Halfway through the second season of the show, the writers for Avatar know it’s time to refocus the story. The first half of the season honed in on two story tracks: Aang getting an earthbending teacher, and the ongoing conflicts of the Fire Nation’s royal family. With Toph onboard the Team Avatar train it’s time for a new goal to emerge, for a new target to be hit, and a new, shorter clock to begin ticking. This pair of episodes in fact reminds one of the “Winter Solstice” two-parter from season one, with another dip into the world of the spirits and the time table of the Fire Nation. But where those episodes felt disjointed there’s a harmony here, emboldened by the show’s stronger grasp of it’s tone and an upgraded visual look.
“The Library” then is an almost classic place-of-the-week entry into the series. The Gaang arrives somewhere, faces a challenge, learns a lesson, and goes on their merry way. “The Library” doesn’t really upset the format, but readjusts the tone. The place they go is legitimately threatening and filled with intrigue, the information gained will animate a lot of the rest of the show, and Team Avatar does not leave merrily, but rather at a severe disadvantage.
After completing the first steps of his earthbending training, Aang has decided to treat team Avatar to some well needed rest and relaxation. Each member gets to decide on a mini vacation to spend their time and recoup some energy after a few particularly stressful episodes. Aang treats everyone to some singing groundhogs, Katara wants to go to the Misty Palms Oasis, and Sokka is consternated about the fact that they haven’t made ground on planning an attack on the Fire Nation.
Still vacations trumps everything else for now, unfortunately the Misty Palms Oasis is little more than a tourist trap along the desert. Faded from it’s once natural glory to a hive of scum and villainy, and no amount of fruity drinks at the local watering hole can fix that. What can turn the situation around is the chance encounter with Professor Zei, the head of anthropology at Ba Sing Sae university. He’s been traveling in the desert looking for a mystical spirit library that is said to contain all knowledge in the world. Sokka sees and opportunity and wants to spend his vacation, “at the Library!”
So the Gaang journeys into the wastes to discover the information they need to get the upper hand on their foes. They stumble upon Wan Shi Tong’s library, now buried deep in the sands of the desert. Toph and Appa opt to wait outside. Once underground our heroes meet the spirit of the library, a massive being that is both part owl and serpentine, a presence that is haughty and off putting, The knowledge spirit has a point in being so aloof, the world of man has used knowledge for nothing other than terror and evisceration. He allows the group to explore his collection on Aang’s word as the Avatar, but is weary of their presence.
The Library itself is one of the show’s most beguiling destinations. An architectural wonder that weaves in some central Asian design. The incorporation of Wan Shi Tong’s look into the building adds a sense of grandeur and awe to the proceedings as well. This sense is further heightened when Sokka discovers a planetarium that reveals what the darkest day of the Fire Nation was, a solar eclipse that prevents firebenders from executing their martial art. It’s a piece of information that could turn the tide of the war, and Wan Shi Tong is furious about it. The spirit attacks our heroes and begins to sink his library into the sands forever.
This move puts Toph in a prickly situation as well. As she tries to prevent the library from fully sinking into the ground she’s beset by sandbenders. The sandbenders grapple with taking Appa, but Toph’s at a disadvantage. Her sight is muddled by the sand and she can only really focus on keeping the building afloat. This is coupled with Aang and the crew fleeing the knowledge spirit, now grotesque in his anger, and when they escape it’s far from triumphant.
They may have the information of when to attack the Fire Nation, and a plan to communicate this info to the Earth Kind in Ba Sing Sae. But for now their stuck in the wilderness without Appa, lost in a sea of sand.
Odds and Ends
- I Know That Voice: venerable character actor Hector Elizondo provides the voice for the knowledge spirit, giving him the menace and gravitas the design deserves.
- Lots of good blind jokes here. Toph waving her hand in front of her face and commenting on why she doesn’t like books are great.
- Kudos to the background designers for slowly integrating the desert environments into the background of the show over the past few episodes. Really feels like we’re moving in a specific direction.
- The Misty Palms Oasis and sandbenders sure do feel a lot like the environs and characters from Tatooine.
- I like that the Fire Nation calculated on the library and burned down it’s contents. A great bit of continuity linking this part of the show to Zhao.
- Looks like Professor Zei will live the rest of his life down in the ground.
- We get our first, and I believe only, look at the lion turtle before the finale.
- I do love that the maps and plans stolen from the library remain a useful resource for the team moving forward.
