Because fans should be critical, too

Chapter Sixteen: “The Deserter”

14

(Rating Out of 15)

I concluded my largely negative review of “Bato of the Water Tribe” by stating that it “only proves that, after fifteen episodes, DiMartino and Konietzko and company still don’t know what they’re doing.” Now comes “The Deserter” to, however temporarily, put such harsh criticisms to rest. It took sixteen episodes, but DiMartino and Konietzko and company finally managed to get their act together and produce what is undoubtedly the best episode of Book One, and one of the best episodes of Avatar: the Last Airbender as a whole.

Among the many, many things this episode does right, “The Deserter” is one of the very few episodes to make me truly and sincerely care about Aang. Previous episodes prompted us to care for Aang under the sole pretense that he was the main character. Here, however, he actually feels real. “The Deserter” carefully reminds us that, despite being the eventual savior of humanity, Aang is indeed a twelve-year-old boy who is appropriately impatient, prone to show off, and most definitely not ready to be the Avatar. For once, that narration by Katara at the beginning of every episode really means something.

“The Deserter” is visually and sonically fantastic. It was produced and animated at JM Animation Co. Ltd., one of two Korean animation studios that helped create all of Book One. I’ve always preferred the solid, three-dimenional style of JM Animation to the less stable and much more cartoony style of the other studio, DR Movie, and it definitely works to the episode’s advantage: the character animation and emotional expresses are the best they’ve ever been. The Track Team also tops itself here: never before has the sound design and music added so much depth and atmosphere to a single episode.

This is such a rich chapter that it deserves to be looked through beat-by-beat.

The episode opens with the three kids coming across a notice board. In great need of food and non-lethal Firebending demonstrations, Aang wants to try their luck at the nearby Fire Days Festival. Sokka is reluctant, as the notice board also has a Wanted poster with Aang on it. Katara remains in the neutral zone for a great deal of this episode, only half-heartedly supporting Aang and persuading Sokka to go to the festival. After all, the kid has to learn Firebending eventually anyway; why not start now?

The sheer naivete and goofiness of Aang comes through in the next scene, when the group disguises themselves to go to the festival. Katara and Sokka have dark, mysterious hoods, while Aang opts to put his red hood over his head, which barely hides his face, and if anything draws more attention to itself.

They get lucky when they actually get inside the festival, though. A vender is selling Fire Festival masks, which get the job done much more effectively. While browsing around, they gather with a crowd to check out a one-man Firebending show. This man does many tricks and makes many interesting shapes with fire. His next trick requires a volunteer, and Aang is quite annoyed when Katara is chosen instead of him.

After the Firebender begins his act with Katara, and seems to have “trouble” with the fire dragon he’s made, Aang brings it upon himself to save her and he stops the fire dragon with his Airbending. Additionally, he drops his mask, so now everyone knows he’s the Avatar. A chase ensues, but not before the three kids are aided by a shadowy man who leads them away from the guards and slows them down with smoke bombs. Aang calls Appa with the everhandy bison-whisper, and as they get away, the man throws one more bomb which ignites all the fireworks in a cart, making for an awesome display.

Up until this point, the episode is very entertaining. There a lot of funny bits, my favorite of which is a puppet show in which the puppeteer surely must have been his own hand for the sake of his act. In their own subtle way, these passages present most Fire Nation people as normal, passionate human beings who just happen to want the Avatar dead. Not the heart of the story, but interesting nonetheless.

Things become more interesting when we learn that the man who saved the kids is named Chey, and was a Fire Nation soldier. Now he serves a man known as Jeong Jeong, a Firebending genius who was the very first man to ever leave the Fire Nation army and live. For this, Jeong Jeong is a legend, a man whose reputation is surrounded by a mythical aura. Chey describes him in a supremely fanboy-esque manner, making it a little difficult to take him all that seriously.

In fact, Chey doesn’t seem to be very well regarded by anyone—including Jeong Jeong himself—and it’s not hard to see why. As the second man to quit the Fire Nation army and live, Chey is denied legendary status. (I’m reminded of the classic Simpsons gag, in which Buzz Aldrin himself, the second man to walk on the Moon, proudly proclaims, “Second comes right after first.”) I guess he figured the next best thing would be to wholeheartedly follow the man who did it first. Chey is the photojournalist to Jeong Jeong’s Kurtz, and it’s a just a little scary to see how devoted he is to this man.

