Because fans should be critical, too

Chapter Fifty-Four and Fifty-Five: “The Boiling Rock”

14

(Rating Out of 15)

14

(Rating Out of 15)

(Note: I’m not very satisfied with how this review came out either. I haven’t been on my rocker these past few days. Once all the other reviews have been completed, this will definitely be one of those that will be revisited and revised. I sincerely apologize, and promise that the remaining reviews will be much better.)

The Grand Stretch continues with “The Boiling Rock,” and the Zuko-and-me field tripper is Sokka as they go on an poorly planned journey to rescue Sokka’s father from prison. Much like “The Firebending Masters,” this is a very-plot heavy episode that is neither very deep nor profound, but is still very entertaining, and the best parts involve the character interactions and the climatic third act. I have to wonder if DiMartino and Konietzko and company were saving their depth and profoundness for the next episode, “The Southern Raiders.”

“The Boiling Rock” is the best and most coherent multi-part episode in the series (yes, even better than the four-part finale). Also like “The Firebending Masters,” it’s as much a genre exercise as it is an episode of Avatar: the Last Airbender: if that episode was the Avatar take on action-adventure serials, then this episode is the Avatar take on a prison escape movie. In both cases, it’s a great success. “The Boiling Rock” is fun and suspenseful in a way that we haven’t seen since Book Two’s “The Library.”

It begins when Sokka asks Zuko where war prisoners, namely his father, are being held and where the place can be found–just to ease his mind, he says. Zuko sees right through this, but tells Sokka anyway: his father is probably at the Boiling Rock, the greatest maximum security prison in the Fire Nation, and that it’s located in the middle of a volcano, and that it’s inescapable. Naturally, by the end of the episode, our heroes will have proven that last part wrong, but that doesn’t make the episode any less engaging. (Part of the fun of any traditional prison break story is how they escape, not if they can.)

Unwilling to let Sokka go on this journey alone, especially on Appa, Zuko helps Sokka out by using his war balloon to get them both to the prison. Unfortunately, the balloon gets destroyed when they finally reach the prison, so they have to figure out another way to escape. That, and all the while trying to find Sokka’s father and not get caught themselves.

I will refrain from attempting to summarize and analyze the entire plot—which is so dense that I would be stuck on this episode for a long time—except to say that it is fantastically pieced together. There’s not a single wasted moment in these two episodes: every setup and payoff, twist and turn, and success and failure of the characters is a joy to watch. It helps immensely that, every step of the way, we care deeply about all of the characters.

My respect for Sokka has gone back up again thanks to “The Boiling Rock.” He’s not much a jokester in here (which is almost always a good thing), but instead gets to display the two sides of him that make him the most endearing: his ingenuity and his genuine emotions.

Throughout the series, DiMartino and Konietzko and company have always attempted to show us that Sokka, in spite of his idiocy, is actually a pretty smart and sensitive guy. More often than not, that intelligence is overshadowed by his painfully bad sense of humor. (Even Zuko’s failed attempt at joke telling in this episode is funnier than Sokka usually is.) Not so much in “The Boiling Rock,” where his determination to rescue his father and redeem himself is so great that I have no choice but to sympathize with him. Considering this is probably the first time I’ve been sympathetic towards him without the rest of the characters being written as contrarian morons, this is quite an accomplishment.

Both of his escape plans are pretty clever, and each would have worked if it weren’t for certain complications (more on that later).

The first involves using the Cooler—a solitary confinement for disobedient Firebenders that is freezing cold—as a boat to float across the current of the boiling hot water surrounding the prison. The Cooler’s insulated insides make it the ideal getaway vehicle.

The second involves starting a prison riot to distract the guards while Sokka and the others take the prison warden hostage so that the can use the gondola to get across the water.

But most importantly, Sokka comes through as an emotional human being. His father is the whole reason he came to the Boiling Rock in the first place, and his initial anguish upon learning his father isn’t even there [yet] is devastating to watch. (More proof that voice actor Jack De Sena is best at drama, not comedy.) But then he brightens back up when he sees that Suki is at the prison. Even if his dad isn’t at the prison, getting Suki out is definitely a positive course of action.

