Opinionated Guide to Avatar: The Last Airbender

table of contents

The Deserter

Destiny? What would a boy know of 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.
Jeong Jeong, the Deserter

This episode opens with more not padding. We see a shadowy figure in the forest near the Gaang's camp. The Gaang come upon a bulletin board outside of a random town. There, they see an advertisement for a Fire Nation cultural festival. Aang wants to get a look at some firebenders who aren't trying to kill him, but Sokka points out that there's also a poster of Aang. Of course, since not going would mean that the episode would be over, they go.

Their hooded disguises are quickly replaced with actual masks when they see that everyone else is wearing a mask. After watching some exhibits, Aang moves the group to watch some performance firebending art. Robin from Teen Titans (seriously, this voice really gets around in first season) asks for a volunteer and naturally picks Katara. He ties her to a chair and then creates a flying dragonhead out of fire. He pretends to lose control of it and it heads towards Katara.

Despite Robin's obvious overacting, Aang thinks Katara is in actual trouble and airbends the dragon away. Cue the fleeing from Fire Nation soldiers.

A guy in a hood tells them that he can get them out, and they follow him immediately. Again, if this were Season 2, this would all be a clever ploy by the head villain, one that plays on Aang's incessant gullibility to lure him to his doom. A well-deserved fate for people this stupid. But since this is Season 1, this guy is naturally everything he says he is.

They scurry around for a bit until they're cornered. Of course Appa comes in to save them, because that's the entire reason for his existence. The Gaang + 1 leave.

Back at the camp, the guy, named Chey, tells them that he follows Jeong Jeong, a high ranking Fire Nation soldier who left the army. Jeong Jeong was apparently the first person to do so and still live. Chey says that Jeong Jeong can teach the Avatar firebending, but Sokka's against it. But things are decided for them as a group of Jeong Jeong's people jump out of the bushes and ambush them, taking them to Jeong Jeong.

Cut to Admiral Zhao on the trail of the Avatar. That's really all this scene does; establish that Zhao is following them.

Back at the plot, Chey is brought before Jeong Jeong; when he returns, he says that Jeong Jeong won't teach Aang. Chey says that Jeong Jeong could tell based on how Aang moved that he hadn't mastered waterbending or earthbending yet, so he couldn't be taught firebending. Aang decides to plead his case directly.

Yes, I am from the Fire Nation. Why do you ask?

Jeong Jeong basically tells him to get bent, that Aang's an undisciplined fool and he's not ready to learn firebending yet. He talks about how firebending must be rigidly controlled or it will spread and destroy everything. After trying to scare Aang off with a demonstration of firebending, the room grows dark and an apparition of Avatar Roku appears before Jeong Jeong.

Wait. If Roku can just do that, what was with that whole episode where they had to go to one specific place on one specific day to speak to him?

Anyway, Roku tells Jeong Jeong to train Aang anyway. And he sets a large bush on fire. SYMBOLISM! And Jeong Jeong accepts this, though he's clearly not pleased.

The next morning, Jeong Jeong begins with Basic Theory of Firebending 15-105: squatting and breathing. Aang is displeased with this, but Jeong Jeong says that he needs to concentrate on what he's doing. He points out that Katara, who's practicing some waterbending move, and Sokka, who's fishing, are concentrating. After some time, Jeong Jeong takes Aang up a mountain and has him squat and breath there for awhile.

Aang eventually comes down, impatient as always. So Jeong Jeong tells a story about a former pupil of his, who didn't care about discipline and wanted to use firebending to crush his enemies. Then the camera dissolves to Zhao, fending off some guys with sticks. And that's not a flashback; that's what Zhao is doing right now.

Thanks for the spoiler, editor. We wouldn't want to have that revealed at a narativistically appropriate time or anything. Also, Zhao got taken out by Zuko in an Agni Kai, so either Zhao was a really poor student, or Jeong Jeong was a bad teacher.

For some reason, this story makes Aang reconsider his attitude about wanting to leap into firebending. Well, it seems that way. For a few seconds. Jeong Jeong puts a small ring of fire on a leaf and tells Aang to keep the fire from reaching the leaf's edge. Some of Jeong Jeong's people interrupt them, saying that there's a disturbance on the river. Jeong Jeong leaves Aang to go investigate.

Aang, his impatience returned, instantly starts using the fire and his breathing lessons to incinerate the leaf (the exact opposite of what Jeong Jeong told him) and playing with a ball of fire. Katara warns him to go slowly, but Aang doesn't care. He tries to imitate something he saw at the festival and creates a massive ring of fire.

