In the sixteenth episode of the first season of Avatar: The Last Airbender, Aang convinces his friends to stop in a Fire Nation city in the hopes to get a better look at fire bending. When the three of them are caught, they receive help from an unlikely ally who knows one of the very few Fire Nation citizens who has deserted their people. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Avatar.
Man, this show is SO FASCINATING. Generally, whatever story that Avatar tackles each week is largely wrapped up by the time the final credits roll, with maybe a few unanswered questions. It’s serial in nature, but it’s not as intensive as most forms of storytelling in this style.
Now, I’m not saying that “The Deserter” completely breaks that mold, but here is my first huge chance to see how very little I know about this story. I’m so far from where this plot is eventually going to end up, and I realized that by the end of this episode. Aang has so much to learn and to do, and we’re not even at the North Pole yet. On top of that, the show is slowly revealing how interconnected this all is as well, and I imagine that we’re going to see a lot more of this in the next couple seasons.
(Also, holy shit, I’m almost done season one already. And most of you have said that seasons two and three are better this this? COLOR ME EXCITED.)
“The Deserter” opens with a good idea completely tarnished by a REALLY, REALLY POOR DECISION. I’d forgotten that the Avatar was supposed to learn the elements in a very specific order, which is why Aang was heading up to the North Pole in the first place. (Jeong Jeong would later remind me of this fact.) So, at heart, I think Aang’s idea is actually fairly genius: He is going to have to learn to fire bend at some point, so why not take a peak at some fire bending in the process? The Fire Days festival gives them a fantastic context to disguise themselves, but it’s at this point that the “good idea” diverges from such a thing right into “poor execution.”
There’s a brief bit of awkwardness about the festival that I’m glad the writers didn’t stray from showing, reminding the three that they are technically in “hostile” territory. That puppet play they watch is actually kind of disturbing, since Fire Lord Ozai is presented as a victorious hero for fighting against the Earth Kingdom bender. It’s a small detail, sure, but it’s a visual cue about how dangerous this side excursion is for the three of them, how they’ve now entered into a social culture where the three of them will be reviled specifically because they’re not fire benders. OMG DISCRIMINATION. But seriously! That’s a pretty power visual idea plopped right in front of them.
And despite that, Aang….oh, Aang. I love you. Your zest for knowledge is truly gorgeous and that’s why it made me laugh that you just had to get involved. It was already bad enough that the three of them walked straight up to the front of the stage, and it was even worse that Katara got chosen by the performer, and then…AANG, IT WAS A PERFORMANCE. THE DRAGON WASN’T REALLY GOING TO HURT KATARA. (Unless I interpreted that scene wrong? I mean, even the performer made that comment about being upstaged.)
I laughed, though; I don’t think the scene was written to be SUPER TENSE or anything, and it was more about the humorous lack of restraint on Aang’s part. I said before that I feel that Aang is the perfect balance between Katara and Sokka in terms of his personality. He’s got these depressing streaks of cynicism, but then he’s full of this boyish, excitable joy and hope that take over his actions. That’s what happens here: his desire to get involved simply overpowers the fact that HEY YOU SHOULD PROBABLY STAY IN DISGUISE.
It’s kind of cute. It is! He just loves helping people, even if he inherently kind of isn’t helping. This leads to a fun chase scene where, yet again, Team Avatar decide to follow A TOTAL STRANGER. I mean, this is going to be a bad idea one day, right? But it’s not this time, as the mysterious cloaked figure is rather good with his little bombs, and they escape out into the forest.
That’s when this episode deals with a very awkward reality quite beautifully: time. The timetable of what needs to occur by the end of this show was established in “Winter Solstice Part II: Avatar Roku.” Aang has just half a year or so to master all of the elements (something that is supposed to take years!) and face Fire Lord Ozai before Sozan’s Comet crashes into earth. So, two difficult facts are about to collide with each other: Aang has an incredibly limited schedule in which he must master the elements, and that process takes a much longer time than Aang has. This conflict is then elaborated further as Aang and Jeong Jeong clash constantly for the bulk of the story. Aang wants to rush through his training, eager to begin fire bending. Jeong Jeong wants to do the training right, taking the time to teach Aang to respect the discipline of the art.
And who’s right in the situation? It’s hard to really choose either side, when you think about it, and I’m glad the story largely straddles the line instead of just firmly telling us where to land. It’s true that Aang absolutely needs to learn some patience, but if the Avatar Roku has to show up to tell you to finally teach someone fire bending MAYBE YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG, TOO.
The training scenes generally follow a fairly familiar archetype of the wild master and the impatient young apprentice, but the writers make this seem so different because…well, Aang sort of has to be impatient. He really doesn’t have much time to learn fire bending and, to him, the control exercises to seem like a waste of time. So where does the balance come in? How do you rationalize your own technique and the reality of the situation?
Jeong Jeong decides to provide Aang with some context that we understand a bit better than Aang does at the time. He is not wasting Aang’s time just for the hell of it. He makes a point that out of all four of the elements, fire is the only element that inherently causes destruction if not controlled. How is one supposed to fire bend properly without that understanding of control? And then, in one swift moment, the writers tie the two parallel plots together in a horrifying way: Jeong Jeong’s former student, who also did not understand the importance of control and patience, is ADMIRAL ZHAO. Oh my god, could you imagine the knowledge that your work produced that man? Well, to be fair, I don’t believe that it should have been Jeong Jeong’s responsibility to make sure that Zhao didn’t become a FIERY BIGOT. But he feels the guilt of not being able to do more, and he sees that same impatience in Aang. Perhaps he’s acting so strictly with Aang because he doesn’t want to repeat the same thing.
