Chapter Thirty-Four: “City of Walls and Secrets”
(Rating Out of 15)
The political episode! “City of Walls and Secrets” is like a kiddie version of 1984 in many ways, not in the least bit because it’s one of the creepiest squares of kids’ television I’ve ever seen. Of course, Avatar: the Last Airbender is ultimately an optimistic show, so they don’t quite go to the extremes that George Orwell did to portray an evil totalitarian city. Still, given what they could do within their limits, they did a pretty damn good job.
In “City of Walls and Secrets,” the kids finally make it inside Ba Sing Se. They immediately receive an escort named Joo Dee, who seems oblivious to the kids’ request to see the Earth King and only capable of spewing tourist knowledge. She also prevents any of the citizens from telling the kids anything that might remotely imply that a war is going on. What’s with the secrecy?
On the other side, Zuko and Iroh immediately find housing and a job at a tea shop. A shop which, thanks to Iroh’s love for tea, becomes extremely popular. This is no good for Jet, who is still trying to rat them out for being Firebenders.
Since it’s still pretty early in this review, I should mention what I don’t like about this episode before getting to the good stuff. This has become a habit, but please believe me when I say I don’t consciously look for things wrong with this show; I just notice things that bug me that don’t seem to bug anyone else. Is that wrong of me?
There’s nothing subtle about this episode at all. Admittedly, that is a nitpick more than anything else. DiMartino and Konietzko and company have proven they can be subtle, so it’s rather disappointing that they forsake that ability during an episode that might have benefited most from it. Take the introduction of Joo Dee, for example. Do you have to have her smiling all the time and accompanied by ominous music? Her cheerful obliviousness was enough on its own; everything else was kind of superfluous.
The episode is too short. This is not a nitpick. I honestly believe this episode would have made a wonderful two-parter that would have given the themes more time to develop and the story’s conclusion more emotional punch. (It might have even solved that subtlety problem.) The search for Appa could have already gotten under way, or the civilized paranoia within Ba Sing Se could have been made more prominent. Jet’s obsession and captivity certainly wouldn’t seem so abrupt (but then Jet was never the most stable character, was he?). The way it is, the episode feels a little rushed, as if they wanted to get all this boring political stuff out of the way so they could focus on more important things in the next episodes.
The crosscutting between the kids at the party and the battle in the tea shop is very awkward. For every masterful sequence of crosscutting like the one in “The Library” there are about several more like this one. Katara, Aang, Sokka, and Toph are at the party waiting for an audience with the Earth King, and Jet and Zuko have a little sword fight at the tea shop as Jet tries his best to get Zuko and/or Iroh to Firebend and blow their cover. Both scenes are great on their own, but they don’t mix well together. The Jet and Zuko duel feels like it was drawn out just to equal the party scene in terms of length. The result is disorientating and kind of distracting.
Hybrid animals. So the Earth King has a pet bear, and it’s weird because it’s just a bear, and not an armadillo-bear or a platypus-bear or a pooh-bear, so it’s funny! Fuck hybrid animals. I thought it was weird—though not really—that the Earth King had a pet bear at all.
Those are the only real complaints I have about this episode. The rest of “City of Walls and Secrets” works just fine. Very fine.
While it could have been done better, I do love the gradual buildup to the reason why Ba Sing Se is such a great and corrupt city. Long Feng, the man who in charge of military operations in Ba Sing Se, and thus technically the one in charge, has good reason not to have the war mentioned within the city: as the last safe haven and utopia in the Avatar universe, why mess up a good thing with talks of war and social upheaval? A lot of people operate this way, so it’s nice to see that issue addressed.
It’s also interesting how Iroh’s tea making skills actually save him and Zuko when the Dai Li come to arrest Jet. Instead of looking into Jet’s claims, they simply want him to remain quiet to preserve order. In that case, investigating the claims would have been in order if Iroh hadn’t already established himself as a wonderful man who knows how to make a great pot of tea. Status and reputation win the day here. (Maybe this episode is more subtle than I thought.)
The fight scene between Jet and Zuko is well done, and the animation is more lively than usual. I’ll also admit that the crosscutting between Jet’s brainwashing in the end and the kids’ talk with Long Feng is pretty well handled.
I guess it is pretty interesting that they find their chance to meet the Earth King through the party for his pet bear. Otherwise, they would have to wait a whole month to have an audience with him. As the saying goes, “One does not just POP in on the Earth King.”
Thanks to Toph’s upbringing, she knows how to blend her and Katara into high society. Aang and Sokka are out of the loop, but they sneak in later as bus boys. Pretty clever, guys.
But if there’s one element of “City of Walls and Secrets” I can say is truly the heart of this episode, then it’s Joo Dee.
Initially, she is extremely annoying—but in a funny way, until a certain someone—and you can sense she’s hiding many things. She’s always smiling, always evading specific questions, and always on the kids’ backs.
It’s not until the party scene that she seems to express any sort of emotion that’s not pre-packaged bullshit. She warns the kids that by being there, they could all get in big trouble. Aang, naturally, blows their cover and everyone knows the Avatar is there.
And Joo Dee’s typically fake smile turns into a very real expression of fear.
It’s the most powerful moment in the episode, and it only grows more powerful each time I watch the episode. For one thing, it’s the last we ever see of her. At the end of the episode, we learn that she has been replaced by another “Joo Dee,” who is eerily similar and totally different from the Joo Dee we first met.
We never learn what happened to Joo Dee, anyway. And that, of course, raises another very important: how many times has a Joo Dee been disposed of and replaced by another? You get the sense that this sort of thing happens every so often and it’s rather chilling to think about. Joo Dee had to have known the dangers of her job before hand, otherwise she would not have been so frightened when Aang accidentally revealed himself.
And we get no reassurance that she’s OK either. The last shot is of the new “Joo Dee,” so the cycle can continue. It’s another downer ending for Avatar. It’s nice to see one of those again.
All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.