Chapter Thirty-Seven: “Lake Laogai”
(Rating Out of 15)
“Lake Laogai”—or “City of Walls and Secrets, Vol. II”—is at once a relief and a disappointment: a relief in the sense that, now that we’ve survived “Appa’s Lost Days,” we’re left with nothing but great episodes for the remainder of Book Two; a disappointment in the sense that it doesn’t live up to its full potential like, in my mind, most episodes of Avatar: the Last Airbender.
As has become a custom in my reviews, I’ll discuss what repels me from the episode before getting to the good stuff.
The episode feels kind of rushed to me, especially the stuff involving Jet. I feel that his side of the story in particular wasn’t given enough time to develop properly so that his demise could have a fuller impact. That was actually the same problem with his first episode (“Jet”), so maybe he’s just plain unlucky.
The mystery surrounding Lake Laogai and the ways of the Dai Li are a letdown. After all, we already saw in “City of Walls and Secrets” that they brainwashed Jet into forgetting that the war was happening. Did DiMartino and Konietzko and company think we forgot about that? And what about the business with Joo Dee? Not that I wanted anything bad to happen to her, but was she just hypnotized and held prisoner all that time? That does nothing to fuel my already paranoid imagination.
Speaking of which, when the kids actually get to Lake Laogai, they pass a room full of women who are all named Joo Dee. It’s a scary concept, yes, that all these women are being brainwashed into doing Ba Sing Se’s bidding. But I just don’t understand: 1) what they need with all these women; 2) what the benefit of having all these women working in Ba Sing Se is; and 3) why they all have to be named Joo Dee.
On top of that, after they passed that room full of Joo Dee, they find a room of Dai Li agents with whom they then engage in a fight. It’s a fun scene, but I was fully expecting to see those Joo Dees get into action and start fighting the kids. Admit it: a room full of martial artistic Joo Dees would be much more interesting in a fight than a room full of Dai Li agents.
I guess I could just sum up my complaints with one question: what makes this conspiracy so special? They’ve already explained what the Dai Li does and how they maintain “order” in Ba Sing Se back in “City of Walls and Secrets.” “Lake Laogai” simply reaffirms those ideas without revealing anything new or putting an extra twist on it. (Admittedly, we’d get one in the Book Two finale, but couldn’t they have also done something neat here?) Compared to, say, 1984, where the last act in which they revealed the motives of Big Brother were as frightening as the results, this is all just silly. Not terribly unreasonably, as I’ve mentioned before, but silly.
And that’s quite it really, as far as flaws go. The rest of the episode is very good.
In order to find Appa more quickly, Aang and friends make lost animal posters and spread them all throughout Ba Sing Se. This gets the attention of Zuko, who now knows that not only is the Avatar her in the city, but that finding Appa could be his chance to finally nab the little Airbender. Iroh is not too keen on this, especially since their lives are improving: he’s just been given his own tea shop and better living conditions. Zuko might just ruin a good thing for the both of them.
Need I even say that the most compelling aspect of the episode involves Zuko’s dilemma? After going so long without any hope of succeeding in anything, he finally has a chance to gain his old life back, rather than start his new one with Uncle Iroh. What will he do?
He actually comes close to stealing Appa away from Lake Laogai, but when you’re talking about stealing a giant flying bison, what does that even mean? Even Iroh points this out to Zuko, in one of their most dramatic scenes together. Iroh spells out just how illogical Zuko’s actions have been concerning the Avatar, and begs him to consider what it is he really wants in his life.
This results in Appa being set free, which results in Appa saving the day for Aang and friends later when they’re surrounded by Dai Li agents. Zuko also leaves his secret identity of the Blue Spirit behind forever. Good for him!
Jet’s story is pretty damn interesting as well. Specifically, I love how his appearance affects Katara, whose behavior here will definitely pop up again once Zuko comes into the picture: she’s extremely slow to forgive those who hurt her in the past. Even when presented solid evidence that he has changed his ways—Toph can tell if someone is lying or not by feeling the vibrations of their heart rate on the earth—Katara refuses to believe Jet is good. But isn’t that precisely the kind of irrationality you’d expect from a woman?
Jet’s insistence that he’s changed gets even weirder when Longshot and Bumblebee show up and ask him how he escaped the Dai Li. They remember he got arrested, but Jet says he never got arrested for anything, and just wanted to come to Ba Sing Se to start anew. Accordingly to Toph, they’re both telling the truth. How is this possible? Naturally, Sokka comes to the conclusion that Jet has been brainwashed, for he knows that the hypnotized never lie.
So they refresh his memory and find out about Lake Laogai, where all the evil takes place.
At one point during the last-act action sequence, Aang and Jet corner Long Feng, but because Jet is still under the Manchurian Candidate, Long Feng manages to turn Jet against Aang.
But only for a moment, before Aang somehow jolts him out of it, resulting in Jet attacking Long Feng. The evil doer retorts with a brutal stab of earth, which more than likely results in the poor boy’s death.
I must also point out that this is the first time in the history of the series that Earthbending actually does any real damage to someone. Remember back in “Bitter Work” when Sokka was launched high into the air by a jab of earth and fell all the way on his back and didn’t die? Apparently everyone forgot about that because Sokka is only the comic relief, and thus the only thing of his that tends to die is his dignity (that’s not enough for me, of course, but I digress).
Before Jet dies (off screen), he lets Katara know that he’ll be all right. Uh huh. Even Toph knows that’s bullshit. Tragic and poignant, though.
So whatever became of Longshot and Bumblebee, who stayed behind with Jet[‘s body] in the camp of Lake Laogai? I think those new Avatar comics answer that question, but maybe not.
This would be another downer ending if Appa didn’t show up at the end to save the kids. The reunion of Appa and Aang is definitely heartwarming. But considering how close we are to the Book Two finale, just how trustworthy is this happy ending?
All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.