Chapter Thirty-Five: “The Tales of Ba Sing Se”
(Rating Out of 15)
After such a fantastic run of episodes, DiMartino and Konietzko and company’s ambitions must have gotten the best of them and they made “Tales of Ba Sing Se.” Not a bad episode by any means, but a disappointing one. The episode takes a bit of inspiration from the Yes album Fragile: each of the major “good” characters gets their own little four minute segment in the episode, dedicated mostly to developing their characters. What this winds up doing, however, is exposing why some of them should never be left to their own devices, but I’ll get more into that once we delve into the actual segments.
Now, I could be wrong. Maybe DiMartino and Konietzko and company weren’t being ambitious at all. (A truly ambitious episode would have given the bad characters their own segments, too.) It’s also possible that they’ve never heard Yes’ Fragile. Hell, they’ve probably never heard of Yes. Have you? They probably don’t know what progressive rock is. They probably don’t even know what rock n’ roll is. They probably think Beatles is spelled with two e’s for Christs’ sake! I don’t know, nor does it really matter.
Now for the individual segments:
This segment shows Katara taking Toph on a “girls’ day out” by going to a spa. Ultimately, the segment is about Toph’s insecurity with her appearance and how her toughness is a facade to hide that insecurity.(Needless to say, this is made more poignant by the fact that she doesn’t even know what she looks like.)
This segment has some nice laughs, to be sure. Toph’s spa experience is pain because they insist on fooling around with her feet. She scares some of the employees with her antics. And near the end, she gets revenge on some upper class bitches who make fun of her appearance.
But I can’t enjoy this segment as much as I’d like to, if only because I have this tiny bias that you should know about: I HATE MAKE-UP. I’ll never be able to explain this, but make-up just makes me sick. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s sticky and fake and is more hideous the more prominent it is. Why most women insist on wearing make-up—and why most men insists that women wear make-up—is beyond me.
And the make-up on Toph and Katara is hideous. Whoever did that hack job on them needs to be shot. When those upper class girls call Toph names like “clown” or “poodle,” I sadly have to agree. And laugh.
I know I’m not being entirely objective here—not that that’s possible anyway—but I can only be honest about these things. That make-up alone makes “Tale of Toph and Katara” nearly unwatchable to me.
This one is much better, namely because it contains nothing that personally bugs me, and also because it contains Iroh. And while I’ll admit that over time, Iroh sounds more like what young guys like DiMartino and Konietzko and company think old wise men like Iroh sound like rather than how they are, he’s still a wonderful character, if only because he’s played so incredibly well by voice actor Mako.
In the segment, Iroh calms down a crying child with a brief but nice song, gives helpful advice to a couple of kids on when not to take responsibility for your actions, and gives a wannabe mugger a new outlook on life. It’s all fun, all entertaining.
But there’s a point to all of it! And it comes later when Iroh, having acquired all the items he needs from the marketplace, goes to an isolated tree and creates a shrine for his deceased son’s birthday. It’s a powerful moment, made more powerful by the deceptively goofy events that came before. Iroh is a loving, compassionate, and ever forgiving mentor to everyone—especially Zuko—in the way he can no longer be to his only son. How beautiful.
And, yes, Mako died before the show ended. He is surely missed, not just because he helped created probably the best character in Avatar and is now gone.
That said, in my opinion, this is not the best segment in the episode.
It’s definitely not this one either. Above anything, this segment proves once and for all that Aang is not even capable of carrying a four-minute time slot on his own. He’s just not an inherently interesting character. When he’s experiencing an emotional turmoil or pissed off, he’s a joy to behold. When he’s relatively stable, he’s a bore.
In the segment, he looks for Appa and finds a zoo. And what do we get? More stupid hybrid animals.
Hybrid animals, as far as I’m concerned, are and will always remain an idiotic idea that DiMartino and Konietzko should have ended a long time ago. It wasn’t even their idea. Apparently the writers were trying to outdo each other by coming up with the weirdest combinations of animals possible. Fun for them, maybe, but a distraction for us. Hybrid animals are a construct reserved for lesser kids’ shows, not Avatar.
Little do I care of Aang’s attempt to relocate these creatures, but at least it’s not offensive. They terrorize a section of Ba Sing Se when set loose, and Aang manages to get them outside the inner wall so they can have a cageless, more open imprisonment. Nice work, Avatar Aang!
Also, people seem to love this running gag about the Cabbage Man always losing his cabbages and subsequently screaming, “My cabbages!” I just think it’s weird. And in this segment, after he loses his cabbages once more and says his trademark line, we see him crying over his constant misfortune. I felt sorry for him. Poor guy.
I think I’ve spoken enough about how much I dislike Sokka, and voice actor Jack De Sena in particular. So you can imagine how much I loathed this segment. Sokka should never, ever be left to his own devices.
