Chapter Twenty-Three: “Return to Omashu”
(Rating Out of 15)
Let’s thank the unseen makers of the universe that the second half of “Return to Omashu” is vastly superior to its first half. Otherwise, this episode would be as bad as…well, “The King of Omashu.” The city of Omashu has yet to inspire a truly good episode in this series. I guess when the only thing a city has going on for it is a sliding mail system that can conveniently be used to stage obligatory action sequences, it’s unfair to expect anything else.
The episode mainly involves the kids discovering that Omashu is now under Fire Nation control and Aang stubbornly going in anyway to find his friend and potential Earthbending mentor King Bumi. By the end of the episode, they’ll have freed the entire residence of Omashu from the city, accidentally kidnapped the new governor’s baby, and had their first ever face-off with Azula and company.
This is not a very well-written episode. This is also the first time in a long time I was reminded that Avatar: the Last Airbender was made first and foremost for kids. The way the kids manage to get every innocent resident out of Omashu is pure kids’ craft: they make the guards think that the people have a deadly disease called pintopox, and since they wouldn’t want to get sick, too, the guards just release them all.
You see, there are these little starfish-octopi in the sewers that stick to you with their suckers, and when you take them off, they leave little spots that make it look like you’re diseased. So everyone puts these spots on themselves and essentially pretends they’re zombies.
What a dumb idea. Did John O’Bryan come up with that, too?* (Actually, the episode was written by Elizabeth Welch Ehasz, whose name I was shocked to see credited to such great episodes as “Zuko Alone,” “The Western Air Temple,” and “The Southern Raiders.” What the Hell was she thinking when she wrote this piece of shit?)
Thankfully, though, that bit is just one part of the episode, and only contained in the first half. There’s more than happens, not always for the better.
We’re introduced to Azula’s two friends and appointed partners-in-crime, Mai and Ty Lee. To say these two are underdeveloped is saying nothing: there have been one-time characters with more dimension and humanity then these two combined. At least the grimly sarcastic Mai, as voiced by Cricket Leigh, manages to hint at some kind of depth, which is more than can be said for the bubbly Ty Lee, who seems to have been imported from an anime assembly line. Olivia Hack’s voice acting is as sterile and annoying as your average dub.
Of course, it’s not like Azula picked these two for their personalities. Mai’s an insanely skilled at shooting knives and suchs things from her sleeves, and Ty Lee, a circus performer, is agile, flexible, and has a special ability to shut down a Bender power by hitting certain pressure point on the body.
They’re great allies, for sure, but why don’t Mai or Ty Lee have much character? Was the writers’ objective to present them as feeble pawns of Azula and then gradually develop who they really were further down the line? Are we supposed to assume that they hide their real selves out of fear of pissing off Azula? (Considering how Azula got Ty Lee to go along with her in the first place, this is a possibility: she essentially almost had Ty Lee killed in her circus act by setting the safety nets on fire, among other things.) Who knows? I can speculate all I want, but these two will remain pretty shallow (or Ty Lee will anyway).
Now onto the second half of the episode, which gets off to a great start thanks to funny business involving Momo and the governor’s baby.
Poor Momo just wants food, but after finding it, he has to deal with the baby trying to catch him. This involves exposing the baby to a lot of dangers, including falling off of a roof, but because the focus is squarely on Momo and his need to eat and get away, it winds up being pretty hilarious. He simply cannot lose this kid.
So when the residents are leaving the city, Momo—and subsequently, the baby—goes with them. This is a pretty clever plot point, because later the governor sends Aang and the escapees a message by hawk: give back the baby, and they’ll release King Bumi.
We don’t see a lot of Bumi in this episode—literally or otherwise: he’s encased in a metal coffin with only enough space for his face to show—and maybe that’s for the better. He’s much more endearing here than in that “King of Omashu” crap. I like him a lot. I’d like to imagine if Keith Moon was still alive and an Earthbender and not an alcoholic, he’d be just like Bumi.
The trade-off would have happened if Azula hadn’t shown up to recruit Mai to go after Zuko and Iroh. Azula decides not to give up Bumi, and this leads to the last-act action sequence. And it’s a fun one! Mai and Ty Lee fight Katara and Sokka, and Azula chases Aang and Bumi on the sliding mail system. No Rigid Action Syndrome to be found here. The sliding chase is especially intense because now Azula knows Aang is the Avatar. Wouldn’t capturing him all by herself just make her father that much more proud of her and humiliate Zuko even more?
The chase ends when Bumi—who could apparently Earthbend the entire time—helps them get away from Azula. He pretty much tells Aang that he can’t teach him Earthbending because…he’s needed in Omashu…for some reason…whatever. It’s Bumi, so he knows what he’s doing. Oh, and we get a lesson in neutral jin, which involves “listening and waiting for the right moment to strike,” and that Aang should find an Earthbending mentor who’s mastered neutral jin. Groovy.
At the very end of the episode, Aang returns the governor’s baby. The governor and his wife are genuinely happy to see their son again, and you know what? I was happy for them. There’s not been another truly humane moment in the rest of the episode. No, Aang’s concern for Bumi was more controlled by plot than by emotions; it never felt real.
This whole episode doesn’t even feel real. I know why, though: this episode was animated by DR Movie Animation Studios. I don’t like DR Movie’s drawing style. I really don’t. I’ll admit that this is just a bias, but on a visceral level, DR Movie doesn’t do it for me. It’s too broad, too unstable, and, oddly, too cartoony. Not that all of DR Movie’s episodes look bad—the action and expressions in “The Avatar State” are some of the best in the series—but more often than not, their animation is only as good as the script they’re animating (“The Blue Spirit” comes to mind). With “Return to Omashu,” they were let down in a major way.
*I pick on John O’Bryan a lot, don’t I? Just know that I don’t hate the guy, it’s just in good fun. The man’s initials are J.O.B., for God’s sake!
All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.