Welcome to the thirty-fourth installment of my Avatar: The Last Airbender rewatch! Today’s post will be covering “City of Walls and Secrets.” Episode 2.14 gives us nightmares with the trifecta of secret police, Stepford Tour Guides, and brainwashing. Are you ready for the utopia of Ba Sing Se?
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.
Our heroes ride the monorail to the inner wall of Ba Sing Se. Katara and Sokka try to reassure Aang about finding Appa, but Aang points out that Ba Sing Se is a big city. Our heroes are amazed to get their first glimpse of how ginormous the city actually is, and they realize that it would be entirely possible for someone to hide a giant, white, flying bison in a city of this size.
The monorail pulls in to the station. Our heroes disembark, but Toph isn’t thrilled to be back into a city filled with walls and rules. Aang blows on his bison whistle and then says that he can feel that Appa is in the city.
A woman with a creepy smile on her face introduces herself to our heroes. Her name is Joo Dee, and she is their guide to Ba Sing Se. She already knows all of our heroes by name. Sokka tells her that they have information that’s crucial to the war effort, but Joo Dee stays focused on the tour and tells them that they have a home in the city. Sokka tries to tell her again that they have information about the war, but Joo Dee only tells them that they are safe here.
Yeah, ‘cuz she’s not creepy at all.
Our heroes begin their carriage tour of the Lower Ring. Joo Dee tells them that Ba Sing Se has many walls—the outside ones are for protection, and the inside ones are to maintain order. The newest arrivals, craftsmen, artisans, and people who work with their hands all live here. Katara asks why all the poor people have been blocked off in one area, and Aang reveals that he never visited Ba Sing Se before. He had heard it was very different from the way the monks had taught him to live.
Zuko looks rather displeased by his situation in the Lower Ring, and it is only compounded by Iroh’s determination to be upbeat. Iroh, who has somehow found flowers and a vase, says he wants their place to look nice in case Zuko brings home a lady friend. Zuko calls the city a prison and declares that he doesn’t want to make a life here, but Iroh points out that life happens wherever you are. As a bonus, Iroh has also found the two of them jobs which they will start that afternoon.
Jet emerges from the shadows and glares after Iroh and Zuko. He is disgusted that firebenders are living under everyone’s noses, but Smellerbee and Longshot are dubious about all this. Smellerbee points out that he only saw a man with a cup of hot tea. Even if Iroh is a firebender, they came here for a fresh start. Are they supposed to attack them?
Jet insists that they have started over. Once he gets the evidence he needs, he’ll turn it over to the police and let them handle it. Smellerbee and Longshot exchange a significant glance.
I think Zuko is really just put out because he didn’t get to pick which flowers Iroh bought.
Joo Dee shows our heroes the Middle Ring, which contains the financial district, shops, restaurants, and a university. Sokka jumps on the last point and tells Joo Dee that they met Professor Zei. The professor led them to a library in which they uncovered information that is crucial to the war effort.
Joo Dee brushes off Sokka’s words and exits the carriage for a tour of town hall. Sokka is flabbergasted by Joo Dee’s non-responsiveness to all this, but Toph points out that Joo Dee is “handling” them. She tells Sokka to get used to it.
Jet lurks outside the tea shop where Iroh and Zuko have found jobs as servers. The owner offers the two men tea and then disappears to fetch additional string so Iroh can tie his apron properly. Iroh drinks the tea, but he is disgusted by it. He declares that this nasty tea is nothing more than hot leaf juice, and when Zuko points out that that is what all tea is, Iroh is offended. He pitches the nasty tea out the window (nearly getting Jet) and announces that they will have to make major changes around the shop.
For a moment, Zuko thought that Iroh had finally come to his senses about his tea addiction.
Joo Dee guides our heroes through the Upper Ring, which is home to the city’s most important people and where our heroes will be living. They drive by the palace wall, and Sokka asks about the sinister looking fellows in uniform. Joo Dee tells them that those men are part of the Dai Li, the cultural authority of Ba Sing Se and guardians of all their traditions.
