Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Avatar: The Last Airbender: “City Of Walls And Secrets”

Illustration for article titled Avatar: The Last Airbender: “City Of Walls And Secrets”

“City Of Walls And Secrets” (book 2, chapter 14; originally aired Sept. 22, 2006)

After the more straightforward action of the last two episodes, we turn now to the intrigue that will dominate the rest of this season as the Aang Gang finally enter Ba Sing Se. Each show opens with a map of the Avatar world, in which Ba Sing Se is clearly marked, an enormous eye of outer and inner walls that dominates the Northeast portion of the Earth Kingdom. It is the only real city in the world of Avatar. It is no accident that the massive outer walls resemble The Great Wall Of China. Inside the almost-as-massive inner walls is a city that resembles Beijing, with hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of residents crowded into walled-off rings based on social and economic standing. From the sheer size of the city, it would appear that the vast majority of people in the Avatar world are residents of Ba Sing Se. And yet we have never met one before.

“City Of Walls And Secrets” has a lot of points to cover, but it manages to ground viewers in the richly imagined world of the city and to introduce the major themes of the next arc with a deft touch. It never feels hurried. Besides this episode, the team of writer Tim Hedrick and director Lauren McMullen collaborated on “The Deserter,” “The Desert,” and the upcoming “Lake Laogai,” with all four being pretty great episodes. This and “The Desert” are both stunners, really. I’ve mentioned more than once that McMullen is the best director on this show, and the visual flair she brings to each she contributes to its excellence. Hedrick’s scripts are also quite worthy, with each story packing a lot of information without losing any of the heart, humor, or zip that mark the best episodes.

We open with a shot of the amazingly creative earthbender-run monorail carrying the Aang Gang towards the inner wall of the city. That’s one of the little touches unmentioned by any character that seems so well-conceived that it sort of blows my mind. With no concept of the scale of the city, Aang, Katara, and Sokka believe that they will find Appa quickly. However, as soon as they pass the inner wall, they realize that Ba Sing Se is several orders of magnitude greater than anything they’ve ever seen before. Toph has been in the city before (a fact that I do wish they had foreshadowed a bit) and hates it passionately. The Aang Gang is immediately apprehended by one Joo Dee, a smiling lady who introduces herself as their host and then proceeds to ignore their reasons for being there.

She leads the Aang Gang on a tour of the city, starting in the lowest ring, where the poorest citizens live. There is another massive wall separating the lowest ring from the next one. When Katara asks about it, Joo Dee says, “Oh, Ba Sing Se has many walls. There are the ones outside protecting us, and the ones inside that help maintain order.” She goes on to describe the lowest ring as “quaint and lively” just as the gang sees a guy with an enormous sword mugging another man. Remember that guy. We’ll see him again next week. Meanwhile, two of the lowest rungs’ newest arrivals are carrying a vase of flowers back to their new place. Uncle Iroh has found jobs, but Zuko feels that the city is a prison that he wants to escape. Jet is still following them, much to the consternation of Smellerbee and Longshot. Jet tells the others than he will turn over to the proper authorities any evidence he collects about Iroh and Zuko.

Meanwhile, the gang is seeing the middle ring, which houses shops, the university, and town hall. Sokka is still trying to impress upon Joo Dee that the information they found in the library is of utmost importance to the war, but she continues to blow them off. Back in the lower ring, the jobs Iroh has found are in a tea shop, but after tasting the tea, he promises big changes.

The upper ring of Ba Sing Se is where the most important citizens live, and it is noticeably more spacious. As they pass a building that looks much like the Forbidden City, the guards turn to eye them suspiciously. Joo Dee explains that this is the palace and the guards there are agents of the Dai Li, the cultural authority of Ba Sing Se. As we shall see, “cultural authority” means “secret police.” It’s easy to confuse the two terms. The city has provided a house for the Aang Gang and at the moment they arrive, Joo Dee explains that their request for an audience with the Earth King is being processed and will be reviewed in about a month. She also refuses to leave them alone as they search for Appa. When they interview a man who handles exotic animals, Joo Dee shakes her head at any mention of a black market, making the man very nervous. When they interview a student at Ba Sing Se University, he advises them to see Professor Zei (who is, I believe, currently buried in a library in the middle of the desert). When Sokka asks him who they should see to talk about the war, Joo Dee again shakes her head, intimidating the student. Clearly there is more to Joo Dee than meets the eye. When Joo Dee finally leaves them, they have a brief chat with their neighbor, who skittishly advises them to stay away from the Dai Li.

