Serpents of Eden – Unalaq

So let’s talk about Unalaq, the resident baddie from Book II of Legend of Korra.
In this post, we’ll have a look at his personality, his backstory, his powers and his overall place in the story, as well as some of the most common issues people seem to have with him, to determine how well he holds up as a villain.
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Personality

As the chieftain of both the northern and southern water tribes, Unalaq is – as one would expect from a royal – rather arrogant and dismissive of those he does not deem worthy, and he’s not concerned with the idea of keeping this a secret (unless it suits his goals), which has earned him the distrust of his own brother. All qualities that one might think, would undermime his position as chief, however, he also has quite a few redeeming qualities to boost his reputation to that of a well respected leader of great spiritual value.

Unalaq is most famous for his high regard for the spiritual side of life and his devotion to the spirits, which is his most defining quality. Unlike his brother, he believes that in order to bring peace and order the the physical world, one has to look to the teachings of the Spirit World, and that neglecting those ideals is what brought about the spiritual decline of the Southern Water Tribe. He sees the advances of  the modern day and all the changes it brought as something negative, which lead people to adapt a hedonistic way of life instead of the minimalistic, spiritually driven way Unalaq much favors. To someone like him, this is the worst crime possible to commit, which is one of the main reasons why he feels justified in most of the horrendous acts he performs during the series, such as betraying his brother and taking his place as ruler of the Water Tribes, manipulating the Avatar, and conspiring to free Vatuu.

He is also a world-renowned water-bending master, having the absolutely unique ability to spiritbend, due to his life-long study of the spirits and their ways, which has also earned him the reputation of being extremely wise and knowledgable, thus being a man of the purest intentions – which is one of the reasons people trust him in-universe much more, then the viewers do, as he appears to be completely uncorruptable due to having no earthly desires and putting ballance and spirituality before selfish needs.
And while this is all true to some extent, it’s also the main reason for his fall from grace, as it was his very believes, that the spiritual way needs to be embraced by everyone, that pushed him from being an idealist to being a fanatic.

In addition to his waste knowledge about the Spirit World and his skills as a waterbending master, Unalaq is also a master manipulator, often showcasing this talent by hiding his lies inside the truth to support his point (revealing that Tonraq was banished for angering the spirits in a way, that would allow him to make it seem like Tonraq was the source of the spirit’s anger, making Korra unlock the Southern Portal by claiming that it would fix the problems, undermiming Tenzin’s authority by defeating a threat he could not, etc…), or masking his true intentions in a way, that even  the truth seems to be different, than it really is (revealing that it was Tenzin and Tonraq, who ordered Korra to be raised isolated,  pretending to be the only one, who truly appretiates Korra, pointing out that the past Avatars were always allowed to travel the world in order to gain Korra’s trust while also isolating her from her former master and father, etc…). His reputation as a wise, spiritual master and his own charisma can further help him blind people to his true intentions.

While Unalaq feels that everything he does is for a greater good, his motivation also sprungs from being overly arrogant and having a tendency to force his believes on everyone around him, considering his way of being the only true way, as opposed to his brother’s “live and let live” mentality.

It’s also appearent, that with every bad deed performed, he uses his “higher goals” to justify his actions to himself, which in turn distances him more and more from the world around him. He removes his brother from the line of succession by tricking him into destroying the spirit woods, because he considers him a threat to his spiritual ways, and he does not want Tonraq’s “anti-spiritual” attitude to spread to the rest of their people. He succeeds in this through the art of betrayal, but instead of seeing himself as the villain of the piece, he feels more like the saviour protecting the spiritual integrity of their poeple. In the end though, this only leads him to hate and despise his brother for being weak and simple-minded, dismissing all his positive attributes in the process, just so he can justify his more then questionable deeds.
He also portrays this kind of Messiah complex in the way he treats everyone, even his own children. Not only does he seem to be an extremely cold and stern father figure, he also shows, that he holds his mission of spiritual balance in higher regard, then his own son’s life, made evident in the scene, where he tells Eska to leave him be, after Desna sustains grave injuries in the Spirit World, just so he can proceed with his mission to free Vatuu.
He also has no problem sentencing his own brother to prison for  a crime he knows he did not commit, just to serve his goals of manipulating the Avatar into doing his bidding.

