Because fans should be critical, too

Book Two: The Pene Absolutus Season

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…

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Chapter Thirty-Nine and Forty: “The Guru” and “The Crossroads of Destiny”

14

(Rating Out of 15)

15

(Rating Out of 15)

“The Guru” and “The Crossroads of Destiny” are the perfect finish to an almost perfect season. So much so that too often I believe I’d been happily content with the series ending here if, for reason, it got cancelled. It’s a silly thought, yes, because how sad would we all be that the show couldn’t continue after leaving out on such a high note? (Not to mention that Book Three actually contains at least one episode that I’d argue manages to outdo these two.) Let silly thoughts stay silly thoughts. The fact is that “The Guru” and especially “The Crossroads of Destiny” are indisputably two of the greatest episodes of Avatar: the Last Airbender ever made.

It’s tempting to just go through the episodes beat-by-beat and gush about how brilliant they are, but I’ll refrain only because the plot of both episodes is so complicated. How could I even begin to summarize these two?

In “Guru,” Aang attempts to master the Avatar State with the help of Guru Pathik, but fails when his attachment to Katara is stronger than his need to save the world. In “Crossroads,” Ba Sing Se has practically been taken over by the Dai Li, and Aang, his friends, the Earth King, and Zuko and Iroh have to escape with their lives. That doesn’t even scratch the surface.

I suppose I should start—as I usually do—by explaining why “The Guru” is just one point short of a perfect score.

Maybe it’s just me, but those scenes of Aang learning to unblock his chakra seem to go by very, very quickly. His spiritual healing takes place all in two days, but the actual chakra unblocking goes by in a matter of second. Don’t get me wrong: I understand that Aang is an inherently spiritual person, and that he’s matured greatly over the course of the series—at the very least, he’s not as annoying as he used to be—but somehow I don’t think it would be that easy, especially for somewhat with as much inner turmoil as Aang.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the urgency with which he needed to master the Avatar State gave him extra motivation. (Besides, isn’t the main premise that Aang has a limited time to master the elements—which takes years—before the Fire Nation can win the war?)

Even if that’s a nitpick, I still consider the scene where Aang sees that Katara is in danger rather clumsy. He is on the verge of mastering the Avatar State when suddenly he gets a vision of Katara in chains, screaming. This causes him to abandon the process, which in turn prevents him from being able to go into the Avatar State.

I still have no idea how Aang got that vision in the first place. We never get an explanation. I can assume it’s like in The Empire Strikes Back, where being a Jedi/the Avatar allows you certain extraordinary abilities, namely the ability to see the ones you love even when they’re far away. Or could it be that Katara is the one Earthly attachment he has, and when she’s in danger, he senses it?

If the latter is the case, then it provided for one of the most beautiful and brilliant visual metaphors in the series. The final stage of the process takes place in space, and when Aang wants to save Katara, he literally falls back down to Earth. That’s pretty damn clever!

But here’s the real problem I have with these two plot points: they are the only moment in the entire Finale that feel like they were solely motivated by plot alone.

Transversely, one of the things that makes these episodes so great—especially “Crossroads”—is that every single action and plot twist seems to come directly from the characters. Considering how clunky most episodes of Avatar can be when combining plot and character, this is the highest compliment I can possibly give.

In fact, perhaps the best way to analyze these episodes is by examining how each major character influences and is affected by what goes on. I’ll go from the least significant to the most significant.

Toph

Obviously the most important aspect of Toph’s story is that she discovers Metalbending. According to the Guru Pathik, in his spiel about how everything is connected, metal is merely earth “that has been purified and refined.” Once Toph realizes this, she is easily able to escape the metal box she was captured in.

I’ve made this criticism before, and I’ll make it again: Jessie Flower, Toph’s voice actress, does not portray cockiness very well. She undermines this triumphant moment with her wimpy delivery. It’s like playing the main riff of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on a ukelele and not an electric guitar.

"Aloha, aloha, alo-how low?"

