Avatar – The Last Airbender: Imprisoned

In the opening of every
episode, we receive a basic narration by Katara of what the show is about and
who the Avatar is, which always ends with an optimistic, “…I believe Aang can
save the world!”  In ‘Imprisoned,’ our hopeful
water bender is the focus and the lesson to be learned, it’s better to be
hopeful than never believe at all.

Fresh off their visit
to Omashu, Aang, Katara and Sokka, are now on their way across the Earth
Kingdom, slowly making their way northward to the Northern Ice Tribe to learn
water bending.  Encamped in a small
clearing, our episode begins with a short discussion on food or the lack
thereof.  Sokka, left to gather, had
procured round nuts, oval nuts, and rock shaped nuts, which might after all
just be rocks.  Since Aang used Sokka’s
back up supply of food as fuel for the fire, food has remained a topic of high
importance to the Southern Water Tribe member. 
The discussion over it is interrupted by thunderous crashes from
elsewhere in the woods.  A short
investigation later and we discover a Earth Kingdom teenager earth
bending.  Katara immediately and
excitedly tries to greet the bender, which prompts him to disappear and so
begins the first act of our story.  It’s
not an accident that Katara knocked over the first domino in this episode
because it quickly becomes an episode focused on our water bender.

Katara and the rest of
Team Avatar track the teen back to an Earth Kingdom village and to a small
shop, where we learn multiple things in a short time.  First, the teenager’s name is Haru and earth
bending has been outlawed in the town by the Fire Nation.  Second, the Fire Nation has taken over the
town for its coal mines and runs a protection racket, which is bleeding the
locals dry on coins (the non-copper ones). 
Third, when asked to act natural, no one can act natural. Fourth, a nice
set of stones will buy you a nice conical hat.

Haru’s mother invites
the group to spend the night in their barn and we learn more details about
Haru, specifically how his father had tried to lead the village earth benders
against the Fire Nation, but had been defeated and imprisoned somewhere far
away.  It’s through the earth bending,
Haru confesses, that he can be closest to his father.  It’s a confession made to Katara, as the two
connect on a cliff with a magnificent overlook. 
While Haru admits to the loss of his father, Katara informs him (and us)
that the necklace she wears came from her mother, who was killed by the Fire
Nation.  The importance of the necklace
and its value to Katara will have ramifications in the near future, but for
now, it’s a bonding moment between the victims of war.

In the process of the
two spending time together, they discover an old man who has been trapped by a
mine entrance collapsed.  It becomes
evident that only earth bending will save him, but Haru is hesitant to bend in
public least he get arrested.  The strong
moral compass that guides Katara leads her to begging him to do the right
thing, which he does, and the old man is saved by earth bending.  In the world of Avatar, we learn sometimes
good deeds do go punished, and this is one of our first examples of this
theme.  Haru is later ratted out by the
old man and arrested by the Fire Nation. 
Katara, upon discovering this, is shocked, outraged, and determined to
rescue Haru.

We then get a wonderful
display of teamwork.  Katara immediately
has the plan to get arrested and thus, discover where Haru and the rest of the
earth benders are being held.  To be
arrested, though, Katara must make the Fire Nation soldiers believe she is an
earth bender.  The task shifts to Sokka
who devices the actual plan on how to make this happen, using Aang’s air
bending, a boulder, and a mine ventilation shaft to create the illusion of Momo
Katara earth bending.  While Sokka’s
feelings about his ears may have been harmed, the plot works like a charm and
Katara is arrested.  Her brother and Aang
follow secretly from a distance as she taken to the coast and then transported
by ship to metal built rig slash prison.

Under the command of
the Warden, voiced wonderfully by George Takei, we learn the prison is designed
to separate earth benders from their source of strength and hope, earth.  Nonetheless, almost immediately, Katara tries
to rally the dozens of imprisoned earth benders to revolt and overthrow the
Fire Nation captors.  It falls flat.  Under the interested, but confident, gaze of
the Warden, Katara makes an impassioned speech worthy of blue face paint and a
kilt.  It falls flat.  The reason is provided by Haru’s father, who
admits he and his people have given up all hope of escape.  Now it’s just a matter of surviving until the
war is over and trying to forget everything terrible between then and now.  The animation reflects this sense of forlorn despair
with the earth benders presented with dull colors and body postures slightly
slumped. Further, the title of the episode is applicable beyond the physical
aspect of confinement on the prison rig, but to the earth benders’ own
imprisonment by their despair.

Resolute in her
mission to free the earth benders, Katara passes on an invitation by Sokka and
Aang to personally escape.  Instead, she
hatches another plan, again with Sokka developing the details based on his
previous plan.  It’s a neat parallel to
the earlier scheme, to make a non-earth bender appear to be an earth
bender.  Here, it’s designed to make
earth benders who have no will to be earth benders, return to being earth
benders.  The plan also marks a theme
that runs throughout the show, the continual exploration of what an element is
and how it can be bent.  In this
instance, coal which has surrounded the earth benders is redefined from fuel
for the rig and factory to fuel for revolution. 
Katara, convinced that the earth benders simply need earth to bend,
makes another passionate speech, this one capped off by Aang blasting the rig’s
coal reserve onto the deck for earth bender use.  Again, it falls flat.  Well, almost.

We are treated with
rows upon rows of defeated earth bender faces and the mocking laughter of the
Warden, who turns away, arrogant in his belief that he has subdued any hope of
escape amongst his prisoners.  He is
promptly knocked in the head by a piece of coal.  It’s a veritable pebble before the avalanche
and it had been hurled by Haru.  Haru’s
act of defiance is the springboard needed to launch an earth bender attack on
the Warden and his guards, which ultimately ends in their watery defeat.  The grateful earth benders escape on several
ships, vowing to return the fight to the Fire Nation once they get ashore.  It has all the wrappings of a happy ending
until Katara reaches reassuringly for her necklace and discovers it
missing.  We, the viewers, are then
treated with its discovery on the deck of the prison rig in the hands of Zuko.  End title.

We learn a lot about
Katara in this episode, the impact of her mother’s death by the Fire Nation
which will continually color her own interactions with its members, and more
importantly, her optimism and hope. 
Notably, we only see Katara water bend once in the entire episode, when
she’s fetching water from a well.  We
never see her bend water later on, even when she’s surrounded by it on the
prison rig.   The reason is because water bending is not her
weapon against the Fire Nation, but the aforementioned optimism.  It’s not a coincidence that it’s repeatedly
tested throughout the episode, be it when the old man betrays her trust that
saving his life would have meaning to him, and when the earth benders failed to
respond to her rallying cry once she was aboard the rig. 

One might argue that
her optimism was only as powerful as the coal to back it up, but it was her
refusal to give up that lead to the plan to provide the coal in the first
place.  Throughout the episodes to come,
Katara generally views the world as a good one, buoyed by the extremely moral
mission she is on with Aang (to save it). 
In fact, it’s when she’s forced to act out against everything she
believes, that we receive one the most powerful episodes in the entire show –
which would not be possible if she was not such a strong and hopeful character.  Later on, Katara is even labeled the “mom” of
the group of friends based on her worrying and scolding, but one of the things
we love so much about our mothers, is their ability to reassure.  We find Katara’s hope and optimism in their
arms and those attributes remain throughout the show as powerful or even more
so than her increasingly skilled water bending. 
Kyoshi Warriors was our proper introduction to Sokka, Imprisoned is our
proper introduction to Katara.

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