A herd of teal deer
thinking about Tarrlok’s character arc

It makes sense, and yet it doesn’t make sense, all at the same time.

[Note: I’m not tagging this word explosion as hate because it’s not about that, but I am criticizing some things. Read at your own risk. Also, I like pictures. And I didn’t rewatch Korra for this, so maybe I just forgot all the sense-making. Feel free to tell me if I have!]

This is sort of a continuation of the Noatak-and-Tarrlok meta I wrote awhile back, though it’s not required reading or anything. To sum up, I argued that gentle, cowed young Tarrlok—>slippery Councilman Tarrlok and protective, power-hungry Noatak—>fearless zealot Amon make more interesting and more credible arcs than the fandom-preferred scenario of prodigy!Tarrlok and sweet!Noatak would have.

I haven’t changed my mind about that. I really do think Tarrlok’s backstory, as is, provides a more intuitive base for the adult Noatak and Tarrlok than we’d get with a reversal of their roles. I also think, though, that Tarrlok’s overall arc is … somewhat erratic. In fact, I’ll go a step further and say that Tarrlok’s backstory isn’t Tarrlok’s backstory at all. It’s Noatak’s backstory, as witnessed by Tarrlok.

This, pretty much.

I’ve been a little startled to see a vague fannish consensus that Tarrlok’s character arc is the best one (with the possible exception of Korra’s, depending on how one feels about the end of the finale). There definitely seems to be a feeling that it’s more coherent than Noatak’s, at any rate. It’s not that I don’t think there is some totally awesome stuff going on with Tarrlok’s character. I do! Tarrlok and Noatak are my favourite characters, just ahead of Korra and Lin, and if I have to choose between the two of them, I’d go for Tarrlok.

As a fan, Tarrlok’s characterization is exactly the kind of thing I eat up. It’s perfect for fanfiction and meta and crack headcanon theories and all my favourite things. The traumatic childhood! The downwards spiral! The lack of self-awareness! The basic decency and horrible actions and ultimate repentance that comes too late!

It doesn’t hurt that he looks like this.

But when I’m not cheerfully filling in the blanks—when I think about it just as a viewer—Noatak’s characterization actually flows much more evenly for me. I think it really goes back to the backstory being Noatak’s backstory much more than Tarrlok’s. In Tarrlok’s flashbacks, we see their evolution throughout their childhood. Let’s look at it.

Baby Tarrlok is adorably sweet and gentle. Young Noatak is adorably loving, protective and kind.

Our villains, ladies and gentlemen.

They discover they’re waterbenders, and Yakone takes an unsurprising turn for the abusive. Young Tarrlok is still sweet and gentle, and intimidated by their father. Young Noatak is still protective and kind. We see—well, we’re told about his emerging idealism; he wants people to be treated fairly (Tarrlok in particular, it’s clear). He’s as assertive as Tarrlok is cowed, casually standing up for him to their father, and less than intimidated by Yakone’s furious response.

Later on, Yakone tells them about his true identity and their potential as bloodbenders (presumably their waterbending training has progressed to the point that he can be sure of this, but they still look very young; Tarrlok is maybe six or seven). They’re both stunned; aside of their mutual solidarity, we can’t tell much more about them. Then we see the early part of their bloodbending training. Tarrlok is still sweet and gentle, horrified to cause pain to helpless animals, but, as ever, intimidated by his father. Noatak, on the other hand, naturally takes to it. He was already established as a far more dominant and aggressive personality, if then in a benign way, so this much isn’t difficult to accept on faith.

Tarrlok continues to be sweet and gentle and cowed, hating bloodbending even as he becomes better and better at it. So…exactly the same. Noatak at once relishes his remarkable power and seems burdened by it, as Yakone’s incredibly inappropriate demands fall primarily on him. He withdraws, becoming cold and detached, and decidedly troubled.

Feel free to imagine an ominous thunderclap here. There actually was one.

By fourteen, he’s a remarkable bloodbender (and presumably waterbender), not even requiring any gestures. Eleven-year-old Tarrlok is, surprise, surprise, sweet and gentle and cowed, though thoroughly competent.

The final childhood scene has a lot going on, mostly on Noatak’s side. Tarrlok’s been the gentle, scrupulous one all along, and that’s exactly what he is here, too. There’s just one significant shift. When he actually feels what bloodbending is like, he refuses to do it again (not just to Noatak, but to anything). Yakone instantly turns on him. It’s reminiscent of the first waterbending scene—only this time, Yakone and Noatak are not only aggressive but actively violent, while young Tarrlok’s vague sulkiness has become actual defiance.

This is defiant for Tarrlok.

Now, Noatak. Tarrlok’s reaction makes it clear that Noatak has never done anything like this to him before—that this is not something he would have done on his own initative. At the same time, he complies without hesitation or any real sign of regret. He also doesn’t seem to have any doubt that Tarrlok will do the same to him, or any problem with that. It’s not clear how he reacts to his brother’s refusal, but when Yakone threatens Tarrlok, we see the essential conflict in his character: he simultaneously throws himself in front of Tarrlok and viciously bloodbends Yakone.