Thankfully the odd couple is still around for a while and they’re still hilarious. Their final line in “Guru” is one of the funniest moments in the entire series. Trapped by Toph in the very same metal box they trapped her in, the tough guy grudging accepts that he’ll be stuck with the Earthbending tutor forever in that box. And then—because earlier they wouldn’t let Toph out to use the bathroom—the tutor realizes he does have to use the bathroom. Brilliant.

Sokka

Sokka is dropped off at the harbor where the warriors of the Southern Water Tribe—and his father, Hakoda—are, and is welcomed with open arms. Actually, it’s a very nice scene.

The scenes of Sokka reconnecting with his father are nice, too. Because most of these scenes are dramatic, De Sena doesn’t have any opportunity to be obnoxious and ruin it. However, the one laugh to be found in these scenes are at his and his father’s expense, as Bato of the Water Tribe laments how alike their lousy senses of humor are. That said, those “stink-and-sink” bombs are a cool concept.

Probably the heart of Sokka’s story is when Hakoda calls for “all you men” to get ready for battle. It takes Sokka a moment to realize that he is of those “men” being called. Either this is a proud moment of acceptance for Sokka, or this is just more steps taken to his emasculation.

I say the latter because Sokka never actually does get to demonstrate his men-ness to his father: Aang arrives with the news that Katara is in trouble. Sorry, Sokka. You’ll never be able to prove that you are a man. That’s just how cruel this show is. To men, anyway.

His contribution to the plot twindles after that. He has a funny moment with Ty Lee when he dodges all of her blows and it looks like they’re dancing. That’s about it, and that’s enough for me.

Iroh

You really do have to feel for Iroh in these episodes. He thinks he’s finally gotten through to Zuko, and that together they can start anew in Ba Sing Se making delicious tea for everyone.

And then Azula just has to come and ruin it for everyone. (I’ll get to her soon enough.) She tricks him into thinking the Earth King has invited him for tea, and nearly has him cornered. Thankfully, Iroh’s a crafty one and in purely Iroh fashion, escapes.

Unfortunately, Zuko doesn’t come with him thanks to the return of his pride. (I’ll get to him, too.) What’s funny is that Iroh’s expression is not so much sadness or grief and more annoyance, as if to say, “Not again!”

Desperate, he actually goes to Aang, Sokka, and Toph for help in rescuing Zuko and Katara—who’s also been captured, hench why Aang didn’t complete his Avatar State mastery. Naturally, they’re pretty reluctant—helping Zuko is like suicide—but Iroh does get them to help out.

Probably the most intriguing part of Iroh’s part of the story is his talk with Aang as they go deep underground to find the catacombs that have Zuko and Katara in them. Learning from Toph that Iroh gives good advice, Aang tells him his dilemma as the Avatar: instead of mastering the Avatar State, he pulled out to still be with the one he loved. Iroh’s answer is pretty interesting: “Perfection and power are overrated. I think you were very wise to choose happiness and love.” Then when Aang wonders if he’d be powerful enough without the Avatar State to save the world, this is Iroh’s response:

Iroh: I don’t know the answer. Sometimes life is like this dark tunnel. You can’t always see the light at the end of the tunnel, but if you just keep moving… (They find the catacombs.) You will come to a better place.

What’s most interesting about this talk is that, for the first time, Iroh is nearly one-hundred percent wrong. By encouraging Aang to abandon reaching his full potential as the Avatar, he inadvertently encourages Aang’s natural tendency to run away from all his problems. And while the metaphor about the light and the tunnel is poetic and quaint, that “better place” just happens to be the place where Aang nearly loses his life precisely because he didn’t master the Avatar State when he should have.

Iroh, you fucked up.

Now, when Aang gets hit, Iroh does hold the Dai Li off long enough for he and Katara to escape, and then allowing himself to be captured. Thanks, man.

Azula

If anyone deserves full cred points for being on their game in these episodes, it’s Azula. The way she pretty much single-handedly takes over Ba Sing Se is nothing short of fascinating.

