At this point, you’re expecting me to say I don’t care for this episode, since on paper it’s a lot like “The King of Omashu.” It’s a single-character episode that doesn’t progress the main plot until the very end, and there’s no Zuko.
Except “Imprisoned” is one of my favorites, because it’s a Katara episode. It automatically works better than any episode focused on Aang right now because… um… at this point Aang sucks at being a protagonist.
Think about it. Aang’s arrival sets the plot into motion, he wins fights and solves problems, and he’s the one with the grand destiny. But what has Aang actually accomplished?
If you squint, you notice we’re moving north: we went from the Southern Water Tribe to an island, then to another island, finally made land in Omashu, and now we’re in a forest that’s still not too far from the coastline. But it’s not like we get a handy red line like in Indiana Jones. If you blink, you have no idea where we are or if we’re heading to the North Pole. We go all over the Earth Kingdom in season one, but the only time we actually get an idea of its geography is in season two, as they travel to Ba Sing Se and follow point A to point B.
But we’re not moving north very fast, and we’re not making any noticeable progress on the “learn bending and kick firebender butt” front.
But here’s the thing. Aang made no promises we would. He emphasized his priorities at the end of “The Avatar Returns.” Yeah, there’s a world to save, but Aang still doesn’t understand the impact of the Fire Nation. Have you noticed no one has mentioned the airbender genocide since the third episode? It’s because Aang still doesn’t believe things are so bad. And the ticking clock element of Sozin’s Comet hasn’t been introduced to light a fire under his ass. (I know I keep bringing that up. We’ll talk about it soon enough.)
So here we are with a silly protagonist who is Not Interested in his grand destiny, thank you very much. And Sokka can’t drive the plot; he’s too cynical and cautious. In many episodes in the first season, he acts as secondary antagonist, providing a voice of reason and pessimism to counter Katara and Aang’s endless optimism.
The episodes focused on Aang and Sokka, like “Jet” or “King of Omashu,” can fall flat because, at this point, both of them are impediments to the series’ progress. If we listened to Aang, we’d never get anywhere because we’d be having too much fun, and if we listened to Sokka, we’d never get anywhere because he’d be too busy telling us why we don’t have time for fun. (That’s why it’s great when the group dynamic loosens up in season two. Although we’d still never get anywhere with season two Sokka because he’d be too busy trying to decide if his belt matches his bag.)
So we have Katara. Luckily, Katara’s way better at protagonist-ing than Aang. I mean, we’re only six episodes into the season, and this is like the fifth epic motivational speech she’s made. She steps in at the first sign of injustice; she refuses to back away from a challenge. The protagonist is supposed to do this stuff, but Aang’s too busy literally chasing butterflies. And that’s part of what makes Aang such a great character, but, again, we’d never get anything done.
Katara, like Zuko, has wandered in from a serious show. She just hides it better. But when she doesn’t, epic stuff happens, and that’s why this episode works. She’s already a likable character at this point—her prissier side hasn’t shown up yet, since we don’t have Toph, and her ability to roll with any absurd thing Aang throws at her is just awesome. But now she gets to be a likable character with a cause, just like in the pilot.
I mean, that cause doesn’t accomplish anything, since we never see any evidence of the earthbenders taking back their kingdom until season three, but come on. Those were some pretty great speeches.
It’s interesting rewatching this and witnessing just how long it takes Aang to get serious. I do wonder why the ticking clock episode doesn’t happen sooner, but maybe I’ll figure it out when we get there.
- I like how they have to keep looking for food. If you’re having trouble figuring out your fantasy plot, take a step back and ask yourself a few basic questions. How are your characters paying for everything? How are they getting their food? Do they have jobs? None of those things seem interesting in a fantasy plot, but, as here, they introduce complications you can use to move things forward. The characters might not have followed Haru if they weren’t also following the call of their grumbling bellies.
- I love Haru. Beautiful angsty baby boy. I can’t tell you how happy I was when he came back in season three, even with that terrible mustache.
- This is our first glimpse of the Fire Nation at large in the Earth Kingdom. And also our first real idea of how the war is affecting the kingdom. I mean, Kyoshi Island is isolated, but otherwise it’s in okay shape. Omashu looked awesome. But here everything’s a mess, and the Fire Nation fighters are little more than thugs.
- Where do they find enough food for Appa? He’s got six stomachs, after all.
- Now I’m just remembering how Katara got shipped with EVERYONE. I was never opposed to Katara/Haru (did that have a ship name? I’m not sure), but it was never that popular as I recall, since this episode introduces the first reason to ship Zutara. See below. (See also “School Time Shipping.”)
- This whole episode is so pretty. The lighting in every shot is just beautiful. Probably another reason I like it.
- Everybody is really mean to Sokka. I mean, he’s always kind of the group butt monkey, but later on it’s fonder teasing, when Sokka does more ridiculous things. Right now, he’s just the butt monkey. But, again, right now he has to play straight man and realist, which is never a fun position.
- Nobody questions the Water Tribe clothes or a dark-skinned earthbender, which is kind of weird, since there’s no nation-mixing like in Legend of Korra. (One of the most interesting elements of that show, which, like most interesting elements, was not explored, but we’ll get to that.) I guess the Fire Nation just doesn’t pay a lot of attention? I mean, these guys thought a lemur was earthbending, so they’re obviously not the top of the class. Except flying lemurs are pretty rare, and considering that there are earthbending animals in the Avatar universe, maybe it’s not so weird. I DON’T KNOW THIS JUST GETS WEIRDER THE MORE I THINK ABOUT IT OKAY.
- George Takei voices the captain of the ship. And also Kevin Michael Richardson, otherwise known as “that deep-voiced guy who’s in EVERYTHING.” I wish George Takei’s character had been in a later episode with Ozai, so him and Mark Hamill could cause a bunch of nerd wars.
- You’d think taking all the earthbenders and throwing them on a boat would be a more common strategy, since the Fire Nation seems to mostly have conquered the coastlines of the Earth Kingdom. But maybe they were all on this boat. Who knows?
- We’re not talking about this whole “save the earthbenders” sequence as it appears in the movie. We’re just not. There are some things we don’t talk about.
- The Fire Nation’s technology use really stands out, even in these early episodes where they’re not using surprise weaponry like the gondolas or hot air balloons. The waterbenders and earthbenders all have more natural-looking transportation.
- Man, end-of-the-season Katara would have brought the pain in this episode. She’s surrounded by water, after all. I mean, don’t get me wrong, the fight scenes after everybody’s a master bender are the most amazing things ever. But these early scenes are kind of fun, since they rely less on bending to solve their problems. Or they have to jerry-rig something, like Aang using a cyclone to throw the coal instead of just bending it.
- Further evidence that Aang doesn’t think like other people and therefore the lesson at the center of “King of Omashu” was redundant: he thinks of bending coal instead of giving up like everyone else. Aang automatically comes at problems from a different angle. Come on, show. You know this.
- Okay, well, we’re going to talk about the movie, but only to link to Rufftoon’s amazing breakdown of why the fight scene in the show is so much better than the one in the movie. I mean, not that there’s any question about that, but this is really just an excuse to link you to Rufftoon’s excellent comics. Learn things!