Mark Watches ‘Avatar’: S02E11 – The Desert

In the eleventh episode of the second season of Avatar: The Last Airbender, Aang becomes furious at the discovery of what happened while he was inside the library, and Katara struggles valiantly to keep Team Avatar together. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Avatar.

WHHHHHYYYYYYYYYYYYYY DID I END MY LAST REVIEW LIKE THAT. good lord WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME. Within seconds of starting “The Desert,” I realized how TRAGICALLY IRONIC IT WAS that I made those statements about Aang and Toph. And maybe I completely underestimated how attached Aang was to Appa, but Aang’s response throughout most of “The Desert” is pretty much the exact opposite of what I anticipated.

To an extent, I get it. I get that Appa represents more than Aang’s flying bison and more than just his friend. Like Momo, he’s one of the only remaining remnants of his entire culture. The three of them are all that’s left of that airbenders, and if you stole that from Aang, it is absolutely enough to send him into a rage. (And oh lord, does he fly into a rage in this episode.) I just think that his anger is so immediately misdirected and I wish that there had been a moment where Aang realized that. (Saying that, though, I realized this episode ended very suddenly, at the exact moment that Aang knew he’d overreacted, so it’s entirely possible that this is to be in the future.)

But Aang’s overreaction is worse than I expected even after the cold open. He accuses not only Toph, but the entire gang of thinking only of themselves and not of Appa at all. I mean, yes, it is dearly important that they find Appa, but they’re are STRANDED IN THE MIDDLE OF THE DESERT, AANG. I was kind of irritated that Aang blames them all, and then takes off on his own, possibly leaving his friends to certain death. IN THE MIDDLE OF THE DESERT.

(This is not a criticism of the writing, FYI, as this is all probably a very important step in Aang’s growth.)

It’s at this point that the fabulous, practical, and pragmatic Katara steps up to the plate to show each and every one of us that she is a natural-born leader, one who persists and maintains hope in the most hopeless of circumstances. We haven’t had a Katara-centric episode in a while, and “The Desert” provides us with some of her most glowing moments yet. She sympathizes instantly with Aang’s fury and, instead of sulking or panicking, begins immediately to plan for the imminent future. They are the only beings on the planet who are alive and know of the Fire Nation’s weakness, and it is imperative that they travel to Ba Sing Se as quickly as possible to bring word to the people there.

Meanwhile, the episode also gives us the continued story of Zuko and Iroh, who are on a difficult journey of their own. It’s becoming increasingly complicated for the two of them to travel without being spotted as fugitives of the Fire Nation, and this is never more apparent than when the Rough Rhinos (who were in the opening of “Avatar Day”) surround them, making it clear they are going to collect these fugitives to get their bounty. Iroh, always the calm optimist, introduces them to his nephew and makes jokes about their preference for tea and their musical predilections to Zuko, who is shocked that Iroh actually knows them. Of course, Iroh is stalling in order to size up precisely where they are, so when they attack, it’s a quick and fluid battle on Iroh’s part as he magnificently neutralizes all of them with almost no effort at all. Seriously, the man’s a genius! As him and Zuko escape on the ostrich-horse that Zuko stole episodes ago, Zuko wonders aloud if Iroh has any friends left who don’t want to attack him, and in doing so, inspires Iroh to visit those very people.

Team Avatar, minus Aang, continue to trek through the repetitious and arid desert and Katara is forced to share her pouch of waterbending water with her friends to prevent them from dehydrating. The swampy taste of the water seemingly disgusts them all, but what other choice do they have? Sokka answers this question when he spots a lone cactus nearby, rushing to slice it open. He and Momo immediately begin to quench their thirst as Katara suggests that perhaps they shouldn’t be drinking from unknown plants in the middle of nowhere. Katara had no idea just how wrong she was about this suggestion because had Sokka and Momo not drank from the cactus, we would never have seen the UTTER BRILLIANCE of him and Momo HIGH AS FUCK on cactus juice. (That has to be a mescaline reference, which is ON A CHILDREN’S SHOW. oh my god this show y’all.)

Yes, it absolutely ridiculous and silly, but I honestly could not stop laughing. The situation in that desert was dire enough as it is, and Sokka and Momo’s constant inability to interpret reality was a much-needed break from the possible monotony of it all. On top of that, there are some fascinating stylistic choices in the way Sokka’s hallucinations are played out, from a different animation style to some particularly wacky music. For Momo, too, there’s a running visual gag of him wanting to do nothing more than feel the wind blow through his wings, despite that he is not actually flying at all.