Of course, it goes without saying that luck played a large part in her takeover. She was lucky that she just happened to run upon the Kyoshi Warriors earlier and stole their clothes. She was lucky that the Earth King spilled the beans about the plan to invade the Fire Nation on a solar eclipse. She was lucky that Katara accidentally told them that Zuko and Iroh were in Ba Sing Se. She was lucky that the Dai Li were such an impressionable bunch that they even turned on Long Feng when he went to take back control. She was lucky that Zuko caved in and fought on her side in the end. (OK, maybe that last one was, while disappointing, probably inevitable.) And she was very lucky to have struck Aang while he was in the Avatar State.

In fact, that last one is probably one of the most shocking moments in the series. Aang finally gets his priorities straight and masters the Avatar State, but it’s too late. Given that Azula positioned herself in the perfect spot to shoot him in the back, one wonders: does she know that the Avatar is best killed in the Avatar State? Or did someone tell her afterwards?

"Uh...yeah! I knew that all along! Sure did..."

Of course, luck, as best defined by my father as “preparation plus opportunity,” is only half of Azula’s success. If she wasn’t already the psychotic, confidence, fear-inducing leader she is, it wouldn’t matter how lucky she got at all. Her greatest attribute is being able to use every little thing she knows to her advantage. She knows human nature well enough to not even be surprised when her plans turn out well.

For example, there is the scene where Mai and Ty Lee are outside of the palace talking very loudly about how they are actually Fire Nation citizens disguised as Kyoshi Warriors. Loud enough for a few Dai Li agents nearby to overhear this, and that they need the Avatar. Naturally, the Dai Li scamper off like giddy schoolgirls to tell on them.

And this is just what Azula wanted. She knows that Long Feng wants to bargain with her: he reconquers Ba Sing Se, and he’ll give her the Avatar.

Long Feng never actually follows up on that deal because: 1) he wasn’t going to anyway; and 2) he couldn’t have if he wanted to. His attempt to double cross Azula is an embarrassing failure. His Dai Li agents are no longer on his side, but on the side of the clearly more powerful and more persuasive Azula.

By the end of the Finale, Azula is clearly the winner.

Before moving on, I have to ask: what exactly is going on between her and Ty Lee? She takes every opportunity to tell Azula how much she admires her confidence and her plans. I refuse to believe this is just clumsy writing: either Ty Lee is forcibly brown nosing to save her own life or her admiration is more like attraction. Ben Franklin once said: “Admiration is the daughter of ignorance.”

Yeah, that's about right.

Zuko

It goes without saying that Zuko has yet another emotional crisis, but for most of the finale, it’s a little different: this time he actually tries to change for the better and get used to his new life as a refugee, instead of whining about how he deserves his old life of royalty back.

The keyword is “tries.” He can just tell that Zuko is not entirely comfortable with this new identity he’s establishing for himself. There’s just something about voice actor Dante Basco’s performance that subtly burns with insincerity. Even as he’s congratulating his uncle on the success of his new tea shop, he just seems to be faking it.

I’m sure even Iroh picks up on this, but he most likely appreciates the effort. After all the kid’s been through so much and he’s finally making a conscious decision to make the most of what he has. That’s pretty nice.

And then Azula ruins it when she tries to ambush them in the Earth King’s palace. Iroh escapes, but Zuko—suddenly regaining those prideful instincts he attempted to reject—stays behind because “I’m tired of running! It’s about time I faced Azula!”

Uh huh.

Zuko, you fucked up.

But wait: he’s placed in the same catacombs as Katara—who was captured earlier by ATM when she thought they were Kyoshi Warriors—and has to face her brutal onslaught of verbal abuse. Poor kid.

However, he gets her to lighten up when he learns that have something in common: neither of them has a mother thanks to the Fire Nation.

"You lost your mother, too, huh?"

"Yep."

"..."

"Wanna start a rock n roll band?"

Unfortunately, before they can bond any further, Aang and Iroh arrive to rescue them. And before Iroh can tell him how much he’s matured as a human being for letting Aang and Katara get away, Azula arrives to screw things up even more. She promises Zuko that by helping her, he’ll his life of royalty back, and also, more importantly, his father’s love back. What will he do?

