The Case of the K-9 Caper
Ash’s location: Rhode Island.
I can’t remember ever actually seeing this episode as a kid. I was missing out; I really like this one. It makes for a great opportunity to get back into one of my old favourite subjects, the ethics of Pokémon training, and to start asking new questions about whether the series considers Pokémon to be ethical agents in themselves, or merely instruments of their trainers. Seriously, if I had my way this is what the whole series would be about.
Ash and company are innocently strolling through the woods when they hear the cry of “stop, thief!” and see a suspicious-looking man carrying a bag of loot fleeing pursuit. Ash, not one to take this sort of thing lying down, commands Pikachu to stop him, but the more observant Pikachu has noticed that the man is carrying a handgun and, to Ash’s annoyance, refuses to attack… until a Growlithe bursts from the undergrowth and tackles the thief, causing him to drop his gun. Pikachu merrily begins blasting away and brings him down, but the nine other Growlithe who arrive immediately afterward, led by Officer Jenny #40, don’t seem particularly happy. It turns out that Ash and Pikachu have just interrupted a training exercise and assaulted a plainclothes police officer. Whoops. Jenny quickly gets over it once she realises it was an honest mistake, and invites Ash, Misty and Brock back to the police station for a hot meal. This particular Jenny runs the academy that trains Kanto’s police dogs, specially drilled Pokémon capable of taking on humans with firearms at relatively low risk to themselves. Jenny and Misty both admonish Ash for ordering Pikachu, who has no such special training, to attack an armed man, which annoys and offends him. He asks for Jenny’s permission to enrol Pikachu in her training program so he can become stronger. Jenny warns him that the training is difficult, but gladly allows it. The next morning, she wakes Ash and Pikachu at 4am for a race against one of her Growlithe – and Ash and Jenny will be running too, because a trainer should never expect more of his Pokémon than of himself. Ash and Pikachu are faster than Jenny and Growlithe, but are defeated by their obstacle course (which Jenny completes in her high heels). While Ash and Pikachu recover, Brock tries to remind Ash that Pikachu is great even without special training. Ash responds that he wants Pikachu to keep getting even better, though Pikachu himself doesn’t seem so sure anymore.
Then Team Rocket crash through the wall of the academy in the Mutt Cuts van from Dumb and Dumber, pull on some gas masks, and start blasting away at everyone with canisters of Gloom spores.
I really feel sorry for other anime shows that have to trudge through the bleak desolation of existence without Jessie and James to brighten their lives.
This week, Jessie, James and Meowth have gotten it into their heads that it would be a good idea to steal all of Jenny’s Growlithe and use them to commit crimes, because the irony is just too delicious to pass up. Jenny insists that her Growlithe would never be party to Team Rocket’s criminal schemes, but Jessie and James seem unconcerned, and pull out more gas canisters – this time to dose everyone with helium. Between the overpowering stench of the Gloom spores and the helium raising the pitch of her voice, the Growlithe can’t recognise Jenny’s scent or the sound of her voice, and stop responding to her commands. Jessie and James then change into police uniforms, produce voice synthesisers and use Jenny’s own voice to command the Growlithe to arrest her, which they do, taking ropes in their mouths and tying her up. Meanwhile, Ash, Brock and Misty have stupidly left their Pokéballs back in the station’s dormitory, so Pikachu is all they’ve got. Jessie tries to command him too, using Ash’s voice, but Pikachu is not impressed; Brock claims that Pikachu knows Ash by what’s in his heart, and can’t be fooled by a cloud of foul-smelling gas and a voice synthesiser. Pikachu unloads a Thunderbolt on the Growlithe, but there are just too many for him to handle on his own and he quickly runs out of power. Jigglypuff appears, tries her song, finds that the helium renders her enchanting voice powerless, and wanders off again. Finally, Jessie orders one of the Growlithe to attack Jenny, but as it bites down on her wrist, she looks into its eyes and invokes the Power of Friendship to remind it who she is. Team Rocket try to command the others to deal with her, but their synthesisers choose this moment to malfunction, and the Growlithe turn on them and chase them away. The episode ends with Jenny commending Ash and Pikachu on the strength of their partnership: “you two recognise what’s in each others’ hearts, and that’s what count. I’ll try to keep that in mind.” Also Brock uses one of the discarded voice synthesisers to deliver an incredibly creepy ode to himself in Jenny’s voice. Because he is Brock.
