Just a bunch of walls and rules. Just wait; you'll get sick of it in a couple of days.
—Toph Bei Fong
Behold: the great Earth Kingdom city of Ba Sing Se
We open with establishing padding. The Gaang are on an earthbender-powered train heading to the inner wall and the city proper. Since it isn't nighttime, I can only assume that they slept in quarters on the outer wall. After some establishing Komedy!, we get our first look at the city. And it's pretty well rendered. Not in the CG sense, of course. There are a couple of places where the parallax effects are obvious and distracting, but overall, it's a nice sequence introducing us to the city.
After stepping off the train, Toph immediately starts complaining about Ba Sing Se, using the page quote once Sokka starts questioning her about it. We get a bit of pathos from Aang, where he blows on his bison whistle in vein, and Katara comforts him.
Then, something interesting happens. We see a creepily smiling woman who introduces herself as Joo Dee. She's there to show the Avatar and his group around. Sokka says that they need to deliver information about the Fire Nation army to the Earth King. Joo Dee ignores this, saying that they're going on a tour, then to their new home. Sokka tries to explain that they need to speak to the king about the war, but Joo Dee simply says that they're in Ba Sing Se. "Everyone is safe here."
Cut to the tour. They first go through the "lower ring" of the city, which Joo Dee explains is where all of the poor people have been segregated away from the rest. She says that Ba Sing Se has walls that maintain order within the city. Aang says that he never came to Ba Sing Se because it was very different from how the Monks taught them to live.
Cut to Zuko and Iroh, who has a vase and a plant, to help beautify their new apartment. Zuko doesn't want to build a life in the city, but Iroh tells him life happens regardless of whether you make it. He also exposites that they have a job now.
Cut to Jet, still following his man-crush Zuko. Jet has apparently decided to get evidence of their firebending, then report them to the authorities. This is what constitutes him being "changed" from before.
Now back to the tour. The Gaang are making their way through the middle ring. When Joo Dee mentions the university, Sokka tries to spin this into a conversation about them needing to meet with the Earth King. Joo Dee naturally brushes this off, turning the conversation towards an old building. Toph considers this "being handled."
Cut back to Zuko and Iroh. Of course, since we're talking about flanderized
Iroh here, naturally he's found them work in a tea shop. Because that's all Iroh is about anymore in this show: tea. He doesn't think the shop's tea is particularly palatable, and decides to implement some changes.
And back to the tour. The Gaang are now in the upper right, home to the important people of the city, which naturally includes their house. They pass a large red wall cordoning off the palace, as well as some guys in black Earth Kingdom clothing (they're wearing black so you know they're the badguys
). Joo Dee says that they are agents of the Dai Li, the cultural authority of Ba Sing Se.
Joo Dee shows them to their house. She then says that their request to see the Earth King will take a month or up to eight weeks to go through. Sokka's impatient to see the Earth King, but Joo Dee says that he's busy and they must be patient.
Aang wants to spend the time looking for Appa. It's not like he's got any waterbending or earthbending to be practicing or anything. Joo Dee insists on showing them around, despite Toph's protests. So off they go.
Their first stop is with an animal salesman. He says he doesn't know about a flying bison, thinking that they were extinct. Aang and Sokka then start asking questions about where one might go to sell animals illegally, while Joo Dee creepily smiles over their shoulders. Sokka directly asks where the "black market" is.
Um, Sokka, that's not how black markets work. They don't have a place with a sign out front called "Black Market." Probably because the authorities would find them and shut them down.
The store owner starts sweating. Then, Joo Dee, still wearing that Joker-esque smile, gives a single shake of her head. The owner then says that they're talking about illegal things and they need to go.
Cut to the university. Sokka's asking a student about things. He steers the conversation to the war. Again, Joo Dee shakes her head, the kid gives a lame excuse and leaves.
Cut back to the Gaang's new house. Joo Dee leaves. But the Gaang notice their new neighbor looking out of his door, and they investigate. When they ask their neighbor about why everyone's scared to talk about the war, he says that he doesn't want to get into trouble. He tells them not to mention the war in Ba Sing Se and to stay away from the Dai Li.
Cut to Zuko and Iroh's new house, at night. After Zuko grouses and Iroh buries his character further beneath an avalanche of tea, Iroh starts looking for their "spark rocks" used to start fires. Jet, looking at their apartment from across the street, has stolen them; he's expecting them to firebend instead. Now, Iroh could just use one of the candles or lanterns they obviously have in the house, since it's bright. But Iroh decides to borrow their neighbor's spark rocks, thus thwarting Jet's rather poorly thought out plan.
It's morning. Katara picks up the mail and comes up with a plan to see the Earth King. They'll infiltrate the king's party that night for his pet bear. At the mention of a non-hybrid animal name, the Gaang goes around, shocked at it being just a "bear." Toph eventually ends with "This place... is weird.
