With a title like this one, this episode could have been many things. The result is possibly the most controversial 'Avatar' episode to date, one that calls for extreme reactions and cannot really fit into the show as a whole. It's style is so different, so unusual, that it might very well be pure filler to occupy the twenty-what minutes of this episode. Indeed, 'The Tales of Ba Sing Se' comes dangerously close to being just that.
What makes this episode so very hard to summarize, or review, is the fact that it is made up of six independent tales. It is an anthology, a collection, of short stories in their truest sense, each one focusing on different main characters. We get insights into the daily life of these characters in the form of very short snapshots. And even though each such display lasts but a handful of minutes, the amount of character revelation and development they bring is exhilarating.
There's Katara's and Toph's growing friendship, Iroh's grief, Aang's goofiness, Sokka's wits, Zuko's self-discovery, and Momo's sorrow. Each one evokes different emotions, and each one follows its own story and narrative. Each one also follows its own timeline, and it's unclear whether all stories even happen on the same day. And it is this disparity and lack of continuity that makes this episode so very difficult to absorb as a whole.
In all other episodes, the events build up on each other and follow through in a plausible manner. In this one, every new tale presents a fresh start, a cut in the action. And while each one sends home a good message, there is also an atmosphere of mixed feelings and incompleteness that permeates all tales. And this is the make-or-break point of this chapter.
Much more than the individual tales, it is the general and overall feel of this episode as a whole that truly decides whether it will succeed or fail. While the contents of the tales do play a part (bad stories will kill any episode), they do not determine the overall outcome on their own. What I'm shooting at here is the fact that each tale is comprised of so short an amount of time that it only allows glimpses into their events. It is difficult to keep previous tales in mind while watching later ones, because those overwhelm the viewer with new stimuli and emotions. But this is what this episode is really about.
In the end, this episode achieves two goals. The first one is the obvious one: It shows us a small moment in the characters' lives in the great city of Ba Sing Se. But the second one is this permeating feel that connects all the tales: That life is big, and that a lot happens in it. And while we are granted a short presentation of one part of it, there really is a lot more going on that we don't see, a lot more of the daily life that each character goes through. And that is what really makes this episode come to life. That the events in the tales, however significant they might seem to the viewers, are really only a small part in the characters' lives, and that there's a whole lot more out there which we'll never get to experience.
So what about this chapter? How to grade it? Compared to some other episodes, it's certainly not as good. But there is a simple brilliance in the individual tales, and this overall feel of the episode as a whole can really make one think hard about the show. Despite it spreading out its focus, this chapter possesses a depth that is nigh unmatched in any other episode. And that is a trademark of excellence.
"The Tales of Ba Sing Se" turns out to be more of a filler chapter than an actual episode for Avatar. While this may at first seem disappointing - I know I sat back on the couch and crossed my arms in a huff - we soon come to realize that this episode actually has a whole lot to offer to us Avatards. While not very action packed - unless you count Aang being chased by every animal in the city - the chapter still holds its own and retains a certain amount of significance. It's a creative way of showing life in the big city.
So what is it that caught our interest? Is it finally seeing Aang and Sokka shave, or is it Iroh and Momo's deeply touching encounters? My answer, friends, is a combination of all these things. The Tales of Ba Sing Se is rich in deep symbolism, running jokes, and an introduction to everyday life in a city that does not mention war.
First, I find that the format provides a steady balance of emotions. Whether or not the creators had this in mind or not is not the question, but the result seems to suit us watchers just fine. Never at one point was I overpowered by one particular emotion from every episode. For example, if Momo and Iroh's stories had been placed together at the beginning, I may not have stayed for the rest of the episode because the overload of emotional baggage. Let's go into this just a tad.
We start off the first tale with the light and sweet introduction of daily routine. The episode takes a turn near the end, however, when we get a little insight into Toph's mind. Our amusement turns to some pity, even if grudgingly so, and this prepares us for Iroh's tale. His story begins light as well, though it makes us wonder what he is up to throughout his adventures (which turn out to be highly symbolic, as I will mention later). When we finally discover the reason for Iroh's outing, we immediately drop the lightness of emotion again and feel that same sorrow and sympathy that we felt for Toph. Only, this time our feelings are more extreme.
