By Matthew Moorcroft
Chapter 15: Bato of the Water Tribe – Strong Recommendation
Chapter 16: The Deserter – Highest Recommendation
- Directed by Giancarlo Volpe (Episode 15), Lauren MacMullan (Episode 16)
- Starring Zach Tyler Eisen, Mae Whitman, Jack DeSena, Dante Basco
I think there is an aversion to message episodes that I don’t understand in a lot of older audiences who may watch these shows casually or even as a fan like myself. In the end I think it’s important to understand who exactly these shows are ultimately aimed at (spoiler alert, not us!) and because of that you are bound to find some of the messages and themes of some episodes a little bit trite and played out. This is ok! Kids shows are allowed to do this and they can even be done well if they ultimately bring their A-game to the table.
I bring this up cause Bato of the Water Tribe is one of Avatar’s more blatant “message” episodes, and probably their most blatant in general outside of a couple select few. This isn’t to say it’s bad, far from it – it still has the fantastic animation and storytelling prowess the rest of the show has up to this point – but it’s also more blunt then I think it realizes. Still, Aang’s selfish decision is a bit frustrating but it’s also at least understanding and you can see it from his headspace completely. It’s a pretty realistic depiction of abandonment trauma and while it’s definitely played down for younger audiences, there is a real tangibility to his actions here; lots of depictions of trauma always forget about the real things it can do to one’s perception of the world around us so I appreciate the fact Avatar doesn’t shy away from it.
Zuko’s side of the story however steals the show, mainly for the introduction of a great one off character in Jun and the action sequences that follow. Considering this is Aang and Zuko’s first meeting past The Blue Spirit, the fight here feels more personal then ever before and there is a very real sense that these two are actually going at it for real this time – if you weren’t convinced on that either, the explosion at the start that sends them both flying will do it. Lots of little action beats here that are just sublime, like Aang and Zuko’s foot duel on the well to Appa actually joining in on the action for once. It’s a great action sequence and one of the best of Season 1 up to this point, which makes up for the rest of the episode being standard Avatar fare in terms of quality.
The Deserter is also a message episode, but unlike Bato of the Water Tribe it’s messages are more fascinating to dissect. One of the prevailing questions that has somewhat flown over the show is how exactly Aang will learn firebending in a world that is out to get him, and this episode tackles that question head on. Cause Aang must learn at some point, he is the Avatar after all, but is he even ready to do so? The answer, turns out, is a resounding no as Aang’s overconfidence comes to really bite him here. While the issue of Katara’s burning is solved right away through her own development and continued exploration of the ying and yang of elements (water heals, fire hurts), the psychological scars it leaves on Aang – the feeling of hurting another human being – stays with him till the end of the show and maybe even until the end of his life if we take The Legend of Korra into account.
And when our now reoccurring antagonist Zhao shows up once again, we are treated to some important background on him that parallels him with his own teacher. Fire is indeed alive, and it is burning everything around Zhao – a man so filled with hate, jealously, and envy for those around he can’t fathom the idea that somebody would be better then him at firebending. Jason Isaacs’ performance as the character has always been stellar but I especially love it after this episode once you really start to dive into his character. The layers that peel off are simply sublime; he’s a detestable piece of shit but Isaacs plays him with such a conviction you can’t help but be engaged whenever he’s on screen.
But The Deserter also works as a grounding episode for the entire ethos of Avatar as a show in general – one about balance, nature, and pacifism. Aang defeat Zhao without throwing a single punch, and there is a real catharsis in seeing Zhao humbled by him so personally this time. As Jeong Jeong philosophy states, a fish does not know when the river leads, he can only imagine the ocean; while he is ostensibly talking to Aang about his reckless nature, he’s also talking about Zhao and his desire to become a warlord clouding his mind. That’s the beauty of the episode and it’s many layers: it gets better the more you think about it in the grand picture.
And yes, all that from a simple episode with a message about patience. Sometimes, those message episodes have more to say then you think they do.