Katara is not impressed…

Because Jeong Jeong is a Firebender who doesn’t work for the Firelord, Chey figures he is the perfect teacher for Aang, and Aang agrees. Once again, Sokka has problems with this and Katara doesn’t want to really choose a side, but before that discussion goes any further, all four of them are surrounded by disguised men who apparently work for Jeong Jeong. They’re none to happy with Chey, who was apparently told not to look for the Avatar.

Chey is called forth to speak with Jeong Jeong alone. When he returns to Aang, he has bad news: he won’t teach Aang. It’s interesting that Firebending can’t be learned now, especially since Jeong Jeong really does seem to be Aang’s only hope.

Aang goes to see Jeong Jeong anyway, which leads to a wonderfully intriguing lecture from the latter. At first, it seems like Jeong Jeong really is crazy, as he speaks in weird metaphors and analogies, but very soon, what he says does hold a lot of ground. Just from looking at Aang, he knows has no discipline at all, which the mastery of Waterbending and Earthbending would have taught him by now. Fire can easily spread on itself and destroys everything in its path, and requires a bender who knows self-control. Part of why this scene works so well is because, even if Jeong Jeong is being harsh and unfair, we know that deep down he’s absolutely right about Aang. It’s a bit painful to hear him call this eager kid “weak” directly to his face.

Only an intervention from Avatar Roku convinces Jeong Jeong to train Aang at all. This is where things get really interesting, because it teaches us that even in spirit, the Avatar is only human, and thus fallable. Roku’s judgment is this case is devastatingly wrong, and his appearance in the first place feels like cheating on Aang’s part, like a parent who bribes their child onto the basketball team.

No doubt this is all more clear to me in retrospect. I don’t remember my reactions from first viewing this episode, but I must have been frustrated with Jeong Jeong’s stubborn refusal to teach Aang (I also remember liking the episode more than most). Such is the intrigue and excellence of “The Deserter.”

So the training begins the next day, and anyone who has taken a material arts lesson will know what this means: basic breathing and concentration exercises. There will be no fire used in any of these first lessons. Aang is predictably (and hilariously) at odds with this teaching method, but Jeong Jeong will have none of his shit. Just breathing and concentrating is what Aang should be focusing on know.

Jeong Jeong really is the ideal one-time character. He’s not a cypher, like Bato was in the previous episode, and he’s not underdeveloped like Meng in “The Fortuneteller.” He is a character in the real sense. His harsh, uncompromising personality colors his every word and action, and he’s a pleasure to observe. He leaves his mark on the episode and then exits, leaving me wishing I could have seen more of him, but a little does go a long way.

Apparently Jeong Jeong had a pupil who was only interested in the destructive power of fire rather than restraint and self-control. Through voice-over and juxtaposition, we learn that the pupil was Zhao, who is currently going up the river to find the Avatar. Just on cue, Zhao blasts away several of Jeong Jeong’s guards, destroying most of the forest in the process. Does he care? Nope.

Aang seems on the verge of changing his attitude for the better, but then Jeong Jeong reveals that they’ll be working with fire now. Aang tries his best, and fails, to contain his joy.

Aang’s lesson: do not let the flame reach the edge of the leaf.

This serves at the catalyst to the most important and effecting scene in the episode.

Jeong Jeong is pulled away when the guards warn him that trouble (Zhao) is on its way. He leaves Aang to his own devices, and sure enough, Aang forgets that he was supposed to not let the flame burn the leaf any further. Instead, he ignites the whole fucking thing. Being the Avatar and all, he’s handy enough with the flame. Katara is there, and she warns him to be careful or he’ll hurt himself.

And finally, in an attempt to imitate the Firebender from the festival, he goes too far and burns Katara’s hands.

This truly is a critical moment in the series, for it dramatizes so many things.

First, fire really is as dangerous as Jeong Jeong said it was. It’s not like water, which Aang could easily show off with as in “The Waterbending Scroll,” and it’s most definitely not his natural element, which means he’d have a lot more trouble getting the hang of it.

Second, this is the kid who’s supposed to bring balance to the world? By the end of the summer, no less? For all his potential, Aang is not up to this challenge. He’s well-intended, confident, and compassionate for sure. But he’s also immature, and his priorities are all fucked up. I think this is the point Book One was trying very hard for, but only now managed to get across in a manner that resonated.