Join Azula, unfortunately, because apparently he’s learned nothing after all this time.

Zuko, you really fucked up.

Aang

And so we finally get to everyone’s favorite Airbender—well, the only Airbender, but he knows that—and his attempt to master the Avatar State with the help of Guru Pathik.

Aside from the problems I said I had with this bit, the entire subplot involving chakra is wonderful. In fact, it might just be my favorite part of the entire finale. Not to doubt DiMartino and Konietzko and company’s research, but I have no way of knowing if this chakra business is actually accurate to Eastern philosophy. Whether it is or not, it’s incredibly marvelous stuff, especially for a kids’ show (when is the last time a kids’ show actually promoted self-improvement rather than how to shoot everyone else down?).

I won’t delve too much into every stage of the chakra unblocking (this review is already too long as it is), but suffice it to say that going through them along with Aang is an enlightening experience. Every time I watch it, I try to keep up with Aang and go through what I’m personally afraid of, ashamed of, in grief over, etc. Guru Pathik is right: it is an intense experience.

But push on Aang does, as he comes to terms with the fact that he is the Avatar, he has made mistakes in the past, and that his love for Katara is a very positive factor in his life.

That is, until we get to the final chakra, in which all Earthly attachments—including love—must be abandoned. Aang is reasonably confused and upset about this, but in the interest of saving the world, he “tries.” And fails. And so he’s back to running away from the problem instead of resolving it.

Aang, you’re fucking up.

This really comes back to bite him in the ass during the last-act action sequence in “Crossroads” (“Guru” didn’t have a last-act action sequence, strangely enough). This is, in my opinion, the best last-act sequence in the series. Every blow, every injury, every burn, every twist, etc. means something, and it makes for an intensely emotional experience, especially as Aang gets his ass kicked.

By the time he and Katara are outnumbered by Zuko, Azula, and the Dai Li, Aang finally realizes that he’ll have to give up Katara in order to achieve the Avatar State. Sorry, Katara.

And we all know what happens next: Aang goes into the Avatar State and promptly gets shot in the back with lightning by Azula. Whoops.

Aang, you really, really fucked up.

Katara

Yes, in my mind, Katara is the most significant player in the events of the Book Two finale. Why? Because she pretty is the reason nearly everything goes wrong. Azula wouldn’t have known Zuko and Iroh were in Ba Sing Se if it weren’t for her. Aang would have already mastered the Avatar State if it weren’t for her. And then she has the nerve to tell Zuko what a horrible person he is! How dare you!

OK, I’m blowing this way out of proportion. After all, she did lighten up when she learned Zuko lost his mother, too. And she did save Aang’s life with the water from the Spirit Oasis. The same water she would have used earlier to potentially rid Zuko of his scar forever.

She’s also responsible for the most emotional part of the finale. Remember, I don’t care that much for Aang in and of himself, so when he got stuck by lightning, I was shocked, but not really moved. No, it’s when Katara saves him with the water from the Spirit Oasis that gets me. The sheer mixture of joy and relief on Katara’s face when Aang is resurrected never fails to bring me to tears.

In Conclusion

What a bittersweet ending. What a brilliant cliffhanger. What a perfect way to end Book Two.

Did I forget to mention that these are two of the best looking episodes in the series? The visuals are magnificent. DiMartino and Konietzko and company really spared no expense when it came to the production of this finale, and it really helps: could these episodes have been as powerful if they weren’t also well made?

It’s hard to say, but it does go without saying that if these episodes weren’t as well-written as they were, those beautiful visuals wouldn’t have been worth a crap. Speculations like this don’t matter; it’s the experience of watching the episodes that matters. Whether these episodes left you exhausted, depressed, angry, enlightened, or a mixture of all four and more, there’s no denying that “The Guru” and “The Crossroads of Destiny” are brilliant works of art. I would gladly sit through ten “Great Divide’s” for more episodes like these two.

