Welcome to the thirty-fifth installment of my Avatar: The Last Airbender rewatch! Today’s post will be covering “Tales of Ba Sing Se.” Episode 2.15 delights us with a collection of vignettes, one of which was designed to make us all sob.
Please note that while the summary will remain spoiler free (aside for everything up to and including the current episode, of course), the subsequent commentary (and comments) will not be. If you haven’t already seen the series, go do it now. This post will be waiting for you when you come back.
Note: I would like this rewatch to remain spoiler free for The Legend of Korra. Please choose your comments wisely. If you wish to discuss Korra, you can do so on these posts.
Aang shaves his head, Sokka shaves his barely there mustache, and Katara finishes styling her hair. Even Momo is busy grooming himself, but Toph hasn’t gotten out of bed. Katara goes to check on her to see if she’s ready for the day. Toph acquired an impressive case of bedhead overnight. To make matters worse, she spits and has dust coming off her clothes.
Katara suggests that perhaps Toph should wash up; Toph insists she has a healthy coating of earth. That gives Katara an idea. She suggests that she and Toph enjoy a girls’ day out, and Toph reluctantly agrees.
The girls head to the Fancy Lady Day Spa for some serious pampering. Toph is rather displeased with the women who go after her feet, and she ends up punting one of them through the wall. However, Toph does enjoy the mud bath. When she scares one of the attendants with some mudbending, both Toph and Katara laugh about it. Later in the sauna, Toph flips rocks into the fire and Katara splashes the hot stones with water to both their satisfaction.
So. Adorable. See? Katara can laugh about silly things like mud monsters.
The girls finally exit the spa—complete with fancy makeup. Toph admits that the spa wasn’t that bad. It made her feel girly. Katara is happy they’ve been able to do something fun together.
As they cross a bridge, they run into a trio of girls who say snide things about Toph’s makeup. Katara tries to get Toph to keep walking away with her, but the snotty girls continue to make fun of Toph.
So Toph turns around and earthbends the bridge out from under them. Katara finishes up by waterbending the girls downstream. She runs to catch up to Toph and reassure her.
Toph tells Katara it’s okay—since she’s blind, she doesn’t have to worry about appearances. She says she doesn’t care what she looks like and isn’t looking for anyone’s approval. Toph further says she knows who she is (and sheds a single tear).
Katara tells Toph that that is why she admires her. Toph is strong, confident, and self-assured. Katara tells her that even though it doesn’t matter, Toph is pretty. Toph brightens up a little at that, but then points out that she can’t return the compliment since she has no idea what Katara looks like. She thanks Katara and gives her a friendly punch on the shoulder.
Best friends forever. No, seriously. FOREVER.
Iroh wanders through the market and stops to admire a picnic basket. The shopkeeper suggests a fancy basket if he’s going on a romantic picnic, but Iroh tells him the plain one will be fine for this special occasion. He pays for the basket and then pauses to push a moonflower into some shade so it can blossom.
Iroh is looking at instruments when he hears a young boy start to cry. The child’s mother tries to comfort him, but it’s not working. Iroh (having borrowed a liuqin from the shop to accompany him) starts singing a cheerful tune about a soldier returning home.
The song gets the child to stop crying. The little boy smiles and tugs on Iroh’s beard before his mother pulls him away.
Iroh is probably the best dad/uncle/grandfather figure ever.
Iroh runs across a bunch of boys playing a game that involves earthbending and a ball. The boys accidentally send the ball through a neighbor’s window. Iroh counsels them about how it is usually best to admit mistakes and restore honor—until the hulk of a neighbor informs the kids that when he’s through with them, the window won’t be the only thing that’s broken. Iroh tells the kids to run, and they all bolt.
Iroh takes refuge in an alley only for a man to pull a knife on him and demand his money. The threat doesn’t phase Iroh, mostly because the man has very poor stance. Iroh easily disarms him and then helps him improve his mugging form. When Iroh gently points out that the man does not seem like the criminal type, the would-be mugger confesses that he’s just confused. Somehow Iroh gets the man to open up to him over a cup of tea, and Iroh tells him that while it’s best to believe in oneself, a little help from others can be a great blessing.