Third, and probably most importantly, if Aang had fooled around with fire and burned himself, I doubt it would have been as powerful. Earlier, Jeong Jeong warns him to “learn restraint, or risk destroying yourself and everything you love.” And it’s not just anything or anyone he burns. It’s Katara, the girl he really, really likes. She’s the one who believes in him most and knows he’ll save the world. She’s the one to pay the price for his careless.

So much said in one moment. DiMartino and Konietzko have been holding out on us all this time!

Immediately afterwards, everyone is mad at Aang. Sokka assaults him for burning his sister, a crying Katara runs away, and Jeong Jeong won’t even speak to him. This is a sad time for Aang, and I really do feel for him.

After Katara runs off, she places her hands in the water. And what do you know? She has healing abilities because she’s a Waterbender! Under my standard critical evaluation, I would call this a despicable cop-out.

Ah, but DiMartino and Konietzko and company finally show their true storytelling genius. They take this opportunity to have Jeong Jeong explain how rare such an ability is, thus easing him into a confession. He is indeed a self-hating Firebender, who envies Waterbenders as their element naturally heals and brings life, while fire can only sow destruction. For Jeong Jeong, a Firebender is always an outsider to humanity. There’s no stench of sentimentality here. In fact, there’s no time. After Jeong Jeong explains himself, he’s immediately attacked by Zhao and his soldiers.

There’s one more moment like this, and that’s when Katara finds Aang, who vows never to Firebend again. Not after he failed to listen to Jeong Jeong, and especially not after he hurt a loved one. Katara’s definitely right that he’ll have to eventually—he’s still doomed to succeed–but Aang is so sincere and absolute in his decision that we actually believe him.

I can’t say that the rest of the episode is up to the standard of these moments that came before it, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. The Avatar formula is back in effect for the last-act action sequence, and it’s a very good one. Jeong Jeong refuses to fight with his former pupil and disappears, leaving Aang and Zhao to duke it out.

But, having learned his lesson, recognizes that Zhao really does have no self-control, and brilliantly uses that to his advantage. By dodging his attacks and taunting him to no end, Aang actually tricks Zhao into burning and sinking his own boats. Excellent!

Aang escapes onto Appa with the rest of the group. Everyone else has left this site, too, except for Chey, who apparently was absent for the entire day and comes back only to find that he’s been left behind. Poor guy.

Anyway, as the kids fly away, Katara heals a burn on Aang’s arm with her newly discovered healing powers. I really do appreciate how carefully the writers handle this new skill. Immediately, Sokka gets on her case about not having this ability when he needed it in the past. For example, there was an incident that involved two fish hooks stuck in his thumb. (He tried to get the first fish hook out with another.)

So ends “The Deserter,” an episode whose excellent quality wouldn’t be matched again until Book Two (which is thankfully only four episodes away). However rich it may be, do you know what the most remarkable thing about “The Deserter” is? There is not a single appearance by either Zuko or Iroh! That means DiMartino and Konietzko and company were able to pull off an emotionally resonant episode just with Aang! Now that’s an achievement!

All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.

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4 responses

  1. Ash

    “This is where things get really interesting, because it teaches us that even in spirit, the Avatar is only human, and thus fallable. Roku’s judgment is this case is devastatingly wrong, and his appearance in the first place feels like cheating on Aang’s part, like a parent who bribes their child onto the basketball team.”

    Maybe it’s cleverly placed foreshadowing to Roku’s major fuck up with Sozin. I’m probably giving too much credit, though.

    May 3, 2012 at 10:00 am

  2. Gabriel

    Maybe Roku wanted Aang to try firebending and fail to understand he needed to respect the cycle and become more mature before firebending?

    November 25, 2014 at 11:29 am

    • That’s an interesting possibility. I’m not sure if I agree with it, only because I’ve never thought of it that way. Now I want to watch the episode again! How much longer until Korra is over?

      November 26, 2014 at 2:44 pm

      • Gabriel

        According to Nick, December 19.

        Why would Roku want Aang to firebend? It wasn’t the hardest thing on Earth to notice that Aang wasn’t ready at all (even for Roku, who couldn’t see that mighty war coming). I guess he thought Aang kinda needed to realize something bad could really happen in a practical way, because he was used to the not-so-scary airbending (Earth Queen might disagree).

        Also, I really like how fire itself can assume totally different meanings based on its use. I mean, look at the dragons’ point of view (Book 3) and Jeong Jeong’s point on view here. Life and energy x pure destruction, harmony x massive chaos.

        November 27, 2014 at 3:41 pm

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