Sunday, April 25, 2010

AtlA Monday: A Not-So-Crazy Old King

"What's the point of tests if you don't learn anything?"
-The King of Omashu

Book One: Water
Chapter Five: The King of Omashu


Aang leads Katara and Sokka to the Earth Kingdom city of Omashu, which impresses them immensely with its scale and population. Not wanting a repeat of what happened in Kyoshi, they disguise Aang as an old man. He reminisces about his friend Bumi, who lived here before Aang was frozen; Bumi was energetic, fun-loving, and "a mad genius," who came up with the idea of riding the city's cargo-delivery system. The Gaang tries it, and much screaming and property damage later, they are arrested.

They are led before the ancient, apparently senile titular King of Omashu, who tells terrible jokes, invites them to dinner, and then tricks Aang into revealing he's the Avatar. He has the Gaang taken prisoner, and challenges Aang to complete three tasks.
The next morning, Aang begins his challenges. The King has Sokka and Katara subjected to "creeping crystal", a steadily growing crystal that will engulf and suffocate them in about a day. He promises to free them if Aang completes the challenges.

In the first test, Aang must retrieve the King's "lunchbox key" from a cave. He tries repeatedly to go up or through the waterfall that blocks the way, but is knocked back each time. Finally, he uses airbending to create a momentary break in the water, and throws a stalactite through, pinning the key to the wall near the King.

In the second test, Aang has to retrieve the king's pet, Flopsy. He sees a lop-eared white rabbit and tries to catch it, but it runs when he's attacked by a giant goat-rabbit-monster thing. Aang runs after the rabbit, but then realizes the monster chasing him is Flopsy. As soon as he greets it by name, it starts licking him, and then goes to the King for a belly rub.

The third test is a trial by combat. Aang must choose his opponent from the warriors flanking the King, but -- starting to catch on to how these tests work -- he exploits a loophole to choose the King as his opponent. Unfortunately, the King reveals himself to be a hugely muscular, tremendously powerful earthbender, and gives Aang the toughest fight he's had in the series so far. Eventually, however, Aang is able to fight him to a stalemate, and the King concedes.

He announces that he will free Katara and Sokka once Aang answers a question. Aang is angry, as he's passed all the tests, but the King wants to be sure Aang learned something. His question: "What is my name?"

After pondering whether the tests contain a clue, Aang realizes who the King is: Bumi, the mad genius. The old friends are happily reunited. Bumi frees Katara and Sokka and reveals that creeping crystal is made of sugar. Finally, he explains why he did all this: first, because he thought it was funny, and second to prepare Aang for the dangers ahead by requiring him to think in new ways.

Aang and Bumi go for a ride on the delivery system, and the episode ends with laughter and carnage.


This is a difficult episode to write about. It's a lot of fun, but significantly less "meaty" than the first four episodes. Most of what it has to offer is a couple of great action sequences and jokes so bad they eventually wrap right back around into being funny again. Still, the episode does touch on some themes we've been following since the beginning.

For starters, there's the fairly subtle way Aang's been dealing with the events of "The Southern Air Temple." The world he knew has been destroyed, and his response is to pretty much take a vacation. The last two episodes have been all about him ignoring the trip to the North Pole in favor of seeking out theme park rides -- first the elephant koi in "The Warriors of Kyoshi" and then the Omashu delivery system in this episode. But it is very telling, and a little heartbreaking, that his response to discovering Bumi is still alive is to bury himself in a hug. Bumi, with surprising gentleness, reminds Aang of his quest, and for the rest of the series Aang seems to be done with the siteseeing -- future stops at towns along the way are justified by the group needing supplies or to weather out a storm or to lay low for a while to throw off pursuit. It will be several episodes yet before he's willing to open up about how he feels about all the people he left behind, but his period of denial ends here.

There's also the effects of the war. For all the fun and humor of this episode, there's a good bit of world-building going on in the form of Omashu's readiness for siege. The delivery system appears to be used mostly for food and weapons; the walls are meters thick and have no gates, being opened as needed by earthbending. In the midst of the joyride sequence, we are treated to a scene of a drill sergeant speaking to a trio of troops. Even the challenges reveal the city's preparedness: the waterfall in the first challenge shows that the palace was built on a steady supply of fresh water.

Bumi makes for an interesting character. At first he seems like a classic example of the competence zone, the principle that, the farther a character is from the age of the target audience, the less competent they will be. Bumi appears to be senile to the point of outright insanity, not to mention bent and frail. But by the end of the episode he is revealed to be none of these things. Throwing the Gaang a feast was not the random act of a crazy old man; Bumi recognized Aang immediately, and the feast was a ruse to confirm his identity, first by testing his vegetarianism, then his airbending skills.

