In this week’s Airbender Rewatch, we look at episode 2.15, “Tales of Ba Sing Se.” This episode is unique in that instead of a standard A/B plot structure, it shows a series of disconnected vignettes, called tales, each focusing on one of the main characters. Some are relevant to the plot, others are not. The tales range from totally pointless (Sokka) to story critical and deeply sad. (Iroh.)
Let’s get started.
The episode starts with a funny sequence in which the gang gets ready for the day. Hair loopies are pinned, faint moustaches are trimmed, and arrow tattoos are shaved. Toph is blind and shlubby and doesn’t care about appearances. Katara is a bit more of a girly girl. They decide to have a girls’ day out and pamper themselves. They go to the Fancy Lady Day Spa to get their nails and makeup done. They relax in a sauna. Some local girls make fun of Toph. Katara and Toph get back at these mean bullies by drowning them in a river. The point here is that Toph and Katara are becoming friends. This is the second time they have dressed up in nice clothes and gone out.
The whole story is fairly lighthearted. There is a funny moment with mud masks as Toph makes faces to scare away the attendants. There is another cute moment when they are in the sauna. Toph uses earthbending to throw another rock on, and then Katara uses waterbending to throw water on the rock to steam the room up.
Toph is the real star of this story. At the beginning she looks like a Flintstone, or maybe a Troll doll.
The beautification of Toph serves as a sight gag at the end of the vignette. But her makeup is so overwhelming it looks a little trashy. Maybe that is just because make up has to be subtle to be effective, but in a cartoon it has to be overt in order to be recognized. If there is a moral of the story, it is that you do not need to feel pigeonholed by your reputation. Tough people can doll up and feel beautiful, and people who lead gentle lives can rough it.
I am always struck by how Toph never allows her blindness to keep her down. Most would view blindness as a disability, but it has improved Toph’s earthbending. It is still hard for Toph to cope with, as seen by the tears she sheds at the end of this tale, but she copes all the same, proving how strong she is.
On a personal note, the first time Jordan and I watched this tale, the ending reduced us both to tears. This time, as soon as the tale started we were reduced to tears.
What cartoons have made you cry?
This tale shows Iroh grieving on his dead son’s birthday. He is in Ba Sing Se, where his son died. It got me thinking about all the injustice that has been done to Iroh. If you look at the picture of Iroh’s son Lu Ten, you see he is such a strapping young man—square-jawed, very handsome. That kid should be the Fire Lord. The order of succession was supposed to be Azulon, Iroh, then Lu Ten. It is unfairness of Ozai and Azula stealing Iroh’s birthright is almost Shakespearean.
In the Tale of Iroh, we see Iroh prepare for his day of mourning. As he goes about his errands, we see him bring comfort to several boys, each getting older as the story goes along. It starts with the moon flower. Iroh has the wisdom to know that everyone needs something different to help them grow. The little boy who is crying just needs a song—a rather sad song about a soldier boy marching home from war. Still, the song cheers up the crying child. Next, he offers some boys playing Earth Soccer wisdom, telling them they should admit their mistakes. But when the enormous man whose window was broken shows up, Iroh tells them all to run. He then takes down a mugger who attempted to rob him. The mugger is but a young man, perhaps no older than Zuko. Over a cup of tea, Iroh gives the man some career advice. Over the course of one day, Iroh goes through the process of raising a boy to manhood.
Iroh makes his way to a quiet tree, where he pays tribute to Lu Ten. He thanks his son for helping him to be a better person. He then sings a reprise of the song he sang for the little boy at the beginning of the tale, but the words are broken by Iroh’s tears. The camera pulls back to form a tableau with the tree, and the tale is dedicated to Iroh’s voice actor Mako Iwamatsu, who passed away after a battle with esophageal cancer in 2006, before “Tales of Ba Sing Se” aired.
Mako worked as a Hollywood character actor for almost fifty years. He was nominated for both the Oscar and Tony awards. Also, his science fiction and fantasy credentials were impeccable, appearing in the films Highlander III, Conan the Barbarian and Conan the Destroyer, and RoboCop 3, as well as the TV series Wonder Woman and The Incredible Hulk. He consistently gave a fine performance on Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Iroh’s mourning of Lu Ten is the best explanation we get as to how the ferocious Dragon of the West became Uncle Iroh. This story also relates back to Iroh’s relationship with Zuko, casting every scene with the Fire Prince and his uncle in a new light. What is Iroh’s motivation through all of their adventures? He loves his nephew, yes, but he is also seeking an outlet for the love he had, and lost, when his son was killed.
In this tale, Landscaper Aang builds a giant nature preserve outside of Ba Sing Se. He causes some trouble, letting all the animals loose in the city. He rides through the streets, blowing his bison whistle to round the animals up, so people’s pets end up in the corrals with the zoo animals. It gives an otherwise quiet episode some action, and the actual creation of the preserve is pretty impressive to watch.
Haikus are easy.
You can write them in your sleep.
This tale is pointless.
Sokka loves the ladies. For some inexplicable reason, the ladies love Sokka. This is the shortest of all the tales. There’s nothing really going on here.
In this tale, we get another reminder that Zuko is tortured and angsty. His awkward personality keeps him from developing relationships with women. It surprised me that after scolding Iroh so harshly Zuko would use firebending to light the lanterns in a public place. I think the moral of this story is that first dates are awkward even in the world of Avatar.
Here we get an interesting angle on the Absent Appa plotline. No one has considered how the sky bison’s disappearance is affecting Momo. The sweet lemur misses his friend so much he sees him everywhere. The adventure he goes on in this tale stems from his desire to find his friend. At the end of this tale, and the whole episode, we learn something that will be critical going forward—Appa was in Ba Sing Se. But we will learn much more about where Appa has been in the next episode.
– Each of these vignettes shows who the characters are. Katara cares about her friends. Toph is scrappy and has a lot of heart. Aang loves adventure and doing the right thing. Sokka loves the ladies and wisecracks. Zuko wants to do the right thing but is too tortured to do it. Iroh is kind, compassionate, and giving to everyone he meets. Momo is helpful, but no one ever notices.
– According to the wiki, the tree and hilltop in Iroh’s flashback in “Bitter Work” is the same as the one featured in “Tales of Ba Sing Se.” I think the trees look slightly different, but the framing is pretty much the same.
– When the mugger tells Iroh that no one has ever believed in him, Iroh says that help from others can be a great blessing. This is the same wisdom Iroh gives Toph in the episode, “The Chase.”
– The Momo tale is an example of classic dog TV—fisheye lenses, strange colors, and humans say things like “Woogabooboo.”
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: Finally! The return of everyone’s favorite flying carpet in “Appa’s Lost Days.”
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.