By Matthew Moorcroft
Chapter 5: The King of Omashu – Strong Recommendation
Chapter 6: Imprisoned – Strong Recommendation
- Directed by Anthony Lioi (Episode 5), Dave Filoni (Episode 6)
- Starring Zach Tyler Eisen, Mae Whitman, Jack DeSena, Andre Sogliuzzo
One of the benefits of episodic television that seems to be lost nowadays is the existence of standalone episodes. There is a misconception that if an episode doesn’t advance the main story, it’s automatically “filler” and therefore not worth your time, but in reality that could be further from the truth. It’s these standalone episodes that expand on the world and allow us to really breathe every once and awhile, something that I feel is lost in a lot of modern TV, particularly as we get further and further into the streaming era and all we can focus on is forward progression. Slow is good, quiet is important.
So it’s really great that Avatar: The Last Airbender really leans into these kinds of episodes for the majority of it’s run. Both The King of Omashu and Imprisoned are separate adventures but they do a lot to expand the world, particularly that of the Earth Kingdom both outside Fire Nation control and directly under it. Necessary context is throughout these moments and the slow attention to detail in how they trickle out information is sublime. Imprisoned in particular has some stellar visual storytelling, with most of the major beats being done without much dialogue if any at all. When Katara learns that Haru has been taken, this isn’t so much as a glance and it tells you everything you need to know right away.
In fact, Imprisoned is an episode that I think benefits the most from this format. It’s an episode that on the surface, and even later on, doesn’t contribute much to the main story outside of a couple of character introductions and a cliffhanger ending but without it you lose a lot of the necessary worldbuilding necessary to understand exactly what the Fire Nation is doing. George Takei’s wonderfully over the top villain performance, while a highlight, is in line with the brutality and the the fascist ways of the Fire Nation and getting to see it up close beats home just how dire the stakes are across the board. Plus, it’s great to see Katara in a leadership role after being sidelined for a couple of episodes.
King of Omashu, on the other hand, has bigger story implications wrapped up in an otherwise more standard, lighthearted story. The jokes here are distinctly more hit or miss then prior episodes, but that’s likely due to King Bumi himself definitely being aimed more at kids as the “weird funny old guy”. Nevertheless, he makes a strong final impression when the fight choreography kicks in and he’s throwing rocks around like it’s nothing. It’s our first real display of Earthbending in the show and it’s that Mike and Bryan really wanted to wait until this moment to really have it be the focus. And while leading up to that is a fun series of challenges, the predictable outcome is overshadowed, thankfully, by a sense of emotional cartharsis as Aang finally meets somebody he used to know.
But I think the really strong parts of these episodes are whenever the main gang is fooling around and just interacting with the world around them. From going on a ride on a tram system throughout Omashu to them fumbling their way around a rescue attempt, part of the delights of the show is seeing these characters get in and out of situations, usually with the help of some sneakily smart writing. There are resolutions here that feel smarter then most adult oriented shows, particularly during Imprisoned.
They aren’t perfect episodes, not by a long shot – Imprisoned is a bit too preachy and rushed to fully get it’s point across sometimes and The King of Omashu is definitely aiming younger in terms of it’s humor this time around – but the positives completely negate the negatives here. It’s a showcase as to why standalone episodes are ultimately important factors in any television program – and why streaming should absolutely begin to embrace them.