Ha ha ha, that wasn't funny :|
Anyway, Toph nixes the idea based on the fact that they don't know etiquette. Naturally, she says this while being at her most disgusting, belching loudly and picking her nose. When Katara calls her on this, Toph says that she at least learned proper behavior, but none of them did. Sokka suggests that Toph teach them what they need to know, then Aang and he engage in a bit of politeness-based Komedy!.
Toph then says that Katara might be able to pull it off. Need I remind you that the last time they were in front of a king, Katara yelled at a man and challenged him to a fight, while smashing various scenery with unrestrained waterbending. Katara has anger-management issues; Aang
, the end all of irresponsibility, would more likely pull off polite society than Katara. The only reason I can fathom for Toph saying this is that Katara's a girl.
Cut to that night. Toph and Katara have somehow obtained dresses and makeup appropriate for the situation. Aang immediately starts crushing on the pretty Katara. The pair leave, telling the others that they'll let them in through the side gate.
Cut to Jet, still stalking Zuko. The rest of his gang try to dissuade him, saying that he's become obsessed with this. He goes back to his usual shtick about their painful past, what the Fire Nation did, etc. Then he decides to go in and get the evidence more forcefully.
Jet bursts in and calls them firebenders, drawing his hook-swords. He then tries to present evidence, but only in the least credible way possible
, saying that Iroh was "heating his tea." One of the patrons, a guard, points out that he's working in a tea shop. As Jet advances on them, saying that they'll have to defend themselves, Zuko takes the swords from one of the guards (which conveniently are the kind Zuko uses) and decides to teach this punk kid some manners.
We leave this life-and-death situation to see Toph and Katara making their way to the party. They don't have an invitation, and this time the magical Bei Fong seal means squat in Ba Sing Se. Instead, Katara goes up to a random important-looking guy and tells him that they lost their invitation and need to get in to meet their family. This works, and Toph and Katara give the guard a not-at-all polite gesture on their way in.
Once inside, the random guy introduces himself as Long Feng, a "cultural minister." Katara gives a pair of fake names for the two of them. Katara tries to ditch Long Feng, but he says it would be dishonorable to let them go without seeing them reunited with their family first. I thought Toph was supposed to know how etiquette worked.
Outside, Aang and Sokka have a bit of Komedy! to figure out how to get inside. They dress as bus boys bringing in food.
Cut back to badassery with Jet and Zuko.
Now back to the party. Toph finds Aang through her feet. Katara mentions that Long Feng won't leave them alone, but quite suddenly, he has disappeared.
Joo Dee appears, saying that they absolutely must leave. Sokka says that they won't leave, but she tries to shove them out, her smile still trying to remain despite the circumstances. Eventually, the shoving match leads to water being spilled on some random lady. Aang decides that, instead of using waterbending to clean her up, he'll hit her with a huge blast of air. Naturally, this knocks off his hat, revealing his tattoos.
As all eyes turn to Aang, we see Joo Dee's smile slowly wither into a frown. Sokka then decides to use Aang as a distraction while he looks for the Earth King. Um, Sokka, he's the Earth King
; I don't think he'll be hard to spot. Aang goes off and does some hijinks to keep people distracted.
The Earth King's bear is impressed.
Cut back to Jet and Zuko, being badass at each other. A pair of Dai Li agents appear and demand that they stop fighting. Jet makes his accusations, but the tea shop owner and patrons say that it was all Jet's fault. When the Dai Li move to arrest him, he tries to attack them. One of them stops his blade, with his hand
, which is covered in stone (black stone, of course). They then bind his hands using their hand-stone and escort him away.
That's actually a pretty clever thing, with the earth on their hands. Why don't actual soldiers do this?
Jet's groupies look on, seeing their leader get carted off, then walk away.
Back at the party, the Earth King makes his entrance, with dozens of guards flanking him. The King himself is riding in a cloth-covered structure being dragged around by some of the guards. When Aang starts to move towards him, some the guards carry the king away while other guards intercept Aang.
We then get scenes of each of the other Gaang members being grabbed by the Dai Li. They use their hand-stone to grab Katara and Toph, pulling them out of frame.
BS! While I could buy that they could get Katara this way, you expect me to believe that Toph can be grabbed and secured like this? She's a badass earthbender. Not only should she have seen them coming with her Toph-Vision, even if she was caught off guard, she could have rendered their attacks completely useless with her earthbending.
Long Feng appears before Aang and introduces himself as the Grand Secretariat of Ba Sing Se, as well as head of the Dai Li. He then invites Aang to a meeting, where his friends will be waiting.
There, before a fireplace burning green, the discussion begins. When Sokka explains that they have vital information for the Earth King pertaining to the war, Long Feng says that this isn't what the Earth King does. The Earth King maintains the cultural heritage of Ba Sing Se. Long Feng handles the other issues, including the military. Katara then realizes that the Earth King is a figurehead. Long Feng denies this, saying that the Earth King is too much of a God to sully his hands with matters like warfare.
