Opinionated Guide to Avatar: The Last Airbender


The Boiling Rock

Playing By Ear

And for the record, I always think things through. But my plans haven't exactly worked, so this time I'm playing it by ear.

Part one of our two parter begins with Komedy! Naturally, since we're in the second half of 3rd season, it's mocking Zuko for, well, being Zuko. Sokka takes Zuko aside to talk. He asks about where people captured by the Fire Nation would be taken. Zuko doesn't want to tell him, to spare him the pain, but he eventually relents when Sokka tells him about his father being taken.

Zuko says that they would have been taken to the titular Boiling Rock, a maximum security prison surrounded by a lake of boiling water. He says that it's inescapable. So... why wasn't Iroh put there? Or did Ozai not think that a former commanding general of the army and one of the greatest living firebenders might be able to break out of the tinfoil that he decided to put him in?

Anyway, Sokka asks where it is, and Zuko wonders why. But after Sokka gives him a bit of fake reassurance, Zuko tells them that it's on an island that they passed by on the way to the Western Air Temple. Sokka walks away, saying that Zuko put his mind at ease.

Cut to later that night, while everyone is asleep, Sokka sneaks over to Appa and starts to climb on. But he discovers... a Zuko! Yeah Sokka, he's not an idiot (all evidence to the contrary). Sokka explains that the invasion was his idea, so he bears the burden of responsibility. Then, the writers try to shove "I have to regain my honor" down Sokka's throat, like those words sound like anything Sokka would say. Much as with the Aang scene in the first episode, I'm not buying it.

But Zuko is, so he decides to come along. And they're taking the war balloon, since, well, taking Appa would give them an easy way to escape and end the plot too early. Actually, it's generally concern for Appa's welfare, but it would have made what follows a lot easier in some ways.

Cut to morning. The pair left the rest of the Gaang a note, saying that they were off to find meat. Because it's a callback to first season, when Sokka would never shut up about finding food. The note also gives Aang some firebending exercises to do whenever he hears a frog's croak. It's funny how these exercises look absolutely nothing like what the Sun Warriors were doing.

Oh, and that's the last we'll see of the Gaang until the very end of the two parter. Because this is the second in a 3-part epic series I like to call, "Gaang member pairs up with Zuko to have adventures!" Naturally, Toph doesn't get to do this, as that would require giving Toph character time. And we can't have that in this show.

Cut to our duo in midair, for Zuko and Sokka to do some bonding. It starts off with awkward dialog, but them talking about the war balloon leads into Zuko talking about how his father is good at making war. When Sokka glibly says that it's a family trait, Zuko gets mad at him, saying that his uncle isn't that way. Wait, this is Iroh, The Dragon of the West we're talking about, right? The man who led a six hundred day siege of Ba Sing Se, and was the first man to breach the walls of the Impenetrable City? How does that not constitute being good at war?

Anyway, Zuko says that he let Iroh down, but Sokka says that he would be proud of him for joining the Gaang. Then Zuko mentions leaving his girlfriend Mai. And Sokka mentions how Yue turned into the moon.

Cut to that night, when they find the island. They fly through the steam issuing from the mouth of the mountain. But as they get closer, the balloon starts to sink, due to, as Sokka says, "the air outside is just as hot as the air inside, so we can't fly." OMGWTFBBQ, actual physics! Well, except for the fact that the air would have to be pretty damn hot for that to be true. But hey, the writers are actually trying, so I'll meet them halfway.

So the balloon crashes. Sokka says he figured something like this would happen, which pisses Zuko off. He's the master of not thinking ahead, and he doesn't want anyone horning in on his turf. But Sokka says that, since his last plan didn't exactly work, he's just going to play it by ear.

Yeah, good luck with that.

At The Rock

Now, here at the Rock we have two basic rules. Memorize them, so that you can say them in your sleep. The first rule is: Obey all rules. Secondly, do not write on the walls, as it takes a lot of work to erase writing off of walls.
Deputy Barney Fife

Off camera, the duo have stolen some guard uniforms. A group of guards rush by, prompting Zuko and Sokka to follow. There's a fight going on between one of the guards and a prisoner. The guard eventually provokes the prisoner into firebending, which leads the guards to throw him in "the cooler." Naturally, Sokka is among the guards given this task.

Zuko spends his time talking with the other guards, asking if there are any war prisoners there. Yeah, that's not suspicious at all.

