Avatar: The Last Airbender – Jet

The
Last Airbender
series is replete with incredible episodes,
but some stand out above others as genuinely amazing.  “Jet” is one of those episodes.  It earned this recognition for the symphony
of achievements, excellent directing, excellent dialogue, beautiful backgrounds,
and excellent themes.  It took the pen
strokes of gray that have been slowly filling in the picture of the world of Avatar and swiped a large paint brush
across the canvas in the mercurial definitions that stand between good guys and
bad guys.  

Our episode opens with a debate on whether the gang
should ride Appa through the skies or instead, walk for a change, to try and
stay out of sight.  The principal arguer
for the latter is Sokka, who claims he’s relying on his instinct.  It says something of how Aang and Katara view
Sokka that they accept his strategy of walking to avoid attention, even if they
wonderfully nag our Southern Water Tribe member over his instinct, “Maybe Sokka’s
Instinct can carry it!”  And, as it turns
out, Sokka’s instinct was dead wrong, leading the gang straight into a Fire
Nation military encampment.  With backs
against a wall of flame, it appeared they were going to have to fight their way
out of the hot spot, when unknown attackers ambushed the over confident
soldiers.

We have a quick introduction of the band of children and
teenagers fighting the Fire Nation soldiers, led by a straw chewing hero,
Jet.  The fight is quick and the ragtag
band of misfits efficiently defeats the soldiers, saving the gang, and also
capturing explosives in barrels.  In the aftermath,
we are introduced to Jet, not accidentally leaning in the shade of a tree, the
hero of the group.  Jet’s placement in
the shade is a visual cue that he’s not entirely to be trusted nor his goals
considered all together worthy of standing up in the light of day.  You might say the guy is shady.  This means little to Katara, who develops a
quick crush over the suave fighter, which is only fueled later by a Luke and
Leia moment from the first Star Wars film when crossing a chasm, as Jet pulls
her close and they ride a rope up together to a forest top hideout.  It doesn’t hurt that Jet is confident and
very much a smooth talker.  

There are definitely two parallels going on with Jet and
his band.  One is an allusion to Robin
Hood and his band of Merry Men, which is signaled when the group rob an old man
traveling through their version of Sherwood Forest.  In that instant, the old man being a Fire
Nation citizen, stands in for the “rich” who are oppressing the poor in the
Robin Hood tale.  And oppression is the
story, Robin Hood stood as a force against the oppressive forces of the Sheriff
of Nottingham and King John, here it’s the Fire Nation.  The treetop platforms may have also been a
nod to the similar buildings in the Kevin Costner film.

The other allusion is to Peter Pan and his lost
boys.  Like our creation of J.M. Barrie,
the group is made up of those who have lost their homes and parents, Jet had
his own parents murdered by the Fire Nation.
They are homeless and find a family among themselves, with the Fire
Nation standing in for Captain Hook and the Pirates of Neverland.  The ease by which Jet navigates the trees of
the forest place him nearly on level with our flying airbender, much like a
darker Pan navigating the dangers of his island world.  Incidentally, you can place Katara as our
Wendy figure, Sokka as the more serious John and Aang as the playful Michael.  Jet may not crow like a rooster, but he
definitely whistles like a bird.

The difference with either Robin Hood or Peter Pan is
they are presented as true heroes, whereas very soon we are provided a view of
Jet which can at best be described as anti-hero if not borderline villainous.  His choice of weapon is also intriguing, hook
swords.  While capable of being used as
regular swords, Jet also uses them to trip up his enemies, trap their weapons,
and so, in a way, they reflect his own approach to others, never being exactly
what you expect him to be and relying on a strategy of deflecting or catching
one’s perception of him before they can get to the truth.  Jet’s story is one of obsession which
overrides all other considerations, Jet’s obsession is to make the Fire Nation
pay at any price.  Victory at any price.  This obsession also leads to another parallel
with Apocalypse Now and the infamous
colonel at its heart.

Not long after staying with Jet and the band, Jet takes
Sokka with him and the others on a patrol, where they come across the
aforementioned old man.  In the process
of robbing the senior Fire Nation citizen, Sokka intervenes to stop Jet from
literally kicking the man while he’s down.
This act of kindness pays dividends later in the episode and it reveals
for the first time Jet’s blind fury toward the Fire Nation.  While the Fire Nation has obviously targeted
and killed civilians, it’s that behavior which has helped define them as the
bad guy.  It’s a recognition that Sokka appreciates
and signifier for viewers to understand where Jet falls in the spectrum of good
and bad.  Jet’s attack against the
civilian demonstrates that he’s not much better than the enemy he professes to
hate.  

When Sokka attempts to tell Aang and Katara what
happened, Jet conjures a lie and a dagger with a poison filled vial to explain
that the old man was actually an assassin sent to kill Jet.  Blinded by the adventure of the moment and by
a crush, Aang and Katara respectively, accept Jet’s version of the events,
while Sokka grumbles he never saw a knife.
With the two waterbenders still on his side, Jet requests their help to
fill a reservoir behind a dam with water for the practical reason of having water
available if the Fire Nation tries to burn the forest down.  They happily agree.

