Opinionated Guide to Avatar: The Last Airbender


Tales of Ba Sing Se

No, no, that was a good one. "Like your poodle monkey." Ha ha! Know what else is a good one?
Toph Bei Fong, right before earthbending three assholes into a river

This episode and the next one are basically the writers of the show deciding to kill all pacing and narrative momentum in their plot by focusing on irrelevant minutiae. It seems so silly to do all that work introducing concepts in the last episode and then decide to take a holiday for 2 episodes. They set up a new conflict with a new villain, but we're just going to pretend that this didn't happen.

Now yes, something plot-relevant does happen in both of these episodes. But one of them is a teaser at best, and the other one could easily have been done as simply a B-plot to another episode. Having one Breather Episode makes sense. Having two back-to-back does not.

This particular episode is six entirely independent stories about our main characters in Ba Sing Se. But I'm not going to cover one of them, for personal reasons. You can guess which one, but you'd probably be wrong.

The Tale of Toph and Katara

We open with personal grooming. We find out that Aang isn't a natural bald; it requires maintenance. Where he gets the shaving cream for his head is unknown however. Sokka takes a second to use his machete to remove his mustache. Katara puts in her signature hair loops. Even Momo licks himself a bit.

Cut to Toph, still in bed, her large hair splayed out all over. Katara comes in and asks if she's going to get cleaned up for the day. Toph prefers her "healthy coating of earth." Um, sure, whatever. Katara then decides that they're going to spend the day at a spa.

Yes, really.

Cut to Toph, looking like her usual self (rather than being disheveled as in the last scene), with Katara at "The Fancy Ladies Day Spa." Before they enter, Toph warns that they shouldn't touch her feet.

Cut to Toph getting a foot scrub, while being held down by several of the spa's employees. Eventually, after several seconds of... agony? Ecstasy? It's not exactly clear. Anyway, Toph earthbends at them.

Cut to Toph and Katara getting mud baths. Toph makes another sight gag. Well, at least this time it's a sight gag involving earth, rather than Appa's fur.

Cut to the two in a sauna, where they each use their bending to keep the warm steam going. Even though adding another rock to the fire doesn't really help. But then again, contriving a way to put Katara and Zuko in a sauna would probably have caused the Zutarans to annihilate the Internet in their collective Squeeing.

Now the spa is over with. Cut to the pair walking around, with Toph wearing a rather large quantity of makeup. Toph says that she feels "girly," and not like it's a bad thing.

Well, since we haven't had any conflict in this mini-episode, cue the assholes. A group of other girls walk by and compliment Toph's makeup. After Toph thanks them, they say that her makeup would be good for a clown and laugh spitefully. Toph's smile turns into a frown, desperately trying to win the audience's heart.

Katara says to ignore them, but the girls have to add further insults, comparing Toph to the time that they put clothes on their poodle-monkey. Toph speaks the page quote, then dumps the assholes into the water below. Katara decides to add injury to injury by sweeping them down-river with her waterbending.

It's funny because they'll likely drown to death. But it's off-camera, so it doesn't matter.

Katara tries to console Toph, but Toph says that the good part about being blind is that she doesn't care about what she looks like. Naturally, her facial expressions tell a different story. Katara says that she admires Toph for her confidence and self-assuredness. And she says that Toph is pretty.

Toph says that she'd return the compliment, but she has no idea what Katara looks like. And that brings us to an interesting digression.

We the audience were shown renderings of Toph-Vision back in The Blind Bandit. In those, we could clearly make out facial features. Obviously not things like flesh tones and the like, but we could certainly see what faces looked like. We can see clothing, hair, and so forth in the representation of Toph-Vision. So... why does Toph say this? I mean, if that's what Toph-Vision is to her, why can't she see the facial features that we can clearly see? And if that's not what Toph-Vision looks like, why do they show it like that?

The Tale of Iroh

Our tale opens with Iroh buying a basket, expositing that it's for a special occasion. While at the store, Iroh pushes a flower away from direct sunlight, saying that moon-flowers like partial shade.

Thus beginning the theme of Iroh solving people's problems.

Cut to Iroh at a different store. A child is crying nearby, inconsolable by its mother. Iroh picks up a lute and sings a song to calm the child down. The song is about a "soldier boy" coming home after a war.


Later, Iroh comes upon some children playing soccer. With earthbending. They accidentally send the ball through a window. Iroh suggests that they admit their mistake and apologise. That is, until the window's owner angrily appears; Iroh then suggests fleeing.

