“City of Walls and Secrets” picks up where “The Drill” left off. (Are we beginning to see a pattern here?) Aang and company settle into Ba Sing Se, and attempt to inform the king of the impending solar eclipse. Spooky tour guides and the city’s secret police get in the way of our heroes’ quest, and there is still no sign of Appa. Meanwhile, Jett’s suspicions of Zuko and Iroh come to a head….
This episode is very plot-intensive and a testament to the show’s serialized storytelling. The gang finally enters the city via train (as do Iroh, Zuko, Jett, and company). In a cool detail, earthbenders kick at the stone tracks to move the train along. They pass through the inner wall and arrive at their destination.
There are so many symbols in Ba Sing Se. There are walls that keep out invaders and there are walls that keep order. There is a belief that society would crumble if the proletariat were allowed to mix with the wealthy. I wonder what society they are talking about when they say there is a big divide between the haves and the have nots.
It is interesting to see a modern city in Avatar. Many people say that these episodes, from now until the end of season two, are the best chunk of episodes in the series. I wonder if this is the direction that the creators will be going in Legend of Korra. The descriptions of the sequel are that it is about a big city and the different factions mingling therein. I wonder how much of that is influenced by this section, because there is so much going on.
For Iroh and Zuko this means beginning new jobs at a tea shop in the lower section of the city. For Aang and company it means moving into a fancy mansion in the upper echelons of society. Unfortunately, the gang is “handled,” as Toph describes it, by a creepy tour guide named Joo Dee. After an obligatory guided tour of Ba Sing se, Joo Dee insists on accompanying Aang on his search for Appa. At times it seems like they might have a lead, but the creepy grinning Joo Dee silences all attempts to provide the Avatar with information.
Joo Dee is a low-level official who lives in a totalitarian, 1984-esque society. Doublespeak is common, and there is a lack of first amendment rights. It is a place where the duty of the Cultural Minister is to control the culture. You are not allowed to talk about the war. You are not allowed to talk about the rules. You are not allowed to talk to the Avatar. In oppressive societies like this, citizens hear what happens to dissenters, and so citizens live their lives according to what the dictator decrees, because if you don’t, you know what will happen to you. In the beginning of this episode, Joo Dee exerts so much power, being able to silence the pet shop owner and the university student with a shake of her grinning head. But underneath that mask, she is terrified.
As the guide of these outsiders (Aang, Katara, Sokka, and Toph), it is her duty to make sure that they don’t cause trouble. Joo Dee’s responsibilities are a matter of life and death. If she fails to control the Avatar, she will disappear, and that’s what happens at the end of the episode. The first half of the episode, she is totally unflappable. At the party she runs over to the gang. “What are you doing here? You have to leave right now!” Here she drops her facade a little bit. Then when Aang blows the lid off everything, Joo Dee’s whole face sinks, because she knows exactly what’s going to happen to her now, and it is not pretty. Heavy stuff for a kids show.
In fact, much of what this episode explores is like that: the 1984 parallels, the fact that Aang still has not found Appa. There are no cutaways to Appa waiting to be rescued. He is just gone. This fact is made all the more sinister by Long Feng’s implication at the end of the episode, that if Aang crosses him, Appa will never be seen again.
Speaking of Long Feng (played diabolically by the ominous Clancy Brown), he is a different kind of villain for Avatar. He describes himself as the royal vizier, an advisor, because the vizier is never the bad guy, right? What makes Long Feng so compelling is that he does not display his strength outwardly. He does not seem to be a bender at all, merely the leader of a group of benders. His cunning makes him as dangerous as Azula or Admiral Zhao.
While Long Feng may not be a powerful bender, his henchmen certainly qualify. The Dai Li are Ba Sing Se’s secret police. They wear rock gloves which they can shoot as projectiles and grab things from far away. The gloves are a METAPHOR. The Dai Li are the hidden hand of Long Feng, the true ruler of Ba Sing Se. Aang calls it like it is: the king is just a puppet. This implies that the king’s appearance earlier in the episode is merely a fake out, as the king sports “scary shiny glasses,” a trope where a sinister character wears reflective glasses that do not allow you to see his eyes. The example that comes to mind is the deranged sharp-nailed killer Kevin in Sin City who slays Marv’s love and is eaten by a dog, played in the movie by Frodo Baggins.
Iroh and Zuko’s plot is yet another example of the show progressing serially. This story thread started in “The Serpent’s Pass” and continued last episode in “The Drill.” Jett takes center stage. His obsession with trying to prove Zuko and Iroh are firebenders reaches a boiling point. He challenges Zuko to open combat. An epic sword fight ensues.
The episode ends with Jett being taken to jail and the hypnotism begins. Another Joo Dee appears….
- The creators paint the Fire Nation as the evil empire. Everything seems very black and white in season one. But now we meet the good guys—the Earth Kingdom—who seem to be just as much of an evil empire as the bad guys. Both nations represent their respective element in their behavior. The Earth Kingdom is immobile, sturdy, defensive, and the Fire Nation is about attack, aggression, and spreading.
- My favorite scene in the episode is a funny one. The gang is hanging out in the Avatar’s new mansion. Aang and Sokka are playing rock paper scissors, but it’s Fire Earth Water Air. Katara says, “I know how we can get in, we can go to this party.” To which Toph replies, “You will never get in, you are not well mannered enough.” as she scratches herself and flicks her booger, which sticks to the ceiling. Then they all start talking about the bear. “A platypus bear? A skunk bear? No, just a normal bear.” Then Sokka talks about how he could be a bus boy and how he has good manners. And then the booger falls off the ceiling and lands on his head. Which is repulsive. But anyway….
- When they get off the train Aang and Katara look out over the city from a balcony. The shot reminds me a lot of the last shot of The Empire Strikes Back. It also reminds me [Spoiler Alert] of the last shot of the series, which is framed almost identically.
Attention First-Time Avatar Watchers: Our posts will be spoiler-free (except for the episode we’re discussing), but be aware that spoilers for future episodes may abound in the comment thread below. We wanted to keep the comment threads future-spoiler-free as well, but it will likely prove impossible and it would impede our ability to analyze the series in retrospect.
Up Next: People cry their eyes out watching “The Tales of Ba Sing Se”!
Matt London is an author and filmmaker who lives in New York City. He is a graduate of the Clarion Writer’s Workshop, as well as a columnist for Tor.com, Lightspeed, Fantasy Magazine, and Realms of Fantasy. His fiction is out right this second in the anthology The Living Dead 2. Follow him on Twitter.