Avatar: The Last Airbender: "The Waterbending Scroll"/"Jet"
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Avatar: The Last Airbender: "The Waterbending Scroll"/"Jet"

The Waterbending Scroll (Book 1, Chapter 9; originally aired April 29, 2005)

Jet (Book 1, Chapter 10; originally aired May 6, 2005)

Sokka’s right, of course. As a general principle, it is wrong to steal.  But Katara is also somewhat right. While it’s wrong to steal, it’s hardly the stuff of ethical quandaries to steal from thieving pirates, especially when you’re on a mission to save the world. On the other hand, Sokka is right that Katara is also trying to help herself, jealous as she is of Aang’s natural ability to pick up waterbending (I’m assuming that, in addition to being a naturally gifted bender [pause for British readers to chuckle], waterbending is near enough to airbending that it should come easy to Aang). Regardless of how she frames it verbally, her prime motivation in stealing the scroll is helping herself, and Sokka sees right through her. He’s right in the general sense that stealing is wrong and he’s right in the specific sense that Katara stole the scroll because she’s driven by an intrinsic need to be a great waterbender. But he’s wrong in the sense that their mission is actually more important than the pirate’s right of property, and the wrongness is only intensified by the fact that the pirates stole it in the first place. It would be a somewhat different argument if Katara stole it from a helpless bystander, but she didn’t.  

This exchange reminds me of one of my favorite scenes from The Wild Bunch (and who am I kidding? Every scene of The Wild Bunch is one of my favorites). Pike Bishop, the leader of the Bunch, and Dutch Engstrom, his second-in-command, are arguing about their former comrade Deke Thornton, who has made a deal with the railroad to hunt the Bunch down in exchange for early release from prison. Pike’s a little sympathetic to Deke, probably from guilt (as we see in flashback, his lack of caution led to Deke’s capture in the first place). He thinks that Deke has no choice about hunting them because he gave his word. This infuriates Dutch. “That ain’t what counts,” he shouts, “It’s who you give it to!” You can watch that scene for yourself here.

Like Pike and Dutch, Sokka and Katara are arguing about whether specific situational needs trump fundamental principles of ethical behavior. The stakes are low; their argument is only over a twice-stolen scroll, at least until they find themselves in the middle of a skirmish. But there’s another side. Katara and Aang are indifferent to Sokka’s argument and refuse to grant him any moral authority. This schism grows in the second chapter we’re hitting this week, “Jet,” in which the title character has slid a ways down the slippery slope. Like the Aang Gang, he believes that the Fire Nation’s invasion must be turned back. Unlike the Aang Gang, he considers the lives of civilians to be collateral damage. Aang and Katara are blinded by his cool exterior, guerrilla battle techniques, and magic Ewok village in the trees (Katara, it should be noted, is also blinded by her crazy teenage instincts, by which I mean hormones). As he did with Katara in the previous week, Sokka sees right through Jet’s posturing to the thuggish selfishness underneath. However, Sokka has lost his credibility with Katara and Aang, and they are unwilling to listen to him.  

This is a fairly neat little slide from one episode where Katara and Aang reject Sokka’s moral authority to the next where they ignore his judgment about Jet. If Sokka was right about the scroll, then they were in the wrong. If Sokka is right about Jet, then he might be right about the scroll, and then, well, you can see where this is going. Katara and Aang see Jet the way he wants them to see him. He’s a sort of Peter Pan, offering them the idea that kids can band together to fight the Fire Nation occupation. But Jet’s been cutting his morning Peter Pann-ios with Terror Flakes, and he effectively manipulates both Aang and Katara into helping him with a horrible plan: He has come to believe that in order to save a nearby occupied village, he must destroy it.  By the time they catch on, they’re too late to stop his plan.

Jet’s manipulation is so crude that it seems unlikely that they’d fall for it, at least until you remember that Aang is a 12-year-old child who mostly grew up in a cloister (although he appears to have nomaded around a bit, as he knows Bumi and claims to have friends in the Fire Nation), and Katara is a teenager who has grown up about as socially isolated from her peers as a person could be in this world. At the beginning of the episode, she teases her brother about never kissing a girl, but the joke is also on her: She grew up in the same little tribe. The only teenage boys she’s met other than her brother are Prince Zuko and Haru. And now Jet. Out of those three, you can see why she finds Jet so damn interesting.