Iroh hides in an ally, but a guy comes up behind him with a knife to mug him. Instead of grinding the guy into paste, Iroh corrects his stance, saying that his current one is too weak. Then the two have a chat over a cup of tea (naturally). Iroh apparently suggests that the criminal can be a masseur.

Iroh finally arrives at his intended destination: a hill with a single tree. He sets up some stones and builds a mini-shrine with burning incense. Then he pulls out a drawing of his son, saying that today is his birthday. Crying, Iroh laments not being able to help him, then he begins to sing the song from earlier.

The dedication for this segment goes to Mako, Iroh's voice actor who died sometime between season 2 and 3.

Sad though this segment is, I have to-

Warning: the following paragraph may ruin your enjoyment of this tale forever. You have been warned!

Lu Ten did not die of illness or tragedy. He was killed by Earth Kingdom soldiers who were desperately trying to defend their homes from the invading Fire Nation army that Lu Ten was a part of. Yes, it's sad for Iroh, but maybe The Dragon of The West shouldn't have been trying to take something that didn't belong to him. And if his child was important to him, maybe he should have kept his kid at home and not had him participate in a war.

The Tale of Aang

This tale opens with Aang looking at a dilapidated Zoo. The Zoo's owner says that the Dai Li don't give him enough money to keep the place going. Wait, the Dai Li fund Zoos? Well, I guess they're the keepers of the cultural heritage of Ba Sing Se. It's just strange to talk about a people who, just last episode, were revealed to be running a police state, with regard to such mundane things like running a Zoo.

They come across a "Rabbiroo." Sure, why not. The Zoo keeper says that he'd like to let the animals out into a big open area. Aang then suggests that they can just let them outside of the walls, where there's a big open area. Aang then says that he can take the animals out there. After all, he's great with animals.

Smash cut to the animals running amok in Ba Sing Se. We get one final appearance of that cabbage merchant (he will never bee seen again. Thank God for that; unfunny jokes are unfunny). Somehow, Aang's bison whistle has become a "call any animal" whistle, as with a bit of airbending behind it, he's able to get all of the animals together in a stampede.

Once outside, Aang builds a zoo with earthbending. The end. Short, but pointless.

The Tale of Sokka

Our tale does begin/with Sokka listening in/with rapt attention.

Women in a class,/each reading their poetry,/all prim and proper.

A Chocobo's kick/sends Sokka into the room,/swiftly and cleanly.

To apologise,/he says words, but they get laughs./His words are Haiku.

A proud lady stands,/giving praise and insults too/all said in Haiku.

A fight with Haiku:/five-seven-five syllables/are their instruments.

Seasons, nature, lore;/all that she uses and more/to silence this boar.

But words turned around/is how Sokka fights her back,/like waterbending.

With his boomerang,/the lady sits down, impressed./So he starts to rap.

But five-seven-six/is too many syllables,/said a burly man.

Thrown out on his face,/Sokka's lament, at the last?/Simply "Poetry..."

So what did we learn?/That Sokka can think quickly/and freestyle Haiku?

Besides being cool,/is there a purpose to this?/Or is it filler?

The Tale of Zuko

I'll give you three guesses as to what Zuko's story is about. And the first two don't count.

That's right: shipping!

So, Zuko notices a young woman who's been coming by the tea shop regularly. He asks Iroh about it, thinking that she may be on to them. But Iroh just says that she's interested in Zuko. Of course she is; it's the First Rule of Avatar Shipping: Zuko is shipped with everyone.

Um, Zuko, you seem to have something on your head

The woman, Jin, asks Zuko out. Naturally, Iroh decides to accept on Zuko's behalf. It takes Zuko a second to come to terms with what just happened.

Cut to Zuko with what has to rank among the worst hair I've ever seen. It's this horrible, slicked-back... thing. Jin appears and immediately undoes this travesty, transforming it back into Zuko's usual fluffy mop. Zuko laments that it took Iroh ten minutes to get it that way. Yeah, that was not time well spent.

Cut to the actual date. Jin asks him a bunch of questions that he gives one-word answers to. After a few unfortunate choices of dialog, Jin asks Zuko where they were living before they came to Ba Sing Se. Zuko says that they were traveling. This being the only actual conversation that Jin has gotten out of him, she continues, asking why they traveled so much.

Zuko, showing the foresight that got him his face burned and exiled from the Fire Nation, apparently didn't think to come up with a backstory. So he has to invent one on the fly. Namely, they were in a circus. She guesses that he was a juggler and he decides that she's right.

Big mistake, as she says that she always wanted to learn to juggle, so she gives him a handful of stuff and asks him to juggle. Because Zuko fails at everything he does, he drops it all on his head. He plays it off by saying that he hasn't practiced in a while.

