Okay, so most people seem to have liked the Noatak-and-Tarrlok part of the finale, even if they hated the rest. There’s a lot of “I loved the finale, especially Tarrlok and Noatak’s story” or “the finale/season sucked, except Tarrlok and Noatak’s story,” or “I’m mostly meh about it, except Tarrlok and Noatak’s story, duh.”
For me personally, the finale catapulted them from “love to hate” to “omg my babies!” so I’m glad people liked them so much. There’s just this one thing. It’s this one complaint I see all over the place, both from the handful of people who hated the storyline to the many people who loved it. A lot of people think it would have been better and made more sense if the boys’ personalities had been switched.
No, no, no.
I mean, it’s fine if you think so. And yes, those would have made more straightforward character arcs. But I much prefer them the way they are.
We’ve been wondering about Amon’s sincerity—and to a lesser degree, Tarrlok’s—all along. Do they really believe their own rhetoric? Are they just exploiting pre-existing problems to gain power? Well, okay. Let’s imagine for a moment that Tarrlok is the prodigy who enjoys bloodbending, while Noatak is less powerful and repulsed by it.
Alt!Tarrlok, though an otherwise affectionate, protective brother, likes power. He gets a kick out of controlling helpless animals as a kid, and later he gets a kick out of controlling the whole city, just like his father did—but unlike Yakone, he does it within the law. Sure, he’s slippery and unscrupulous, but there’s nothing illegal about that. No bloodbending, no legal corruption, just good old-fashioned politics. He’s ready to exploit any crisis that comes his way for maximum political points. Then the Equalist situation all but lands in his lap. Jackpot! He doesn’t believe a word he says; it’s all about power. He’s essentially a smoother version of Yakone.
Alt!Noatak, meanwhile, flees his abusive father and increasingly twisted brother. Growing up, he was perpetually terrorized for his weaker bending (and basic decency). As he travels throughout he world, he sees that it’s not just Yakone and bloodbending. It’s happening everywhere, with every kind of bending, even if the specifics vary. Between the very real oppression in the world, which horrifies him (he’s a gentle soul!) and the damage from the abusive wasteland that was his and his brother’s childhood, his totally justified distaste for bloodbending broadens to a virulent hatred of allbending. He sees his family dynamics writ large across the whole world, and non-benders are him. He completely identifies with them, loathes his own bending—he’s a true believer, not in it for power but for the cause.
It’s not that that couldn’t be interesting. It could be! (Fic-inclined readers, feel free to adopt it, if you want!) It’s very neat and tidy. The nastier child grows into the nastier villain. I’m reminded a bit of Elizabeth Bennet’s joke about Darcy and Wickham—that there’s just enough goodness between them to make one decent person, and Darcy got all of it. In this scenario, there’d be just enough sincerity between them to make one well-meaning person, and Noatak got all of it. Amon is 100% sincere, Tarrlok is 100% power-hungry.
Alt!Tarrlok is boring. Just like Wickham, he would be little more than a foil to other, more well-developed characters. Alt!Noatak would be interesting and sympathetic, but still fairly predictable. I’m actually pretty thrilled that that’s not the scenario we got. Instead, we have something more nuanced.
Noatak really, truly likes power. He’s the prodigy, the natural bloodbender who—under the weight of their father’s expectation and approval—enjoys it. Even while driven to protect his brother, there’s a distinct touch of sadism when he taunts Yakone. He sees Yakone’s lack of bending as a weakness, and Tarrlok’s perfectly legitimate concern for their mother as one too. The ultimate power, as far as he’s concerned, is the ability to take bending away, which he masters and then uses to jump-start a revolt against the government (with him, of course, in charge).
So it’s just the other way around—Amon is the one on the power trip?
Nope! He also hates injustice and legitimately wants to help those weaker than himself. He tried to help his comparatively frail brother, even while he (Noatak) was sliding down the slippery slope. He’s always wanted everyone to be treated fairly. He turns himself into the rallying point for the movement, building a cult of personality around himself—and you can bet he enjoys every minute of it—but he also emphasizes the crucial role that all Equalists play.
Tarrlok believes, and there’s no real reason to doubt him, that Amon genuinely loathes all bending (presumably including his own) and is doing his best to wipe it off the face of the earth. Permanently? Probably not. He has very good reason to know that debended people can produce bending children. But if the current, oppressive generation of benders all knew what it was like to live without bending, perhaps the world could be changed before their bending children could take their places.
Speaking of Tarrlok … Tarrlok. On the face of it, he’s by disposition the nastier and more self-absorbed of the two villains; control-happy bb!Tarrlok would still be pretty neatly deterministic. Instead, Tarrlok is a sweet, timid kid under the sway of his powerful older brother and terrorized by their abusively demanding father. He’s almost pathetically sincere, and when he manages to defy their father over the loathed bloodbending, it leads directly to his brother’s disappearance and apparent death. Weakling is (as far as Tarrlok knows) the last thing Noatak ever says to him.
End result? Their mother is dramatically changed in some unspecified way. Yakone wastes away on his fainting couch. And Tarrlok goes on to reinvent himself as a pillar of strength — the hero of Republic City.
The fact that he uses cunning and manipulation to do it is pretty much the icing on the characterization cake for me. Tarrlok does not simply reach for power, as Amon does—Amon, for all his cunning, is bolder, more aggressive, more direct, certainly more unflinchingly confident. Tarrlok, though, acts much more like someone accustomed to operating from a position of weakness.
He works behind the scenes; he arranges, he manipulates, he exploits. His response to Korra’s noncompliance isn’t trying to intimidate her, it’s bribing her. (Amon: I will destroy you. Tarrlok: I bought you a car!) Even when he browbeats her into allying with him, he uses predictable responses from other people to do it, not direct force. Nor does he rely on that pressure to keep her in line, but continues to cultivate her.
Although Tarrlok is a highly skilled waterbender, he avoids physical confrontation, unless the odds are stacked heavily in his favour. Even then he leans on surprise. Until his last fight, with the Equalists, he never uses bloodbending except as a last, secret resort, where Amon makes highly public productions out of his own.
Now, through most of the series, Tarrlok was very, very easy to read as two-dimensional, if enjoyably so. He is obviouslyout for power. He’s obviouslytaking advantage of the Equalist crisis to damage his rivals and increase his own authority. The question was never whether he’s power-hungry or sincere, but if he’s power-hungry and sincere. Does he actually care about the Equalist threat? Does he actually think what he’s doing is right? Or is it all just grandstanding? Does he really think he’s the city’s saviour? Or does he just want to be seen as one?
His stunned outrage at being compared to Amon in When Extremes Meet implied pretty strongly, I think, that the Column A and Column B response is correct. He definitely doesn’t know who Amon is at that point—he’s just indignant at being compared to the criminal he fiercely opposes. Between that and the glimpses we got of nothing-if-not-sincere young Tarrlok, most likely we’re looking at a man who is ruthless and ambitious, snatching at every last scrap of authority that can be gained from any situation, but also sincerely invested in the welfare of the city.
Like Amon, Tarrlok is not wholly the power-hungry opportunist or the crusading zealot but both. I think that makes them far more interesting than if either/both were just one or the other. And frankly, I also think the slippery Tarrlok makes much, much more sense as a once-cowed child, with Amon as the fearless prodigy grown to adulthood.
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