In the tenth episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender, the group takes time to give themselves a bit of personal fun by granting each member a “mini-vacation.” On Katara’s “vacation,” Sokka learns of a place that might grant him information he needs to help defeat the Fire Nation. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Avatar.
There seriously is no stopping from here on out, is there?
What started out was one of the sillier episodes I’d seen so far quickly became HEAD-MELTINGLY RIDICULOUS and then ended on THE WORST CLIFFHANGER YET. And now I’m getting the feeling that I really should just strap myself in at this point, because there’s no possible way all of this is going to be resolved quickly and in a way to allow us to take a break from the chaos.
I suppose that’s sort of the point of what happens here in “The Library.” Team Avatar has largely been in GO GO GO GO GO mode for an absurd length of time, only stopping to rest. The timeline that remains before Sozin’s Comet arrives is shortening rapidly, so it’s completely understandable that they really haven’t had time to take pause. Given recent events, it’s also entirely understandable that these kids deserve even the slightest break from the reality of the war with the Fire Nation. I’m assuming the “trip” that opens the episode is Aang’s choice, as he takes them to a location where groundhogs respond obediently to notes that Aang plays on his flute. (Side note: Are these groundhogs the first truly “normal” creature we’ve seen so far? They’re not a hybrid like I’m used to.)
For all of Katara’s practicality, I was impressed that it was Sokka’s insistence that they stop monkeying around and try to find “intelligence” on the Fire Nation. And he certainly brings up a good point: once Aang masters all four elements, what exactly are they supposed to do after that? How can they defeat Fire Lord Ozai if no one knows where he lives?
As they promise to search for Sokka’s “intelligence” after they’ve done their little vacations, Katara uses Aang’s map to find the place she wants to go for her trip. She chooses the Misty Palms Oasis and I am still a bit shocked that everyone forgets that Aang’s past happened 100 YEARS AGO. So when he says he’s been somewhere, that was precisely a century earlier. It’s because of this that they discover that Misty Palms is hardly the oasis that the name promises. Still, it proves not to be a complete bust, since through a complete accident Team Avatar comes into contact with Professor Zei, an anthropologist at Ba Sing Sei University. (There’s that city again. When are we finally going to see what’s inside of it?) Professor Zei is a man consumed with the quest for expanding his horizons, a seeker of knowledge in all its forms, genuinely interested in the world around him. Naturally, meeting the only remaining air bender excites him to no end, and he prances around Aang, treating him like a rare specimen in a lab instead of…well, Aang.
It’s a good thing he’s so good-natured, as I imagine his form of interest could have gotten irritating, but the man has such innocent intentions that he proves to be utterly harmless. It’s refreshing to meet someone who shares a curiosity and respect of the world like Uncle Iroh does, yet doesn’t resemble that man at all. Being an anthropologist, he applies an academic approach to the way he assimilates information from the world into his brain, almost like he’s got a catalogue in his mind.
It’s this specific catalogue that Sokka is interested in, as he questions Professor Zei as to whether he knows much about the Fire Nation or possesses a map of some sort. Zei doesn’t, but he does have a map of all of his expeditions out in the desert to find the Knowledge Spirit’s library, which is possibly the best bet to learn more information about the Fire Nation itself. It’s Sokka’s best opportunity and, in a moment that feels like it was lifted right out of an after school specially, he dramatically declares that his vacation spot will be the library.
Wise choice, my friend.
Professor Zei continues to be overly excited by everything, though I can’t blame his reaction to seeing Appa, as I’m sure I’d be far, far worse. This was also our first introduction to sand benders! I’d never even considered that this was a type of bending that could actually happen, but sand is part of the earth, so it totally makes sense. A group of sand benders is standing around Appa, clearly interested in him, but Professor Zei shoos them off. (OMG FORESHADOWING THAT I DIDN’T EVEN CATCH.)
As the journey in the air to locate the library of the Knowledge Spirit continues to stretch on and on, it’s clear exactly why Professor Zei could never find it. The desert expanse seems to stretch on forever, and with no clear landmarks, how are you supposed to know where you are? Sokka, however, is the first to spot something in that desert that’s not a sand dune: a small tower jutting out of the ground. When they head over to it and it seems about as nondescript and pointless as possible, they watch, mystified, as a fox literally scales the vertical wall of the tower and waltzes right into a window while carrying a scroll in its mouth. Surely, this must be the handsome foxes Professor Zei spoke of earlier, no?
The group splits up at this point. Aang keeps his promise to Appa and doesn’t make him come underground again, and Toph remains outside because books hold little interest to her, since she cannot read them. I didn’t initially get why the writers were splitting them up, but…ok, I’ll get to that.
Inside the massive, gorgeous structure that is the library, it’s not long before the Knowledge Spirit, named Wan Shi Tong, appears before Team Avatar. At first, I nearly peed myself because I thought that was Koh again, but Wan Shi Tong appears in the form of a giant owl. The writers introduce a really fascinating moral quandary here: Wan Shi Tong is resistant towards letting these four peruse the library because, time and time again, humans have shown that they will use knowledge to harm or oppress other humans, and Wan Shi Tong initially refuses to let them stay. (AND HOW FUCKING AMAZING IS IT THAT THEY CONFIRM THAT ADMIRAL ZHAO WENT TO THIS LIBRARY TO LEARN ABOUT THE WATER AND MOON SPIRITS??!?!?!) Sokka, in perhaps his most poorly told lie yet, promises the Knowledge Spirt that he will not do such a thing, even asking Aang to “vouch” for him as the Avatar. As a condition to allowing them to use the library, Wan Shi Tong asks for each person to offer a gift to the library, but heavily insinuates that this promise is not to be broken.