With a review this long, why not indulge further by shamelessly promoting my favorite band Ween and the first song from their debut album (since it goes so well with what we’ve discussed).

All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.


Chapter Thirty-Eight: “The Earth King”

13

(Rating Out of 15)

I realize that not every episode is created equal, so as much as I try to give each episode a fair and detailed review, some really don’t require one. Concerning “The Earth King,” I could probably just say, “This is a great episode, and if you’ve read my past reviews, you’ll know exactly why,” and be done with it, seeing as the people likely to read this review have read the previous ones and know my critical standards. By the same token, they’ll probably expect the usual fair and detailed review, so why change now?

All right. “The Earth King” is a great episode, and if you’ve read my previous reviews, you’ll probably have a good idea as to why. This episode does almost everything right, and is never offensive nor boring. And it flies by pretty fast. Maybe too fast. The episode shows the kids, having finally reunited with Appa, flying straight to the Earth King’s palace in order to finally give him that information from “The Library” on how they can end the war with the Fire Nation. Of course, they have to convince him that Long Feng, his adviser, is the leader of the conspiracy to cover up the war, and that won’t be too easy.

That’s the whole episode in a nutshell. Do the kids succeed? No shit. Is the Earth King a nice but easily susceptible guy? Yes, and thanks to the voice acting of Phil “Marvin” LaMarr, he’s a believable character as well: his love for large animals such as his pet bear Bosco is well utilized when he takes an interest in flying Appa. Are there any surprises in the plot at all? Not really, it’s fairly straightforward.

If there’s anything unique about this episode, it’s that the last-act action sequence occurs at the beginning of the episode and not in the end. (So technically it’s not a last-act action sequence, but since it’s a standard component of the Avatar formula, it’ll keep its full name.) The kids fight their way into the Earth King’s palace, taking down probably hundreds of guards and Earthbenders. I’ll admit, I wasn’t very thrilled this time around like I was with certain other big action sequences (the ones in “Avatar Roku: Winter Solstice, Part Two” immediately come to mind), but it’s still a cool scene. I’d say it’s more or less like a harmless jam session where Aang, Katara, and Toph get to show off their wicked Bending abilities for its own sake. Not emotionally investing, but often amusing to witness.

And while we’re using musical analogies, here’s the best way I can describe this episode: “The Earth King” is to Avatar: the Last Airbender as A Hard Day’s Night (the album, not the movie) is to the Beatles’ entire discography. Both of these works show the creators in top form as they breeze through material that does absolutely nothing to highlight what makes them such geniuses in the first place. There’s nothing going on beneath the surface beyond the fact that these are just perfectly crafted products with little of the personality that used to make them so interesting.

And yet still better than everything else.

A large part of the Beatles’ allure is that, with each subsequent album, you could chart their development as songwriters, musicians, and human beings. It’s pretty difficult to do this with any other bands like, say, the Rolling Stones, who simply got older, or Led Zeppelin, who somehow got dumber with each release. In the same way, each episode of Avatar brings us closer to the characters and shows how they evolve as individuals throughout the course of the series, which almost never happens in a kids’ show. “The Earth King” simply doesn’t provide that sort of interest like previous episodes (even relatively lightweight ones like “The Chase”) did.

Not that the episode is completely devoid of character moments. At the end of the episode after all the plot business is taken care of, Katara and Sokka become very excited to learn that their father, Hakoda, is harbored close by with other members of the Southern Water Tribe. Unfortunately, only one sibling can go see him because someone has to stay and look after the Earth King. Sokka volunteers to stay, but Katara kindly allows him to go since it means more to him—if only a little bit—than it does to her.

On top of that, we do have a Zuko side story that is, as always, the most interesting part of the episode. And it’s basically the kid having a fever because he is at war with himself. Letting Appa go free really did a number on him, and he goes through a metamorphosis into a new person. That’s how Iroh describes it anyway.

Despite how interesting it is, even this bit feels routine. Of course Zuko is having yet another emotional crisis: that’s what he does. Perhaps the only new thing about it is that his nightmares produce some genuinely creepy imagery.

