Thu
May 6 2010 10:52am

Avatar: The Last Airbender Re-Watch: “The Deserter” (episode 116)

In this episode... 

Aang and the gang visit a Fire Nation town in the midst of a festival in the hopes of surreptitiously observing some firebending. That doesn’t go as planned, and Aang is made as the Avatar and so is forced to run. A young man sees Aang’s distress and leads him away from danger and takes him to Jeong Jeong, the eponymous “deserter”—a powerful firebender who left the Fire Nation army years ago. At first Jeong Jeong refuses to teach Aang, but relents. Aang’s impatience to learn firebending results in him accidentally burning Katara, causing Aang to swear off firebending forever. As a result of being burned, Katara learns how to use waterbending to heal wounds. Admiral Zhao catches up to Aang, leading to a showdown. Aang defeats him, employing the lessons of Jeong Jeong, then gathers the gang on Appa and flees, headed for the North Pole. 

Jordan

Anyone else get a Yoda/Dagobah vibe from this episode?

As I watched this episode, I considered how kids would relate to it. So often as a kid, you sign up for something cool like band or dance classes or a sport and spend the first five lessons focusing on breathing. It sucks. You want to skip over that and just start playing your horn or actually dancing, etc. I feel like most extracurricular activities kids are in have that beginner stage where everything your teacher tells you to do is lame. It was so beautifully dealt with here. Aang is the Avatar and feels like he can skip over all of that stuff, but when it comes down to it, his lack of breathing and focus end up causing him a lot of trouble. It’s a good lesson to learn.

Aang burning Katara is a moment that stays with Aang over the course of the series. It completely turns him off of firebending, but because of it Katara learns that she can heal. Sokka is on the periphery for a lot of this episode, but he shows up in full force when Katara is hurt. He is such a good brother.

This episode gave us a reveal that I didn’t actually call. When Jeong Jeong talks about his former student with little self-control, I automatically assumed he was talking about the Fire Lord. Admiral Zhao makes perfect sense though. I loved how despite the fact that Aang was unable to properly learn firebending in this episode, he was able to use his smarts and what he was told by Jeong Jeong to defeat Zhao. He’s one smart kid. Zhao has no self-control. When Aang makes the decision to focus, he can do amazing things. I really enjoyed watching him manipulate Zhao. Zhao underestimates Aang because of his age and thinks that force is all he needs to defeat him. But time and time again, Aang manages to slip past him, usually with very little use of force.

Jeong Jeong is an interesting character that gives us some great worldbuilding in a short amount of time. He represents a time when the different benders respected and learned from each other. It is something we haven’t seen or heard much of until this point. It’s interesting to think about all the things the different benders could learn from each other... The way that that is handled over the course of the series in one of my favorite things about the show.


Matt

Presented with the opportunity to wear dark cloaks as disguises, Sokka and Katara relish the chance to look diabolical. Aang prefers to look like The Great Cornholio, but we won’t judge him too harshly.

However, the focus of this episode is not the gang’s abilities to blend in (or lack thereof.) Rather, it is about one of my favorite guest stars, the firebending master Jeong Jeong, a deserter from the Fire Nation army. Jeong Jeong seems to be equal parts Yoda, Sonny Chiba, and Colonel Kurtz, imparting convoluted metaphors and magical tutelage in equal measure. The Kurtz connection is a bit less overt. Jeong Jeong’s assistant Chey feels very Dennis Hopper to me. Jeong x2 seems to have recruited local tribesmen in the same way Kurtz did. And then there is the setting, complete with jungles and boats floating down rivers.

“The Deserter” is rife with Star Wars references, from Jeong Jeong’s rejection of Aang in his little green hut to the Dagobah-like jungle surroundings. Then there is Admiral Zhao as Darth Vader to Jeong Jeong’s Obi-Wan.

There is also quite a bit of Mister Miyagi in Jeong Jeong as well.

I was intrigued by the scene where Jeong Jeong trains Aang to breathe on top of the mountain. I was reminded of the season two episode “Bitter Work,” in which two characters have their own firebending lesson on a mountaintop. I wonder if there is something significant here. Perhaps firebenders train on top of mountains so that they are closer to the sun.

