Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Desert

In “The Desert,” Sokka and Momo drink cactus juice
that immediately sends the duo reeling into hallucinations and ridiculous
behavior.  Their view of the world is
skewed to the strange and somewhat paranoia.
It’s an apt way to describe the experience the story provides for Aang’s
own behavior, as it’s something completely alien to his nature and personal
philosophy.  It’s a different Aang, a raw
and grieving Aang.  For as much as Sokka
see’s a world with a giant mushroom who appears to be friendly, the viewer is
treated to a world where the Aang we love so much becomes someone to be
disliked and feared.

It begins on the exact tail end of “The Library,”
and the two probably could quite successfully be paired as two parts of one arc
in the same vein that the “The Spirit World” and “Avatar Roku” are brought
together under the Winter’s Solstice arc.
The last episode ended with Aang in shock at the loss of Appa, his one
connection to the past and beloved companion.
His surprise quickly turns to anger and he vehemently blames Toph for
allowing him to be captured and hauled away.
It’s reminiscent of his outburst from “The Chase,” which drove Toph
away, but this time, the earth bender, herself traumatized by the choice of choosing
the group over Appa, tries to explain what happened.  Aang has no patience for the excuse and then
lashes out at Katara and Sokka for simply not caring about Appa, before leaping
to the sky to find his friend from above.

The incredible un-Aang like behavior is played up by
the directing decision to use different perspectives of the characters,
removing the comforting appearances that we have grown used to over the season
and a half.  The use of perspective, be
it in-character by Sokka and Momo, or in the production of the episode,
reinforces the basis that something is very wrong in our Avatar world.   Colors are stronger, arguably harsher at
times, especially when contrasted against the other storyline of the episode,
Iroh’s and Zuko’s turn in visiting the Misty Palms Oasis.

The B-story, so to speak, finds the pair on the back
of the trusty ostrich horse and suddenly surrounded by the Rough Rhinos who
first appeared in “Avatar Day.”  As a
nice touch of familiarity between people of the same Fire Nation, Iroh knows
the group well enough to identify their strengths, including their proficiency
as a singing group.  The former
acquaintances, however, have little time for past friendships and immediately
attack, to their chagrin.  As proven back
when Earth Kingdom soldiers tried to take Iroh away as a prisoner to Ba Sing Se
in “The Spirit World,” Zuko and his uncle make a dangerous team to
confront.  The Rough Riders are easily
dealt with and Zuko grumbles about Iroh needing friends from his past who aren’t
out to get them.  Iroh gets an idea and
away the pair go to the Misty Palms Oasis.

The group, effectively abandoned by the Avatar in the
middle of the desert with little in the means of supplies, is left to its own
devices.  Katara immediately takes charge
and gets Sokka, Momo and Toph going on their way.  Throughout the episode, Katara serves as a
fine example of common sense, leadership, and caring.  While at times, Katara is premised as a
pseudo-mother figure to the group, the same role she played to Sokka growing
up, in this scenario it’s these traits that result in the group’s successful
survival of the harsh terrain.   Despite
her successful drive as leader, she fails to stop Sokka from indulging in juice
inside a cactus, which immediately puts the Southern Water Tribe member into a
state of hallucination.  

Sokka’s trip, so to speak, serves as the
aforementioned means to better visualize the out of whack world that now exists
with Aang furious and absent.  It also
provides for stand up comedy, too, and hints at a reflection of Hunter S.
Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,
which begins with the writer and his companion high on drugs as they travel
through the desert.  Similarly, Sokka’s
hallucinations flicker back and forth between moments of awe to moments of fear
and paranoia.  Eventually, Aang returns
frustrated and without having spotted a sign of Appa anywhere.  His attitude remains anything but the peace
minded air nomad and he’s unable to keep himself from lashing out at Katara
after she makes an innocent observation about the water she asked him to
collect from a cloud overhead. 

Through it all, Katara keeps thinking, realizing
that a star map in their possession could be used to guide them out of the
desert, while also rationing the precious water to insure it lasts as long as
possible.  Not long into the next hike, Toph trips over what reveals to be a sand bender glider, of which, Katara
assumes the captaincy, ordering Aang to set the sail endowed vessel on its
way.  A compass on the craft guide them
to a massive rock formation in the middle of the desert, perhaps inspired by the
Uluru or Ayer’s Rock in Australia. As the group discovers something firm
underfoot, Iroh and Zuko discover friends in low places.

