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Analysis

Korra Week: Bloodbending’s Thematic Brilliance— In Defense Of Amon’s Backstory

When The Legend of Korra Book 1 first aired in 2012, fans were terrified and intrigued by the antagonist of the season, Amon. It was generally agreed upon that he’s on par with the likes of Azula and the question of who’s behind the mask resulted in some pretty wild ideas. Soon, LoK will follow its predecessor and be available on Netflix for everyone to binge. That makes all of this strange to think about in the context of the entire series. Now Amon lives in the shadow of Korra’s other enemies and Book 1 gets so little love in general. What’s there to blame? How season one aged? That the mystery was most Amon’s appeal and with that gone he ceased to be compelling? That the Equalist movement itself died with him and without any real conclusion? Or is it that his backstory failed to live up to expectations?

There’s validity to all those points but it is Amon’s backstory that’s especially scrutinized. So let’s focus on this revelation, more specifically on him being revealed to be a bloodbender. There’s valid criticism of how bloodbending was handled, like how using it without a full moon went against what A:TLA had established or that psychic bloodbending makes no sense. The latter especially is a gripe I myself have with bloodbending in LoK, but I ultimately don’t mind it because the themes were kept consistent with what was established in Avatar. And that’s what I really want to talk about: Amon’s thematic importance.

Skeletons in the Closet

Let’s recap before we dive any deeper. Amon serves as Korra’s main antagonist and the leader of the Equalists in the first season. He’s the first in a line of enemies with valid ideas who all went too far and forced Korra to face unique challenges. In Amon’s case, his cause was equality for all and that manifested in getting rid of bending all together, which forced the bending-loving Avatar to consider her worth beyond the elements. Amon was ultimately revealed to be a hypocrite: son of infamous triad leader Yakone and a waterbender himself. But what makes Amon truly interesting is that he’s one of only five bloodbenders in the entire franchise, an ability which allowed him to take others’ bending away. Now, we could theorize on how he was able to do that but does that really matter in determining how effective he is as a character? I would argue no, it doesn’t.

Amon’s true strength as a villain is in his genuine belief that he was in the right and his tragic but inevitable fate, and his backstory as revealed in “Skeletons in the Closet” is key to this. After all the hype of who he could possibly be, the answer was underwhelming for some – just like it probably was for the Equalists themselves. A huge part of that wasn’t just that he was a bender, but a bloodbender, something that had previously been so rare and mystical. This just turned him into an overpowered, mindless maniac without any of his previously perceived complexity, or so says the criticism.

amon bloodbending

“After I take your bending away, you will be nothing.”

The Dark Side of the Moon

To understand why Amon’s more complex than that, let’s break bloodbending itself down. Let’s look at the other four bloodbenders and what their stories represent and then see how Amon/Noatak fits into that. Fundamentally, some of the misconceptions about Amon come from the same misconceptions about bloodbending, so by examining this ability we can better understand the character who uses it.

First off is Hama, the inventor herself. Hama’s story, much like that of Amon’s family, is a tragedy. She’s a victim of the Southern Water Tribe’s genocide who’s ripped away from her home and imprisoned in the Fire Nation. She discovers bloodbending out of desperation and uses it to escape but, by her own admission, feels like she doesn’t have a choice when it comes to this power and continues practicing it. She decides to target innocent civilians as a way of avenging their nation’s atrocities, perpetuating the cycle of abuse she was subjected to. What’s more, she forces Katara, the only other southern waterbender to learn the technique so the cycle can go on.

Hama appears as a dark mirror of what Katara could have become and this is made terrifyingly clear in “The Southern Raiders”. In that episode, Katara struggles with her own grief and trauma regarding the southern genocide and decides to go after her mother’s killer. During her revenge quest, she ends up bloodbending an innocent person (innocent in this context, at least) and hits her lowest point. She ultimately lets the real killer live but not before having to face her own darkness. Unlike Hama, she breaks the cycle of violence, but considering how close she came to giving in to vengeance and the role bloodbending played in this, is it any wonder she later had the practice outlawed?

bloodbending hama katara

“The choice is not yours. The power exists.”

That’s how A:TLA establishes bloodbending: tied into themes of corruption of power, revenge, and the cycle of abuse. Since LoK is often accused of retconning Avatar lore, let’s see what bloodbending signifies in the sequel series. We first find out about Tarrlok’s bloodbending in “When Extremes Meet” and the next episode tells the story of his father, Yakone, and the threat he posed to Republic City as a bloodbending criminal. Yakone gets his bending taken away by Aang and when his sons turn out to be waterbenders, he trains them specifically so they can one day avenge him. Tarrlok hates every moment he’s forced to practice bloodbending and becomes a politician later in life so he can be his father’s opposite, better than Yakone had been. Yakone terrorized and ruled the city from the shadows; Tarrlok would control right from City Hall and be the city’s hero.