Of course, there could be a very good reason this episode is so faceless: it is all setup for the big Book Two finale, where the real major plot points and, most importantly, the real emotionality and character interest lies. This was probably a deliberate attempt by DiMartino and Konietzko and company to get the audience’s guard down for a moment and then prep them up for when the shit gets real.

Hell, the episode ends on yet another downer note. Well…not necessarily a downer, but definitely one of dread. And how could it not? Especially after Sokka’s brilliantly idiotic line: “Everything’s gonna work out perfectly, from now on and forever.” Uh huh.

Soon after, Toph is tricked into meeting up with her mother, only to be captured by the odd couple.

And who should show up by ATM, disguised as the Kyoshi Warriors? WHAT?! What happened to Suki and the real Kyoshi Warriors? What’s going to happen next?! Oh no!

Yeah, “The Earth King” is a lot like “The Waterbending Master” in the sense that it serves as a prologue for the big two-parter finale. Only “The Waterbending Master” combined its setup with really neat character development. At this point, I guess DiMartino and Konietzko and company decided they needed a break from all that heavy lifting of previous episodes. I suppose they deserved it, especially since the finale would live up to and far exceed our expectations. Thanks, guys!

P.S. “The Earth King” was written by John “JOB” O’Bryan. Maybe that’s why I found so much to complain about in an otherwise great episode. Poor JOB…

Pictured: NOT John O’Bryan

All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.


Chapter Thirty-Seven: “Lake Laogai”

12

(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.

VERY 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?

"Watch it, buddy!"

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.

Do ya?

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.


Chapter Thirty-Six: “Appa’s Lost Days”

7

(Rating Out of 15)

The downside to having so many good-to-great episodes in a row is that when a truly bad one comes along it’s an absolute chore to sit through. “Appa’s Lost Days” could have been a lot worse, but that’s faint praise. The episode primarily answers the question: where was Appa all this time? It’s not a good sign when, by the end of the episode, you’re left wondering if you really wanted that question answered.

Maybe the strangest thing about the episode is that, despite how bad the episode is, the events that occur in and of themselves are actually quite interesting.

Appa goes through Hell in so many ways. After being kidnapped by the Sandbenders, he’s sold to a couple of merchants, who in turn sell him to a circus. In this circus, the ringmaster treats him like shit, constantly terrorizing Appa with fire when he is disobedient. (I don’t remember if Appa was afraid of fire before this episode, but it’s used effectively enough here.)

Appa escapes the torment and degradation of the circus and…

Hmm…what happens next?

I think he has a flashback to when he and Aang first became friends. According to the script’s heavy-handed treatment, a bond between a bison and an Airbender is forever, unlike bonds with humans, which are bound to fall apart thanks to one or both persons not being willing to compromise. But what do animals know about compromise?

Life is NOT this simple.

Anyway, after that…

Ah, yes: Appa goes back to the crater where the library was, but of course they kids aren’t there. Then we get a lame reprise of the last episode’s final shot as Appa rests in the crater where his loved ones were. I call it lame because: 1) the episode does little to invest me in Appa’s actions; and 2) it doesn’t take place on an overcast day, so naturally I don’t care.

And then…Appa goes into the buzzard-wasp nest and nearly gets pecked and stung to death.

After that…I think he gets into a fight with a wild boar and somehow gets a bunch of thorns in him. Next he…

By now you’ve probably picked up on what the main problem with this episode is: it’s BORING and UNMEMORABLE. I literally have to strain to remember a single event from this episode, something that has never occurred with any other episode of Avatar: the Last Airbender thus far (not even “The Great Divide,” the worst episode of the series, boasts such a high boredom rate).

Why so boring? Well, that has a lot to do with the second main problem, which is Appa himself. It doesn’t matter how much emotional and physical abuse this flying bison has to endure throughout the course of this episode. Appa simply cannot carry an entire episode all by himself. He lacks the personality and capacity for emotional expression that someone like Momo has in spades. Appa is not a strong individual; he constantly needs the actions of those around him to give his existence color.