Back on the low side of Ba Sing Se, Jet is watching Iroh and Zuko in their apartment from a nearby rooftop. Iroh cannot find the spark rocks to warm up his tea because Jet has stolen them. Instead of heating it himself, however, he borrows some from the neighbors. It is unclear what sort of evidence Jet is planning to collect here. He already believes them to be firebenders, although he has not actually witnessed any firebending. Maybe he’s just trying to convince himself.

Katara wakes to the news that the King is having a party that night at the palace for his pet bear. This terminology confuses the gang. The paper doesn’t say platypus-bear, skunk-bear,  armadillo-bear, or gopher-bear, but just bear. The gang is properly weirded out. Anyway, Katara thinks they could sneak into the party and see the Earth King. While belching and picking her nose, Toph explains that the rest of the Gang would stick out at a society party because they have no manners. She decides that she and Katara will dress up and try to sneak the boys in through a side door. When they are all made up, Aang blushes while telling them (but mostly Katara) how beautiful they are.

Back in Povertyville, Smellerbee and Longshot confront Jet about his constant surveillance of Zuko and Iroh. They want him to let it go, but he’s obsessed. He bursts into the tea shop and threatens Zuko and Iroh. Zuko takes twin swords from an official in the shop and they fighty fight fight, including a scene where Jet chops up a table that Zuko is standing on while Zuko balances on the wobbly pieces. It’s well-choreographed and fun as hell.

Toph’s family seal is not enough to get her through the door to the royal palace, so Katara hits upon the idea of asking for help from a random official who is just arriving at the party. This guy is Long Feng, voiced by the extraordinarily silky and scary Clancy Brown. He claims to be a cultural minister to the King, and brings the girls inside. However, once he’s there, he refuses to leave them until their story checks out. Aang and Sokka are still waiting outside for the girls to let them in. Sokka has an incoherent plan that involves dressing Momo as a ghost and scaring off the guards before blowing a hole in the side of the building. Aang thinks it would be easier to pretend to be on staff, and while Sokka is not quite ready to let go of his Momo ghost plan, he agrees.

Once inside, Aang and Sokka meet up with Toph and Katara, who explain that the guy who brought them in will not let them out of his sight. He is conspicuously absent at that moment, though, but Joo Dee comes rushing up to tell them to leave. She makes to push them towards the door, but Sokka blocks her with a plate that, seconds before, had heaping piles of food on it. Inconsistent! I also noticed that Zuko pulled that same trick a few scenes prior. He had a full cup of tea at one moment, but when he turned it over, there was nothing inside. It’s almost like they live in a cartoon universe or something. Anyway, Sokka bumps Aang, who spills water all over a fancy lady. Rather than waterbending her dry, Aang blasts her with air, messing up her hair and makeup. She is impressed that the Avatar is at the party. Aang makes a little scene to distract people while Sokka continues to look for the King. Joo Dee looks terrified.

Zuko and Jet’s fight is interrupted by the arrival of the Dai Li. Although he insists that Zuko and Iroh are Fire Nation, there are many witnesses who can point out that he broke into a tea shop and started a fight with the employees there. The Dai Li arrest him. Smellerbee and Longshot are in the crowd, watching him being carted away.

