In the fifteenth episode of the second season of Avatar: The Last Airbender, we are given six separate short stories about what the cast of characters have been doing during their stay in Ba Sing Se. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Avatar and sob to himself in a laundromat. True story.
I really do love it when a show takes a risk by giving us a new method of storytelling. Sometimes, that alone makes the episode so much fun. This is not that case, though, because while I do appreciate the varied narrative device that “Tales of Ba Sing Se” gives us, the real strength here is in the storytelling.
To give you an idea how far ahead of myself I got (more than ever, really) in order to have posts for all of you whilst I was on the AIDS/LifeCycle, I am writing this on Friday, June 3. Today is my packing day, and part of that has involved me doing so much laundry that I’m now wondering how we are in the twenty-first fucking century and we haven’t invented an easier and quicker way to clean clothes. My clothes were spinning about in the washer as I watched this episode on my iPad and right at the end of Iroh’s story, I could not believe how much I was crying. IN A LAUNDROMAT.
This show. The things it does to me.
I’d like to separate this out by story, in the order they each aired, in order to discuss this, as I want to spend time talking about each one. Onwards!
TOPH AND KATARA
I noticed that out of everyone’s stories, only Toph’s and Katara’s had the gang appearing together, and it suggested to me that maybe these stories actually occurred in chronological order in terms of time. Either way, from the start, we’re giving the glaring contrast of Toph’s sense of hygiene with the rest of the group. It was a subtle reminder to how long Team Avatar (well, the first three members) had been traveling. Now that they’re stuck in a way inside Ba Sing Se, why shouldn’t they take the opportunity to enjoy being stationary? In Toph’s case, though, she’s the kind of girl who has little interest in her own physical appearance, and her wonderful rebellion against this particular society’s gender roles is acted out over the course of this story.
When Katara suggests that they have a girl’s day out, you can see the disappointment in Toph’s face, but what this story does is show how Toph can enjoy herself without compromising who she is. She was naturally reticent towards the idea (especially her feet being touched) because her upbringing was engulfed by this very concept of what femininity was for her. Why would she want to go back to being pampered?
What I love so much about this story is how both Katara and Toph are able to have satisfying both what is considered the more “girly” side of the personalities while they are SILLY AS HELL. Toph is able to make creepy faces using Earthbending towards the attending and just minutes later, she can also admit that she feels quite ok with pampering herself and wearing make-up. The scene with the older girls not only shows how toxic this sort of projected hatred of women can be, but it also allows us to see how Katara and Toph care for each other. Katara knows that being “girly” is a new thing for Toph and she doesn’t want her to feel shamed for it, so I rather adore how quick she is to defend her friend.
Even after earth bending them into a river and then water bending them far downstream, Toph still expresses reservations about the whole thing. Words still can hurt people and Toph is hurt. But Katara steps up to the plate and tells Toph the truth, that she IS rather pretty, and that her confidence and self-worth is beautiful. (Well, in her own way.)
I guess that’s what I love about this so much. It’s about supporting your friends when you are down and protecting them from the shame that society tries to heap on them for being themselves. THIS SHOW, Y’ALL.
If anything, Iroh’s story is just a further continuation of his characterization as one of the most polite and respectable people we’ve seen in the show. Iroh is able to find joy and peace in nearly every act, no matter how banal or how negative it is. Wherever he goes, he wears a smile on his face, and that smile is infectious. It spreads to the owner of a shop selling picnic baskets, and it spreads to the ailing Moon Flower, and it spreads to the young crying boy, who is comforted by Iroh’s magnificent song on the liuqin.
Iroh moves through the world with a deep understanding of love and an even deeper appreciation for the very fact that he is alive, and I love watching him inject that ferocity into others. Even when Iroh is presented with the threat of theft by a mugger (WHO WAS TOTALLY IN “City of Walls and Secrets”), he can’t frown or feel threatened. He merely instructs the man on the proper fighting stance, demonstrating how poor his technique is currently, and how he can correct it to improve. And really, only Iroh would act out this sort of patience with someone who is essentially threatening his life. Hell, he even invites the man to join him for tea! WHERE IS MY TEA DATE WITH IROH.
He imparts the same wisdom here with the mugger that we’ve heard him give both Zuko and Toph: it is perfectly all right to be blessed with the help of others when you need it. And time and time again, Iroh is always willing to be the one to provide that support.
That evening, we learn why Iroh bought a picnic basket, as he ascends a grassy knoll in one of the more beautiful scenes in the whole series. The colors of the Fire Nation swirl behind him, almost as if the writers are giving us a visual hint to what Iroh is about to do, as he begins to set up his picnic. That picnic actually turns out to be a memorial, as it is the exact birth date of Lu Ten, and as the camera flashes to the cloth Iroh laid out, where we learn it’s actually a photo of his dead son, Iroh’s eyes fill with tears. He lights two sticks of incense and gives THE MOST DEPRESSING MONOLOGUE I MAY HAVE EVER HEARD. Oh, Iroh, your story breaks my heart a thousand times over. I don’t know if everything that Iroh does now is out of guilt, as I feel he’s moved past the guilt of losing his son, but at the very least, it has inspired him to help others. As Iroh begins to sing that exact same song he sang to the crying child, I found myself WEEPING PROFUSELY IN A LAUNDROMAT. oh god iron you need all of the hugs ever
(PS: I just found out what the dedication at the end of this story meant. fucking hell I NEED TO BE HELD RIGHT NOW)
In a way, there’s a neat parallel between Iroh and Aang: both of them have a zest for helping others out. As Aang searches Ba Sing Se for any sign of Appa, he comes upon a zoo that’s derelict and run down, due to a lack of funding from the Dai Li. Drawn to the place and the man who runs it because of his inherent love for animals. Well….that doesn’t always work for Aang, as we see here.
