Dec 2 2010 1:54pm

Avatar Rewatch: “The Library” (episode 210)

Avatar: The Last Airbender episode The LibraryEpisode 2.10, “The Library,” marks the halfway point in Season Two of Avatar and in the series as a whole. This is when stuff starts to get intense. Follow along with us after the cut.

We start off very light with Aang and his singing moles. The Aang Gang has been taking mini-vacations while Aang continues his training. When it is Katara’s turn she chooses The Misty Palms Oasis. However, when the gang arrives in a desert, they realize that their map is extremely out of date. In a bar in the desert town, the gang meets Professor Zei, an anthropologist who informs them about the Knowledge Spirit’s library. Sokka chooses the library as his mini-vacation, and the Ang Gang and Zei are off!

This is the halfway point of the season and the series. It sets up everything that happens from this point on. And not just the throwaway line about the lion turtle.

Avatar: The Last Airbender episode The Library

There is a lot of discussion of Ba Sing Se and going to Ba Sing Se and the urgency of getting the gang to the king of Ba Sing Se. This episode sets up the Day of Black Sun—the solar eclipse that will sap the firebenders of their power. Appa is abducted. This traumatic event is the beginning of a plotline that will carry on for many episodes and affect all of our heroes greatly. This episode also ties back to season one, when Admiral Zhao discussed his trip to the library.

This episode was very upsetting for me the first time I watched it. It was more upsetting upon re-watch. Initially I was very angry with Toph watching this episode for losing Appa, and I cried. Upon re-watch, I cried for Appa and Toph. (Because I’m a girl and they’re my two favorite characters and whatever.) Knowing where the episode was going, it was interesting to see how the writers set up Toph’s inability to see in sand. There are many references to her blindness, her weaknesses and shortcomings. Her blindness takes center stage in this episode—not as simply a characteristic that identifies her, but as a real weakness. She still makes light of it, but you can imagine that it frustrates a free spirit like Toph not to be able to do everything she wants. When the gang is searching for the library, everyone rides Appa, on the lookout for signs of the library’s location. What can Toph do in this situation? She sits there, bored, with the hot desert wind in her face, unable to participate or help. She can’t even read a book. Toph has a pretty intense resentment of books, because she can’t read them, although something tells me that with Toph’s heightened sense of touch she could feel the elevated ink on a piece of paper. And really, does the infinite library not have any books in Braille?

The Sandbenders are pretty darn scary. We first see them with the gang enters the bar in the oasis. Appa clearly doesn’t like them. When they arrive and pull a Gulliver’s Travels on everyone’s favorite sky bison, they become a new villain. What kind of bending do the Sandbenders do? Are they highly (or lowly) evolved Earthbenders or perhaps some crazy breed of airbender? There certainly never was a Sandbending Avatar.

As a former anthropology student, I take issue with the portrayal of Professor Zei. He measures Aang’s head, which is more than a little offensive. He comes across as almost crazy—suicidal. If I were a kid watching this I would think anthropologists were kind of lame. And anthropologists are not lame. Professor Zei shows an overwhelming obsession with his work and an ignorance about modern times.

The big scary owl Wan Shi Tong may be the best monster of the week in the whole series. Bounty hunter lovers—feel free to fight me on this one. The owl is not demonic. He is simply a spirit, neither good nor bad. I find this chilling. The initial dialogue with the gang reflects his cold, intellectual opinions, and his cynicism about humans. Sadly, the owl does have a point. The world’s greatest scientists always seem to be employed in developing the next greatest deadly weapon.

Sokka does much to prove the owl correct. He lies, he steals, he seeks only the knowledge to defeat his enemies. In many ways, Aang and company are the villains of this episode. They betray the owl’s trust, and misuse the library just as Admiral Zhao did. I didn’t hate the owl for trying to kill the gang. He was just protecting his knowledge and his principles. And the way his neck stretches as he turns into a grotesque monster bird? Holy koalaotters, that is scary!

To the parents of Avatar watchers: the show has many emotionally dark and sad moments. Are your kids made noticeably upset by these moments? For example, at the end of Toy Story 3 I was a complete wreck. My six-year-old brother had no idea why. Who has a stronger emotional response to the tough moments in Avatar, you or your kids?

I leave you with this thought: Sokka rides Appa without a shirt on…for the ladies.

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: “The Desert”!

