Retrospective: Chapter Six: “Imprisoned”
“Imprisoned” contains a multitude of firsts for Avatar: the Last Airbender.
This is arguably the first wholly satisfying episode in the series: it’s enjoyable from beginning to end; nothing feels like it’s only there to pad out the episode length; the plot is tight and well-thought out without being so straightforward as to be boring and predictable; and we learn more about the inner workings of the Avatar universe. In fact, “Imprisoned” is the first in a sequence of really good episodes. Starting from “Imprisoned” and going down to “Jet,” the quality of each episode ranges from “good” to “great.” (This hot streak is, of course, violently derailed by the infamous “The Great Divide,” but we’ll deal with that episode only when we have to.)
This is the first episode in which the humor works consistently. Comedy has always been a major component of Avatar‘s narrative infrastructure, with varying degrees of success. Here, however, every setup is perfectly clear and every punchline hits its target. Two of the biggest laughs in the episode include the scene in which Momo is mistaken for an Earthbender, and the scene where the Warden of the Earthbender prison doesn’t take the news of a possible “flying bison” sighting very professionally (to say the least).
This is the first episode where Katara is given the spotlight, and we gain significant insight into her character. Specifically, we learn that she’s a stubborn idealist who will do anything to help those in need, even if it means putting herself (and her friends) in danger. She tries her best to infuse people with the same fire and optimism she has that the Fire Nation can be defeated as long as you never lose hope and do what you can with the tools and opportunities presented to you. (It helps that she and her brother accidentally found the long-lost Avatar, apparently the only one who can end the war.)
What could have easily been a flat and annoying caricature is given depth and nuance thanks to the well-rounded vocal performance of Mae Whitman and the delicacy of the writing, specifically in scenes where her ideology clashes directly with those of other characters. In this episode, she butts heads with her brother Sokka regarding whether they should stay and find some way to free the imprisoned Earthbenders. Unable to dissuade his sister and being the extreme pragmatist that he is, he’s given the unenviable task of figuring out just how to free the broken Earthbenders. That a clever solution presents itself among him, Katara and Aang goes to show what a great team they are: Katara is the Will, Sokka is the Way, and Aang is the Avatar.
Finally, this is the first episode that feels perfectly intertwined with the larger story. Not just because of the cliffhanger ending, but because all the elements of the plot naturally spring from the main narrative context of the series: a hundred-year war waged by the Fire Nation in the absence of the Avatar (and the rest of the Airbenders). In this episode, a coal mining village have been taken over, its locals are forced to pay ridiculously high taxes by snaky guards, and the only people who could have stood up to them and fought—the Earthbenders—were taken away and not heard from for five years.
This war has dire and lasting consequences, which makes the drama all the more interesting. Haru, an Earthbender boy that our heroes meet, is forbidden from using his gifts by his mother. If the Fire Nation were to find out he was an Earthbender, they’d take him away from her just like they did his father. While the audience is certainly meant to side with Haru and Katara—Haru wants to fight back, especially since Earthbending is the best way for him to remember his father—the mother’s concern isn’t treated lightly. The scene when she realizes her worst fear has come true—that Haru has been found out and taken away by the Fire Nation—is truly effective and heartbreaking. (This moment is the last we get with the mother in the entire series, and while it’s a bit of a shame that we never got to see a reunion between her, Haru and her husband, this lack of closure makes her final scene that much more powerful.)
So where are the Earthbenders taken? If this weren’t a children’s show, one could reasonably guess that they were simply killed off (much like the Airbenders were). Instead, they’re all held in a remote prison made entirely of metal and in the middle of the sea. The perfect prison for an Earthbender. Without a single piece of earth around to fight back and defend themselves, it’s no wonder the big “escape” plan is simply to wait out the war. And it’s no wonder that Katara’s big inspirational speech to the broken Earthbenders—the centerpiece of the episode—falls on deaf ears. Who is this crazy girl to tell them not to give up hope after they’d been there for five years? She’s not even an Earthbender. And do the Earthbenders even believe in the Avatar at this point? Do they even remember who the Avatar was? Also, many of these Earthbenders look pretty old, and without Earthbending to rejuvenate them, they must all be out of fighting shape. Maybe Haru’s father should have led them all in daily Earthbending calisthenics. Or would the Warden have outlawed that?
Speaking of the Warden, he’s one of the major highlights of the episode. Played wonderfully by George Takei, he’s an overconfident and condescendingly prim-and-proper man who refers to his prisoners as “honored guests” and perpetually berates them any chance he gets. He also has a short-temper, which doesn’t really have a payoff, but does lead to the funny business of the “flying bison” sighting. He also has a funny demise: we learn that he can’t swim moments before he’s dropped into the sea by the revolting Earthbenders (which begs the question: who would hire someone who can’t swim to be the Warden of a prison surrounded entirely by water? Shouldn’t that have been a pre-requisite for the position?).
Our heroes’ solution to freeing the Earthbenders is lovingly laid out throughout the episode. The manner in which they staged fake Earthbending—in order for Katara to be arrested and taken to the prison where Haru and others are (again, they fortunately weren’t killed off)—turns out to be the perfect way to expel coal through the prison’s ventilation system and to the Earthbenders. Of course, they don’t all fight back at once: Haru, having not endured the years of soul-crushing that his elder Earthbenders have, is naturally the first to revolt, and soon all the older folks are fighting back, too. The battle between the Earthbenders and the Fire Nation guards is pretty fun, and it’s nice to have an action sequence that’s motivated and meaningful rather than obligatory and perfunctory.
Somehow during this mutiny, Katara loses her necklace, which we learn belonged to her mother. Since her mother was killed by the Fire Nation, this is obviously something precious to her. To make matters worse, the necklace is found by, of all people, Zuko. It makes a certain amount of sense that Zuko would intuit that this random Waterbending necklace belongs to the Waterbending girl who is helping the Avatar. But how did Katara even lose the necklace in the first place? Last we saw, she was clearly still wearing it by the end of the battle. (And if you look very closely, in a wide shot where she and Haru are talking about Aang, she’s still wearing the necklace, only for it to disappear in the next shot.)
Such a slip-up is easily forgivable, though, in light of how brilliant the rest of the episode is. “Imprisoned” is the best episode the series has given us by this point, raising the bar for how good each subsequent episode should be. It’s nothing short of amazing that the next two episodes would raise the bar even further.