Unalaq seems to be unable to admit even to himself, that his actions are not only fueled by his desire to lead the world into a spiritual utopia, but also to justify his own greed and ego, which pushes him further and further down the line of turning into a bad man. This is many times evidenced, when he puts the blame for everything bad on others, while dismissing his own horrible actions as just a means to an end, in order to “save the world”. (Like how he dismisses the good intentions of Korra as the Avatar, branding her a failure and declaring that he is the only one who can bring true ballance, or how he puts all the blame in their past on his brother.)

Despite his many horrible deeds, he does not seem to be purely  evil, at least not in the way Ozai was, who never showed any sign of not being completely evil at any part of his life. Unalaq seems more like Loki in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, who started out as a good person with noble intentions, but his ego and his need to proove his way as the only true way caused his good intensions to turn him into the man we see during the events of Book II. In this regard, he is somewhat similar to Noatak and Tarrlok, however, his ego and jealous nature seems to have played a much larger factor in his moral downfall, whereas the two blodbending brothers choose the wrong path  not out of arrogance, but due to their own tortured past.

So is Unalaq a symphatetic villain? Well, depends to whom you want to compare him to, really. Next to Ozai, he  could be called as such, but that really only means that at least we see why he became a monster, and we see that he at least had some good intentions, no matter how warped they became at the end. In the end, however he’s still an evil man. Yes, once he might have been a good person with good intentions, but by the time the events of Book II unfold, he is nothing sort of a monster, evidenced by the fact, that human life – even that of his own son, who was always fiercly loyal to him – , seems to mean absolutely nothing to him, not to mention, that he’s ready to kill anyone to achieve his goals, and he does not seem to be the “kill them, for it’s nescessary for the greater good, mourn them later” kinda guy either… It really does seem like human life has no value in his eyes anymore. What’s more, he seems to enjoy hurting others now, at least those who have wronged him in the past, such as Korra and Tonraq.
All in all, I’d say, that Unalaq’s not as freakishly evil as Ozai was (at least not by nature), but compared to Amon or Tarrlok, he’s definitly not a sympathetic villain. Maybe his younger self could be called as such, but in his laters years, not a chance. He did too much despicable things, and that takes a tall on a man’s soul. Even if you start out with pure intentions, if you constantly have to do horrible things to achieve your  goals, you will loose your humanity down the road somewhere, and it seems like that happened with Unalaq as well.

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To summarize, while Unalaq truly seems to believe, that everything he does, he does so to achieve the perfect utopia, he’s also motivated by his own ego and his underlying need to justify his actions. Unlike Ozai, he seems to have an honest desire to change the world for the better (or at least he once did), but his ego and his fanatism caused him to go astray and become a despicable man in the end.

Motivation

Unalaq’s main motivation seems to be to achieve his life-long dream of a world where spirits and humans co-exist in harmony. As he sees the spirits as some higher power, that humanity could – and should – learn from, he does everything in his power to ensure, that his vision would come to pass, and the world could once again become a place of spiritual balance. His bruised ego, that originated from playing second fiddle to his brother throughout their childhood also played a large part in his quest going from an idealist’s dream to that of a fanatic’s vision.
That’s a fairly good motivation for a villain, because it’s something, that
a) makes sense from his point of view
b) isn’t a completely black and white evil scheme, since he actually tries to make the world a better place, instead of merely wanting to conquer it
c) is just relatable enough for the viewer to see, where he’s comming from, but not relatable enough to start rooting for him or give him the moral highground
d) is something we haven’t seen before in the Avatar universe

Backstory

Unalaq grew up as the younger of two brothers in the royal bloodline. Unlike his older brother, who didn’t have much interest in the spiritual side of things and prefered to rely on his own strength, Unalaq was a student of the Spirit World from early childhood on. One could say, that the two brothers were like Yin and Yang, with Tonraq representing honor and brute strength, while Unalaq representing cunning and treachery, but dismissing it as that simple would be inacurate and rather superficial.

While it’s true, that Tonraq always seemed to be the one to have the moral highground, and that Unalaq always had a tad bit too big of an ego, I think it would be false to say, that Unalaq’s betrayal was merely commited out of greed. Sure, there are certain parallels to the history of Ozai and Iroh, but there’s quite a few notable differences as well.
First let’s look at the motivation of Ozai and Unalaq. It’s very clear, that Ozai was always presented as a rotten to the core monster, who would sacrifice everyone and eveything for the sole purpose of serving his own greed. However, while Unalaq was also fanatical in pursuing his goal, that goal wasn’t merely to reign supreme above all others. His plans did have good intentions at their core, and a lot of what he said actually had a point.
So if one is to take that major difference into account, then it stands to reason, that Unalaq’s betrayal had much more layered and complex motivations behind it. But to understand those, we have to look at his childhood from his point of view.