That difficult tension builds when Aang decides to part from the task that Jeong Jeong has assigned him, eager to begin fire bending. It’s a difficult lesson in patience, but Aang needed to learn to calm his excitement. After trying to imitate a trick the performer did during the Fire Days festival, he burns Katara. HOW DARE YOU.
Of course, my first question was WAIT, DOES THAT MEAN SHE CANNOT BEND? I didn’t quite understand the logistics of how bending worked. I know that we saw in “The Great Divide” that a broken arm can render a person bend-less. (Yeah, how exactly would you refer to such a thing?) But we see that she still can, to an extent. OH AND SHE CAN HEAL HERSELF. Whoa, what the hell? Until this point, I’d just assumed we’d seen all four powers that could come from bending, so now I’m more curious than ever: WHAT OTHER POWERS COULD COME FROM BENDING? Will Aang be able to combine powers at some point? What happens if you combine AIR and EARTH. I mean…this is some Captain Planet type shit going on here. THIS IS SO EXCITING. I mean, I get that the healing is explicitly tied to the water bending, but is there something else as yet undiscovered?
And then it’s all made just a tad bit depressing when Jeong Jeong admits that he’d rather be a water bender. Oh god, the heartbreak. He’s acutely aware of the sheer power that his bending holds and the proclivity it has for harm, and it’s yet another context provided to us so that we can understand why this man acts this way. I believe I’ve mentioned it before, but it stands to be repeated: Avatar has done a fantastic job with most of the characters it has provided us with to help us understand them, even if we don’t necessarily agree with them. There’s a reason and a motivation for Jeong Jeong’s behavior, and I think it’s a sign of good characterization when we can comprehend why this person is acting a certain way. Of course, within the narrative of the show, Aang is not the one to understand this until he harms Katara, realizing that Jeong Jeong’s insistence on patience was based in good intentions.
Ok, putting aside Aang’s dramatic reaction (I’M NEVER WATER BENDING AGAIN! :: writes in LiveJournal :: ), I think we just witnessed yet another step towards Aang’s growing maturity. It takes a mature person to stop and accept that perhaps someone else’s technique or style or words are coming from a place of experience and wisdom, and it’s even harder to let your guard down and try something new. Again, it’s heavy-handed, but the visual metaphor of having Admiral Zhao fight Aang (past student vs. current student) is to show that adults can be immature when younger people are not. Even beyond that, the subtext to the FANTASTIC fight between Zhao and Aang is RIDICULOUSLY DENSE for a show like this. It’s a battle of students. It’s a battle of maturity. It’s a battle of technique. It’s a battle of good versus evil. It’s a battle of patience. It’s a battle of foresight. IT’S A BATTLE OF WITS. There are so many ways you could read that scene….ugh, my little analytical heart is going to BURST AT THE SEAMS. This is why I do this stuff! I want to pull apart these story lines and see what narratives we are being fed and see what things from the world they have sown into the fabric of it all. AND I REALLY LIKE WHAT I AM SEEING HERE, Y’ALL. Ugh, all of you who recommended me this show know me so well.
On top of all of this, “The Deserter” has possibly my favorite ending of any Avatar episode so far. Aang succeeds in getting Zhao to sink his own ships, and then Jeong Jeong FLAT OUT DISAPPEARS. No nice, tied-up narrative, no goodbye, no cute message or lesson at the end. Just GONE. Not only does this leave a wonderful chance for him to return, but it harks back to what I opened this review with: There is so much more of this world that I have to discover. I am just getting pieces at a time, and I’m glad we’re not given everything here. I want more. And I want to keep coming back for me.
That’s some fine storytelling.
- Ok, I couldn’t find a way to intertwine this into the review and I’m also kind of afraid that everyone will either think I am: a) reading too much into this, or b) NOT AT ALL AN ORIGINAL THINKER AND WE HAVE ALL CLEARLY THOUGHT OF THIS BEFORE YOU, but it must be said: Did anyone else get a slight Heart of Darkness vibe to this episode? You know, self-exiled genius living out in the woods who everyone treats as a god and they’re kind of angry and wild? Look, Heart of Darkness is one of my favorite books and it’s sort of like LOST and The X-Files for me, where I just assume anything similar is A CLEAR REFERENCE TO SUCH A THING because I am obsessed with these stories/shows and THAT IS MY ONLY FRAME OF REFERENCE. So yes.
- OMG poor Chey, THEY LEFT HIM BEHIND.
- “What are you doing here? I did not tell you to stop!” “I’ve been breathing for hours!” “You want to stop breathing?!?!?” FLAWLESS REPLY.
- Few things are more beautiful than Aang trolling Zhao.
- “What would a boy know about destiny? If a fish lives its whole life in this river, does he know the river’s destiny? No! Only that it runs on and on out of his control! He may follow where it flows, but he cannot see the end. He cannot imagine the ocean.” HOLY SHIT BEST LINE EVER. Wow. WOW!
- Sokka + Sokka’s obsession with eating = true love.