So I gotta be honest with you: this is not one of my favorite episodes. I forget it exists.
I mean, it’s not terrible. A lot of fun stuff happens, and it introduces the greatest running joke in the history of ever.
It’s just… for the first time, not a lot’s going on here. So I’m gonna talk about why it doesn’t work before I talk about what does work.
First, there’s no Zuko in this episode. You might be surprised to hear me say that since I hate Zuko, but his presence serves an important purpose. First, it reminds us that there is a bigger plot here besides Aang derping all over the Earth Kingdom. Second, Zuko brings gravity to the show. I mean, it’s because he wandered off the set of a serious anime, but still. This is a show about a life-or-death battle with a group of people who committed mass genocide that just happens to be dressed up in cutesy shenanigans. Without Zuko around, angsting all over the place, we could forget the occasional horrific side to things and then get blindsided when someone dies or whatever. And since Zuko is serious character, he indicates character growth is happening in the episode. Yeah, half the jokes come from Zuko being the straight man to everybody else’s ridiculousness, but his presence also gives the show an excuse to take things seriously. If only for a minute.
Second, there’s not a ton going on in this episode. Here’s the problem with Avatar’s structure so far: since the ticking clock element hasn’t been introduced yet, there’s no reason for Aang to hurry, so we forget that Aang does in fact have to save the world. I mean, yes, we are introduced to genocide and horrific destruction and all that good stuff, but the show works hard to distract you from that with flying lemurs and cabbages and weird kings.
The previous episodes have made up for this by either setting the plot in motion (the pilot) or developing the character relationships, as happened in the previous two episodes. This episode is the first focused on a single character, since Sokka and Katara are quarantined. Instead, it’s about Aang, and making Aang learn a lesson. This could work, if the lesson was maybe, say, about responsibility or the power of friendship or something. The lesson they actually pick… does not make sense.
The entire point of this episode is that Bumi wants to teach Aang to approach the word differently… but Aang already does that. Aang is funny specifically because he doesn’t ever approach things the way we expect. See riding in on a penguin to save Katara or harnessing the Unagi to save Kyoshi Island. I mean, in this episode Aang crafts a ridiculous disguise to get past the guards, and the only reason he fails is because Bumi recognizes him, a coincidence no one could have planned for. Introducing an even weirder character doesn’t accomplish anything.
Not that Bumi’s not great and all. His appearance in the second season is much more interesting, but we’ll get there.
About the only important part happens at the end, when Bumi reiterates that Aang has a grand destiny and stuff, and that’s not important because A) we already knew that stuff and B) Bumi spent the entire episode distracting Aang from his grand destiny and teaching him something he didn’t need to know.
So that’s what doesn’t work. It’s a good thing this episode does a great job of worldbuilding.
I mean, there’s the visual stuff—Katara, Sokka, and Aang all really stand out as strangers because their color scheme contrasts with all the green, and Omashu is the most impressive place we’ve seen yet, since it’s not tiny like Kyoshi Village or falling apart like the Southern Air Temple.
But there’s also all the little glimpses we get into the Earth Kingdom. There are no firebenders in this episode, so we might forget there’s a war on, except that almost all the characters we encounter are soldiers, and they treat strangers with suspicion.
This is also our first sighting of earthbending, and is it impressive. It’s also the first time we can really see that there’s different martial arts styles behind each bending art. We don’t know enough about waterbending yet to know what the moves look like, but airbending and firebending at first glance don’t seem that different. Earthbending is a lot less flashy punching and kicking and more measured, thoughtful movements. It’s also used differently, incorporated into the very structure of their buildings.
Also, Omashu isn’t falling apart. This is the first place that looks vibrant and lively, hinting that the Fire Nation hasn’t taken everything yet. Which is important, because otherwise we’d probably think the battle’s already lost, since everywhere else has been destroyed or run-down.
They never really explain how the whole “king of Omashu” thing works when there’s also an Earth King, though. Or how Aang met all these diverse people when he was living as a monk. That’s always bothered me. But eh, we’ll call it a wash.
- I thought Katara and Sokka were just wearing parkas because that’s their clothes, but there’s snow around Omashu. Which is actually subtle worldbuilding, since the three parts of the show take place in the three seasons associated with their element: winter for water, spring for earth, and summer for fire. (Legend of Korra does not clearly take place in the fall, which is a serious missed opportunity if you ask me. But that’s indicative of a greater failing in worldbuilding on that show’s part, which we’ll get to soon enough.)
- I forgot how legit the security is around Omashu. Only makes it more drastic when the city gets taken. After all the beaten-down places we’ve already visited, Omashu feels like a big deal.
- Young Bumi is adorable. Also, they are not subtle at all about the connection between young and old Bumi. I mean, you can guess the connection anyway, since there’s only one reason a character would be introduced in a flashback before meeting a mysterious unnamed figure. But almost all the shots of young Bumi in the flashback are paralleled later with old Bumi.
- All these flashbacks help emphasize that Aang is acting like a kid because he IS just a kid. We need that right now to keep us from getting too annoyed with him derping all over the place. As the series progresses and we meet more child characters pushed into responsibilities before their time, we start to forget that they’re all just babies.
- The background characters in this episode are all just so done with Bumi, but they’re used to it. I used to wonder if Bumi inherited the title or if he was a commoner who got it by some other means, since he doesn’t look like much in the flashback, but it must be a hereditary title, because nobody takes Bumi seriously.
- With Aang’s knowledge of the world, why did he make up an island that doesn’t exist? Well, I mean, he’s not a good liar when put on the spot, but still. Just say you’re from Kyoshi or something, Aang. The characters there don’t dress like anyone else in the Earth Kingdom.
- It’s really important that Aang doesn’t yet know earthbending because once he does, the problems have to get more complicated. They can’t trap Aang anywhere that’s not made of metal.
- Why would “fire in your heart” be a compliment anymore? At least in the Earth Kingdom. I mean, I guess Bumi is old enough to remember life before the war, but he was still young when it happened, enough to be carried along by any culture shift that’s happened since the airbender genocide.