Aang isn’t impressed and asks to see the Earth King; Joo Dee shoots him down and takes our heroes to their new home instead. A messenger runs over to Joo Dee and hands her a scroll. She tells our heroes that their request to see the Earth King has been processed, and that they should have an audience in six to eight weeks. Our heroes are not pleased by this.
Joo Dee tries to get our heroes excited about their fancy house, but she stonewalls them about getting an audience with the Earth King any sooner. Aang decides that they should search for Appa if they’re going to be stuck waiting for so long. Joo Dee offers to escort them, but Toph is quick to point out that they don’t need a babysitter. Their tour guide insists on accompanying them—she would be a bad hostess if she simply left them alone.
Because your traditions need this much guarding. Right.
Aang questions a pet shop owner, but he hasn’t seen or heard of a flying bison. Sokka tries to get him to spill about where the city’s black market is. The man glances at Joo Dee, who gives him a scary smile and shakes her head. The pet shop owner says the black market is illegal and kicks the boys out of his shop.
Our heroes question a university student about sandbenders, but he says they’d have to talk to Professor Zei if they wanted to learn more. When Sokka sarcastically asks which professor they could talk to about the war with the Fire Nation, the student gets flustered. Joo Dee does her smile-and-headshake thing once again; Sokka almost catches her doing it. The student makes an excuse about not being a political science student and trips over himself in his haste to get away.
Joo Dee returns our heroes to their home and apologizes that no one knows where Appa is. She tells them to get some rest and that someone will be over shortly with their dinner. As the carriage drives away, our heroes spot an old man peering at them from his house across the street. Sokka leads everyone over to the man’s house and knocks on the door.
The man introduces himself as Pong and is happy to see that the Avatar has shown up. Sokka questions Pong about why everyone seems terrified to mention the war, and Pong tries to feign ignorance. Toph points out that she can feels Pong shaking. Pong tells them he doesn’t want any trouble—he’s just a minor government official who waited three years to get this house—and warns them not to mention the war or go near the Dai Li. He slams his door shut.
I’d probably be terrified by this smile, too.
Jet spies on Iroh and Zuko again. Iroh offers to make Zuko a pot of tea, but the teenager is sick of it after working in a tea shop all day. Unfortunately, Iroh’s spark rocks have disappeared—it turns out Jet stole them to see if he could get Iroh to firebend. Iroh disappears for a few moments and returns with the neighbor’s spark rocks, thwarting Jet’s plan.
The next morning Katara picks up the mail and practically squeals in delight. She runs inside with the paper and tells the rest of our heroes that she has a plan for getting them in to see the Earth King. The king is throwing a party in honor of his pet bear, and they can sneak in with the crowd.
Toph tells them it won’t work—none of them have the manners to pass in high society. Katara is put out by the assessment as Toph isn’t exactly the epitome of a high society lady, but Toph points out that there’s a difference between knowing but choosing not to use manners and not having manners at all.
Sokka says that means she can teach them what they need to know, and he and Aang start playing at being high society, making a mockery of it and themselves. Toph tells them that Katara could probably pass as part of high society, but the boys would be lucky to pass as busboys.
That evening, Katara and Toph emerge from a room all dressed up. Aang tells Katara that she looks beautiful, but before she can respond Toph cuts her off. Society does not talk to commoners, after all. Katara tells the boys they’ll find a way to let them in through a side gate.
Jet lurks outside the tea shop, but Smellerbee appears and tells him they need to talk. Longshot is there, too, and Jet asks them for help with surveillance. Smellerbee tells Jet that he is becoming obsessed with all this—it isn’t healthy. They came to Ba Sing Se to get a fresh start, but Jet won’t let this go despite his lack of real evidence.
Jet points out that he might have proof if they were helping him and launches into a verbal attack. He reminds them that the reason they even need a fresh start is because the Fire Nation made them homeless and killed all the people they love. If they don’t want to help, he’ll get the evidence on his own. With those fateful words, Jet marches right over to the tea shop.