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Now, let’s see. We don’t really learn if the two brothers were ever really close or not (unlike with Noatak and Tarrlok), but since the fact ,that young Unalaq’s methods were a lot less violent in nature towards his brother, than say, adult Unalaq’s methods were, I would say that it’s a reasonable guess to say, that he didn’t outright hate Tonraq back then, but simply deemed him unfit to rule. Now, why would that be?
Well, as already mentioned above, young Tonraq was described as being hotheaded, relying on his strength over his wits, and we also know, that he didn’t had the deep appretiation for the spirits, that Unalaq had from early on. Tonraq even had the strict idea, that the human and spirit worlds should be separate and should not cross. And he was to be chief one day. To someone like young Unalaq, who has studied and delighted in the way of the spirits from his very youth, this must have been a much unsettling thought.

Now, if you were a young lad, who understands and respects the spirits, and your older brother was the exact opposite of you in that regard, and you knew, that he was going to be chief one day, how would you feel? If you knew, that the future chieftain would go against everything you believe in, dismiss and even disrespect the spirits, to whom you pledged your whole life so far, how would that affect you? If you taught, that spirituality was the key in bringing ballance to the world, and yet, your own brother and future lord dismissed all these ideas, and you knew that his reign would take this attitude global amongst your people as well, what woud you do?

If you look at it like that, it’s only logical, that Unalaq would start to develop a certain dislike, that with time would turn into hatred and despise, toward his brother and everyone else, who thinks like that. Which would also start to grow a false sense of superiority in Unalaq himself, which in turn would become greater and greater, which would in the end result in the arrogant, hateful, and self-righteous person we then see in the present. If you start to be fixated on the idea, that your cause is a just one, and then people you should be able to depend on, and who should support you – like your brother for example – , do the opposite of that and „betray” your ideals, then that will cause a rift that will only grow bigger and bigger with time.

The core differences between the two brothers in their youth are also worth taking into consideration. Unalaq was shown and described as being extremely intelligent, serious, and even wise – he studied and learned from the spirits very early on, and he must have been very good at it, considering that he could spiritbend in his early years already. That means he is a man of the mind, a learned man, a smart man. Next to him, you have Tonraq, the future chief, who seemed to act not like a chief, but as a warrior throughout his youth. Yes, he was brave,and strong and even loyal, but he was also hotheaded and headstrong and proud, and did not care for the spirits at all.
So let’s look at all that from Unalaq’s point of view again. If you are smarter and perhaps, even wiser, then your older brother, and yet, you have to live with the knowledge, that he’s still going to be your chief, your superior one day, it’s easy to see how that would force Unalaq to start emotionally distancing himself from his brother. And Unalaq had to live with that thought day by day by day…
Not only would that make him feel opressed and underappretiated, it would also explain where his constant need to push his own ideas through comes from. All his life, he studied, he worked to better himself, to understand the way of life in a manner that transcends the human world, and still, he had to go to sleep every night and awaken every morning with the thought, that it has all been for nothing, that all the knowlegde and wisdom he gathered would go to waist under a chief who does not share nor agree with his philosophy. So in light of this , I think it makes perfect sense why this young boy would grow up to be the Unalaq we saw in Book II – a man of great wisdom and knowledge, who is still tragely hindered to put his aquired wisdom to good use by his need to insert his own believes into the minds of others, simply because he was denied of having his own ideas accepted back than.

If Unalaq was the older brother to begin with, he might not have developed this fanatical tendencies at all, and he might have been a good chief, even. Depends on how much of the darkness in him was his own and how much of it he aquired through those years playing second fiddle to his brother.
Now, I know, that I lot of people would now just dismiss him as “Nah, he was always greedy, and he did it all to get more power, because he was bad to the bone…“, but in all honestly. 99% of the time it’s not as simple as that. People who are THAT bad to the core – like Ozai or Azula – are the exception, not the rule. Most people aren’t black or white, they’re grey. So while it’s really the easy way to just dismiss young Unalaq as a greedy bastard who simply wanted more power, really, if you look at their past and their personalities back then, and really think it through how it would have been for Unalaq, can you honestly say, that you would have acted so differently, or felt differently? How many times do we feel unnoticed or underappretiated? How many times do we feel that someone not worthy of it robbed us of our applause? And yet, most of us aren’t even geniuses, who mastered philosophy, martial arts and spirituality already in our teenage years… We aren’t burdened to bear the responisibilty for the lives of thousands of people, we do not have the chance dangled in front of our eyes to change the world… And yet we all felt the way Unalaq must have felt, when they were young… Can we really say, that we would have been above those feelings in his stead?

