Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Deserter

Much of the first season of The Last Airbender revolves around Aang growing into the role and
maturity required of an avatar.  In “Avatar
Roku” he is given the very adult burden that he must stop the Fire Lord and
bring balance to the world.   In “The Storm” and in “Bato of the Water Tribe,”
his personal fears of separation were issues he had to overcome, and in “The
Deserter” Aang has to overcome yet another personal flaw, his immaturity and
impatience.  Similarly to the previous
episodes, in “The Deserter” Aang’s personal failing also results in him hurting
someone close to him.

We begin with the gang coming across a community bulletin
board covered with posters.  Some of
these posters are wanted posters from the Fire Nation which feature Aang, but
also the Blue Spirit (unsurprisingly), and also a character who will later meet
in the episode, the aptly named deserter.
Additionally, there’s a poster announcing a Fire Festival in a nearby
village, which spurs Aang’s interest at the opportunity of seeing fire bending
masters who are not leveling bursts of flames at his head.  Despite some reservations, the gang decides
to head into town, leaving Appa and Momo to hide in the woods.  Also, unbeknownst to them, a strange man
watches them depart from the shadows.

Unsaid, the village is actually a Fire Nation colony in
the Earth Kingdom and inhabited by nothing but Fire Nation citizens.  Fire Nation children cheer on the Fire Lord
in a puppet show and Fire Nation vendors offer Fire Nation snacks, which
unsurprisingly are quite spicy to Sokka’s poor mouth.  Hidden behind traditional masks, the trio
navigate the festival until they find a young fire bender entertaining the
crowd with Gandalf firework level displays of flames.  The entertainer pulls Katara up on the stage
to be a participant while a dragon made of fire soars above the heads of the
crowd.  In a dramatic turn, the fire
bender acts as if the dragon has gotten out of control and threatens
Katara.  Aang leaps into action to save
his friend and crush, landing on the stage and air bending the dragon into…confetti,
the end result the entertainer had hoped to wow the crowd.  

This moment serves as a sign post for the rest of the
episode.  It involves fire bending and
control over it, the lack of which will play an important role in the episode’s
climax and in the teachings of the aforementioned “Deserter.”  Likewise,
Aang’s response only draws the attention of the Fire Nation guards
lounging around and puts the gang in danger.
Our lesson, then, is fire bending requires control to avoid bringing
harm or danger.  Back to those guards,
alerted to the presence of the Avatar, after Aang follows up his air bending
with a goofy (and awesome) leg slapping dance, chase after the group.  The mysterious stranger from before appears
and urges them to follow him to safety, even though this leads to them coming
to a dead end in an alleyway.  Thankfully
Aang uses his air bison whistle which successfully calls Appa to the rescue and
the group with the stranger fly away.

The stranger introduces himself as a deserter, but he’s
not THE deserter we are concerned about.  
That man, the stranger informs the group is a former Fire Nation general
and fire bending master, Jeong Jeong.  He’s
described as the first defector to successfully quit the Fire Nation army and
live in protest over the Fire Nation’s war.
His action inspired others who have rallied to him to live in isolation
away from everyone else.  Aang
immediately requests to meet Jeong, if only for the fact that he might be the
only fire bending master who will train him.
The stranger agrees and soon Aang is sitting across from Jeong, who is
meditating behind a row of candles.  

Aang humbly requests Jeong to teach him fire bending, but
Jeong flatly refuses, explaining that Aang has not mastered water or earth
bending and thus, is not ready for flame due to its living nature.  When all seems lost for Aang, the flames of
the candles roar upward and Jeong finds himself staring up at Avatar Roku where
Aang had been sitting, and who  angrily
declares that he, as the avatar, has “mastered fire bending a thousand times
over a thousand lives.”   Roku orders
Jeong to teach Aang, and Jeong quickly consents.  What follows are several days of Jeong
instructing Aang on his stance and breathing, while Aang impatiently desires to
start bending fire.

