Avatar has always been a show haunted by death. Hell even its title is a gesture to the genocide that serves as the thematic underpinning of the whole fair. A rather grim cornerstone from which to build a program for children, and yet one of the thrills of Avatar is that the heavy premise can be made into something appropriate for everybody. An approachable way to get across big and difficult topics in a exciting package. Still the writers have to contend with those pesky things called standards and practices, so while death can be referenced, implied, and talked about it’s a beast to actually show it on screen.
In fact Jet does not die on screen in “Lake Laogai,” but it doesn’t really matter if his final breaths are depicted directly for the audience. Writer Tim Hedrick and director Lauren McMullan do everything in their cinematic power to imply the most notable fatality up until this point. And even cloaked in nudges and winks the moments still lands, a calamitous thud to an important side character whose life has been nothing but a swirl of despondent tragedy, war crimes, loss, and brain washing. It’s a revelation of one the show’s more despondent themes: that in a grand conflict many, some we don’t even know, will be swept aside by the tides of fate.
Indeed “Lake Laogai” is one of Avatar’s gnarlier outings. Even without Jet’s untimely demise it’s an entry that delves deep into the rot that has entrenched the capitol of the Earth Kingdom. This isn’t merely a case of out of control police over-exerting their power, no this is a total conspiracy. A top to bottom coverup of Ba Sing Sae by the Dai Li and Long Feng to maintain control even if it means brainwashing and murdering the populace to keep things in check. The paranoid tone is matched by some of the show’s more outre filmmaking techniques: woozy wide angles, bleary dream images, and horror movie catacombs.
Such tonal darkening might not be apparent immediately as Team Avatar makes progress in finding Appa by distributing flyers across the town. Aang gets some professionally print, much to the chagrin of Sokka and his artistic talents, and begin distributing them far and wide. This has multiple results: one is too alert original Joo Dee to the Gaang’s home, another is to make Zuko aware of Team Avatar’s presence in the city, and the final one is to put Jet into conflict with our heroes.
Team Avatar seems relieved to finally blatantly ignore the structures of the city (Toph cheers and blows out a wall), but their aggressive approach poses new problems. Long Feng is aware of their goals and wants to manipulate the situation to his benefit. Thus when Katara finally meets up with Jet she’s confounded by his new attitude. The former freedom fighter promises that he’s turned his life around and can help Team Avatar find Appa. The group’s skeptical, but Toph uses her earthbending as a lie detector to note that Jet seems to be above board.
Too bad that his lead goes nowhere, just an empty stable with Old Sweepy overseeing affairs. Alas it seems like Appa has been sent far away from the city, and Team Avatar is about to head that way before Smellerbee and Longshot find Jet and contradict his story. Now we’ve got a conundrum, it appears that both sides are telling the truth, and Sokka’s got the solution. Jet’s been brainwashed by the Dai Li.
It’s a big leap, but the right one, and The Gaang is able to jog Jet’s memory with some exposure therapy. The horrors of his life transferring into the moment when he got sent to the titular locale. Now our heroes have got a place to go and find Appa, and maybe stop Long Feng along the way.
Team Avatar isn’t the only taking the trip. The revelation of Aang’s residence has sent Zuko into a tizzy. Once again he has the opportunity to strike at his opponents. He dawns the garb of The Blue Spirit, and kidnaps a Dai Li agent to discover the location of Appa. It just so happens that he too decides to head into the depths of the Dai Li’s brainwashing lair at the same moment as The Gaang.
Here we are once again treated to an exceptional section of cross cutting between stories. Aang and Jet are probing the tunnels of Lake Laogai to find Appa and are misled into a chamber with Dai Li agents ominously hanging from the ceiling. Simultaneously Zuko discovers our beloved Bison and is once again faced with an important choice. This decision is backgrounded with Team Avatar’s fight with the Dai Li, but an important factor comes in and sends the earth quaking: Iroh.
Iroh has always been steady with Zuko, a calming presence to his nephew’s hot touch, but for the first time Iroh gets angry. Truly, and meaningfully, irate. Zuko has finally crossed a line of action, what is he supposed to do with Appa? Will it be another situation like The North Pole where Aang’s grace was the only thing saving Zuko from a frigid demise. Iroh demands Zuko to answer two questions “who are you,” and “what do you want?”
These questions have frustrated Zuko since the beginning of the season. He has struggled to define himself, to find a true self in the conflict of identities foisted upon him. Is he the honor seeking Prince of the Fire Nation, or perhaps the worldly exile that could assist The Avatar in conquering his father. With Iroh over his shoulder he helps for the time being, unshackling Appa to fly and save the Gaang. This conflict still boils in Zuko, but for now he made the right choice.
However, even if Appa gets the final assist in helping them escape, Team Avatar can’t help but be bruised by their time in the lake. Jet’s death is just another notch in the series of failures that have confronted the group. Every action they take seems to be greeted with even greater resistance. Even with the group’s reunion with Appa, they never been on more precarious ground.