Aang and Sokka's stories are the peak of humor. While Aang's story is lighter than the rest, we still get a glimpse of his thus far emotional search for Appa. Sokka also gives us a little relief from our sad encounter with Iroh and Lu Ten, and we also find out that Sokka can whip up a decent haiku on the spot - this talent probably won't save his life in battle, but it's nice to know that Sokka has other talents beside fighting and being generally sarcastic.
The emotional train takes another bumpy ride as we face off in Zuko's battle with his date. We feel anxiety for his ridiculous hair, humor during his "yes, I juggled" scene, and awkwardness throughout. On the other hand, we also learn to feel sorry for Zuko when we realize that he cannot have a relationship at this time. What will come of his love life? While Zutara and Kataang shippers face off, they must lower their weapons, if only for a moment, and look upon the challenge that is Jin. This episode puts all of our thoughts under considerable doubt, because Zuko has shown that he can do nothing with women at this particular time due to his mission. I sympathize with our scar-faced friend.
At last, we reach the slowing calm that is Momo's tale. We watch as he searches for Appa, gets chased by some animals, and falls asleep in Appa's footprint. All the while we feel a lingering pity for our animal friend, a tad of humor, and a bit of speculation, which brings me to part II of my review.
Symbolism plays an important role in this story. Just about everything in Iroh's tale - from his song about the soldier marching home to his conversation with the mugger - can be symbolic of Iroh's own life. Such symbolism can also be pointed out in Zuko's 'fiery' date encounter, Toph's inner doubt, and Aang's need to help animals. What the symbolism means is, of course, up to you.
The last thing I'd like to mention is this: to me, there's nothing better in a series than a running joke. Character development is, of course, important, but who would we be without our favorite Cabbage Merchant? He has appeared in numerous episodes, hardly ever longer than for him to exclaim over his precious produce, but he's there. He provides us with that little edge to our episode.
So there you have it: my too-long review for the episode that many people didn't like. Being a frequent flier on the "Filler Chapter", I can understand what the writers may have been thinking at the time. While the episode didn't give us much in the plot sense, I think it is important that we learn about the struggles and adventures of the city that is Ba Sing Se.
This episode was one that took a while to adjust to. Initially, I did not like it that much at all, and even less so when I found that there was nothing tying this episode to the others--it was a "waste of an episode," as I put it. An enjoyable ride, kind of, but not one that I enjoyed.
However, when I rewatched, I found it extremely enjoyable and entertaining.
Yes, it doesn't really accomplish anything plot-wise. Thus, when people are following the plot intently and waiting to discuss the recent developments and watch the change and be wowed by what happens, it is far from satisfying--but when you sit back and appreciate it as an episode, it is one that can make it to the list of your top ten favorites. Watching Katara and Toph relax for a change is a good way to admire the art and the writing of the episode; and who can't help grinning as Toph turns around and retaliates against the girls bullying her?
Iroh's tale is as touching as always, the centerpiece for the episode. His other exploits are as humorous as always, and the bittersweet ending is still one of my favorite moments of the entire series. There is something beautiful in the way that they have him return to the place outside the city where his son is buried to celebrate his birthday.
Sokka's tale is amusing again, but you have to know that it is there for humor. When the viewer stops looking for plot advances or meaning and simply enjoys the comedy of the situation, enjoyment doubles. The same applies to Aang's story--when the viewer knows that he is not going to be any closer to finding Appa at the end of the tale, it becomes easier to swallow and enjoy.
The controversial Zuko tale that put holes into every ship revolving around our favorite scarred prince is, perhaps, the most difficult one to settle down with. Anyone who has a passion for shipping in the Avatarverse will have probably hated this part of the episode, as the shipping instincts cause them to be defensive. But after the season finale, especially, this story is fairly enjoyable--it wasn't a ship to be, but Zuko had a night out with a girl. Something human was touched inside of him for a moment--but as we see when he returns to his room, it hasn't changed him much at all. His comment about it being a nice night is seen with a sad look--he isn't thrilled about what happened, but confused.
Momo's tail is, finally, a comic tale without words that is played out very well, finally culminating in the revelation of the footprint--showing to the viewer that Appa is, indeed, in Ba-Sing Sei, and that he will be found shortly.