Not long after, Sokka discovers Jet’s true plan, blow up
the dam and wipe out the Fire Nation troops in the valley below.  A great plan, but for the fact that an Earth
Kingdom village is the location of those troops.  For Jet, there will be casualties, but the
end justify the means, the elimination of the Fire Nation from the valley.  It’s a call back to the oft repeated Vietnam
era statement, we must burn the village to save it.  Sokka’s knowledge makes him a dangerous
variable for Jet, who has him escorted away under the oversight of Pipsqueak (a
massive member of the team) and the Duke (a miniscule member of the band).  With Sokka supposedly out of the picture, Jet
encourages Katara and Aang to bend water out of hot steam vents and to fill up
the reservoir.  Jet’s abilities as a
leader shine in this moment, as he encourages both Katara and Aang to do what
they had previously never done and had doubts of being able to do.  Bending without seeing the element,
particularly water, will also come back in multiple ways later on in the
show.  As Pipsqueak later tells Sokka,
when he questions them for following Jet’s orders, things always turn out all
right when Jet is in charge.  

Sokka escapes from his captors and from our sight.  Elsewhere, Aang and Katara have successfully
filled up the reservoir, and then promptly disobey Jet’s request they return to
the hide out instead of finding him and the others, wisely given by Jet to keep
the two from learning of his plan.  But
yet, disobey they do, and find Jet on a cliff overlooking the valley with the
dam on one end and the village on the other.
It’s clear from the view that Jet’s band has placed the explosives
captured earlier by the dam and what is about to happen.  Jet appears and we have another visual
indication of how we should view him.
The scene is framed against a sun filled sky with Katara on the right
side of the picture facing Jet (and the sunlight) with Jet on the left side,
facing away from Katara (and the sunlight).
Again, Jet’s face is in the shade, this time of his own making, offering
an even more personal perspective of Jet’s character.  Jet tries to explain his rationale, that the
Fire Nation presence will be wiped out from the Valley, but quite thankfully,
it falls as flat as it did when Sokka heard it.

What happens next is an incredibly directed fight between
Aang and Jet, as Aang attempts to escape to warn the village (and the Fire
Nation soldiers as a side effect) of what’s about to happen.  The two combatants slide and soar through the
gorgeous treetops and woods, with Jet revealing himself to be as determined and
perhaps almost as skilled as Zuko, in his pursuit to capture and stop
Aang.  There’s an even a nice nod to the gravity defying fight scenes from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, when the two momentarily soar out of the tree tops.  We get our best view yet of air
bending in a personal combat situation which concludes with a death defying
fall from the high branches toward the ground below.  It’s a fight that ends, appropriately, when
Jet is hit unexpectedly by a blast of water, Katara waterbending from a nearby
creek.  Jet is quickly frozen against a
tree by Katara, a display of what must be a recently learned waterbending
technique (thanks stolen scroll!).   Aang
attempts to take off on his glider, only to hit the ground, unable to fly when
it’s revealed the glider had been damaged in the fight.

Jet, momentarily incredulous that anyone would want to
stop his plan from going into motion, slips back into his confident mode when
he hears a bird whistle from one of his band members; everything is ready to
go.  Dave Filoni, the director in this
episode, the writers, animators and everyone, deserve an applause for the
sudden shift from victory to despair, as Jet whistles the go ahead and we cut
to Longshot, the resident archer of the group, pulling close up to his eyes as
he aims a flaming arrow and then breathlessly releases it to the horror of Aang
and Katara.  The arrow strikes its
target, the explosives, and the dam explodes, sending the now abundant water
rushing into and over the village like a terrible tsunami.  Jet gazes upon it with little emotion other
than a hint of grim appreciation that his plan was carried through.

The dark joy is short lived, as Appa suddenly appears
with Sokka, and the news brought by him that the villagers (and the Fire Nation
soldiers) were safe.  After escaping
earlier, Sokka had immediately run for the village and warned them, vouched for
by the old man from earlier, in a fine contrast and call back to the old man
from “Imprisoned” who ratted out Haru for earth bending.  Relieved that the village was okay, the gang
departs on Appa, leaving a fury filled Jet still frozen to a tree, screaming to
Katara that shouldn’t she want revenge for her mother?  

There are a lot of wonderful things in “Jet,” be it the
supporting characters of his band, who we will meet again, such as Smellerbee,
and even the music of the episode, where the confidence of the Track Team is
clearly rising as the score ceases to simply accompany the action on the screen
and help emphasize the action and storytelling (listen for the drums when Katara
and Aang begin waterbending).  The star,
however, has to be the titled character of the episode, Jet.  Jet is the Apocalypse Now’s Colonel Kurtz of the Last Airbender universe, a shadow dwelling character who has
slipped across the line of “good guy” into the gray realm of anti-hero and
possibly monster, willing to make terrifying decisions and strategies to defeat
his enemy. He’s the charismatic leader that everyone wants to believe in and
follow, and perhaps cult-like, extends such control over his followers that
they cease to stop and consider what their leader is actually having them
do.  

Jet is a tragic figure in the Avatar universe, not less
for what fate has later in store for him, but for who he is in this
episode.  He has suffered true loss, but
that loss has robbed him of the ability to competently grasp anything more than
his own personal morality of what is acceptable in fighting an enemy that he
views immoral, but has already started to mirror.  Even in the end, when his plan has been
foiled, he can only latch onto trying to spread his gospel of vengeance to
those quickly disappearing into the sunset.

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