“Return To Omashu” (book 2, chapter 3; originally aired April 7, 2006)
“The Swamp” (book 2, chapter 4; originally aired April 14, 2006)
I zipped through these episodes in the past, but I have to admit that I thought both of them were a little tedious on re-watch. They’re not exactly bad episodes; in fact, both have action, memorable characters, and at least a little fun dialogue. But I am anxious to move along. The next run of episodes are quite wonderful, and we have to face the fact that summer, and, subsequently, the TV Club Classic days, are drawing to a close for the new TV season. In light of what I’d like to cover before we shut Avatar coverage down for the time being, these episodes felt like speed bumps.
They both have a purpose, though. “Return To Omashu” sets major plot points into motion and introduces a couple of major characters for the arc ahead. The problem is that some elements of the story are forced and that narrative falseness seems more apparent on re-watch. “The Swamp” has a similar problem. Like anyone with a taste for crawdad boils and the occasional alligator po-boy, I am generally in favor of both Swamp Thing and rednecky Cajun-Asian waterbenders, but the tone of the episode is all over the place. Revisiting it detracts from the aspects I like because I end up thinking about how a few more drafts of the script could have helped to bring the episode together.
In the last episode, one of the very few Avatar cliffhangers, we left off with the Aang Gang discovering that Omashu is under new management. The flaming, angry, vaguely fascistic, bent-on-world-domination kind. Concerned about his pal King Bumi, Aang leads Sokka and Katara through a river of sewage into the city. They are spotted by guards, but Katara’s quick wit shines as she points to the weird marks on Sokka’s face left by the cutest little parasite there is: a purple pentapus (just saying that name aloud can get you thrown in jail in some countries). She tells the guards that Sokka has pentapox. “Pentapox?,” says the guard, “I think I’ve heard of pentapox.” Sokka sells them on the idea that he’s a walking plague factory, and they scurry off.
Sokka will later use this same idea to get the remaining population of Omashu out of the city. Here’s one of the narrative issues I have with the story: Sokka’s army of pentapoxed zombies appears to be 100 percent male. Yet we are told more than once that they constitute the entire population of Omashu. What gives? Where are the women and children? Why occupy a city if the occupied population doesn’t exist?
The Omashu plot occupies the traditional A-plot space, but the B-plot, in which Azula gathers her teenage mutant ninjas, is far more important. On the advice of her creepy ancient evil twin advisors, Azula leaves her Imperial Cruiser to make herself faster and even more deadly. Making their children deadly seems to be an obsession for Fire Nation royalty. As we learn, Azula and her handpicked sidekicks Mai and Ty Lee are all graduates of the Royal Fire Academy for Girls, where the upper crust of the Fire Nation send their daughters to become superhuman sociopathic assassins. When we meet Mai, we learn that even when she takes a little walk with her mother and baby brother along with a dozen or so armed guards, she is packing a near-infinite number of tiny arrows and throwing knives. Incidentally, should any of you ever become the occupying governor of a city that has magic boulder-throwing freedom fighters in the underground opposition, I strongly advise that you do not allow your family to take night walks around the city, especially with your babies in tow. Heed my words.
Azula’s mission is good fun, even if it is low on funny lines and quotable quotes. I like how we are introduced to Ty Lee via her upside-down perspective of Azula. I like how Azula, like the good monstrous-despot-in-training she is, destroys Ty Lee’s dream job with the circus with outrageous demands. While the Fire Nation borrows many aspects from Japanese culture, Azula has some full-on North Korea crazy.
After a baby-escape sequence that probably played better on the page than on the screen, the two stories come together as the Azula Squad face-off with the Aang Gang in a trade-off of the baby for King Bumi. I understand that Azula could care less about the baby, but I’m not down with Mai throwing knives at young people carrying her little brother. Sokka has to save the baby from the baby’s own sister, which seems, well, a little harsh. Sure, she’s a cold, sarcastic killing machine, but man, all I can come up with is that Attempted Fratricide must be a mandatory class at the Royal Fire Academy for Girls.
