Re-Avatar State: “City of Walls and Secrets”

In Which There’s No War in Ba Sing Sae

In many of the previous recaps I’ve used the words unsettled and uncertain to describe the state of our current narrative. Indeed the life of Team Avatar has been incredibly tumultuous. Ever since Aang concluded his first earthbending lesson, things keep getting derailed, the flow of the story thrillingly interrupted, confused, or frustrated by bigger obstacles. It demonstrates that the showrunners, writers, and directors know how to build the tension of the story. We are quickly approaching the climax of our second act, and our heroes need to be challenged.

In fact Team Avatar may have actually run up against their greatest challenge to date. They’ve faced armies, war machines, spirits, and unruly wrestlers, but they have yet to fight the Orwellian nightmare that is the political world of Ba Sing Sae. A intricate system of castes, secret police, brain washing, and puppet leadership. This is a city desperately trying to cloak a quickly disintegrating world in that of accepted stratified normalcy. There are many standout entries in Avatar, and “Cities of Walls and Secrets” enters the rarified air of the best with its unnerving tone and commitment to a troubling theme: potential allies can be just as dangerous as perceived foes.

This idea has been one baked into the season from the beginning. Way back in “The Avatar State” our heroes were frustrated by the Earth Kingdom’s military structure acting against Aang’s best interests. Time and time again the culture of the Earth Kingdom has proven to be more of a hinderance than a help. The Beifong family has been interfering with the progress of our heroes, and the simple act of getting on a refugee boat was stifled by boring bureaucracy. Here those flaws expose themselves to the fullest degree as we watch the political structures of Ba Sing Sae actively beat against Team Avatar.

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So The Gaang glide into the city on the train and are amazed by what they see. A place that is more than a city, a metropolis of such unimaginable scale that one can’t see the other end. It stands as one of the show’s most gloriously designed locales, dwarfing even the wonders of the Northern Water Tribe by sheer scope and consideration. The team’s impressed, but Toph’s skeptical of their arrival. She’s aware of the structure of Earth Kingdom life, and knows that cities like this just reinforce existing social structures.

Toph, of course, turns out to be right. As soon as Team Avatar steps off the train they are greeted by Joo Dee. A smiling woman sent by the government to handle all of The Gaang’s interactions with the city. Sokka immediately requests council with the Earth King. Joo Dee not only refuses, but actively undermines Team Avatar’s efforts, forcing them on a tour of the city instead. She displays the different levels of the city: the outer lower class ring, the middle class center ring, and the glowing inner ring, with its palatial estates and government ministers.

The structure of the city is used to make sure that the populace is “safe,” but it feels more like manufactured control of the sprawling citizenry, undermining the life of the inhabitant with the rigidity of structure. Such aspects of life in Ba Sing Sae are reinforced when The Gaang goes about looking for Appa. A local pet shop owner is silenced on knowledge of the black market, a student at the university is unwilling to admit that there’s a war with the Fire Nation. Each one of these encounters vexed by the presence of Joo Dee and her ever smiling face. A show of a stridently terrifying status quo that must be maintained. Even Team Avatar’s new next door neighbor is weighed down by fear of the Dai Li and the powers that be.

The group concocts a new scheme to see the Earth King. They’re gonna sneak into a part for his bear (just a bear). Katara and Toph are able to look and conduct themselves as proper folk, but Aang and Sokka must creep in as the wait staff. The girls get in with help of Long Feng, a seeming high ranking professional who won’t let them go. When Aang breaks character to try and approach the king he’s captured by Long Feng. The whole group muffled and restrained by the rock gloves of the Dai Li. It appears that Long Feng is the real power in the city, controlling the secret police and keeping all important matters away from the king.

The amount of influence Long Feng has is elegantly demonstrated in the b-plot as Jet continues to monitor Zuko and Iroh for more firebending slip ups. He gets nothing, and Longshot and Smellerbee begin to fret about his well being. Jet was supposed to start over, but instead he’s pulled right back into the mire of self destructive behavior that defined his inaugural appearance. He’s so convinced that the forces at work in Ba Sing Sae will be on his side that he barges in the duo as they work as servers at a tea shop. Iroh is conciliatory, but Jet is itching for a fight, and Zuko gladly indulges.

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Thus we get the show’s best completely non-bending encounter. It’s all clashing swords and street level acrobatics as the two compete. Jet wants Zuko to firebend, but Zuko is wiser after his fight with the Earth Kingdom soldiers a few weeks ago, and he sticks to the swords. Jet is just aggravating the people of Ba Sing Sae, and when the Dai Li finally come to break up the battle they attack Jet. Arresting him and throwing him in the back of the cart. This fight is wonderfully intercut with Team Avatar’s infiltration of the party as we see the two class levels and how the Dai Li interacts with them.

Both Team Avatar and Jet are escorted away, but Team Avatar is given the luxury of an ominous warning from Long Feng. His words crossfading with Jet’s brainwashing. A swirling light and a promise to remember there is no war in Ba Sing Sae. And in the final moments we see how the power of Ba Sing Sae works. Joo Dee appears once again to oversee Team Avatar, but she’s a different person with the same name. There is only order here, even at the cost of safety.

Odds and Ends

  • I Know That Voice: Long Feng is given gravely menace by voice acting stalwart Clancy Brown, both Mr. Krabs in Spongebob and Lex Luther in animated DC shows.
  • Still many funny moments in a mostly serious episode:
    • “Quiet! You don’t know what I had to do to get seats this near the bear!”
    • “The secret ingredient is love.”
    • “We dress Momo like a ghost, okay? He flies by the guards, creating a distraction. Then, we blast a hole in the wall-“
  • The Dai Li’s rock gloves are wonderful details for a police group meant to silently grab people.
  • Another fun detail, earthbenders propel the trains.
  • Also the Dai Li were created by Kyoshi, nobody’s perfect.