The moment Tarrlok bloodbends, this falls apart. He’d been corrupt before but after manipulating and provoking Korra into a fight, he’s forced to reveal his powers and the life he constructed so carefully begins to unravel. He at least has the introspection to realize the irony of it all: he’d become just as Yakone wanted. Not only did he take control of Republic City through corruption, he did end up hurting the Avatar like his father wanted him to. As tragic as it is, no wonder he ends up making his drastic decision at the end of the season. His father ruined their family by choosing revenge and both his sons unwittingly followed.

Bloodbending seems to be pretty consistent throughout both series, at least in terms of themes even if not of power levels. One could argue that Hama had a better justification than Yakone or that Tarrlok ran away from revenge and Katara towards it yet their fates are different. At the end of the day, though, all bloodbenders struggle with the same concepts that are inherent in their technique. Absolute power is, after all, so deeply ingrained in the ability to control someone else, so it makes sense that corruption is, too. Revenge, as Aang would say, is a two-headed rat viper, and it sure looks like bloodbending is doing as much damage to the bender’s psyche as it is to the victim’s body. And finally, what bending type to best symbolize the cycle of violence if not the one where using and abusing another person is the ability? It’s arguably the most thematically consistent type of bending in the whole franchise, even if the power levels themselves vary.

amon tarrlok legend of korra

The Man Behind the Mask

So where does that leave us with Amon? Let’s consider the backstory that causes such dissatisfaction among fans. Noatak lives his early life at the North Pole as part of a happy family with father, mother, and younger brother. When he and Tarrlok discover they’re bloodbenders, their father’s attitude changes. Not only does he become more stern and downright cruel, he tells them about a forbidden ability that they must practice every full moon until they can use it at any time. The goal in all this is so they can one day take revenge on the Avatar, master of all elements, the very representation of bending itself if there ever was one. Why? Because Yakone had his bending taken away.

It’s easy to see why young Noatak would grow up to be the masked leader of the Equalists, an extremist who wants to rid the world of bending. And sure, Amon’s a hypocrite. He uses bloodbending to do to others what Aang had done to Yakone, except he doesn’t use it as a second to last resort. He creates an entirely new persona with a new tragic backstory to get people to join his cause. Like most other bloodbenders, he manipulates people without needing to bend.

Like Tarrlok, he wants to escape their father’s vision but plays right into his hands. Amon hurts Korra, almost destroys her and many others and terrorizes Republic City as Yakone had once done. He fancies himself a messiah of sorts, and though he actively rejects Yakone’s revenge narrative, he takes his own anger out on all benders. In the end, he doesn’t even get to start anew because brother realizes that they’ve been perpetuating the same cycle of abuse they wanted to escape and puts an end to it.

It’s certainly not a happy or light story. Even by LoK’s darker and edgier standards, the story of Amon and his ultimate demise is shocking and tragic. And yes, there are very valid points of criticisms regarding his storyline and abilities, some of which I have already mentioned. But much like with bloodbending itself, the thematic beauty of it all makes up for the contrivances. Here we have a terrifying antagonist who was revealed to be a traumatized boy, stuck in a cycle, choosing wrong, becoming corrupt. Falling victim to his own abilities and becoming a hypocrite despite his genuine beliefs.

amon noatak death

The End to This Sad Story

Amon could have had a different story. He had more than his fair share of fan theories back in the day and there’s still an air of mystery around some of the specifics of his life. It is, of course, perfectly fine to dislike the direction the show took and be dissatisfied with how the character’s story ended. But if there is one thing to be said about him being a bloodbender it’s that it wasn’t on a whim. Amon fits perfectly into the short line of bloodbenders of the franchise and his story further enhanced the thematic significance of this rare but fascinating ability.

For viewers that binge all of LoK, the backstory reveal might seem anticlimactic. To be honest, it kind of was even when it first aired. Is that really it, he’s another bloodbender who can somehow use it to take away your bending? And yes, that is it. It might seem simple on the surface, but there might just be more depth there if one takes a deeper look. Like with all of Korra’s antagonists, Amon had a point and he was portrayed as a flawed human being. His mystery was much of his appeal but not all of it. Now we can look back on his story, knowing both where he came from and where he ends up, and knowing how beautifully, if tragically, he fits into the show and its themes.

 

 

Images courtesy of Viacom

Author

  • Szofi

    Szofi is gradually exploring the depths of animation fandom and she is currently reviewing Doctor Who. Recent graduate, cereal enthusiast, frequent traveller.

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