I’m going to be devoting a full month to Avatar and I hope I don’t have to explain to why. In terms of animated children’s series this show is about as good as it gets. It’s a classic, and an uncontroversial one, a show whose excellence rests not on being groundbreaking or having a unique premise, but on just doing everything a good TV show should do and doing it really, really well. Top notch animation, great characters, compelling story, phenomenal action, stupendous voice acting and Mako. Every show should have Mako.
I must be foaming at the mouth to review this, right? Right?
Slight problem. Consider the following facts.
- Avatar is a beloved classic with a fanatically loyal fanbase.
- I love Avatar.
- I have been asked to review the Season 2 Episode Tales of Ba Sing Se.
- Tales of Ba Sing Se is one of the most beloved episodes of Avatar.
Right, well, this all looks very promising I’m sure there’s not one final bullet point that’s going to blow it all…
- I really do not like Tales of Ba Sing Se.
Dang. Okay, ready your scalpels folks.
So, in the world of Avatar there are four nations; Earth, Fire, Wind and Water.
In this world, there are people called benders…
…who can manipulate their nation’s element through the use of martial arts. All except the Avatar, who can manipulate all four elements and keeps peace and harmony between the four nations. Every time the Avatar dies he is re-incarnated as someone from a different nation. This time around it’s Aang, a trainee monk from the peaceful Air Nation. When Aang finds out that he’s the next Avatar he freaks out and flees his destiny, only to become trapped in ice and woken almost a century later.
No, actually, he’s discovered by Katara, a water bender of the Water Tribe and her brother Sokka. Aang learns that since he’s been gone, the Fire Nation has gone on the warpath, wiping out his people and pushing the Earth and Water Nations to the brink of destruction. So Aang resolves to complete his training as the Avatar and stop the Fire Nation with the help of his two new friends, his flying buffalo Appa and his cute monkey-lemur Momo (hey, those Happy Meal tie-ins ain’t gonna tie themselves).
Team Rocketing the Aang Gaang every step of the way is Zuko, crown prince of the Fire Nation who is trying to win favour with his father, the Fire Lord, and his uncle Iroh who, despite being technically a villain, is just the best.
It’s perfectly solid fantasy fare, but executed with real craft. So Tales of Ba Sing Se occurs around halfway through the second season and this is what’s been happening: Aang has learned that there’s an eclipse coming which will render all the fire benders powerless, leaving the Fire Nation defenceless apart from its thousands of well armed soldiers, peerless fleet and advanced industrial technology. Total cake walk. So they decide to bring this vital information to the capital of the Earth Kingdom, Ba Sing Se, where they have to wait for two weeks while the Kingdom’s mollasses-soaked bureacracy finally allows them a meeting with the Earth King. Meanwhile, Zuko and Iroh have been expelled from the Fire Nation and are on the lam. By coincidence, they also end up in Ba Sing Se and have taken jobs in a tea shop while trying to hide their identities from the locals.
Tales of Ba Sing Se is an anthology episode like 23 Short Films About Springfield or The Ricklantis Mixup, just showing our characters having little mini-adventures while putzing around Ba Sing Se. We even get cute little title card’s announcing each story segment.
The Tale of Toph and Katara
Wha’ Happen?: Katara decides to take the Aang Gaang’s newest recruit, the blind tomboy earth-bender Toph, to a beauty salon so that she can get in touch with her girly side. On the way back, they get picked on by some mean girls and Toph and Katara use their combined abilities to knock them into the river, where they presumably drown. Katara and Toph head back, having forged a new friendship.
Whaddya think, Mouse?: Ugh. Pairing the two female members of the gaang and sending them off on their own adventure is a great idea, so it’s really disappointing that the writers decided that the most interesting thing to have them do is have a frickin’ spa day. The Avatar-Korra franchise gets much deserved kudos for its great female characters but this feels more than a little reductive. At this point in the show there hadn’t been all that much interaction between Toph and Katara. They’re two very different young women and the opportunity for some stellar character work was absolutely there, but their friendship here comes across more than a little like Lisa and Sarah in Team America: World Police.
Swing and a miss.
The Tale of Iroh
Wha’ Happen?: Iroh prepares a picnic and goes ambling through Ba Sing Se helping everyone he comes across. He cheers up a crying little boy by singing him a song called “Little Soldier Boy”, helps some kids escape after they break the window of some kind of ogre and even helps a guy who tries to mug him turn his life around. Finally he reaches his destination, a hill under a tree where he erects a shrine to his son who died in the battle to take Ba Sing Se. Iroh prays for his son, and sadly sings “Little Soldier Boy” and the short closes with a dedication to Iroh’s voice actor, the legendary Mako Iwamatsu, who died shortly before the episode aired.
Whaddya think, Mouse?: This is an absolutely devastating short and almost certainly the reason why this episode is as highly regarded as it is. Mako was always the MVP of the voice cast but here he is a goddamn weapon of mass emotional destruction. The heaving, heart-rending sadness in his voice as he sings to his dead son…I…I…damn it, next short!
The Tale of Aang
Wha’ Happen?: Aang visits the Ba Sing Se zoo where all the animals are depressed and confined to tiny cages. The zoo keeper says that he wants to renovate the zoo but that his funding has been cut. So Aang decides to help by driving all the animals through the city and outside the city walls and using his earth-bending powers to carve a new zoo for them.
