Thu
May 5 2011 12:15pm
Avatar Rewatch: “City of Walls and Secrets” (episode 214)

“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.

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9 comments
Kathiravan Isak Arulampalam
1. Ipood
The Iroh/Zuko tea shop plot was for me some of their most enjoyable, as it was fun seeing Iroh having fun. But, isn't Long Feng an earthbender? Of some prowess, as seen in episode 17?

I'm also really excited for the Korra city thing, because this chunk of episodes really were some of the greatest in the series, and that is sayng something.
Michael B Sullivan
2. Michael B Sullivan
It's interesting to me that people think of the Ba Sing Se portion of Avatar as being the best of the series -- I think it's the worst. Momentum dies, it feels scattered and self-indulgent. Obviously, that's part of the point -- the gang feels frustrated that they are being stalled out by the secret police -- but Iroh/Zuko also lose momentum, and I feel like the whole thing just wanders and nothing happens for half a season.

I also am not thrilled with the modernity of Ba Sing Se. I liked the scattered, somewhat primitive tribes of the earlier part of the show, and I like the varied little societies that they were discovering. Ba Sing Se removes the novelty of changing settings from the show, and frankly just doesn't feel as exotic.
Michael B Sullivan
3. ChrisG
I too loved the Ba Sing Se arc, as much for its darkness and frustration as for the fantastic resolution. But I see where you are coming from Michael. Rather than momentum being lost, I viewed it as energy being absorbed, like the energy of an attack against a hunk of earth. The challenge that the gang faces increases in complexity in a way that brings great things out of the characters and seems more realistic than just out-bending the fire Lord. Seeing the "good guys" in shades of grey also helps the story.

(I can't wait for the recap on Tales of Ba Sing Se, which was beautiful, beautiful work.)

One thing about this story bothered me, however. Why does Long Feng need to threaten them? Why not offer "help" recovering Appa in return for a guarantee that they will leave the city, and even a (presumably false) promise that he will alert the Earth King about the eclipse? He could have played it smooth and gotten everything he wanted. Sure, part of the point is that that is the way he is used to operating and it typically works. But for one who is shown to be so clever and in many ways subtle, it seems like a disappointing lapse.
Michael B Sullivan
4. 150
Up Next: People cry their eyes out watching “The Tales of Ba Sing Se”!

This is not a joke.
Sherrie Petersen
5. solvangsherrie
This was one of my favorite episodes because Joo Dee and the whole brain washing thing was kinda creepy cool. My kids and I go on Avatar binges during summer vacation. We have the whole series on DVD. The writing on this show is just amazing.
Michael B Sullivan
6. Michael S. Schiffer
There are some nice hints in Ba Sing Se as to the nature of the system: the Dai Li is named after Chiang Kai Shek's secret police head (reportedly called "the Himmler of China" by the Allies). And the place people disappear to (which I'm not sure has been named yet in the series) is named after an analogous institution in modern China.
M F
7. Madeline
Isn't this the episode with the best line in the series? "This isn't tea! This is just ..hot ..leaf-juice!!" A source of joy in troubled times, that line. :)

I disagree with Michael B Sullivan; I think the Zuko plot advances pretty consistently in this bit. The secondary plot of the entire show is "what the hell is Zuko going to do with his life" and it's a more accessible plot than "how is Aang going to save the world". Zuko has to have the option of living a normal life, so that's what we get to see here, and his normal life has small satisfying bits and he learns things and it's all plot advance-y.

For the main gang, I remember some character advancement that comes in quiet times like this, but for me the main draw here is getting to spend some time in a place and see it. I love the worldbuilding in this show. After a long buildup of "strongest holdout in the world" it's nice to see what the center of the Earth Kingdom is all about.

And I haven't picked up a particularly primitive vibe from the Earth Kingdom in general that we've seen in past episodes; Ba Sing Se seems in keeping, to me.

As for this episode, the end of Jet is fantastic. Also, always nice to see Zuko bust out the double swords.
Michael B Sullivan
8. amygdala11
Tales of Ba Sing Se always makes me tear up (just a little).

Mako was the best part of this show.
Michael B Sullivan
9. Alex123
The reason I love this episode is it is the point you realize season 2 is going in a completely different direction than season 1. Up till now you can see them going on a similiar track. Aang learns element, goes to that element's capital city, saves it from firebenders.

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