The Earth King is carried into the party in his sedan chair, and Aang, who is entertaining the bear with flying colored liquids, heads down the table to speak with him. While he is en route, Dai Li agents nab Toph and Katara with their flying rock gloves and nab Sokka and Momo as well. The Earth King is carried off and Long Feng is awaiting Aang at the end of the table. He introduces himself as “Grand Secretariat of Ba Sing Se and head of the Dai Li” and invites Aang to join him in the library. The library turns out to be a dark, apparently bookless room lit by a green fire. Long Feng explains that the Earth King oversees cultural resources only and that he, Long Feng, runs the rest of the city, including military actions. Toph is strangely furious that the King is a puppet ruler. Sokka tries to explain about the solar eclipse, but Long Feng cuts him off, saying that it is the strict policy of Ba Sing Se that the war be not mentioned within its walls. He says that news of war would panic the citizens and affect the economy. Ba Sing Se, says Long Feng, is a peaceful, orderly utopia, the last one on earth.

As he is saying these things, we see Jet hustled into a dark chamber where a member of the Dai Li is attempting to brainwash him with a creepy revolving lantern. “There is no war in Ba Sing Se,” says the man. “Here we are safe. Here we are free.” I want to emphasize how powerful it is that this show chooses to add elements of Orwellian totalitarianism in the capital city of one of the Aang Gang’s allies. Most of the children who watch this show are going to think in binaries—good guys and bad guys—as are some of the adults. To have good guys be shown as nefarious and scary in their own way as the Fire Nation is an excellent twist, but wholly in line with the weird isolationism of Ba Sing Se. It is a city that occupies about a fourth of the land mass of the largest continent in this world, and yet we have met no one from there until now. The connection to real-world Beijing is too prominent to be missed. I have never been to Beijing, but I understand that it is not uncommon for visiting dignitaries to be assigned a “host” with a Westernized name who handles them much as Joo Dee handles the Aang Gang. The city draws from other sources, too, such as ancient Constantinople, but Beijing is the clearest analog.

The Aang Gang is horrified by the implications of Long Feng’s diatribe. Aang threatens to tell the citizens of Ba Sing Se about the war, but Long Feng tells him that such talk will lead to expulsion from the city. He mentions Aang’s quest for his bison, leaving real threat unspoken: If Aang upsets Long Feng’s control over the city, then he will lose Appa forever. He tells them that Joo Dee will show them home, but the lady who enters the room is a different woman, who tells them, unsettlingly, that she is Joo Dee and will be their host as long as they are in Ba Sing Se.

Clearly, a lot happens in a short while in this episode. I like that the children in the Aang Gang are completely outmatched by Long Feng. They are used to a more primitive type of skirmish where it is easy to tell friend from foe. It makes sense that their first encounter with the more sophisticated type of control and aggression in the world’s only metropolis would leave them confused and compromised. As we shall see next week, there are a million stories in the naked city. Theirs may be among the few that will determine the course of the world, but even in the nakedest of cities, there is always more than meets the eye.

Stray observations:

  • An apology: I had meant to cover “Tales Of Ba Sing Se” as well as “City Of Walls And Secrets” today, but the former was simply too much to unpack in the time that I had available to work on this review. My original plan was to take “Appa’s Lost Days” as the standalone episode we need to end the season cleanly, but instead I will cover it along with “Tales Of Ba Sing Se” next week. Those two episodes have some symmetry with each other, actually, with both being a deviation from the main arc that both deepen your understanding of the characters and provide additional tension for the final four episodes of this season. However, I know that many readers were looking forward to “Tales Of Ba Sing Se” today, and I apologize for the delay.
  • “Life happens wherever you are, whether you make it or not.”
  • “It’s called being handled. Get used to it.”
  • Iroh: “This tea is nothing more than hot leaf juice!” Zuko: “Uncle. That’s what all tea is.” Iroh: “How could a member of my own family say something so horrible?”
  • Flying cat. Sparrowkeets. Bear. Not Platypus-Bear, Skunk-Bear, Armadillo-Bear, or Gopher-Bear. Just… Bear.
  • “Sick of tea? That’s like being sick of breathing!”
  • The secret ingredient is love!
  • Guest 1, about the bear: “He’s taking all of the good stuff!” Guest 2: “Quiet! You don’t know what I had to do to get seats this close to the bear!”