After the mid-season climax of last episode’s “The Library,” “The Desert” serves as a transitional episode, linking the first half of the season and the second half, part epilogue and part prologue. It sets us up for the remainder of the season, which is all about Ba Sing Se.
The gang has two powerful motivators to carry them through this section of the series, both introduced in the previous episode. Sokka has learned (through disrespect and treachery, it should be acknowledged) the Fire Nation’s weakness. Also, Appa has been bison-napped by sandbenders. The latter event leads Aang to abandon the group and search for his friend on his own.
This episode also marks the introduction of the Order of the White Lotus, a secret society that spans the four nations and benders of every element. Uncle Iroh is a high-ranking member. When the bounty hunters sent to find Toph decide to pick up some quick cash collecting the bounty on Iroh and Zuko, Uncle turns to the Order of the White Lotus for protection. Regarding the bounty hunters, who fit a classic red oni blue oni dichotomy, one would think they would be savvy enough to realize that taking on the fire prince and the Dragon of the West may be a bit more than is chewable. Even if they were to apprehend the two firebenders (another red/blue oni pair) does anyone else think the Firelord would claim his captives and toss the captors out with the trash?
Zuko and Iroh’s adventure in this episode mirrors that of Team Avatar, or rather, serves the same function. It sets them on the path that will lead them to Ba Sing Se and the remainder of season two.
Aang is terrifying in this episode. We already know not to mess with a panda, but never EVER mess with an Avatar’s sky bison. He will sandstorm your stuff up.
And isn’t it interesting that the Earth Kingdom’s Tusken Raiders take off their masks and have a chat here? As usual, the older generation is polite and naive, and the younger generation is filled with jerks. Also, cowards.
This episode exposes the depth of Aang’s character. Unlike most cartoons, in Avatar multiple emotional states are allowed to be shown. Usually, Aang is a happy carefree hero, as interested in penguin sledding as he is in saving the world. If you remember, the previous episode opened with the heroes on vacation. When is that comet coming again? In this episode however, as in the season premiere and elsewhere, if a loved one is threatened, Aang becomes a nuclear bomb. Can you imagine Michelangelo of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles having rage issues? Or having to be talked down by a love interest? Or having a love interest?
Aang’s nuances are what make him such a captivating character, and so much more interesting than the one-dimensional characters of most western animation. In another episode, Aang would be perfectly happy to get stoned on cactus juice with Sokka. Here, other priorities take precedence. The fact that the status quo is out of whack at all is fairly novel, especially since it does not get resolved by the end of this two-part episode.
A few thoughts:
- Where can I get me some cactus juice? Sokka is tripping so hard in this episode, it is amazing his hallucinations made it past the Nickelodeon censors.
- In the battle with the Buzzard Wasps, it is great to see Toph and Katara working together. Look how they coordinate as a team when Katara runs out of bending water and Toph can’t see their flying attackers. The animation is awesome and they kick some buzzard butt.
- Sorry for linking everyone to TV Tropes. That site is like a black hole no one can escape.
Attention First-Time Avatar Watchers: Our posts will be spoiler-free (except for the episode we’re discussing), but be aware that spoilers for future episodes may abound in the comment thread below. We wanted to keep the comment threads future-spoiler-free as well, but it will likely prove impossible and it would impede our ability to analyze the series in retrospect.
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Matt London is an author and filmmaker who lives in New York City. He is a graduate of the Clarion Writer’s Workshop, as well as a columnist for Tor.com, Lightspeed, and Realms of Fantasy. His fiction is out right this second in the anthology The Living Dead 2. He holds a BFA in Film Production from New York University.