Personally, I know I would not have betrayed my brother in the manner Ozai did to Iroh, just to have more power, but I can’t claim that I would not have felt the way Unalaq felt, if I was out there, working and studiing my ass off, being a prodigy, bringing something completely new to an art that has been around for 10 000 years, and so forth, and then I had to know, that all this accounts for nearly nothing, because my brother will shape our nation, even though he’s not cut out for it… Yeah, I might be able to understand why he went off the rails there…

Of course, there’s the question, whether Unalaq was ever good to begin with? I’d say yes, he probably was. Not as pure and innocent as Noatak was, when he was a little kid, but I’d assume that evil people don’t usually start by weaving dreams of a spiritualy ballanced utopia, so somewhere along the road, he must have truly had pure intentions. Was it not the case, then I don’t think he would have invested all that time and work into genuinly learning about the spirits, and  he would never have appretiated the idea of inner piece and spiritual balance.

Also, if he was always as twisted as he was during Book II, then why would he arrange the banishment of his brother, when it could have been even easier to just have him killed? Arrange a sneak attack with the barbarians, or simply put a bit of poision in his drink? That’s all he would have to do, and he would still be chief in the end. (Remember, Ozai didn’t back down from murdering even his own family to get what he wanted, so the PG rating can’t be the reason.) But back then, he only seemed to want to banish him, get him out of the way of succession. I  think the Unalaq of the present would have had him killed in the same scenario, so I think he started off as a mostly good guy, but then he had to do some pretty bad things for “the greater good” again, committing more and more misdeeds in pursuit of his utopia, up until the point of no return, when all the horrors took their toll on his mind, and he became the cold, sadistic man Korra had to fight.

And before anyone thinks, that I’m saying, that Unalaq was right to do what he did – I’m not saying that. All I’m saying is, that his choice to do so was far more complex, than most make it out to be. And ironically, if you think about it, Tonraq only matured as a person because he felt guilty for what he did and was embarrased by his banishment, so without that, he might never had become the great leader we saw in Book II. Again, not saying that we should send a Thank You card to Unalaq, just pointing out that the character and his backstory are much more complex, interesting and tragic than many people try to make it seem.
To be honest, I really have a hard time understanding, how some people can say, that Unalaq was completely one-dimensional, with zero backstory, in light of all things mentioned above… I would rather say, that he has one of the best and most detailed, most reasonable backstories out of all the bad guys in the Avatar franchise, save for Amon, Tarrlok and Hama. (Oddly, it seems only waterbenders need a reason to be evil in Avatar.)
It’s surely a lot better, then “evil just ’cause‘ Ozai/Zaoh or “Fuck the Police” Zaheer, who all had about zero development as to why they became the man they became.

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Another common complaint I’ve seen in regard to Unalaq’s backstory, is that we are never told how he found out about Vatuu, or how he became a part of the Red Lotus. And actually, both complaints are easily disprooven, and here’s why…
The answers may not be “in-your-face” spilled out in the show, but the blanks are still rather easy to fill in, if you pay attention during the 2nd and 3rd book.
We do know, that both Unalaq and Zaheer are able to enter the Sprit World, so it’s completely possible, that they’ve met there. It could also be, that their ways collided in their youth in a more everyday manner, simply because of their shared interests. And with his brother not sharing his admirations in regards of the spiritual, it would only be reasonable that Unalaq would seek out people who did. Especially, if this was during the time, where he has already fallen out with his brother and wanted to get him out of  the way.
As to how did he find out about Vatuu and Raava? Once again, the answer  is quite obvious. We do know, that Unalaq can enter the Spirit World. We also know, that he has a good connection with  Wan Shi Tong, who happens to have the greatest library known in both worlds, so it’s only natural that there would be all the information about the two mightiest spirits ever to exist, as well as the history of the first Avatar. And since Unalaq is a man, who we know studied the spirits all his life, I don’t think it’s hard to believe that he would stumble upon this information. Especially, if we do take into consideration, that he was working with the Red Lotus at the time.
And once he learned, what happened to Vatuu, he might as well seek him out, can’t he? Or it could have been the other way around, and Vatuu learning about Unalaq, contacted him whilst he was in the Spirit World, offering him just what he wanted – a united world with spirits and humans, playing on the sentiment, that Raava and the Avatar were the ones, who closed the portals in the first place, which would then put Unalaq on the path we’ve seen him on.
Really, it’s not that difficult, one can put it together with relative ease, if you’ve seen both seasons.
What really irks me about these complaints, is that the same people always cry, that they want intelligent shows, that don’t feel the need to spell out everything for them, shows that treat them as smart individuals, and yet, when they encounter the exact type of storytelling they wish for, they complain, that “things are left unexplained“…. Go figure…

