“Tales Of Ba Sing Se” (season 2, episode 15; originally aired 9/29/2006)/“Appa’s Lost Days” (season 2, episode 16; originally aired 10/12/2006)
Up until now, the Avatar story has moved forward in linear time. Sure, a few episodes have included flashbacks or incursions into the spirit world, but for the most part, the story has unfolded like a vector pointing towards Aang’s predestined battle with the Fire Lord. It is a testament to the strength of this show that these two episodes can stop that trajectory, one to take a breath of air and one to unravel and re-tell the events of the last few episodes through the eyes of Appa, and yet both add extra poignancy and urgency to the story. “Tales Of Ba Sing Se” is a series of short vignettes (each written by a member of the Avatar team who is not on the regular writing staff) in which almost all of the major characters have a moment on which the fate of the world is not resting. Each gets to step outside of his or her comfort zone, and each of these relatively low-stakes encounters deepens our understanding of the character. “Appa’s Lost Days,” however, is a powerful reminder of the missing element in all of the episodes since Appa was stolen. The world is cruel to animals, even if they have a personality, magic powers, and an unbreakable bond with the most powerful human being alive.
“Tales Of Ba Sing Se” starts with “The Tale Of Toph And Katara,” in which the two female members of the Aang Gang bond over a visit to the spa and a little scuffle with some rude rich girls. The vignette opens on a scene of morning preparation: Aang shaving his head, Sokka shaving his nascent mustache, and Katara fixing her water tribe loops. Toph, however, sleeps late and makes no attempt to tame her hair or clean the dirt off. Katara suggests that they have a girls’ day out, and Toph reluctantly agrees. Outside the Fancy Lady Day Spa (a name that took me several views to realize wasn’t just a generic description), Katara is enthusiastic about the pampering that they are about to receive. The girls have a pedicure, which is difficult for a girl who sees with her feet, a mud bath, and finally a sauna. They leave the day spa with considerable makeup on their faces. While crossing a bridge, some mean rich older girls mock Toph, who drops them in the river while Katara sweeps them downstream. Leaving aside the question of whether these girls would engage in bullying a blind girl in the first place, the lesson here is clear: don’t mess with powerful benders. Afterwards, Toph tells Katara that she doesn’t worry about appearances, but her tone telegraphs that she was quite hurt by the mean girls. Katara, who more often than not clashes with Toph, tells her that she admires the younger girl’s strength. Moreover, she says, Toph is pretty. Toph likes that. She may be an extremely powerful earthbender with a tough exterior, but she is also, after all, a 12-year-old girl. I like that the show chose to show her in a little moment of vulnerability. I do not like that Katara is mostly an accessory to this story, but her presence here means that she does not get a story of her own. I adore the character of Toph and think that I understand her complexity more after seeing this short story, but the character of Katara is sometimes a mystery to me, and I think that a vignette taking Katara out of her own comfort zone would have been illuminating.
Iroh is the subject of the next vignette, which is a lovely piece of storytelling. The story starts with Iroh buying a picnic basket. I like how the seller sees Iroh and thinks “romantic picnic.” Iroh pleasantly sets the man straight before sliding a nearby moonflower out of the sun, telling the man that it needs partial shade. It blooms immediately, like almost everything else that comes into contact with Iroh. Shortly after, he sees a child crying in the street. Picking up a pipa (that’s a Chinese lute, y’all) from a nearby shop, Iroh wanders over, singing a song about a soldier boy to calm the child. Later, Iroh watches kids playing soccer with earthbending. They break a window, and Iroh advises them to admit their mistake and restore their honor. However, the guy who appears in the window is both huge and mean, so Iroh quickly amends his advice and tells the kids to run away. He runs, too, right into a dark alley. While he catches his breath, the guy with the big sword from the last episode tries to mug him with a crooked knife. Instead of being worried, Iroh shows him how his poor stance makes it easy to knock him down and take his weapon. Then Iroh gives him the knife back and says that the man doesn’t look like the criminal type. They wind up sharing tea and Iroh convinces the man to try his hand at being a masseur. After helping people all day in his own way, Iroh arrives at sunset before a tree that is the spitting image of the tree from his flashback in “Bitter Work.” This part is tough. Iroh sets out his picnic, and then he places against the tree a picture of Lu Ten, his son who died during the war. He lights incense, and says, softly, “Happy birthday, my son. If only I could have helped you.” He repeats the song that he earlier sang for the crying child, but this time his voice is thick with emotion: “Leaves from the vine/falling so slow/like fragile, tiny shells/drifting in the foam/little soldier boy/come marching home/brave soldier boy/comes marching home.” He can barely get out the final words before he breaks down crying. It is an amazing performance, and I have never gotten through it without weeping like a baby. Adding another level to the pathos, the screen flashes the words “in honor of Mako.” Mako Iwamatsu, the actor who voiced Iroh through the first and second seasons, passed away while the second season was in production, and in some way this vignette turns into a partial eulogy for himself.
