ATLA 2-15: The Tales of Ba Sing Se

There are vignettes about daily life in the titular city.

Last time on Avatar: Jet’s obsession with Zuko and Iroh got him into trouble, while the Gaang discovered the dangers of the Dai Li.

 

Tale #1

Before a large mirror in their new home, most of the Gaang is doing their daily morning routine.  Aang, in his underwear, is shaving his head.  A shirtless Sokka is using his boomerang to shave the few whiskers around his mouth.  A fully-dressed Katara puts in her hair-loopies.  Nearby, Momo is licking himself.

In her room, Toph is still asleep, her hair a mess.  Opening the door, Katara is baffled when she goes to wake up the younger girl.  Sitting up, Toph spits into a spittoon.  As she stands up, she dusts herself off a bit to make herself ready.  Clearly inspired by the other girl’s lack of hygiene, Katara decides they need to have “a girls’ day out”.

They end up at “The Fancy Lady Day Spa” where Toph is unamused but Katara is pleased.  Toph doesn’t want her feet touched, reacting with earth-bending when a trio of women try to rub away her callouses.  While in the mud bath, Toph messes with her mud mask to create an uncanny effect that freaks out the spa employee.  Both girls find it amusing, laughing.

Both use their bending to enjoy the sauna.  Wearing make-up, they walk down a street, feeling happy with themselves.  While they look nice enough, I can see why in the previous episode’s commentary they preferred that look.  While on a bridge, they pass by a trio of teenage girls who mock Toph’s appearance to Katara’s aggravation.  I’m not sure why they targeted just Toph.

Pretending she’s amused, Toph then drops a circle of stone to cause the trio to fall into the river below.  Katara observes, “Now that was funny,” before bending them further downriver.

The duo continues walking, Toph claiming (mostly honestly, though she does tear up a bit) that she doesn’t care about appearances, including her own.  Katara reveals she admires that about her before gently reassuring her that she’s “really pretty”.

“I’d return the compliment, but I have no idea what you look like,” replies Toph.  Katara chuckles before the younger girl thanks her and slugs her affectionately on the arm.

Tale #2

It’s a sunny day, Iroh heading out to pick up a picnic basket for a “special occasion”.  At the stall, he pushes a small flower vase into “partial shade” so that the moonflower blooms.  He and the shopkeeper bow to each other.

When Iroh notices a small boy crying, his mother failing to calm him, the older man borrows a musical instrument to play a song to cheer him up.  Now happy, the boy tugs on Iroh’s beard before the duo leaves.  I’m not sure why the mother didn’t thank him, unless I missed some nonverbal cue (which is possible).

Four boys are playing with a ball and earth-bending in a lot.  Iroh stops to watch, ducking when the ball comes his way, which causes it to break a window.

“It is usually best to admit mistakes when they occur and to seek to restore honor…” begins Iroh.  Then a huge guy peers through the broken window to threaten the boys, so Iroh instead finishes, “But not this time.  Run!”

They all bolt, Iroh ending up in an alley.  A knife-wielding mugger tries to threaten him, but Iroh is unimpressed with the man’s “poor stance” and easily knocks him over, getting the knife.  Iroh then demonstrates a “serious stance” that won’t cause him to be readily pushed around.

Doubting the man is truly a hardened criminal, the duo ends up sharing a cup of tea in the alley.  Off-screen, Iroh had listened to and encouraged the man, which no one had apparently done for him before.

“While it is always best to believe in oneself, a little help from others can be a great blessing,” Iroh concedes.

Up on a hill, Iroh sits at the tree there as it’s now sunset.  He sets up a small shrine for his son Lu Ten, as it is his birthday.  Starting to cry, he states, “If only I could have helped you.”

Then he starts to sing, this time unaccompanied, the same song from before.  It goes to a still image, mostly in reds, to state “In honor of Mako” as he was Iroh’s voice actor who sadly died during the show’s production.  I’ll have to keep out an eye for which episode his vocal understudy took over at.

Tale #3

Aang is gliding around, searching for Appa.  The preteen finds a zoo with tightly caged, miserable creatures.  The zookeeper admits that he can’t get money from the Dai Li because there are no customers, but there are no customers before he’s too broke to fix up the zoo.

Suddenly Aang gets inspired to make a new zoo just outside the city, but was too confident about his rapport with animals.  The cabbage merchant gives up on saying his catchphrase after being repeatedly interrupted by the rabaroo eating his wares.  Aang uses his bison whistle to somehow corral the creatures and lead through the city.

One shot is from an alley- a stampede led by Aang goes by, with a turtle-seal bringing up the rear.  I’m reminded of a similar bit from Jumanji, though in that case it was a bunch of jungle animals with a rhino in the end.  The zookeeper is pleading with the skeptical royal wall guards.  When the stampede comes into sight, multiple earth-benders at the top work to open up said gate.

Using earth-bending, Aang creates spacious habitats for the creatures.  Everybody is astonished, a group of customers (including children) arriving.  Both humans and animals are happy now.  It turns out that the rabaroo has three babies!  Like me, the creators found them cute “but designer Jae Woo Kim was freaked out by it” according to the art book’s ‘spotlight’ section on the hybrid animals.

The zookeeper is pleased with Aang’s work, half-joking that he could work with animals for a career.  But when it turns out that a few pets got mixed in the zoo animals, a cat (just a cat…?) freaked out by the giant mandrill critter in particular, the zookeeper amends, “On second thought, you should probably stick to saving people.”

