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Recap / Avatar: The Last Airbender "The Desert"

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The Si Wong Desert takes its toll on the Gaang as they're forced to navigate without Appa.

"What are you doing?"
"Trying to keep everyone together."
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Picking up from the events of the previous episode, the Gaang are forced to make their way out of the Si Wong Desert on foot. Aang is depressed and enraged over the loss of Appa, Toph is blind in the sand, and Sokka and Momo end up on a Mushroom Samba after drinking liquid from the inside of a cactus, leaving Katara to hold the team together single-handedly. Eventually, they find one of the boat... ish craft the local Sandbenders use to get around and are then confronted by the very Sandbenders who stole Appa. Toph recognizes this fact by their voices, which pushes Aang's Berserk Button. While just about everyone flees the wrath of the Avatar State, Katara advances into the gale and administers a Cooldown Hug. The episode ends with the two of them weeping in each other's arms.

Meanwhile, Iroh and Zuko are ambushed by the Rough Rhinos last seen in "Avatar Day." When Zuko asks Iroh if he has any friends that aren't trying to kill him, Iroh leads them to the Misty Palms Oasis in search of an old friend. This man, Fung, is sitting at a pai sho table, and the two create the icon of a lotus blossom on the board. This is evidently a secret handshake of some sort for "The Order of the White Lotus," which Uncle Iroh is a high-ranking member of, and Fung helps smuggle the two to Ba Sing Se—right under the noses of Xin Fu and Master Yu, Toph's pursuers, who have decided to engage in a little bounty-hunting on the side.

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Tropes:

  • All Deserts Have Cacti: Sokka and Momo get high off of one, but it's the only one they see.
  • Bad-Guy Bar: The bar at the Misty Palms Oasis.
  • Bar Brawl: Incited by Fung to provide Iroh and Zuko with an escape from Yu and Xin Fu.
  • Berserk Button: "You MUZZLED APPA?!?!" Aang's pure rage at that statement is enough to get him into the Avatar State.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Throughout this episode, Aang, who is normally playful and kindhearted, gets progressively angrier and more frustrated over losing Appa. It gets so bad that the Avatar State is triggered upon hearing Appa was muzzled by the Sandbenders.
  • Bilingual Bonus: "Si Wong Desert" doesn't sound so bad at first... until you realize "Si Wong" is Chinese for "death", or "to die".
  • Bittersweet Ending: Slightly more bitter than sweet. On the sweet side, Zuko and Iroh safely escape their pursuers and are headed for Ba Sing Sei, where they will be safe. The bitter side? Despite having found someone to help them escape the desert, the Gaang haven't found Appa. Even though they have a lead, the emotional damage has already been done.
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  • Break the Haughty: Continuing on from last episode, Toph is chewed out by Aang for failing to protect Appa. Remember how he said to her in "The Chase" that despite her bragging about her prowess, Appa was the one carrying her weight? Well, those words must have been echoing in Toph's mind as Aang was yelling at her in this episode.
  • Broken Tears: When Katara is embracing Aang, he is crying in frustration over losing Appa. If you look closely, you can see he’s crying while in the Avatar State as well.
  • Circling Vultures: Vulture-wasps are circling the group in the desert.
  • Constantly Curious: Sokka's excuse why he keeps tasting unknown substances.
  • Cooldown Hug: Katara gives one to Aang at the very end of the episode that brings Aang out of the Avatar State.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: Xin Fu and Master Yu, both being skilled earthbenders, easily defeat the non-benders that were going after Zuko and Iroh’s bounty, finishing without breaking a sweat.
  • Despair Event Horizon: Aang inches closer to it as the episode goes on, culminating in him going into the Avatar State when he finally finds the Sandbenders. Katara brings him out of it before he can do them any serious harm.
  • "Eureka!" Moment: Zuko comments to Iroh that he wishes that he could meet Iroh's actual friends rather than bounty hunters. Iroh gets a look in his eyes and says that's Actually a Good Idea. He then uses his White Lotus tiles to get himself and Zuko smuggled into Ba Sing Se.
  • Everything Makes a Mushroom: Aang creates a mushroom cloud in the sand out of rage.
  • Everyone Has Standards: The chief yells at this son, "WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?!" when finding out he stole the Avatar's sky bison to sell him to poachers and stranded a group of innocent people in the desert. It turns out he wasn't part of the theft and thinks that violating Sacred Hospitality is awful.
  • Fantastic Drug: Sokka and Momo hallucinate after drinking the juice of an unidentified cactus, which is apparently this world's equivalent of peyote/mescaline.
  • Forgot I Could Fly: The group are stuck in the Thirsty Desert with only a small amount of water in their pouch. Then Momo spills it and Sokka goes crazy... that is until Katara calmly bends the water out of the sand. Sokka recalls "Oh, right. Bending."
  • Freeze-Frame Bonus: As a furious Aang slowly floats into the sky looking like he's on the verge of creating a sandstorm to kill everyone with while in the Avatar State, Toph (who has never seen Aang in the Avatar State prior to this point) can be briefly seen staring at him wide-eyed while frozen in visible shock and horror before Sokka grabs her hand and pulls her away from the enraged Avatar.
  • Hypocrite: The Chief Sandbender's son accuses Team Avatar of stealing the sand cruiser a little too readily when, not too long after, it's revealed that he was among the sandbenders who stole Appa.
  • I Never Said It Was Poison: The Chief Sandbender's son also doesn't even wait for Toph to recognize his voice before raging about Katara accusing his people of stealing their bison, which she didn't do. Instead, she only said that Appa was stolen, and then the Sandbender connected the dots in an astonishing feat of stupidity.
  • Informed Ability: Played for Laughs; Iroh says the Rough Rhinos, in addition to being elite warriors, is a very capable singing group.
  • Innocuously Important Episode: Downplayed, this episode is mostly focused on Iroh, Zuko and the Gaang figuring out how to escape the Si Wong Desert, meaning that it's still an important episode in regards to the season's Myth Arc. However, it's incredibly important for the franchise as a whole since it first introduces the Order of the White Lotus, one of the franchise's primary Big Good factions, into the story.
  • Intoxication Ensues: For Sokka, very quickly.
  • Jerkass Ball: Aang spends much of the episode being very irritable and snappy towards the rest of Team Avatar, a feeling that stems from the kidnapping of Appa at the end of the previous episode.
  • Large Ham: Sokka. Jack DeSena was clearly having a lot of fun with this episode.
  • Logical Weakness: Toph is an exceptional earthbender but her blindness means she has trouble dealing with airborne enemies like the buzzard-wasps since she can't tell where they are in the air.
  • Mugging the Monster: The Sandbenders apparently didn't get the hints from Aang's arrow tattoos or Appa's markings that he belonged to an airbender, and the Avatar is the only living airbender in existence. They go Mass "Oh, Crap!" when Aang enters the Avatar State.