Jordan Hamessley is an Earthbender and wants a second Appa doll for Christmas. She is an assistant editor at Grosset & Dunlap/PSS at Penguin Books for Young Readers where she edits the Batman: The Brave and the Bold, Club Penguin, and Dinosaur Train publishing programs, as well as developing original series. She can be found on Twitter as @thejordache.

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1. Akheloios
It could be that Sandbending is a mix of Air and Earthbending. Like the Ba Gua and I Ching is a mix of yin and yang in varying quantities. Toph couldn't bend properly because she only had half the skillset, but the Avatar could because he had both Air and Earthbending skills, eventually.

Top marks for the Owl in this episode too, it's nice to see someone who puts themself outside of human affairs and only deals with one abstraction. When you only have a choice between two sides it gets boring, you're either a good guy or a bad guy, from another viewpoint it's both sides that are wrong.
Kerwin Miller
2. tamyrlink
sandbending is just another form of earthbending. just like metalbending. toph just needed practice with it, which she shows she was getting in one of those episodes where zuko joins the team.

she couldnt see properly in the sand and she didnt have practice thats all.

but what really impressed me was the way she kept the library palace from sinking into the sand.
3. KVFinn
Yeah, sandbending is earthbending, although there's no way to know this at the time.

In 'The Beach' Toph shows that she finally figured out sandbending and uses it to make a sandcastle.

We see a similar situation with the swamp benders. Even though Kitara is a master bender by then, she can't control the plants like they can (at least not initially).
Simon Southey-Davis
4. Glyph
Heh. I'd forgotten about the Lion Turtle line. Also, I'd taken Sandbending to be a specialised form of Earthbending, as others have mentioned - Sand:Earth::Swamp:Water. It seemed that Toph's problems were more about control - handling earth in a form which acts more like water than rocks, and needing to get a solid stance on the ground to hold up the tower - than about an elemental conflict.

But angry with Toph for losing Appa? I felt nothing but sympathy and pity for her. This is the moment her pride and confidence fail her. She finally has to confront the fact that she can't do everything: no matter how hard she tries, no matter how much she wants to, she can't save both the Gaang and Appa. She has to make a choice, one or the other, and that's what I hear in her final admission: "I'm sorry, Appa."

Oh dear, I think I can see what I'll be like when we get to Tales of Ba Sing Se... And I can't even laugh it off with "Because I'm a girl"!
Cait Glasson
5. CaitieCat
Quite in line with the different forms of Earth and Waterbending as commented above. I like it because of the implication that, for instance, there are different ways of wielding Fire and Airbending as well - as we learn to some extent when we meet the Dragon firebenders later, or that there are various types of Air temple. To me, it feels like a suggestion of diversity within the slightly monolithic elemental blocs - and another came to me just now, the Northern Water tribe has some different cultural referents and practices from the Southern one.

It's a very subtle piece of reinforcing the Asian-ness of the world, reminding us that just as the Avatar-world has numerous cultures and approaches to power and knowledge, so does the Asia of our world.

I cry for both Toph and Appa here. Toph does everything she can to save the gaang, because that's how the world gets saved, and has no option but to let the sandbenders get away with Appa while she does it. The unusual qualities of earth-as-sand leading to a reminder of the limits of her touch/hearing to replace sight. As a differently-abled person myself, I like that they don't make her into SUPER(DISABLED)WOMAN! all the time - her abilities are great, as those of the other kids are, but she has some realistic and consistent limits on the touch/hearing enhancement.

As to Wan Shi Tong, I like that again we are shown that not all sentience in Avatarworld is human: we see dragons, spirits, Wan Shi Tong, badger moles, sky bison, just with a moment's recollection - I'm sure there have been more.
6. Lsana
Interesting that you thought of sandbending as airbending. I agree with everyone else who says it's a varient on earthbending, but I though of it as a varient more closely related to waterbending than airbending, mostly due to the way they were making use of the "desert is a sandy ocean" trope. I assumed that they were earthbenders who learned a bit about the philosophy of waterbending, much like Iroh did with his redirecting lightning trick.

I also wouldn't call the sandbenders "more" or "less" evolved than the traditional earthbenders, just different.
7. tzjones
I absolutely looooove this episode, not only for the many things it sets up in the series (I had no idea about the lion turtle though. That's pretty cool), but for the ominous demeanor of the library. The owl, Wan Shi Tong, was my favorite...I can't explain what he was. He wasn't much of a villain since he was just protecting the knowledge he adores from meddlesome humans (Sokka). Anyways, he was one of the creepiest characters in the whole series.