The cooler is an actual freezing unit, where cold air is pumped over the inmate. This ostensibly inhibits firebending. Now, I would point out that we've seen that this isn't the case, but they'll actually be explaining/correcting this soon. The warden of the prison arrives. Apparently, the asshole guard told the warden that the prisoner, named Chit Sang, tried to escape. So the warden is kind enough to exposit that nobody has ever escaped, and he'd sooner jump in the boiling lake than see someone escape.

Destiny heard you, warden.

Anyway, cut to later, as Zuko and Sokka finally meet up again. Zuko tells him that there are no war prisoners here. Naturally, Sokka is upset. So Zuko tries to placate him by making up an Ice-Cream Koan. That doesn't work, but Sokka does spot something else: Suki. Wait, how would she not be a war prisoner?

Also, um, Fire Nation? Unisex armies are one thing. Unisex prisons are another. Kinda icky. Just saying.

So Sokka heads into Suki's cell while Zuko stands guard. Komedy! ensues as Sokka didn't bother to remove his helmet and she slams him against a wall for propositioning her as a guard. Suki was apparently sent here because she was the leader.

Meanwhile a female guard appears and asks Zuko to let her into Suki's cell. One could wonder if she thinks something's going on, what with Zuko clearly standing watch outside a female prisoner's cell and everything. When she walks past him to get to the cell, Zuko, using the foresight that got him half his face burned off, attacks her. Without firebending.

Sokka is able to use the distraction to escape, but the female guard sees him and apparently thinks he was just wandering around nearby, as she asks for help. So Sokka helps her subdue Zuko. Though Sokka does whisper a promise that he'll find a solution. I don't know how comforting that could be, since in all likelihood, Zuko being captured would mean quickly being returned to Ozai for punishment.

Cut to Zuko in a dark room. The Warden walks in, saying that he hadn't expected to find Zuko there. Zuko then asks how the Warden knows him. Um, Zuko, your face is kinda recognizable; everyone likely knows about the scarred Prince who turned traitor. Anyway, the Warden says that he's Mai's uncle. Then he says that Zuko's his "special prisoner." Um... OK, writers, I am officially creeped out now. Anyway, the Warden tells Zuko that if the other prisoners found out who he was, namely a traitor, they would kill him. Nothing is said about him becoming someone's bitch, because some things don't need stating.

When Zuko asks about the plot hole of not being instantly shipped off to the palace, the Warden does nothing to plug it. Instead, he just says that he will do so in due time.

Cut to Zuko mopping a floor along with Suki. Sokka comes around. We get a callback to the fact that Zuko and Suki met before. You know, when he marched on Kyoshi Island to find Aang. Set a few fires, all that good stuff. Anyway, Sokka has an escape plan. He again employs physics: the insulation needed for the coolers means that they would also keep heat out. So they'd make good boats. You know, assuming they float. He's scooped out a good spot to launch from, between guard posts. He even checked the current, though the flashback doesn't show if he checked to see how far the current went.

His plan apparently didn't get far enough to answer the question of what to do after they get across the lake. But I suppose that the prison would have to get regular shipments of food and such.

Chit Sang overhears them and wants in on the plan. Sokka tried to pretend that there is no escape plan, but fails and produces Komedy! So Chit Sang threatens to tell the Warden about the plan, so they have to include him. The plan involves getting someone put into the cooler so that they can remove the bolts from it.

Thus, Chit Sang and Zuko stage a fight. After a surprisingly long amount of time (padding), Zuko firebends and is sent away. Sokka shows up to get him after a time. And it turns out that Zuko was perfectly able to keep warm with firebreathing. I guess the idea is that scrub-level firebenders succumb to the cold, but ones with actual skill can firebend in the cold just fine.

Sokka exposites that he went and got the others out of their cells. They hear some guards coming, so they have to hide in the cooler. They overhear that a new shipment of prisoners is arriving, and it will include some war prisoners.

Anyway, Zuko points out that it could be his father, but Sokka doesn't want to risk their freedom on something like that.

Cut to outside. They roll the cooler down to the water, where Chit Sang apparently invited a friend and his girlfriend along. Zuko decides to convince Sokka to stay, on the off chance that his father is among the new arrivals. And if he's not, what does Zuko suggest then? That they keep staying, until he somehow shows up?

Sokka then laments not leaving early in the invasion. He says that maybe it's better to quit before you fail. Zuko, who has a PhD in failure, tells him that he's going to fail a lot. That even failing over and over again doesn't mean he should quit because he's afraid that he might fail.

Which of course doesn't address the central question: what happens if Sokka's father is not there? Is it worth the risk of being captured and imprisoned to take that scant change? Not to mention the fact that they won't get a second chance with this escape plan.