Sokka starts to explain about the eclipse that will make the Fire Nation vulnerable, but Long Feng cuts him off. He says that the war cannot be mentioned within the walls of the city. As he talks about how news of the escalating war would throw the citizenry into a panic, we see Jet being taken to a dark room by Dai Li agents. As Jet babbles on insanely, he's strapped to a chair. Then one of the agents starts spinning a lamp around a stone track, presumably to hypnotise him. Sure, why not.
Long Feng explains that revealing the news of the war would threaten the economy, their traditions, their way of life. Cut back to Jet, and the Dai Li agent starts saying in a monotone, "There is no war within the walls. Here, we are safe. Here, we are free." Jet protests, but his mouth is covered with rocks. Long Feng explains that by suppressing news of the war, Ba Sing Se remains a utopia.
Aang threatens to tell everyone about the war. Oh sure, overturn the culture of Ba Sing Se; it's clearly corrupt and needs to be overthrown. But completely ignore the Northern Water Tribe's cultural prohibitions against women. Oh no, those must be respected and should only be fought against when they affect Katara; and we must stop fighting for them the moment she gets what she wants.
Kiss my ass, you hypocritical, self-righteous prick.
Long Feng simply says that, from now on, they will be watched. If they don't comply with his directive not to mention the war, they will be expelled from the city. And Long Feng mentions the missing Appa, saying that it would be a shame if Aang were unable to complete his search.
A woman enters, claiming to be Joo Dee. But it's not the same Joo Dee as before! She has the same creepy smile
though. And we end with that.
So... how to talk about this episode.
On the one hand, this episode creates good atmosphere. It sets up the arrival at Ba Sing Se, not with glorious triumph, but with a new enemy. A darker and sinister adversary that has eyes and ears everywhere. It sets up Ba Sing Se to be as much of a prison as a great city.
Now, if you're an adult like me, you've probably seen this sort of thing before. Police states like this are all over fiction; 1984 being a prominent example, but far from the only one. You may even be kind of tired of seeing the 215th iteration of "1984-esque police state." This episode makes such a society creepy, but one thing I do like is that, unlike many TV equivalents, it does show the bright side. Zuko and Iroh are able to build a functional life; they have a home and a job that one of them enjoys. When they are attacked, the authorities show up and take the assailant away.
The episode is mostly well crafted. It slowly drops clues and breadcrumbs. One could pass off Joo Dee as being just a typical "handler" of a sort. But it builds and builds until finally we get the reveal. The writing is smooth and strong, overall.
On the other hand...
THIS MAKES NO SENSE!
Not all of the episode, of course. I was on board with everything that happened, right up until Long Feng's little talk at the end. That's when the episode jumped off the cliffs of logic.
The fundamental problem is this: Long Feng is their adversary, when there is absolutely no reason
for this to happen.
First, the Gaang are needlessly insistent on meeting with the Earth King. Upon being told that the Earth King has delegated military matters to Long Feng, they continue
to ask to see him. Why? Long Feng just told them that he doesn't handle those things. Now yes, they might want to oust Long Feng's regime and restore the Earth King to full control over the military. But is that something they need to do right now? Can't it wait until after they've gotten his help to take out the Fire Nation?
But that's a relatively minor issue; that can be excused as the single-mindedness of children. The real problem is Long Feng.
I understand he has a rule about discussing the war within the walls of Ba Sing Se. So... why not take the conversation outside
the walls? Why not simply tell the Gaang where his generals meet and have the plan presented to them?
Ignoring the inherent silliness of the drill plan, did Long Feng not receive a report on an attack that almost saw the Fire Nation break the outer wall a mere 3 days ago? I don't know about you, but I'd be a bit more concerned about such things; the war was pretty damn close to being within
the walls. And if the Avatar, the one who thwarted that plan, came up and said that they have a way to permanently deal with the Fire Nation, I would try to work something out with him. Especially when doing so is as simple as talking about it outside of the city
. Just take a train to the outer walls and work it out there.
And if for some reason he didn't want the plan to happen, he could just appease them by saying, "I'll take your plan to the generals." There, done. You can stall them pretty much indefinitely with that.
No, this is all one big Conflict Ball
: idiocy created for the sole purpose of allowing Long Feng to be a full-on adversary to the Gaang. It doesn't make sense because the writers couldn't find a way to make
it make sense. So they just declared that it happened and moved on.
The problem is that Long Feng is going to be a primary antagonist for the rest of this season. And the motivation for his antagonism is crap; that fact overshadows everything that happens in the next 6 episodes. All of unpleasantness that comes from this conflict could have been averted so very easily. Both Long Feng and the Gaang want the same thing: the war to end. So just do it already.