Ultimately, this is an episode to be enjoyed. Some people will, of course, skip over it on their DVD collections or switch over to Cartoon Network, but when you want to relax and watch an episode, this is one of the best to do so with. It was a good way to express the passage of time, and a satisfying break from the action and cliffhangers of the other episodes.
The trick to enjoying this episode is to not expect anything from it--too many times, a scene, episode, or even an entire show can be made unenjoyable by demanding that it surpass your expectations, or even meet them. The episode is here--"be happy, and enjoy it." If you want to rush the story, skip this episode--if you want to laugh or just admire the art, this is one of choice.
"Tales of Ba Sing Se" is a bit of an oddity in the second season of Avatar. After the intriguing politics and diabolical scheming introduced in City of Walls and Secrets that seems to set the stage for a frantic and action-packed series of episodes, we're treated with a very slow, mostly introspective episode that focuses on individual characters rather than the overall narrative. While it does present an interesting look at some of the characters, it seems inconveniently-placed in the show and ultimately leaves me wondering if the few exceptional scenes were worth wasting an entire episode that could have been used to further the main storyline.
The episode begins with the Tale of Katara & Toph, wherein our two favorite female leads visit a spa and wacky hijinks ensue. This mostly subdued and, to quote Toph, "girly" segment of the episode is actually fairly interesting. It's a story that finally cements the bonds of friendship between two of the most different characters in the show. We also get our first glimpse that Toph isn't quite as sure of herself as she seems. As a Toph fan, I appreciated the small bit of depth that was added to her character. It's also hard to argue that Toph and Katara aren't absolutely adorable together at the end of the episode.
Next we have the Tale of Iroh. Without a doubt, this is the greatest segment of the episode, and almost makes the entire episode worthwhile. It's a touching story where we find Iroh journeying around Ba Sing Se and picking up various seemingly-unrelated items and helping people along the way. It's not until the last minutes that we discover that Iroh has been gathering his items in order to celebrate the birthday of his deceased son, Lu Ten. Iroh singing a melancholy song about a soldier boy that he has already performed earlier in the episode in front of his late son's picture is one of the most moving moments in the entire show and really must be seen and heard to appreciate. I'll admit that I got teary-eyed during the episode, and I dare anyone else to make it through the ending without feeling slightly moved.
Then we have the Tale of Aang. A sharp contrast to Iroh's tale, it's a goofy story about Aang accidentally releasing a plethora of animals from their cages and having to recapture them. Unfortunately, unlike the previous two stories, it reveals nothing new about Aang's character and lacks any sort of emotional punch. It's just a short with Aang acting like Aang. No new ground is covered, and since Aang's character has been changing in previous episodes, Aang's tale is one of the greatest disappointments in the episode.
The Tale of Sokka is largely the same. We find Sokka getting involved in the Avatar world's equivalent of a rap battle: a Haiku battle of sorts with a female poet. While it hardly illuminates anything that we didn't already know about Sokka, it is entertaining due to the wacky and unique poems that Sokka forms on the fly.
Then there's the Tale of Zuko. Iroh arranges for Zuko to go on a date with an Earth Kingdom girl named Jin. He grudgingly agrees. The highlight of this part of the episode is watching how absolutely awkward Zuko is around Jin during their date. Some part of him wants to enjoy the date, and another simply won't allow it due to his unresolved conflicts. It's an interesting character piece that falls somewhere in between the Tale of Iroh and Tale of Aang: it's fun and shows a different side of Zuko than we normally see, but won't pack much of an emotional punch for anyone except the most devout and fanatical Zuko fans.
Lastly, there's the Tale of Momo. It's an interesting addition to the episode in that it's entirely devoid of dialogue and tells the story of Aang's pet Momo, who searches the city for Appa and gets into various predicaments along the way. While most of the tale is forgettable, the ending is certainly emotional, though not nearly as hard-hitting as the end of the Tale of Iroh.
Ultimately, Tales of Ba Sing Se is an episode that most fans will have a mixed reaction about. There are some genuinely excellent moments and it has a lot of emotion at times, but whether or not breaking the flow of action and storytelling for a character piece was a good idea will always be a subject of debate.