Avatar: The Last Airbender: City of Walls and Secrets   Rewatch 
July 2, 2015 6:59 AM - Season 2, Episode 14 - Subscribe

Aang, Sokka, Toph, and Katara are finally in Ba Sing Se. But why is it such a pain to see the Earth King?

Why is no one talking about the war? What's with Joo Dee? Why is Long Feng looking at them funny? Where's Appa? And why is it not a platypus bear, a skunk bear, an armadillo bear, or a gopher bear, but just a...bear?

This place is weird.

Meanwhile, Iroh discovers his one true calling, and that, unfortunately, his nephew still thinks of tea as "hot leaf juice". But there's no time to disown him, Jet has a serious problem with the both of them.
posted by Katemonkey (9 comments total)
Yes, this is where the "There is no war in Ba Sing Se" meme comes from.
posted by Katemonkey at 7:00 AM on July 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

I will be back for full thoughts later, but I wanted to mention before I forget that the title of the episode is a zeugma. /language nerdery
posted by bettafish at 9:40 AM on July 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

I like Just Bear's love of light shows and food ("Quiet - you don't know what I had to do to get this close to the bear"), but Momo runs away with best animal this episode, what with his hanging upside down from the light fixture in the carriage, Lord Momo of the Momo Dynasty, and his use of Aang's hat as a hiding place.

I was determined not to feel sorry for Jet, up until the brainwashing started. Euugh. Ba Sing Se gives me the howling fantods. (On the plus side for Zuko and Iroh, it's probably the safest place in the world for them to be.)

At this point, I just want Appa back.
posted by minsies at 11:28 AM on July 2, 2015

If ever a clutch of cartoon episodes gave me the creepies, it's these, the ones set in Ba Sing Se. The Fire Nation makes no bones about their mission, they want to conquer the world and that is what it is. They're not subtle at all.

But the higher-ups in Ba Sing Se, so pernicious, so soft and sly and hard at work on their deception and...gyaaaahhhh. Honestly, Ozai and Azula didn't wig me out nearly as much.

Aang and Sokka's bowing fail did sort of distract me from the creepies though so there's that.
posted by angeline at 1:35 PM on July 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

minsies, I will not tell you exactly when Appa comes back (although you may have already looked it up!) but I can tell you that the next two episodes are really heavy on cool Avatar fauna and I hope you enjoy it.

The use of humor here is really interesting -- it's all grounded in viewer familiarity with the show's universe ("You mean... platypus bear?"), the characters' quirks and histories, and their relationships with each other. Aang and Sokka are delightful together, not least because we don't see them having long scenes together that often but we know of course this is exactly what they'd be like. On the other storyline our knowledge of Iroh and Zuko as these guys is what makes their transformation into these guys so damn funny.

But there's this dissonance between viewers' initial expectations for the show (this Ba Sing Se place must be amazing! The Fire Nation characters are the bad guys!) and what's actually happening on screen that ratchets the tension tighter and tighter until Jet explodes. With Jet's vaguely ironic arrest and our first shot of the Earth King it looks like the denouement is at hand -- instead the Gaang has the rug yanked right out from under them, so do we, and oooooooh crap what's gonna happen next--

- On the tea-loving scale, I am 2/3rds of the way towards Iroh, having started as a Zuko, right down to having called it "leaf juice."
- "You're not exactly Lady Fancy Fingers!"
- Sifu Kisu and Byran Konietzko choreographing Zuko vs. Jet.
- This is the only ATLA episode to be Emmy-nominated. A South Park episode won instead.
posted by bettafish at 6:01 PM on July 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm with angeline: the Fire Nation's war seems refreshingly simple, almost quaint compared to Ba Sing Se's Orwellian setup. Would you rather have Azula blue-firebolt your ass into next week -- or deal with Joo Dee who, WTF, gets swapped out for another Joo Dee? Yikes.

I really like that the people doing this show weren't afraid to put this kind of thing in front of kids.
posted by dsquared at 8:58 PM on July 2, 2015

I find the replacement Joo Dee much creepier as an adult than I think I would have as a kid, knowing the history I do.

I am, however, delighted by the Momo queue, and I wish it showed up again.
posted by tchemgrrl at 6:29 PM on July 7, 2015

Long thoughts here, short thoughts below!

Factoid: "Dai Li" isn't just the name of the quasi-secret agency of Ba Sing Se, but was also the name of the head of Chinese nationalist intelligence during the Second World War. He was assassinated killed in an air plane crash not long after the war was over.

bettafish nailed what makes this episode so powerful and great, the dichotomy between the expectation of the greatness of Ba Sing Se and the secret rotten foundation at work to keep it so. It's the work of opposites that finds its way into the speech of the Dai Li, both Long Feng and Jet's Dai Li agent, and runs perfectly into the doublespeak of 1984. Safety is Freedom.

Not to get political too much, but in reflection, I definitely wonder how much real world American politics were informing the writing of the episode and twist in the storyline. By this point, criticisms of the Bush Administration, the torture accusations, and the Patriot Act, were well into fruition. Courtesy of "The Chase," we know the writers were, or likely were, fans of Battlestar Galactica which pulled no punches in its criticisms of the American government and its actions at the time (IT HAD A SYMPATHETIC SUICIDE BOMBER EPISODE). In a way, is Ba Sing Se supposed to be stand in for the United States during the war years? The Beacon on the Hill upheld by indefensible actions?

I absolutely agree that the Fire Nation as the bad guy is refreshingly, or should I say, reassuringly clear and forthright. They want to conquer the world. They wear conveniently matching outfits. They're the traditional bad guy and neatly fall into a world of black and white. With the introduction of the Ba Sing Se episodes, everything becomes murky and the people who are up to no good not only hide in the shadows and out of sight, but they profess to do what they do for the betterment of society and to keep it safe. Allotting the Ministry of Culture to the job of secret evil agency, probably was also purposeful to align it with the fascist tradition of drawing upon culture and traditions to cloak its behavior and justify its acts.

The use of Joo Dee was stupendously awesome. For much of the episode, she comes across as someone obviously faking their sincerity and their optimism for their job. She's the polite, but unbending controller of the gang. But, when we're reintroduced to Joo Dee at the very end, and it's a different person, the frightening ramifications slam home, especially given the last few seconds involved a slow close up on Jet's eyes as he began to succumb to the brain washing.

Also, Long Feng is voiced by Clancy Brown, and the award for wait, how'd that happen? for voice casting goes to the use of Wil Wheaton for the pet store proprietor!

The conclusion of the episode is a masterpiece.
posted by Atreides at 1:00 PM on July 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

Atreides, if you are saying GWB is the Earth King, that leads me to ask... Who is the bear? XD

Stop making me think so deeply about a kid's cartoon!
posted by jillithd at 2:28 PM on July 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

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