The Battle of the Badge
Okay! Last badge! We are PSYCHED! GO ASH! WHOOHOO!
So, Ash, Misty, Brock and Pikachu enter Viridian City. Misty remarks that it’s been a whole year since they were last there, which I mention because it’s one of the few instances in the series where we get actual references to time passing – this particular one tells me that Ash probably has his twelfth birthday while preparing for the Pokémon League, since he’s only a few weeks shy of eleven when he leaves Pallet Town, and is the basis for my estimate that the kids travel for about five days between episodes (obviously there’s some variation – for instance, no time at all passes between Riddle Me This and Volcanic Panic – but assuming their ‘adventures’ are mixed fairly evenly with their ‘down time,’ it should be about five days on average).
Well, I thought it was interesting.
Anyway, when Ash is about to walk up to the Viridian Gym, he’s interrupted by his dear sweet archenemy, Gary Oak. Gary actually has ten badges already; he’s just going after an eleventh for bragging rights (another telling little detail: there are at least twelve official Gyms in Kanto, since we know Gary never won a Volcano Badge either). Gary waltzes past Ash, throws a few choice insults his way, and struts up to the door guards, who are inexplicably decked out in the kind of Greco-Roman mish-mash that makes classicists like me cry ourselves to sleep – bronze breastplate, leather skirt, etc – but armed with halberds, of all things, which are blatantly Renaissance weapons (I promise that this will be my last barely-relevant tangent for this- oh, who am I kidding?). These imposing fellows let Gary in, but refuse to admit Ash, declaring that only one challenger at a time may enter… so we follow Gary for a while instead. The Viridian Gym Leader turns out to be Giovanni, the mysterious Boss of Team Rocket (what a twist!) though this is lost on Gary, who doesn’t know him. He overpowers Giovanni’s Golem with his Nidoking, and boils a Kingler with his Arcanine’s Fire Spin, prompting Giovanni to test out his newest and most powerful Pokémon, whom Gary’s Pokédex is unable to identify. He even invites Gary to use both Arcanine and Nidoking together to fight the armoured monstrosity, but both are paralysed by its mysterious powers and flung roughly against the wall of the Gym. Then, just for fun, Giovanni has his Pokémon incapacitate Gary and his cheerleaders before leaving to take care of other business.
Meanwhile, Togepi has gotten lost and been carried halfway across the city by a wild Fearow. Misty, of course, searches everywhere in panic, but Team Rocket find Togepi first. Jessie suffers great personal injury trying to grab Togepi as she wanders across a plank suspended between two tall buildings, but manages to secure her. Overjoyed at finally having stolen a rare Pokémon, she, James and Meowth go in person to present their spoils to Giovanni, who stares blankly at Togepi and asks “what… exactly does this Pokémon do?” Jessie, James and Meowth confer, and realise that they have absolutely no idea what powers Togepi possesses, if any, and Jessie answers “it… would certainly make a handsome paperweight!” Giovanni is about to eviscerate them for their incompetence, but is notified of an emergency and has to hurry away to fetch his super-Pokémon. For lack of anyone more capable, he instructs Jessie and James to man the Gym and tosses them three Pokéballs before exiting. Togepi, who has wandered off in the meantime, finds her way to the front doors of the Gym, where the kids have met up again after completing their search. They hear her voice and haul the doors open to find Togepi, safe and unharmed… and Gary and his cheerleading squad, unconscious and scattered around the arena. As Ash tries to learn from Gary what happened to him, Jessie and James appear, declare that they are now the Gym Leaders, and challenge Ash to a battle. Just to make things more interesting, Meowth has rigged special trainer boxes that transmit the pain felt by the battling Pokémon to their trainers, reducing Ash to crippling agony when Jessie’s borrowed Machamp pummels his Squirtle into submission, and her Kingler shrugs off Bulbasaur’s attacks. When he calls Pidgeotto, however, and hits Jessie’s Rhydon with a mighty Double Edge, Jessie realises that her box has the same set-up as Ash’s. Gary snatches the control remote from Meowth to keep him from turning off Jessie’s box, so she panics and calls Arbok and Weezing into the fight as well. Ash objects to her using five Pokémon at once and has Pikachu join the others and blast them with his best Thunderbolt. Giovanni’s Pokémon flee the arena and, while Jessie, James and Meowth flail uselessly, Togepi finds Meowth’s remote and starts playing with it. Jessie’s trainer box explodes and flings Team Rocket out of the Gym, dropping an Earth Badge on the way. Well… Ash never even met the Gym Leader… and his challenge was marked by flagrant rule violations on both sides… and no-one ever actually conferred the Earth Badge on him… but what the hell, a Badge is a Badge, right?