Odds and Ends
- Smart detail is that Colonel Mongke is the one that destroyed Jet’s village.
- Toph’s polygraph is a bit silly, but it works well enough in this story to help cement the final “he’s lying” line.
- The shot of the Dai Li hanging from the crystals in the dark will never not be oh so unnerving.
- Two of the best blind jokes in the series from Toph: her complimenting Sokka’s art and putting the poster on backwards. Still amazing how much they are able to make this work.
- Of course this episode is the progenitor of maybe the show’s most infamous joke in “The Ember Island Players.” The “Did Jet just die.” “You know it was really unclear” exchange still cracks me up, even if it undercuts the seriousness of this episode a bit.
The Earth King
The episode before the season finale will always be a bit of an odd duck, and “The Earth King” is the strangest entry in the back third of the second season. It’s not bad, by all means it contains many exciting moment, but its structure is more than a little discombobulated and the tone all over the map. The episode is a story of three parts, an action epic, a mild comedy, and a whole lot of table setting. It’s clunky to be sure, but I’ll forgive it by knowing that all the balls it throws in the air are astoundingly caught in the finale.
The opening act then is one the show’s exemplary action sequences. For the first time since “The Drill” we are treated to an all out bending extravaganza that allows each one of our characters to demonstrate their abilities. In fact this might Team Avatar at their most coherent and powerful. Smashing their way through earth kingdom soldiers like they were nothing. Aang and Toph both get to brilliantly demonstrate their earthbending prowess, and their might not be a more “awesome” shot than Katara cartwheeling over a group of soldiers with a water whip. Sokka, of course, opens the doors.
The biggest of which leads to the Earth King’s chambers. There Team Avatar finds “his earthiness,” but he’s also joined by Long Feng. Kuei, the leader of the Earth Kingdom, is distrustful of The Gaang, after all they did knock down his door, and is skeptical of their attacks on his most trusted advisor. Luckily Bosco the bear takes a liking to Aang, and it is Kuei’s first time interacting with the Avatar, so he decides to hear out our heroes.
Of course Long Feng protests, bur his words begin to fall on deaf ears as more of what he says is revealed to be a lie. First is a bite mark that Appa made on Long Feng’s leg. That’s enough for Kuei to concede to explore the possibility of more evidence. Team Avatar first visits Lake Laogai, though Long Feng’s smart enough to destroy the entrances. Then the Gaang takes Kuei to the drill, and the Earth King has seen enough. He demands Long Feng be arrested and invites Team Avatar into his private council.
This whole section plays out a bit like a comedic reinterpretation of The Last Emperor, as we learn that Kuei has never left the palace, and all of his information has been filtered by lying and sycophantic ministers. It’s a tough pill to swallow for his majesty, but he puts everything on the right track and gives Team Avatar his full support.
This support includes some intercepted mail that’s full of surprises. Toph gets a letter from her mom wanting to reconnect, Sokka and Katara realize that their father isn’t that far away, and Aang has been offered an opportunity to study with The Guru at the Eastern Air Temple. And the Kyoshi warriors are arriving to the capitol soon, indeed everything seems to be coming up Team Avatar.
These successes belie and underlying weakness, just as everything was coming together Team Avatar is separated. Aang is off to learn from The Guru, Sokka’s going to meet his dad, and Toph’s been kidnapped by Xin Fu. Only Katara remains in the capitol for the moment, but the rest of heroes are cast to the winds. A troubling development just as the Trio of Terror comes to town disguised as the Kyoshi Warriors.
Elsewhere we see the ramifications of Zuko’s decision last week literally manifest as a sweltering fever and sickness. Zuko cannot decide on what his fate will be, and this conflict is broiling his mind. Will he, like in his dream, listen to the blue dragon, the promise of power voiced by his sister, or the the red dragon, the voice of his uncle, where he might finally break out his self destructive loop. The metaphor is a touch obvious, but it’s important to foreground this choice. To make clear that this contest of identities will be swung one way or the other.
And with Sokka’s declaration that everything’s going great the table has been set for the finale, and oh what awaits us around that corner.
Odds and Ends
- I Know That Voice: Kuei is given a calm veneer by another voice acting legend, Phil LaMarr. You may be familiar with his work as the titular Samurai Jack or getting his head blown up in a car in Pulp Fiction.
- Earlier I mentioned how Toph has definitely killed people with her earthebending, and the fight to the palace might be the number one example of that.
- Zuko’s non-scarred, non-emo haired design is very strange to consider.
- In “City of Walls and Secrets” Joo Dee exclaimed that one doesn’t just “pop in” on the Earth King. Luckily Team Avatar accomplishes that goal with aplomb.
- Oh Sokka if only you knew that your decisions here would lead to the collapse of Ba Sing Sae and the fall of the Eartk Kingdom. Never verbalize your success..