I’ll use the Robert Plant comparison once more. Like Plant, De Sena is highly obnoxious and almost always annoying when, but that’s only when he is allowed to do whatever he wants. When he does what he’s supposed to—for Plant, sing; for De Sena, read his lines—he’s perfectly fine. Why he chooses not to is the real question. I guess Plant had an excuse: when you’re a frontman who has to perform alongside improvisational guitar giant Jimmy Page, it’s kind of hard not to feel like you’ll be overshadowed, isn’t it? What’s De Sena’s excuse? Did he think being on All That made him an improvisational pioneer? The only good sketch I even saw him in on that show was the one where he died. (I can’t even tell you how glad I am to have seen it.)
But enough ramblings about a voice actor whose comedic skills are the equivalent of a large splinter through the nose. How does he ruin the segment?
Sokka finds himself engaged in a haiku battle with a snooty tutor. Since the audience consists of upper class young ladies, Sokka shows off and manages to keep up with the tutor’s spontaneous haiku spewing skills. It’s amazing that even in a segment specifically meant to highlight Sokka’s obnoxiousness, De Sena still manages to go too far over-the-top.
However, in the end, Sokka accidentally adds one too many syllables to his final haiku, which results in him being thrown out by a grammar-conscious bodyguard. This is the only funny part in the whole segment, even though some of the haikus were actually pretty creative. Just get De Sena to stop being such an obnoxious prick, dammit!
Zuko can be left on his own. He proved that in “Zuko Alone,” and he proves it again in this segment, which shows him going on a date with a frequent customer of the tea shop he works in. I don’t even think I have to elaborate on why this segments works. Zuko is his usual unsure self, even more so in the presence of the young lady named Jin. She’s attracted to him and sets up the date, although what she sees in him remains a mystery.
They have a nice little awkward dinner, where Zuko evades telling her of his past by saying he and Iroh were part of a traveling circus. His juggling demonstration doesn’t go over well, but that’s just cute to her. She takes him to a favorite spot of hers where the lanterns really make the foundation look beautiful at night, but to her disappointment, they’re not lit. Zuko, being the nice guy deep down, tells her to close her eyes and then he lights all the lanterns with his Firebending.
This leads to hand holding. That leads to an exchange of a coupon. That leads to a kiss…somehow…
But Zuko won’t accept her. Why? “It’s complicated.” That’s usually the answer a girl gives to a guy, isn’t it? (Of course, if we were to apply the emasculation of Sokka to this scene, then it makes perfect scene.)
When Zuko gets home and Iroh asks how the date went, Zuko slams his room door shut. And then pokes out to say, “It was nice.” One of the many reasons this guys is the best character in the show.
Now onto my favorite segment!
I was not expecting this segment to move me like it did. In fact, I fully expected only Zuko and Iroh’s segment to be any kind of successful. Not that I didn’t believe that Momo could carry a segment all by himself—he’s the most entertaining character on the “good” side—but an emotional one, too?
The entire segment revolves around Momo looking for Appa all over Ba Sing Se, using only a clump of the bison’s hair that he found in a bag. Along the way, he gets chased by loose cougars, becomes a part of a monkey street dance, and nearly gets turned into food.
Say, remember when I said that I hated hybrid animals? Well, technically Momo is a hybrid himself. He’s a lemur, a cat, and a bat (I guess) combined into one. But most of all, he’s an inspired creation. Most of those other hybrid animals—Appa excepted as well, actually—are bastardizations meant only for a cheap laugh. Momo, however, is more than the sum of his parts: he’s a living, breathing, and charming animal with actual personality, capable of humor and emotion. On top of that, his hybrid is actually fully utilized: Momo can be as cute as a cat, as crafty as a monkey, and he can fly.
I’ll admit that the plot of this segment is kind of corny. As Momo tries to escape the cougars, they all get captured by a couple of men bent on turning them all into dinner.
Momo escapes easily because, being part lemur, he has opposable thumbs. But what about the poor cougars? Well, Momo being the nice guy he is, frees them, too. Yeah, even I find it a little hard to believe that they would be friends after that, but whatever. The grateful cougars even take the piece of Appa’s hair that Momo was carrying around and help try to find him. Still corny, but nice of them.
Unfortunately, they only lead Momo to the last place Appa actually was, complete with large footprints in the ground. Left all alone after a fruitless search, Momo sadly rests in the footprint.
Talk about a downer ending! This is probably the closest clue any of the characters has to Appa’s whereabouts—at least we know for sure that he was in Ba Sing Se—and it still leads nowhere.
So why is this more powerful than, say, Iroh’s mourning for his son? This is pretty subjective, but as someone with abandonment issues, I believe it is much worse to lose someone without knowing where they are than to lose someone knowing that they’re dead. Someone’s death at least gives you the (unpleasant) closure that that person will never come back. In the other case, you have no way of knowing if they’re dead, alive, safe, in danger, missing you, happy without you, etc. The uncertainty only deepens the grief. (I think this is why the unknown whereabouts of Zuko’s mother has had such a hold on so many fans.)
I will admit, once again, that I have a little bias that fuels my love for this segment over the others: it takes place entirely on an overcast day. Don’t even ask me why overcast days have such a hold on me. It’s just a quirk of mine I’ll never understand completely, and it makes an already great segment that much more enjoyable in my eyes.
All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.