This isn't a question of fear of failure vs. determination; it's a question of practicality vs. hope. The only reason they frame the dialog the way they do is because it's Zuko saying it, and it's more natural for him to talk in those terms.

Of course, this all makes Sokka decide to stay. Which makes Suki decide to stay too. And Zuko of course. Chit Sang does not and quickly shoves off into the boiling lake.

Naturally, without Sokka there to think for him, he gets the bright idea to try to speed the journey along with a paddle. This causes him to burn his hand and yell, thus alerting the guards. The Warden immediately orders a lockdown and for the rogue cooler to be retrieved.

The trio find a place to watch the new arrivals. Sokka reminds them that if his father isn't there, then they threw away their best chance to get out for nothing. Of course, because this show is nice to its heroes who foolishly risk their lives, Sokka's father is there.

Father's Day

Sokka, there's no prison in the world that can hold two Water Tribe geniuses.

Cut to the guards lining the various new inmates up for inspection by the Warden. Sokka has returned Suki and Zuko to their cells off-camera... somehow, and now gets in line with the guards. The Warden gives a speech about the prison, then accosts Hakoda for not looking him in the eye. Hakoda gets a measure of revenge by tripping him, and the Warden doesn't bother to firebend the guy or anything.

Cut to Sokka going into his father's cell to talk, though Sokka again forgets to introduce himself.

Cut to the Warden interrogating Chit Sang. He starts off nice, then kicks Chit Sang's chair over and starts asking about who masterminded their little escape plan. It's easy to see how much better the writing here is compared to, say, Imprisoned. This Warden is intimidating and effective, and not just because he's not voiced by George Takei.

Cut back to Sokka and Hakoda. Sokka brings him up to speed on Suki as well as Zuko working for them. So they start working on a new plan to escape, with Hakoda speaking the page quote. Sokka replies that they'd better find two, which is exactly the kind of humor they both appreciate.

Cut to Sokka speaking with Zuko through the door to his cell. He exposites that they've come up with a new escape plan, but before he can go into detail, some other guards approach with orders from the Warden to take Zuko somewhere. Sokka asks for a few moments alone with Zuko to rough him up, which the guards reluctantly permit. Inside, while pretending to beat Zuko up, Sokka tells him that they need a distraction.

Cut to Zuko being taken to an interrogation room. Once the guards throw him inside and close the door... a Mai appears!

Cut to the Warden and his interrogation. They've apparently broken Chit Sang. He says that there was a person disguised as a prison guard involved. Which would make the second in so many days (Zuko being the first). You'd think the Warden would have checked out each guard to see if Zuko had any accomplices. Or ask Zuko why he came to the prison in the first place; that's not exactly the first place one would expect a wanted traitor to show up.

Cut back to Zuko and Mai, who reminds Zuko that her uncle is the warden. She then says that she doesn't know him very much at all, if he couldn't at least tell her that they were breaking up to her face.

Zuko rightfully points out that his leaving was about the Fire Nation. Granted, that doesn't make Mai feel much better. Zuko says that what he did was important for saving his country, but Mai says that he's betraying it.

Well, rather than finish that conversation, where Zuko could explain why he did what he did, we instead cut to Sokka and Suki. He explains more of the plan. The idea is to simply get on the gondola. They'll take the Warden captive in order to ensure that the guards don't simply cut the gondola's lines. And I have to say that this is pretty efficient storytelling. We get bits and pieces of the plan explained as needed to those who need to know, rather than having one big scene detailing the whole thing.

As Sokka leaves Suki's cell, a couple of guards come up to him and take him to the Warden. Sokka is thrown into a lineup with a number of other guards. The Warden then brings out Chit Sang to point out the guard in question. Of course, Chit Sang points out the asshole guard from the first half of the two-parter. They carry him off as Sokka sighs.

Cut to the Warden interrogating the asshole guard. Apparently, the cooler used to escape was the one that the guard put Chit Sang in. I'm actually impressed at the writing here. Normally, writers would just assume that torture produces accurate intel, but the Warden actually did his homework. Granted, he's wrong, but there's legitimate evidence supporting it.

A guard interrupts the interrogation, saying that someone's here to see the Warden, who gets pissed at the intrusion. Until he sees: *sting* Azula and Ty Lee. The Warden quickly and rightly changes his tune and gnuflects. Azula asks who the guard is, and the Warden tells her that he was involved in a recent escape attempt. Then Azula decides that he's not one of them. Apparently, because she's "a people person."

Hey, it makes more sense than Bending Daredevil.