Let’s talk about these Growlithe. Jessie, James and Meowth have – for once – actually come up with a pretty damn solid plan for their daily mischief. To a human, it seems ludicrous that a Growlithe could have trouble telling Jessie in a police uniform apart from Jenny – who is, after all, their trainer – but humans rely on sight a lot more than most animals do and consequently have unusually good vision compared to other mammals. Most mammals – like dogs – compensate with their keener hearing and sense of smell, and this episode suggests that many Pokémon are much the same. Once Team Rocket have deprived the Growlithe of their usual means of identifying their masters, they have only their sub-par vision to fall back on, and they are left following orders given in the voice they were trained to obey. Then Pikachu comes in. Pikachu isn’t fooled; although Ash sounds and smells nothing like himself, Pikachu can recognise his trainer anyway – not immediately, he has to think about it for a few seconds, but he gets there. I suppose the obvious explanation is that Pikachu is simply much more intelligent than the Growlithe (an attribute that is sorely neglected in the games’ portrayal of many Pokémon). He’s been paying attention to what’s going on, and although he doesn’t exactly understand what Team Rocket have been doing to confuse him, he knows they’re an underhanded lot and is on his guard for tricks. As a result, he’s able to decide to ignore what his trainer’s voice is telling him and do what he figures makes sense, whereas the Growlithe latch onto a voice they know and follow its orders, even though Jenny has been standing right there the whole time and they should know who she is even if they can’t hear or smell her clearly. What’s interesting is that the Growlithe eventually figure it out too – or, at least, one of them does – by staring into Jenny’s eyes and having a touching flashback montage of all their happy times together. The obvious explanation – the Growlithe aren’t as intelligent as Pikachu – doesn’t quite seem to make sense anymore; the tone of the scene doesn’t fit with Growlithe suddenly putting together the information and figuring out that Jenny’s voice is being faked. It’s a lot more consistent with Growlithe knowing who she is the whole time and only now wondering why he’s being ordered to attack her.
Pokémon follow orders; this we know. The Growlithe, in particular, are probably being trained to follow orders from any police officer (or perhaps simply from any Jenny; there are non-Jenny police officers in this episode, but I get the impression that the Jennies are the ones who most often work with Pokémon), so they aren’t necessarily supposed to have the same deep personal relationship with their handlers as Pikachu does with Ash. There’s a further point to this, though. Jessie and James are both quite convinced that they will be able to order the Growlithe to commit robberies, and Jenny is equally convinced that the Growlithe would never do such a thing. The story is structured so as to suggest to us that Jenny is actually wrong – her comment is immediately followed by Team Rocket successfully taking control of her Pokémon and ordering them to restrain her. The difference between their views is that Jenny regards the Growlithe as moral agents in and of themselves, capable of understanding that certain actions are ‘wrong’ and refusing to take part in them, while Jessie and James think that they’ll be able to order the Growlithe to do just about anything once they establish themselves as authority figures (and I feel I should emphasise again that the structure of the episode immediately shoots Jenny down). I’m reminded of Ekans’ dialogue in Island of the Giant Pokémon – “Pokémon not bad; Pokémon do bad things because Master bad” – which suggests that, although Ekans and Koffing are totally aware that they are aiding their trainers in committing morally repugnant acts and would never do such things on their own, this is trumped by the principle of loyalty to their masters. The Growlithe – who have been taught to view anyone who knows how to command them as ‘master’ – would find themselves in just the same position if they were taken by Team Rocket. When you think about it, this has to be the case in order for Team Rocket even to exist as an organisation: their modus operandi is to steal Pokémon for use in other crimes with more direct rewards. This could hardly be practical if a significant number of stolen Pokémon were likely to rebel against trainers who committed crimes. As Pikachu and Growlithe remind us, though, Pokémon are in fact capable of understanding that an action is ‘wrong.’ It’s much easier for Pikachu – probably because Ash places an unusual amount of emphasis on treating his Pokémon as friends and individuals – though even Growlithe, raised specifically to be part of a squad, can do it when ordered by a new ‘authority figure’ to attack an old one.
In short, Pokémon do understand human morality – it’s just that most of them are used to thinking that it doesn’t apply to them. They simply don’t see themselves as moral agents – thinking about that stuff is their trainers’ job – unless they’re been strongly encouraged to, one way or another. I think this is what Brock and Jenny are talking about when they say that Ash and Pikachu “understand what’s in each other’s hearts;” Pikachu recognises Ash not merely as his trainer, but as an objectively good person, and would continue to emulate Ash’s moral character even if they were somehow torn apart. As she acknowledges at the end of the episode, Jenny and her Growlithe could stand to learn a lot here.