Because fans should be critical, too

Chapter Thirty-One: “The Desert”

13

(Rating Out of 15)

Once again, I must first get all of my complaints out of the way to explain why “The Desert” is, nonetheless, yet another great episode in a stream of consistently great episodes.

I forgot to mention earlier that, starting with “The Blind Bandit,” every episode begins with a brief prologue entitled “Previously on Avatar…” I do not like these prologues. I really don’t. I understand their purpose: this is Book Two, and the stories are getting more and more complicated, so DiMartino and Konietzko and company—or maybe it was the Nickelodeon executives—decided that these segments would help the audience understand what’s going on now. In theory, this is fine. However, I find them more distracting than anything else. They show certain snippets of previous episodes in such a way that tells you what to expect in the episode you’re about to watch. This approach sets up expectations that often ruin the enjoyment of watching an episode unfold in surprising ways.

Now let’s get back  to my favorite critical punching bag, Sokka/Jack De Sena, and one sequence in particular: the infamous cactus juice incident. This will forever remain one of those moments in Avatar: the Last Airbender I’ll just never get, and it gets stranger every time I watch it. It’s supposed to be funny—and sometimes it is—but I think I finally understand why it ultimately doesn’t work: it feels like it was written and performed by someone who has never been under the influence once in their life.

I’m not going to pick on DiMartino and Konietzko and company for living a lifestyle that most likely excludes substance abuse of any kind, but if they’re going to write a sequence involving an hallucinating character, they should have had at least some experience with it. Having been around inebriated folks—and having been inebriated myself on occasions—I feel like they got it totally wrong. Drunk people may be funny, scary, goofy, bizarre, extremely extroverted or intensely introverted, etc., but they certainly don’t behave like this.

But maybe I’m blaming the wrong people, and once again, I have to bitch about Jack De Sena and his “comedic” improvisations. Either this kid never truly utilized his college education to get wasted once in a while, or he’s much worse than even I give him credit for. His lines seem to come from third-hand knowledge of what it feels like to be under the influence. There’s nothing worse than a bad comedian whose probably never been stoned in his life pretending to be stoned.

Now there is a very real possibility that these scenes are so weird because of interference from the Nickelodeon executives. This is a kids’ show after all, and making any sort of reference to hallucinogens (even fictional ones) was going to be risky. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the memos DiMartino and Konietzko and company received read: “Make Sokka’s high on cactus juice as disturbingly unfunny as possible to discourage kids from ever wanting to do drugs.”

What disappoints most about the cactus juice passage is how thoroughly they waste a great opportunity for surreal visual humor. I know as a reviewer I’m not supposed to make suggestions on how a work can be improved, but come on: you don’t have to be Hunter S. Thompson to realize the possibilities here.

“We were somewhere in the Earth Kingdom, in the middle of the desert, when the juice began to take hold…”

Don’t just have Sokka lamely state that Toph is on fire. Show me Toph on fire. Don’t just have Sokka lamely ask how they got in the middle of the ocean. Show me Sokka in the middle of the ocean. Let me see the bizarre imagery that he sees. Show don’t tell! How could they waste the endless possibilities of the medium of animation for a few unfunny verbal jokes? ARGH!

Terry Gilliam, these guys ain’t.

(At one point, Toph asks if she can have cactus juice. Now that would have been interesting.)

This entire concept and its pathetic execution are enough for me to cut off two whole points from my overall rating of “The Desert.” A 13 is still very high, but this would have been a perfect episode. Of course, raise or lower that score depending on how you feel about Sokka’s experience (or Aang’s, which I’ll get to momentarily). Me, I treat it like I do the album Double Fantasy: the horrible stuff (whether they could from De Sena or Yoko Ono) makes the brilliant stuff feel that much more brilliant.

“The Desert” immediately takes off where “The Library” let off. The loss of Appa reveals two important things.

First, they really do not have a way out of that desert. Appa was always their default mode of transportation, his mass, and ability to fly and carry all of them great distance within reasonable time. And now he’s gone. This is one of the rare times I’m invested in the well-being of these kids from beginning to end: how are they going to get out of this?

Did DiMartino and Konietzko and company screen Aguirre: the Wrath of God before writing this episode? I ask because they do a damn fine job of making the usually twenty-four-minute running time feel like forever. This is definitely not a criticism, but high praise: they really establish a maddeningly lonely atmosphere that matches the harsh, merciless environment the characters must trek through.

Most of their time is just spent trudging along, barely conscious, and not saying much of anything. The attempt to punctuate these passage of despair with humor mostly fails, but not always—Momo high on cactus juice is much more entertaining than Sokka high on cactus juice.

The second thing that Appa’s kidnapping reveals is the dark side of Aang.

I have no real polite way of putting this, so here it goes: Aang is an absolutely unbearable little twat in this episode. If I tended to have no real emotional reaction to any of his behavior before, this time I really would have loved to have seen someone throttle this brat.

And yet, I can’t really blame him. I’m not excusing his angry and often uncalled for behavior, but think about where its coming from. This is a twelve-year-old boy who unwillingly had a huge responsibility thrown upon him, lost his entire race of people, and was frozen for a hundred years. Through all of that, the only friend he had from those innocent times was Appa, who is, along with Momo, one of the remaining living souls from those times. Now his best friend is gone, and Aang has completely snapped.