Whaddya think, Mouse?: The purpose of anthology episodes like this is to put a spotlight on a character and gives us some new insight into what makes them tick. Apparently, what makes Aang tick is that he’s a gibbering eejit. I’m guessing the writers didn’t intend to make their main character look like a complete numpty but here we are. Let us skip merrily through the stupid:
Aang wants to help the animals in the zoo. Admirable. So he decides to transport all the animals to a field outside the city. Risky, but perfectly doable with the correct precautions and painstakingly moving them one at a time…No, no, that’s not smart enough for the embodiment of the wisdom of a thousand life times. So he unleashes all the zoo animals on the hapless citizens like a goddamn Batman villain before forcing the city guards to open the gates (could have called ahead, but nope) and finally depositing them in the new enclosure outside. And everyone’s happy that they now have a nice open air zoo. Yeah, slight problem though.
Man, those are some big walls, right? And you know why Ba Sing Se has such big walls? Because the city’s been at war with the Fire Nation for a century. Aang putting a frickin’ zoo outside the city walls is like building a Theme Park in No Man’s Land.
This short manages to pack in a surprising amount of stupid for less than five minutes of animation.
EDIT from an older and wiser Mouse: When I wrote the above I broke one of the cardinal laws of blogging. If you’re going to rake something over the coals for being stupid, make damn sure you’ve got your facts straight. In preparation for this review I binged the first season of Avatar but didn’t actually get to season 2 before I had to start writing. Because of this, I watched Tales of Ba Sing Se without re-watching the episodes leading up to it. If I had watched those episodes I would have been reminded that the wall Aang builds his zoo outside of is Ba Sing Se’s inner wall, not to be confused with the outer wall that protects the farmlands from
titans the Fire Nation. So yeah. I done goofed. If it makes you all feel better, I will probably be tossing and turning in my sleep for the rest of my life moaning “Ba Sing Se has two walls! Two walls!”. Anyway, I can take my licks, so rather than fixing the review I’m just going to leave it with this edit. You may now point and jeer.
The Tale of Sokka
Wha’ happen?: This is the shortest story by far, and honestly less of a story than a comedy sketch. Sokka gets caught spying on a lady’s poetry class and gets challenged by the tutor to a haiku battle.
It turns out that Sokka is the idiot savant of the Haiku world and parries her every verse impeccably. That is, until he gets cocky and adds an extra syllable, and is promptly flung out by the bouncer (quite right).
Whaddya think, Mouse?: Slight, but funny. We don’t really learn anything new about Sokka, but there’s not really that much depth to the guy apart from the fact that his girlfriend turned into the moon.
It doesn’t overstay its welcome.
The Tale of Zuko
Wha’ happen?: Zuko suspects that one of the tea shop patrons, a girl named Jin, is a spy and has figured out that he and his uncle are from the Fire Nation. But actually, she just has a crush on him and Iroh gleefully sets the two up on a date. It starts awkwardly, but when Jin takes Zuko to see a fountain lit by lanterns that have been doused, Zuko risks being exposed to secretly use his fire bending to light them for her. They kiss, and then Zuko runs home. Iroh asks him how his night went and after a sullen silence Zuko replies “It was nice”.
Whaddya think, Mouse?: Okay, cards on the table. The relationship between Zuko and Iroh is my favourite thing about this show.
Okay, true story. I’d seen a few episodes here and there but my first time actually watching the series from beginning to end was when I was at home recovering from surgery a few years back (adult circumcision do NOT recommend) and slightly off my face on painkillers. So, I was in pain, on medication and more than a little emotionally fragile. I get to the episode where Zuko, who had betrayed Iroh before, has come back and apologises with tears in his eyes and Iroh doesn’t even let him finish and just pulls him in for the biggest, most wonderful hug ever captured in animation.
Ms Mouse comes home to find me lying in bed in front of the TV, crying like I’ve been shot and the first thing she says is “OH GOD! IS IT ALRIGHT!?”
Anyway, my point is, my dick is fine and I really, really love these two characters. And if it was up to me, I would have nixed all the other stories and simply focused on the two Fire Nation boys. The two stories even compliment each other very well, as Iroh mourns the death of his son, he helps the nephew he loves like a son to be happy.
The Tale of Momo
Wha’ happen?: The last tale follows Momo, Aang’s flying lemur, as he searches Ba Sing Se for Appa, his flying bison buddy who’d been kidnapped at this point in the show. He doesn’t find Appa, but he does find three feral street pumas who try to eat him until all four animals get caught by the hardworking boys down in Ba Sing Se pest control, who then tries to sell them for meat to the Earth Nation equivalent of Applebee’s. Momo escapes his cage and takes pity on the three street pumas.
Oh yeah. Makin’ Lolcat jokes in 2017. I guess I, too, am the last of my tribe.
By way of gratitude, the cats lead him to a back alley where he finds…a single massive bison footprint.
Man, I’m all about the classic memes today.
Whaddya think, Mouse?: Honestly, I never really gave much mind to Momo, he was always just kinda in the background. This short’s fine, I guess. Nothing too spectacular but not as irritating as the Aang or Toph/Katara shorts. Odd one to end the episode on though.
So this is why I don’t really love The Tales of Ba Sing Se. It’s uneven as hell. Anthologies will always be hit and miss, but here the quality is really all over the place, from some of the finest few minutes in the whole franchise (Iroh’s story) to some of the most pointless filler this side of The Great Divide. It’s the old Curate’s Egg: An episode that’s 2/5 great can’t really be considered a great episode.
Avatar’s animation could be fairly inconsistent as it was animated by several different studios. Tales of Ba Sing Se is somewhere in the middle of what the show could produce animation-wise.
Since the whole cast gets to be the star of their own story, it averages out about this.
Supporting characters: N/A
Iroh’s story uses a simple song to absolutely devastating effect.
FINAL SCORE: 60%
NEXT UPDATE: 09 November 2017
NEXT TIME: We take a look at how the Avatar saga wrapped up with the epic two-parter, Sozin’s Comet…