That burns Katara's... hands? It's not entirely clear; the camera dances around the actual point of contact. Sokka immediately jumps down Aang's throat. For his part Aang is very sorry. Katara runs off and the returning Jeong Jeong tells them to leave.

Katara soaks her hands in the river, and... they start to glow and are magically healed. I'm actually going to save my rant on this until the bottom.

Jeong Jeong shows up to exposit that some waterbenders have healing powers. Sure, why not. He even says that he would prefer that to the "burning curse" of firebending. Then, Zhao's people show up, and Jeong Jeong creates a wall of fire across the river to stop them.

Katara hurries back to the group, but find Aang inside Jeong Jeong's hut, sulking. Aang says that he's never going to firebend again, but Katara reminds him that he'll have to when he's ready. Aang simply says that he won't. Katara then reveals her new super-special-awesome healing powers, which cheers Aang up. Then Aang goes out to help save Jeong Jeong.

Zhao firebends his way through Jeong Jeong's firewall. After some banter, Zhao's men surround Jeong Jeong, but he wraps himself in a sphere of fire and disappears. Remember that trick; this won't be the last time you see it.

Meanwhile, Zhao and Aang square off. If there was a competent editor on this episode, this would be where we learn that Jeong Jeong taught Zhao. Anyway, Zhao throws large fireballs at Aang, who does his usual dodging shtick. Aang recalls what Jeong Jeong said of Zhao, and then jumps onto the Fire Nation ships and starts taunting Zhao.

What follows is basically Aang getting Zhao to burn down his own ships. Which is contrived for one very important reason: until now, all Fire Nation ships have been made of metal. But even without that, Zhao doesn't come close to touching Aang. At no point in the entire fight is Aang in even the slightest bit of danger.

So, our Season 1 villain faces the main hero and is basically face-stomped for a full minute, foolishly made to incinerate his own ships. Then Aang runs off, leaving Zhao to stand in the ashes of his humiliation. Can we ever take this guy seriously as a threat again?

It's no surprise that, with both major villains having been utterly humiliated by the hero, neither of them will be seen again until the season finale.

Back on Appa, Katara notices that Aang actually was hit by Zhao. It'd have been nice for us to actually see that in the fight. She pulls out some water and heals him, saying that she must have always had that power. To which Sokka rightfully rants about all the times she didn't heal him after injuries.

Overall, this was a good episode. I really liked the play between Aang and Jeong Jeong. Aang's playful attitude vs. Jeong Jeong's restrained nature. It introduces the idea that firebending is dangerous and that control is critical. It also introduces a self-loathing firebender, which is interesting. You wouldn't really consider firebending a burden, but Jeong Jeong really gets across how it might be.

It also shows that the Avatar Cycle, the specific ordering of when elements the Avatar learns, actually matters; it's not just some arbitrary rule somebody made up. Airbending-based Avatars will naturally be more playful than others; it's part of their culture. Therefore, they need to spend some time learning discipline with water and earth before they start messing with something that can spread on its own.

The major conflict this episode pits the needs of the clock that Roku put on the series with the emotional well-being of the Avatar. This is actually a recurring theme throughout the series. The only reason Aang went to Jeong Jeong was because he was a firebender who might teach him; it was an opportunity that was too good to pass up. It reminds us of the fact that Aang needs to learn firebending, but most of the people who could teach him probably won't. It also sets up some new tension, since Aang has now sworn off firebending and is clearly afraid of it.

Granted, that tension doesn't really pay off very well. But that's hardly the fault of this episode.

It also shows the consequences of Aang's thoughtlessness and irresponsibility, and I always like that. He does something foolish and is properly punished for it. Granted, so is Katara and she was an innocent. But that's the whole point of what Aang learned; playing with fire can get people you care about burned.

But unfortunately, it does one other thing.

On the Nature of Bending

The healing stuff. Now, you might think I'm going to rant on this because it makes Katara more powerful, and I of course blindly hate Katara and everything she does.

You'd be wrong. That it involves Katara is not even an issue. They could have introduced the ability of waterbenders to heal with someone else, like when they got to the Northern Water Tribe, and it would still have the problem I'm about to point out.

Until the healing scene, all bending that we saw, everything in Avatar-verse that we saw, conformed to what you would reasonably expect if you gave people the ability to move elements by doing martial-arts moves. We see earthbenders building great cities around it, with "gates" that are powered solely by earthbending. We see the Fire Nation building an army around firebending. We see the Air Nomads, who based their entire culture on the freedom of air and its movements. We see the Water Tribes living at the poles, where their element is the very ground they stand on, freezing and shaping water to their needs.