As the sun sets over Ba Sing Se, Iroh retreats to a quiet hilltop. There is a single tree at the top, and Iroh kneels in front of it. He pulls supplies out of the picnic basket and sets up a memorial shrine for his son, Lu Ten. Iroh wishes Lu Ten a happy birthday and then laments about not being able to help him. Iroh sings again, and this time, he weeps through the 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.
Please excuse me while I go weep.
Aang wanders through a rather sad looking zoo and makes distressed faces at the depressed animals. The zookeeper appears and tells Aang that the Dai Li won’t give him enough money to keep his animals fed because kids don’t come to see the animals, and the kids don’t come to see the animals because the zoo is nasty and broke.
Aang spots a rabaroo in an enclosed space, and the zookeeper says he wishes he could give the animal enough space to hop her way to happiness. That’s all it takes for Aang to get his idea. He tells the zookeeper that there’s a big open space outside Ba Sing Se’s outer wall. Aang plans to transport all the animals out there so they can have enough space.
Even though Aang assures the zookeeper that he’s great with animals, it doesn’t take long for the animals to run amok through Ba Sing Se. Aang has to defend the citizenry from random animal attacks, and he admits that it went much easier in his head. He finally sends a huge blast of air through the flying bison whistle. The noise attracts the animals’ attention, and he leads them toward the city wall.
The zookeeper tries to get the guards to open the gate, but it isn’t until the stampede of animals shows up that the guards will do it. Aang leads the animals out of the city and uses his earthbending skills to create a cage-free zoo. While the zookeeper is grateful for Aang’s work, Aang ended up inadvertently bringing domesticated animals into the zoo with him.
I have a feeling they were trying for cute, but you are just creepy.
Sokka wanders through the city and stumbles across a group of young women reciting haikus. He admires the poetry from afar, but a flighty ostrich horse kicks him through the window, much to everyone’s surprise. Sokka’s apology ends up being a haiku, and the pretty girls giggle in appreciation.
Their teacher is not very impressed with Sokka. Somehow the teacher and Sokka end up in a haiku battle. The teacher gets angrier and angrier with every round while Sokka grows more confident. Finally, the teacher concedes Sokka’s right to stay.
Sokka, triumphant, performs another haiku—only to have six syllables instead of five in the final line. The bouncer throws him out of the room.
Your fangirls aren’t that forgiving, Sokka.
Zuko tells Iroh they have a problem—one of the customers is on to them. There’s a young woman who comes into the tea shop frequently, but Iroh thinks she just has a crush on Zuko. This option clearly never crossed Zuko’s mind, and he’s startled when the girl—Jin—asks him out on a date. Luckily Iroh is there to accept on his behalf.
Zuko emerges from the shop at sundown with hideously slicked back hair and green clothes that do not suit him. Jin ruffles Zuko’s hair (to fix it, yay!) and then drags him off for their date.
Their conversation over dinner is very awkward. Jin asks questions that Zuko can’t really answer, and Zuko sucks at coming up with conversation topics unprompted. When Jin asks about where he and Iroh lived before arriving in Ba Sing Se, Zuko gets the bright idea to tell her they were part of a traveling circus. It does not come as a surprise that when she asks him to juggle, he completely fails at it.
Zuko has many talents. Juggling is not one of them.
Jin is not turned off by Zuko’s epic social awkwardness and takes him to her favorite place in the city: the fire light fountain. Unfortunately, when they get there, the lights aren’t lit. Jin is clearly crushed by this, so Zuko tells her to close her eyes. He uses his firebending to light the lamps and has her open her eyes again.
Jin is delighted by the scene and rather quickly decides to stop asking questions. She takes Zuko’s hand and leans in for a kiss—only for Zuko to interrupt it with a coupon for a free cup of tea (Iroh’s idea). Jin tells him she has something for him as well and has him close his eyes. She gives him a quick peck on the lips, which Zuko returns. Then Zuko breaks away abruptly. When Jin asks what’s wrong, he tells her it’s complicated and runs back home.
Iroh is waiting for Zuko’s return and asks how his evening went. Instead of answering, Zuko heads straight for his room and slams the door behind him. After a moment Zuko opens the door a little and tells Iroh that it was nice.
This just makes me giggle every time.
Momo dreams of feeding Appa fruit from a giant tree. A blast of thunder wakes Momo from the dream and sends him into Sokka’s bag. Momo finds a tuft of Appa’s fur in there and smells it. The lemur ties the fur around his wrist and leaps out of the window after an Appa-shaped shadow.
