Best. Episode. Ever. Period.
Who would have though that the writers would make an episode so very dark, so very powerful, and most of all, so very mature. After adding in obvious elements from Orwell's "1984", this show has taken another step towards being engaging for adults, a feat not many kid's shows can claim.
Among roleplayers, it is said that in the wilderness, life is simple. It's clear who the good guys and bad guys are, there are no hidden powers, and things are easy to handle. In the city, it becomes much more complicated. There are laws, political intrigue, hidden rules, and shades of gray. The bigger the city, the truer this becomes. And Ba Sing Se is the biggest city there is.
What this episode does is shock and provoke. Throughout the series, the war has been going on, and there has always been this safe haven of Ba Sing Se lurking somewhere in the distance. And while the Earth Kingdom capital is indeed a magnificent metropolis, it is anything but pleasant. And this is where the episode pulls off an extremely good move: it builds up tension and misdirects the viewers to achieve the greatest effect in the end.
First we find out that Ba Sing Se is not all what it seems. Yes, there is the division of rich and poor, as well as Joo Di's strange control over the populace and Pong's warning. But that's all red tape, and the real action takes place between Jet and Zuko. Their fight not only gives this episode a good part of action next to the intrigues from the gang's side of the story, but also features some nice choreography, and it is a fight without any bending.
Of course, the gang tries to follow through with their plan of warning the Earth King. Once again, Toph reveals yet another element of her character: her training in formal etiquette. Seeing both Toph and Katara all made up is a nice reprieve from their otherwise unchanging travel clothes. Eventually the gang manages to sneak into the party. This is where things get interesting.
Again, the show uses juxtaposition extremely effectively. The gang has their run-in with the Dai Li, just as Jet is being arrested by them. The last five minutes of the episode are a narrative masterpiece, as well as the revelation of a horrible, horrible truth. While Long Feng explains the twisted utopia present in Ba Sing Se, Jet is shown as an exemplary sacrifice by being brainwashed. And while Long Feng's attitude is confusing at first, bit by bit, the safe haven of Ba Sing Se is turning into a dark pool of totalitarian control and a large hidden power pulling all the strings. But the biggest twist is at the very end, when a different Joo Di, someone who seemed to be an important person, appears on screen. This is when the entire city suddenly seems terrifyingly wrong.
Next to this wonderful storyline, this episode also boasts with excellent artwork, especially in the city panoramas, and great music. The Ba Sing Se theme is a fitting tune, but mostly, it's the variations of it during different times of the episode that bring out a good effect. Mostly, it's the very end, where the very simplistic theme becomes a twisted violin note. No matter how many times I watch the ending, it still makes me tremble.
This chapter was something that could've gone horribly wrong. It added a dimension to the show that was never there before. It lets the characters face a force they cannot overcome with bending. And most of all, it utterly lays down all the hope that was built up over these two seasons. However, it is the combination of all these elements that make 'City of Walls and Secrets' not only very successful, and it not only allows it to send a powerful message out to the viewers, but it is this maturity that makes it the most brilliant piece of work in the entirety of the series so far.
"There is no war within the walls. Here we are safe. Here we are free."
Never before has a children's show fearlessly addressed social and political conflicts regarding a government that usurps the power of the people until now. I watched this disturbing yet thrillingly clever and well-structured episode of Avatar with strong impressions of 1984 and V for Vendetta echoing in my head.
City of Walls and Secrets makes the annexed city of Omashu look safe in comparison to the inner fraudulence of Ba Sing Se. The fans already know that this bustling metropolis has an enormous population, successful university, a king, a monorail system, and most of all, impenetrable walls that make it the last stronghold against the Fire Nation. But to the kids' astonishment, the city is no last Zion. Ba Sing Se is a gilded cage of lies and deception where freedom of speech is barred and citizens live in simultaneous luxury and fear.
When Aang and his friends are eager to find Appa and inform the Earth King about their new war information, they are once again faced with adversity and mistrust. Their perky tour guide named Joo Dee could pass as a charming Stepford wife except for her overly enthusiastic smile and constant assurance that "everyone is safe" in Ba Sing Se.
Something is wrong.
Aang can't get any answers from people. People are always averting their eyes, stammering, or hushing up before cautioning the kids not to discuss the war with the Fire Nation. Katara and Toph are impatient with Ba Sing Se's red tape rules and decide to take affirmative action by sneaking into the king's private party. This secret mission involves the usual witty and amusing quirks, Toph's aristocratic upbringing, swapped busboy uniforms, and clever Avatar tricks. They are distracted from their goal by the charismatic Long Feng (brilliantly voiced by Clancy Brown aka Lex Luthor from the Superman and Justice League series) who prevents the Avatar from meeting the king.
Long Feng fills the void after Admiral Zhao has left. His cold hard intellect and iron grip over the local citizens make him a worthy adversary to Aang and his friends, especially when they discover that he is the one controlling authority in the city rather than the king. What's worse, Long Feng uses the Earth King's status and grandeurs as sedative to keep the citizens calm and under close surveillance. Anyone who disturbs this so-called "utopia" by mentioning the war with the Fire Nation will be arrested by his Dai Li agents. As if his malevolence wasn't enough, Long Feng blackmails Aang into being quiet for the sake of his missing bison.
The implications here are mind-boggling. This episode does not sugarcoat the conditions of the poverty-stricken refugees who suffer within Ba Sing Se's slums while other people live in wealth nor does it cover up the consequences of those who disobey the Da Li. It addresses the corruption within the city head on by showing the audience exactly what happens to wrongdoers in Ba Sing Se.
The first victim we see is Jet. Not surprisingly, he's drawn bipolar ratings from the fans for his biased hatred against the Fire Nation. But now his drastic methods of stalking Zuko and Iroh take him too far to the point where he falls into the clutches of the Dai Li. I almost expected to hear the agents chant "Big Brother is watching you" when they use their brainwashing techniques on Jet.
The ending that parallels Long Feng's lecture while Jet succumbs to the hypnotism is haunting. Avatar has been taking bigger risks in season two that only make it more compelling to watch as the story progresses. One can only anticipate what will happen next to Aang, his friends, or the ill-fated Jet as the series continues.