But then when he learns that his father just might be arriving the day they all try to make their first escape, he has the dilemma of escaping then and there, or risking not just his and Zuko’s freedom, but the potential freedom of Suki just to see if his father will even show up after all. It’s a tough choice to make, and DiMartino and Konietzko and company carefully highlight that difficulty when Zuko ultimately persuades him to try again (even if another escape is unforeseeable).

Before moving on, I should note that Sokka’s reunions with Suki and his father Hakoda are both rather touching. Maybe too touching. Did both of them have to burst into tears upon seeing Sokka again? I can sort of understand Suki—not because she’s a girl, but just because she hasn’t seen him in a very, very long time (and who’d have thought that in all places, she’d see him again in prison?)—but Hakoda? A bit unnecessary, I think.

But of course, Sokka wouldn’t have gotten very far if it weren’t for Zuko. Zuko is mostly the way to Sokka’s will. Not only does Zuko get him to the prison in the first place, but he unbolts the Cooler from the wall, persuades Sokka to stay and wait to see if his father arrives, and is lucky enough to have a girlfriend who helps them all escape at the very last minute.

Regarding that last part, Zuko’s not the only one: Sokka is also lucky, because it’s Suki who ends up immobilizing the Warden and making him her captive.

That sequence is exhilarating and hilarious all on its own–seeing the acrobatic Suki climb walls and perform high jumps to reach the Warden–but it’s not like it came out of nowhere. Suki has always been shown as a girl of immediate action, and quite possibly the most competent and professional person in Avatar. Back in “The Serpent’s Pass,” she’s the one who swam out to save Toph while Sokka was busy trying to get his shoes off. Now she’s the one who retrieves the Warden after Sokka failed to come up with a good game plan as to how they would do that.

In the meantime, we get a new character named Chit Sang, who gets wind of our heroes’ escape plan and wants in. I wouldn’t say he’s a particularly memorable or distinctive character, but it doesn’t hurt the episode. He ends up escaping with them in the end, but not without some set backs.

By the time Sokka, Suki, and Zuko opt to stay another day at the Boiling Rock to wait for Sokka’s father, Chit Sang (and his girl and his best bud, who we learn nothing about and don’t ever see again) get away on the Cooler “boat.” Unfortunately, Chit Sang sabotages this escape by trying to paddle the “boat” out faster and getting his hand burned by the water. His scream alerts everyone, causing the Warden to put the entire prison on “lockdown.”

At least he’s good enough not to rat Sokka and the others out. After being tortured for information, he points out the guard who is an “imposter.” He chooses a guard who was tormenting him earlier in the episode by forcing him to Firebend when it’s against the rules. That’s pretty funny.

Chit Sang also helps the heroes out by starting the prison riot. Chit Sang must initiate a lot of riots, because the way he does it here is by simply picking up someone and shouting, “Hey, everyone! Riot!” Is this some kind of shorthand that the prisoners have developed to pass the time? Oh, who knows?

It all leads, as most things do in Avatar, to a last-act action sequence, made all the more exciting by the involvement of ATM.

Azula and Ty Lee don’t really have a specified reason for being at the Boiling Rock. Did the Warden message her that her brother was one of his prisoners? I guess it’s for the same reason the three girls were present in “The Drill”: your guess is as good as mine.

But it’s a good thing these two are there. When it seems like our heroes have gotten away on the gondola, here comes Azula and Ty Lee to provide some more conflict. Ty Lee the acrobat reaches our heroes by running on the high wire, and Azula reaches them by being Iron Man.

The fight is rather anti-climatic. Sure, we get to see Azula, Zuko, and Sokka exchange blows, as we do also with Suki and Ty Lee (in the rematch Suki’s been waiting for), but there’s no closure.

Fortunately, this is by design, not by accident. The reason is that the Warden, who wants to uphold the Boiling Rock’s reputation of being inescapable, tells the guards below to cut the cable line. He doesn’t even care that this would surely result in his own death. What a dedicated man.