Tale #4

One twilight, Sokka is wandering along a street and finds a haiku club for ladies.  After overhearing one, an ostrich-horse kicks the teen partially into the room.  His explanation ends up following the rules, which one lady explains.  At first Sokka does well, but when he goes over by a syallble the large bouncer throws him out.  I suspect this is the shortest ‘tale’ at roughly two minutes, especially considering how easily I can summarize it.

Here, Sokka can speak publicly unlike in the third season.  But this is a smaller group with much smaller stakes.

Tale #5

At the tea shop, Zuko expresses his concern to Uncle Iroh that a customer is onto them being fire-benders.  Iroh looks despite having been told not to; he recognizes the teenage girl as a frequent patron that he suspects has a crush on his nephew.

Going to the counter, she introduces herself Jin.  According to my baby name book, that’s a Japanese name meaning “tender” and doesn’t list any alternate spellings.  But I strongly suspect this name is where ‘Jyn’ from Rogue One originated.

15adorkablezuko

When she asks him out, Zuko’s face is utterly adorkable in his bafflement.  It’s moments like that when I remember that he’s sixteen.  Anyway, Iroh slides over to tell Jin that “He’d love to” so she sets up when and where to meet.

Exiting the door later, Zuko’s hair has been slicked back.  Jin promptly ruffles it back to normal before they head over to a café to have dinner.  Zuko is awkward but Jin is happy.  I’m not sure what’s going on with the observations on Jin’s appetite, but Zuko’s remark comes across more bemused than anything.  Then again, if Jin was ever a refugee, she might not be used to having regular access to food.

After admitting honestly that he and his uncle traveled for years, Zuko then lies that they were part of a traveling circus.  When Jin wants him to teach her how to juggle, he utterly fails at doing so.

Afterwards, she excitedly takes him to the “fire light fountain” as it’s one of her favorite, most beautiful spots in the city.  However, the candles around and on it haven’t been lit.  Zuko tells her to close her eyes and not peek.  Since no one else is around, Zuko fire-bends the lanterns alight.  Jin clearly presumes that it’s a circus trick before they enjoy the sight.  They hold hands and nearly kiss before Zuko brings up a coupon for a free cup of tea at the shop between their mouths.

Undeterred, Jin has Zuko close his eyes and she kisses him.  Stressed, Zuko bolts afterwards.  Upon returning to the apartment, the teen slams the door shut as Iroh asks how his night went as he tends to a plant.  But Zuko briefly, slightly opens the door to admit “it was nice” before closing it again.

I have to wonder whether or not his childhood interactions with Mai had any impact on his hesitance to get involved with Jin.  Similarly, I wonder if her parents’ efforts to have Mai get married to a member of the royal family (even if he was a relatively minor one for most of their childhoods) was a factor in their strictness- they wanted/needed her to be good enough to marry into the ruling class.

Tale #6

It opens with Momo dreaming about him and Appa flying and then eating berries before thunder wakes him up.  The flying lemur hides in Sokka’s hanging bag before realizing that a tuft of Appa’s fur has landed on his head.  There’s a momentary flashback to the dream before Momo spots an Appa-like shadow on the lawn.  Wrapping the fur around his wrist, Momo leaves the house to realize it was just a cloud.

Then he’s tricked by a white-leafed tree.  As Momo searches the city, he accidentally attracts the attention of three cat-like creatures.  Momo manages to escape, only to somehow end up performing in a monkey routine, the cats prowling the edges of the circle of customers.  Flying away, Momo ends up surrounded by the predators before they’re all captured and put in cages.  Sadly, Momo rubs the cheek against his cheek.

The carriage ends up at the back entrance of a restaurant, the kitchen visible.  The three creatures are freaking out.  Since the key was left in his lock, Momo can easily get back.  After a pause when the cats are fearful/sad, Momo frees them as well.  All four escape over a roof just as the two humans (the catcher and the cook) return.

Presumably on a different roof, one cat takes the fur and they lead Momo through some streets.  Finding an Appa footprint on a street, Momo curls up in it as it starts to rain.

Conclusion

Not just the characters and viewers, but the crew needed a break from the heavy-duty storytelling to have a breather episode at the three-quarters mark.  It wasn’t filler, as some character development occurred: Katara and Toph bonded, Momo’s connection to Appa was highlighted, Aang is still looking for Appa, and Zuko is torn between his old life and the possibility of making a new one in Ba Sing Se.

Most importantly, we learned that Iroh is so invested in helping others because he failed to help his son.  And there was a bit of foreshadowing- while restoring honor is important, trying to make amends is not always possible (or safe).  It was treated funnily here, but in season three that moral comes back in a far more serious manner.

There are three pages in the art book on this episode.  A black-and-white sketch of part of the city and a reddish background image of the hill with the tree fill the first page.  Various sketches of the street kids, mean girls, and poetry club members are seen as well as a ‘background design’ of the Aang-made zoo are on the second one.  The final page is just storyboard images of Zuko and Jin’s dinner.

There were a lot of lighthearted and/or heartwarming moments in this episode, but there was a current of seriousness in the background.  Iroh’s tale ended on a somber note, later unintentionally furthered by it becoming a memorial to Mako.  Aang and Momo miss Appa, both actively looking for.  Zuko isn’t adapting well to life in Ba Sing Se.

The timeline here is a bit fuzzy.  It’s possible that most of these tales occurred on the same day but not probable.  Obviously Iroh’s and Zuko’s couldn’t have overlapped.  Maybe they’re in chronological order?  In any case, there’s a sense of time passing over the course of the episode, as most episodes occur within a day’s time (if that).

 

Next time on Avatar: It’s shown what Appa has been undergoing since his capture.

 

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