There's something about this episode that makes it stand out amongst others in this season. It could be because it involves a Charmander, one of the most popular of the Kanto starters. It might be because of the then-surprising look at a trainer who doesn't take care of Pokémon very well (and are not part of Team Rocket). Or it's because death is mentioned explicitly throughout the episode. Refuge in audacity much, Pokémon? (Shame death would be touched upon less and less as the years went on, though.) Then again, it was taking cues from the games, so that might be why it got away with it for that one episode...
It's been ten days since they departed from Cerulean, huh? What have they been doing, walking in circles? You would think they had already been on either Route 24 or Route 5. (Unless... the bridge they crossed in the previous episode was Nugget Bridge...?) This also is probably one of the few times routes were mentioned, because I don't remember hearing them in future episodes. Also, Ash can't read maps. Well, thank goodness he happened to have some companions with him, otherwise he would've gotten lost back in Viridian Forest. I get that he's ten, but you would think most ten-year-olds would learn how to read a map. And why didn't either Brock or Misty point this out? They're older than him, they could've corrected him. I mean, Misty was facing that map, she would've noticed something (especially since she's lived in Cerulean City, so she probably would've known which way to go). Plot-induced stupidity, I guess.
So we meet a Charmander, it seemed inevitable at this point... but this one's weak. Interesting. It's not known how long he's been there, but he's been there long enough to either be starving, or still suffering from injuries, whatever is causing him to breathe so hard. I find it ironic Misty says it has an attitude problem, as in about 34-35 episodes... a possible subtle foreshadowing, perhaps? We don't get Charmander's personality much here like we did with Bulbasaur, but we can tell he's a loyal, probably stubborn Pokémon. By the end when he toasts Team Rocket (whom go back into digging holes because... they're just not being threatening right now), we see how much of a flame he has. He will over time become one of Ash's most powerful Pokémon, but for now, he's just the adorable, sweet Charmander we all know.
But of course, you can't talk about this episode without mentioning the person who predates Paul by about ten years: Damien. He's not the only abusive Pokémon trainer (A.J. may or may not count, but at least he cared for his Pokémon), but he's our first experience with one, and he won't be our last. He just happened to be the most memorable out of them all only because of how much of a douchebag he is from the start. We are introduced to him bragging about how he left his Charmander out to pretty much die because of it being too weak for him. (Though his cronies are probably worse, one stated that “it'll probably wag [its tail] so long it'll put the flame out”, and they laugh about it.) He shows no concern over Brock getting in his face over it, then he leaves until the end when he decides to get Charmander. However, he reveals that training Pokémon is “boring”. Well what did you think it meant to be a Pokémon Trainer, and why did you choose to be one if you thought you were going to get freebies every chance you got?
Dick. He deserved more than getting a Flamethrower to the face, to be honest with you.
Team Rocket shows up by the final act, digging holes again, as mentioned earlier. Really, the last time they actually did something worthwhile was back in episode six when they were close to stealing the Moon Stone. They have not been very threatening for a while, even with the gadgets they've now been getting pretty much out-of-the-blue. Is it any wonder Giovanni chews them out in a few episodes? They may be newbies at this job (probably), but it doesn't mean they're good at it. I'm not sure if that was exactly intentional, or if it was because Takeshi Shudo was being forced to do this to his characters, but if they're just going to do nothing but dig pitfalls and get chased off by someone other than Ash... Well, I mean there was that bazooka that shot out a rubber bubble-balloon (they now got smart enough to protect themselves from Pikachu's electricity), I guess since they probably could've gotten away with it had it not been for Charmander showing up. Speaking of, how did Charmander get there the way it showed up? He went the opposite director that Ash and the others would go. Unless they got turned around...
Also, Ash gave a good point. Brock was the most concerned of Charmander, so why did he just let Ash take it? Just because he kept the flame on his tail lit? That doesn't necessarily mean he can take care of that Pokémon, but whatever, Brock's just a nice guy like that. Missed out on a great opportunity for a good Pokémon (even though it's possible Charmander wouldn't evolve for a long time anyway under his care), and he won't get Vulpix for a while, so... *shrugs* His and the writers' decisions. Gotta catch 'em all!
So overall, while this is not a favorite episode of mine, it is a good episode, possibly one of the better ones. The pacing feels a bit condensed at times, but it was simple and linear. We got a bit of a backstory with a Pokémon, got to see that there are indeed douchebag trainers out there, and death is talked about without much restriction. Okay, Ash got a new team member thus proving this episode wasn't filler. Hmm, gee, I wonder if we will get to see Squirtle next. Not that the opening hadn't spoiled it for us, let alone that it's been 16 years since the episode aired and thus everyone knows what it is and what happened in it.
That, and it's my favorite of the three episodes. I don't think I will need to explain why. Maybe. But in the meantime, we're still going to be nowhere near Vermilion City and are probably still going the wrong way.