I am so glad this show can be so funny at times, especially when an event is interpreted through such a humorous lens. In that case, miles away, Aang is heartbroken and furious that he cannot find Appa, and, in a moment of concentrated rage, he airbends in a way to create an explosion in the sand that creates a gigantic mushroom cloud. Katara knows how serious this is, and when she tells Toph, you can hear it in her voice that she’s beginning to be more afraid for Aang. But Momo and Sokka? They’re convinced it is an actual mushroom. “Friendly mushroom!” Sokka exclaims! “Mushy giant friend!”

Seriously, bless his heart.

Aang, dejected about the reality of what has happened, returns to his friends. As a sign of how he and Katara treat a difficult situation, I really adored that Katara did not once jump to criticizing him for leaving them behind to fend for themselves, since neither Katara or Toph could protect the group with bending. Instead, she puts aside whatever feelings she might have and insists that the group continue to press on. They hike until nightfall, whereupon Katara tells them all to rest while she uses one of the maps Sokka stole during “The Library” to see if she can find the way to Ba Sing Se. Her plan is to have them walk during the night and rest during the day so that they are not so exhausted from the heat.

I don’t even believe that Katara sleeps at all that night, choosing to put the safety of the whole group before herself as she devises a method to finding Ba Sing Se using the stars. Even with a dejected and defeatist Aang acting as a thorn in the side of her morale, she presses onward. I’ve said before that out of everyone on Team Avatar, Katara is the most hopeful, and here in “The Desert,” I feel I could not be more right about that.

We then discover that Iroh has lead Zuko straight to the Misty Palms Oasis, and he reveals his bizarre plan (or at least part of it) to Zuko: He’s going to play Pai Sho with a stranger in the back of the room. Earlier, Xin Fu and Master Yu had shown up in the same town and watched as Zuko and Iroh entered the same bar from “The Library,” and Xin Fu is impatient; he wants to capture the fugitives to collect the bounty on their heads, but Master Yu (correctly) claims that if they draw too much attention to this fact, they may be overwhelmed by the desperate men in that room.

Iroh, on the other hand, is far from desperate at this moment. I wasn’t as angry as Zuko, but in terms of being confused, I was right there with him. Why on earth was Iroh playing Pai Sho and why was that important? Except Zuko quickly realizes this is not at all any sort of traditional game of Pai Sho that he’s seen, as the mysterious man and Iroh begin to quickly assemble Pai Sho pieces into an intentional pattern that forms into one giant lotus flower. That’s when the Pai Sho stranger hints that Iroh is part of some sort of clandestine group and Iroh knows he has found one of those friends who doesn’t want to attack him.

As Xin Fu moves in at that moment to capture Iroh and Zuko, foolishly announcing himself as he tries to, the stranger at the Pai Sho table provides the perfect cover: he loudly mentions the word “gold” and pure chaos erupts in that bar. (I loved the visual reference to old western bar fights when one of the men is thrown into the bar shelves as the bartender ducks. There are so many of these things in this season!) As Xin Fu and Master Yu fight the localizes, the three others slip away into the night.

Back with Team Avatar, Katara still struggles with her own impatience as Momo and Sokka continue to hallucinate, Toph slips into depressing, and Aang further allows his anger to control him. And, again, not once does she make this situation about herself. She is so beautifully focused throughout all of these scenes in “The Desert” and while I hope I’m not sticking my foot in my mouth like I did at the end of the last review, I’d really love if the rest of the group acknowledged this in the next episode.

She keeps the group moving and refuses to let impatience get the best of her, even when Aang snaps at her when he doesn’t get as much water from a passing cloud as anyone would like. Her face is sad and tired, for sure, but everything is internalized here. She defies the opportunity to let anyone know that she’s just as dejected and exhausted as everyone else. Seriously, she’s amazing. I have to say that.
Thankfully, they get a bit of a boost when Toph accidentally discovers one of the sandbender’s sand boats and Aang uses airbending to help them glide smoothly across the expansive desert. Katara initially believes that the compass onboard works perfectly, but they soon discover a giant rock formation that seems to be the “magnetic center” of the desert. Toph, more than anyone else, is ecstatic at the possibility of putting her feet on solid ground, so they rush to see exactly what’s at this rock. Once they’re there, it’s great to see Toph’s depression lift, and she shows us this by making a rock angel. And that is a sentence I never thought I’d write, but there you go. Thanks, Avatar.

