Aang and Zuko:
This quest allows Zuko and Aang to bond over their common appreciation for bending and their need to grow powerful. It also allows Zuko to learn from Aang's carefree attitude, compassion, and desire to do right by everyone, and Aang to learn from Zuko's inner drive, perseverance, and brazen sort of courage. The differences between them are signified by the Chief's words to them when he gives them the eternal flame. To Aang: "The flame will go out if you make it too small." To Zuko: "Make it too big, and you might lose control."(Read the full review of “The Firebending Masters” here.)
Facing the dragons becomes for them a "trial by fire". I am reminded of the imagery of alchemy—which I learned about from Harry Potter commentator John Granger—in which the process of turning lead into gold is a complex spiritual metaphor. The Bible also uses the language of purifying metal as an analogy for spiritual purification. God is described as a “refiner's fire”, burning away impurities to produce precious silver or gold—that is, a soul that is worthy to face Him. Here, when Aang and Zuko face the dragons, they also face their own sins: for Zuko, his family's bloody history and his complicity in it; for Aang, his disappearance and failure to face his duty. Both led to the dragons' demise. But the dragons' fire, like the refiner's fire, burns away their sins, as well as their delusions. (“Still think we can take them?” “Shut up! I never said that!”)
Sokka and Zuko:
Zuko and Sokka's field trip is based on the common theme of “restoring honor”, especially with regard to their fathers. Sokka feels that the failure of the invasion—and his father's capture—is his fault, and he needs to fix it. Zuko understands this well, having spent so much energy trying to restore his honor, especially in the eyes of his father. Now Zuko has at last understood that the kind of “honor” his father can bestow is not worth having—but Zuko still feels a drive, now re-directed, to restore his honor in a different way—by helping the Avatar, making restitution for the Fire Nation's sins (including his own personal contributions), and eventually restoring his relationship with his uncle. All these things are unspoken in The Boiling Rock. Instead, Zuko simply hints to Sokka that he understands the need to restore honor without detailing what that means for him. But to my mind, his past quest for honor is less of a factor than his present one in empathizing with Sokka and wanting to help him out.(Read the full review here.
Early in the story, Sokka and Zuko bond over lost girlfriends (resulting in some of my favorite dialogue in the show), and differ over how to approach problems. Sokka admits that he overplans things, resulting in the frustration of plans gone awry, while Zuko admits that he often fails to plan ahead adequately. Ultimately, as they meet the challenges of infiltrating the volcanic prison and escaping with friends in tow, they have to use both approaches—planning ahead and thinking on your feet as unexpected factors arise. Mostly the latter. Lucky for them, those unexpected factors include two fantastic women who are watching their backs.
The most emotionally intense field trip is saved for last. Zuko's common ground with Katara is more complex than what he shared with Aang or Sokka. In this episode, we revisit the moment they bonded over the loss they share—having their mothers taken from them by the Fire Nation—but this time, the angle is shared anger rather than shared sorrow. Zuko, in an effort to prove his worth to Katara, offers her something the others can't. He not only offers inside knowledge about the Fire Nation that helps to identify her mother's murderer, but he also affirms her anger and her need for justice—or at the least, for closure.
Ever since Zuko came, Katara has been in an almost constant fury—her face set in a rough and cruel expression, her body language tense and hard. She casts her blame on him. Why does she do this? And why does she grieve for her mother in a way that Sokka does not?
Some of it is her personality, I'm sure, but I think there is more to it than that. I think Katara blames herself for her mother's death. It's not clear if Katara really heard what Yon Rha said to her mother before he killed her, or if it's only Katara's guess of how to fill in the blanks, but either way, Katara understands her mother's death as an act of sacrifice to protect the Southern Water Tribe's last waterbender. No doubt, Katara (rightly) blames the Fire Nation, too, but I think this is the reason she carries her grief for her mother so close to the surface. “If it weren't for me, Mom would still be here,” she might think—though maybe not in so many words.
(Side note: This episode really highlights how much the show sugar coats death. You never hear words like “die”, “kill”, or “murder” in this episode, or, as far as I can recall, any other in the series. They always find a way to work around it, with one of the most common euphemisms being “end”. (e.g. Zuko tells Combustion Man to find the Avatar and “end him”.))
When Katara first meets Zuko in Ba Sing Se, she feels anger for him—naturally—but her anger is almost immediately turned to sympathy when he tells her he lost his mother, too. His betrayal in Ba Sing Se certainly fuels Katara's anger toward Zuko in these later episodes, but I think the memory of that conversation connects her grief over her mother to Zuko and allows her to project the responsibility she feels for her mother's death onto him.
All of these things contribute to her response to Zuko, from “The Western Air Temple” until now—her anger, her cruelty, her threats (which may signify fear and shame). To make peace with Zuko, she needs to put the blame for her grief not on him—and not on herself, either; she needs to find the real source. Zuko understands this better than anyone else. Zuko went through a similar catharsis in “The Beach”, when he first recognized his anger at himself, and later in “The Day of Black Sun, part 2”, when he understood that most of the blame for what he had suffered lay with his father and with the Fire Nation's policies and propaganda (though he rightly retained his sense of responsibility for his own mistakes).
The similarities between Zuko and Katara go beyond their similar experiences and expressions of anger and grief. This episode highlights how very much alike their personalities are. I would argue that these two are the most emotional, the most serious, and the most idealistic of all the major characters in ATLA. It's not hard to see why so many people ship them together (though I don't, personally).
In the climatic scene when Katara confronts Yon Rha, I am reminded of two things. The first is the anime Solty Rei, in which a similar scene takes a young female character to the point of exacting vengeance—but she doesn't go through with it. In the last moments of the episode, after the young woman has gone home, her older brother (a more hardened personality) does what she could not and kills the man who murdered her best friend. After Katara turns her back on Yon Rha, there's a part of me that always half expects Zuko to turn back, playing the role of the hardened older brother, and “end” Yon Rha on her behalf. Yeah...my mind works in strange ways sometimes. ;)
The second thing this scene brings to mind is the saying of Christ that “the truth will set you free”. While I realize the popular exegesis of this quote is a bit questionable, it does make for an apt proverb in many situations. In Katara's case, seeing her mother's murderer helps her to see the truth: Human nature includes the petty and selfish as well as the sublime, and in the end, a person can choose to be the sort of man Yon Rha is. But Katara can choose her own path as well. She does not have to exact justice. She does not have to bloodbend. She does not have to kill.
In the end, Katara neither forgives her mother's murderer, nor does she take vengeance on him, but in meeting him face to face, she is able to lay her rage to rest. She forgives Zuko. And I believe she forgives herself, too, for being the last waterbender of the Southern Water Tribe, whom her mother died to protect.
This review ended up being a bit long, so I'm going to save the commentary track highlights for my next post, which will probably be combined with my review of “The Ember Island Players”.