Mark Watches ‘Avatar’: S03E13 – The Boiling Rock, Parts I & II

In the thirteenth episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender, Sokka’s guilt over the failed invasion spurs him to take a dangerous mission to a secret Fire Nation prison to see if he can rescue his father. Oh, and Zuko comes along. Oh, and everything is beautiful and nothing hurts. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Avatar.


I really need to stop making any sort of judgments about an episode’s place in my heart in comparison to the entire season. The problem is that I am watching this at a fractured, slowed pace, and without knowing the ending, it’s getting silly how often I say I have just seen the best episode of the show.

There’s been quite a few of them, but, aside from “Zuko Alone,” none have been quite as cinematic and poetic as “The Boiling Rock.” I use the word “cinematic” because I felt as if I was watching a feature film the entire time. The writing for this specific episode was controlled to a point of perfection, allowing space for Zuko and Sokka to explore their awkward relationship with one another, for Zuko to reflect on Sokka’s obsession with honor, and for the story to give us TWO fantastically exciting prison breaks. Oh, and that ending? I know I just said I’d stray from hyperbolic statements of finality, but “The Boiling Rock” has THE BEST ending to any episode of Avatar yet.

The writers are not ignoring the plethora of options they have in taking this show into new directions now that Zuko is around, and it was a bold choice to feature an episode that did not feature Aang, Katara, or Toph. The whole time I kept waiting for  the three of them to show up and help bail out Zuko and Sokka….but it never happened. There was no deus ex machina. Zuko and Sokka had to face the ramifications of their actions on their own. And…oh shucks, I’ll get there!

I’d never really given the same amount of thought to Zuko and Sokka’s obvious parallels aside from a few snippets of commentary; it’s brought out here and stretched to a forty-five minute epic about a man who gave up gaining the honor of his father working alongside someone who’s trying to earn his back. I’d expected that the failure at the Invasion of the Black Sun would eventually get to Sokka, but I didn’t think it would come so soon after the end of the battle. Still, we’re nearing the time of the arrival of Sozin’s Comet, so it’s not like we have a lot of time to address these things. (Why isn’t this series on for another 40 million seasons? Sadness forever.)

It’s funny that Zuko recognizes what Sokka’s up to so quickly. I’m sure Zuko was familiar with all of it: half-baked ideas waltzing about as “plans,” a desire to gain your honor back, wanting to impress your father…it’s all there. It’s what Zuko’s lived for over three years! That’s why it makes so much sense that Zuko wanted to come along. On top of that, I felt like he thought this was a good chance to do something to prove to at least one member of Team Avatar that he was absolutely invested in being a good person now, that it wasn’t just an act. I can’t imagine a more blatant sign than willingly choosing to help someone break in to the most heavily-guarded and geographically-nightmarish prison in the entire world.

It’s still pretty awkward, though. Even I’m still not used to all of this yet, and the writers treat the scenes between Zuko and Sokka with. What exactly are they supposed to talk about? Both characters have historically been pretty terrible with small talk, so sticking them together is like a tornado of awkward. However, when the conversation turns to girls, it does produce the greatest quote of all time:

  • “My first girlfriend turned into the moon.” “That’s rough, buddy.”

BECAUSE RIGHT.  What is rougher than that?

The Boiling Prison itself might be one of the most fully-realized sets that the show has ever created. From the boiling waters at the top of the volcano, to the metallic-looking shell of the prison, to the dark, crimson corridors, down to the open and angular design of the cell block, this is an immersive environment treated with a loving emphasis on detail. The same goes for the innumerable amount of side characters who inhabit the prison, many who we only see in the background for a single scene. The guard uniforms are a new design as well, one that conveniently manages to block out the identities of Zuko and Sokka, who infiltrate the prison after Zuko’s war balloon crash lands on shore.

