When Pokémon’s latest intro for the Journeys saga confirmed that Paul would be returning to the series, it was only natural to assume he would be Ash’s opponent in a World Coronation Series match. Now that he’s confirmed to not be a member of the Masters Eight, fans are left to wonder what he’s been up to and what his role could be in his return. Paul’s last known goal was to challenge Brandon the Pyramid King to a rematch in Snowpoint City, and this might just provide a clue as to what Paul’s been doing all this time — as well as why he and Ash will be crossing paths again soon.
While Alain holds the title of Ash’s strongest rival, the protagonist’s greatest rivalry was his intense clash with Paul, his polar opposite as a Pokémon trainer, during the Sinnoh adventures. A controversial character, Paul outright abused his Pokémon in order to make them stronger and added salt to the wound by mopping the floor with Ash and his Pokémon during most of their battles. Paul appeared to ease up on his harsh ways after losing to Ash in the Sinnoh League and seeing how kindness and love had brought out Infernape’s full power, something Paul could never do when Infernape was his Pokémon as a timid Chimchar.
Paul has always been an angry guy, which was never clearer than his humiliating defeat at the hands of Brandon the Pyramid King. The Battle Pyramid — and the Battle Frontier itself — are a sore subject for Paul; it was watching his brother Reggie quit battling after losing to Brandon that made Paul become obsessed with strength. Paul was last seen heading back to Snowpoint City to challenge Brandon, and while the outcome of the battle is not known, it could have opened a door to a whole new adventure for Ash’s greatest rival.
Anyone who conquers the Battle Frontier is offered the choice to become a Frontier Brain and lead their own facility. If Paul did manage to defeat Brandon, it’s conceivable that he’d have chosen to do what his brother couldn’t by conquering the entire Battle Frontier. Considering that Brandon is by far the strongest Frontier Brain, the rest of the Battle Frontier would’ve been light work for Paul.
His rivalry with Ash clearly changed him, but the full extent of Paul’s fresh start isn’t known. It’s possible he’d have decided to become a Frontier Brain so that powerful trainers would come to him, and Paul could then have an endless supply of dreams to crush.
As for why Ash and Paul are about to reunite in an upcoming episode of the Pokémon Journeys anime, that’s less clear. A preview of the episodes to come in Journeys included a fresh shot of Paul out in nature, followed by a quick shot of Ash’s Dragonite battling a Garchomp next to a lake.
Assuming that Garchomp belongs to Paul, perhaps he has offered to help Ash’s Dragonite practice fighting against other Dragon Types, considering Dragonite was soundly defeated by a Flygon in its most recent match. Helping Ash out this way would be a cool reunion, and would allow Paul to retain his trademark condescending attitude without reverting to the outright jerk he used to be. After all, helping an old rival is just the sort of altruistic thing a Frontier Brain would do.
Paul is one of the more surprising characters to make a return in the Journeys anime like so many other legacy characters have, but he might just be one of the most important. Ash’s rivalry with Paul made him so strong that the anime had to introduce Action Replay Man to spam the protagonist with Legendary Pokémon to prevent him from winning the Sinnoh League. As Ash stands before his greatest challenge ever in the Masters Eight, it’s only fitting that he should have one more face-off against his greatest rival to get ready for the fight of his life. And redeeming Paul’s character by having him be at least semi-nice now would be great, too.