Avatar: The Last Airbender – City of Walls and Secrets

“City of Walls and Secrets,” represents the start of
the darkest moments in Season Two of Avatar:
The Last Airbender
, if not the entire series.  Previously, the villains and bad guys of the
show were evil because their wicked acts were perpetrated on actions which were
in direct opposition to the things regularly and morally deemed ‘good’ by
society.  The Fire Nation wants to
conquer the world and from that root motivation, virtually every bad character
has sprung, if not to encourage it, then to at least maintain it.  Our own society’s experience with world wars
has solidly placed this desire in the corner of bad things.  

Season One concluded with a classic battle between
forces we easily identified as good, the Northern Water Tribe defending their
homes and our heroes fighting against the Fire Nation, the season long nation
devouring monster.  The Fire Nation is a
call back to Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany, complete with a leader devoid of any
obvious morals or good intentions.  Fire
Lord Ozai is the big bad.  It’s a
paradigm that has been familiar for generations.  Yet, within the rather black and white, good
and bad, establishment of the first season, there was one genuine crack in the
uniform façade which allowed viewers to quickly identify who to cheer for and
who to jeer for.  The exception was the
episode, “Jet,” which introduced Jet the freedom fighter and his cohorts.

“Jet” began with the promise that Aang, Katara, and
Sokka, had met one more group within the Avatar world who were hard at work
fighting the same bad guy as themselves.
They’re no different than the Kyoshi warriors or the earth benders in “Imprisoned.”  By the conclusion of the second act of “Jet,”
however, the show did something unexpected and devious for a program allegedly
targeted at children.  It took the
obvious hero, the good guy, and revealed him to be the opposite.  Suddenly, our heroes had to fight against
those who should have been on their side and the result was a fantastic
episode.  To a degree, though, the season
continued on, carefully returning to the path of black and white with little
gray.  

This began to change in Season Two, particularly in
the very first episode, “The Avatar State,” in which an Earth Kingdom general,
an ally who was supposed to help our heroes, ended up pushing that neatly delineated
line between good and bad, by taking steps beyond the pale to induce the Avatar
State in Aang.  The repercussion of this
was the dissolution of trust in those who were supposed to be friends and set
the gang on a path independent of aid and assistance.  The graying of the show continued with Zuko’s
storyline, as through the course of the season, the villain of Season One was
directed along a course of redemption and quietly framed as an anti-hero.  The process was started in the first season,
but as with the cutting of Zuko’s hair, it was pushed fully into motion by the
start of the second.

And so, it’s more than appropriate that in an
episode which draws heavily upon the character Jet’s return and out of control
spiral into the persona he was in “Jet,” that the show steps up and turns on
the paint mixer, scrambling the black and the white together.  The result is a bleaker gray and an evil
professed in the name of good, embodied by a claim that peace and security
demand its presence.  Jet became a
villain because of the means to his ends, and likewise, the shadows of the city
of Ba Sing Se are thick with those perpetrating a similar disregard for the
value placed in the ‘means.’

The episode begins in the quiet aftermath of “The
Drill,” with the city safe for the time being and our heroes, officially
suggested by Sokka to be ‘Team Avatar,’ riding in a train car over the fields
that separate the city from its first great wall.  Sokka offers something close to a meta-commentary
about waiting for the next shoe to drop, as it seems weird things always happen
to them.  Toph, at the same time,
complains about being back in a city, where rules and walls reign supreme.  Together, the two foreshadow the events of
the episode, where there is the unexpected and that unexpected being a strict
adherence to unwritten rules enforced by a hidden stone hand.  Aang, meanwhile, has only one thing on his
mind, finding Appa.

The gang disembarks to discover a woman named Joo
Dee with an unnervingly false smile waiting for them.  Toph immediately diagnoses the
situation.  Joo Dee is their
handler.  Every attempt by the group,
particularly Sokka, to stress the urgency of meeting with the Earth Kingdom is
deftly rebuffed by Joo Dee as she guides them on a tour of the city on the way
to their accommodations.  Ba Sing Se is a
wall ringed city, carefully structured with the idea that wealth and knowledge
deserve better than poverty and the type of work that requires one’s
hands.  