His fury is wonderful, thanks to the careful writing and Zack Tyler Eisen’s voice acting. His outbursts at his friends for only caring about themselves and not Appa are exactly the kind of irrational, emotion-fueled arguments you’d expect from a twelve-year-old. Unlike Jessie Flower in her portrayal of Toph, Eisen does not hold back; he delivers his lines with full conviction, and we believe his pain.

That said, if this is anyone’s episode, it’s Katara’s. While Aang is having his temper tantrum and Sokka is high on his own obnoxiousness and Toph can’t do much anything, Katara is the one who pulls them all together and gets them to keep going through the desert, even if there’s no chance of them getting out of alive. (After all, they have to get the information about the solar eclipse to the Earth King.)

It’s all summed up in one of the most masterful bits of animation in the whole series: Katara sees how low morale is, and for a moment let’s the despair of the situation get to her. But she immediately regains herself and vows to get them all out of that desert. This is not the naïve hopefulness that plagued Book One: this is the resolve a young woman who knows that true failure only happens when you lose your will to succeed.

Which is precisely what happens to Aang. Yes, he does look for Appa for, like, a moment, but gives up in a bitter fit of atomic bomb proportions.

Heh, heh.

Even when he returns to the group and receives an opportunity to aide their survival, he fucks it up. At one point, he sees a cloud in the sky and briefly believes its Appa. He’s so disappointed that Katara has to point out the obvious: it’s cloud in the middle of the desert. “Turns out clouds are made of water,” remember? They need water to survive! Aang does go up to get the water from the cloud, but he does it so hastily that he winds up getting almost no water at all. And then he has the nerve to ask Katara what she’s doing to help them out.

But their luck changes when they find a Sandbender’s sailboat buried in the sand. Convenient? Yes. Do I care? Nope.

They follow the compass—which is way off, according to the star charts they took from the Library—to a huge piece of rock in the desert (much to Toph’s delight). Unfortunately, on this rock is a huge hive of buzzard-wasps.

I won’t lie, these buzzard-wasps aren’t as scary as they could be. I say this as someone with a rather distint fear of wasps—not bees, though. (All right, no more suggestions.) They provide for a last-act action sequence, though, so…yeah.

Now there are two moments in this episode that really make me lose it.

The first is when Momo gets taken away by one of the buzzard-wasps. I don’t know how to explain myself. I’ve watched this episode probably five times, but it tears me apart every single time it happens. Before Aang goes after him, he says, “I’m not losing anyone else out here!” That’s touching, yes, but it doesn’t explain why I’m so attached to this animal. Is it because I adore him like I would my own pet? Is it because, over the course of the series, he’s emerged as an emotionally and physically alive character in his own right? Is it because he’s the funniest character in the show? I have no idea; I just know that Momo is one character I would never want to see anything bad happen to.

Aang does save Momo, and, from what I can gather, kills the buzzard-wasp who took him. You can rationalize with me all you want about how that thing didn’t actually die and Aang kept true to his creed to never kill anyone or anything. But as far as I’m concerned, Aang intended to kill that buzzard-wasp, and whether he succeeded is not important.

The second moment is after the kids are saved from the buzzard-wasps by Sandbenders. One of which was responsible for stealing Appa. Toph recognizes his voice and points him out to Aang, which sends him into such a rage that he enters the Avatar State. He destroys all the Sandbender’s sailboats and damn near kills them all.

And Katara braves the wrath in order to calm him down. It’s essentially a reprise of a similar moment way back in “The Southern Air Temple.” But whereas that scene was overly sentimental and false, this one works. There’s no talk about how “we’re family now” or “I lost my mother the same way.” In fact, there’s no talking at all, and the scene is all the better because of it. In her own silent way, Katara gets Aang to accept the fact that, even if Appa is gone, she is still there for him, and no amount of destruction he does will ever change that. It’s absolutely beautiful.

And that’s the last sequence of the episode, making “The Desert” the second episode in a row with a bittersweet ending. (That’s not entirely accurate, unless you consider reluctantly accepting those you may have lost forever uplifting.)

I didn’t mention that Zuko and Iroh are in this episode. In summary, Iroh manages to find a fellow member of the White Lotus–this will be very important later–and he helps get into Ba Sing Se as refugees. They have a brief encounter with the odd couple from “The Blind Bandit” who are looking for Toph, but decide that collecting a bounty for Fire Nation traitors would be worth looking into. Zuko and Iroh get away safely and are on their way to the great Earth Kingdom city that has remained untouched by the war. For now.

The reason I’m not going in-depth with Zuko and Iroh’s story is: 1) I’ve spoken about these two and their stories enough that you already know how I feel about them; and 2) while it’s nice to see them after they were absent in “The Library,” I kind of wish they weren’t in this episode. I honestly feel that their comparatively lighter story detracts from that of Aang and friends. (Last suggestion, I swear!) I feel like the trek through the desert would have been more resonant if there weren’t any occasion cuts to the going-ons of any characters; that way, the supremely effective atmosphere of the harsh desert wouldn’t be broken. Imagine the whole island part of Cast Away occasionally interjected with scenes of Helen Hunt finding a new life without Tom Hanks, and you’ll understand where I’m coming from.

So “The Desert” is an imperfect episode, just as Avatar has always been an imperfect show, just as that previously-mentioned album Double Fantasy is imperfect thanks to Ono’s involvement. But in all three cases, it’s within those imperfections that the moments of true genius shine their brightest. Sometimes that’s all you can really hope for.

All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.

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