Lady Leads & Sidekick Lads: Flipping the script in Team Rocket’s “Training Daze”

By: Dee February 15, 20190 Comments
Jessie clenches a fist and faces Meowth and James, who are smiled with determination.

The Team Rocket trio have never been your typical villains. With a tenacity only matched by their incompetence, an enduring love for one another, a closet full of exquisite crossplay, and enough puns to sink the St. Anne, they’re about as charming as “bad guys” can get.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that their special backstory episode defies as many conventions as they do, taking the classic team origin story and turning familiar gendered archetypes cleverly on their heads.

Jessie, James, and Meowth run down a hallway, fleeing a rolling boulder.

Training Daze” chronicles Jessie, James, and Meowth’s time at Team Rocket “boot camp” as they strive to become field agents. In a refreshing twist on the Pokemon formula, the episode reframes the trio as a ragtag band of shounen-style heroes, overcoming obstacles both personal and practical to earn their “R”s through the heartwarming power of friendship.

But, because this is Team Rocket we’re talking about, it also swaps the genre’s gender norms, depicting Jessie as the determined protagonist and James and Meowth as her moral support. In so doing, it not only challenges traditional roles, but argues that those non-conforming traits are precisely why our trio deserve their own heroic tale.

They’ve always been lovable antagonists. “Training Daze” encapsulates why they just might be admirable ones, too.

Jessie, James, and Meowth hug happily

Preparing for Trouble: A Note on Scope

In the interest of not spiraling down a million tangents, I’ve narrowed the focus in a couple key ways:

First, I’m pulling all quotes and interpretations from the English version. Yes, I’m aware it’s noticeably different from the original, but PokeSubs are hard to come by and my Japanese isn’t strong enough to confidently analyze the raw I watched. Best to stick with my native tongue. ‘Sides, I like the dub.

Second, while “Training Daze” writes its characters exceptionally well, it plays fast-and-loose with plot continuity. To simplify things, I’m treating it like a standalone story. This is doubly wise because if I let myself explore the series at-large, I will write a novel. (I, er, may have spent a lot of time thinking about Team Rocket over the years.)

All right, boring stuff out of the way. Let’s blast off to the episode!

Jessie crouches in front of a dark room with smoke pouring out of it

“It always comes down to just me”: Lone Wolves and Bossy Girls

Everybody knows the story of the talented, driven loner. They’ve got ability and ambition, but dammit, they just don’t play nice with others. They Work Alone—at least, until a partner or sidekick comes along to melt their heart and show them the value of teamwork.

They are also, almost universally, male characters, something TVTropes unintentionally highlights by referring to them as “Captain LonerGuy” and using “he/him” pronouns throughout. Female protagonists might be alone, but it’s rarely by choice, and they’re usually eager and grateful to form a squad.

A page on a clipboard showing Jessie, an unknown young man, and a Mankee. The man and Mankee have X's across their faces.

A true “Captain LonerGal” is quite rare, which is part of what makes “Training Daze” noteworthy. It positions Jessie firmly as the central figure and the character with the clearest conflict: she’s got loads of potential, but she keeps ditching her partners midway through missions.

Now, this does weigh on her to an extent. She’s visibly uncomfortable when Cassidy warns her she’ll be alone forever if she doesn’t “wise up,” and she later laments that it “isn’t fair” she always has to do things by herself. But Jessie doesn’t see this as her problem to fix. She’s doing fine. Her partners are the ones who need to step up.

Jessie walks away from a burly man wearing a Team Rocket uniform. The lighting is stark across an empty landscape scattered with rubble.

“What can I tell you? He wasn’t good enough. He let me down like all the rest of them.”

The female loner isn’t an unheard-of character type, but it’s also a tricky one because of real-world pressures and norms. Assertive, ambitious girls are often criticized for being “snobby” or “bossy” in a way boys are not. Boys who aim high and refuse to compromise their standards are leaders. Girls who do the same are, as Cassidy tells Jessie, “being difficult.”

As a result, when you tell a story about a boy learning to work with a team, it challenges unhealthy ideas about how “real men” can do everything on their own without the help of others. When you tell a story about a girl in the same situation, it often comes across as enforcing passivity and submission.

With the loner archetype, it’s not enough to just swap genders and call it a day. You have to put in an extra layer of work.

Cassidy stands at a locker, looking smugly over her shoulder at Jessie, who glares back.