Not to interrupt the flow of the story or anything, but where did you get those clothes, accessories, and makeup anyway?
Inside the tea shop, everything is going just fine. The quality of the tea has significantly improved, and the owner tells Iroh he is due for a raise. Unfortunately, that’s when Jet slams the door open and denounces Iroh and Zuko as firebenders. Jet pulls out his hookblades and tells the frightened patrons that he saw Iroh heating his tea—which just baffles everyone.
The police officers that were in the tea shop try to get Jet to drop his weapons, but Jet doesn’t listen. He advances on Iroh, trying to goad him into a (firebending) fight, but Zuko grabs the nearby officer’s dual dao swords and tells Jet he will give him a show.
Katara and Toph are in line to get into the party at the palace. Unfortunately, the Beifong passport and some namedropping aren’t enough for them to convince the guard at the door to let them in. The two girls are ejected from the line, but Katara spots a man disembarking from a carriage. Several guards bow to him, and she gets an idea.
Katara leads Toph over to the man. She tells him that Toph—her blind cousin—lost their invitations, so they can’t get in. Their families are inside waiting for them and are probably worried. The man smiles, bows, and tells them he would be honored to help them. He gets inside the party without a hitch, and Katara and Toph stick their tongues out at the guard that refused them entrance.
The fancy party is very fancy (minus the disgusting table habits of the king’s bear). The man introduces himself as Long Feng and asks the girls for their names; Katara gives him pseudonyms. Long Feng mentions that he’d love to meet their families, but Katara assures him they’ll be fine on their own. Unfortunately, Long Feng insists that abandoning them would be dishonorable. He’ll escort them until they find their families.
Outside the palace, Sokka and Aang are getting anxious about the girls not showing up. Before Sokka can get too far into a crazy scheme to get them inside, Aang points out that they could sneak in with the busboys who have just arrived.
You really thought this was a good idea?
Back in the lower ring, Jet punts Zuko through the door of the tea shop and out into the street. The two boys lock weapons, and Jet taunts Zuko about getting tired. Jet tries to get Zuko to firebend while Iroh tries to get Jet to calm down.
Zuko manages to pin one of Jet’s hookblades and cut Jet’s trademark stalk of wheat in half. Jet leaps back and tells the gathering crowd that the Fire Nation is trying to silence him. He throws himself at Zuko again to continue the fight.
Sokka and Aang have successfully disguised themselves and are currently masquerading as busboys. Unfortunately, they don’t know what the Earth King looks like, but that’s okay because Toph and Katara finally spot them. Katara explains that Long Feng won’t let them out of his sight—only to discover that the man has mysteriously disappeared.
That’s when Joo Dee appears. She tries to get them to leave, and in the ensuing tussle, Aang splashes a nearby woman with the water he was carrying. He dries her off with a blast of air—thus revealing himself as the Avatar. This causes Joo Dee’s perpetual smile to fade away. The entire party stares at Aang, so Sokka tells him to keep everyone’s attention while the rest of them search for the Earth King.
I’d probably be cheering right now except it’s obvious that this is a bad thing.
Two Dai Li agents appear to break up the fight between Jet and Zuko. Jet tells them to arrest the two firebenders, but Iroh tells the Dai Li agents that Jet is confused. The tea shop owner and police officers side with Iroh. The agents arrest Jet and haul him away. Smellerbee and Longshot see the arrest happen and then disappear into the crowd.
The Earth King arrives at the party via litter. Before Sokka, Katara, or Toph can reach him, they’re captured by Dai Li agents and hauled away. Long Feng intercepts Aang and tells him that he is the head of the Dai Li and that he wishes to speak with him—and his friends—in the library.
Sokka is incensed that Long Feng won’t let them talk to the Earth King. They have information that could defeat the Fire Nation, after all. Long Feng tells them that the Earth King doesn’t have time to deal with things like this, but Aang points out that this information could be the most important thing the king has ever heard.