Unfortunately, that shadow was cast by a cloud. Momo looks around and spots another Appa-shaped lump behind a few buildings. When he gets up close, he is disappointed to see that it is only a tree.
Momo continues his hunt through the city and pauses to drink some water from a barrel. His tail knocks over some clutter, which catches the attention of some predators. The creatures chase Momo. After several harrowing seconds, Momo gets caught up in a street performance with monkeys. The predators break through the crowd of watching humans and chase Momo down a side street. Before they can kill the lemur, a human shows up and captures them all.
The human takes all the animals to a butcher. While they’re negotiating, Momo uses his opposable thumbs to free himself and the creatures that were chasing him from their cages. The predators are now very fond of Momo, but one of them pulls Appa’s fur off of Momo’s wrist. Momo chases after the creature and gets led to an obscure part of Ba Sing Se.
The creature drops the tuft of fur on a patch of ground, and Momo is quick to reclaim it. The camera pans out as the rain begins to fall. The hollow Momo is curled up in is actually Appa’s footprint.
I don’t understand.
It’s a little hard to think of anything coherent to say about this episode because it really is an amalgamation of a bunch of tiny episodes. So instead of coming up with a couple overarching points and trying to shoehorn everything to fit them, I’m just going to talk about each one separately.
I can do what I want; it’s my rewatch.
The Tale of Toph and Katara
While I am a little sad that the girls didn’t get separate stories (and all the guys did), I actually really like this little tale. We’ve seen a lot more of them fighting (or disagreeing) than of them bonding, so this is a nice change of pace. This tale makes it clear that Toph and Katara are girls in different ways—and that it’s okay that they’re different.
Even though Toph’s default stance on life is that appearances don’t matter, she is still okay with going out to a spa with Katara. Despite some initial reluctance and minor hiccoughs, Toph does end up enjoying the pampering and dressing up. As she pointed out in the previous episode, Toph knows how to operate in high society—including the dressing and grooming departments—but prefers not to conform to those rules most of the time.
There were some great bits in the spa where you could see Katara and Toph really were friends, like when they laughed over Toph scaring one of the attendants or the two girls cooperating in the sauna to keep the room full of steam. It’s really nice to see the two of them together and having fun.
My favorite part was the last bit of the story, after Toph and Katara have dealt with the three snooty girls. Toph, who has clearly been hurt by the cruel things the girls said, tells Katara that she doesn’t care what she looks like, that she isn’t looking for anyone’s approval, and that she knows who she is.
So Katara turns right around and tells Toph those things are why she admires her. Katara tells Toph that she is strong, confident, and self-assured. And then, because it’s true, Katara tells Toph that she is pretty.
I’ve seen people complain about Katara and the mothering she does for the group members, but you know what? I like that there is someone on the team who genuinely cares for everyone else and actively works to keep them in good spirits and strives to see the best in them. I love that Katara has seen past her differences with Toph and can honestly tell the younger girl that she admires her and why she admires her. I love that Katara will do her best to shield her friends from hurt, and when that is no longer an option, help them get some vengeance.
The Tale of Iroh
Right, so. I cried both times Iroh sang his song, and I’m trying valiantly not to tear up while I write this.
The first time I watched this, I had no idea where this was going. I figured that Iroh was going to drag Zuko away to have a cute uncle-nephew bonding moment and we’d get more foreshadowing for their eventual enlistment into Team Good.
Instead, I got something that reduces me to an incoherent mess every time I watch it.
We’ve been told a couple times that Iroh lost a son during the siege of Ba Sing Se and had a tiny flashback of Iroh and a very young Lu Ten playing together. But aside from a very brief moment during the siege of the North Pole (where Iroh told Zuko that he was like a son), we’ve seen almost nothing of Iroh’s grief. We’ve seen Zuko and Ursa being upset and Azula being indifferent, but we haven’t had anything from Iroh—until now.
It’s been said numerous times before by people who are smarter than me, so I’ll just point it out for those who haven’t noticed it before: Iroh gets to experience growing up with Lu Ten stand-ins in this episode. He comforts a toddler with a song; teaches young boys about right and wrong (and when to run); and advises a young adult on how to turn his life around and have hope—things he did and didn’t get to do with his own son.