The challenges are likewise not random or silly; as Bumi himself says, the purpose is to teach Aang something. He tries to solve the first with speed and energy, but only succeeds when he tries moving the water out of his way. He tries to solve the second by being similarly straightforward, but is only successful when he finds a way to redirect his attacker. In the third challenge, Aang dodges in an obvious direction by picking Bumi to be his opponent, and then throughout the battle he keeps dodging in the obvious direction (for example, trying to jump over the wave of earth Bumi throws at him), but Bumi (who has obviously studied airbender tactics, unlike Zuko) is ready and smacks him down. It is only when Aang stops dodging and redirects Bumi's attacks back at him that Aang is able to fight to a draw.

Redirecting one's attacker? Reflecting attacks back on their source? Iroh describes which bending style has these behaviors at its core later in the series, and together with the need to move the water in the first challenge, it's clear what Bumi is doing here: He's teaching Aang the basics of waterbending.

Even Bumi's weird sense of humor is not, as it first appears, a sign of senility. For starters, Aang's flashback reveals that Bumi has been pretty weird since he was a kid. More importantly, this is Avatar: As Iroh and Aang know from the start of the series, and as Sokka and Zuko both learn in their respective character arcs, humor and joy are essential to wisdom. Bumi is ridiculous, but the advice he gives is solid and his city is prospering.

Random observations:
  • This is the first episode in which Zuko does not appear. There will be a couple more over the course of the series.
  • The cabbage merchant makes his first appearance in this episode. His cabbage cart is destroyed three times, possibly the most of any episode. Also, the first time it's destroyed the Gaang are merely bystanders, where usually they will be the cause.
  • When asked for a name while disguised, Aang calls himself "Bonzu Pipenpadelopsekopolis the Third." This sets off an actually pretty funny minor running gag, where no one ever bats an eye at or has any trouble pronouncing the name.
  • "Malicious destruction of cabbages" is apparently a crime in Omashu. It probably isn't one anywhere else, or the Gaang is in a lot of trouble by the end of the series.
  • Sokka laughs at Bumi's terrible jokes. Later in the series, Sokka will be a font of such jokes, which acquaintances of his father will point out is an inherited trait. Is this the first sign of him letting go of his Serious Macho War Leader facade? Suki was good for him!
  • There's something Monty Python-esque about some exchanges in this episode. The way Bumi says "WHAT... is my name?" evokes the old man in Holy Grail. And then there's this touch of farce (transcript from
King Bumi: Tomorrow the Avatar will face three deadly challenges. But for now, the guards will show you to your chamber.
Guard: My liege, do you mean the good chamber, or the bad chamber?
King Bumi: The newly refurbished chamber.
Guard: Wait, which one are we talking about?
King Bumi: The one that used to be the bad chamber, until the recent refurbishing that is. Of course, we've been calling it the new chamber, but we really should number them. Uh, take them to the refurbished chamber that was once bad!
  • The Gaang, in classic adventure story fashion, try to escape their prison cell through the air vents! But in a cute subversion, not even Momo can fit.
  • Instead of torches, the windowless chamber has green, glowing crystals. Just a neat little background detail, but later we'll see caverns full of them under Ba Sing Se. Given how incredibly useful they'd be in a world without electricity, they're probably a major export.
  • Like the city walls, the prison cells in Omashu have no doors. The guard just earthbends a hole in the wall when needed.
  • Sokka and Katara are already gone when the guard tears a hole in the prison cell wall. How the heck did Aang sleep through that?
  • Bumi calls himself "the most powerful earthbender you'll ever see," and he is pretty darn powerful. But we'll meet one next season who's even better.
  • Omashu has a king, but is not the capital of the Earth Kingdom; that's Ba Sing Se. That one relatively small city has its own king is a sign of how little authority the Earth King has, forshadowing the end of the second season.
  • One question the series never answers is whether Bumi was royalty in Aang's time. Did Aang know he would be king some day? Did Omashu even have its own kings back then, or was the Earth Kingdom more centralized before the war tore it apart?


  1. My thinking on the matter of whether or not Bumi was royalty as a child, is that the position of King in Omashu is a meritocratic one, where the old king picks out the best among his citizens to become the new king. Admittedly, there's no real basis for this theory, but it is consistent with Aang's apparent relationship with the young Bumi.

  2. Could be, could be. You have a point, in that as a nomad and acolyte with nothing particularly special about him (since his Avatar-hood was a secret until right before he froze himself), it's unlikely Aang would have been hobnobbing with royalty.

    I oscillate between two possibilities for my personal fanon: either Omashu is a gerontocracy, or Bumi was selected by a council of elites (nobles, clergy, the rich, something like that) who thought he would be easy to control -- and learned otherwise, to their dismay. I imagine him running the show rather like the ruler of Azure City does in Order of the Stick.

    But again, there's really no evidence either way in the show. This particular question gets left dangling.