Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Tales of Ba Sing Se

“The Tales of Ba Sing Se,” is simply as wonderful as
“City of Walls and Secrets” is dark and disturbing.  It’s perhaps not a surprise that the creators
of the show desired to balance the heavy connotations of the previous episode
with something much more light in nature, an animated exhalation of relief so
to speak.  In the same manner that The Last Airbender pulled no punches
with developing a storyline with the moral ambiguity of the Dai Li, it’s not
surprising that the show decides to pull off a stunt that even regular
television is generally afraid to experiment with – a series of vignettes.  Bypassing the traditional story telling
vehicle of one or two storylines set over the entirety of an episode, “The
Tales of Ba Sing Se,” instead breaks up the episode with short stories concerning
all our principal characters, Katara, Toph, Iroh, Zuko, Sokka, Aang, and even
Momo.  

Even better, it pulls it off swimmingly and uses the
experiment to engage in characterization for virtually all the characters
involve, revealing new facts about them or pushing them in directions they had
previously not truly examined.  There is
little done to advance the storyline of Season Two, but it simply doesn’t
matter in contrast to the affection given to the show’s characters.  The heart of the episode is the “The Tale of
Iroh,” which concerns Iroh’s day as he sets off to honor the memory of his
fallen son.  It accumulates in a heart
breaking scene, tinged with even more sadness when the dedication to Mako
appears afterward, as the man who brought so much to Iroh’s character via his
voice, had passed away.

The first short story belongs to Katara and
Toph.  In brief, it involves Katara
convincing Toph to join her for a ‘girls day out’ of going to a sauna and
getting hair and make up done.  While the
idea of a ‘girls day out,’ is in itself alien for the Avatar universe as
established, particularly for Katara, as her only days out back home might have
meant taking a break from doing work around the ice village.  Toph, in her own rejection of the expected
behavior of a Beifong daughter, cared little about being made up, much less
that clean.  

We overlook these holes in the premise of the story
to appreciate the intent of the story, the reconciliation between Toph and
Katara.  While neither have had much in
the way of problems with each other since “The Chase,” when both were screaming
bloody murder at the other, nor had we received an episode that revealed the
pair to be getting along well.  Katara
was sympathetic to Toph in “The Desert,” but more so indirectly, than woman to
woman.  In “The Tale of Katara and Toph,”
the writers desired to provide the pair with a moment of emotional intimacy via
shared experience.  In this case, the
process of going through the ‘girls day out’ and the fall out after a trio of
wealthy Ba Sing Se women mock their appearances (Toph dumps them in a river and
Katara bends them away on a magical journey of their own).  

By the end of the story, the extremely hard rock
shell that Toph surrounds herself with is permitted a crack of insecurity as
Toph generally admits to fear that undoubtedly almost all girls grow up with or
grow into as they get older, their attractiveness.  No one wants to be ugly, and arguably,
ugliness is better attributed to one’s personality than appearance, but in this
case, a connection is made when Katara tells Toph that she is a pretty.  It’s a pebble in the mountain of Toph’s
confidence, but obviously, as implied by Toph’s reaction, an important one.

“The Tale of Iroh,” is easily the most emotional and
the signature short of the episode.  It begins
with Iroh preparing for a picnic to an unknown destination.  In the process, the wonderfulness of his
character is allowed to fully shine as he gently nudges a flower into shade,
provoking it to bloom in its now ideal conditions; and he comforts a crying boy
with a quick song, “Leaves from the vine,
falling so slow. Like fragile, tiny shells, drifting in the foam. Little
soldier boy, come marching home. Brave soldier boy, comes marching home
.”  Next he encounters a mugger, whom he not only
offers a quick martial arts instruction to, but also advice on pursuing his
life’s ambition.  Toss in a chance
encounter with some boys who break a window, and the story finds itself before
a very familiar tree.  

In “Bitter Work,” we were treated to flashbacks from
Iroh’s past concerning his long deceased son.
They conclude with the broken Fire Nation general Iroh kneeling before
his son’s grave, under the exact same tree.
In that scene, he promises he will return, and the conclusion of “The
Tale of Iroh,” reveals him upholding this promise to his son.  Iroh sets up a small shrine of his son,
complete with a picture and incense.  The
father tells his son that he wishes he could have saved him, inferring he’s
saving Zuko now – an indication that perhaps the loss of his son was the
crucible which made Iroh as we know him now.
The father-son dynamic between uncle and nephew have only consistently
grown stronger throughout the show.  The
story concludes as Iroh sings the same song from earlier, albeit choking up
with emotion as he does so.  

“The Tale of Iroh,” actually reveals little about
Iroh that hasn’t been expressed in other forms earlier in the show, but manages
to delight by shining a light on his character’s insight, thoughtfulness and
heart.  And while it was known he mourned
his son, a loss that mentally broke him at the time, his expression of such raw
emotion at once humanizes him even further with the viewers.  It’s a different type of grief than that
expressed and dealt with by Aang in “The Desert” and “The Serpent’s Pass,” and
it endears us even more so to sympathize with him.  Because he’s such a noble and good person, it’s
admittedly easy to find one’s eyes just as watery as his in empathy.

“The Tale of Aang,” is the next story and in the
same service that “The Tales of Ba Sing Se,” serve to lighten the air after a
heavy episode, so does this story serve to pick the viewer up from their
emotional response to Iroh’s tale.  It’s
extremely similar to Iroh’s story, in that it reveals little to nothing new
about the Avatar, but in contrast, it also lacks the emotional resonance of the
other story – by design.  In short, Aang
is out looking for Appa when he discovers a run down and crowded zoo.  