Iroh helps several people in this episode, and so it’s heartbreaking when he cries and says “If only I could have helped you.”
And that’s why Iroh has been at his nephew’s side for the last three years. Iroh’s redemption isn’t about reclaiming the throne that should have been his or restoring balance to the world, though both of those could have been noble causes. Iroh’s redemption is helping Zuko while Zuko can still be saved.
(And of course, we have the especially touching tribute to Mako at the end of this tale. RIP, Mako.)
The Tale of Aang
This is the weakest of the tales by far. Sorry, Aang, but I’m not amused by your overconfidence in your animal-handling skills. People could have been seriously hurt what with wild, exotic animals crashing through the streets, and we definitely saw some property damage. (Hello, cabbage man!) Are you paying to fix all that or what?
Also, why on earth does your flying bison whistle work on animals that are not flying bisons? We’ve never seen that happen before.
The Tale of Sokka
This is probably the second-weakest of the tales, but it is funny, so I forgive it. The haiku battle between Sokka and the teacher is delightful. I love how angry the teacher gets every time Sokka is able to counter her “artful” haikus with his “artless” ones. It’s supremely satisfying to see Sokka being quick-witted and clever—and popular with the young ladies yet again. (Can you blame them?)
Of course, he has to promptly screw it up by being overconfident and boastful. Dear protagonists: things to downhill fast when you let your ego go to your head. Please try to remember this in the future.
The Tale of Zuko
This tale is pretty pointless, but I like it anyway. Mostly I’m amused by how clueless Zuko is about social norms and how on earth to interact with people that are not 1) subordinates or 2) family. I love that when Zuko notices Jin staring at him, he immediately assumes that she has figured out that he and Iroh are Fire Nation and is getting ready to report them to the authorities. Iroh, not being a socially awkward and emotionally stunted young man, knows that she’s really just watching Zuko because she has a crush on him.
Also? Huzzah for a girl who will ask a guy out! I think Jin is adorable for making the first move and for planning out their date. She does very well handling Zuko’s terrible awkwardness, and for that I applaud her.
Of course, the parts I hate about this tale are the implied stupidity from Iroh and the explicit stupidity from Zuko.
Iroh, you and Zuko seriously haven’t come up with a cover story yet about your past? How long have you been pretending to be refugees? You have to know that at some point someone is going to think that your stuttering refusals to answer questions are suspicious. (Also, Zuko, what on earth are you doing agreeing with Jin about juggling? Why didn’t you say something lame like taking tickets? She wouldn’t have demanded a demonstration of that.)
Zuko, lighting those lamps was a very suave thing to do, so I feel a little bad about calling you socially awkward and emotionally stunted. However, I do not feel bad about calling you a total idiot. Seriously? Firebending right in the middle of Ba Sing Se in a way that could not be 1) someone’s imagination or 2) explained in ways that did not involve firebending? Especially since you were just terribly paranoid about Jin figuring out that you and Iroh were firebenders. Come over here so I can smack you.
(On the other hand, given how Jin’s dialogue goes, part of me thinks she figured out what he did and decided to keep it a secret anyway. I could see her rationalizing that Lee could be the product of a
willing? unwilling? union between an Earth Kingdom woman and a Fire Nation soldier. The war has gone on for a century, and such a thing can’t be entirely uncommon. Lee could be hiding his abilities as a firebender because, you know, that’s a bad thing to be even if he’s totally an Earth Kingdom citizen.
I like theorizing too much, I think. On to the final tale!)
The Tale of Momo
I’m not really fond of Momo, and this tale was kind of boring. What saves it from being worse than Aang’s tale is that 1) it’s kind of neat to see how Momo is dealing with Appa’s disappearance and 2) this is pretty much the only tale with a significant plot point in it.
Momo found proof that Appa is, in fact, in Ba Sing Se! Finally. I cannot wait for us to get past this annoying plot thread. Thanks for moving us a step closer, Momo!
Overall, this episode was a fun little breather after all the crazy things that happened in “City of Walls and Secrets.” Even though I’m kind of sad about a filler episode this late in the season, I will forgive them for it because of Iroh’s tale.
And as a special surprise to all of you, I’m putting up an extra post this week! Come back on Wednesday for Book Two: Earth || Chapter Sixteen: Appa’s Lost Days. It’s time we found out what the flying bison was up to and introduce the final key character for the season finale.