Connection to the Avatar

Usually, it helps the story, if the main villain and the hero share some kind of personal connection besides being just adversaries for each other. As the chieftain of Korra’s people, brother to Tonraq and uncle to the Avatar herself, Unalaq pretty much got it covered.

Not only does that give an instant emotional bonus to the whole conflict, it also brings some new to the table as far as the Avatar universe goes, since neither Korra, nor Aang had to deal with a situation before, where they had the villain so close to home – and it doesn’t get much closer than this. Especially, if the uncle in question appears to be your most trusted advisor for quite some time, just to make the fallout that much more intense. And while many would say, that having a relative of the main hero be the bad guy is old news, here’s some food for thought: Having your family member be the villain might be an old trick, but it’s a trick that’s been around for so long, because IT WORKS! It adds an extra layer of inensity to the situation the hero is in, and it’s also a goldmine in terms of character development and story opportunities. Not to mention, that, as I already said above, it might not be the newest trick in the book, but it’s still new to this particular franchise. The main villan was never a family member before, not for the main hero.

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In regards to Korra’s and Unalaq’s relationship, the one complaint I keep hearing, is that Unalaq is supposedly too obvious of a villain.
I see this argument being thrown around quite a lot, and I still can’t help but to shake my head everytime I see it…
People really seem to be oblivious to this, but here’s the thing – the viewers are SUPPOSED to know from the get-go, that Unalaq is trouble. That’s the point! We’re supposed to know, he’s manipulating Korra, we’re supposed to be frustrated watching it, and yelling at the screen „Korra, watch it, he’s playing you!” ! But because the man is such a cunning bastard, that he uses the truth to cover his lies, and because in-universe, everything he says at the beginning, appears to be true and makes a lot of sense, especially from Korra’s point of view, he still gets his way. And we, as the audience, know of course, that he’s not what he seems, but the people in the story can’t know, because he’s such an intelligent liar. That actually makes him a great villain, since what he does is not only highly intelligent and cunning, but we can also see that his actions make sense in-universe.
So yes, he’s obvious to us, the viewers, but he’s not at all obvious to the characters in the story, and there’s a whole world of difference between the two. If Unalaq was acting like an obvious villain inside the story, then yes, I’d have a problem with that as well, but the thing is, to anyone not watching this through a screen, he appears completely different!

The main problem here seems to be, that most people can’t seem to think with another person’s head, even though enjoying a story to it’s full extent would require you to be able to put yourself into the shoes of the characters. And yet, most of the time, these kind of complaints originate simply because the viewer can’t break away from his own reality – meaning, that when he watches the show, he judges the characters and their actions with all the information he has, instead of judiging the character with all the information the character has, and once again, that can make a whole world of a difference!

But, if you look at Unalaq and his actions from say, Korra’s point of view, then things get a whole different meaning, because Korra does not know everything we do, and she does not feel what we feel. So how does she sees his uncle in the beginning?

