Avatar: The Last Airbender episode 2.17 “Lake Laogai” is a story of endings. Three of them.
First, it is the end to Appa the sky bison’s long absence. Second, Jet’s plotline comes to a tragic conclusion. Lastly, in the final moments of the show, Zuko ends his career as the Blue Spirit.
The doors that we have seen open for much of Season 2 are now closing. We can see the finale on the horizon. Characters change, relationships evolve. Avatar accomplishes a feat rarely seen in children’s television—closure.
As the episode opens, the gang makes Lost Appa flyers and posts them around the city. The kids are tired of sitting around the house wasting time, and they have gotten wise to Joodee’s brainwashing.
Meanwhile, the Ray Croc of Earth Kingdom tea shops offers Iroh his own franchise with complete creative control. Uncle Iroh is overjoyed, but Zuko the prodigal prince is tired of the teamaker’s life. When Zuko finds one of Aang’s flyers, he decides to once again capture the Avatar. Zuko hasn’t talked about his destiny much since the showdown with Azula in “The Chase” and cathartic mountaintop shriek-fest in “Bitter Work.” Perhaps Zuko has the seven-episode itch, and now wishes to get back to his super objective—his primary pursuit throughout the series—which is to capture the Avatar and regain his honor. Realizing that the way to the Avatar is through his bison, Zuko dons the Blue Spirit mask and picks up Appa’s trail.
Katara hangs flyers around the city, but is interrupted by the approach of Jet. The last we saw him, Dai Li agents were hypnotizing him. Katara has not seen Jet since he attempted to flood a Fire Nation-occupied village in his eponymous episode in Season One. Now in Ba Sing Se, Katara gives him a wet welcome.
Hell hath no fury like a waterbender scorned. Katara is compensating now for not seeing the handsome Jet for who he really was back in Season One. She is quick to attack him for the slightest infraction.
Jet tries to defend against Katara’s attacks, and soon the rest of the gang comes to the rescue. We learn that Toph’s earthbending can serve as a lie detector by measuring changes in heartbeat and breathing. She determines that Jet is telling the truth that he wants to help, and so gains the gang’s trust.
Jet leads them to an empty warehouse, where they learn from Old Sweepy that Appa was taken to Whale Tail Island, down by the South Pole. The journey could take months, but Aang doesn’t think he has any other options.
Just then, the gang encounters Smellerbee and Longshot, They tell the gang that Jet was captured by the Dai Li, but Jet has no recollection of the event. Sokka, displaying much more intelligence than usual, realizes that Long Feng brainwashed Jet to lure Aang away from the city. Appa isn’t on Whale Tail Island after all. Aang thinks Appa might be held at the same place Jet was brainwashed (the gang makes some really lucky guesses this episode) and tries to get Jet to remember where he was taken. With a strong team effort, the group realizes the secret prison is under Lake Laogai.
The next day, Toph discovers a secret entrance to the underwater facility. They see dozens of Joodees receiving their programming. We think the gang has found Appa at last as the sky bison’s door opens…
…But it is the Blue Spirit, and not Aang, who has found Appa.
Instead, Long Feng and the Dai Li find the gang, plus Jet, Smellerbee, and Longshot. A battle ensues in the tunnels beneath Lake Laogai. I have always been a fan of these kinds of stories, where the heroes and villains have to team up to take on an even bigger threat. It reminds me of Castle in the Sky. Most saturday morning cartoons have an episode like this. The Avatar wiki points out that the plot of “Lake Laogai” and X-Men 2 have many similarities. The good guys and the bad guys team up to stop a government conspiracy. They infiltrate a secret government base hidden under a lake, which they find by probing a brainwashed friend’s mind. One of the characters dies, and the bad guys escape. Spoiler alert.
The always scheming Long Feng tries to negotiate, but Aang will have none of it. He knows how close he is to finding Appa. Long Feng pulls a Manchurian Candidate on Jet, hypnotizes him once more, and forces him to attack Aang.
At the same time, Iroh finds Zuko in Appa’s cell. he has never sounded so angry. He tries to explain to Zuko that he never thinks things through. Basically, Zuko’s attempts to capture the Avatar are stupid. He just wants the poor kid to lead a normal life.
Aang reminds Jet of his past to snap him out of his trance. It works. Jet attacks Long Feng but the minister retaliates, delivering a mortal blow. Long Feng escapes, and the others arrive to see just how badly Jet is injured. Katara tries to heal him, but it is no good. Then, Longshot speaks! The Silent Bob moment isn’t cute, however. He urges the Aang Gang to escape, and leave Jet to him and Smellerbee. As Longshot checks the string of his bow, we understand that the only way they intend to help Jet is by putting him out of his misery. We find closure and death at Lake Laogai.
And it’s not over yet. When they reach Appa’s cell, the sky bison is gone. They rush to the surface where Long Feng and the Dai Li attack. The gang’s chances aren’t good. But just then, Appa swoops out of the sky and rescues them. He bites Long Feng (a critical event for a later episode) and tosses the Dai Li leader across the lake. The gang escapes on Appa, joyful to be reunited with their friend.
And in a touching coda, Iroh tells his nephew that he did the right thing, freeing Appa, rather than capturing the bison himself. Zuko tosses the mask of the Blue Spirit into Lake Laogai, and it sinks beneath the surface.
Did Jet’s death surprise anyone in this episode? It is one of the more shocking moments in the series. It was also too ambiguous for some audiences. The creators had to put the issue to rest during a Comic-Con panel. What do you think are the most shocking or confusing moments from Avatar?
Only three episodes are left in Season Two, and as they say on HBO, $#!% is going down.
[A quick personal aside. Emily Asher-Perrin posted an article a couple of weeks ago about my wedding to fellow Tor.com blogger and Penguin book editor Jordan Hamessley. As promised, here is the steampunk cake topper we used, complete with Stubby cameo.]
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: The gang meets the Earth King in, you guessed it, “The Earth King!”
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, or else!