  • Mushroom Samba: Sokka (and Momo) spend most of the episode having one after drinking cactus juice.
  • Not Helping Your Case: The chief's son, when realizing that Aang is the Avatar and raging at him for kidnapping his sky bison, is forced to confess and apologize. He says he wouldn't have taken Appa if knowing he belonged to the Avatar. Needless to say, this doesn't endear his father or Aang.
  • Oh, Crap!: The Sandbenders when they realize that they stole the Avatar's bison, and they have no way of getting it back. Oh, and it turns out they went against their chief's orders of Sacred Hospitality to do so. Even more so when Aang goes into the Avatar State and they realize that a Physical God has it in for them. Yeah, he calms down, but those guys must have had nightmares.
    Aang: [in Avatar State] TELL ME WHERE APPA IS!
  • OOC Is Serious Business:
    • Aang is clearly not himself due to his rage over losing Appa. After recovering Momo from the Buzzard Wasp that had snatched him away, he knocks it out of the sky at the very least stunning it as it's retreating. For Aang, that's a pretty big deal.
    • Toph spouts very little, if any, snark during the episode. Instead, she's quite stoic, quiet and somber, likely coming as a result of both her residual guilt over her inability to save Appa and her nervousness over being left effectively blind in the Si Wong Desert.
  • Only Sane Man: Katara serves as the only rational member of the team for the episode since Aang was upset over losing Appa, Toph couldn’t navigate well on the sand, and Sokka was stoned on cactus juice.
  • Open the Iris: Sokka in his Mushroom Samba.
  • Out of the Inferno: Early on, when Iroh and Zuko are chased by a group of firebenders, one of the firebenders throws a bomb which explodes in front of Iroh and Zuko but then we see them riding out of the smoke unharmed.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: The Chief of the Sandbenders seemed to have no part of the theft, and while figuring out what had happened mentions they should offer the Gaang hospitality. Unfortunately Aang is too far gone and he does little good.
  • Recognizable by Sound: Toph was able to recognize one of the people who confronted them as the same one who stole Appa.
  • Sacred Hospitality: Mentioned by the chief; he says anyone who is in the desert needs their shelter and food. He gets angry when finding out that his son stranded a group of children to sell their vehicular animal.
  • Sand Is Water: A glider works just as good on sand as it does on water.
  • Scary Stinging Swarm: The Gaang gets attacked by huge vulture-wasps.
  • Shout-Out: Iroh describes the Rough Rhinos as legendary weapons' specialists and a capable singing group. It brings to mind a very popular real-world music group known for warrior antics at their stage shows.
  • Shown Their Work: The star map? Matches the night sky from "The Waterbending Master".
  • Sniff Sniff Nom: Sokka does this to the slime covering the walls of the Buzzard Wasps' cave.
    Katara: You've been hallucinating on cactus juice all day, and then you just lick something you find stuck to the wall of a cave?!
    Sokka: I have a natural curiosity.
  • Talking Through Technique: Iroh and Fung converse by moving the Pai Sho tiles in a certain way.
    Fung: [when Iroh places the lotus tile in the center of the board] I see you favor the white lotus gambit. Not many still cling to the ancient ways.
    Iroh: Those who do can always find a friend.
  • Team Mom: The Episode. With the team stranded in the middle of an enormous desert, Appa gone, and the other team members all incapacitated somehow — Aang by his rage and grief at Appa's disappearance, Sokka (and Momo) by an extended Mushroom Samba, Toph by her inability to feel vibrations through sand — it falls to Katara to take the lead in trying to get out of the desert, and trying to keep the others from going insane in the process. This also gets deconstructed by showing how emotionally and mentally exhausting this is for Katara; by the time she gets Aang out of the Avatar State with a Cooldown Hug in the final scene, she's crying just as much as he is.
  • Thirsty Desert: Without Appa, the group is trapped in a seemingly endless desert with their only water reserves being the small amount Katara keeps in her waterbending flask.
  • Two Lines, No Waiting: The Gaang trying to make their way out of the desert is paralleled with Zuko and Iroh trying to elude the Rough Rhinos and Master Yu and Xin Fu. No interaction.
  • Unwitting Instigator of Doom: Toph recognized the voice of the sandbender who captured Appa and mentioned how he put a muzzle on him, causing Aang to go into the Avatar State out of rage, with only Katara stopping him. Justified, as she doesn't know what triggers Aang getting enraged and entering the Avatar State (harm to him or those he cares about) prior to this episode.
  • Voice of the Legion: Aang does this at the end, while in the Avatar State. It's really creepy, both for the audience and for the sandbenders his rage is currently directed towards (see Oh, Crap!).
  • "Wanted!" Poster: Iroh and Zuko's wanted poster attracts bounty hunters.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: The first scene has Aang chastise Toph for letting the sandbenders capture Appa. Though it's actually a subversion of sorts, as Toph did the best she could to save Appa, and Aang lashing out at her is unjustified.

 
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Circle Birds

A swarm of buzzard wasps circles overhead as the Gaang tries to find their way out of the desert.

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