Jessie’s unwillingness to “get along to get along” is an element of conflict in “Training Daze,” as her lack of a partner poses a serious threat to her career. Crucially though, the episode never blames her for this or demands she change to better meet the needs of her (male) teammate. She says her partners weren’t good enough, and the story ultimately agrees with her.

There are inklings from the get-go that the narrative is on Jessie’s side here, especially given that the rival antagonist (Cassidy, doing her best Mean Girl impression) is the only character who ever genuinely criticizes her. But the message really becomes clear once James enters the picture.

“I’m not gonna wait for you, newbie.”

“Oh, don’t you worry! It’ll take a lot more than this to slow me down!”

The audience knows James is the partner who sticks, which means his early interactions significantly affect our understanding of the story. Why does he make the cut when the others didn’t? What does he do that’s different, and what does that tell us about the core ideas behind “Training Daze”?

Answer: He thinks Jessie’s assessment is spot on.

James and Jessie line up as if about to start a race. A burly man stands behind them with a starting pistol.

When the two meet, the first thing Jessie tells him is: “I hope you’re good, because I’m not going to carry you.” James doesn’t question this or complain about her attitude, but immediately sets to work proving that she doesn’t need to carry him.

Either he’ll make the cut or he won’t, but he never asks her to put her own goals on hold for him. The onus isn’t on Jessie to slow down; it’s on James to keep up.

And as for her “history of not getting along with her partners”? Well, no worries there—James says she “just hasn’t found the right one yet.” The ambitious heroine doesn’t need to lower her standards; she needs to find a partner who can meet them. And, in James, she finds exactly that.

Jessie and James crawl beneath barbed wire, looking at each other seriously

“Never let you down”: Damsel Cats and Martyr Boys

By earning Jessie’s respect and eventual trust, James serves as the stalwart sidekick who rises to the exacting protagonist’s challenge. It’s a relatively gender-neutral archetype these days (Robin or Batgirl, take your pick), but that doesn’t mean “Training Daze” isn’t still playing with prescribed roles.

With Jessie busy in the masc-coded position of the independent hero, it falls on James and Meowth to provide the softer, more femme-coded support elements of their origin story. Happily, they’re playing the parts with a few refreshing twists of their own.

James crouches down next to Meowth, who is hugging a rock in fear. Meowth looks back at him uncertainly.

“Oh yeah, let’s go for it! …Uhhh, on second thought, maybe you guys should go on ahead and send a chopper for me later?”

When Meowth saunters into the picture, he’s depicted as Jessie’s equal in ambition but vastly inferior when it comes to talent. He shows up on Giovanni’s doorstep declaring that his “biggest dream in life is to be a Team Rocket field agent”… then spends most of the episode either scarfing down free meals or hitching a ride on James’s head, too frightened or exhausted to do much else.

In the heroic tale the trio have built for themselves, he’s the earnest but cowardly newbie who’s bitten off more than he can chew. More damsel than hero, Meowth’s ineptitude provokes sympathy in first James and then Jessie as they take turns keeping his helpless furry hide alive.

So, basically, he’s a moe ball.

Meowth blushes cutely and smiles cutely, holding out an empty food bowl

“Training Daze” doesn’t give Meowth as defined an arc as it does his human counterparts, but he’s still integral to the story because his presence allows his teammates to demonstrate their humanity. He’s a (sometimes literal) link through which Jessie and James can connect and grow.

And, despite his total lack of survival skills, he does stick with them and endure real hardships for their sakes. Like countless clumsy sidechicks before him, Meowth may not be much use from an active, physical perspective, but he’s vital from a passive, emotional one.

James wades up to his shoulders through water, with Meowth riding happily on his head

“How do I know I can really count on you, James?”

“I’ll make a promise to you: I swear I’ll never let you down.”

James’s subplot is more complex, but in many ways just as remarkable as Jessie’s. Beyond his tenacity, James is best defined by his wholehearted acceptance of and kindness towards others.

While Jessie and Meowth have clear goals of becoming field agents, James never really expresses the same. Instead, he’s motivated by a desire to support others and see them succeed. We see this in his promise to Jessie, his focus on “sticking together,” and his constant willingness to sacrifice his own well-being to aid his teammates.

He’s the mediator and caretaker, far more concerned about others than himself. He never asks Jessie to slow down or Meowth to speed up. If they need help, he gives it. And if he thinks he’s holding them back, then he leaves himself behind.

James releases his hold on Meowth's tail and falls into a canyon with a river running through it

The soft-hearted martyr who lives to help the hero is a role often filled by a female character (particularly a love interest), but it’s not a healthy role regardless of who’s playing it. Fortunately, Training Daze” recognizes this as well, as Jessie ultimately rejects James’s attempted sacrifices in favor of a more equitable approach.