Great episode overall. Some hiccups throughout. The firebending magician at the festival is particularly annoying. But I’m a big fan of Aang thwarting Zhao by turning his own strength against him. A wise tactic.

This episode also has the first instance of Katara’s healing powers. Our little waterbender is improving! One of my criticisms of the series the first time through was that I didn’t think Katara’s growth as a bender was smooth enough, but this time it makes a lot of sense. She always seems to be in the background, practicing.


John

Jordan makes a really good point about learning new skills involving long periods of boring exercises that most young people don’t want to put up with. That’s exactly why I have mastered fake guitar in Rock Band but have not mastered actual guitar. When Aang says “I want to know how to shoot fire out of my fingertips!”—man, if I had a nickle for every time I said that to myself. (Incidentally, Jeong Jeong has a great line—or delivers the line greatly, anyway—right before that, when he says “You want to stop breathing?”)

There’s the Blue Spirit again on the wanted poster. I’m surprised though that Aang doesn’t react to it. Did he ever tell Katara and Sokka that Zuko was the Blue Spirit and saved him from Zhao? I don’t see why he would keep it secret, but none of them react to seeing his image, so it seems kind of strange.

Speaking of the Blue Spirit, who was actually GOOD at disguising himself, what’s up with the GAang and their choices of disguises? I realize that their supplies are limited, but given that they have to disguise themselves pretty often, perhaps investing in some good disguises would be a good idea? First of all, Aang goes in wearing his bright orange outfit that he wears all the time—and no one else in the world ever wears anything similar—so it would be fairly suspicious and a horrible disguise. But also, although Katara puts on a mask and pulls a cloak around herself, she’s still wearing her mother’s necklace. Surely that detail might have made it into Fire Nation intelligence reports?

I love when Katara changes Sokka’s and Aang’s masks to reflect their personalities, putting the happy one on Aang, and the sad one on sourpuss Sokka.

Aang is just the worst at stealth, isn’t he? And not a very good audience member. Stage performers are putting on a show, man! Kudos to the sharp eyed citizens of the Fire Nation spotting the Avatar instantly when he pops up on stage.

Lots of little continuity things in this episode. From the wanted posters earlier to the bison whistle making an appearance again. Each time that whistle makes an appearance, it makes Sokka look worse and worse for criticizing Aang for spending money on it. Worth every penny! Other good continuity: Jeong Jeong at first refuses to teach Aang because he has not mastered Water or Earth yet, keeping with what we have learned before, that the Avatar must master the elements in a certain order.

I love Chey’s line about Jeong Jeong: “He’s the first person to ever leave the army and live. I’m the second, but you don’t get to be a legend for that. That’s okay, I don’t mind.” Funny how he’s just this big Jeong Jeong fanboy. It’s sad at the end that Jeong Jeong and his followers just disappear and leave him behind, though. (Fun fact: Chey is voiced by John Kassir, the voice of the Cryptkeeper on Tales from the Crypt!)

I’m a big fan of this episode—it does a lot of the things that the series does so well: we get some good humor, substantial expansion of the worldbuilding, lots of Avatar plot and LOTS of bending and fighting.


 

Attention First-Time Avatar Watchers: Our posts will be spoiler-free (except for the episode we’re discussing), but be aware that spoilers for future episodes may abound in the comment thread below. We wanted to keep the comment threads future-spoiler-free as well, but it will likely prove impossible and it would impede our ability to analyze the series in retrospect.

Up next: The Northern Air Temple!


« Episode 115 | Index


Matt London is an author and filmmaker who lives in New York City. He is a graduate of the Clarion Writer’s Workshop, and a columnist for Tor.com. His fiction is forthcoming in the anthology The Living Dead 2. He holds a BFA in Film Production from New York University.

Jordan Hamessley is a children’s book editor at Penguin Books for Young Readers where she edits the Batman: The Brave and the Bold and Chaotic publishing programs, as well as developing original series. She is also an assistant editor for Lightspeed Magazine. She can be found on twitter as @thejordache.

John Joseph Adams (www.johnjosephadams.com) is an anthologist, a writer, and a geek. He is the editor of the anthologies By Blood We Live, Federations, The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Living Dead (a World Fantasy Award finalist), Seeds of Change, and Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse. He is also currently the fiction editor of Lightspeed Magazine, which launches in June 2010, and the co-host of Tor.com’s Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast.

