What power, what character, what emotion! It is in desperate situations that hope and calm are most important, especially when friends around are lacking just these two things. In this respect, there is one thing which has to be mentioned to truly do the events of this chapter justice: This episode belongs to Katara.
It is now that Katara's care and maturity are required to the fullest. With a stoned Sokka, a blind and helpless Toph, and an angry and irrational Aang, it is up to Katara to lead the gang out of the desert to safety. Her determination is the clearest when Aang returns from his search and Katara looks at each member of their group. This goes on for the entire rest of the episode all the way to the end when she calms Aang down from his Avatar State.
Next to Katara, Aang also has a very interesting role. Due to losing his beloved friend, the usually goofy and cheery kid turns into an angry powerhouse with a self-destructive bend. This completely warped and scary Aang appears like in this way the very first time, and displays that given the situation, the Avatar can indeed become exceptionally dangerous even without the Avatar State.
Iroh also get his share of the spotlight as he is revealed to be a high ranking member of a secret society. While this is an interesting tidbit, the real revelation here is that Iroh and Zuko are going to travel to Ba Sing Se. Since the gang is heading for that place as well, it will enable them to meet up again and start up whatever old relationship issues they had with each other.
Sokka's cactus juice antics actually serve two purposes. The first and obvious one is comic relief. This episode is quite dark, and Sokka helps to lift the viewers spirits slightly by complete silliness. The second role of his condition is to render him helpless in the desert. For narrative purposes and character constellation, it is much better to have one person, namely Katara, act as the group's leader in this time rather than to have two competent people leading.
While this episode is already magnificent, the ending serves a final trump. We find out what happened to Appa, and an enraged Aang finally loses his self control completely and enters the Avatar State. It should be noted that this is the first time he does this purely out of anger, and not out of him or his friends being in danger. And as if that is not enough, we get even more emotion into this mix. A saddened Katara manages to calm Aang down, and he starts crying in her embrace. Again, this is a very powerful ending, and does not resolve the story, but just lets it hang there.
What this episode lacks in action, it makes up greatly in drama. If possible, this episode is probably even more serious than the last one, and while it does not drive the plot onward too greatly, it does give a great deal of character development and heavy emotions. Overall, the entire degree of maturity for this show seems to have climbed steadily, as has the quality.
The gang's not having their day. Appa has been stolen by sandbenders, and now Aang, Katara, Sokka and Toph are pretty much stranded in the desert with no way out. This might not seem as much of a setting for an entire episode, but this episode does have a lot of good stuff going for it.
Of course, there is Aang, the ever-happy airbender. But not right now. Aang is now nothing like the friendly youth we have grown to love over the past episodes. And that makes sense. He has lost Appa, who to him still is the only friend from his 'old time' with the airbenders he still has. He sees Appa as his dearest friend, a companion for life, who has now been taken away from him. And Aang's going to do everything in his power to find his friend back. After accusing his other friends for not caring about Appa, he flies off in search for him. It is indeed quite surprising how the others fail to notice the importance of Appa to Aang, because they only seem to comment that 'they can't get out of the desert now'. But who knows what anyone would say in such a situation.
The rest of the episode features the search for Appa by Aang, and the rest of the group just trying to get out of the desert. During that trip, Sokka decides to drink water from a cactus, which results in the hilarious - and already classic - cactus juice induced hallucinations. Only a true sourpuss with no sense of humor will be able not to burst out in laughter during these hilarious scenes.
Meanwhile, the people who were sent to find Toph by her parents, now find Zuko and Iroh and decide to track them instead. But far more interesting then that, is the Pai Sho game that Iroh plays with a fellow game-lover, which reveals to us that, as Iroh always said, there is more to Pai Sho then just a game. This adds to Iroh's mysterious backgrounds, as we learn that he knows more things then an ordinary Pai Sho player, like the secret organization that bonds all players together. Eventually, with some help, they manage to escape from the bounty hunters.
The episode ends with a final confrontation with the sandbenders, and Toph reveals that one of them stole Appa. When they learn Appa has already been sold, a furious Aang shifts into the Avatar state, and only Katara is able to calm him down eventually. The episode closes with one of the saddest images ever: a crying Aang, who is devastated by the loss of his best friend.
