Avatar: The Last Airbender – Lake Laogai

In “The Serpent’s Pass,” our original anti-hero
turned villain Jet and our original villain turned anti-hero Zuko crossed paths
aboard a ferry to the great walled city of Ba Sing Se.  In the most basic break down of the two men,
both were deemed villains because they were controlled by an obsession that
generally overruled any other decision making process.  Zuko was obsessed with capturing the Avatar
and returning home to the Fire Nation a hero.
On the flip side of the same coin, Jet was obsessed with fighting the
Fire Nation to the point that he was willing to sacrifice innocents in the
pursuit of total victory over his opponents.

Our word ‘obsession’ has roots in Latin concerning ‘siege,’
‘blockading,’ and ‘blocking up.’ It passed along into French on the idea of
besieging before being developed briefly into usage to describe being
controlled by an evil spirit from the outside, instead of the inside (possession).  Eventually, it came to be defined as any
action that ‘engrosses’ the mind.  In one
way of putting it, you could say that obsession separates your mind from
everything else, consuming the consciousness.
In “Lake Laogai,” we are confronted with the end result of those who
cannot quit their obsessions, those who do, juxtaposed against the very
opposite of obsession, having someone else erased that thing which filled the
mind so dramatically.  In that, we refer
to brain washing, which in a tragic sense could almost be viewed as a throwback
to one of the original ideas of obsession, an outside force controlling one’s
actions.

In “The Serpent’s Pass,” Jet and Zuko were presented
as two men trying to find a new life and a second chance on their way to the
Earth Kingdom’s capital.  It existed as
the setting and the stage for these new lives, and it’s not really a
coincidence that in this moment of transformative thoughts on their futures, we
find them in the midst of physically moving their bodies as they sought to move
their minds.  Yet, by the time their
bodies come to a stop, so to speak, in Ba Sing Se, so do their minds and hopes
of leaving behind the obsessions of their past.
As a result, the relationship built between Jet and Zuko on the ferry
when they were both moving figuratively and literally in the same direction crashes
into physical conflict in “The City of Walls and Secrets.”  At the conclusion of that episode, Jet pays
the price of being unable to leave his past behind him and is dragged away by
the Dai Li to ultimately be brainwashed.
In “Lake Laogai,” the final repercussions of the success and failure to
leave the past behind comes to a conclusion, hopeful for one and grim for
another.

It begins innocently enough with a child’s  drawing of Appa, or, well, actually, Sokka’s
attempted drawing of Appa, comparable to a child’s skill.  His good intentions are dashed when Katara
and Aang return from professional printers with beautiful flyers to distribute
for news on the whereabouts of Appa.
Seconds later, Aang and Momo are soaring above the city and dropping handfuls
of the flyers.  This behavior results in
two things.  First, a visit from a ‘reinvigorated’
Joo Dee, fresh from a visit to a place called Lake Laogai who chastises the
avatar and tells him his actions are forbidden.
Second, it lands a flyer almost literally into the hands of Zuko, who
had stepped out of the tea shop while inside Iroh was delightfully poached by
upper ring investors to open a tea shop of his own.

Aang refuses to abide by Joo Dee’s wishes, and the
gang defiantly marches about the city plastering its walls with more
flyers.  This results in Joo Dee being
brought before the head of the Dai Li, Long Feng, who in turn, chastises her
for not being able to control the avatar.
As Joo Dee appears to start to break down in tears, Feng utters a
magical phrase, “The Earth King has invited you to Lake Laogai.”  In a heartbeat, Joo Dee’s eyes dilate and she
falls into receptive brainwash zombie mode.
As she hovers in the background, a Dai Li agent asks what should be done
about the Avatar, and Long Feng informs him, he has a plan to deal with Aang.

Back in Iroh’s and Zuko’s apartment, Iroh gleefully
packs in preparation for their move to finer accommodations in the Upper Ring
and brainstorms out loud potential names for his new tea shop.  Zuko, in very usual Zuko fashion, dampens the
mood when he reveals to his uncle that Aang is in the city. A brief, but
important exchange follows, as Iroh warns Zuko that if he stirs things up in
pursuit of the avatar, he could ruin everything good that has happened to them
since.  The Fire Nation prince quickly
bites back that the main benefactor to all the good fortune has been Iroh and
it’s not what he desires in his life.  Iroh
tells him that he should think about what he wants in life and why. Frustratedly,
Zuko admits he wants his destiny, to which Iroh responds Zuko must figure out
what his destiny is.   It’s the pivotal
moment for Zuko, the waiting confirmation to his decision to travel to Ba Sing
Se for a second chance in life.  

