It has been many episodes since we last saw the beloved sky bison Appa (and many, many months in rewatch time), but this week, the furry Millennium Falcon returns in episode 216, “Appa’s Lost Days.”
In just twenty-two minutes, we revisit old friends, foes, and locales from earlier in season two, and the creators once again remind us that we can laugh, cry, be afraid, and cheer in triumph in a short episode of children’s television.
The episode opens by flashing back, four weeks ago, to the climax of “The Library.” Sandbenders rope Appa Gulliver style while Toph struggles to keep Wan Shi Tong’s library from sinking beneath the desert. The sandbenders drag Appa away.
But instead of staying with Toph and her mournful tear, we follow Appa. Once the sandbenders are clear of the library, they search Appa’s saddle for valuables. All they find is a few odds and ends, including Sokka’s club. The loss of Appa is such a big blow to the gang, no one gives any thought to the loss of their gear. This is the last we will ever see of Sokka’s club, which he used to fight off Fire Nation soldiers in the pilot episode. Everything in Avatar has a malleable life, from the trees on Kyoshi Island to the gang’s tents and bedrolls. As this episode progresses, we see Appa coated in honey, starved, and pierced with quills. Each event has an impact on his appearance.
The sandbenders sell Appa to some merchants. As they prepare to drag Appa away, we cut back to the desert where Aang is desperately searching for his lost friend. Appa struggles when he hears the whistle we saw Aang blow in “The Desert,” and as the merchants subdue Appa, we see the mushroom cloud Aang created in anger that same episode. “Appa’s Lost Days” does interesting things with time, showing where Appa is not just physically, but temporally as well. Many events in this episode remind us where Aang was at a given point in Appa’s journey. The television series LOST played with time this same way on many occasions, most notably in the early season two episode “The Other 48 Days,” which retells the events of the first season from the perspective of a different group of castaways—not the series regulars.
Appa ends up in a Fire Nation circus, the same where Ty Lee worked as an acrobat until Azula recruited her to join the Powerpuff Murderers. A cruel animal trainer attempts to break Appa to his will, but the sky bison is far too clever for that. With a little bit of crafty airbending, Appa is able to inhale MY CABBAGES!!!!!!!!!!! and steal a meal.
Food plays an important role in “Appa’s Lost Days,” much as objects play an important role throughout the series. I am reminded of Polanski’s masterpiece The Pianist, which also hangs a lot of weight on food. Much like a friendly dog, Appa cares about two things, his master and his dinner.
Appa escapes the circus and searches the Earth Kingdom for Aang, returning to the library, only to find it buried. He follows Aang’s trail as best he can, eventually landing, exhausted, in a forest. He is attacked by a boarcupine, one of the more frightening hybrid animals in the Avatar universe. The huge spiny pig resembles the demon boar from Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke. Appa fights off the boar, but is badly injured.
As luck would have it, Suki and the Kyoshi Warriors discover Appa licking his wounds. His time in the wild has made the sky bison almost feral, and Suki gently nurses him back to health. But no sooner is Appa feeling better than Azula, Mai, and Ty Lee show up. A fierce battle ensues. I love how much non-bender combat goes on in this battle, and Suki even holds her own against the Fire Princess. But Suki knows the battle is lost, and so she chases Appa away, urging him to continue his search for Aang.
Appa flies to the Eastern Air Temple, where he was born. The temple is now deserted, except for a lone old man, Guru Pathik. I have often said that season two of Avatar is The Empire Strikes Back, and the Guru is absolutely the stand-in for Yoda. Quirky and wise, he uses his meditative patience to calm the fearful Appa. In this scene, the Guru’s observations on Appa’s love and trust are rather touching, and remind me of just how close I am to these deep and complex characters.
The Guru gives Appa a note to give to the Avatar, and tells him where to find Aang. Appa flies to Ba Sing Se, but his arrival does not go unnoticed. Two Dai Li agents spot him, and later, the three pygmy panthers who chased and then befriended Momo in “Tales of Ba Sing Se.” Appa lands in the city, only to be captured by Long Feng. The episode ends with a shot nearly identical to the previous show—one of Appa’s pawprints in the muddy square.
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.
Up Next: Like Big Brother, I love Long Feng in “Lake Laogai.”
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, Fantasy Magazine, and Realms of Fantasy. His fiction is out right this second in the anthology The Living Dead 2. Follow him on Twitter.