At stake here is more than the obvious. Of course, Sokka wants to save his father to regain his perception of honor. But it’s also a chance to Zuko to fix one of his more pervasive problems: entering into situations without any sort of plan at all. Taking cues from his uncle, who warned him against this very idea, Zuko instead decides it’s best if he meticulously plans out what is to be done within the walls of the Boiling Rock. Does it work? Well…sort of? It’s nice to see that Sokka himself doesn’t want to follow along the exact same path as Zuko. (Remember his obsessive mapping and scheduling?) Regardless, for a short period of time, it seems things are going to plan. They’re able to infiltrate the prison, get believable disguises, and make headway on determining where prisoners of war might be kept.

But that’s the thing. Whether you make plans or not, sometimes it doesn’t matter. Sometimes, you can’t predict the myriad of forces that will arrive to simply mess absolutely everything up for you. I know I’m reading a lot into this (THIS IS WHAT I DO), but there’s a sense of absurdism strung throughout both parts. No matter how much planning these two do, there’s always another wrench thrown in the machine, another sign of the momentous random nature of life.

Unfortunately for Sokka, though, finding that Suki is alive and willing to join the escape plan is not enough to keep this momentum going. Finding Suki certainly is a positive moment, but…holy god, y’all, it just all dissolves into chaos so quickly. What was supposed to be a simple in-and-out mission first adds Suki. Then Chit Sang, a firebender prisoner. Oh, and the prisoners from the invasion aren’t even in this prison. I don’t even know if heartbreak is the right word. Sokka feels the most supreme sense of disappointment in the fact that he and Zuko traveled so far and lost their only war balloon on a mission that was bound for failure before they ever started. So what the hell do you do in a situation like this?

Zuko and Sokka’s answer fills me with joy: You make the best of an absurd situation.

Even though Hakoda and the other prisoners aren’t in Boiling Rock, isn’t it also honorable to save who you can? By knowing when it’s okay to give up and when it’s okay to create a new, more flexible plan, the writers show us something I would never have thought of in a million years: Zuko and Sokka make one amazing team. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the two of them so under control of their usual outbreaks: There are very few Zuko rages, and there are very few Sokka panics. Even when Zuko is discovered and thrown into a cell, I could not believe how under control this all was. I mean…Zuko WRESTLED ANOTHER GUARD TO KEEP SOKKA SAFE. This could have been far worse than it was; instead, they both figure out a way to ingeniously use this misfortune to help them escape.

Could I watch an entire season of the two of them just getting into shenanigans? Yes I could.

That being said….there’s a snag here that I knew would muddle things up in the future, regardless of any plans. The warden of the Boiling Rock is MAI’S UNCLE. Even though The Warden isn’t going to cash in the reward immediately, this is one GIGANTIC red flag. Zuko broke Mai’s heart, and even though we know it’s for a good reason, it’s still a painful thing for Mai. (Who I never really saw as a “bad” character or a villain, and the same goes for Ty Lee. They were people of circumstance and privilege, and they went along with things. They didn’t start them like Azula. But more on that later.)

I couldn’t help but be reminded of The Great Escape (ONE OF THE BEST MOVIES EVER) as Sokka and Zuko began to enact the complicated plan to be the first folks to ever escape from Boiling Rock. From the set-up that gets Zuko thrown in the Cooler, to Zuko UNSCREWING THE COOLER TO USE IT AS A FUCKING BOAT, to Sokka’s genius idea of using the cooler itself as a device to stand the boiling water, I just kept thinking to myself: This is so cool GOD I LOVE THIS SHOW SO MUCH.

But even after accomplishing all of this, Sokka’s mission is tested: He learns that a shipment of war prisoners is on their way. And even when the escape group assembles on the shore of the prison, escape within reach, Sokka knows he cannot risk having come all this way and then turn his back on his father at the last minute. So he throws himself to chance. That’s what this is about, isn’t it? He has no reliable information about who is in that shipment of prisoners, so it’s an act of pure faith. He has to roll the dice.