Long Feng tells them that the king is preoccupied with preserving the cultural heritage of Ba Sing Se. It is Long Feng’s job to see to the rest of the city’s resources, including the military. When the girls accuse the king of being a figurehead/puppet, Long Feng insists that the king is a god to his people. Sokka tries to tell Long Feng about the upcoming solar eclipse, but Long Feng will have none of it. Ba Sing Se has a policy: the war cannot be mentioned inside the city walls.
So, do you think the dark clothes or the randomly green fire is most important when visually signaling in this scene that Long Feng is evil?
While Long Feng explains that constant news of an escalating war would cause the citizenry to panic, the Dai Li hauls Jet into a dark chamber. Jet continues to insist that Iroh and Zuko are firebenders. The Dai Li agents strap him down into a chair and tell him to calm down. A light appears and goes across Jet’s vision while the agent tells Jet that he is safe.
The scene cuts back and forth between the two places. Long Feng explains that things would fall apart if news of the war was allowed to spread. Ba Sing Se is the last utopia in the world, and they can only maintain that by keeping the truth from everyone. Meanwhile, the Dai Li agents repeatedly tell Jet that he is safe and that there is no war in Ba Sing Se despite Jet’s objections. They gag Jet and tell him that he is free in the city.
Our heroes object to these lies, and Aang insists that he will tell everyone about the war. Long Feng informs our heroes that they will be monitored by Dai Li agents from now on. If they try to tell anyone about the war, they’ll be kicked out of the city and thus unable to continue their search for Appa.
Long Feng tells them that Joo Dee will take them home. A woman appears, but our heroes are horrified to see her. Katara asks what happened to Joo Dee, but the woman—a different woman entirely—tells them that she is Joo Dee and will be their guide for as long as they are in the city.
How’s that for ramping up the stakes?
The Ba Sing Se episodes are some of my favorite in the series, especially when viewed together as a single plot arc. I will admit that this was not how I was expecting events would work out. The first time I watched the series, I thought for sure that Aang and friends would get their message to the Earth King, find Appa, and start on their epic plan to take the war to the Fire Nation proper.
I assumed that there would be some kind of confrontation in Ba Sing Se—Azula was in the area after all, and surely they could figure out some way to top the siege at the North Pole—during which Zuko would finally get his act together and join the good guys with his uncle.
And then this episode happened, and suddenly everything got turned on its head. It’s bad enough whenever your ruler is a ruler in name only, but to add a shadowy leader who brainwashes people on top of that and doesn’t want to hear this vital piece of military intelligence? That’s when I started thinking that maybe the conclusion to book two was going to be way messier than I envisioned it would be, and boy, was I right.
I’m going to leave my discussion of the finale for when we actually cover the finale (no matter how difficult that might be), so let’s focus instead on 1) Long Feng, 2) the Dai Li, and 3) Jet.
Long Feng is a rather late addition to the cast since he is the secondary villain for this book. (For comparison, Zhao was introduced in episode three of book one.) It makes sense that we couldn’t have him show up any earlier as 1) our heroes weren’t in Ba Sing Se yet and 2) it would have totally undermined the reveal if we’d seen him earlier. Still, what Long Feng lacks in screen time he completely makes up for in menace.
Long Feng is terrifying because he’s the kind of evil we (can) see in real life. He is the man who does what is best for him and his power base at the expense of everything else. He is devoted to maintaining the status quo not because it is what is best for the people he rules but because it is what keeps him in power. He uses the Earth King’s vulnerability, naivety, and political ignorance in order to rule from the shadows. This hiding serves a dual purpose: it makes it more difficult for his enemies to find and counter him, and if anything should go catastrophically wrong, it is easier for him to dodge the blame and pin it on someone else.
Zhao, on the other hand, was all about showmanship and about being seen. He wanted the praise and the glory and everyone’s eyes on him. He wanted to go down in history as the conqueror, the moon-slayer, the invincible. He wanted everyone to know exactly what he could do and what he was responsible for.
And while I think that Long Feng is a much better villain than Zhao, Long Feng still shares Zhao’s greatest weakness: arrogance.