I would like to bring up the color of the library though. I noticed everything was dark in color and it was hard to see. I was expecting something to jump out from a crevice and take the professor (which I would've liked, considering his only purpose was to tell the gang about the library and he was really annoying). I felt that the color of the interior of the library set the tone for the episode, kind of foreshadowing something dark or bad was going to happen.

Which brings me to that dark or bad moment. I would feel very conflicted in Toph's position when I had to choose between saving my friends and not Appa or saving my friends AND Appa. Making it so that Toph couldn't just pull off some wicked earthbending to get rid of the sandbenders was genius. I hated it, but it was genius. And it set up two of my favorite episodes in the entire series ("The Desert" and "Tales of Ba Sing Se").
8. b.c.smith
interesting. now I would like to confess to something here (and there is probably no way of saying this without getting shot down by everybody else here on the site). but as much as I really enjoyed this series....I really can't bring myself to say that this was a masterpiece. now I would consider something like batman: TAS a masterpiece or cowboy bebop even more so, but I wouldn't think of avatar in the same way. primarily cause the plot (at least now with harry potter) isnt really all that new. it does some really innovative things with it and manages to pull a bucketload of twists and turns along the way. and the fact that its all meshed in with an asian-inspired world and mythology I respect alot. but its not really new plot-wise.
9. The Everlasting Fro
@BCSMITH: There are no more new plotlines, all can be traced to something else, Batman:TAS can be likened to many dime store detective novels, and Bebop is a spaghetti western that is almost Tarantino-esque. Although I must say the observation of the parallels between Harry Potter and Avatar are keen, I don't think it devalues the series in the slightest. It is a very ground breaking fantasy (almost like Tolkien with less focus on objects as being important and powerful.)

Favorite line: "That's Sokka style... Learn it!"
This episode has a lot of good foreshadowing and it also shows some writing qualities that I think are very rare now-a-days, especially in television. Some of us are writers , and as writers I hope we've all written ourselves into corners and had a tough time getting out of the plotting nightmare. Well that's a difficult thing to deal with when writing television and so most TV-writers cop out by not fully exploring the conflicts that they write, (I personally think that sort of writing is what killed Heroes.) But this is obviously not a problem in Avatar. They explore conflicts and force a conclusion whether it can hang up the creative process or not.
It's not easy to take one of the most lovable characters in a series and remove him from the equation, but the writers did it here and manage to keep good exposition going after that. I think that is how they put so much into each episode, the creators ask themselves what conflicts are in this episode and what conflicts are going to be caused by the resolution of these conflicts. This is an easier thing to do if you know where your overarcing plot is leading, but it can cause folks to write themselves into some serious corners, and that is why the series writers of Avatar need to be given some real props. I bet that there was a lot of thought put into this whole series before it was even pitched to Nickelodeon, but normally such conflicts wouldn't be considered for television let alone a kids series.
10. 4ur1nfo
Dang, it seems that this rewatch is forever going to be an unfulfilled piece of awesomeness :(
11. b.c.smith
@the everlasting fro: sure, what you say is true, but even then batman:TAS had a very deep, almost psychological bent to it's plotlines, thus allowing them to go places and do things with a lot more depth than the reagular dime store novel (or in this case, a cartoon). coeboy bebop is of course a western in space (firefly much?), but at least it did something innovative with it's music and it's action sequences.

Dont get me wrong though, avatar TLA is awesome, but...I dont know, I just wasn't impacted by it the way something like akira, aeon flux or any of the shows I mentioned above.
12. Frustrated
Are there any plans to finish this series of rewatch? The last post was December 2nd (now January 10th) and I thought these were supposed to be weekly posts? I have been checking this blog for over a year now, and only a handful of episodes have been finished in that time. What gives? And the best episodes are still upcoming.
13. tzjones
This is like the rewatch of "Zuko Alone" all over again. I was so psyched when I found this that even though I knew the posts were weekly I checked everyday. How hard is it to watch a 22-23 minute episode and take a few minutes to give your thoughts every week? And I agree with Frustrated, the best episodes are end of book 2 and all of book 3 (but mostly book 2).
15. Fenric25
So...any chance of this starting up again soon? The Avatar and Cowboy Bebop rewatches were two of my favorite things to look forward to on and they've just fallen off the face of the earth, so it seems...well, maybe they'll surprise us and come back all of a sudden one of these days. Oh well, whatever...

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