Indeed, she may have just used logic. Zuko was found here. For some reason. Azula knows that he's going to join the Gaang, since that's what he told Ozai he was going to do (nice going, btw, telling the Big Bad your plans and all). So if he's here, it could only be because the Gaang is very interested in people here. And she ought to know that she sent Suki here, and it wouldn't take long to find out Hakoda's here too. So if there was an attempted escape, it would almost certainly have been due to the Gaang's involvement. And the guard isn't a Gaang member.

Of course, why she doesn't say any of this isn't explained.

Anyway, cut to Sokka. He heads to the control room, which looks incredibly modern, with various switches and such. He tricks the guard into opening the cells to let the prisoners into the yard by saying that it's the Warden's orders. The levers cause the doors to all open. Yes, the Fire Nation has invented refrigeration and possibly electricity, but even all of that is a pretty far step to having all of these doors opening and closing based on a few switches from a control room.

So Sokka ditches his guard disguise and heads into the yard to meet up with Suki and his father. Hakoda attempts to start a riot, but only succeeds in creating Komedy! Chit Sang shows up, wanting to get in on their next escape plan as payment for not telling the guards about him. Apparently, the formula for starting a prison riot is to grab a guy, hoist them over your head, and shout "Riot!"

Chaos ensues.

The Getaway

The Warden appears and is naturally pissed at people being in the yard during a lockdown.

Cut to Mai and Zuko. A guard enters, on orders to protect her during the riot. Zuko uses his protectiveness as a way to escape by firebending towards Mai. The guard shields her, but also keeps her from stopping Zuko from leaving. Zuko locks her inside, and they exchange looks through the slit in the cell door.

You're my special little warden now...

Zuko meets up with everyone in the yard, but apparently Sokka didn't think of how to actually capture the Warden during the riot. But that's OK; Suki's got it covered. She badasses her way across the field of rioting prisoners, climbs up a wall, takes out two firebenders, climbs up another wall, takes out another guy, and then uses her bondage superpowers to bind and gag the Warden.

The rest catch up to Suki via offscreen teleportation. They head to the gondolas, and the guards just let them past. For some reason. Yes, they have the Warden, who's gagged. But they could easily attack everyone who isn't holding the Warden. And it's not like they're using him as a human shield; he's just being carried over Chit Sang's shoulder.

Anyway, they get on the Gondola, and Zuko stays behind a bit to disable the mechanism so that the guards can't just stop the gondola. Sokka congratulates him for learning about thinking ahead. Hakoda points out the arrival of a certain duo: Azula and Ty Lee.

Azula grabs some handcuffs, then uses her firebending to propel her up to the lines and forward towards the group. Ty Lee needs no such trickery, as her ability to jump 40 feet into the air from a standing start again returns. And I can't believe I haven't really complained about that until now. Some fans like to speculate that she's descended from airbenders or some such nonsense, when it's much easier to just accept that it's really stupid and move on.

Azula squares off with Zuko and Sokka, while Ty Lee goes after Suki, all of them standing on top of the gondola. The terrain doesn't serve Azula very well, who rather likes having room to maneuver, and she's quickly backed into a corner. Zuko and Sokka take turns attacking towards her.

According to material I've read, you're supposed to be able to see Zuko using some elements of the Dancing Dragon in his fighting style here. I actually looked for it after I read that, and I can see it... a little. A very little. I know I've attacked the show for a lack of subtlety before, but there's a difference between "subtle" and "needs an electron-scan microscope". When you can barely see something even when someone is pointing it out, you've gone too far.

If you're going to have an episode as stupid as The Firebending Masters, the follow-up had damn well better be very clearly following up on it.

Anyway, while the fight scene is going on, the Warden gets free and yells to the guards to cut the line. Well, I guess he wasn't just kidding when he said that he'd rather jump in the boiling lake than let a prisoner escape. So the guards jam some metal into the machine to stop it and start cutting at the cables.

You fools! Azula is still out there. You're all so dead when she gets back. Ty Lee and Azula depart, using a conveniently approaching second gondola to make good their escape.

So the group seems rather doomed. We get a cut to the guards sawing at the cables when quite suddenly, they're pinned to a wall with knives. Mai appears, apparently to save "the jerk who dumped me." Wow, wouldn't it have been nice to see what Zuko said to Mai while we cut to elsewhere back then? You know, what caused her to do this?

Mai takes out the other guards and starts the machine going again. Azula looks on angrily, her gondola still a ways away.

Cut to the group reaching the other side. They leave the Warden in the gondola. Zuko realizes that Azula being there must mean that she had a way to get to the island. Oh, now they decide to think about how to get off the island? So they see Azula's airship, which they commandeer. Obviously, 5 people can man and operate one of those.