Zhao’s arrogance led him to do crazy, dramatic things like kill the moon spirit. Long Feng’s arrogance is not as flashy but it is every bit as detrimental to him. Whether or not the policy is to pretend the war doesn’t exist doesn’t make it an intelligent move to ignore vital information to make a point. Long Feng was too busy trying to forcibly control Aang and company to hear what they were actually trying to say. Long Feng’s interaction with our heroes is one of the classic villainous blunders: trying to intimidate people who aren’t cowed (for long) by fear.
All the heroes cared about, Long Feng, was making sure that people with actual military forces knew when the best time was to plan an invasion. That’s it. All you needed to do was be kind to them, listen quietly to what they had to say, give them Appa, and then send them off to do tasks you could convince them were vital to the war effort. I bet they’d be thrilled to be told to go hang out with the joint Water Tribe/Earth Kingdom military forces to prepare for invasion. You would have had them out of your hair and not disturbing your utopian Ba Sing Se, plus you would have gotten the added benefit of having actionable military intelligence.
(You do remember there is an actual war going on, right? Tell me you haven’t started to believe your own lies about there not being a war. You’re supposed to be smarter than that for a man that’s effectively ruling the largest city/country in the world.)
Despite Long Feng’s many failings—I’m really looking forward to Azula ripping him to shreds—one of the things he does exceptionally well is the Dai Li. The Dai Li are yet another sinister addition to the secret police organizations in fiction and around the world, but they come with the added creepiness of being able to 99% effectively brainwash people in a matter of hours/days.
There’s no way to know how many people the Dai Li have brainwashed, like Jet, and how many they’ve completely reprogrammed, like the Joo Dees. But the sheer size of the city and the number of citizens who are downright terrified when Joo Dee smiles and shakes her head at them means that it can’t be just a handful. What the Dai Li do to “maintain the cultural heritage” of Ba Sing Se must be widely known, at least among the longtime residents of the city.
In that way, it makes perfect sense to wall off the majority of new arrivals (and poor folk) in the lower ring of Ba Sing Se. It makes it easier to keep order when you have all the people who are likely to raise a fuss (like brand new refugees who are very insistent about there being a war going on right now) in one area. How easy must it be for a vocal poor person/refugee to disappear for a few days and then come back now fitting nicely into the utopian Ba Sing Se mold?
Contrast that to the people in the middle and upper rings who have more things to lose if they cross the Dai Li. Pong, the man who lives across from our heroes, explicitly said that he didn’t want any trouble because he had had to wait for three years to get the house he has now. The middle and upper classes are kept in line because they have things—status, money, housing—to lose if they don’t fall in with the party line. Add in the fact that apparently all Dai Li members can earth bend and use it to capture/intimidate the populace, and you have a sinister and effective tool to keep the masses under control.
Of course, while the Dai Li’s brainwashing is terrifying, I think it’s something that falls apart when you look at it too closely. Why don’t we ever see this brainwashing again? Like, I can completely understand why a dictator-from-the-shadows uses it to rule Ba Sing Se through fear. It is uniquely suited to do just that, and from a villainous standpoint, Long Feng was brilliant to use the Dai Li that way.
So why don’t we ever see it again after this season?
Azula not only takes the city of Ba Sing Se, but she also earns the personal loyalty of the Dai Li. I can’t imagine they’d pledge themselves to the princess of the Fire Nation (thus becoming traitors to their homes) and then conveniently forget to tell her about their awesomesauce technique to strip people of their identity and take complete control of them.
Can’t you imagine all the
wonderful terrible things Azula would do with that technology? (Or Ozai for that matter.) Soldiers who don’t/can’t fear death? Servants that are incapable of being corrupted? Dissidents who are now completely loyal? Sleeper agents? Spies?
If the brainwashing equipment/facilities/whatever had to be rebuilt from scratch, that doesn’t explain their total disappearance from the show after this season. Especially since none of the equipment we see appears to be anything you can’t set back up in a couple of days. Azula should have been told or found out about this technique and made it a priority to get it back up and running. Couldn’t you see her brainwashing the captured Iroh into believing that he deserved to be in jail for betraying the Fire Nation? Or even that he needed to be a good big brother and support Ozai in his world conquest?