While “The Tale Of Aang” is the slightest section in this fairly amazing episode, it must be said that Aang gets plenty of attention on this show. Aang’s feelings on animals and helping others are not exactly mysteries, and this vignette does not add a new dimension to his character. The plot is that Aang comes across a neglected zoo and decides to move the animals to a new location outside of the inner wall. The scenes of animals running amok are fun, and this is the last chance to see the poor, beleaguered cabbage merchant during the show, but in retrospect, this vignette just strikes me as problematic. First off, if the zoo is outside of the inner walls and the guards are unwilling to open the inner walls, how will people come to the zoo on a day when the Avatar hasn’t caused the gates to be opened? And what happens to the farm land that Aang swiped for the zoo? Won’t there be a tenant farmer out of work now?
“The Tale Of Sokka,” written by ace director Lauren MacMullen, is the definitive Sokka moment. Yes, he is an incredible strategist and often entertainingly goofy, but my mental image of Sokka involves him standing on a stage, effortlessly spouting haiku, in an attempt to impress girls. This is the whole of the plot: Sokka is wandering around the city when his eye catches a roomful of pretty girls listening to poetry. An accidental kick in the rear from a horse-chicken-thing throws him into the room, where he gets into a haiku poetry slam with the matron. After his success makes him so cocky that he tosses in an extra syllable, a rather hilariously tough poetry bouncer tosses him out. It’s like one of the Canterbury Tales with music by Digital Underground. Here’s the poetry:
I am so sorry.
Something struck me in the rear.
I just wound up here.
Five, seven, then five
syllables mark a haiku,
They call me Sokka
That is, in the water tribe.
I am not an oaf.
in the spring he climbs tree tops,
and thinks himself tall.
You think you’re so smart
with your fancy little words.
This is not so hard.
Whole seasons are spent
mastering the form, the style.
None calls it easy.
I calls it easy!
Like I paddle my canoe,
I’ll paddle yours, too.
There’s nuts and there’s fruits.
In the Fall the clean plum drops,
always to be squashed.
Squish squash sling that slang,
I’m always right back atcha
like my boomerang.
That’s right, I’m Sokka,
it’s pronounced with an okka.
Young ladies, I rocked ya.
Ah, that’s one too many syllables there, bub.
Zuko’s story is about a date with a girl named Jin who has a crush on him. Like Sokka’s story, it is mostly a comedy, but this one is of the romantic variety. Romantic comedies require a character to lie poorly and make a fool of himself or herself. In this case, Zuko makes up a story about having been in the circus and then proves himself completely unable to juggle. In the best shot of the story, Jin pulls Zuko down a dark alley towards her favorite place in the city and the simulated camerawork is astonishing, edited to seem handheld and caught up in the rush of young love and bursting hormones. When they arrive at Jin’s fountain, though, it is unlit, but Zuko can actually do something amazing by lighting all of the lights. Unfortunately, he can only do this when no one is watching. It’s impressive to Jin, though, and she kisses him, although not without more awkwardness. Zuko breaks off, though, and runs home. Iroh, who is looking a bit worried, tries to ask him casually, “How was your night, Prince Zuko?,” the honorific adding a little something that is hard to identify. Zuko slams his door, but opens it just enough to admit that he had a nice time. Man, that kid is going to blow up from sexual frustration.
The last tale features Momo in a precursor to the next episode. Centering the story around a nonspeaking animal is an interesting strategy, and as in the next episode, it works quite well with an effect not unlike silent film at times. As it begins, Momo is dreaming of flying to an enormous fruit tree with Appa. Dream-Appa growls as lightning wakes Momo. He leaps into Sokka’s bag and emerges with Appa fur stuck to his arm. Tying the fur around his wrist, he heads out the window to investigate an Appa-like shadow. It is just a cloud, though, and the next apparition is only the top of a tree. Momo flies into town, where three wild cats attack him. As he tries to escape, a street musician pops a hat on his head, and Momo dances with monkeys to keep the cats at bay. It is not unlike the speech scene in The 39 Steps. The cats make another jump at him, but all four animals are caught and caged. While their captor haggles with a butcher, Momo escapes. Looking back at the cats, he takes pity on them and frees them, too. As the sun sets, the cats cuddle with Momo, until one snatches the fur from his wrist. Momo chases them to a courtyard where a muddy patch has a footprint that is unmistakeably Appa’s.
With that, we jump, as we must, headlong into the next episode, which starts four weeks ago, with the sandbenders capturing Appa. This battle, which is shown from Appa’s perspective in this episode, is far more intense than the one in “The Library,” which was from Toph’s perspective. The little sandprince is even more of a prick than the previous episodes indicated. Anyway, as you remember, the sandbenders capture Appa after a terrible struggle and spirit him away into the desert. After a while, they stop and ransack the saddle, tossing various treasures out to be left in the desert, including Sokka’s jawbone-sword-club. While they are doing this, Appa airbends one of their sandships into a nearby dune, where it will be found by the Aang Gang in “The Desert.” The snotty little sandprince decides to sell Appa to some beetle-headed merchants. Sure enough, the merchants have hats shaped like beetles. As soon as cash is exchanged, however, Appa, who is tied to a sort of skiff, hears Aang blowing his whistle from “The Desert” and lifts himself up into the air. The merchants quickly drug him with a blowgun and as he loses consciousness, he sees Aang’s mushroom cloud of frustration in the distance. Although Appa does not seem to understand the words, the merchants are discussing selling him for parts.
