“Return to Omashu” opens the moment “The Cave of Two Lovers” concludes, which finds Aang, Katara, and Sokka, gazing down at a Fire Nation occupied city. “King of Omashu” represented an important step in Aang’s season one journey of accepting his role as the Avatar and also an important moment for Aang, as he finally found a living connection to his past in King Bumi, a childhood friend. Bumi, one of the greatest living earth benders, was a fit combination of Yoda from the Empire Strikes Back, a personality with a superficial layer of over the top silliness, and great wisdom and power underneath. It was to Omashu that Aang had planned from the start of his journey from the Northern Water Tribe to reach and train with his friend in the art of earth bending.
Omashu also represented one of the last great Earth Kingdom cities that had for a hundred years resisted the Fire Nation. It seemed strategically placed to continue that resistance, perched essentially on a mountain top surrounded by deep valleys and accessible only by one bridge. Its capture represented not just a road block in Aang’s plans to learn earth bending, but one more domino falling before the Fire Nation Juggernaut. The same juggernaut that Aang is expected to bring to a screeching halt by stopping the Firelord Ozai. With the exception of the almost kiss with Katara in the previous episode, Aang’s fortunes have been nothing but dismal since the victory in the north. It’s the continuance of a theme that runs nearly the entire length of the show, for every minor victor Aang can tuck under his belt, in the wide scheme of things, his challenges and roadblocks continue to persist. It plays to his optimism and perseverance, but as noted, the world as it is, is designed to grow harder than become easier.
On seeing the Fire Nation conquered city, which is undergoing a Borg-like transformation of metal walls and other structures being raised upon it, Aang refuses to leave until he knows Bumi is okay. The transformation of the city is a visual note of Fire Nation military and cultural domination. While we have seen Earth Kingdom villages in conquered territory, never have we seen the Fire Nation explicitly set about changing them into their own vision. Later on, Omashu is even renamed. Given that we learned Omashu is essentially the actual birth place of earth bending, the insult laid upon the Earth Kingdom by this gesture is even greater. Under this dark cloud, Aang, Katara and Sokka sneak into the city by way of a sewage pipe. Sokka emerges from the sewer with pentapuses, five legged octopus-like creatures, attached to his face. They are coaxed off gently, but leave suction marks on the skin – a condition that Katara quickly uses to convince a Fire Nation soldier that Sokka is sick with Pentapox.
In short time, the trio run into an assassination attempt by Earth Kingdom soldiers on the family of the Fire Nation governor, sent to rule over the city. It introduces us to Mai, the governor’s daughter, and when Aang leaps forward to stop the attack, introduces him to Mai’s knife throwing abilities. Before anyone can become more acquainted, the Earth Kingdom soldiers pull Katara, Aang and Sokka into a secret tunnel where the rest of Omashu’s soldiers now live in hiding.
While Bumi’s fate is still not learned by this contact, Aang does learn a disturbing truth – Bumi surrendered the city to the Fire Nation without a fight. The soldiers, disgruntled by this decision, had opted to keep fighting regardless the odds. Aang quickly suggests they would be better off living to fight another day, and that living part proves to be a catchy idea for the rest of the soldiers. The question then arises, how to get everyone out of the city? It’s an idea that literally was latched onto Sokka’s head, the pentapuses. Using Katara’s spontaneous disease as an excuse, Sokka uses the small creatures to inflict a fake pandemic on the soldiers. The ruse works well enough that the Fire Nation allows everyone to stumble their way out of the city. In the process, Mai’s little brother, a toddler, somehow manages to find his way among the group, bestowing an important hostage in the hands of the soldiers.
While Aang has been in the process of hunting for Bumi, the episode has dedicated its other storyline not to Zuko, but to his sister. On the advice of Lo and Li, Azula decides to ditch the ‘royal procession’ to form a much smaller group to chase after Zuko and Iroh. The first person on this stop is Ty Lee, who we meet from her point of view, someone standing on their head at a circus. Azula’s offer/demand that Ty Lee join her is initially, and bravely, rebuffed as Ty Lee claims that she’s finally found the happiness she has hunted for her in her life. Azula appears to relent, but stays for a show, where she recommends ‘improvements’ for Ty Lee’s act that result in it becoming riskier and deadlier with every passing moment. Ty Lee, ever cheerful, makes an abrupt change of mind and claims that she’s decided it’s time to move on and join Azula.
Azula’s next stop is none other than Omashu, where a bored Mai is more than happy to join Azula on her quest. A history with Zuko is hinted at, when Ty Lee jokes about Mai seeing him again and the governor’s daughter makes a momentary reflective face. Azula’s arrival in Omashu also coincides with an arranged prisoner exchanged between the Earth Kingdom forces and the Governor, Mai’s baby brother for King Bumi. Bumi appears in a metal box, only his face exposed, and Azula appears to change her mind, choosing to simply attack Aang rather than get Mai’s brother back. In the process, Aang is exposed as the avatar and Azula decides it’s time to show up her own brother on capturing the avatar. A brief fight occurs on the scaffolding covering a massive statue of Fire Lord Ozai, which recalls the fight between Aang and Zuko in the short Avatar Pilot. Aang is placed on the defensive, but quickly breaks the chain suspending Bumi’s box and the two drop down onto one of Omashu’s stone delivery chutes.
After finally evading a resilient Azula, Aang manages to have some quiet time with Bumi, who reveals he can earth bend incredibly with just his own face, which also means that he has allowed himself to remain captured the entire time. When Aang asks Bumi why the surrender, Bumi explains the idea of neutral jing to the avatar. Postive jing happens when one attacks and negative jing occurs when one’s retreat. In the middle, when one does nothing, is neutral jing – which essentially means waiting for the right moment to perform an action. Like the last time the two met, Bumi imparts important wisdom on Aang, this round concerning who Aang must find to teach him earth bending. The right teacher will know to wait before acting. Meanwhile, Bumi departs to continue his own waiting for the right moment.
The episode concludes with Aang returning Mai’s little brother to his parents and setting off into the unknown to find his earth bending master. Ultimately, “Return to Omashu” is less an episode dealing with our characters’ development, and more about pushing them officially off onto their real journey in Season Two. The loss of Omashu erases the plans that everyone had from the first episode, and our chief antagonist successfully brought together the team she will rely upon to pursue our heroes (both hero and anti-hero (Zuko)). Mai’s abilities with throwing blades and Ty Lee’s chi blocking (yet unnamed) are amply demonstrated as on par with the skill levels of our heroes. From Omashu, Aang’s destiny awaits.