This episode is the exact midpoint of the series, the swirling center of the show, and it stands as one of its most unique entries. No it doesn’t break format in a way that something like “Zuko Alone” does. Indeed it follows up on both of our major plot lines with classical a-plot/b-plot structure, reveals some new character details and excavates new lore elements. In many ways “The Desert” is an exemplary middle chapter, what sticks out most at this point is how, even when the credits hit, most everything still feels unsettled. Yes there’s a path forward, but our heroes are still lost, angry, and without Appa. There’s a mordent tone present here that feels new, and one that will underscore the struggles of the rest of the season.
Now out of the library sans Appa, Team Avatar must navigate their way out of the expanse of sands. What was once the trivial problem of travel has now been rendered a total ordeal. Once again putting into perspective what an advantage being able to fly was in this world. Those who command the air can cover the world. But Team Avatar is frighteningly earthbound now, even more concerning is the dissolving nature of their camaraderie. What was once easy care and gentle ribbing has turn to true infighting, a fracturing of tensions over what is the best way to move forward.
Toph bears the brunt of this anger. Aang believes it was her fault that Appa was stolen, and continues to lash out at her for because of how much she doesn’t like flying. It’s a reaction born solely from misplaced rage, but Aang’s frustrations make sense. He’s an individual who has lost everything, and Appa represents the closest connection he has to his culture before his hundred year nap. Toph’s response is quite morose as well. For the first time since we met her she seems reserved. Her power and abilities removed in the sands, her brashness cooled by the lack of true sight now. It’s one of the few times she seems vulnerable, making Aang’s attacks sting even more.
It is then Katara who is able to emerge and claim leadership now as the team around her falters. Katara has always been mother to the group. Concerning herself with the well being, structure, and resources of the group much more than that of her traveling companions. It’s the kind of attitude that got her in tiffs with Toph in “The Chase” and Sokka in “The Great Divide,” but here it proves to be an incalculable asset as she is the only one with enough focus to get the group out alive. She rations the water she uses for bending, uses the star charts from the library as guides at night, and suggests to Aang getting water from a cloud from the group. Her instincts is what keeps everything together for the time being.
This process isn’t helped by one of the show’s crowning comedic bits. Early on Sokka stumbles upon a delicious helping of cactus juice that sends him on a mescaline like hallucinogenic tear. This of course gifts us great lines like, “drink cactus juice it’ll quench yea,” and “maybe it’s friendly,” and also allows writer Tim Hedrick and director Lauren MacMullen to indulge and self-consciously trippy visual effects. It’s quite amusing and serves as a needed light counterweight to the darker elements of the episode.
Said darker elements appear again when the sandbenders that stole Appa appear at the end of the episode. Aang has mostly settled his anger with his teammates, but that doesn’t mean his rage has subsided. Instead it manifests in an outburst against the sandbenders, so much so that he enters the Avatar State and seems to near threatening the lives of the sandbenders. It’s a striking moment because this is the first time Aang is willing to strike in anger, to hurt and even possibly kill, bystanders. It’s against his nature, and Katara pulling him out of the spiral is a relief, even if it doesn’t solve the immediate problems facing the group. They still need to get to Ba Sing Sae, and don’t quite know how to do it.
Luckily our favorite Fire Nation exiles do know how to get to the Earth Kingdom capital. After an encounter with Captain Mongke, Iroh contemplates the possibility of old friends who aren’t explicitly out to kill him. This leads Zuko and Iroh to the Misty Palms Oasis for themselves, though with differing goals then our heroes. Unfortunately the duo also bumps into Xin Fu and Master Yu, who take a break from tracking down Toph to get the reward posted on Zuko and Iroh’s head.
Iroh’s got a plan, and a game of Pai Sho reveals the entrance into a secret society, one that can connect the two with a way out of their problems. Including the sudden intrusion of Xin Fu and Yu. Indeed it seems good that Iroh found his lotus piece all the way back in “The Waterbending Scroll,” because now it is obvious that it contain mysterious powers. Such as buying Zuko and Iroh a way to Ba Sing Sae, even if it’s under the guise of refugees. “The Desert” reveals that Iroh has friends in places higher than we initially thought, and a web of intrigue is now spread.
So both sides of our conflict are heading to Ba Sing Sae, not the way they expected, and not for the reasons they initially thought, but the Earth Kingdom capital calls and is knitting our story tighter together.
Odds and Ends
- Sandbending is another one of those specialized forms of the magical martial arts in the show that makes the world feel bigger.
- Buzzard Wasps are definitely one of the more upsetting animal combos in the world.
- “You’ve been hallucinating on cactus juice all day and then you just lick something you find stuck to the wall of a cave?!”, “I have a natural curiosity.”