“The Waterbending Scroll” picks up right at the end of the last episode, with Aang stressed out about all he has to do before next summer. Katara offers to teach him some waterbending moves. They take a break from flying in an idyllic spot where Aang quickly masters everything that Katara has learned in her 14 years, much to her annoyance. Unfortunately, Aang accidentally washes away their supplies, so they head to a nearby town to buy more. While there, they stumble onto the titular scroll, which describes a number of waterbending forms, while shopping for mysterious curios on a pirate ship. When the pirates reject their measly offer, they make to leave only to find the pirates after them, blades drawn. The Gang makes a quick getaway, but Katara reveals that she stole the scroll from the pirates. Meanwhile, Zuko and Iroh arrive in port to replace Iroh’s lost white lotus tile (significance for later, first time viewers!). They overhear the pirates describing the Aang Gang and all set out to find them together, which they shortly accomplish. There’s a scuffle, and the Aang Gang steals the pirate ship with the pirates themselves in hot pursuit on Zuko’s, uh, lifeboat. I guess that’s what it is, at least. Then after a waterfall and dramatic rescue by Appa, we all learn the importance of getting yourself far, far away after you’ve stolen something from pirates.

In “Jet,” Sokka insists that the Aang Gang walk rather than fly for this leg of the trip, drawing from the idea that Appa is noticeable enough to help Zuko track them. Unfortunately, the Gang walks right into a Fire Nation encampment. Things look dire (which is a little contrived, because two episodes ago, Aang drew on Roku’s power to take out a whole group of Fire Nation soldiers and an island, to boot [further clarification: I’m not saying that Aang can draw on Roku again, but he can clearly raise a rumpus when he needs to]), but Jet and his Lost Boy Freedom Fighters swoop in to save the day. As I mentioned before, Sokka doesn’t like or trust Jet, but he can’t bring Katara and Aang around to his point of view. Sokka is present when Jet and his pals intimidate and rob a helpless old man from the Fire Nation. Sokka also catches on to their plan to blow up a dam and destroy an occupied Earth Kingdom town, but he is captured before he can do anything about it. In the meantime, Katara and Aang assist Jet in his plan to fill up the water behind the dam, unwittingly ensuring that the town will be utterly destroyed. Jet rather easily distracts them from saving the day when they finally catch on to his evil plan, but fortunately, Sokka has already escaped and convinced the citizens to seek shelter on higher ground.  

Both episodes are quite entertaining. The mild ethical discussion underlying “The Waterbending Scroll” provides some brain food for adults, while the way it erupts into a referendum on guerrilla tactics in “Jet” is fairly heavy stuff for a kids’ show. Iroh fires off the best line in “The Waterbending Scroll” when he reaffirms to Katara that this whole skirmish is actually all her fault. That is the sort of thing that adults should do: Reinforce to growing kids about how consequences work, even when others are trying to let them off the hook.  My major complaint about “Jet” is that Jet himself can be everywhere at once. In the lead-up to the climax of the episode, Jet is a) with the Lost Boys at the dam at dawn, b) back to the hideout to take Aang and Katara down to the steam vents, and c) after leaving them, close enough to the high overlook to tear Aang’s glider and lead him into a fight in the trees. They indicate that these locations are not near each other, but Jet can somehow be at all of them in a relatively short time and always in the right place at the right time. I’m willing to let that go, though. It’s not like Avatar is anywhere close to alone in having a character with a nefarious plan who is both prescient and ubiquitous. One might even say that it’s a stock TV situation.

Next week: "The Great Divide," which many have pegged in the comments as the worst Avatar episode. Will I agree? Tune in to see!

Stray Observations:

  • Are you so busy fighting that you can not see your own ships have set sail?” “We have no time for your proverbs, Uncle!” (…) “Maybe it should be a proverb.”
  • What’s up with the pirate with a heart on the back of his head?
  • If Appa is the last flying bison, why are there bison whistles?
  • Katara’s waterbending has grown in leaps and bounds.  Her ability to turn water into ice was most impressive, and I don’t remember seeing any such form in our glimpse of the scroll.  Did she do it instinctively?
  • Parrot-Iguana? That’s going to leave some nasty droppings to clean up.  Nice job, evolutionarily speaking, though.

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