I absolutely loved season 4 of RTTE! The graphics were great and I enjoyed so many of the episodes. Especially touching was the scene with Toothless and Hiccup in Dire Straits. It left me in tears and was so well put together! I would love to hear your thoughts on that episode! Would you be willing to analyze it?
I think this moment in Race to the Edge Season 4 was one of the highlights of the season. It was an extraordinary moment between Hiccup and Toothless. The facial expressions and body language demonstrate the love and closeness these two share, while Toothless’ gutsy actions show how much he was willing to risk to try to save his best friend. Even in an impossible scenario like this one, Toothless does not give up. To my last anon friend who feels that Toothless did not try hard, I hope my description of the situation explains why I believe that Toothless does everything in his emotional power and physical might to try to save his best friend. This dragon did not do nothing. On the contrary, he does a whole lot in an attempt to save the human he loves! It’s an incredible moment and displays their friendship oh-so-powerfully.
Now. One wonderfully written element about Dire Straits is that, from the very beginning, the story sets up the concept of Hiccup going deep underwater, and Toothless fretting about the venture. Toothless commonly becomes leery of Hiccup’s experiments, be it gliding through the sky or submerging deep below the ocean surface. In fact, every single time we see Hiccup prepare to descend in his latest invention, we also see Toothless cringing, moaning, and worrying. Toothless is fearful something might go wrong.
As we know, having seen the whole episode, Toothless’ worries end up being founded. Something does go wrong and Hiccup almost dies. And we see an early, powerful moment foreshadowing the climax of Dire Straits. The first time Hiccup tests out his invention, Toothless stares worriedly at him from the other side of the amber, with a similar camera angle to the horrific scene that happens at the end of the episode.
And at the same time we see Toothless worrying throughout the episode, we watch Hiccup preparing. During this time, we learn much about the construction of Hiccup’s underwater cauldron. It is constructed from Gobber’s old metal smelting cauldron and reinforced with Gronckle iron, an alloy that is stronger than iron. The death song amber window is thick and triple reinforced to ensure it does not break. The cauldron is built of an incredibly thick metal base, easily several inches thick, and due to its heavy weight, it must be raised and lowered with thick chains through a pulley system. The thick metal dome is held up by three heavy metal supports, presumably constructed from Gronckle iron, too, given as they appear to be the same material as the other reinforcements.
This robust construction is actually an important aspect of the episode’s climactic underwater accident. The point is that this is a very, very firm invention, something Fishlegs even describes as “dragon-proof.” Dragons cannot simply break open this device. It’s not that easy. It’s reinforced with Gronckle iron. And… it is so heavy that it requires a very robust pulley system… the average-sized dragon isn’t going to be able to carry this thing. The story makes it seem like this solid construction would be an asset, as it would prevent breakage or damage while Hiccup was underwater. He needed this to stay together or else he would die. However, what ends up happening is that this solid construction is so solid that… Toothless cannot get Hiccup out of it.
So everything building up to the climax leads to it: the strong construction of the cauldron and Toothless’ continued worrying all lead to the moment Hiccup is trapped underwater.
Part of what makes that scene so emotional and effective is the extent to which Toothless tries to save Hiccup. Toothless’ heroics start small but then spiral into increasingly dangerous, gutsy, futile actions.
When the dragon riders first realize Hiccup is in danger, Toothless is already unnerved and tense, constantly staring down at the water. When Fishlegs says that they cannot bring Hiccup up because it’s too early, Toothless growls. Toothless wants Fishlegs to pull Hiccup out of the water; he would rather have his dragon rider companion alive than the Submaripper rescued.
And then the pulley system breaks. Here comes Toothless’ first enormously bold move. He instantly charges and grabs the cauldron’s pulley chain to try to pull Hiccup up. Even though an enormous, heavy metal dome is hurtling down ocean waters, and there’s no possible way a single Night Fury could carry such a weight, Toothless grabs the chain anyway. It’s a desperate, frantic, emotional, instinctive action. It’s not the most logical choice to grab on this chain… but what we see is that Toothless’ first instinct is to save Hiccup’s life.
As expected, Toothless grabbing and pulling on the chain with all his physical power does squat. He is pulled down to the bottom of the ocean with Hiccup.
Already, we have one desperate, emotional, frantic action coming out from Toothless. And this is just the start of the dragon’s attempts to save his friend.
Now Hiccup is trapped on the bottom of the ocean surface. Toothless wastes no time trying to free Hiccup. Toothless swims around the cauldron, yanking on chains (which is a completely useless and emotional task, if you think about it… if he can’t pick up the cauldron the first time, he can’t pick it up the second or third or fourth times). Toothless also, as you point out, fires several plasma blasts underwater at the cauldron.