'The Desert' is an interesting episode, because it shows us a side of Aang that we don't get to see very often. It is also very painful to see how Katara is trying to help and comfort him, something in which she doesn't succeed, at least not in this episode. There was also a lot of room for talk between the characters, and because the episode wasn't focused on action too much, we got to feel the full force of the Avatar's fury. And of course, between all the drama, there's Sokka on cactus juice... which is reason alone to go watch this episode.
The Desert capitalizes on the idea of suffering = drama and puts our heroes in the direst of situations. No longer are they facing the Fire Nation, but rather the environment itself. They were literally going up against the elements.
Strangely enough, Katara, who would probably suffer the most, fares the best. This episode was truly a showcase for this strong woman (enough though she is only 14), whose caring and motherly qualities were tested to their limits. She takes charge of the group and literally saved them from becoming dried-up bones within the sand pit. At all points in this episode she stayed strong and determined, even when it seemed hopeless.
Toph's bending was severely limited within the desert as well. Unfortunately, we did not get that much screen time devoted her. Still, there was development to be had, which is most apparent during the first few seconds of the episode. For the first time since her debut, she sounded vulnerable. Of course, she had every reason to be, considering her lack of "Earth-sight", as well as the guilt over loosing Appa; it was the first time she faced such a challenge.
No Avatar episode would be complete without humor, and Sokka brings forth one of the best comedic scenes the series has ever delivered. From "it's the quenchiest!" to "friendly mushroom!" the writers exploited the vocal talents of Jack DeSena to their fullest, and had me laughing my butt off.
However, the focus was on Aang; this 2-parter isn't called "The Fury of Aang" for nothing. The animation, once again, was used to illustrate the inner struggles of the characters; this was apparent given that most of the episode took place in the dark, or near dark. Accompanying this is the darkening of Aang's character, no doubt amplified by the heat of the desert. Some of the fandom, however, saw Aang as just throwing a tantrum. All doubts of this were removed from my mind when he sliced that buzzard-bee in half. Given his religious upbringing, in which killing without the need was prohibited; his actions in this episode made it clear just how angry he truly was. For the first time in the series, Aang was hurt too close to home.
Before we get to the end, I just like to touch on Zuko and Iroh's story. Compared to Aang's, their's was, unfortunately, merely a way for the characters to get to Ba Sing Se. Still, we got to revel in the wisdom Iroh, and touched base with Toph's pursuers. In the grand scheme of things however, their B-story was merely there to set up the end of the season.
One of the themes of Avatar is that of balance. If anything, this episode was as out of balance as one can get. True, there were both drama and humor, but the former vastly surpasses the latter. The heat never gave way to the cool, and the anger never subsided into calmness. So what happens when a system become unbalanced? Well, as shown by the end of this episode, the system implodes.
The end of the "The Desert" is one of the most powerful scenes in the series. I can go on and on about it, but I'll just stick to the specifics for now. As all know, Aang finally got to the breaking point, and "glowed-it-up". Notice that he did it when it was mentioned that Appa was muzzled, basically denying him freedom and the right to a voice, a thing I'm sure was precious to the free-loving Air Nomad race. The core of this scene, however, takes place after this.
As the choir in the background ramped up, and the dust and sand went flying around Aang and the others, only one was stationary. Katara remained rooted to the ground, only moving when Aang seemed to move out of her reach. The bond between Katara and Aang was cemented the moment she grabbed his arm; the music changed; the screaming choir transformed into that of a lone, female voice trying to get through the chaos. On a closer look, we saw tears streaming out of Aang's glowing eyes, and it hits home just how sad, not angry, he was. Panning up, we see Katara, eyes tightly shut, resolute in holding onto Aang, even if it meant the loss of her own life. At the end, she calmed Aang down, and we finally see that he was just a boy that lost his best friend and one of the last vestiges of his people.
The themes of friendship, of togetherness, and of loss are commonplace and sometimes are even considered cliché. Avatar, on the other hand, takes these well-tread subjects and transforms them into a half-hour of great television. I can't say I'm surprised.