All of that and more is made inevitable by the nature of bending. It does not matter where bending comes from. Whether bending ultimately comes from chi, spirits, muscles, farts, midichlorians, or something else is irrelevant. What bending is has been very clear and specific: it is the ability to control elements by moving one's body. Its effects have been entirely consistent with this.

Healing via waterbending is a fundamental violation of the nature of bending as it has been expressed in the previous fifteen episodes of the show. It cannot be explained simply by the ability to control water by moving one's body, because water doesn't heal people. All waterbending can do is move water around or make it change phase (liquid to solid, etc). It cannot make water do something that water simply does not do.

Waterbenders being able to cause water to heal would be like earthbenders being able to convert rocks into solid gold. Or firebenders being able to preferentially incinerate cancer cells from the body. It's completely arbitrary in a world that has, up to now, had very strict rules about what can and cannot happen. It's magic, according to the rules that the world has set up.

You might say that this is still pretty early in the series, but it really isn't. This is the sixteenth episode out of 61; that's 25% of the way through the series. If they had introduced it in the first few episodes, it might not have been a problem (though it still would have been inconsistent with everything else). But it's a little late to be introducing this now.

Now yes, there has been, for want of a better term, "magic." But it has been confined to one aspect: spirits. Spirits are magical beings that exist outside of the regular world. And while the Avatar can clearly access some kinds of spirit powers, the Avatar is also the great bridge between the spirit world and the human world. He is effectively part-spirit. And this magic is limited specifically to spirits and beings like the Avatar that are part-spirit.

If they had said that some spirit latched onto Katara for some reason and gave her the ability to create healing water, that might have been something. But that's not what Jeong Jeong said; this is simply something that certain waterbenders can do. Period.

So, why is this in the show? Honestly, I have no idea. I would like to think that it exists to set up the ending to season 2; that's probably the most charitable explanation for it. Even so, it seems like a pretty terrible rationale for something as world-breaking like this.

It might have been a way to introduce more grievous bodily harm into the show, by being able to heal it relatively quickly. Of course, quickly healing physical injuries also de-emphasizes the seriousness of them. Just look at how it worked in this episode: Aang injures Katara, but she's immediately healed. That fact, the fact that his action will have no lasting repercussions for her, is what gets Aang to stop sulking.

Imagine how things would have gone if she'd been permanently scarred. Maybe even a facial scar, like Zuko. Every time Aang looked at Katara, he would see the mark of his own failure. Every time someone flinched when they saw her scar, he would have to remember that it was his fault. He would have had to deal with that and accept what he had done. But no; healing-bending is able to deal with it and nobody will be the wiser.

So maybe that's the reason? They wanted to have more serious injuries, but they didn't want them to be long-term. Sounds like a cop-out to me.


Imagine how things would have gone if she'd been permanently scarred. Maybe even a facial scar, like Zuko. Every time Aang looked at Katara, he would see the mark of his own failure. Every time someone flinched when they saw her scar, he would have to remember that it was his fault. He would have had to deal with that and accept what he had done. But no; healing-bending is able to deal with it and nobody will be the wiser.

You need to remember that this is a kids show on Nickelodeon. There would have been standards of what could and couldn't be shown, and I don't think something like that would have gotten past the censors, or would have gone down well with the executives.
Emperordaein 4th Jul 11
Then why write into the series that he burns her at all? If you're going to write characters making significant mistakes into the series, at least try to make some of those mistakes have actual long-term consequences.
Korval 5th Jul 11
Here's the thing. I believe the executives would not be happy with a predominant female character suddenly gaining burn scars on her hands. After all, if they want to use Katara in merchandise, in don't think they would like to have a detail like that be predominant at all. I just think that the executives would see things that way.

And it's not like it didn't serve a purpose. Katara's burns were to introduce Waterbending healing (Although I have to agree with your complaints about it being illogical. A example of this kind of thing being done better is Alkehestry in Fullmetal Alchemist, where they explained how it worked an why it existed as part of Xinghese culture) and to give Aang a reason to be afraid of Firebending (How little it came up).
Emperordaein 12th Jul 11
Your idea of Katara having permanent burn scars is a fascinating one. I just might use it somewhere. (G Iving you credit for the idea, of course.)
JtheDrafter 7th Aug 11
The human body is mostly made up of water, using water to replace damaged tissue makes sense.
JusticeMan 8th Aug 11
Water can't replace damage tissue, it's just a component of tissue. It's like fixing a car using steel girders because most of a car is metal.

An interesting thing about this episode is how it's obviously based on Heart of Darkness in its motifs (going up the river, Jeong Jeong is analogous to Kurtz, "savagery") but has a much more idealistic perspective on leaving the structure of your culture.
Scardoll 9th Oct 14