The lowest tier of the city is cramped and delegated
to craftsmen, the poor, and those who prey upon the poor.  The middle ring is dedicated to the financial
district, shops and resturants, as well the Ba Sing Se University (where Prof.
Zei taught prior to his library adventure), and the upper ring a place for the
homes of the well off, the well connected, and the royal palace.  Notably, in the shadowy entrance to the
palace we get the first true look at agents of the Dai Li, the Joo Dee
described guardians of tradition.
Incidentally, Dai Li is also the name of the head of the Chinese
military intelligence during the Second World War.  He died mysteriously in a plane crash.  The placement of the ominous looking agents
by the palace is no accident, but yet the first true indication that what the
royal palace represents, the Earth King, is under the control of the Dai Li.

While Team
Avatar is being catered and controlled, in the lower ring, Iroh and Zuko are
well on their way to starting their new life.
In short order, they find flowers, an apartment, and a job working at a
tea house.  In the midst of this, a
shadow follows them about, but not one belonging to the Dai Li.  Instead, it’s Jet.  Since the hot tea event from the last
episode, the former freedom fighter has allowed his obsession to continually
grow with discovering and proving that Iroh and Zuko are fire benders.  In the process, he tracks them from work to
home and back again.  He breaks into
their house and steals their fire starting kits (equivalent of matches), hoping
to force them to fire bend, but to his chagrin there is no fire bending.  

Even after Smellerbee and Longshot stage a
mini-intervention, concerned about their friend and his growing obsession, Jet
shrugs off their worries and chastises them for forgetting why they got into
the freedom fighting business in the first place.  Smellerbee attempts to remind him that Ba
Sing Se was supposed to be a fresh start, but a veil has fallen across Jet’s
eyes, and he sees only one thing: fire benders getting away when they should be
punished.  Upset over the lack of support
from his cohorts, Jet storms into the tea house and directly confronts Iroh and
Zuko in front of a room packed full of patrons.
Unfortunately for Jet, his accusations immediately sound crazy as he
accuses Iroh of heating tea, in a tea house, where he works, heating tea.  

It’s a pitiful moment for Jet, as he quickly begins
to realize that no one is rushing to his cause.
His swords drawn, he advances toward Zuko, who plucks a pair of swords
from an Earth Kingdom guard and readily accepts the offer of combat.  The sword fight that follows is interspersed
throughout the remainder of the episode, and to a degree, hampered by this
directorial decision, as its fantastic choreography and flow is interrupted,
hurting its overall affect.  It’s not
just a battle between Zuko and Jet, but a battle signifying the failure of one
individual to willingly let go of their past and the attempt by another to do
overcome theirs.  Zuko never fire bends,
refusing to reveal his identity or country of origin throughout the fight, and
in the process, preserving his willingness to try for a second chance at life.

In the end, Zuko effectively defeats Jet, and in the
process, slices in half the strand of grass perpetually positioned between Jet’s
lips.  Beside the great visual of the
cut, it’s somewhat indicating that Jet has been symbolically defeated.  Before Jet can attempt a second attack on
Zuko, Dai Li agents appear and clasps stone handcuffs around his wrists and haul
him away.  Zuko and Iroh’s second chance
remains alive for now.

For Aang, Sokka, Toph and Katara, they find nothing
but barriers between themselves and their goals.  An attempt to see the Earth King results in
being told they have a six to eight week wait ahead of them.  An attempt by Aang to find Appa results in
those he asks being intimidated into silence by the ever present Joo Dee.  Even without Joo Dee around, they discover a
neighbor frightened to even mention the war, and who advises them not do so,
either.  The discovery that the Earth King
is having a feast for his bear, however,  results in a desperate plan to infiltrate the
party to meet with the king directly.  

