats (not that it will ultimately matter). Zuko and Iroh slip out in the chaos.

Cut back to the Gaang. Katara wakes everyone up. Aang sees what he thinks is Appa in the sky, but it turns out to be a cloud. Katara tells Aang to fly up to collect the cloud a water. But the cloud doesn't have much water in it, and Aang gets pissed off when Katara simply mentions this fact.

So they walk along. Toph accidentally kicks the tip of a boat that has been buried in the sand. Apparently, Toph-Vision is so good, all she needs is incidental, unexpected, and painful contact with the wooden boat in order to see that it is a boat (and since when has she ever even seen a boat to begin with?). Aang uses airbending to dig it up, and they see that it is a sandbender ship. One that is apparently in good order. It even has a compass that points... somewhere.

With Aang powering the sails, they go off to find what the compass is pointing to. Which, if it were a real compass would be north. Magellan, Katara is not.

Cut back to Iroh, Zuko, and the other guy in a flower shop. The other guy exposites that Iroh is a "Grand Lotus," a high ranking member of the Order of the White Lotus. Zuko asks if they're going to get any actual help. So Iroh and the other guy go into a back room, after Iroh provides a counter-phrase. Zuko can't go in, so he waits in the flower shop.

Cut to the Gaang on the boat. The compass is pointing at a large rock formation, which makes Toph very happy. Katara hopes to find water; Aang hopes to find sandbenders. And the way he says this and looks makes it very clear that his intentions are not pleasant.

They climb to the top of the stone mesa, which has some caves in it. There's some slime on the side of the walls of the cave, which Sokka, his head clearing from his drugs, decides to taste. Katara wisely calls him out on this nonsense. Toph's Toph-Vision says that something's coming for them, and oh look: it's a bunch of giant Vulture-Wasps.

Toph has some problems fighting flying things, since they're, you know, flying. During the fight, Momo is taken by a wasp, and Aang angrily goes after it, declaring that he won't lose anyone else. Meanwhile, Katara is able to act as Toph's eyes, pointing in directions to attack. Sure, why not.

Aang is able to free Momo, but he doesn't let the wasp escape. He sends an airbending attack that knocks it from the sky. At first, I thought he decapitated it (the hit is seen from far away), but it's head was still attached. Even so, even if it didn't kill it, Aang clearly went for a kill-shot. The look on Aang's face afterwards shows neither pity nor remorse.

As a group of wasps surround the rest of the Gaang, great pillars of sand attack the wasps, sending them away. As the sand clears, we can see that a bunch of sandbenders have arrived.

Cut back to Zuko. The pair are going to Ba Sing Se. There are many refugees there already, so they will stay hidden. And it's safe from the Fire Nation. Well, until Sozin's Comet comes, of course; then the walls will be broken and it'll be taken. Their attempt to escape is interrupted when someone reports that Xin Fu and Master Yu are still looking for Zuko and Iroh.

Cut back to the Gaang, Aang having rejoined the group off-screen. The head sandbender asks where they got their sandbender ship from, and they tell the truth; in the desert. Katara says that they're traveling with the Avatar and their bison was stolen.

This causes the head sandbender's son, Gashuin, to start getting defensive, saying that the Gaang is accusing them of theft. His father points out that they said no such thing. Every time Gashuin speaks, we get a shot of one of Toph's blind eyes and an ear. She then says that she recognizes Gashuin's voice, that he was part of the group that stole Appa. Toph says that she never forgets a voice.

Of course she doesn't. Because she's blind.

See, artists? You don't have to go off model to show someone's off their nut.

Aang, finally able to unleash his rage at someone who actually deserves it, demands to know where Appa is. Gashuin then accuses them of being the theives. So Aang destroys one of their sand-ships. When he turns around and again asks where his bison is, he looks positively demonic.

We interrupt this scene to bring you a bit of Komedy!, where Iroh and Zuko escape from Xin Fu and Master Yu using some large flowerpots. Dejected, they decide to go back to hunting down Toph.

Back to Aang. He destroys another sand-ship. When Gashuin says that he didn't do it, Toph says that he said to put a muzzle on Appa.

Um, no he didn't. He didn't speak at all; not on camera anyway. Would it have been that hard to have these scenes in what we saw of Appa's capture? So that the audience could have a chance of recognizing the voice along with Toph? This is cheating.

Anyway, the thought of Appa being muzzled sends Aang into a homicidal rage. He speaks the page quote and enters the Avatar State. The look on Gashuin's face is all that needs to be said. And it's pretty damn scary when Aang starts demanding to know where Appa is in that thousand-voices thing he does.

Sokka eventually realizes that Aang's going nuclear and tells everyone to clear out. As the winds start swirling around, Katara walks through and hugs him down. The end.

This is a pretty good episode. We start with a nice bit of Toph characterization (though it doesn't really carry through to the end. It peters out into being about her not being able to see well). And even having Sokka get roughly shoved aside so that Katara can have the spotlight can be overlooked (it's certainly far from the worst instance of Katara-theft of a plotline). The stuff with Aang is what really sells the episode.

Aang is human here. Everyone he knows was killed off. Everything he's ever loved is dead. He has precisely two things from his old life (which for him was just a few months ago): his staff and Appa. And now Appa's gone. It might seem superficially over-the-top, but Aang has consistently been rather clingy about his Gaang. And this is simply the ultimate expression of that characterization.


I agree that it's great to see Aang's abandonment issues come to the fore. This was a great bit of character building.
BonsaiForest 24th Oct 11