Re-Avatar State “The King of Omashu” & “Imprisoned”

The King of Omashu

The prerogative of this pair of episodes is to finally introduce the audience to the magical environs of The Earth Kingdom and display and the power and possibility of earthbending. It’s a bit odd that it took this long to get to our final form of elemental magic, and the delay leads to more of a mixed bag than normal. Both episodes this time are pure Place of the Week productions. Bits of self-contained storytelling that lay out some pieces of Four Nation lore, but are largely disconnected from the overarching plot in seemingly every way. In one case it’s fine, and in the other it’s less then great.

“The King of Omashu” is successful because of how much it opens up what the heroes of Team Avatar can encounter on their quest. So far they’ve been waylaid solely by small villages and abandoned temples, but here the grand scope of living in this world is unveiled. There’s a bustling metropolitan areas with unique architecture, complete with idiosyncratic uses for bending. The magical martial art is no longer solely reserved for combat, but is part of the mundane lives of the everyday citizen. We are introduced to earthbending not through a fight, but as functionary part of city living.

This imbues the magic of Avatar with an extra bit of oomph not found in things like  Lord of the Rings. Society has integrated the extraordinary to the point that its purposes is multifaceted and everyday. So now the process of mail is raised to the state of viewer interest as it also integrates with the fantastical.

Beyond these elements, “Omashu” works because it’s a genuinely funny episode of Avatar peppered with some of the best animation in the series yet. Aang wants to visit the famous Earth Kingdom city to goof around in their mail chutes. Once a bit of mayhem ensues, he’s challenged by the local mad king to three trials to win Team Avatar’s freedom. A simple and silly conceit, but writer John O’Bryan and director Anthony Lioi keep things impressively dynamic, both with the witticisms and the action on screen.

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Take the catastrophic mail chute ride at the beginning. It dynamically weaves around the cityscape, demonstrating the functions of the mail service, while also pausing (quite literally) for a sprinkle of well timed punchlines (the freeze frame breaking through the soldiers got a legit chuckle). The writing also feels sharper, eschewing the usual gross out gags for some fun character based comedy. I love how Katara immediately remembers Aang’s faked last name, or how Sokka thinks Rocky is good name for an earthbender, or how there is this merchant who is just so darned obsessed with his cabbages.

The comedy is also nicely balanced by the thrilling bending duel that concludes the episode. The fight between Aang and Bumi wonderfully demonstrates the power and possibility of earthbending, creating sand traps, hurling boulders and constructing shields. Bumi moves differently than Aang, standing firm while our hero flits around combat. It might be a bit of action for action’s sake, but it is also sleek, clever and funny.

It’s then a little frustrating that the episode hinges upon Aang discovery that the current mad king is an old friend from a century ago. One of those writing conceits that introduces something important we’ve never heard of at the top of the hour that is immediately resolved by the end. Once Aang cracks Bumi’s riddles and puzzles out his true identity we are treated to a thesis statement that could have been left unsaid, sometimes you need to think laterally to solve a problem.

These nagging points don’t tarnish the rest of the fun of the episode, and as an introduction to what can be possible with bending powers “The King of Omashu” shines.

Odds and Ends

  • No Zuko this week. I get that his story doesn’t really intersect here, but his absence is notable due to how prominent he was in the first four episodes.
  • For a show that regularly gets plaudits for its progressive bonafides, its weird to here the characters insist that Bumi is crazy when he’s obviously just and eccentric individual totally in control of his faculties.
  • I do enjoy that Cabbage merchant immediately goes to execution for Team Avatar’s transgressions.
Spoiler

  • Much like Avatar Kyoshi and Suki, Bumi is a great example of the show pulling on its lore for future storytelling developments. I love that Omashu becomes a strategic point of order in Book 2, and Bumi an important member of the resistance.
  • Cabbage man appears for the first time, and will continue to pop up all the way through Korra.

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Imprisoned

If “The King of Omashu” was a fun introduction to conceptual power and possibility of the world of earthbending, then “Imprisoned” is kind of the opposite. A sluggish portrait of a village under siege from the Fire Nation that seemingly squanders the verve and excitement of the previous outing on a pat bit of storytelling about believing in your self and collective power.

The Place of the Week is a humble mining village under Fire Nation occupation. While Team Avatar is out for food one day they come across a boy practicing earth bending. When they follow him home and talk to him about his training, the boy, named Haru, becomes sheepish. It appears that the occupiers of the town have outlawed earthbending, and if he’s caught he’ll be shipped off to a prison camp just like his father. Katara, being the  good natured girl she is, convinces Haru to use his skills to save an old man, who promptly turn Haru over to the authorities. So Team Avatar must pull off a daring raid on the prison ship to save the local earth benders and restore hope to the town.

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From a macro perspective “Imprisoned” is a perfectly cromulent piece of storytelling. It injects a bit Leone western into the show’s genre DNA (an influence that only grows more prominent as the series continues), displays some fun wrinkles with bending abilities (earth bending can extended beyond simply the rocks we walk on), and introduces us to the life of the average occupied citizen during the war. But none of it really comes together.

The instigation of Katara’s insistence for Haru’s earth bending feels sophomoric and silly, even for an adolescent motivation. Frequently the show pings off Team Avatars misapprehension of a place they visit for dramatic stakes, but unlike the previous two episodes the town feels like a tossed-off grouping of cliches and ideas. Contriving ways for Katara to rally Haru and his fellow citizens to rise against the Fire Nation.

This frustration comes to bare most blatantly in the second half of the episode. What should be a snappy variation of the prison break with magic martial arts is shockingly limp. Maybe its because it unnecessarily breaks Katara off from Team Avatar, maybe its because Katara tries to rally the troops twice, or maybe its because, bizarrely, Katara doesn’t once use her water bending abilities to assist in the escape.

The final fight also misses the snap needed to invigorate the episode. Earthbenders hurling flaming coal bullets sounds cool as hell, but everything in the scene feels so static. Largely egged on by the fact that this sequence lacks the emotional stakes we’ve seen in the story so far. Haru and the other prisoners are figureheads to us, not really people in any tangible way, and standing as archetypes makes their revolt feel pat and expected instead of the earned struggle so richly needed.

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The story issues of “Imprisoned” are typified by a sudden late showing of Zuko. He doesn’t say anything, but he does pick up Katara’s lost necklace. It’s a clumsy bit of storytelling, desperately trying to connect the disparate elements of this Place of the Week to overarching story. Why couldn’t Zuko be involved earlier? His silent cliffhanger feels like a goose to the narrative rather than a smooth integration of a serial story.

As such “Imprisoned” is an early lowlight of the show. Slack and hollow instead of zippy and interesting. It doesn’t reveal the “worst” of Avatar but does demonstrate that despite its well deserved reputation as an excellent program, it can fumble the story it wants to tell.

Odds and Ends

  • The one genuinely great moment is when the Fire Nation soldiers think Momo is earth bending. Cute, clever, and a smart inversion of the expected joke.
  • I Know That Voice: Haru’s father is performed by prolific voice acting talent Kevin Michael Richardson, whose deep tones have graced many a gruff warrior and disapproving father.
Spoiler

  • You can tell that the writers understood that this episode was conceptually good, because they replicate it 100% for “The Boiling Rock” too much greater success.
  • Haru does briefly appear again later down the road, but this is one of those callbacks that feels mostly hollow instead of enriching. This is especially true considering that Jet’s first appearance is right around the corner.

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