9 comments
John Fitzingo
1. Xandar01
I got the kids (8, 10, & 15) re-watching the show with me, we just saw this one last night. It has become something they are eager to make time for in the evenings. The love the humor and I find them quoting lines the next day or so.

I enjoy reading your analyses after-wards. It is interesting to look more at the background stuff going on, seeing how well thought out the story arcs are.

Thanks
jeffrey denzel
2. md9dme65
Best line:

Aang while taunting Zhao: "For some reason, I thought you would be better than Zuko!"
Maggie M
3. Eswana
Such good set-up for future plot arcs in this episode. We really won't see the consequences of Aang's refusal to learn firebending till mid-way in Season 3. Once again, I'm very appreciative of the careful plotting, world-building, and thinking ahead the creators did before they just plunged headfirst into the show.

Also, yay Katara's healing powers!

And Matt, I agree with you about Katara's bending ability- it does seem that she makes huge leaps in her progress between seasons. But since we don't always focus on her while she's practicing I can suspend disbelief a little bit, so her total bad-assery by the end of Season Two is justified.
KTFinn1
4. KTFinn1
I like the points about the tough and boring parts of learning new things. Despite the fact that Aang is the Avatar, the chosen one or whatever, he always to train hard throughout the series. It's a good message for kids, and not a tacked on moral, rather it is built into the fabric of the world.

I too felt a bit of a disconnect on Kitara's abilities.

Aang is talented because he's the Avatar. Toph joined the gang because they were specifically looking for the most awesome Earthbender. Zuko is the son of the Fire Lord, trained all his life, is older, and he's not even quite the master Kitara or Toph is anyway. But Kitara?

She just happens to turn out to be one of the most powerful benders in the world. I think this works plot wise -- Aang would need to learn water bending over time and needed a teacher, but it does feel a bit convenient.
KTFinn1
6. Zombie_Chow47
---
@ John Joseph Adams

This may be a wrong interpretation but on the disguises front with Katara's Necklace I'm of the impression that Zuko is the only one to actually know that she has/had the necklace and Zuko (given past evidence with "The Blue Spirit" and "The Southern Air Temple") would be unlikely to share that kind of Information with the rest of the Fire Nation.
---

Favourite line/moment: Aang - Ahoy, I'm Admiral Zhao. (said while shaking his arse at said Admiral in a childish display to enrage him.)

Runner Up: Zhao's scream of rage that increases the size of the flames that have already destroyed his boats.
Kate Nepveu
7. katenepveu
This has nothing to do with the post, but I feel the need to tell someone that Chad and SteelyKid were playing "catch" with our plushie Appa and by the end of it she was saying "yip yip!" when she flung it back.

She doesn't really grasp that she has to put her hands up yet, so "catch" on her end is more like "watch objects go by me or laugh when they bounce very gently off my body."

Also to get her to wake up this morning I watched the next ep on my iPod; she woke up in time to watch the last eight minutes sitting up on my lap, grooved to the end theme music, and then pitched a fit when I wouldn't play it again. So I think I've made a fan.
Jordan Hamessley
8. Jordache
@7 That is adorable. I'm in my mid-20s and I always groove to the end theme. So good. Also, I am super jealous of your Appa plush.

~Jordan
Kate Nepveu
9. katenepveu
We ordered ours online from Nickelodeon when she was late arriving; one of our jokes was that we'd promised her an Appa (we finished watching the show during my pregnancy) and she was holding out until we actually bought one.

It arrived the day after she did.

He is very cuddly. She asked for him yesterday during a mildly distressing medical thing and hugged him on her lap.
KTFinn1
10. ChrisG
I loved this episode as well. Thanks for the great commentary.

About Katara's powers: We have evidence from the very first episode that she is a powerful bender (i.e., releasing Aang from the iceberg). They also show her practicing zealously through these episodes and onward. And they develop this further as we proceed. So I didn't find her evolution as a kick ass bender jarring at all. But convenient, I agree...

I thought Chey's character was wonderful in this story, even beyond comic relief. His resigned acceptance of his role and his general mellowness served as a nice counterpoint to all the intensity from the rest of the characters.

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