Resolving to help the sympathetically portrayed zoo
owner and more so, the sad and depressed zoo animals, Aang leads the animals in
a wild stampede outside of the city and into new larger enclosures.  The result are happy animals, which draw
happy children, and their parents who make the zoo keeper happy with their
admission fees.  It’s an all’s well that
ends well, so long as we forget that Aang made no progress in the hunt for
Appa.  It is a nice touch to reveal that
Aang has come to terms enough with Appa’s disappearance where he will allow
himself to enjoy helping others.

“The Tale of Sokka,” is akin to Aang’s story in its
light hearted nature, but does offer a glimpse of Sokka not truly appreciated,
his intelligence.  By this point in the
show, it’s been well established that Sokka is a plans guy.  He’s a strategist, but just as often, he’s
played as a comic foil.  In his story, he
stumbles into a school for the teaching of haikus, and unintentionally ends up
firing haikus back and forth at the school’s teacher.  Buoyed by the support of a number of
attractive female students, Sokka is allowed to demonstrate a quick mastery of
the poetic form.  It’s only when another
element of his personality, his overconfidence, filters in does he slip up and
end a poem with four syllables, not five.
On that note, he’s ejected by the school’s surprisingly large bouncer
and thus ends, Sokka’s tale.   It’s a
short story, light, but informative to his character and revealing of his
intelligence.  

Sokka’s tale was not the only one dealing with
romantic suggestion between the sexes, either.
In “The Tale of Zuko,” the former Fire Nation prince discovers an
admirer among the patrons of the tea house.
The woman, named Jin, is bold and forward, asking Zuko out on a date
that he reluctantly agrees to.  The idea
of Zuko on a date must have been percolating around the writer’s room, as it
was foreshadowed in the previous episode when Iroh secured a vase of flowers
and claimed he wanted to pretty up their home for any potential dates Zuko
brought home with him.  

Zuko’s social skills, as observed since Season One,
have never been great.  It’s a mixture of
a child isolated from the one family member who loved him and forced to try his
best to prove himself to an unforgiving and unloving father.  At some point, at least prior to his exile,
his uncle returned and provided a new person for him to interact with who truly
appreciated his presence – but, as the son of the Fire Lord, he lived an
isolated life devoid of the normal socializations virtually everyone else
experiences.  Thus, it’s no surprise that
while Zuko attempts to be polite, he’s a miserable date.

His sole successful act comes near the end when Jin
leads him to a fountain where she expected to find dozens of lit lanterns, but
instead, to her disappointment are all extinguished.  Revealing that Zuko has the capacity to grasp
when an opportunity arises to exert a little energy to help make someone’s day
better, he asks Jin to close her eyes and then swiftly fire bends the lanterns
into a cascade of glowing lights.  The
romance is thick in the air and Jin, as unabashed as earlier, moves in for a
kiss.  The two do kiss, but Zuko abruptly
pulls away and departs, admitting that his reason for leaving is
complicated.  Behind him, Jin watches
with a sad expression.  Zuko enters his
and Iroh’s apartment wordlessly and responds to Iroh’s question about the date
by slamming the door to his room.  Yet,
in a quick after thought, cracks it open to simply tell his uncle, “It was
nice.”  The scene, framed to show only a vulnerable looking Zuko, conveys the message that for a moment, we were allowed to break through his own tough exterior to see a more vulnerable side of the Fire Nation prince.

As in “The Tale of Katara and Toph,” and to a
degree, Sokka’s story, we get the opportunity to see our characters from
another perspective, placed in circumstances that we have never seen them in
before and been allowed to see how they respond to them all.  In this case, we get to see Zuko do something
nearly every teenager ends up doing, going on a date, but it’s more than just
an excursion into the mundane.  For Zuko,
it’s an incredible step forward into embracing the new start that Ba Sing Se
promises for himself and his uncle, as well the new persona that has been
crystallizing since he chose to be a hero in “Zuko Alone.”  

The final story is that of Momo.  In “The Tale of Momo,” the show reminds us of
one reason why we appreciate it so much and it involves the treatment of
animals, especially those who are characters unto themselves.  This installment zeroes in on the fact that
just because they cannot talk, the animal characters of The Last Airbender are just as important as our regular chatty
crew.  Momo was given some wonderful
moments in the previous episode, be it a self-important caped wearing lemur to
a hat with a tail scurrying across the floor, and in his story, he’s allowed to
pursue the same quest as Aang, the search for Appa.

After waking from a dream of Appa, Momo ties a bit
of Appa hair he finds in Sokka’s bag and sets out into Ba Sing Se to hunt for
the air bison, encountering different problems, but none so terrifying than
pursuit by pygmy pumas through alleyways and street displays.  In the process of evading them, he and the
pumas are captured by someone who then appears to try and sell them to a chef
for fine dining purposes.  Momo easily
escapes his prison, but is then faced with the quandary of saving his erstwhile
pursuers or leaving them to their fate.
Momo goes with the former and frees them, immediately finding friends
for life.  One of the puma’s sniffs the
tuff of appa hair and bolts away with it, causing a frantic Momo to chase after
it.  The chase ends with the puma
dropping the hair in an imprint in the dirt, an air bison paw print.  Comforted by this evidence of Appa, Momo
curls up with the air in the foot print and falls asleep.

“The Tales of Ba Sing Se,” exemplify everything
fantastic about The Last Airbender in
a series of vignettes about the main characters of the show.  It grasps the humor, the complexity, and the
affection devoted to bringing to life the characters of the show.  It amply demonstrates the creativity of the
world building, from the random haiku school for girls to multiple creative
slices of life of Ba Sing Se’s streets and alleyways.  It uses mundane events, such as a ‘girl’s day
out’ or a simple date, as a method to reveal new aspects of the characters we
have already grown to love.   It easily
ranks among the top episodes of the television show, if only for offering a
simple song sung by a father with a broken heart.

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