In Which Tonight There’s Going to be a Jailbreak
“The Boiling Rock” should be one of Avatar’s best entries. If I were asked to rank it from memory I would definitely put it near the top. It contains three or four of the show’s most iconic moments, is another extended genre riff, and puts two of the most oppositional characters in terms personality (Sokka and Zuko) front and center. What’s not to love.
Unfortunately whenever I rewatch “The Boiling Rock” I’m reminded that it’s just merely good instead of great, and one of the rare examples of the show spending too much time on a single idea. Whenever the show does one of these genre exercises its usually a recipe for success, but the writers and showrunners misplaced a bit of their storytelling structure. The prison break milieu is usually tight as a drum and runs like clockwork, even with flubbed attempts and missteps. “The Boiling Rock” is shockingly loose and circular, running through beats multiple times not to emphasize a point, but seemingly to run out the clock. Again this doesn’t disqualify this pair of episodes from being quite enjoyable, but they feel flabby when the opposite structure is needed.
Sokka is in an unusually sullen mood, and he brings Zuko into the fold, asking the prince where the Fire Nation might keep prisoners of war. Zuko tells him about The Boiling Rock, the nastiest keep in the whole land, an island in a volcanic lake built for the worst of the worst. Sokka tries to act nonchalant, but he’s aiming to bust in there and find Hakoda. Zuko is skeptical but decides to help Sokka. The two sneak off into the night with merely a note to the rest of the team feigning a fishing trip.
Sokka’s half-cocked approach to the affair is a matter of reconceptualizing how he approaches big problems. Since the latter half of the first season, Sokka has been the planner. A person who meticulously considers how to approach a situation, but ever since the season two finale his machinations have consistently blown up in his face. So now he wants to toss the meticulousness nature to the wind, and play a dangerous escape attempt by ear. It’s another building block in Sokka as newly minted warrior, trying to navigate failure and perseverance, especially when it comes to comrades and family.
So the two arrive on the penal island and don disguises as newly recruited guards. It turns out that there’s no water bending warriors in the Boiling Rock. Sokka’s momentarily dismayed before he notices Suki in the prison yard. Turns out Azula was right and Suki was being kept prisoner. With the opportunity now available to bust out the leader of the Kyoshi Warriors a plan is formulated, though not before Zuko’s cover gets blown.
So with Zuko as a prisoner there’s a now a way for the group to bust out. Though their planning phase gets interrupted by a fellow prisoner named Chit Sang, who they oblige roping into the plan. Zuko is going to properly misbehave and get thrown into the cooler, rooms insulated and designed to keep people from firebending. Sokka sneaks Zuko a wrench, and the prince is able to take out the cooler to create an insulated boat.
When the time comes to escape Sokka is faced with another dilemma, more prisoners are set to arrive, and among them might be his father. Does he blow his singular chance to get out, or risk the wait for a family reunion? Of course Sokka stays, and the episodes begins to falter because of it.
Here’s my main beef with “The Boiling Rock” it goes through the exact same story set-up twice without really justifying the extended run time. Sokka arrives at the boiling rock, discovers someone he loves is being held there, and tries to escape. This cycle is almost repeated beat for beat when Hakoda shows up as well. Certainly the writers are able to escalate the situation. Hakoda’s arrival also coincides with the reemergence of the Trio of Terror, but the story goes in loops for a solid twelve minutes.
To whit there’s an early scene where Sokka, in full guard regalia, sneaks in to see Suki. It’s an obvious parallel to how the two reunited in “The Serpent’s Pass” and contains a cute little Star Wars reference. Then weirdly this exact set-up is repeated with Hakoda. Sokka goes into a cell in the guard outfit, the prisoner is confused, Sokka reveals himself, and then the two commiserate over their current situation. Hakoda even hangs a lamp on this structure, which doesn’t really help by pointing out we literally saw the exact same set-up a few moments ago.
This happens again with Zuko. When he’s first captured the Warden notes that he is Mai’s uncle, and that Zuko deserves a special kind of punishment for how he broke Mai’s heart. This information then is completely recapitulated when Mai arrives a little while later. This could be read as Zuko just being dense, but the symmetry to the circular structure with Sokka makes it feels more sloppy than forceful.
I don’t want to be total downer though. With a bit of the chaff removed “The Boiling Rock” would be a parade of highlights and exciting moments. First off is Sokka and Zuko’s interplay with one another. It has been a long time since the series premiere, but it’s interesting to reflect how the two mirrored each other when preparing for combat in their first encounter. Here we see these similarities and contrasts more sharply drawn. Both are technically the heir apparent to their nations, and they feel the burden of responsibility that comes with it. The difference is how they react, Sokka is sharp and cynical, while Zuko is more resigned and searching. This pairing of course leads to many humorous moments including Zuko’s, “I’m never happy.” and the immortal exchange of, “My first girlfriend turned into the moon.” “That’s rough buddy.”
Another highlight is the deterioration within the Trio of Terror. Mai’s mostly recalcitrant when confronting Zuko in prison, noting that he betrayed her and the Fire Nation with his actions. Zuko sees it differently, he’s saving not just the world, but the honor of a country tarnished by generations of imperial expansion, that is worth whatever awkwardness exists in their relationship. This revelation moves Mai to help Zuko and Sokka in their final escape, a move that immediately puts her at odds with Azula.
Thus we get the betrayal of Mai and Ty Lee. The closely knit group of teens are torn asunder by Mai’s actions. She declares that her love for Zuko trumps her fear of Azula. This cannot stand. Azula’s control must always be paramount, and when she’s about to strike Mai down Ty Lee intervenes and paralyzes Azula. It’s a pretty staggering sequence, one that finally puts Azula’s ability to manipulate those around her to the test. Revealing that fear may not be everyone’s primary motivator.
“The Boiling Rock” also gives Suki some much needed badassery. After being beaten by Azula in “Appa’s Lost Days” it’s thrilling to see the Kyoshi Warrior step up to the plate as an actual combatant and acrobat. When she climbs up the wall to kidnap the warden, or finally beat Ty Lee in a head to head fight it’s well worth the pump of the fist. Our warrior is worth her salt.
With these elements in play Sokka, Zuko, Suki, Hakoda, and Chit Sang all commandeer Azula’s zeppelin and head back to the Air Temple. There’s a tearful reunion between the Water Tribe family, and quizzical air from the rest of the group. Did Sokka and Zuko really go on such a fishing trip and get no food in return?
Odds and Ends
- I Know That Voice: This week The Warden is performed by Wade Williams. A cheeky bit of casting as Williams was the star of Prison Break.
- Some of the pirates from season one make an appearance as new prisoners.
- This is, I believe, the first time we’ve seen a firebender go full Iron Man and fly around. It’s a pretty neat trick that Azula is able to pull.
- Some references to The Great Escape: the isolation cells are called coolers, and Sokka makes an attempt where there is a blind spot between two guard towers.
- Zuko survives his time in the coolers the same way he braved the chill in “The Siege of the North.”
- Honestly most of the issues in this episode would have be resolved immediately if they brought along Toph.