When James gives the flagging Meowth his entire meal with no thought to what he’ll eat that night, Jessie responds by splitting her own share equally between the three of them. When he later tries to give himself up so his teammates can escape (again), Jessie convinces him to let them save him.

Jessie and Meowth lie at the edge of a pit, their hands reaching down and clasping the hand of a person off-screen, but who is pretty clearly James

“You promised me we’re gonna be the greatest team in history. Now just hold on!”

“…All right. I’ll try.”

This episode loves using parallel scenes to demonstrate the positive effect the trio have on each other. James sharing with Meowth ripples and repeats when Jessie shares with both of them; James letting himself fall ripples and repeats when Jessie and Meowth catch him. Each time, James tries to refuse Jessie’s rough kindness, and each time she persists, and each time he gives in.

If James inspires Jessie to value others, then Jessie encourages James to value himself. James may be the caretaker, but Jessie is the leader. Under her guidance, they might not always succeed, but at least they’ll all live to fight another day.

A split-screen of Jessie and James looking seriously at each other, both smiling slightly.

“The three of us are in this thing together”: Dogged Leaders and Fast Friends

As all this suggests, despite James and Meowth never asking Jessie for help, they are both sorely in need of it. Meowth has no survival skills and James has no sense of self-preservation. And despite Jessie’s early insistence that she won’t carry them, she’s literally lifting them out of a pitfall by the end of the episode.

So what happened? What made our solitary heroine change her mind?

Jessie grab onto Meowth's paws. He grimaces in pain and fear.

Stories about loners finding a team usually involve the loner realizing they “need” their new partners. This is often accomplished through a daring rescue: the hero’s new pals save her and she understands how screwed she’d be without them. Even when it doesn’t smack of damselfication (and it often does), it’s as much about practicality as it is companionship.

Which is one of the most striking elements of “Training Daze”: the boys never save Jessie, because Jessie never needs saving. Not once. She is in control and capable from start to finish.

Jessie stands at the edge of a rickety bridge, glancing back at James and Meowth who are a short distance behind her. Meowth is riding on James's head.

“If we give up and turn back now, we’ll never win this blasted competition. I’ll go first.”

James and Meowth unquestionably make Jessie a more compassionate, less selfish person, but she doesn’t “need” them in a practical sense. She comes to see them as her teammates not because they’re integral to her survival, but because they’re good boys she likes having around.

In another of the episode’s lovely little visual parallels, Jessie tries to walk away before the final test, the camera perfectly mirroring her botched opening mission. James is hurt, Meowth is scared, and Jessie’s convinced she has to go it alone once more. She’s slower, resigned instead of defiant (“why does it always have to be this way?”), but determined all the same.

Except, this time, the scene doesn’t end. This time, her partners chase after her—even if one of them has to break out of the ICU to do it. And Jessie has to turn away to hide her tears, because while it’s always been clear that she could do it alone, it’s equally clear that she doesn’t want to. Not anymore.

Jessie faces away from the camera, rubbing a hand over her eyes

James and Meowth’s loyalty and kindness inspire loyalty and kindness in her. Once they earn her trust, she naturally steps up for them in return. She doesn’t have to give up her ambitions or sacrifice her goals for them. She simply decides she wants to achieve those goals with them, as a team.

In 20 brilliantly paced minutes, Jessie shifts from loner to leader, from abandoner to protector. She still marches forward as brazenly as ever, scouting out a risky path full of countless potential pitfalls. But now she’s found people who want to follow her on that road—and she, in turn, realizes she wants to be there for them, too.

Jessie leans over the edge of a pitfall, grabbing Meowth's paws while James clutches Meowth's tail

“Training Daze” never asks Jessie to “get in touch with her feminine side” or James and Meowth to “man up.” It never vilifies the bossy girl or soft boy archetypes, nor forces the cast into situations where the Strong Female Protagonist™ must rely on the menfolk to save her. Just the opposite, in fact, as the trio’s non-conforming traits are routinely depicted as their most enduring and endearing.

Our misfit heroes do change, but they do so organically, without being stripped of their unique strengths. Jessie remains tough and driven; James remains kind and supportive; Meowth remains the eager, bumbling bridge between them.

But along the way, they find an accepting family they can trust, and that trust nudges them towards gradual, genuine growth. Jessie reaches out. James grabs hold. Meowth perseveres. With fitting imagery, they all learn how to hang on.

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