Chapter Six: “Imprisoned”
(Rating Out of 15)
Oh, man, did I use to HATE this episode! “Imprisoned” used to be the whipping boy for a vast majority of my past hatred for Avatar: the Last Airbender. And most of that hatred had to do with only one element of the episode: Katara’s inspirational speech. Of all the pretentious things you could do this early in a series, DiMartino and Konietzko and company decided to have Katara make an over-the-top, overwritten, and overblown speech about having the courage to fight your enemies even a situation so hopeless? Ack!
Thankfully, time heals all wounds, and I hold “Imprisoned” in much higher regard than I ever did back then (much like the series as a whole for that matter). Hell, “Imprisoned” is the first truly good episode in the entire series. Unlike the first five chapters, “Imprisoned” actually has significant re-watch value, with plenty of careful storytelling, interesting ideas, and–get this–humor that is actually funny! Even Katara’s big dumb speech works wonderfully in the context of the story. More on that later.
The episode begins with Aang, Katara, and Sokka having nothing substantial to eat (“First, round nuts and some kind of oval shaped nuts, and some rock shaped nuts that…might just be rocks.”). After some funny business with Momo and a rock, the kids discover a young man who knows how to Earthbend. However, their presence scares him away, and they follow him to his village. They find the boy, named Haru, and his mother in their shop, and quickly learn that Earthbending is forbidden in these parts, which is controlled by Firebenders. This point is further emphasized when Firebending guards arrive requesting more tax money while threatening to burn the shop down.
Katara, ever the idealistic, suggests that the villagers actually fight back and take their home away from the Fire Nation. This is impossible, unfortunately, as all the Earthbenders in town have been imprisoned and taken far away. One of these Earthbenders just happens to have been Haru’s father. In just a few moments of exposition, the writers manage to humanize the mother and make her fear of losing Haru real; something’s actually at stake for a change.
And after the kids receive a place to sleep, Haru and Katara talk more about his father and how his Earthbending makes him feel close to him again despite being so far away. Katara understands this because the necklace she wears was given to her by her mother, who was killed in a Fire Nation raid of her village. (This information is given much more skillfully here than in those overly sentimental parts of “The Southern Air Temple.”) What makes this moment touching is how both kids realize these material things, in spite of the emotional value they have, are no substitute for their real parents. And unlike Haru, Katara has absolutely no chance of ever getting her mother back.
This moment is cut short when Katara and Haru come across an old man trapped under a collapsed coal mine entranced. By the mere fact that they just happened to be there–more heartless people would have said “tough shit” and let the old man die–the kids try to save him, but realize the only way to get him out would be for Haru to Earthbend the fallen earth away. He’s hesitant, but since no one could possibly be there to see him–making the case for just walking away even stronger–he does Earthbend and he does save the old man. It’s a triumphant moment to say the least, but it’s soon ruined when the old man rats him out to the Fire Nation. Tsk. If only he wasn’t so nice…
What follows is a sequence that, in its economic storytelling, always made me laugh. Katara is getting water from a well and Waterbending it into a vase. She notices Haru’s mother with her back to her. Then she turns around, tears in her eyes. Katara, getting it immediately, drops the vase and it shatters on the ground. I promise you that I’m not sadistic. It’s just that the vase always made it funny, because ofterwise this is a supremely well-done silent bit of storytelling that tells us all we need to know in a few bodily gestures and edits. But no, DiMartino and Konietzko and company had to take it a bit too far and have someone drop a glass in shock. Without the vase, this is heartbreaking. With it, it’s suddenly cheesy as Hell, and just as funny.
Believing Haru’s arrest to be her fault, Katara resolves to get him out of prison. To do this, she plans to have herself arrested for Earthbending. To do that, the kids stage an Earthbending scenario that makes clever use of the mine ventilation system and Aang’s Airbending. All this leads to the single funniest moment of the episode, and the first real laugh-out-loud moment in the series. When the Fire Nation guards arrive, Katara and Sokka stage the start of a fight, in which Katara promises to crush Sokka “Earthbending-style!” Aang misses his cue, sends the earth up late, and for some reason Momo is right under it, his arms lifted up. So what do the guards see exactly?
