Avatar: The Last Airbender: "The King Of Omashu"/"Imprisoned"
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Avatar: The Last Airbender: "The King Of Omashu"/"Imprisoned"

The King of Omashu (Book 1, Chapter 5; originally aired March 18, 2005)

Imprisoned (Book 1, Chapter 6; originally aired March 25, 2005)

In the first of today’s Village Of The Week episodes (thanks to commenter Jordo for the designation!), the Aang Gang travels to the Earth Kingdom city of Omashu, which is a city built into the side of a mountain like Minas Tirith in The Lord Of The Rings (aka “that big city at the end with the tree”).  In fantasy worlds, there are no safety regulations or building codes.  While people with magic bending skills surely have no problems with the day-to-day hazards of Omashu, it would be less fun to be a regular old clumsy-footed citizen who happens to stumble one day near the enormous stone chutes covering the city.  Likewise, to this day I question the wisdom of the builders of Minas Tirith for leaving a 1,000-foot drop at the end of their sacred garden without even bothering to erect a courtesy fence.  But I digress.

“The King of Omashu” is a joke-filled episode that introduces viewers to King Bumi, who is perhaps the only person alive who knew Aang before his 100-year lacuna, and to earthbending, which harnesses the brute force of rock and clay most impressively in the hands of a master like Bumi.  The Aang Gang arrives in Omashu, gets into the sort of mischief that one would expect from unsupervised minors with magic powers, and then receive a tough love lesson from King Bumi.  I must note that Bumi does not ultimately tell them anything that they don’t already know, other than that Aang must think like a mad genius when he faces the Firelord.  He also seems quite attached to Momo for reasons unknown, but the speculation about this in the comments to last week’s review are most entertaining.

I suspect that some of the jokes in this episode will not land as strongly for those who are not yet invested in the story.  Still, I found them, even the silliest, to be pretty entertaining.  The strongest ones are quite inspired, like the bickering between Bumi and his advisor about what to call the prison chamber where they’re taking the Aang Gang.  Even the usually over-serious Katara gets in a funny line (“We’re going to keep trying, but that is a good back up,” which is, ok, only funny in context).

Mild spoiler alert level: red.  Given that Bumi is the only living link to Aang’s past, I’m a little surprised that he doesn’t play a larger role in the narrative.  If I’m remembering correctly, he pops up only twice more, although he’s such an entertaining character that he always makes a big splash.  But let’s step outside of the kids’ show haze for a moment.  For an adult who is 112 years old (assuming Bumi and Aang are the same age), wouldn’t it be insanely unsettling (even for a mad genius) to see a playmate from a previous century return unchanged?  I get that his unflappability is part of Bumi’s characterization, but the more I think about their relationship, the more I think that there is some dramatic tension that goes unexplored.  I can understand why this was left out, though.  Most likely, they’ve already spent enough time on what Aang has lost and don’t want to dwell further on it, because making children depressed is really more of a job for clowns than for epic fantasies. For all of the darkness lurking around its edges, this is a show meant to entertain kids, and old men looking back at their lives is, shockingly, of limited interest for that set.  Or perhaps anyone other than grumpy tv reviewers.  I mean, I know that the makers of Avatar love Japanese cinema, but that doesn’t mean they should make a reference to Ikiru.  So why am I bringing this up?  Oh, right.  Grumpy TV reviewer.  Let’s just move on.

Let me drop a little word for the poor cabbage guy, too.  Here we have one of the little guys of this show, a merchant-farmer just trying to make a living, and he keeps losing his inventory not only to cruel guards, but also a magic kid causing public mayhem and then finally the king of the realm.  While the show goes out of its way at times to show that the non-magic populace is just as important as the magic demographic, this poor cabbage guy is collateral damage to the Avatar’s youth.  On that note (mildly spoilery speculation follows), how is it that Bumi is a king?  Isn’t he the only king we meet other than the Earth King?  Is it that the Earth Kingdom is split into regional fiefdoms with various kings subjugated to the central Earth King?  If so, why don’t we meet more of them?  Perhaps I’m overthinking the politics of this fictional kingdom, but I do recall that this stuck out for me the first time I watched the show.  I thought that Bumi was the king of the Earth realm and that Omashu was its central city.  Then along came Book 2 and the story of Ba Sing Se, and I realized that I had no idea how Bumi fit into anything.

Speaking of not fitting in, Katara is oddly out-of-character for the whole of “Imprisoned.”  She starts off the episode by being a little rude to Sokka about the food he’s gathered, which is odd because she’s usually written as being quite supportive, then puts herself and their whole mission into danger for the sake of a boy.  Now that I write this, I realize that it’s perhaps not that out of character for Katara, who, for all her heroics, is a 14-year-old girl, to go a little boy-crazy from time to time, but her willingness to sacrifice their mission still sticks out.

All in all, this is a lesser episode, not just for Katara’s character slip, but also because it is relatively humorless (there are a couple of exceptional moments, as when Katara is arrested for earthbending and when the warden throws the captain overboard) and other characters seem unfazed by information that should be significant.  Katara tells people more than once that she’s a waterbender from a Water Tribe and neither the Earth Kingdom denizens or the Fire Nation warriors even blink.  The Avatar shows up in the middle of a Fire Nation prison, airbending up a storm, and the guards say not a peep.

However, there are some good points about the episode.  It is interesting to see an Earth Kingdom village under Fire Nation occupation, with thuggish firebenders demanding tribute from the locals and a citizenry so beaten down that the man Haru saves immediately turns him in.  They make a point of noting that this occupation has lasted for only five years of this 100-year war.  Many of the Villages of the Week to come have a similar recent occupation, suggesting a change in the overall strategy of the war in the last five years, but also taking away from the sense that this war has been a long and grinding affair.  Why is it that so many of the significant events of this 100-year struggle have taken place in the near-current period of the war?  

Also a nice touch is the Fire Nation prison for earthbenders, which is well-thought in the usual ruthless Fire Nation style, and George Takei is always a welcome presence.  But, as I’ve already mentioned, Katara takes big risks that seem more foolhardy than anything.  She seems wholly unlike the cautious Katara from Kyoshi.  Another thing that doesn’t go down easy: Haru’s father says “I hear that cowards float” to Warden Takei as he drops the man into the sea, which would probably mean something if it had been spoken previously in the episode.  Or the series, for that matter.  As is, it seemed weird, as if we should attach some significance to it that was lost on the cutting room floor.  Thus "Imprisoned" isn’t a terrible episode, but it is rather mediocre for this excellent series.

Stray Observations:

  • “Take them to the refurbished chamber that was once bad!”

  • “Lettuce leaf?”

  • “There are no take-backsies in my kingdom.”

  • “What’s the point of tests if you don’t learn anything?”

  • “First of all, it’s pretty fun messing with people.  But I do have a reason.”

  • “That lemur!  He’s earthbending!”

  • Is anyone else getting a “Disc Only” message from Netflix Instant Viewing for “The King Of Omashu”?  It worked fine yesterday, but as of Tuesday morning, I can’t get it to stream on my TV or computer.

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