That explains why the best moments in the episode are the ones that don’t have to do exclusively with Appa. One of the flashback sequences is actually Aang’s, as he dreams of his first meeting with Appa and how he promised they’d always be together. This is a genuinely touching moment, and one that nearly convinced me that Appa was more than just a means of transportation.

The scenes near the end with Guru Pathik are wonderful only because the Guru is such an interesting character. Thankfully, we’ll be seeing more of him in the two-part season finale.

It’s also nice to finally know how Appa ended up in Ba Sing Se and then disappeared again to the dismay of Aang and friends. Long Feng, you bastard!

Everything else is just not very fun to watch. The scenes of Appa’s time in the circus are too heavy-handed and predictable. Of course the ringmaster is an animal abusing asshole, and of course he gets his comeuppance (although by the way Appa slapped him with his tail, I would think the ringmaster had been killed).

Appa’s encounter with Suki and the Kyoshi Warriors starts off well enough, but is ruined by the appearance of ATM. Their appearance wouldn’t be so bad if Mai and Ty Lee didn’t have two of the absolute worst lines you’ll ever have to suffer in this series. As they attack the Kyoshi Warriors, Mai says, “You’re so colorful it’s making me nauseous.” Pretty lame, but much worse is Ty Lee’s, “You’re not prettier than we are!” What a pathetic attempt at character development.*

And finally, every scene with Appa alone is just unbearable. Is there any correlation between a character’s size and his entertainment value? (That is, does Momo’s tiny size give him the upperhand in personality over lumbering giants like Appa? Who knows.)

The third major problem with this episode is that it’s absolutely necessary to the series. Unlike “The Great Divide,” which could be dismissed as an unfortunate but ultimately non-lethal detour, “Appa’s Lost Days” contains plot points that are integral to the continuation of the series. That means when you go back to re-watch the series, you can’t just skip right over “Appa’s Lost Days” like you can with “The Great Divide.” (And this is not the first time this has happened: “The King of Omashu” and “Return to Omashu” were the same way.)

Remember this guy: he's important later.

So “Appa’s Lost Days” is the worst episode in Book Two. At least it won a Genesis Award from the Humane Society of the United States for its depiction of animal abuse. This episode will always be remembered for showing how cruel the world can be to animals and how cruel a show can be to its audience.

*There is a single bit of animation involving Ty Lee that not only slyly develops her character, but nearly makes the entire episode worth it. Azula asks the Kyoshi Warriors, “Who are you, the Avatar’s fan girls?” For a split second, Ty Lee has one of the most intriguing facial expressions she’s ever had. This was probably accidentally—I’m sure she was supposed to honestly be puzzled by this pun—but the way it is in the show works so much better. To me, she appears to look directly at the audience with an expression that says, “Wow, that is one of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard, but I shouldn’t say that. But I have to say something: Azula probably expects me to laugh at it. If I don’t, she’ll think I’m no longer on her side and will probably kill me for it! Quick: play dumb like usual and suck up to her so she’ll continue to feel secure and superior!” And so he compliments Azula on her silly little pun.

That’s just my interpretation, of course, but I’d rather take hints of depth than be stuck with a shallow character.

All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.


Chapter Thirty-Five: “The Tales of Ba Sing Se”

11

(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.

What does matter is that Fragile is an awesome album.

Now for the individual segments:

Rating: 10

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.

Ew.

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.

Rating: 13

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.

Yeah, I'll get to that in a moment.

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.

Rating: 10

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.

That's a tiger-armadillo. No, I'm not kidding.

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.

Rating: 7

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.

Ever.

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.)

Strangely enough, Plant and De Sena...

...look kind of alike. Coincidence?

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!

Rating: 13

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.

"Scars are soooooooooo sexy."

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!

Rating: 14

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.


Chapter Thirty-Four: “City of Walls and Secrets”

13

(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.

"We get it! You're evil, or something. NOW STOP IT!"

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.

Like haiku-rap battles...?

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.

He's adorable, though, so I don't mind too much.

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.”

Everyone knows that.

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.