He awakens in a cage in the Fire Nation circus that Ty Lee left back at the beginning of the season. A trainer approaches, using kind words at first, but he promises to break Appa. First he refuses to feed Appa, but when he catches the bison using airbending to feed himself, he uses fire to scare Appa in submission. Inspired by a little boy who helps him and calls him “buddy,” Appa escapes the circus at the first opportunity, but not before losing his dignity with a silly costume and a reluctant acquiesence to fly through flaming hoops. He stops to punt the cruel trainer through a tent wall, which is quite satisfying.
After he leaves the circus, he returns to the site of the library, now only a depression in the ground. He flies through the desert, hungry and tired, and winds up in the vulture-bee hive. They chase him, but he knocks them down with his airbending. Finally escaping the desert, he takes shelter in a barn and falls asleep. He dreams of his childhood and his mother. Then young air nomads are choosing their sky bison. Aang is among them, taking an apple and giving it to Appa. Aang is having the same dream out on the Serpent’s Pass. Appa is suddenly awakened by a terrified farmer and his wife, who is carrying a torch. Still afraid of fire, Appa rears and pushes his way through the barn roof to escape. Iroh, on board the ferry to Ba Sing Se, sees him fly over, but when he accidentally disturbs Zuko, he lies about it.
Appa finds an abandoned structure to shelter in, but he is rushed by a boarcupine, one of my favorite chimeras yet. They have a huge battle in which Appa is struck by the boar’s quills over and over again, but the bison eventually rears up and uses its forelegs to toss the boar far away. Several days pass as Appa sleeps, bloody, dirty, and still chained. Then the Kyoshi Warriors are foraging for berries nearby when Suki finds some of his fur and evidence of the battle with the boar. Suki arrives with fruit, but Appa is mistrustful of people now. Suki returns with the rest of the Kyoshi Warriors, one of whom helpfully tells us that it has only been a few days since Suki saw the Avatar. She is the exposition warrior, and we are grateful for her. When Suki mentions Aang to Appa, the bison calms down and allows the Kyoshi Warriors to clean and mend him.
As soon as they have Appa back to his former glory, however, Azula and Ozai’s Angels ride up on their creepy lizards. They make short work of the Kyoshi Warriors. Appa starts to fly off, but then returns to protect Suki. Suki, worried that Azula would capture Appa, waves a burning branch to chase him off. The scene ends on a great anime-style splash screen as Suki and Azula race towards each other in the heat of battle. Appa flies through the night, at one point flying over the Southern Water Tribe navy. Sokka and Katara’s father looks up at him, obviously fearing the worst. Appa ends up at the Eastern Air Temple, which has fallen into as much disrepair as most of the other air temples. Appa is overjoyed when he spots a bald figure meditating, but after rushing over and licking the person, he is angry to realize that this is not Aang. The man introduces himself as Guru Pathik, but Appa growls at him when he tries to get up. After some gaining the bison’s trust, Pathik ties a note to Appa’s horn for Aang and then shows Appa where Aang is with a magic connection-illuminating touch not unlike the one that Aang used to find Appa in “The Swamp.”
Appa flies into Ba Sing Se, watched by members of the Dai Li and, elsewhere, the three cats from “The Tale Of Momo.” Appa hears a bison whistle, but the show establishes that it is not Aang who is blowing it. Appa flies down into an alley, where Long Feng appears and flips the whole street over to capture the bison. All that is left is the muddy footprint that Momo found in the previous episode.
“Appa’s Lost Days” is a tough watch for the casual cruelty that Appa experiences, but it is a necessary component of the show. Appa’s absence has been looming over the show for several episodes now, and this episode shows that the Aang Gang has been looking in entirely the wrong place. Aang felt sure that Appa was in the city, but he was not correct. In fact, by looking for Appa in Ba Sing Se, the Aang Gang has allowed Long Feng to capture the bison. Furthermore, Appa’s misadventures led directly to the capture of the Kyoshi Warriors, which as we shall see, will be one of the most significant events of the war. If Aang had known to go to the Eastern Air Temple, most of these events could have been avoided. However, it is important for a hero to make mistakes, even small mistakes with huge consequences. The loss of Appa affected Aang’s judgment more that even he realized.
- Sorry that I did not get this posted last week. It was a huge undertaking, but I did not want to half-ass it.
- “You’ve got a little dirt on your… everywhere, actually.”
- “One of the good things about being blind is that I don’t have to waste my time worrying about appearances. I don’t care what I look like. I’m not looking for anyone’s approval. I know who I am.”
- “While it is always best to believe in oneself, a little help from others can be a great blessing.”
- Poodle monkey. Rabbiroo. Babboon-cow? Vulture lion. Jackalope. Boarcupine.
- “Who are you, the Avatar’s fan girls?” “Oh, I get it! Good one, Azula.”
- “Don’t you know fans just make flames stronger?”