As Chit Sang sails off in the cooler and Sokka, Zuko, and Suki remain behind and head back up to the prison, I knew there was still a second half to this story left. Hakoda would have to be on that lift, wouldn’t he? Where else could the story go if he didn’t? Yet even realizing this, the writers do such a good job drawing out the tension of the scene. Sokka waits, his faced pained with the hope that his father will appear out of the lift. And just when it seems impossible, the camera pans up as the last prisoner is ordered out.

Hakoda is here. There is hope that this can end well.


Well, there’s hope that it can end well for some of these characters.

It’s interesting being able to look back at this two-parter (which actually flows like a single episode, probably better than any one in the past) because it follows almost the same pattern as the first half. We begin the story feeling a lot of hope for what is about to happen, and for a second, everything looks as if it will happen according to plan. Then, one action sets everything into chaos, and it becomes an avalanche of awful. Just…one thing after another goes wrong. The only main difference is that we don’t end on a high note. Instead, we’re given a bittersweet ending, one of reunion and one of betrayal and shock.

It’s hard not to feel good at the opening of this episode. With the confirmation that Hakoda is indeed a part of this batch of prisoners, Sokka’s actions have been validated. It’s even more inspiring for him to see his father act like the most punk rock man who has ever lived. His father clearly shows the Warden that he doesn’t live in fear of him, and I’m certain Sokka now knows he cannot show fear either. That might partially be his downfall, though, because everything that Sokka does from this point is much more reckless than he is used to. Yes, Sokka is almost synonymous with “shenanigans.” It’s true! But in such a tense situation, visiting Zuko so often is a bad idea. Visiting Suki in the way that he does isn’t helpful either. Sokka is generally a meticulous person, but he lets his excitement get the best of him. He doesn’t plan these things, and it comes back to haunt him.

Zuko, on the other hand, is being held in a cell, his identity exposed, and time is running out before he’s eventually turned over. Unfortunately, in one of the more shocking moments of the series, after he is moved cells due to Sokka’s “beating,” he gets his first visitor: Mai. Now, I don’t know why I thought it simply wasn’t possible that she could ever show up, but it makes sense in hindsight that the Warden would contact his niece before letting the secret out about Zuko. Still! I clamped my hand over my mouth when she arrived because my roommate was asleep and I nearly yelled at the top of my lungs.

God, what a difficult scene. The hardest part about it is that neither person is in the wrong. I have to commend the writers for creating a plot twist that would eventually lead to this moment. We know in our hearts that Zuko really is doing what’s best for the Fire Nation. We know this! Yet I cannot deny that leaving Mai the way he did (through a letter!) is a pretty awful thing for her. If we put ourselves in her shoes, he betrayed his nation, left his girlfriend (who clearly cares for him), and joined the resistance force. What is she supposed to feel? How can we justify her heartbreak if we see things from her perspective? I think even Zuko’s aware that he chose the path that was most moral for him. If he stayed with Mai, he would have been denying his self, so he sacrificed her in order to do what was right.


What’s not ambiguous is the fact that everything here–Sokka’s plan, Zuko’s cover, the possibility of escape–falls apart in just minutes. It’s astound how horrific the situation seems. Chit Sang, after being tortured by the Warden’s guards, admits that someone helped him escape, and that it was someone disguised as a prison guard. Sokka is taken away moments later after leaving Suki’s cell and it seems inevitable that this plan is going to crash and burn.

And Chit Sang identifies someone else as the traitor.

Is it possible? Is it the light at the end of the tunnel? Did Chit Sang’s loyalty just save the whole escape plan?