Show, I’m disappointed that you introduced this brainwashing/reprogramming and then never brought it up again after you were done with Ba Sing Se. If you are going to introduce something as potentially game-breaking as that, you need to deal with the ramifications of it. Otherwise I will be sad.
Speaking of things that make me sad, it’s time for us to talk about Jet!
I’ve been trying to figure out a good comparison for Jet ever since “The Serpent’s Pass,” and the best I can come up with is Cassandra. It is not a perfect fit, so please excuse me while I go gnash my teeth and cry for a bit.
Thwarted comparisons aside, it was painful to watch Jet’s scenes. I really wanted to believe that Jet could get himself a second chance. I believed that he wanted a second chance. What would his life have been like if he hadn’t spotted Iroh with a hot cup of tea?
(I would like to think that Jet, Smellerbee, and Longshot would have been awesome rebels in the occupied Ba Sing Se. With clearly defined bad guys—Dai Li and Fire Nation—and some guidance from, say, the White Lotus or Earth Kingdom military, the three of them could have used their guerilla talents for actual good instead of what-Jet-thought-was-good. Plus, it would have been a lot of fun to see Jet when he realized that the guy he was kind-of-sort-of friends with was really the Fire Nation prince and had helped conquer the city. Now that sounds like a much more entertaining obsession right there.)
But much like Long Feng and Zhao’s arrogance, it is Jet’s obsessive personality and impulsiveness that spells his own end. Jet was drifting, unsure about what he could do with a new life, and he latched onto the possibility of firebenders infiltrating Ba Sing Se in order to give him something to do. He starts with
stalking following Zuko and Iroh, graduates to petty theft in the off chance it will force them to firebend, and then leaps straight into crazy territory by physically attacking them.
I could play what-if games about Jet and his actions in this episode, but it doesn’t do much good. I will say that the show did an excellent job of putting Jet in conflict with Iroh and Zuko. At this point in the show, much of the audience was rooting for the ex-royals to finish up with their redemption arc and get on board with our heroes. Jet’s attempts to expose Zuko and Iroh as threats were designed to make us get behind the two Fire Nation men and cheer and hope for them in a way we hadn’t before.
It’s an excellent conflict because we know that Jet is right from his point of view to out Zuko and Iroh, but as audience members we want Jet to fail. We’re relieved when he gets hauled away—and then are horrified when the brainwashing and “Lake Laogai” happen.
And then, when Zuko failed us in the season finale, we suddenly realized that maybe it would had been better if everyone had believed Jet in the first place.
- I was very amused by Toph’s reference to Sokka getting high off of cactus juice. Huzzah for continuity!
- This episode has one of my favorite lampshaded moments: the discussion on the type of bear the Earth King has. I love that they poked fun at the fact that almost all of the animals in this universe are hybrids of some kind.
- I totally did not catch this the first time, but Toph picks her nose and flicks the snot off onto the ceiling—only for it to fall down on Sokka afterwards. Gross.
- No idea what spark rocks are, but they look much cooler than flint and steel.
- I was very much amused by Toph’s assessment that none of the rest of our heroes could pass for high society besides Katara. On the one hand, I think she judges the boys a bit harshly, but on the other hand, they totally slammed their heads together in an attempt to out-bow each other. Mostly I loved that Toph pointed out that she had voluntarily chosen not to conform to high society’s expectations to her and not that she was ignorant of those expectations.
- I’m a little annoyed that Toph was caught so easily by the Dai Li—couldn’t she earthbend that rock off of her? I’ll just chalk it up to being surprised.
- Seriously, the Joo Dees are one of the creepiest elements in this series. Ugh.
Now that all of these horrible plot elements have been put into place, it’s time for a bit of breathing room. Come back on Monday when we’ll cover Book Two: Earth || Chapter Fifteen: Tales of Ba Sing Se. Be sure to bring some tissues!