We learn in the first few minutes of the season, that Korra is frustrated, because ever since she beat Amon, she has been training and training with Tenzin, and it starts getting on her nerves, because she feels like she’s not being treated the way she would deserve to be treated. Now, we as the viewers know, that Tenzin only means well, and that yes, Korra has still some maturing to do, but let’s be honest, Tenzin is trying to train and treat Korra the same way he trained his kids – who had a whole different upbringing and a whole different personality. That dry, killjoy attitude isn’t really the best to have around a fiery, young girl like Korra, especially not at the given time. From her point of view, she just saved everyone, and she also mastered the last remaining element and the Avatar State as well. And now she wants to be treated like the Avatar she became. But Tenzin’s dealing with her all wrong. Not because he means ill, but because he’s not used to training someone like Korra, and because he knows, that it’s important for the Avatar to learn self-control and spirituality as well. And he’s right about that.
But the way he goes around it is all wrong, because it makes Korra feel unappreatiated, it makes her feel like she’s being treated like a stupid kid instead of the Avatar. And since the whole of Korra’s personality is first and foremost is defined by her being the Avatar, that makes her feel weak, and vulnerable. But Korra’s been preparing to be the Avatar all her life, so she must be strong, she can’t afford to be weak, so she masks her vulnerability and insecurity with anger.
And then, when she tries to open up about this to her boyfriend, she does not get the right response, so she feels insecure and frustrated even more…
And why wouldn’t she? Especially from her point of view, with having nothing, but her own life experience to depend on? She’s the Avatar, she’s mastered all four elements, she learned to control the Avatar State, learned the ways of energybending, and prooved her metal in the face of danger, and yet, her master treats her like a little kid, always scolding her, her boyfriend doesn’t support her the way she would need, and her parents, well, they treat her like their daughter.
And what does happen then? When Unalaq meets her, he’s the only one treating her as the Avatar. He bows to her, he adresses her by her title despite being a chief himself, and he talks to her in a way, that nobody else seems to do. In short, he gives her the exact thing she missed: being treated as the Avatar she finally fully became.

And of course, we as the viewers, know that Tenzin, her parents and even Mako, they all mean well, and they do appretiate her, and they respect her, but they also know that she still has a long way to go. But Korra’s still incredibly young to walk around with the responsibility of being a God basically, especially with her upbringing, so to her, it will feel completely different. To us, Unalaq is suspicious at this point, for having full trust in someone who’s still in training, but to Korra, that must feel incredibly reassuring, that there’s someone, who treats her like that, despite being a chief and an accomplished bending master himself.

But it doesn’t stop there. Unalaq uses a diabolic mixture of truth and lies in order to bind her to himself, while also separating her from everyone else. And he does so in a manner, that in-universe, doesn’t even seem evil, because pretty much everything he says, is true. It’s just the circumstances he say them in, what makes it suspicious to us – and even that is only true, because we know, that the show won’t make Tenzin, the son of Aang the bad guy, and they won’t make her parents bad guys either. They won’t even make Mako the bad guy. We know that, because we know, that from a storytelling perspective, that’s just how it is. But she doesn’t know that. To her, it’s not a story, where you can decude things like fans do. To her, it’s the reality, and she can’t trust anyone blindly, just like we can’t know for sure in our real life, wheter a person is truly on our side or not. There are no guarantees. Nobody caries a “bad guy” namecard.

And Unalaq is a true master at manipulating people. He starts off by simply threating Korra the way he knows she wants to be treated, then he makes little comments, like “every Avatar was allowed to travel the world before you“, and “the Avatar should be able to choose her master“, and so forth… Which is all true, technically. That’s the genius of it, he’s not even lying. And he’s not even wrong. He’s simply exploiting the questionable choices Tenzin and Tonraq made in the past. And he’s rather subtle about it too. He’s not saying, that they did it because they don’t trust her, or because they think they know better, he leaves it to Korra to come to that conclusion… He’s just planting little seeds of doubt all over her mind, without actually telling a lie or implying that he’s right and the others are wrong… So to Korra, it all seems like she just found a kindred spirit, who won’t tell her what to do, but who respects her immensely.

Then, when he already planted enough doubts into Korra’s head, he’ll drop the first bomb, and let it slip that it was Tenzin and Tonraq, and not Aang, who ordered Korra to be locked up in the Northern Water Tribe all her childhood. Which is – again – , not a lie, but the bare truth. But it’s still more devastating, than any lie could have been, because he knows, that Tonraq won’t deny it, and thus, it will leave Korra doubting them even more.