NOPE NEVERMIND, AZULA AND TY LEE ARE HERE TOO. EVERYTHING IS AWFUL AND EVERYTHING HURTS. I groaned so loud when they showed up on scream (instantly feeling bad because of my sleeping roommate) because NOTHING COULD GO WELL FROM HERE ON OUT. Ugh, Azula, WHEN ARE YOU JUST GOING TO EXPLODE OR SOMETHING

Thankfully, Sokka has no idea that the Dangerous Ladies have arrived, so he brilliantly concocts a lie to get all of the prisoners let out of their cells for time in the yard, setting up the best possible distraction one could ask for: a prison riot. (No, I don’t think you truly know how much I adore this show and specifically this episode. A PRISON RIOT. ON AVATAR. !!!!!!!!!!!) And seriously, bless the writers for the wonderful gag about a prisoner refusing to riot because of his recent attempt at anger management, only to have Chit Sang start a riot by politely asking others to do so. It’s such a great joke and does absolutely nothing to take away from this story at all. It’s a seamless switch in tone, too, from this scene to Zuko’s escape as the riot breaks out full scale.

It’s here that “The Boiling Rock” becomes a thing of absolute beauty. The tight, complicated script winds these characters into each other to create, hands down, the most suspenseful scene I’ve come across on this show. From the masterful capturing of the warden by Suki (OH MY GOD HOW AMAZING WAS THAT), to Zuko’s clever decision to break the lever that would stop them, to the MIND-BLOWING FIVE-WAY FIGHT ON TOP OF THE GONDOLA, these scenes are written with an urgency and energy that spills through the screen. What was so great about all of this was that I honestly could not tell what was going to happen. It could go in any direction at any time because the writers had thrown in so many variables. Would they make it to the other side? Would someone get knocked off into the boiling water? Would the Ty Lee and Azula forfeit this battle to prepare for something greater?

Nope. The Warden would untie himself and scream down to his guards, ordering them to cut the cable.

The unbelievable look on all of the character’s faces, knowing that the moment of truth has come, is just HORRIFYING. There’s that small glimpse of frightened hesitation on the faces of Ty Lee and Azula; it’s short, but it’s there. And it SCARES ME. We don’t ever see them express fear, and for a brief moment in time, they do. Oh, and then they just JUMP ON TO THE OTHER GONDOLA.

I cannot imagine a bleaker scene in this whole show. This is so much worse than the end of season two, because you can at least hold on to the hope that Aang survived that moment. But we are rapidly approaching the end of the entire series, and I suddenly realized that anything could happen to these characters. Just….I watched this scene again, as the guards inch closer and closer to severing the cable, and it is just completely awful. I have never felt this kind of dread while watching Avatar.

And that’s when a variable I’d completely forgotten arrives to save the entire group: Mai. Mai!!!!! I couldn’t believe it. Was this a dream sequence? Was she actually turning on her fellow Fire Nation guards in order to save the very people who were supposedly betraying her nation? She was. She was saving that jerk who dumped her.


As Team Avatar successfully escape, taking the very boat that the Dangerous Ladies arrived in, this ecstatic moment of victory is destroyed. Azula, confronting Mai, is furious, unable to understand why her friend would betray her, knowing the consequence of her actions. And Mai replies with the most beautiful response ever:

“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.”


Unfortunately, even these feelings are short-lived: Mai and Ty Lee fail to escape, and Azula orders that they be locked away, left to rot so that she will never have to see their faces again.


That can’t be it, right? You can’t just….oh my god what have you done????

As I said before, the ending to “The Boiling Rock” is bittersweet. Team Avatar are victorious in bringing back Hakoda, and the reunion is wonderful. (Well, maybe not for Toph, who didn’t get the meat she was so looking forward to.) But miles away, two characters who chose to stand up to someone who is essentially the world’s worst bully are being locked away for all eternity.

I can’t really feel happy about that.


  • “Get the fugitives and throw them in the cooler!” “Uh, sir, they are in the cooler.”
  • “Last time I checked, Fire Nation prisons don’t have bison day cares.” WELL THEY SHOULD.
  • “What would uncle say? Sometimes, clouds have two sides…a dark and light and a silver lining in between, it’s like a silver sandwich! Sooo…when life seems down, take a bite out of the sandwich…?”

About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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