Of all the stories, Aang’s feels the shortest. He gets the idea to take all of the caged beasts who live in this depressing zoo and free them so that he can put them outside the walls and live a higher quality of life. And you know, I’m happy to get this small little story, but there’s not really anything terribly huge or life-changing that happens in it. Aang’s love for the animals gets the best of him, as they chaotically roam the town, and he uses Appa’s bison whistle to call them all towards the outer wall in order to let them out. (Well, there’s also CABBAGE GUY, who YET AGAIN loses his cabbages by some feat of poor luck. Poor guy.) I loved how massive the range of the bison whistle was, but unfortunately, it doesn’t trigger any notice that Appa is around. Where is he???
If anything, Aang’s story is certainly a reminder to us all that Aang has become quite a talented earth bender and the speed and creativity shown when Aang is constructing the new zoo is rather impressive. This is probably the only show I could think of where someone building a zoo in thirty seconds from scratch is not something that’s a disaster. That’s pretty neat.
(One small question: If this zoo was outside the inner wall and it was a big deal that the walls had to be opened….how did so many people just suddenly show up at the zoo after it was made?)
Oh, Sokka. All of your problems are caused by yourself. And I love you for it.
Sokka’s story is also rather short, but it’s such a treat to watch. We can tell how out-of-place that he feels trapped inside those mighty walls, not allowed to talk about fighting the Fire Nation, let alone fighting them. As he wanders the streets of Ba Sing Se, it’s a testament to his determination that he still manages to find a confrontation.
But this particular conversation is so absurd and ridiculous that it’s impossible for me not to smile while I think about it. I think it’s great that Sokka’s tale teaches people about the pattern of haikus and then has him get into a HAIKU WAR with the teacher. Oh, Sokka. Seriously, never change.
Uh, Zuko, could you please just have one completely happy moment.
I’ll still maintain that Zuko is the best written-character in Avatar and this story is no exception. And while I do recognize just how depressing Zuko’s story is, we do get to see the smallest smidgeon of hope in him here. It all starts off with paranoia, as Zuko suspects that a young woman at the tea house has figured out that he is Fire Nation. Iroh, however, recognizes that Zuko’s fear has clouded him from a much simpler reality: this girl is totally crushing on Zuko. But Zuko has no experience with such a thing, and so he interprets her actions in the only way that he can: in terms of war.
So Iroh sets up a date for his nephew and because of this, we get to see Zuko with slicked back hair and it is the most adorable thing ever and he is so handsome and oh god i just want him to be happy. His date, a young woman named Jin, is a tad more confident than he is, but it’s nice that they are largely both treading on unfamiliar ground. The small talk is awkward and it doesn’t help that Zuko can’t be honest about who he is, so his imagined life is even more bizarre than it already is. And really, Zuko: traveling circus? Juggling??? Oh gosh, YOU ARE SO TRAGICALLY CUTE.
Still, Zuko does begin to understand that he needs to let his guard down every once in a while, and for the briefest of moments, he does it here. Jin takes him to a fountain that is normally light with a collection of lanterns, but vocalizes her disappointment when they arrive and they’re all off. The risk Zuko takes to impress Jin here should not be understated: he could have exposed himself to anyone in Ba Sing Se and risk expulsion (and probably a whole lot of pain) for him and Iroh.
Instead, he secretly lights the lanterns for Jin, and the two share an intimate moment that I never would have expected from Zuko. I was even more surprised that after Jin kissed him, he paused and gave her a kiss. And for that small, tiny window of time, Zuko allowed himself to be completely and totally vulnerable. But that moment ends as quickly as it started, and Zuko pulls away. “It’s complicated,” he says. And he runs away, as he’s so prone to do.
And yet, even when he sees Iroh that night and predictably slams the door at Iroh’s questioning, it’s still not what he relies on completely. He reopens his door and tells Iroh that his night was “nice.” It’s a step. It’s a step towards healing. And I appreciate it all the more.
oh my god HE GETS HIS OWN STORY. Thank you, writers, for treating Momo as a character who deserves their own story, and for giving us one that’s both adorable and incredibly crushing.
I mean, how sad was it that Momo finds a tuft of Appa’s fur and then imagines him to be all around? We have seen how badly Aang misses Appa, but at this point, I’d not really considered how close Momo had become to his big furry friend. And it’s during this search that Momo happens to accidentally come across GIGANTIC PUMAS. What? And while a bulk of his story deals with the ridiculous chase that follows (and the amazing scene with the dancing monkeys, which is one of Momo’s best), it’s more about where this leads to: friendship and loneliness. As Momo and the pumas are eventually caught by a butcher and face certain death (and a future on some plates), Momo frees himself and the pumas (despite that the pumas nearly ate him) and the four creatures escape on the rooftops.
(For the record, one of my cats acts exactly like the puma who snuggles Momo. She is a snuggle BEAST.)
What’s really important to me is the fact that the pumas lead Momo to a giant footprint after coming into contact with Appa’s fur, and it’s the first visual confirmation that Appa is alive somewhere inside Ba Sing Se. Unfortunately, there’s no other sign, and Momo, missing his companion more than anything, curls up in that giant footprint as the rain begins to fall and I feel like crying again.
goddamn it, Avatar.