That’s sort of what I wish this episode explored a bit more. Team Avatar believe that what they are doing is an exception to the rule, and you can tell by the way that Sokka operates in the library that he knows he’s bending the truth in order to justify what he’s doing. We all know that defeating the Fire Nation at this point is a necessity, as the loss of life and freedom is astronomical at this point. We also know that whatever information Team Avatar can find in the library might very well assist them in a much-needed victory. So how do you get around the fact that Wan Shi Tong is very correct about why these people are currently in his library? How can you blame his complete anger when he discovers what Sokka has done?
This is made all the more complicated when Sokka discovers an old, burnt parchment with a date and a brief mention of the “darkest day” of the Fire Nation. Convinced that this is the key he needs for his plan, Sokka directs the rest of the group to where the Fire Nation books/info is held, only to discover that fire benders have already been there and destroyed all of the evidence. (How does that work? At what point did they arrive in a way that Wan Shi Tong allowed them to enter that hall and burn it down? I mean, surely there are some Fire Nation heads stuffed on a mantle somewhere in that library because of it.)
After one of the scholar foxes gets the attention of the group, it leads them all to a planetarium, providing us with one of the cooler scenes in all of season two. That planetarium is absolutely mystical, an unexpected journey to a place I’d not thought existed in the Avatar world, though, in hindsight, it makes sense that someone would have studied the stars. It’s in this planetarium that Sokka learns that the darkest day for the Fire Nation is a literal description: that specific date was a solar eclipse.
AND OH MY GOD THAT IS AMAZING. It’s such a direct parallel to Zhao learning about how to invoke a lunar eclipse from the end of season one, and even further builds into the complicated moral system this story addresses. THE FIRE NATION HAS A WEAKNESS L;ASDJ F;A SAKDFJ AS;FUW 8A;KFSDJ A;AIDSF :J *(D^^5^D7F8
Thanks to Sokka and his desire to vocalize nearly everything that pops into his brain, Wan Shi Tong appears, knowing that they’ve been betrayed, and in a moment of cathartic rage, the Knowledge Spirit begins to sink the whole library.
It’s at this point that I understood why the writers separated Toph from the rest of the group. Outside, she is faced with a most impossible situation. She realizes that the tower is sinking into the sand, but even a powerful earth bender like her is not well-versed in art of sand bending, explaining why she was talking to Appa earlier about how the sand made her vision “fuzzy.” As she does her best to dig deep into the sand for support, a horrifying reality becomes apparent: the sand benders from earlier are rapidly coming closer to where Appa and Toph are, and we know the inevitable.
They are going to steal Appa.
Back inside the library, Team Avatar rushes away from the planetarium in an attempt to escape the now-angered Wan Shi Tong, but Sokka hesitates. The knowledge of the Fire Nation’s weakness is good information, but he knows it is not enough. He needs a date for that knowledge to be actionable, and so he tells Aang to come with him back to the planetarium as Zei, Momo, and Katara flee from the furious Knowledge Spirit.
As the situation outside the library becomes even more hopeless, we’re given a moment of clarity in the planetarium as Sokka and Aang determine the correct date of the next solar eclipse, which is thankfully before the date that Sozin’s Comet will plunge into earth. But even armed with this game-changing information, they have no idea how horrific their trip to the library has proved to be. Toph is now aware that people have arrived and are trying to kidnap Appa, but the decision she’s presented with is simply too unbearable: does she remove her grasp on the tower, allowing it to sink and bury alive her newfound friends? Or does she continue to hold on, saving them, but inevitably allowing Appa to be stolen away to certain danger? In this moment, the writers have put Toph, the most certain individual of the entire group, in the most horrifically uncertain situation imaginable. There are no good choices given to her. Whatever she chooses to do, she will definitely fail at saving someone. And thus, she chooses to allow Appa’s kidnapping in order to save her friends, and when Team Avatar escapes (predictably leaving Professor Zei behind), we can see the anguish in her face. This has broken her. She made a choice that was probably the least worse of the two, but neither one was particularly enjoyable to her.
My only hope is that in the coming episode, Aang, who is SUPREMELY HEARTBROKEN here at the end of “The Library,” does not excoriate Toph for the awful decision she had to make. I hope that Toph realizes that she did what she thought was best, that she was presented with an impossibility, and that Team Avatar appreciates her for saving their lives.
But fucking hell, you all. Shit just got so real.
- “That’s called Sokka Style! Learn it!”
- THERE ARE CREATURES CALLED LION TURTLES? what. I much prefer turtle ducks.
- SERIOUSLY ARE WE EVER GOING TO SEE BA SING SE. omg.
- “Aang, did you know that you were left-handed in one of your past lives?” “I always knew I was special!” ;LSADKF AS;DKFJ A;SDKFJ ADS;FK
- HEY, PROFESSOR ZEI, MOMO COULD TELL YOU LOTS OF STORIES. you bigot.
- BUTTRESSES. LOL INDEED.
- “Are fruit pies an agricultural product?”