It turns out Giovanni was the Viridian Gym Leader all along! I realise this is probably old news to almost everyone reading this, since he’s the Leader in all the games set in Kanto as well but, of course, I find this really interesting. In the games, Gym Leaders tend to be portrayed as pillars of the community, and this tends to hold true for later seasons of the anime as well, but in the Indigo series things are often much weirder – most notably for Sabrina, Koga and Blaine. Giovanni adds another bizarre perspective to things: this Gym Leader is a mob boss. I think it’s fair to assume that the Pokémon League either doesn’t know about what he does in his spare time or doesn’t care… and which option you think is more likely says a lot about what you think of the Pokémon League. If they don’t know, then this adds support to my overall impression that there is fairly little League oversight in the way Gyms are run. One also has to wonder whether the League might be dangerously incompetent. True, Giovanni is a criminal mastermind and probably very good at covering his tracks but, on the other hand, he is at the head of an organisation that often works in direct opposition to the Pokémon League and regularly tramples on every value they stand for. If the body responsible for the regulation of Pokémon training can’t sniff out the head honcho of a crime syndicate devoted to the abuse and exploitation of Pokémon within its own ranks, something has got to be badly wrong here. The alternative possibility – that the Pokémon League knows exactly what Giovanni is up to and just doesn’t care – is even more frightening, possibly implying that significant factions of the League’s management are in Team Rocket’s pocket. I think some combination of the two is probably in play: many overworked League officials are willing to get lazy with their background checks, or keep inspectors out of the Viridian Gym’s private areas, in exchange for a little ‘incentive.’ After all, plenty of Gym Leaders are eccentric – he probably just has a few little projects going in the basement that he doesn’t want to be public knowledge. Can’t do any harm to let that slide, right?
The next big question is one that Misty actually raises in the episode itself: why would Team Rocket want to own a Gym anyway? Jessie responds haughtily that she wouldn’t understand; Team Rocket’s plans are too far-reaching and intricate for the likes of them (which, Meowth explains, means that she doesn’t know either). It is difficult to imagine that Giovanni could actually steal Pokémon from challengers without blowing his cover – moreover, he had ample opportunity to take Gary’s Arcanine and Nidoking (who had, remember, just defeated two of Giovanni’s own Pokémon) but chose not to, so it certainly doesn’t seem like that’s his game here. The obvious motive is money; Showdown in Dark City implies that official Pokémon Gyms can expect to be profitable, since that’s the Yas and Kas leaders’ primary reason for wanting official status. Then again, some Gyms (notably Cerulean and Celadon) run separate businesses too; as a result I’m very unsure as to whether most Pokémon Gyms are funded by League grants or by their Leaders’ own personal wealth (and I quietly suspect that Giovanni created the Viridian Gym in the first place, sinking a significant portion of his ill-gotten fortune into setting it up). The simplest argument, though, is that if the Viridian Gym existed for anything so transparently mercenary as direct profit, Jessie would know about it; there’s simply no reason for her not to. Having a respectable public persona, too, seems like an obvious benefit, but one which Giovanni doesn’t choose to take advantage of. It seems likely that owning an official Pokémon Gym simply gives Giovanni space to do various illegal things in secret, a place to keep Mewtwo under wraps, for instance, and work on upgrades to his cybernetic armour (taking challenges, of course, provides him with opportunities to test Mewtwo’s strength, though this is probably not routine business). We also see that he has a number of caged Pokémon in there (incidentally, the fact that anyone would ever bother to put a Pokémon in a cage suggests quite strongly that Pokéballs just won’t cut it – they apparently wouldn’t be effective at restraining Pokémon that really want to break free). Paradoxically, the best way to keep this stuff out of the League’s sight is by doing it right under their noses, in an official Pokémon Gym. It seems reasonable to imagine, further, that Gym Leader status is an asset in itself; Giovanni could probably expect to be consulted about policy decisions and notified in advance of any important developments in League business, information he might be able to use to Team Rocket’s advantage. Finally, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Giovanni simply enjoyed taking challenges. He does genuinely seem pleased by Gary’s strength, and it’s a basic truism of the series that powerful trainers seek powerful opponents; running the Gym might actually be something of a hobby for him, which would imply a whole slew of interesting twists on his characterisation.
I wish we got to see more of Giovanni; the other Gym Leaders are all interesting, but his particular situation, I think, is the one with the most potential for elaboration. If nothing else, it would be fantastic to have more evidence for how he treats his role as a Gym Leader (perhaps fairly casually, if he’s willing to let the notoriously incompetent Jessie, James and Meowth stand in for him – but, then again, whatever emergency he needed to deal with, it apparently required both his own personal attention and Mewtwo’s, so it’s clearly not an ordinary day for him). The bare facts of his situation themselves, though, are more than enough for me to play with; we can learn a few rather worrying things about the Pokémon League from this episode, and this has to impact on the way we view them elsewhere in the series.
That’s the last I’m doing on Anime Time for a little while – now, there’s one more week to go of the Pokémon Power Bracket, so I’ll do another entry on that and then, I think, wrap it up with a sort of retrospective on legendary Pokémon in general. After that… I think I need another break, but we’ll talk more about that as it comes.