Noatak, protecting and terrifying his little brother, all at once.

The fault line in his personality—and motivations—is just reinforced by the dialogue. Noatak orders Yakone to stay away from Tarrlok; his tone is even but menacing. He’s still acting as the protective older brother (making protectiveness the one quality that persists from his earliest appearance), but very much the dangerous, arrogant bloodbender in how he goes about it. He suddenly starts going on a near-megalomaniacal rant about how Yakone, rather than Tarrlok, is weak (as an ex-bender), and how the Avatar’s energybending, rather than bloodbending, is the ultimate power in the universe. Then, just as abruptly, he switches gears, denouncing Yakone’s moral failings with a distinct note of betrayed idealism. On the spot, he decides to escape.

That is, Tarrlok has had a problem with Yakone’s teaching all along, but still bowed under the pressure until Yakone’s demands grew so extreme that he couldn’t take it any more. Noatak hasn’t suffered any scruples about it at all (except possibly right at the beginning, when Yakone first told them all about it), but once he does, he instantly acts to remove them both from Yakone’s influence. When Tarrlok expresses perfectly reasonable concern for their mother’s welfare, Noatak seems to regard it as a final betrayal and flees, prioritizing his own self-preservation.

To sum up, when we last see them, Tarrlok:

  • is still essentially gentle
  • is still affectionate
  • still feels moral scruples
  • in an extreme situation, finally acts on them, though confines his defiance to the verbal

Noatak:

  • is still protective
  • is not just assertive but violent and aggressive about it
  • is contemptuous of weakness
  • exults in his own power
  • is implicitly hungry for even greater power (on the Avatar scale)
  • has some lingering idealism that leads him to see that not just this particular incident, but their entire upbringing, is completely appalling
  • is decisive
  • is ridiculously oversensitive to any perceived betrayal
  • while ready to risk himself for others (select others), ultimately puts his own preservation first
  • does not care about anyone except Tarrlok, including his own mother.

Now, I’m not saying fourteen-year-old Noatak is Amon. He’s not. For one, he hasn’t turned against bending, which is Amon’s entire deal, and I think it’s implied that neither brother would have fallen so far if they’d been together. But by fourteen, Noatak’s personality has evolved to the point that he is perfectly poised to become someone like Amon, regardless of what particular cause he latched onto (it seems likely that anti-bending simply happened to resonate with his personal experience—and for all his lies, he admitted that much all along).

The flashbacks carefully trace his development from adorable baby Noatak into that proto-Amon. He hasn’t got much further to go to become Amon, and he has over twenty years to do it in. Frankly, the thing I find most improbable is that it took him that long.

Tarrlok, though, is basically the same person he’s been all along. It’s not that I think it doesn’t makes sense for the Tarrlok we see to eventually become the adult Tarrlok. As I argued before, I think it does, in and of itself. But because young Tarrlok’s character is so unvarying, there’s none of the transition we got with Noatak. He was just a sweet kid. Always.

Young Tarrlok, in every scene.

When I was first watching the finale, it immediately hit me that Noatak didn’t just leave without him, he left him alone with Yakone. That seemed likely to be … really rough. And frankly, it’s ripe with potential for Tarrlok—established as a fairly passive personality—to be driven into lying, manipulating, longing for more direct power, and generally morphing into someone who would be recognizable as future Councilman Tarrlok. He doesn’t need to be just like adult!Tarrlok (in fact, it’d be more credible if he still had a long way to go) just … you know, it’d be cool if there were any connecting tissue at all. But Yakone just Clarissa Harlowes it up and wilts to death.

This guy.

There’s the same issue with his arc as an adult, too. For instance, he and Korra seem on very good terms after he rescues her during the task force. It’s ominous—oh no, Korra is falling under his malign influence! Are we going to have battling mentors or what? (OMG, so cool.) No, the Korra-Tarrlok alliance will never come up again, and their next significant interactions are downright antagonistic.

The gloating is strong in his family.

And, in fact, it makes perfect sense for Korra and Tarrlok to end up clashing. That’s not the problem. Give us as thin a justification as you want, it’ll make sense because of their personalities. Nothing about this is out of character for them. The problem is that we are not given any reason for it to have happened. It’s like, all the dominos are lined up in a neat row, and one push would be enough to send them all toppling down, but there’s no push. They just start falling out of nowhere.

Now, Tarrlok’s spiral downwards over 9 & 10 does work; as rapid as it is, what we see seems to follow naturally from the situation and what we’ve previously seen (likewise for Amon in the finale, IMO; it’s described really well here). Tarrlok bloodbending only as a last resort, coming up with a new plan on the fly and committing himself to it with…considerable thoroughness, and when it fails, finally snapping and bloodbending everything that moves—that works.