Jin then takes him to her favorite place in the city: the firelight fountain. But none of the lanterns are lit. So Zuko tells her to close her eyes.

No. Zuko, you're not doing this. Oh yes he is. He looks around, then firebends all of the lanterns.

You know, in any other episode, this would have immediately gotten them captured. Hell, if Jet hadn't lost his fudge and watched them for a few days longer, he'd have caught them right now. But we couldn't have that, could we? It might actually be important.

Rather than questioning this, in a world where people can throw fire from their hands, Jin decides that it's a turn-on. When she moves in for a kiss, Zuko interposes a coupon for tea. She thanks him, then tells him to close her eyes to get a gift from her. And they kiss. Twice.

But then Zuko pulls away. When she asks what happened, he says that "it's complicated" and leaves.

Back at the apartment, Iroh asks him how his night was, calling him "Prince Zuko." Seriously dude, do you not understand that this is not the place to be using real names? Zuko slams the door, but then opens it a bit to say, "it was nice." Iroh smiles, and we fade to...

The Tale of Momo

I'm not doing it. I'm not explaining what happens here. I patently refuse to waste my time on this nonsense. Momo is not a character; he has no character. The absolute most that he is is comic relief.

If you want to know what happens, here's a summary: Momo sees various things that look like Appa; these lead him into various antics with other animals. At the end, he randomly stumbles across a footprint that looks very much like it came from Appa.

The end.

What Did That Accomplish?

OK, so it's a breather episode. That's fine, but breather episodes don't have to be pointless; they're a great time for character development. So what did we learn here?

We learned things about Toph. We learned that Katara thinks that a horrible drowning death is justified punishment for being an asshole. Oh wait, we already knew that; she's frozen people to death for being assholes before. We learned that Aang likes animals. Which again, is something we already knew. We didn't really learn anything about Sokka. We learn that Iroh loved his son, which again we already knew. And we learn that Zuko is still having issues with his new life. Which we already know.

So, what was the point of this episode, exactly? I mean, it's nicely structured and all. There are good elements to it, and the writing is pretty solid. It is an enjoyable episode, but it could be entirely excised from the show and the show would barely notice.


Lu Ten did not die of illness or tragedy. He was killed by Earth Kingdom soldiers who were desperately trying to defend their homes from the invading Fire Nation army that Lu Ten was a part of. Yes, it's sad for Iroh, but maybe The Dragon of The West shouldn't have been trying to take something that didn't belong to him. And if his child was important to him, maybe he should have kept his kid at home and not had him participate in a war.

Which makes Iroh's sadness all the more poignant. He wasn't there when his child died in the front line to defend him. AND he feels responsible for it (since he brought him here). I don't see why this is supposed to ruin our enjoyment of the episode...
Ghilz 27th Jul 11
Good point

Honestly while I enjoy this Live blog it feels like your just trying to be a buzz kill for no real reason
Envyus 27th Jul 11
I agree with Ghilz. That doesn't ruin it. It makes it sadder.I suggest reading The Chinese Submarine Story from World War Z (Also, since World War Z is awesome if you love a combination of Zombie Apocalypse combined with Genre, Political and Cultural Satire) which has a very tragic take on that kind of tale.

I belive it was this moment that changed Iroh. He REALISED what war could do to people, and what it was like. Oh, and as for your earlier comments on how Iroh gave up ONLY because his son died, it seems more like the Fire Nation forces were suffering major fatigue from the siege, given from Iroh's "We were tired" speech from "The Winter Solstice Part 1", and the death of Iroh's son broke his willpower. While breaking though the walls was an accomplishment, they still had a long trek of Earth Kingdom area to go past, and another siege. I liken it to Alexander The Great's army mutinying at the banks of the River in India, except from disheartenedness from both the troops and command.
Emperordaein 27th Jul 11
All your paragraph does is runic my already tenuous enjoyment for thuds terrible liveblog
PataHikari 31st Jul 11
Umm... You missed the point.

The Tale of Toph and Katara shows that these two personalities have come to terms and are comrades.

The Tale of Iroh shows that IROH STOPPED FIGHTING BECAUSE HE REALIZED WARISHELL. His son's death was his own damn fault and he KNOWS it.

The Tale of Aang shows that "Yeah, I've been practicing, see my L 33 T SKILZ".

The Tale of Sokka shows that he's figured out that he's pretty cool as long as he doesn't get overconfident.

The Tale of Momo shows that... wait for it... APPA IS IN BA SING SE.

Five four-minute stories that managed to hit at least three major plot points. Not bad for a 21-minute show.
Kalaong 12th Feb 12