Fire Nation guard: That lemur! He’s Earthbending!
Of course, the guard is quickly corrected–and humiliated–and they arrest Katara, taking her all the way to a large, metal platform far out in the ocean. The perfect prison for Earthbenders. It’s here that we’re introduced to the Warden, one of the most delightful one-time characters in the series. His pompous, condescending attitude makes every scene he’s in a joy to watch, especially during his moments of angry impulsive behavior. (The fact that he’s voiced by George Takei only makes him all the more wonderful to behold.)
Katara finds Haru, and he introduces her to his father, a pragmatic man and leader of the prisoners. He immediately dismisses Katara’s intentions of a prison escape as impossible and not worth getting worked up over. Of course, Katara thinks differently, and that where that damn speech finally comes into play. Let’s face it: there’s no getting around how hammy and overblown this speech is. The musical score that accompanies merely drives that point home. I can’t even imagine what those old Earthbenders were thinking when that dark-skinned hippie started rambling about fighting for their freedom when clearly they, as Earthbenders–and old ones at that–had nothing to fight with. Where’s Pete Townshend and his guitar when you need them?
And that’s why the speech works: in this context, that it gets no reaction whatsoever is precisely the point. These prisoners have no means and thus no will to fight. The Warden knows this well, and does nothing to stop Katara from making her speech, allowing her to humiliate herself.
However, Katara is not discouraged, and wants to stay and help the people. Or maybe she was discouraged? She was embarrassed because her plan didn’t work at all, was too proud to admit it, and wanted to redeem herself rather than admit that these people were hopeless. Hmm…that’s reading a little too much into it. Still, it’s better than thinking Katara was some sort of self-righteous Mary Sue, which was my mode of thinking a long time ago. Because frankly, while it was her idea to help the prisoners break free, it was Sokka’s brainstorming and Aang’s abilities that made these a reality. She was the will, and they were the way. How would this scenario have gone if Aang wasn’t there to help? I’m getting off-topic, but speaking of Mary Sues and reading too much into things, am I the only one who ever noticed the “halo” above Katara’s head earlier in the episode?
Back on track: Katara gets Aang and Sokka to stay and help the people, and they do come up with an ingenious plan that essentially magnifies the faux-Earthbending illusion from earlier in the episode. Now that’s clever writing! The producers even explain the plan with David Fincher-esque technique: Aang must close all the ship’s heat vents but one, and then Airbend all the coal onto the prison deck so the Earthbenders will finally have their natural weapon.
However, even with this, the Earthbenders still hesitate to fight. Why? Fear? Disbelief? Belief that their abilities have left them? Whatever it is, the Warden delivers his final belittlement on Katara and the prisoners before smugly walking away. However, a rather pissed-off Haru hits him with a rock, and suddenly an action sequence breaks out: Earthbenders vs. Firebenders, old vs. (mostly) young. And the fate of the Warden? He’s dropped right into the ocean (presumably to die, since he says he can’t swim, but maybe not).
The prisoners get away on the ships, intent on taking their village back from the Fire Nation. Haru and his father thank Katara for giving them the courage to fight again, although they should also be thanking Aang and Sokka as well for providing the know-how, but I digress; let Katara have her glory for now. It doesn’t last long anyway: she suddenly realizes her necklace is gone. How the Hell she lost it has been the biggest mystery to me, because she clearly had it on right before the conflict is over. Hmm…did she suddenly get extremely claustrophobic and inadvertently rip it off? Who knows? Who cares? What’s important is that Zuko finds it, and that’s very, very bad.
Yep, this is definitely a very good episode. Not great, though, and thus denied anything higher than an 11 rating. Consider it a strong 11, though, because this is the first episode that DiMartino and Konietzko and company actually got right. There’s hardly a bad moment in the entire episode, and there are so many wonderful individual moments, like when the Warden throws a guard overboard for arguing over minute details such as whether to call Appa a “buffalo” or a “bison.” And to think: we have quite a few even better episodes ahead of us!
All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.