On the streets of the capital, Katara is caught by
surprise by Jet, whom she very understandably pins to an alleyway wall with
daggers of ice.  It’s a visible
indication of her own evolution as a water bender.  In their last confrontation, she crudely
covered him in ice against a tree.  This
time she’s able to pin him against the wall with exacting detail with a handful
of ice blades.  Jet, for his sake, swears
he’s not the man he was when they last met and in a tragic sense, it’s
true.  For this moment, Jet is the fellow
who travelled to Ba Sing Se to start a new life and to leave his freedom
fighting behind him.  He swears he’s
changed, and he has, but only by the intervention of the Dai Li.  

The rest of the team quickly join Katara and Jet,
and Toph, using her earth bending prowess, is able to detect that Jet is
speaking the truth.  For a moment, Jet’s
tale of reformation and a new life is allowed to sink in among our heroes, even
more so, when he admits he’s appeared to try and help them find Appa.  Suspicious, but willing to accept his tale,
the group follow him to a large barn-like room where they find an old man
sweeping the floor.  Jet relates the
story that he works nearby and had heard people complain about a large animal,
possibly Appa.  Then definitely Appa,
when Toph discovers a tuft of air bison hair on the ground.  The old sweeper, “Old Sweepy,” as he later
identifies himself, is quickly interrogated.
Appa is gone, bought by a wealthy man for a life of either being a
zoological curiosity behind bars or even, frightfully, a cuisine curiosity on a
plate.  The location of the noble’s
estate? Whale Tail island, a place weeks away.

Aang is prepared to leave immediately and by all
accounts, so are his friends, when Jet’s lies fall apart with the appearance of
Smellerbee and Longshot, who express surprise and worry for their friend who
they claim had been missing for a couple weeks.
Toph the human lie detector steps in and proclaims both sides to be
telling the truth, with Jet not getting the benefit of the doubt when Smellerbee
mentions the Dai Li had arrested him.
Immediately, Sokka makes the connection and declares Jet brainwashed.

Under interrogation and some water bending healing
from Katara, Jet recalls being taken somewhere under water and the connection
to Joo Dee’s Lake Laogai is made.  The
group heads for a lake outside of the city where Toph discovers a hidden
entrance just under water.  Soon they’re
inside a dark tunnel-filled affair illuminated by eerie green light.  The terror of Joo Dee, played up in “A City of
Walls and Secrets,” is thrown open as they pass a room where women, all dressed
like Joo Dee, are led by a Dai Li agent to happily recite with large
brainwashed eyes, “I’m Joo Dee, welcome to Ba Sing Se!”  Outside another door, a large door, the group
believes and hopes to find Appa within.
The scene cuts to Appa, in chains once again and underground.  A door opens to his chamber and a figure is
silhouetted by the light from outside.
It’s not Aang.  It’s no one with
Team Avatar.  It’s the Blue Spirit.

Earlier in the episode, the Blue Spirit had
returned, Zuko in disguise, and successfully taken a Dai Li agent captive.  The purpose of this capture was to find the
location of Appa, a conclusion that Zuko must be given some credit for making,
given that Team Avatar, as a whole had only suspicions and had continued to act
on the principle that he was somewhere in the city to be found with flyers.  Instead, Zuko immediately went to the Dai Li
as the culprits for the missing air bison and forced one to take him to the
location of Appa’s prison, Lake Laogai.
The fact that Zuko donned the Blue Spirit mask again reveals circumstances
where he must act in contrast to his public persona – Li, the tea waiter, not
Zuko, the Fire Nation prince.  He’s
turned to the Blue Spirit once more to act out his buried desires.

Nor is Zuko alone to his own surprise.  Behind him appears Iroh, who sarcastically
responds to the mystery of the Blue Spirit’s identity.  Aware he had been caught, Zuko removes the
mask, and without it, is faced with making a decision that he cannot hide
behind.  Iroh castigates Zuko for his
plan to take Appa, to obviously use as bait to catch Aang, by pointing out that
Zuko has no actual plan for what to do with the air bison.  It’s a rough talk down, as Iroh points out
Zuko’s behavior of never thinking everything through in his pursuit of the Avatar.  Zuko angrily responds that it’s his destiny
to capture the Avatar, a call back to their earlier discussion, to which Iroh
responds, “Is it your own destiny, or is it a destiny someone else has tried to
force on you?”  It’s followed by a plea
to Zuko to look inside himself and ask himself, “Who are you, and what do you
want?”  The question is left unanswered
for the moment, as the scene cuts away to Team Avatar and the trap they have
walked willingly into.

Long Feng, along with dozens of Dai Li agents, trap
our heroes inside the room, and Feng orders their arrests as enemies of the
Earth Kingdom.  Unfortunately for Long
Feng and his Dai Li agents, they’re attempting to arrest one of the most
powerful combinations of fighters in the Avatar universe, much less the Earth
Kingdom.  In part anchored by the
powerful earth bending of Toph, the group fights off the Dai Li agents and
cause Long Feng to flee with Aang and Jet in hot pursuit.  Unfortunately, it’s yet another trap, one
that Aang could not have seen coming.  

