Feb 3 2011 4:17pm

Avatar Rewatch: “The Desert” (Episode 211)

Avatar: The Last Airbender episode The Desert

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.

Up Next: “The Serpent’s Pass”!

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, 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.

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David Goldfarb
1. David_Goldfarb
"No one" is a distinct overstatement -- there are quite a few people with a natural immunity to the TVTropes effect. I'm one: I followed that link, read two pages, and then stopped. My sessions there aren't always that short, but they've never been longer than fifteen minutes or so, either.
Simon Southey-Davis
2. Glyph
I've learnt to *always* check the link if I even suspect it could lead to TVTropes. Even knowing it was there and having chance to prepare before the plunge, I was four links deep before I caught myself with the help of a fortuitous passing timeout.

What's with that site?

Uh, yeah, on-topic. Scary, scary Aang.
3. Rowanmdm
Thanks for finally getting another Rewatch post up!

I am one of the people who fall into the TvTropes black hole, so it's a good thing I don't have much to do at work this afternoon.
4. av willis
What i thought was hillarious after i went back and rewatched this episode is the fact that Momoe is just as baked-no pun intended-as Sokka. Go back and watch their interactions, it's like something out of one of the worlds most f-ed up domestic disturbances.
5. Marbelcal
Don't forget Katara. She may have been the foil for Sokka's wackiness, but she demonstrated real leadership potential. She kept the group together and focussed on solving their immediate problem.
6. ChrisG
Hurray, Avatar rewatch is back!

This episode is a nice transition in the series in that Aang is, for the first time, really seeing the stakes, the *cost*, of the battle he's facing. Yes, he's been hunted, and taken out of time, and had to fight and struggle to a degree, but nothing like this. And it's only the beginning. This sets up tremendous stretch that follows through the rest of this book. (Notable: Tales of Ba Sing Se is a highlight among some wonderful work.)

As to TV tropes, for me "black hole" is a good metaphor but not perfect: I often get sucked in (though this time I managed to skirt the event horizon), but I don't *really* regret it. Someone should study this thing.
7. JimmyW
Is there really an actual schedule to this, or is it more like "I guess I feel like some Avatar about now"?
8. msmy
I agree with ChrisG. I think this is the first time that Aang is beginning to realize not only the *cost* but leads into how much personal sacrifice is required for the greater good of saving the world.
Katie Pi
9. Darth_Katie
I love the emotion in Avatar. You're right, it's really one of the things that makes it great. So genuine!
10. Miyuki
How come you guys stopped this series? :/
11. OrionOfNewGenesis
What happened to this rewatch?
12. Bryan Rasmussen
Another request for more rewatch.

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