“The Boiling Rock, Parts 1 And 2” (season three, episodes 14 and 15; originally aired July 16, 2008)
Prison-break movies generally function as metaphors for redemption. The hero is usually wrongly imprisoned and the plot either follows the mechanics of the break (as in Papillon or A Man Escaped) or the irrepressible personality of the prisoner (as in The Shawshank Redemption or Cool Hand Luke). “The Boiling Rock,” in which Sokka and Zuko break into and out of the Fire Nation’s toughest prison, hews closer to the former, with Sokka planning and executing two different escapes. The redemption he’s seeking is his own, to alleviate the guilt he feels for allowing his father to be imprisoned when the invasion plan went awry. In the nuts-and-bolts type of prison-break film, the success of the plan is always contingent on the escapee being flexible and lucky enough to work around unexpected obstacles. “The Boiling Rock” is no different, with Sokka modifying his plan on the fly to address the constantly changing situation of the escape. The plot has a couple of missteps, but for the most part, this two-parter has the thrills and cerebral action of any first-rate prison-break film.
While this chapter is another solo adventure with Zuko, the grumpy prince is mostly in sidekick mode while Sokka drives the action. The episode begins with Zuko showing how much he has relaxed by actually smiling a little smile when Katara kids him on the square over his terrible joke-telling skills. Pretty soon, though, Sokka is grilling him over where the Fire Nation would send political prisoners. Since Zuko is not an idiot or, as we shall see, a warden, he immediately jumps to the correct conclusion that Sokka is planning to infiltrate the toughest Fire Nation prison with the hope of freeing his father. Sokka’s every move seems to be taken from the Zuko Playbook. First he claims that he is trying to restore his honor, an unlikely phrase coming from Sokka, and then their break-in is markedly un-Sokka-like, a direct flight into the prison on a hunch with no Plan B or escape route. The collapse of the balloon due to the heat of the air above the boiling lake is a great nod to the basic physics of balloon travel. Nerds everywhere appreciate concessions to the real world!
Although several pieces of dialogue afterward make the point that Sokka is winging it, his ultimate escape plan seems as well-planned as the invasion, with a similar logistical lacuna at its heart. The main point of the invasion was to give Aang an opportunity to fight Fire Lord Ozai, but neither Sokka nor Aang were entirely clear on how this would go down. Similarly, Sokka’s second escape plan has a gaping hole when it comes to kidnapping the warden. Luckily for him, he has already freed his gymnast-warrior girlfriend Suki, who nabs the warden in a stunning sequence that again reminds and saddens me that M. Night Shyamalan directed The Last Airbender, rather than someone with skills in Hong Kong-style wirework. In the invasion, the plan was to use the subs to get through the inner gate and then escape in them. There was no contingency plan if the subs were destroyed. Both of Sokka’s escape plans in “The Boiling Rock” have a similar problem. Once the escapees reach the outer rim of the volcano, how are they supposed to get off of the island? Azula’s chance visit provided them with their final escape, indicating just how lucky they were.
The most glaring inconsistency of these episodes is in the capture of Zuko. In an effort to distract a nosy guard from discovering Sokka in Suki’s cell, Zuko blunders into attacking her, which leads to the most unbelievable part, a misstep that always throws me out of the story for a few minutes: The warden makes no attempt at all to find out why Prince Zuko, the traitorous son of Ozai himself, has waltzed into his prison and disguised himself as a guard. As good as this episode is, this oversight defies common sense in such a convenient and conventional-TV way that one has to assume that the warden has spent too much time inhaling toxic fumes from Plot Device Lake. Besides being too oblivious to question Zuko, the warden also fails to notice how different Sokka is from all the other guards. They are tall and muscular, while Sokka is skinny and short and looks like a 16-year-old boy. Even Zuko looks tiny next to the other guards. When Chit Sang, the prison tough who plays a large part in this episode, tells the warden that his escape attempt was planned by someone disguised as a guard, it is unbelievable that the warden doesn’t remember that this is exactly what Zuko is doing and question him about it. The show suggests that the warden is supposed to be a smart and tough guy, but he’s written to be incompetent to an unlikely degree.
Zuko’s two main contributions to the escape are subtle, but they show how he is maturing into the man his uncle wants him to be. First, in his scene with Mai, he seems to convince her that he is doing the right thing, which would be unimaginable with either of their characters back in the second season. Well, she may not be completely convinced that he is right to join the Avatar and oppose Ozai, but she does figure out that she loves him too much to let him be killed, regardless of the consequences. She may not believe in his plan, but she does believe in him. Her dramatic defiance of Azula leads to Ty Lee’s defection as well, an unwinding of Azula’s support group that will lead to her ultimate undoing. Mai’s words to Azula strike her to the core of her being: “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.” Azula has never previously lost her icy cool, but her response is an emotional and unhinged taunt (“No, you miscalculated! You should have feared me more!”), and the look of surprise and dismay on her face when she realizes that Ty Lee has paralyzed her is a powerful view into her psyche. She has only let two people become close to her, and both have just defied her in favor of her brother. For a megalomaniac with intimacy issues like Azula, her control over her friends is her Achilles’ heel. Zuko’s second major contribution is to help Sokka work through his indecision by simply telling him his most hard-earned knowledge: Everyone fails before they succeed. This is not a unique message, but it is profound, especially coming from a character who has earned it.
- Sokka: “My first girlfriend turned into the moon.” Zuko: “That’s rough, buddy.” BONDING!
- I did very poorly in chemistry back in college, so I could be wrong, but wouldn’t the water brought to a boil by the heat of a volcano have any number of toxic gases in its fumes that would kill everything within a few miles’ radius?
- Female guard: “No, you can’t date the female guards.” Male guard: “Trust me. You don’t want to.” Awesome line delivery there.
- Delightful exchange: Sokka dismisses Zuko’s second attempt to channel Iroh as making no sense at all.
- Awkward exchange: Suki: “Actually, we met a long time ago.” Zuko: “We did?” Suki: “Yeah, you kind of burned down my village.” Zuko: “Sorry about that.”
- My favorite exchange: Zuko: “You watch who you’re shoving!” Chit Sang: “I think you mean ‘whom’ I’m shoving!” OH YEAH.
- The appearance of the pirate guy from the gondola is a great little detail, since the guards had been so excited about getting a pirate prisoner. Zuko asking Sokka in all sincerity if that was his dad is also great.
- Sokka: “Maybe sometimes it’s just better to call it quits before you fail.” Zuko: “No, it’s not. Look, Sokka, you’re going to fail a lot before things work out.” Sokka: “That’s supposed to make me feel better?” Zuko: “Even though you’ll probably fail over and over and over again… ” Sokka: “Seriously. Not helping.” Zuko: “ …you have to try. You can’t quit because you’re afraid you might fail.” Among the best advice that this show has for its viewers.
- The riot scene has elements of a Coen Brothers movie, first with the big guy who tells Hakoda that shoving him hurt his feelings and then with Chit Sang starting a riot by picking a different guy up and yelling, “HEY! RIOT!”
- Fire Nation guard: “What are you doing?” Mai: “Saving the jerk who dumped me.”