Then, when the dark spirit attacks, he waits until both Tonraq and Tenzin get their butts handed to them, only to swoop in at the exact right time, and perform some miraculous feat neither of them could do. And the best part? It’s not a violent technique, not a show-off performance, but a smooth, gentle spiritbending move, that both looks and feels like it was performed by the calmest, wisest man in the world… So not only did he proove, that he is better than both Tonraq and Tenzin, but that he’s better than them in the spiritual area. Which was supposed to be Tenzin’s field of experties, and it was also the subject he always scolded Korar the most for, telling her, that she needs to learn self-control and spirituality. And Unalaq just upstaged him there effortlessly. Which, of course, would leave Korra to think, that she’s been following the wrong master all along. Add in everything beforehand, and you can understand, why Korra would want to follow the guy, who showed her his respects and just prooved that he knows everything she still needs to learn, instead of the people, who just prooved to be inferior to him in both combat and spirituality (or so it seems), the same people, who – as she recently found out – have been holding her back and making her decisions all her life in her stead. Of course she’s going to choose him as her new mentor.
And it doesn’t stop there, no, the final nail in the coffing still needs to be struck in. Unalaq’s not bringing up that he wants to train her – he let’s her ask him about his technique, and he says that it would be an honor for him to teach her. He doesn’t say, that she needs to learn it, he says it would be his honor to be her mentor… Meanwhile, Tonraq and Tenzin insist on keeping Korra out of his reach, and they try to make the decision for her – again. And that’s the final nail…
Korra asks him to teach her, and all he had to do was to tell the truth, and exploit the weaknesses of others through mere psychological means. If that’s not ingenious, then I don’t know what is.

Disappearing_spirit

But does he stop there? Not a chance. He uses every opportunity to create a rift between Korra and Tenzin/Tonraq, and he does so with the utmost finesse. He keeps telling Korra what she wants to hear, he does not stop Tonraq from comming with them (just to show that he’s the bigger man, and unlike Tonraq did with Korra, he’s not pushing his own will on others, even though the opposite is the truth), just to use this against him later on, when he waits for the spirit attack, so afterwards he can not only blame it on Tonraq, but also reveal the fact that he was banished, amplyfing the rift between Korra and her father even further, to the point where she sends him away. Then, he tells Korra the exact things she needs to succeed, even gives her an “I believe in You” peptalk, and it all works out just like he said it would. So when his troops arrive, he already has Korra convinced enough, that Unalaq’s way is the right path to choose, as he is a man of wisdom and peace.

Again – at this point, to us, it might be obvious, that he’s the bad guy, since he puts people like Tenzin – who we know is a good guy – in a bad light,  and he creates conflicts, but in-universe, things look completely different.

So after Korra has to choose sides in the impending war, she chooses to believe Unalaq, because, well, why shouldn’t she at this point? Her whole world has been thorn apart, and the only one who seems to be on her side is her uncle. So she goes through some incredibly emotional events, when she thinks she has to put down her own father, and just when she goes home and would make peace with her parents, Unalaq sweeps in again with a perfect excuse, and pulls them apart again. And the diabolical about it is, that his claim that Tonraq might be conspiring against him makes perfect sense in-universe, so when after that, he’s seemingly willing to put the decision into someone else’s hand, and then, when Tonraq is sentenced to death, he even helps his brother by talking the judge into showing him mercy and instead of killing him, just sending him to prison. And so he killed two birds with one stone. Got rid of Tonraq for good while maintaining and even strenghtening his bond with Korra.

So basically, he destroys Korra completely, and all that from within, with diabolical cunning and without mercy. So when Korra finally finds out the truth, it’s more than just a little personal. Not to mention all the great emotional turmoil leading up to this point. And even after the cat’s out of the bag, he still has the advantage that he tore Korra’s world apart with both lies and the truth, making it extremely hard for her to trust anyone, as we saw in her agitated behaviour that lasted until Beginnings.

So just like Amon did before him, he also managed to be more than just a faceless enemy, not only by becomming an Anti-Avatar, but also by making their feud so painfully personal. That’s the mark of a great villain.

Powers

Unalaq is a master waterbender, one of the best in the world. Of couse, he’s not quite as strong as Korra herself, or members of Yakone’s bloodline, which seemingly puts him at a disadvantage, both in-universe and storytelling-wise. What do I mean by that? Well, normally, when you’re creating a new villain for the next story-arc, you should aim for him to be stronger and more dangerous, than the last one. Now, Unalaq faces quite a unique problem in that department. He’s the next villain in a story that was supposed to come to it’s end last season. And the writers kind of went all out by creating Amon, who was extremely intelligent, scary, an excellent hand-to-hand combatant, a chi blocker, and also a bloodbender of such level that never existed in the world before, with completely unique ablities and a power level that only the Avatar State could stop. You can tell, they meant him to be  the be-all-end-all villain of the Avatar franchise, the ultimate opponent to overcome. Not only that, but after Book I, Korra also became a fully realised Avatar, having mastered not only the four elements, but also energybending and the Avatar State. As far as the Avatar universe goes, that means you’re invincible.
So not only was there the problem, that they somehow needed to upstage Amon in term of abilities, but they also had to make sure that he can pose a threat to a being that can easily beat everything in her world… Quite the obsticle to overcome.