There’s not much more to this episode. The fight is pretty well choreographed. Bumi’s revelation about his captivity is also well done and quite believable. I hate, hate, hate the old trope of the hero blithely ignoring what someone is trying to tell him, especially given what we know of Bumi and Aang’s relationship. That, the Magoo-like baby-escape sequence, the callousness over the baby’s life, and the weirdness of the mysterious disappearing population and occupation of an empty city all grow for me on repeat watches, and while I like Bumi’s talk about Jing and Azula’s efforts to get the band together, I find myself checking the clock during this episode. And that’s not how I like to feel while watching Avatar.
I don’t check the clock during “The Swamp,” but I do find it an episode with diminishing returns. The Iroh and Zuko scenes in the prelude and coda are fun despite themselves. The Giant-Size Man-Swamp Thing is also great, as are the aforementioned redneck Cajun-Asian waterbenders. But the episode can’t decide if it is another mystical hoo-hah journey, a horror homage, or a particularly kooky Village of the Week. I get that it’s trying to balance these elements, but I don’t feel it’s successful.
I love the scenes of Iroh and Zuko panhandling, even though one is written poorly and the other impossible. Iroh is, as expected, hitting on the ladies. It seems out of character for him to remark on the kindness of the guy who makes him dance like a rummy in a Western. Iroh is, after all, the Dragon of the West, quite capable of understanding that this random asshole meant to humiliate him. But the script needs him to annoy Zuko with his amiability, even if it seems out of character. And despite the characterization, I liked the scene. The coda is similarly problematic but fun. Zuko cannot have a Blue Spirit mask. The original blew up on the Dinghy of Doom. He has almost no possessions and nowhere to hide a new mask. And yet, when he appears out of nowhere to steal the guy’s swords, I am 100 percent okay with that.
I am far less okay with the main action of The Swamp. It’s framed like a horror film, but I don’t get much sense of the horror. Once the party is split up, there is a first-person POV shot watching them from the trees, but it’s unclear who or what is behind this POV. Later in the episode, it’s implied that the viewer is Huu, the Swamp Thing Guy—but if that’s the case, it’s unclear why he waits to attack them. The implication that the swamp is trying to contact them in the guise of dead loved ones left me wishing that Dr. Venture could drop in to call the swamp a dick. While the episode later waves away the dickishness of this with some prime all-time-is-one mumbo-jumbo, I was left with the impression that the swamp was messing with the Aang Gang just for the hell of it.
I really hate the episode’s turn on a dime from the fight to the mystical. After this guy threw them around and tried to, well, I don’t know what, with Sokka, why would they suddenly trust him? And that Sokka-absorption thing: It looks like the Swamp Thing is trying to eat him when you think it’s a monster, but on re-watch, all I could picture for Huu’s plan was pulling Sokka to the middle and then asking him if he could squeal like a pig. I don’t think I’m being capricious here. In many anime series, the antagonist turns out to be an ally who had good reason to oppose our heroes, and I like this reversal of expectations quite a bit. In this episode, though, there’s very little that happens to convince the Aang Gang of the swamp people’s innate goodness, and yet they take it on faith. Maybe with a few more script drafts, the different elements could have been better integrated. Ah well, the so-so ones remind us of how great the best ones are.
- “Pentapox? Hmm, I’m pretty sure I’ve heard of that.”
- What happens to Flopsy after Aang frees him? Do the earthbenders keep him around as a pet?
- “Yip yip! Oh, I guess that doesn’t work with you. Let’s go!”
- Aang: “There are three jing?” Bumi: “Well, technically there are 85, but let’s just focus on the third.”
- Azula hopping up from the depths of her Omashu freight truck like Michael Myers: awesome.
- Sokka: “Elbow leech! Where? Where?” Katara: “Where do you think?”
- “You think everything tastes like possum-chicken!”
- The dude riding in the cajunbender boat has same expression of all dudes riding in back of a motorboat: somewhere between stoic, determined, and blind drunk.
- Cajun guy: “How you like that possum-chicken?” Sokka: “Tastes just like arctic hen.”
- “He don’t eat no bugs. That’s people food.”
- “I hope you realize now that nothing strange was going on here. Just a bunch of greasy people living in a swamp.”