But there’s only so much Toothless can do in these conditions. The plasma blasts hit their mark, going straight to the base of the cauldron, but they’re not going to be as effective as they are above water. This is because Toothless fires acetylene charges that react to oxygen. When acetylene and oxygen interact, they create a plasma blast. Here’s the problem: Toothless is underwater. The acetylene cannot come in contact with oxygen. It’s the same reason why fire doesn’t burn underwater; water prevents the fire’s fuel from coming in contact with needed oxygen. So even if Toothless gave his largest, most aggressive plasma blasts underwater… they’re… not going to do much. Not in these conditions where we don’t have much free oxygen gas floating around.
Granted, even if Toothless had access to his full firepower, it’d probably be wise if Toothless didn’t shoot his strongest blasts. Plasma blasts are extremely explosive, and we don’t want Toothless killing Hiccup with his own shots. But that’s still all a hypothetical. We don’t know if Toothless was giving his full firepower or not underwater here… but we do know that Toothless was giving his best attempt to free Hiccup. We do know that, chemically, Toothless’ plasma blasts are rather weakened. His shots, which he uses for so many useful, quick-save tricks above water, are useless down here.
Another strength of Toothless’ that is suddenly depleted underwater… is his speed. Sure, Toothless is a fast swimmer from what we see, but it’s going to be nowhere close to the hundred mile speeds he gets in the sky. This is another thing to consider when we watch Toothless swimming around seeking to save Hiccup. Maybe it looks like Toothless’ attempts are “weak” and “halfhearted” because he seems to be moving slowly and without much force. But he’s underwater. Have you ever tried running even just waist-deep in water? You can’t. You’re extraordinarily slowed down. There is no way for Toothless to move quickly; I bet he’s moving about as fast as he can.
Here we see Toothless using all the tricks he usually employs to save others… and these tricks fail. Plasma blasts, strength, speed: none of them are going to do anything in this submarine situation. Even if he had thought to do things like ram against the death song amber… that had been reinforced to be dragon-proof, and he wouldn’t have been able to break it. HTTYD 2 has some amazing, near-impossible saves, yes, but it also shows us that sometimes reality doesn’t go as we want it to. Stoick had to die to protect Hiccup. There wasn’t a perfect, beat-the-impossible solution to save Hiccup there. And it looks like there isn’t a perfect, beat-the-impossible solution to save Hiccup here.
Now some people might note that Toothless doesn’t seem as frantic as some other people might be watching their best friend drown. This all comes to various personalities having different psychological reactions. For some people, in frightening circumstances, it might not fully click what’s happening until after the event. Many people terrifying events seemingly rather numbly or “calmly”, functioning just fine, until their minds can process what has occured. Then they get hysterical. Other people are very emotionally distraught during a situation but still manage to function halfway well on the outside. Just because Toothless isn’t in hysterics doesn’t mean he isn’t emotionally affected by what’s going on. We see that he’s extremely distressed. It’s just that he’s not frantic-frantic panicking.
It’s also to note that Hiccup and Toothless are seasoned to danger. Toothless is going to be extraordinarily distressed about Hiccup, but he’s been in enough dangerous situations to know not to panic. He’s conditioned to be able to operate efficiently even under enormous, terrible pressure. It’s going to emotionally kill Toothless to go through this situation… and we can see, with his worried eyes, that this is a horrible reality for Toothless to experience. But Toothless isn’t going to get hysterical like some lesser-experienced individuals might so do.
The dragon might be operating more efficiently than some people in tight spots, but we can tell he’s not operating as logically as he would in calmer situations. His distress is emotionally compromising him. Toothless is wasting his strength doing things that obviously won’t free Hiccup. Remember: this dragon yanked on a chain to pull up an object impossibly heavier than he could bear. It’s entirely possible Toothless can’t think of other solutions to this problem with his mind in his compromised, scared state. What we see is a dragon who is doing his best to help Hiccup, is able not to panic, but is still extremely distressed and emotionally compromised. We can see it all through his emotions and his choices.
It’s a very realistic and simultaneously poignant reaction from Toothless here. Once he goes through all the methods he can think of to free Hiccup, he comes to the conclusion that Hiccup might die down here. We start to see Toothless slow down. Toothless is starting to run out of ideas, and he’s starting to realize that his best efforts might be futile. That’s really disheartening, so his emotions cause him to break his rescue attempts, look at Hiccup face-to-face, and mourn. Toothless slows down and stops trying to save Hiccup… because the depression of the situation is weighing him down. It’s the point where Toothless’ thoughts of “I might save Hiccup” change into “I can’t save Hiccup” which lead to the horrible realization… “Hiccup is going to die.”
