Quote from my last review: "This stuff is interesting because nobody is straight-up evil." I expected this to bite me in the butt, but not as hard as it did.
To the surprise of nobody, Unalaq has turned out to be the villain of the season. Alright, that's fine, because you can be a villain without being a monster. Unalaq could've been the villain simply by putting too much pressure on the Southern Water Tribe and causing conflict between the people of the two tribes for the sake of the spirits. This way, viewers could side with him and understand where he's coming from, yet he could still cause a lot of problems and push Korra into her spiritual journey.
In this episode, Tonraq is thrown in prison for life after being labelled guilty by the judge of plotting to assassinate Unalaq. Then it's revealed that the judge was working for Unalaq and only sent Tonraq to prison because Unalaq wanted him out of his way. Well, alright. That's still believable. Unalaq is paranoid about Tonraq screwing things up because of what he did to the home of the spirits and how he withheld the Avatar for so long. Yet, Korra still has reason to try to save Tonraq because she knows he did nothing wrong. So this development was all-in-all a good, two-sided way to shake things up and get a war started.
But then for some reason it goes further. It's revealed that... oh goodness... it's revealed that, uh, Unalaq paid the barbarians to attack the Northern Water Tribe so that Tonraq would... destroy the forest they hid in... and be banished, so that he would not be chief and only Unalaq... would...
...why? If they had left it at "the trial was rigged", everything could still progress the same way. There was no reason to make Unalaq more evil. The thing I hate most about this development is that it takes away quite a bit of Unalaq's motivation: His care and understanding for the spirits? Obviously he doesn't care that much for them if the destruction of their sacred forest was part of his plan. His distrust of his brother and the Southern Water Tribe? He's actually glad that Tonraq doesn't care about spirits, as that put him in complete power.
And of course, the development also makes Tonraq look like a saint in comparison to Unalaq when previously they were treated as equals. The fact that Tonraq destroyed such a holy place is completely pushed aside because, oh, Unalaq made him do it. This brings me back to what I think is the worst thing about the writers of Avatar: they do not know how to make a two-sided conflict. In TLA, the war that is explored throughout the series is only ongoing because some guy wants to rule the world. In Korra Book 1, the Equalists have an excellent point about how non-benders are treated unfairly by society and the government, but all of that is invalidated because their leader is actually a lying, cheating bender. And now, this. All the antagonists are presented as if they are the evillest person in the world, with creepy faces/masks, rough voices and self-righteous demeanors, backed up with scare chords and shadowy backdrops. It's like Mike and Bryan think we have to cheer for the protagonist, like we'll be confused if in the end we don't have only one person to believe in.
Even when their villains have decent points, they try to make it so they're hard to side with not through flaws in their beliefs, but through personal flaws that should be irrelevant when it comes to such huge issues. This guy Unalaq acknowledges a whole world that has been ignored and trampled on for decades, knows how to calm its inhabitants and works to bring balance between civilization and spirituality. All of that is completely, undeniably non-evil. The only reason Unalaq is the villain is because he's selfish. Here's a question for Mike and Bryan: Will anyone ever come up in the Avatar world that strongly fights for a harsh yet ultimately good cause who doesn't come with a "but"? How come the only smart people in the world are jerks?
I could be jumping to conclusions about Tonraq being completely off the hook and Unalaq being completely on the hook though, and I hope I am. I strongly disliked the episode "Out of the Past" from Book 1 when I first saw it because it seemed as if all the build-up with Korra's visions was simply for the show to say "Tarrlok is the big evil one Korra was being warned about, now his bending is gone, let's move on". But then in the season finale, it's revealed that's actually wrong, and Tarrlok AND Amon were the ones Korra was being warned about because they both have a huge connection, and Tarrlok actually inspired Amon's actions. I hope that in future episodes of this season we learn that there's a lot more to Tonraq and Unalaq's relationship than the latest episode conveyed.
However, there's no excuses to make for the way Korra handled things in this episode. Usually I think people are exaggerating when they say Korra learns nothing and has too much attitude, and I usually side with her and understand her choices. But this time, no. She attacks a judge, causes him to crash his car and sticks his head into Naga's mouth just so that he can tell her the "truth". Because somehow she just knew that there was truth to tell. She was supremely lucky that she was right even though there was no indication she was, because if she weren't, she'd look like a monster. Attacking an innocent judge over a decision he made because you have a hunch? Well, she's the hero, so she's right. For a minute I thought the show was trying to make me be against her or convey that she was having a complete freakout until the judge actually spilled some beans.
The non-Korra family characters were handled well in this episode, though. Bolin and Varrick are still hilarious, and Eska's appearance at the end of the episode was effective considering her face hadn't really moved much until that point. Also, my complaint about the humor switching off between being held to the side and being intrusive has been addressed, as Varrick has become involved in Korra's quest, bringing Bolin along with him. Desna and Eska are gearing up to be minor villains as well.
On Tenzin's side, the little family feud was wrapped up nicely, with Tenzin acknowledging his father's faults and Bumi and Kya acknowledging how Tenzin isn't the one to blame for them. Bumi's little moment with Aang's statue where he tells him he's sorry he wasn't an airbender but has tried his best to help the world anyway was extremely poignant for such a short scene. It gives insight into Bumi's inferiority complex and motivation for being a United Forces commander. And of course, it shows how your family and those you are closest to craft your intentions and goals. Nice message. I hope that Bumi, Kya and Tenzin aren't relegated to being the goofy power trio now, though.
We'll see where things go from here, but for now I'm disappointed with the developments of this episode.