This episode is about change on many levels: Character, relationships, tone, plot, circumstances, revelations. But as the title suggests, this change is not easy, and each one comes with a cost. On the other side, there's also a lot of coincidence that drives the events of this episode. Since it hasn't been overused in the show, that's not a bad thing, and it serves as a nice way of handling twists.
Touching upon all the various changes this episode possesses would burst the confines of this review, but there are some that need to be mentioned. The first one is the biggest one, plot. In this episode, the two old nemeses Aang and Zuko are connected. While they never actually meet, their actions bind them together once again, which just mixes in another factor that might come back to haunt future episodes.
Another change is Jet's appearance to the gang. After what happened in the episode 'Jet', we get a tension-filled reunion that leads to some interesting revelations, most importantly Toph's lie-detector abilities. This last one is another important change that also carries a cost. Toph is supposed to be an amazing earthbender, but this new ability just pops up from nowhere, and keeps seeing use. While useful, this is a step towards god-moding Toph, and costs a lot of Toph's believability.
Along the line of Jet, he undergoes one final change by redeeming himself, even in the eyes of Katara. We get some nice flashbacks, and a lot of character development. This twist in this is, just as Jet was becoming truly interesting, with his own background and inner conflicts, he gets killed. Getting rid of a character is always something difficult, but it is also a powerful narrative tool. And it definitely changes the whole tone of the show, where a minor but important character dies.
On Zuko's and Iroh's side there are also changes to note. One is a circumstance: Iroh gets his own tea shop. Although this might not seem like much, it's a powerful motivator for Zuko. Another is Zuko finally letting go of the Blue Spirit.
What this episode does very effectively is keep the viewers in the unknown. Lake Laogai is a place of mystery, and as the plot unwinds, more and more becomes clear. But in the process, there are many surprises and unexpected twists. This episode is also filled with legendary lines, most of them from Toph.
Next to that, the large fight between the Dai Li and the gang (along with Jet and his freedom fighters) is a spectacular one. It happens far too often in cartoons that single characters stand around and await their turn to cut down animation. Not so in this scene. After the first exchange, there is action all around, every character is involved in something.
The only thing that drags this episode's grade down a bit is the anticlimactic ending. After the Dai Li had built up their image as an elite, dangerous, and enigmatic team of earthbenders, Appa just tramples over all of them at once. Not even Long Feng stood a chance against him. After such a tight storyline, I would have expected a grander climax. This is truly a big disappointment.
Overall, this episode really only serves to further the overarching plot, and reunites Aang and Appa. But it does this in a very good way, and it includes a lot of individual and minute development in the form of the various changes that occur throughout this chapter. And while the episode in itself reaches a conclusion, there is still loads of material to push on. 'Lake Laogai' changes the show's standard of quality for the better.
After watching Aang and his friends enjoy the city and keeping track of Appa's travels for two episodes, the show kicks back into high gear with "Lake Laogai". It continues where "City of Walls and Secrets" left off by successfully pulling together the plots and subplots as we advance towards the end of season two in a quick suspenseful half hour.
Watching Aang blow up in Ju Dee's face was priceless, as well as Toph's remark about Ba Sing Se: "Worse city ever!!" Tragically, the inner corruption of Ba Sing Se has sunken in deeper than Toph or any of the other kids can presume at the conclusion of the season.
Who would have guessed that Toph was also an earthbending lie detector? Obviously the kids are skeptical to trust Jet who suddenly turns up after his mysterious arrest and disappearance. The mounting tension reveals a different Jet from the smooth charismatic teen we saw in season one. He's nervous and alarmed when Sokka concludes that he's been brainwashed by the Dai Li to lead them off the trail -- and Jet doesn't even know it!
The secret to this plot is Lake Laogai, the underwater headquarters of the Dai Li where they control dozens of Joo Dee agents ala Stepford Wives. In a quick flashback of painful memories, Jet is able to recall where they took him. Aang and his friends, along with Jet and his friends, all advance down the long creepy tunnel into Lake Laogai. A well-choreographed fight breaks out when Aang, his friends, and the three Freedom Fighters are all ruthlessly fighting off the Dai Li agents. It's remarkable how this handful of kids manage to resist the very muscle of Ba Sing Se and not just because the Avatar is doing all the work for them. Little do they know that a particular exiled prince is also after the bison that lies captive in another cell...
Some of us sighed in frustration to see Zuko going after Appa and his old mission but Iroh finally puts his foot down. No longer offering good-humored wisdom or gentle words of consolation, Iroh speaks harshly towards his nephew for his headstrong behavior. Not wanting to see Zuko driven on a fool's errand into a state of hopelessness, Iroh questions Zuko's intentions: What really is Zuko's destiny? What does it matter to him? Is he being ordered to live his life by the commands of others?
Zuko tries to defend his actions but his uncle refuses to let this fanatic chase continue any further and tears down the last walls of denial that Zuko has built around himself. Iroh says, "It's time for you to start looking inward and begin asking yourself the big questions. Who are you? And do you want?" The moment when Zuko concedes and slams down his swords and mask, accompanied by his echoed anguish cry, is long overdue.
The underlying message of freedom in this episode is an emotional springboard that results in personal liberation. Long Feng sets Jet into a hypnotic state and commands him to fight Aang. An internal conflict is fueled by Aang's remind that the teen is a Freedom Fighter and it breaks Jet from the Dai Li's control. Zuko is also struggling inside, confused about breaking away from his father's demands and finding self-worth in spite of being rejected by his family. He is hurt and frustrated but with his uncle's prodding words but Zuko is finally coming to his own decisions after a long demanding spiritual journey throughout season two. He finally releases Appa. And he releases the Blue Spirit mask into the lake as an expression of liberating himself from past actions.
The only complaint I have about this episode is the animation. It looks stringy and awkward from Jet's rimmed eyes to the stretchy lips or Sokka's round-shaped head. If this was a typical "funny" episode I wouldn't mind so much but the suspense of Lake Laogai needs top notch work like "The Drill". Nevertheless, I'm pleased. Appa is back, Zuko is making strides, and a tear or two may be shed for Jet's tragic ending. Yue and Lu Ten might have some company in the other world...