Now, in addition to Toothless doing so much to try to save his friend, the reason this scene is so powerful is because of the complex emotional reactions that occur when Hiccup and Toothless communicate. What we see in this interaction is that their primary concern is for each other. Hiccup whacks against the death song amber, insisting worriedly, “Go! Save yourself!” He loves Toothless and he wants Toothless alive. But Toothless is worried about Hiccup, not himself.
So when Hiccup tells Toothless to save himself, Toothless doesn’t swim to the surface. Toothless continues to stare at Hiccup, and Hiccup says, in response, “I know, bud. I wouldn’t leave you either.”
What this means is that Hiccup and Toothless both know… the dragon isn’t leaving. They know that their love for each other is too strong for that to be an option.
Toothless would rather die helping Hiccup to the very end than save himself.
Hiccup realizes Toothless’ intent. And then we see his facial reaction change… from one of fear for his best friend’s life… to sad comfort. He’s touched, albeit emotionally pained, that Toothless loves him so much he’s going to stay at his side.
It is at this point that Hiccup calms. He accepts he won’t make it out alive. Toothless, on the other side, cannot accept this. Depressed and worried, the dragon is going to make the ultimate sacrifice of staying by Hiccup’s side to the very end… even if this means the end to both of them.
The end of the “conversation” occurs when Toothless closes his eyes, reaches out, and nuzzles the amber window. Note that he’s reaching for Hiccup’s hand. Hiccup’s hand is outstretched toward Toothless, and Toothless tries to touch Hiccup’s hand. Recognize the gesture? It’s only sort of similar to this friendship-building moment from long ago…
Toothless can’t save Hiccup. He can’t even touch Hiccup. But he demonstrates the trust and love of their friendship as best he can: with the gesture of “touching” nose to palm. It’s the demonstration of ultimate love and trust, the motion Toothless and Hiccup make when they are at their most tender and caring.
It’s such an emotional moment. It’s the concept of so-close-and-yet-so-far. We see this done in movies. A New Hope with Obi-Wan’s death. The Force Awakens with Han Solo. Characters are close enough they can watch someone die, but simultaneously too far away (or barricaded) such that they can’t do anything. Hiccup and Toothless are so close. They’re face-to-face. They can read one another’s eyes, communicate, see how the other is emotionally handling this nightmare. But Toothless is separated from Hiccup, unable to touch him and unable to save him. The best Toothless can do is nuzzle the glass in front of Hiccup. In a way, this nuzzle is a way of expressing his loyalty, his love… and his good-byes.
It’s possible that Toothless might have gotten some physical rest at this moment. Then he might have tried some more futile attempts of freeing Hiccup. But we don’t know because it is at this instant the Submaripper appears.
So. You know what I said about Toothless doing ridiculously, increasingly gutsy things to protect his best friend? This is what we have going here. Toothless is probably running out of air. He has exerted a lot of physical energy trying to budge a cauldron that is too heavy for him. He has shot several plasma blasts and seen they have almost no destructive effect underwater.
And yet when the enormous Submaripper swims toward the cauldron…
…Toothless goes into attack mode. It doesn’t matter Toothless is out of his element. It doesn’t matter Toothless is probably running out of physical strength. It doesn’t matter his plasma blasts mean squat here. It doesn’t matter that he’s so much smaller than the other dragon. When Toothless sees the Submaripper advancing toward Hiccup, his automatic response… is… to… fight.
There’s no logic to this. Hiccup is going to die anyway. Toothless is going to die anyway. Toothless is completely, utterly outmatched.
Doesn’t stop him from trying to defend his best friend.
Toothless fires two plasma blasts immediately, trying to fight off the enormous dragon and keep Hiccup - at least for a few seconds more - safe. This dragon is willing to die underwater with Hiccup. This dragon is even willing to die fighting a seadragon to prevent Hiccup’s soon-to-be-dead body from being touched by a hostile individual.
We can all breathe a sigh of relief (wordplay on breathing intentional) that the Submaripper’s motives were misread by Toothless. Toothless tends to be suspicious first, friendly second… and to be fair, the Submaripper had been aggressive toward the humans up to this point. But instead of attacking Toothless, we see the Submaripper pay debts. Hiccup saved the dragon… so the dragon will now save Hiccup.
Thus Hiccup is rescued.
So yes. I absolutely love this moment, and I consider it one of the standout moments of Race to the Edge. This is a moment that expresses the deep bonds between Hiccup and Toothless in a horrifying, emotional near-death situation. Everything is done so perfectly… the foreshadowing camera angle compared to the climax… the nose-to-palm “touch”… even the music, which is a variation on the theme that happens whenever Toothless is in grave danger (heard, for instance, at the end of the Kill Ring). What we see here is a friend desperate to save a friend… a friend willing to die next to his friend… a friend willing to sacrifice himself for a friend…
It’s the very essence of the loving bond between dragon and rider.