The two make it to the Misty Palms Oasis and enter
the same establishment where the gang had met Professor Zei in the previous
episode.  Once there, Iroh spots an old
man sitting at a pai sho table, and in short time, it’s established both are
members of something called the White Lotus Society.  Their arrival in the oasis was also noted by
the two earth benders sent by Toph Beifong’s father to find her, the earth
bending match producer Xin Fu and the earth bending instructor Yu.  Noting also the bounty on their heads from
the Fire Nation, they endeavor to capture the two for a hefty sum.  They, in turn, are noticed by the pai sho
player, who loudly announces the presence of the Fire Nation royalty, which in
turn, sets the Star Wars cantina
inspired patrons of the bar to jump on the two men in competition for the
bounty.  The ensuing brawl provides the
cover needed to allow Iroh and Zuko to make their escape with their new friend.

The White Lotus Society member brings the two to a
flower shop, where Iroh, revealed as a Grand Master of the society, disappears
behind a secure door with him, leaving Zuko to wait amongst the blooms.  Eventually, he reappears and informs Zuko the
Society will help them escape.  The plan
unfolds, as Xin Fu and Yu, having emerged victoriously from the bar, with the
pair being smuggled past the two inside giant flower pots.  Yes, we bid farewell to the nameless ostrich
horse who had served Zuko loyally over countless miles.  The Bill the Pony of the Avatar World, we
hope you found a good friend in the Misty Palms Oasis!  With Iroh and Zuko smuggled out and now sent
on their way to Ba Sing Se to hide in plain sight among countless war refugees,
the desert and our gang remain the last story to be concluded.

Upon climbing to the top of the rock, pockmarked
with numerous tunnels, it’s quickly discovered the rock is a large hive for buzzard
wasps.  The unfortunate combination of
pretty much everything detestable about both creatures swarms our heroes, who
are forced to retreat and fight off the vicious insect-like monsters.  One grabs hold of Momo and sets off into the
desert, sparking Aang to vow not to lose anyone else dear to him.  The air nomad sets off in hot pursuit and
manages to knock Momo free from its clutches.
Next, Aang does something which cements his state of mind, he kills the
fleeing buzzard wasp, despite it no longer being a threat to him or Momo.  It’s an act against the philosophy of the air
nomads and as strong a message delivered by the writers of the state of the
Avatar’s mind over the loss of Appa.

With Aang’s mood firmly established, the swarming buzzard
wasps attract the attention of a number of sand benders who appear to demand
what’s going on in their territory and as to how the gang came upon one of
their gliders.  The confrontation quickly
shifts from the accusatory to the defensive, as Toph recognizes the voice of
one of the sand benders as belonging to those who captured Appa.  This infuriates Aang who demands to know
where his air bison friend is located and begins smashing the sand benders’
gliders with vicious gusts of wind.  When
the news breaks that Appa was sold, it’s too much for our air nomad, and Aang
enters the Avatar State, prepared to unleash the might of a thousand
generations upon the sand benders.  Sokka
grabs Toph and heads for a safe distance, meanwhile, in the midst of the
swirling sand, stands Katara.

As much as Aang’s killing of the buzzard wasp
signified how upside down his world and mind had become over the loss of Appa,
Katara’s next act perfectly defined the role she played throughout the
episode.  Unafraid of Aang, she walks to
him and pulls him down from his levitating position and into her arms.  The rage on Aang’s face shifts to sorrow and
tears well from the corners of his eyes.
No words are spoken, but Aang buries his face against Katara’s chest and
leaves the Avatar State to weep in the embrace of someone who loves him.  For the first time since losing Appa, Aang is
allowed to express his sorrow and grieve.

“The Desert” follows on the tension and painful
conclusion of “The Library,” taking the anguish that Toph suffers as she’s
unable to save Appa, and translates it into an avatar full of sorrow but only
able to express it through anger and frustration.  The shift in Aang’s personality creatively
applied through a shift in our own perspective of the episode, be it camera angles
of the characters to the more vibrant colors of the desert.  Hidden within it is a message on grief and
the patience born of affection and love to understand those unable to properly
express it.  Unlike in “The Southern Air
Temple,” when grief over the fate of the Air Nomads sends Aang into the Avatar
State, Katara doesn’t need to tell Aang he has a new family, this is already
well established.  Instead, she simply
needs to be there.

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