So what was the solution? Luckily, they didn’t go the DragonBall Z route by making Unalaq simply an even stronger bender then Amon was with zero sense behind it, which was my fear before Book II came out. What they did instead, was making him an impressive waterbender, but nowhere near Amon’s or even Tarrlok’s level, to keep it realistic. But, they gave him a unique power as well – spiritbending. Which was not only new and made him distinctive, but they also waved it neatly into the storyline. And last but not least, it was a power that made sense for him to have, since his whole character was built up on the idea that he spent his whole life learning about spirits, so it was in line with his character to have an ability he invented through many years of training and learning about the spirits –  unlike Zaheer, who just learned a haiku and got the ability of flight he did not even invent at his very first try…

C

But would that be enough for him to be an impressive villain? Maybe, since he compensated fairly well with his intellect, and he still got some rather impressive fight scenes, although in a toe-to-toe match he outright lost to Korra – as he should. None the less, while it would not have made him a bad villain, it would still have felt like a step back from Amon, if in the end, he couldn’t pose an actual, physical threat to the Avatar. But how do you hope to defeat a being who has no equal in this world? Well, the anser was – by creating an enemy not from this world. And since at this point, the Spirit World was rather underdeveloped, they had  the creative freedom to not only tell of the origins of the Avatar cycle, but to also create a spirit strong enough to challenge even the Avatar, without it begging the question “Oh yeah, last time you said they didn’t have spirits that strong” or “Where was this guy all along?!“, which was the best and only way to go in my opinion. It was a new idea as well, because we never had a spirit being the main villain, nor did we have anyone who could stand up in a battle against a fully realised Avatar.

Also, much like Amon was the antithesis of Korra (bending/anti-bending), due to Vatuu’s backstory, Unalaq also became the very opposite of the Avatar. The Anti-Avatar, if you will. You couldn’t get a more “final villain type of villain” for this universe. Thus, Unalaq was able to give Korra a worthy battle, without resorting to incredibly forced scenarious with plot holes the size of Ba Sing Sei (looking at you, Book III and IV), making him the strongest villain ever to appear in the Avatar universe.

Accomplishments

Most of Unalaq’s accomplishments came from his cunning use of manipulation. He was able to get his older brother banished to seize the throne by exploiting his weakness of being hotheaded. Later, he turned the Avatar against her father and former mentor in much the same manner, tricking Korra into opening the Southern Spirit Portal for him.
When Korra found out about the truth, he was levelheaded enough to keep the upper hand, and play on Korra’s temper to stall her until he got Tonraq far enough to blackmail Korra with him. During book II, he was constantly shown to be able to outsmart almost everyone, both men and spirits alike, and when deception failed, he was willing to blackmail people into doing what he wanted, such as when he threatened to kill Jinora, unless Korra opened the Northern Spirit Portal as well.
After mergin with Vatuu, he became the most powerful antagonist in the series, and managed to battle and even defeat Korra – something Vatuu on his own failed to do – , ripping the spirit of Raava out of her, destorying all past Avatars in the process. Even after Korra managed to unleash her own inner spiritual energies, he could hold his own against her, until he was finally killed by his niece using his own technique.
Aside from his misdeeds, Unalaq was also deeply familiar with the Spirits and their ways, to the point where he created and mastered spiritbending itself. He also was wise enough not to run into situations unprepared and always had a plan ready to assure his success.

Conclusion

All things considered, though he did not leave me quite as impressed as his predecessor, Unalaq was a worthy successor to Amon, and paired with Vatuu, would have been a great ultimate villain for the Avatar franchise.
He also had all the needed ingredients to fulfill the duties of a main villain – he was cunning, deceitful, and determined, we knew enough about his past to understand his motivations, he had a personal and intense connection with the protagonist, and he was powerful enough to pose a real threat to Korra. Not only was he able to defeat the Avatar in her prime, he managed to cause lasting damage to her by erasing her past lives and almost killing Raava, an issue that was not resolved even at the very end of the series.  And while he shares many similarities with Tarrlok, they also have many differences, making Unalaq unique enough on his own as a character.

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