Doug Walker On: “Tales of Ba Sing Se” and “Appa’s Lost Days”
Hey, Doug Walker’s brother, Rob, joined in for a few vlogs! This was wonderful news to me, since I may like Rob a lot more than Doug (and it’s probably just because of their natural relationship: as the older brother, Rob doesn’t appear to be trying as hard as Doug does at times).
More importantly, though, Rob’s perspective on Avatar: the Last Airbender differs from Doug’s for one good reason: he’s already seen the entire series, so his consensus on what constitutes a good and bad episode and the meaning of it all in the big picture is complete. This makes for some very intriguing insights…as well as a more solid basis for disagreement (but as I said before, that’s probably just a testament to Avatar‘s greatness).
For example, in Rob’s eyes, “Tales of Ba Sing Se” (which is his favorite episode of the series) greatly affirms that Uncle Iroh is the heart of the entire story: he is the thread that ties everything together; he is the reason Zuko ultimately does right by himself and the world; his everlasting kindness and passion rubs off on everyone in one way or another (unless they’re beyond redemption, like Azula); and, most significantly of all, he’s the only adult in the main cast, and one of the few adults in the entire show that’s not incompetent and/or not evil. (And it could partly be a generational thing: all the “good” adults are in their gray-hair days.)
Now, everyone here knows that I’d place Zuko a little higher on my “heart-of-the-story” list, but only by a margin. In fact, Rob has actually convinced me of Iroh’s central importance to the series (an importance he shares, I believe, with Katara). It’s probably because I’m much closer to Zuko’s age than Iroh’s, and can completely sympathize with Zuko’s conflicted journey to adulthood. (Of course, I don’t have an Uncle Iroh-type figure to set me straight, but then how many people do? Zuko’s one lucky guy.) Perhaps when I am a little older, have found my place in life, and have actually attempted to make a positive contribution to this world of ours, I’ll understand and appreciate Iroh a lot more than I already do.
Unfortunately, no matter what I say or do, I am an awful human being. I don’t think Iroh’s tale is the best in the episode, nor did I cry/get misty-eyed when he made the shrine for his son, nor did I feel anything specifically over Mako’s death. To be honest, I always found the little tribute to Mako at the end of Iroh’s story to be, however sincere, a little tacky in this context. “In Honor of Mako” just makes it seem like they planned for Mako to die for this episode to work. They seriously should have put that after the end credits, or maybe right before.
And just to prove I’m a terrible human being, this tribute to the death of voice-actor Mike Pataki (voice of George Liquor among other things) actually got a tear out of me. (You’d have to have watched the Ren & Stimpy episode “Man’s Best Friend” to understand the significance of that oar in Ren’s hand.)
But anyway, I’ve always found Momo’s tale the most moving of the six stories in the episode, and it may largely be due to my own personal neurosis.
I’ve always found in fiction that death, whether effective or not, provides a sort of narrative certainty that pretty much alleviates any tension regarding that particular character. Certainly the effect the dead characters has on the living ones can be a wonderful sort of drama, but since they no longer exist (except as a corpse), they’re essentially no longer a factor in what goes on.
But what if the character didn’t die? What if the way things played out make it appear that they died, but we can’t be certain? Actually take death completely out of the equation: what if the character just straight up disappears and is no longer seen for the duration of the narrative? How can you know if they’re dead? How can you know if they’re alive? If they’re alive, you should be making an effort to help them, but if they’re dead…shouldn’t you still make an effort to know that for sure? And what if they’re alive and suffering? What if they’re alive and well-off? What if they’re well-off because you’re not around? The possibilities are simply endless: it’s like Schrodinger’s cat, only the box is your own perception.
In Momo’s case, the chance to be reconnected with Appa is severed when material that could potentially lead to his whereabouts (a piece of his fur) only results in a dead end. Sure, the foot print means that he was there at one point (and probably recently), but he’s not there now. Can you imagine the frustration and heartbreak to have must someone by that much?
Yes, Momo’s story is corny. Yes, his freeing the cougars that subsequently become his friends is borderline cliché. Yes, I’m biased because the story takes place on an overcast day.
But it’s never boring, it’s always entertaining, and in the end, its emotional outcome supercedes its corniness anyway. That’s a tough feat to accomplish, even tougher than paying tribute to a voice actor who actually died. I’m not saying Iroh’s story and Mako’s tribute are less sincere or moving. I’m simply saying that it took a lot more thought and creativity to pull off making Momo’s tale just as—if not more—heartbreaking (and with an animal, no less). That’s a winner in my book.
Well, if non shedding tears over a dead voice actor doesn’t make me a terrible person, then not finding this PSA on animal cruelty entertaining in the slightest should certainly knock me down a few pegs on the humanity scale.
And when I say I didn’t find it entertaining, I’m not saying, “I wasn’t entertained, but the experience was moving and enlightening,” as I would with a John Cassavetes film. No, I mean I found “Appa’s Lost Days” boring. And it’s boring because Appa is a boring character. In fiction, you can’t just show a character getting abused for twenty-minutes and expect me to be sympathize with it; you have to show me who the character is, how this affects it, and why it matters.
I know why Appa matters to Aang and the rest of the kids, which is why I found “The Desert” to be such a powerful episode. But I have no idea what matters to Appa. Actually, that’s not true: I know Aang matters to Appa because they’d be together for so long. Maybe, as one commenter pointed out a while ago, that’s probably the problem: Appa’s entire existence is so dependent on Aang that when left to his own devices, he literally has nothing to do. In that sense, he’s little more than a lumbering plot device, taking the characters from point A to B, sometimes contributing a story element (like when he bites Long Feng in “Lake Laogai”).
There’s honestly not a lot I can say to Doug and Rob’s commentary. I found the episode boring on a basic visceral level, so how could I even begin to acknowledge any clever subtexts? I did enjoy their discussion on animal abuse and the Guru. I found Rob’s belief that this episode was the payoff to justify Aang’s shitty behavior in “The Desert” very interesting, even if I disagree. The way he puts it, Appa’s pain justifies Aang’s anger. But what if Appa had actually been well-off until re-uniting with Aang? How could Aang have known? He couldn’t, and that’s where a lot of the anger comes from. (And I will pull the “kid card” on this: from my perspective, Aang so rarely feels like an actual kid in this series that when he finally does, it’s wonderful to witness, even if it is pretty reckless.)
And that’s that.
P.S. I hear Rob has started watching The Legend of Korra. Oh, boy…