Toph uses her bourgeoisie background to attire
herself and Katara into the proper costume for young women who would be in
attendance, but are stymied when the guard to the palace fails to be impressed
by the Beifong crest.  Katara quickly
feigns tears which draws a tall gentleman over who inquires to their
problem.  It’s a simple one, they are
accidentally stuck outside while their family has already gone in.  Courteously, the man escorts both inside, but
only once inside, divulges his name as Long Feng, the cultural minister.  Voiced by Clancy Brown, the character is at
both times warm and commanding.  

Outside the party, which does have a rockin’ bear,
just a bear, not a platypus bear or a skunk bear or an armadillo bear, Aang and
Sokka worry about the girls and decide to sneak in themselves.  Their ruse works only so long before they’re
outed and yet, the Earth King arrives on a palanquin.  It appears their plan might just be fruitful,
but for the Earth King simultaneously leaving and Dai Li agents quietly
snatching members of Team Avatar out of the banquet hall.  At this point, Long Feng introduces himself
as not just the minister of culture, but head of the Dai Li, and in charge of
Ba Sing Se’s security.

This introduction is performed in a private room
with Long Feng seated in front of a green flamed roaring fire.  Green lights are predominant throughout the
scenes in the Earth Kingdom and particularly in Ba Sing Se.  However, this is the first time we see an
actual fire of green flames, and for those who know their Disney villains well,
they will recognize the symbolism of the green flames here.  Green has long been associated with the
villains in Disney, be it Maleficient (green fire) or Jafar (green fire), and
hard to argue that Long Feng’s introduction to the group framed by the green
flames is accidental.

Long Feng paints a picture of a perfect society
upheld on a foundation of fear, threats and lies.  In the course of his explanation, the scenes
cut back and forth from Long Feng to Jet, imprisoned in a dark room by the Dai Li and bound in
a chair in front of a circular track.  In
the middle of the track is a Dai Li agent and on the track is a simple bright  lamp which circles around it, flashing into Jet’s fear filled eyes.  In a calm voice, the agent instructs Jet that
he is safe, that there is no war in Ba Sing Se, that in Ba Sing Se, he is
free.  It’s brain washing, and countered
against Long Feng’s speech to Team Avatar, of a city safe, a utopia that is
preserved by silence of the war, the news of which would cause chaos and result
in the downfall of the last perfect society left in the world; is chilling.  The episode concludes with Joo Dee appearing to return them to their quarters.  It’s the same voice, the same unnerving smile and name; but it’s a completely different woman.

It’s a long running theme of a utopia or place of
sanctuary preserved by the violation of the spirit it claims to uphold.  Virtually every example concludes in its
downfall, as cosmic or divine forces ultimately consign the society to
destruction for the crimes committed in the name of its preservation.  For so long as Ba Sing Se is ruled in this
manner, the clock begins to tick over an eventual downfall.  

For the purposes of television, however, it’s
incredible.  The game board of black and
white is at once wiped away as our heroes find themselves faced with the
immoral cloaked in morality.  Evil done
for the alleged claim of good, that involves the forcible changing of minds,
thoughts and personalities to uphold a stated good.  It’s a message about surveillance and the
sacrifice of freedom, here used ironically by the Dai Li, for the sake of
security.  Freedom in Ba Sing Se is what
the Dai Li say it is, and does not include a freedom of thought, speech, or
action.  It’s a warning against allowing
one’s government to operate in the shadows, where there is no responsibility or
oversight.  It’s a complex and mature
message than the one presented by opposition to the Fire Nation, it’s a message
that not all enemies are those easily identified or foreign or alien.  

In short, as government agents of the Dai Li
brainwash Jet into conforming with the state’s message, and Long Feng preaches
stability, peace and security, the sensation of wrongness pervades.  We hear the words we want to hear and
recognize the goals that we want to see, but they are hollowed by the actions
of those who speak them.  The Fire
Nation, at the least, is easily identifiable, but what of the enemy who you
never see because they blend into the world you find comforting, who watches
what you do, listens to what you say, and is more than willing for the sake all
things good to perform unforgivable wrongs should you behave as if you’re
actually free?

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