If you freeze-frame, you can pinpoint the moment Azula's mind shatters

Now we get the money scene. Cut to Mai, being held by guards before Azula, who tells the guards to leave her. She says that she never expected something like this from Mai. Oh, I thought you were a "people person" Azula? Mai actually rubs that in Azula's face when Azula asks why she did it.

And then she speaks the line: "I love Zuko more than I fear you."

Azula gets pissed, screaming that Mai should have feared her more. And as Azula moves to execute Mai... Ty Lee interferes and disables her. Well, that was random. Ty Lee tries to get Mai to run, but they're quickly surrounded. Naturally, the woman who was able to take out thirty elite earthbenders almost singlehandedly decides to use her super-acrobatics skills to... oh wait, no; she just surrenders. Azula orders them imprisoned, which seems a rather light sentence.

Cut back to the Western Air Temple. The Gaang is reunited, with Katara happy to see her father. Oh, and they also brought back a man convicted of a crime sufficiently bad that he was sentenced to the toughest prison in the Fire Nation. That's... good?

This was a pretty good episode. It has its flaws, but the good outweighed the bad. We got Zuko again seeing the fallout from his actions, this time from his angry ex-girlfriend. The Sokka/Zuko interaction was rather different from the previous episode's stuff; Zuko's lines here sound much more like the Zuko we know. Even the bit characters had their moments to be awesome, like Suki being all badass and Mai...

The biggest failing of this episode is probably that Mai's turn never got the time it really needed. She as a character has generally been someone we've seen out of the corner of our eyes. We don't really know very much about her as a person. Her personality centers principally around Zuko. And while something similar could be said about Suki this episode, Suki doesn't have a major character moment. A scene like Mai's turns on character, not being powerful.

It's not that it was bad as is. It's merely that it could have been so much stronger if they'd just taken the time to extend that conversation between Mai and Zuko. Of course, that would require that they tell us the thing we're not supposed to know for two episodes.

Oh, and Screw You, Aunt Wu: 9+Yue, for Sokka coming up with two plans to escape from the inescapable Fire Nation prison to rescue his father and girlfriend. Yeah, look at all that self-inflicted anguish.

Mother, Mai I?

Let's look at what happened with her. Mai basically decided to throw away her life to ensure that Zuko got away. She openly defied the Will of Azula so that Zuko could live.

Mai isn't a badass bender. While she certainly has skills, she knows that there is no chance of her going up against Azula. She trained Azula in her own tactics, after all; we saw some of this back in The Day of Black Sun. Any fight against Azula would see her die quick and bloody.

And yet she did it anyway. She did it knowing what would happen. Just as Azula said, "You know the consequences."

And that makes Mai the bravest character in the series.

When Aang fights Ozai in the end (oh, spoiler alert!), it will certainly be an uphill battle. But Aang is the Avatar; he's got all kinds of bending forms and such. He's got a chance. What Mai does here is far stronger because she doesn't have even the slightest hope in a fight. All Mai has are her knives and her fancy karate gimmicks; Azula's got lightning! Azula has the skill to beat her, intimate knowledge of how she fights, and the clear intent to kill.

And yet Mai did it anyway.

And then, standing before Azula, she did not beg for mercy, knowing that none would be granted. She was ready for her fate. But even then, she was defiant. There, when death hung before her, when talking directly to the person would strike her down, she spoke The Words. Those words which would shatter Azula's entire worldview and break her mind, affecting her for the entire rest of the series. Indeed, she may well have saved Zuko's life twice.

This is the thing that really annoys me about the demonization of Mai from the Zutarans. After all she did, can there be any question that Mai earned Zuko?


Then, the writers try to shove "I have to regain my honor" down Sokka's throat, like those words sound like anything Sokka would say.

I theorize that Sokka deliberatly used those words against Zuko to make Zuko understand how he felt and help him with it. Manipulative Bastardry, much?

And the reason fans (even some who aren't Zutarians) demonize Mai is because they just cannot let go of her being willing to abandon her baby brother in her first appearance and consider it to be her Moral Event Horizon and nothing good she does afterwards can ever make up for it. Which is of course, dumb.

ManwiththePlan 30th Aug 11
On a minor note, I found it a bit disconcerting when Chit Sang's girlfriend and best friend got left behind on the second escape plan.
Daigerus 30th Aug 11
The BROTALK (tm) on the Ballon was just priceless.

Sokka: "My first girlfreind turned into The Moon."

Zuko: "That's rough"

Sokka: "Yeah."
JusticeMan 30th Aug 11