Chapter Five: “The King of Omashu”
(Rating Out of 15)
I praise the unseen makers of the universe that I did not begin my Avatar: the Last Airbender-viewing days with “The King of Omashu,” for it’s highly possible I would have never watched another episode of this show. Then again, the first glimpse I did see came from “The Fortuneteller,” a decent enough episode that nevertheless failed to stand out, and then I didn’t really watch the entire first season until a year later. If I saw this episode first, would I really have never watched the rest of the show? I really don’t know.
I do know that this is a shitty episode. More to the point, this is a horrific miscalculation of an episode that nearly destroys the good will of the unsuspecting viewer who sat through the first four better episodes, wondering if this is the same “great show” that his friends told him all about. This wouldn’t be the last terrible episode the show had to offer—and it’s not even the worst—but it’s kind of shocking that DiMartino and Konietzko and company let something this bad to slip into the line-up this early.
This is why Avatar frustrates me so much. At its peak, the one thing Avatar definitely not was your average, disposable, run-of-the-mill kids’ “comedy,” and that’s the kind of show that “The King of Omashu” comes dangerously close to emulating in almost every aspect of its being. It even comes with it’s own end-of-episode lesson that has been learned. Completely without irony.
The entire concept resolves around a crazy-old king who gives Aang three brain-puzzle challenges, and if he fails, Sokka and Katara will be imprisoned in some kind of growing rock.
There are so many things wrong with this from the get-go.
First, where’s the suspense? The writers didn’t honestly expect us to be worried about the fates of Sokka and Katara this early in the series, did they? The growing stone placed on them isn’t even adequately explained, or at least made into a threat. One may not know how they’re going to get out of it, but you know they will anyway, so why care?
Speaking of lack of suspense, the Rigid Action Syndrome from “The Boy in the Iceberg” is back, and it nearly ruins the scene in which Aang takes Sokka and Katara for a ride on the sliding mail system. As someone afraid of heights, I felt kind of cheated out of a good, exhilarating slide sequence. They do add a clever moment where they’re being followed closely by a cart of sharp spears. There’s another funny moment when the cart surprises a group of soldiers ordered ot be prepared for anything. Otherwise, the sequence drags on too long until they finally crash and are arrested.
Second, to anyone with the slightest bit of common scene (not to mention the more genre savvy among us), the identity of the king of Omashu is pretty obvious. In a flashback, Aang talks about how he used to visit the city of Omashu to see his old pal, Bumi, who always saw more possibilities in the established order of things. For some reason, the animators felt the need to hold a close-up shot of Bumi’s goofy-looking face as he laughs like a weirdo. Disturbing. When we get our first look at the king, we instantly know it’s Bumi. Was this supposed to be a mystery? Or were we supposed to be in on the secret while our heroes were oblivious? I can’t place any bets on the latter, because the majority of the episode seems to hinge on the fact that Bumi’s identity is unknown.
And what’s with those lame jokes? It’s like the writers are making fun of the bad jokes you hear in those stupid kids’ show, only they wind up making the same kind of bad jokes without an ounce of notable satire or parody. The coughing noise after many of these jokes is funny the first time, but it loses its charm very fast.
There is one funny exchange, though. Bumi and one of his guards have a little dispute over the chamber he’s supposed to send the kids to: the good chamber or the bad chamber, or the newly refurbished chamber? Didn’t the refurbished chamber used to be the bad one? You get the idea.
Third, the challenges are kind of lame. The whole idea is lame. In fact, I learned from the Art of Avatar: the Last Airbender book that the challenges idea came from the infamous John O’Bryan, often credited among Avatar fans as the worst writer on the entire staff. Just how much blame O’Bryan deserves for this—he wrote the episode as well—is up for question, since it obviously got a pass from Konietzko and DiMartino.
Whatever. The challenges are: 1) get a key from inside a waterfall; 2) find Bumi’s pet Flopsy; and 3) fight with whomever Aang points to. The first one is a little interesting, and the solution is actually inventive. The second one is painfully obvious. The third one does surprise, because Aang chooses Bumi, and who’d have expected that old man to be so muscular and fit? Admittedly, I enjoyed the fight more this time around than I have previously. Still, it’s a little boring.
And when that’s over, Bumi will only release Sokka and Katara if Aang can guess his name. I’m not sure how young you’d have to be to be surprised by this stuff, but anyone and everyone should have figured it out by that point. And why did Bumi put them through all this? Why, to prepare Aang for his eventual task of mastering all four elements and defeating the Fire Nation, of course. But also, in Bumi’s own words, “It’s fun messing with people.” Not when they’re expecting something that rises above the dreck you’ve been emulating, you old prick.
Shame. I actually kinda like Bumi, too. Why couldn’t they write a better episode for him? Why did they have to make him a mystery? Couldn’t the writers have just let Aang in on it from the start, and then have Bumi give Aang the challenges as if he’d forgotten they were old, old friends?
Also, if we’re going to be really analytical, how did Bumi know Aang was the Avatar anyway? I’m going to assume the flashback with the two characters took place before Aang found out himself. I don’t know. I guess when you’re as old and as crazy as Bumi, nothing really is impossible.
So essentially, “The King of Omashi” is filler with plot. Like “The Warriors of Kyoshi,” it’s absolutely necessary for the rest of the series, making the padding around the story points unavoidable. But the episode is offensive in two more ways.
One, this is the first episode without a parallel Zuko story, and the absence of Zuko and Uncle Iroh is painfully felt. Aang’s side of the story just seems too prone to veering off into “crappy kids’ show” territory without those two around the balance it out. Not always–as “The Deserter” gloriously proves–but often enough.
Two, some of the drawings in this episode are just downright awful. Experimental season or not, the sloppiness in how the character designs are handled strangles the eyes. How did this get a pass for airing?
All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.