Back in the village, Admiral Zhao has arrived on news of
the Avatar’s presence.  After dismissing
the wonderful news about thefts being down for the festival, Zhao orders
soldiers to start searching the forest and river for signs of the Avatar.  The conversation between Zhao and the soldier
is one of those subtle moments that sets the show apart from its peers and
competitors.  The writers and animators
didn’t have to include the soldier’s enthusiasm about the festival being a
success, but by doing so, they make the world more real that our heroes live in
by populating it with characters who aren’t the animated equivalent of
cardboard stand ins.  

After enough requests, Aang is finally allowed to do something
relating to fire in his training.  Jeong
hands Aang a leaf with a smoldering center and ordered to concentrate on not
letting the slow burning inside edges reach the outside edge of the leaf.  Jeong explains some things about fire
bending, how it originates from breathing and how control is the most important
element of the art.  Fire, Jeong notes,
is unlike any other form of air bending.
Once a bender stops bending earth, air or water, those elements cease to
exist or move.  Fire will burn on happily
after bending.  He recounts that one
reason he left the Fire Nation was because of a student who did not care about
control.  And again, control is the
important element of Jeong’s teachings and one thing that Aang has not
mastered.  Jeong departs to leave Aang to
hours of preventing the leaf from disappearing in flames, but Aang almost
immediately allows this to happen in exchange for a ball of flames that he
begins to play with.  

Nearby, Katara is at work on her growing water bending
skills, while Aang attempts to explore his new found ability to fire bend.  Aang decides to try and replicate the advance
trick of the performer at the festival with a large ring of fire, which to no
viewer’s surprise, gets out of control, expanding outward right toward
Katara.  Our Southern Water Tribe bender
throws her hands up to protect herself and the flames sear her skin.  In pain, she rushes away to an anguished
Aang, who’s immediately tackled by an angry Sokka, demanding to know what Aang
did to hurt his sister.  

It’s a shocking moment as our heroes have never quite
been hurt in all their adventures, either facing off against Zuko or waves of
molten lava.  Sokka’s reaction is one we
will never see again directed at Aang, but is definitely a reminder of his
immediate decision to leave Aang in “Bato of the Water Tribe.”  Jeong returns to berate Aang, to which Aang
immediately concurs that he was not ready.
Before any further chastisement can unfold, Jeong’s men announce that
Zhao has appeared.  Jeong immediately
sets up a diversion to draw Zhao’s men away, and incidentally, we learn now
that Zhao was the former student who cared little for control.  Notably, Jeong’s fire bending in this moment,
despite being impressive and eye opening, leaves no flames burning or even
scorch marks behind.  This is in contrast
to Zuko’s own fire bending which has left damage in its wake, such as in the
attack on Kyoshi village that left half the town in flames.

The diversion works and Aang is left with Zhao.  Having learned a horrible lesson about
controlling one’s fire bending, Aang uses Zhao’s lack of control against the
Fire Nation Admiral, tricking him into burning down Zhao’s three wooden river
ships.  Aang flees the now stranded and
outraged Zhao to join back up with Katara and Sokka to flee on Appa.  To Aang’s surprise, Katara’s hands are
healed.  Earlier, after being burned by
Aang, Katara had thrust her hands into the river to sooth the pain.  To her and our surprise, the water glowed
about them and she withdrew her hands to find them completely healed.  We learn from Jeong who discovered Katara’s
unburnt hands that the Water Tribes have had powerful benders.  Katara’s new found ability, which Sokka
rightfully complains was never used to help him, does help Aang who apparently
did not escape his fight with Zhou unscathed.
Katara’s healing ability will remain an important part of her character
in The Last Airbender and in The Legend of Korra.

We are quickly coming to the conclusion of Book 1 and
also the inward path that Aang is taking toward growing up and learning who he
must be to be the Avatar.  As time
progresses, the mistakes that Aang makes will not hurt those he loves and has
befriended.  Conversely as Aang stops
making these mistakes and finds the person within who can be the Avatar that
will bring balance to the world, another character will follow the same
path.  We noted that “The Storm” was a
pivotal moment for Zuko, who was placed on a parallel track with Aang to also
be a hero of the show.  In Book 2, Zuko
will have to suffer similar decisions and consequences that will hurt those he
cares about in order to find the person he’s meant to be.  Not coincidentally, when the show ends, the
success of our heroes will measure in part on whether both Aang and Zuko will
realize their destinies.

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