The pair, Aang and Jet, catch Long Feng by himself
in yet another chamber and tell him the game is up.  Cornered, Feng offers Aang one more deal, leave
the city now and he will give him back Appa.
When Aang tells the head of the cultural minister he has no room to
bargain, Feng fires back, “Jet, the Earth King invites you to Lake Laogai.”  Jet’s eyes dilate and he sets upon Aang.  The trance seems unbreakable as Aang pleas
for Jet to wake from it, until finally, Aang reminds Jet that he’s a freedom
fighter, the identity that he had once planned to shed, but ultimately was
unable to do so thanks to a simple hot steaming cup of tea.  Jet, free of the brainwashing, turns and
hurls his sword at Long Feng, narrowly missing him.  Feng counterattacks with a powerful earth
bending move that slams Jet with a pillar of stone jettisoned from the floor.  Jet is knocked to the ground and as Aang runs
to his side, Feng flees.

Death in The
Last Airbender
is a rare event, always implied and never truly shown at the
moment when the last breath is taken.  In
this manner, the show treated Jet’s death.
Mortally wounded by Long Feng’s attack, we are quickly provided two
sources to tell us that Jet will not long be with the world as everyone rushes
to his side.  Katara whips out her water
and attempts to heal him, only to stop with the simple grim pronouncement, “This
isn’t good.” Our second confirmation follows as Jet, life ebbing away, musters
up a weak smile and tells Aang that he will be okay.  Holding on to this assurance, Team Avatar
turns to leave Smellerbee and Longshot (who breaks his universal silence to
tell them to leave), but Toph with sad eyes comments,” He’s lying.”  Jet presumably dies off screen never to
appear again in the Avatar universe.  

Outside and in pursuit of Long Feng, the gang once
again find themselves surrounded by the cultural minister and his sinister Dai
Li agents.  Yet, the odds have shifted as
an excited Momo swings through the air and points to the sky, before
disappearing into the sun above.  From
the same sun drops Appa, ready to avenge his subterranean imprisonment,
smashing through the Dai Li lines.  Long
Feng attempts to earth bend against the air bison, only to have his leg caught
between Appa’s feet and flung out of sight across the surface of the lake.  Delightfully reunited, the gang climb aboard
Appa and fly away.  

Not far behind, Iroh and Zuko emerge from the same
hidden entrance that Toph had discovered earlier.   Appa’s appearance tells us the answer to
Zuko’s question, concerning his destiny.
Iroh congratulates his nephew on his choice and then indicates to Zuko
he should get rid of the Blue Spirit mask.
Wordlessly, Zuko bends over and lets the mask slip into the waters of
the lake, disappearing from sight.
Symbolically, Zuko has decided that from this point on, he will no
longer require a mask to act.  He will be
who he is without the handy crutch of the Blue Spirit mask to act as he
desires, when otherwise constrained.  The
choice to let the mask sink out of sight is poignant one, however, if only
because the mask wasn’t destroyed.  The
Blue Spirit wasn’t vanquished, instead, it was simply sent away, as if into the
subconscious.  There’s even the allusion
of a baptism, with one Zuko entering the water of the lake and a new Zuko
emerging from it.  

“Lake Laogai,” represents The Last Airbender at its darkest, which almost universally means
when the show is also at its best.  The
story of obsession is deftly represented between Zuko and Jet, with one
ultimately dying because he could not let go of his obsession, while the other did
so, and has a new opportunity at a life of happiness and peace.  It drives home the question of identity
concerning desires and the nature of those needs.  Zuko came to the realization that his destiny
wasn’t necessarily the one he wanted, but was one he was told to have.  Alternatively, Jet’s destiny, as a freedom
fighter was a choice he had made and simply refused to leave behind for a new
one.  

Beyond the story of our two anti-heroes, was the
terror of the Dai Li.  As the secret
facility of Lake Laogai was revealed, so too did the full extent of the horror
being perpetuated by the Dai Li in their use of mind control.  Countless women were being stripped of their
personalities and gifted with a generic one, turned into mouth pieces of the
Dai Li to serve at their whim.  Jet,
frightfully enough, actually was put on the right track for the purposes of
tricking Aang to leave Ba Sing Se, but ultimately, was reduced to being a
mindless killer simply waiting the beck and call of Long Feng.  The underlying purpose for the Dai Li’s
behavior, as Long Feng claims, was to protect the peace and tranquility of the
capital.  After all, the subliminal
programming was initiated by the command, “The Earth King invites you to Lake
Laogai.”  It’s in the king’s name, not
the Dai Li’s.  Yet, the ongoing question
to be answered, as we move forward into the conclusion of the season, how loyal
are the Dai Li to the king and capital versus themselves? Was Jet sacrificed on
a real altar dedicated to the protection of Ba Sing Se?

Note:
Etymology for ‘obsession’ via etymonline.com.
 

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