There’s dedication to your story, and then there’s DEDICATION.

Tarrlok finally giving way to the lure of bloodbending and exulting, Noatak-like, in his power over the Equalists, that works too. He’s been getting steadily darker for a long time. Amon’s behaviour in that scene seemed a little off at the time (why is he taking so much trouble over the unconscious ex-waterbender and leaving the angry, alert Avatar to his no-more-than-moderately-competent subordinates??), but now also makes perfect sense for him. Just about all his behaviour with regard to Tarrlok seems to indicate that he still cares about him, if in a very warped way. Not like it wasn’t already warped at fourteen.

This is how Noatak shows love.

We don’t need any more explanation to figure out what went on there. But in “Skeletons in the Closet,” we get another unexplained swerve in characterization, and this one is much more significant. Apart from his snappish greeting, he is completely unrecognizable. During Tarrlok’s last stage, his already-established (for adult!Tarrlok) ruthlessness and aggression were escalating as things got worse for him.

This man might turn desperate. News at eleven!

He disappeared when Amon captured him, and now he’s thoroughly remorseful, trying to atone for his multitude of wrongs (if in a rather apathetic way), reflective, oddly resigned.

Again, it’s not difficult to imagine how he would end up in this mental space. There’s a striking resemblance to young Tarrlok too (and perhaps this is the reason there’s no real attempt made to link young Tarrlok’s personality to politician Tarrlok’s, even in potential—structurally, young Tarrlok leads straight to penitent de-bended Tarrlok, even though skeevy politician Tarrlok comes next chronologically: I still think it could have worked, though). I can easily believe that he’d revert back to his basic personality in the circumstances.

Tarrlok has lost his bending, which is consistently devastating. He’s realized his archenemy is his beloved older brother. It’s quite possible he’s interacted with Noatak, since it’s been at least a couple of days and Noatak—out of concern for his safety or fear of his knowledge getting out or some combination of both—is clearly keeping him hidden from everyone. If so, those interactions were clearly not pleasant. He’s been comprehensively humbled. He’s had time to wallow in misery, to realize what he’s become, to fall into self-loathing. My complaint is not that he’s transitioned to something that’s inherently difficult to accept. It’s not! It’s that we don’t get any transition at all.

Okay, so Noatak shows up. Tarrlok is initially guarded—no surprise, as he just betrayed him to the Avatar (their mutual enemy, the last time we saw them together). As soon as Noatak lowers his guard—which is pretty much the first thing he does—Tarrlok seems conciliatory. He outright blames himself for their separation, even though Noatak doesn’t seem to be holding a grudge at all. He blames Tarrlok less than Tarrlok himself does.

This too makes sense for Tarrlok’s character! It’s just, the last time we saw him was telling Korra to take out Noatak for the good of everybody and now it’s “gosh, I’m sorry I didn’t abandon our mother with you :( :(” And then he has this look of … tentative hope, maybe? They’ve both apologized (Tarrlok somewhat more articulately, but that fits their personalities and the situations they’re apologizing for), and he seems encouraged by Noatak’s very evident affection. Encouraged enough that he does end up leaving with him.

And then he kills them both.

Unlike the others, the murder-suicide doesn’t come out of nowhere (although it doesn’t seem that he planned it—but it is foreshadowed). Tarrlok’s despair, resignation, and his sense of powerlessness were established already. Powerlessness, particularly, is the note he hits over and over again: he tried to define himself against his father but was inevitably shaped by him, his and Noatak’s paths were set by their father, fate brought them together. He wants the tragedy that is their lives to be over. He sics Korra on Noatak and refuses to be released from his cell. This stuff was established a whole episode before, which is a long time in the world of the finale.

However, the hints of hope and reconciliation came after all that. So, in the end, adult Tarrlok’s arc isn’t just morally ambiguous tragic past guy—>despair—>suicide. It’s down with the Equalists!—>teaming up with the Avatar!—>wait enemies now?—>creepy-ass bloodbender—>muahahahahahaha—>I’m so sorry—>despair—>maybe it’s going to be okay?—>wait nope, there’s no hope for either of us, I’m going to rid the world of us for its own good—>BOOM.

In the end, I do like pretty much everything that’s there. Not the murder-suicide, admittedly. The scene is immensely powerful in itself, but it feels awfully like the narrative is agreeing with him, which is not cool in so many ways, and it seems rather a waste, not just of WATERBENDER MAJOR VILLAINS FINALLY <3 <3 <3, but hello, sixty episodes with one-note Ozai as the main villain, and TWELVE with these mines of dramatic potential? But, everything else, I actually like what’s there. If we actually got transitions between the various stages of Tarrlok’s characterization, I’d say he was easily the most developed character on the show. As it is, it’s more like we got snapshots of an awesome character arc than an actual one.