Chapter Thirty-Six: “Appa’s Lost Days”
(Rating Out of 15)
The downside to having so many good-to-great episodes in a row is that when a truly bad one comes along it’s an absolute chore to sit through. “Appa’s Lost Days” could have been a lot worse, but that’s faint praise. The episode primarily answers the question: where was Appa all this time? It’s not a good sign when, by the end of the episode, you’re left wondering if you really wanted that question answered.
Maybe the strangest thing about the episode is that, despite how bad the episode is, the events that occur in and of themselves are actually quite interesting.
Appa goes through Hell in so many ways. After being kidnapped by the Sandbenders, he’s sold to a couple of merchants, who in turn sell him to a circus. In this circus, the ringmaster treats him like shit, constantly terrorizing Appa with fire when he is disobedient. (I don’t remember if Appa was afraid of fire before this episode, but it’s used effectively enough here.)
Appa escapes the torment and degradation of the circus and…
Hmm…what happens next?
I think he has a flashback to when he and Aang first became friends. According to the script’s heavy-handed treatment, a bond between a bison and an Airbender is forever, unlike bonds with humans, which are bound to fall apart thanks to one or both persons not being willing to compromise. But what do animals know about compromise?
Anyway, after that…
Ah, yes: Appa goes back to the crater where the library was, but of course they kids aren’t there. Then we get a lame reprise of the last episode’s final shot as Appa rests in the crater where his loved ones were. I call it lame because: 1) the episode does little to invest me in Appa’s actions; and 2) it doesn’t take place on an overcast day, so naturally I don’t care.
And then…Appa goes into the buzzard-wasp nest and nearly gets pecked and stung to death.
After that…I think he gets into a fight with a wild boar and somehow gets a bunch of thorns in him. Next he…
By now you’ve probably picked up on what the main problem with this episode is: it’s BORING and UNMEMORABLE. I literally have to strain to remember a single event from this episode, something that has never occurred with any other episode of Avatar: the Last Airbender thus far (not even “The Great Divide,” the worst episode of the series, boasts such a high boredom rate).
Why so boring? Well, that has a lot to do with the second main problem, which is Appa himself. It doesn’t matter how much emotional and physical abuse this flying bison has to endure throughout the course of this episode. Appa simply cannot carry an entire episode all by himself. He lacks the personality and capacity for emotional expression that someone like Momo has in spades. Appa is not a strong individual; he constantly needs the actions of those around him to give his existence color.
That explains why the best moments in the episode are the ones that don’t have to do exclusively with Appa. One of the flashback sequences is actually Aang’s, as he dreams of his first meeting with Appa and how he promised they’d always be together. This is a genuinely touching moment, and one that nearly convinced me that Appa was more than just a means of transportation.
The scenes near the end with Guru Pathik are wonderful only because the Guru is such an interesting character. Thankfully, we’ll be seeing more of him in the two-part season finale.
It’s also nice to finally know how Appa ended up in Ba Sing Se and then disappeared again to the dismay of Aang and friends. Long Feng, you bastard!
Everything else is just not very fun to watch. The scenes of Appa’s time in the circus are too heavy-handed and predictable. Of course the ringmaster is an animal abusing asshole, and of course he gets his comeuppance (although by the way Appa slapped him with his tail, I would think the ringmaster had been killed).
Appa’s encounter with Suki and the Kyoshi Warriors starts off well enough, but is ruined by the appearance of ATM. Their appearance wouldn’t be so bad if Mai and Ty Lee didn’t have two of the absolute worst lines you’ll ever have to suffer in this series. As they attack the Kyoshi Warriors, Mai says, “You’re so colorful it’s making me nauseous.” Pretty lame, but much worse is Ty Lee’s, “You’re not prettier than we are!” What a pathetic attempt at character development.*
And finally, every scene with Appa alone is just unbearable. Is there any correlation between a character’s size and his entertainment value? (That is, does Momo’s tiny size give him the upperhand in personality over lumbering giants like Appa? Who knows.)
The third major problem with this episode is that it’s absolutely necessary to the series. Unlike “The Great Divide,” which could be dismissed as an unfortunate but ultimately non-lethal detour, “Appa’s Lost Days” contains plot points that are integral to the continuation of the series. That means when you go back to re-watch the series, you can’t just skip right over “Appa’s Lost Days” like you can with “The Great Divide.” (And this is not the first time this has happened: “The King of Omashu” and “Return to Omashu” were the same way.)
So “Appa’s Lost Days” is the worst episode in Book Two. At least it won a Genesis Award from the Humane Society of the United States for its depiction of animal abuse. This episode will always be remembered for showing how cruel the world can be to animals and how cruel a show can be to its audience.
*There is a single bit of animation involving Ty Lee that not only slyly develops her character, but nearly makes the entire episode worth it. Azula asks the Kyoshi Warriors, “Who are you, the Avatar’s fan girls?” For a split second, Ty Lee has one of the most intriguing facial expressions she’s ever had. This was probably accidentally—I’m sure she was supposed to honestly be puzzled by this pun—but the way it is in the show works so much better. To me, she appears to look directly at the audience with an expression that says, “Wow, that is one of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard, but I shouldn’t say that. But I have to say something: Azula probably expects me to laugh at it. If I don’t, she’ll think I’m no longer on her side and will probably kill me for it! Quick: play dumb like usual and suck up to her so she’ll continue to feel secure and superior!” And so he compliments Azula on her silly little pun.
That’s just my interpretation, of course, but I’d rather take hints of depth than be stuck with a shallow character.
All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.