There was a scene earlier where Sokka hallucinated about the “circle birds” that turned out not to be a hallucination at all, and here on that rock, they find out that it’s actually a giant nest for BUZZARD WASPS. what. Well, actually, before they discover this, Sokka, who believes that the cactus juice is finally out of his system, LITERALLY LICKS SOME OF THE GOO OFF THE WALLS OF THE NEST. my god. Sokka, didn’t you just get in trouble for putting strange shit into your mouth. Oh my god, it’s totally true, Sokka’s problems are always caused by his own actions. I LOVE YOU SO MUCH.

The buzzard wasps are creepy enough and the scene does allow Aang to slip temporarily out of his state of PURE RAGE when Momo is captured. Having a defined task like this almost clears up Aang’s head for a moment, as he’s determined not to lose another friend out in this desert hellhole. But for me, the real point of the buzzard wasps was to lead right into what happens next. Aang, giving right back in to his anger, appears to actually kill the wasp that stole Momo, and that was kind of shocking to me. He hadn’t done that before, had he? And yet the moment seems to mean nothing to him at all, almost as if he’s not even himself. When Aang returns to his friends, who are all frantically battling the remaining wasps, huge columns of sand shoot up into the air, scaring off the insect hybrids, and HOLY SHIT THERE ARE A BUNCH OF SANDBENDERS RIGHT THERE.

Given how tense this is, of course the episode immediately switches back to Iroh and I cannot even handle what the hell is going on, and that’s when Iroh tells Zuko (who was not allowed to attend the meeting of the Order of the White Lotus) why he came all this way: his friends have found a place that they can hide.

Inside of Ba Sing Se.


As if I needed even more to freak out about, the sandbenders confront Team Avatar about how they came to acquire a vessel of theirs and Katara explains calmly. When one particular sandbender immediately jumps to the conclusion that Katara just accused the sandbenders of stealing Appa (when she totally didn’t), Toph immediately exclaims that she recognizes that man as one of the ones who stole Appa. In an instant, Aang returns right back to that stage of rage and fury, demanding to know where Appa is.

The sandbender (named Ghashiun) denies this claim and then I am completely confused. Toph says that she heard Ghashiun order someone to put a muzzle on Appa, but…did I miss that at the end of “The Library”? Eh, I probably did, but either way, I am prone to believing her. Why would she lie?

Regardless, it doesn’t matter, because Toph’s actions cause Aang to be consumed by so much rage that he goes into the Avatar State and I sat slack-jawed at the site of this. He destroys two sandbender vessels before Ghashiun admits that he not only stole Appa, but traded him to a merchant that is headed to Ba Sing Se. A;LSKDF FJA;DSIJF A;LSDKFJASF A;A;DLKFJJ OH GOD THEY ARE ALL GOING TO BE INSIDE BA SING SE jesus take the wheel

Yet, as mind-blowing as this is, this episode’s most important moment is when Aang begins to seal himself in an air ball, like the one we saw in “The Southern Air Temple,” and it is a sure bet that Aang is about to bring hell down on the sandbenders. In a moment of unbelievable sympathy, Katara, unafraid of Aang, reaches up to grab his wrist, pull him down to her, and give him a loving hug. As Aang slowly leaves the Avatar state, we see that he is crying, and then my heart breaks into a million pieces and then the episode ends ffffffffffffffffffuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu

This show. This show.


  • “Appa? Now why would Princess Yue need him? She’s the moon, she flies by herself!” Pretty sure I now ship Momo and Sokka with cactus juice.
  • “How did we get out here in the middle of the ocean?”
  • Hey, Zuko. I saw you sneak a sniff of that flower. I saw you.
  • “Would you like some tea first? I’d love some! What about you, Kahchi? I make you as a Jasmine man. Am I right?” <333333333
  • “They went in the desert! Too bad there’s almost no chance they survived.” “That’s okay, since she’s wanted dead or alive.” “No, she’s not! I’m certain her father wants her alive.” LOL FOREVER.


About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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