With that, Azula and Ty Lee quickly jump onto the other gondola to escape. It’s always interesting to note how cold Azula’s goodbye is to Zuko—as if casually acknowledging that she’d been waiting for this moment for a long time—and how slightly saddened Ty Lee’s expression is as she watches our heroes on the verge of death. She never actually wanted anyone to die thanks to her alliance with Azula, but now it’s about to happen.

Of course, thanks to Mai, it doesn’t.

Which is somewhat surprising, considering how venomous she is to Zuko after meeting him in the prison. Zuko had been caught by the guards, but the Warden was the only one who knew that it was Zuko the traitor prince. How? Because Zuko broke up with Mai, who happened to be the Warden’s niece.

The crux of her anger comes out when she scolds him for not even having the guts to break up with her to her face, instead only giving him a vague and meaningless letter. (Then again, this isn’t the worst break up in the Avatar universe, so Mai should consider herself lucky.)

It doesn’t help matters much when Zuko leaves her locked in the cell, once again trying to keep her safe from his conflicts. Not that she really understands that. All she knows is that the one she loves is trying to get her out of his life. It’s actually kind of heartbreaking.

And yet, even after all that, Mai is the one who finally helps Zuko and the others escape by stopping the guards from cutting the line.

So why did she even bother to save “the jerk who dumped [her]?” This is also asked by Azula when the two of them have a final stand off. Mai’s answer is pretty well-known:

I guess you just don’t know people as well as you think you do. You miscalculated. I love Zuko more than I fear you.

This is definitely Mai’s defining moment in the series, and proves once and for all that she’s got some depth to her. She’s often criticized for being shallow and having little to no personality. However, as “The Beach” makes clear, that’s not a flaw in the writing, but a choice made by the character. I’ll have to elaborate on this much later, but the main point is quite clear: in her love for Zuko, Mai has finally found something worth risking everything for, even death. (How many people can also say that?)

And death is certainly promised by Azula. That quote of Mai’s is not just a revelation for her character, but a bitch slap in the face of Azula. Azula is very noticeably outraged by this If she can’t control her friend, then she’s of no use to her anymore.

But that wasn’t Azula’s breaking point. She may not have expected betrayal from Mai, but she definitely did not expect it from Ty Lee. Ty Lee’s reason may not be as remarkable, but it’s perfectly understandable: she doesn’t want to be responsible for anyone’s death, even if she’s not the one doing the actual killing. I still think she’s an idiot (mostly because of the vocal performance by Olivia Hack), but at least she’s a humanitarian idiot.

Azula’s breakdown—which, in my opinion, is the best aspect of the series—will be addressed more extensively in the finale reviews, but it definitely began in this episode. It’s all downhill from here.

Oh, and Zuko and the others escape, and Sokka and Katara are reunited with their father at the Western Air Temple. That’s nice.

All screenshots courtesy of piandao.org.

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5 responses

  1. Dan

    I’m glad you brought up Zuko’s failed attempt at a joke being funnier than any of Sokka’s jokes. What makes it even more ironic is that Katara mocks Zuko’s joke-telling skills when her jokes in Sokka’s Master were far worse (not to mention painfully forced*) than Zuko’s attempt at a joke. And in what may very well be the single greatest and most subtle moment of poetic justice (okay, maybe I’m overdoing it; I’m just giving the writers credit where credit is due) in the entire show, Zuko tells a joke that actually makes everyone else in the Gaang (except Katara, of course) laugh in The Southern Raiders. So, in summary, Zuko ends up having a better track-record of joke-telling than Katara, in spite of his social ineptitude.

    *I guess Katara and Sokka have a lot more in common after all!

    July 13, 2012 at 1:48 am

  2. Alan

    More reviews please. And I really want to see your improved reviews as well.

    July 24, 2012 at 6:24 pm

    • Patience, dear boy! I’ve encountered a lot of setbacks these past many days, and not just pertaining to my struggle to complete the “The Southern Raiders” review, which is nearing completion. You have my word that the next review will arrive, if not tomorrow, then by the end of this week. I promise.

      July 24, 2012 at 8:34 pm

      • Marshall are you still interested in rewriting this review?

        August 27, 2014 at 10:26 am

      • I can’t promise it will happen anytime soon, but I still want to.

        August 30, 2014 at 1:01 am

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