A:TLA/TLOK: My views on the "Unalaq Question".

So, I have been busting my head until a few months ago, on a very polarising issue which I'm sure everyone who's debated Avatar for a decent enough time has come by; the apparent power level increase Unalaq went through upon fusing with Vaatu and becoming the dark counterpart of the Avatar. After going through the entire second book of Korra twice, researching a few different sources, I am about 99% certain that this theory holds up, to the point where I am actually surprised I've not seen anyone bring it up as a probability before today. In any case, I'll first present the issue and talk about the opinions on it that I've seen to this day.

First, let us take a look at some of Unalaq's combat scenes during the second book, prior to Darkness Falls, where he finally achieved fusion with the spirit of chaos, Vaatu. His first major fight sequence came in surprisingly late in the season. While attacking the Southern Tribe with Eska and Desna, his troops and the legions of dark spirits he controlled, he came face to face with his own brother, Tonraq.

Book 2: Night of a Thousand Stars
Book 2: Night of a Thousand Stars

Now, it became clear throughout the entire duel that Unalaq was the superior bender. He even lets Tonraq know that he is too strong for him in the beginning of the exchange. His waterbending is more powerful, and his style is more refined. Tonraq ends up frozen solid and hospitalised. And yet he still came inches from winning, painted all over Unalaq's expression of worry, and subsequent relief, as cold sweat runs down his face.

Book 2: Night of a Thousand Stars
Book 2: Night of a Thousand Stars

In fact, the artbook for Spirits itself states:

"[...] This was written as a quick takedown by Unalaq, who takes advantage of the fact that his brother has already exhausted a good portion of his strength in the earlier battle with the dark spirits. I quickly evolved it into something bigger. [...]"

Joaquim Dos Santos (The Legend of Korra: Art of the Animated Series - Book 2: Spirits)

In an earlier draft of this fight scene, Unalaq won by taking advantage of Tonraq being tired after fighting his army. Let me be clear: Tonraq is not a bad fighter. He is a decent waterbender, and a hardcore warrior. But he is not an Avatar level threat whatsoever; what we saw Unalaq being in this duel isn't consistent with his performance against Avatar Korra later this season. Which brings us to a next battle I'd like to take note of, him fighting Mako and Bolin in the Spirit world.

Book 2: Harmonic Convergence
Book 2: Harmonic Convergence

Keep in mind that Unalaq is fighting for the sake of achieving his entire life's goal here, let Vaatu free and fuse with him. He knows Korra is trying to close the spirit portals to prevent them from merging and giving Vaatu enough power to escape the Tree of Time, and he knows Mako and Bolin are the only thing in his way to stopping her. He won't get another chance after this. And yes, Unalaq actually appears to have the advantage in this battle with the brothers -- even if we don't see the end of the fight on screen. But the bottom line is, he does not actually display the prowess of a waterbending grandmaster capable of fighting the Avatar. He is throwing blasts of water that are of equal power to Bolin's earthbending, and mostly outreacts them, properly defends against them, in a battle that lasts a total of over 30 seconds, over half a minute. Frankly, that is a lot for someone who can supposedly hold his own against the Avatar State. Mako and Bolin are, much like Tonraq, decent fighters, but that's how far you could go.

Do not get me wrong here, even before his fusion with Vaatu, Unalaq demonstrated impressive mastery over waterbending. He could bend strong amounts of water, in many of its forms, he could execute highily complex icebending techniques, he could hold off a firebending Korra and Mako using nothing but a water skin, and if nothing else, he is the inventor of spirit-bending. But this is not the same man that could fight on par with Avatar Korra:

Book 2: Darkness Falls
Book 2: Darkness Falls

This remains one of the highest scale battles we've seen in Korra's era. Both Avatars have summoned elemental spouts of massive size and maneuverability to fight on, and Korra regularly enters the Avatar State to do her bidding, which Unalaq perfectly responds to, every time -- yes, this is the man who couldn't shatter Bolin's earth wall without his own water blast dispersing. He actually manages to overpower Korra a number of times, and even takes her down and almost burries her deep inside the permafrost. Lord knows how much power it took to do this.

Undoubtedly, the setting favors waterbending; most of the battle took place outside the Spirit world, in the South Pole. The snowy environment and high temperature are ideal for Unalaq -- and Korra too, however -- but this display of power stands tiers ahead of what we saw Unalaq do throughout the rest of the season. Now, I've seen quite a few questionable opinions and/or justifications for this power level curve in the past. There's three generally accepted views, which each of us -- myself included -- more or less went by:

  1. Unalaq fusing with Vaatu increased his power by default. As the all-powerful dark counterpart of Raava, a healthy boost in bending prowess is to be expected, apparently.
  2. Unalaq was never pressed enough to go all out prior to his battle with Avatar Korra, as he never fought an opponent worthy of his abilities until then.
  3. Unalaq, having unparalleled spiritual knowledge and connection, and having fused with Vaatu, was in complete control over the dark counterpart of the Avatar State, and utilised it to its fullest from start to finish to fight on par with Korra.

I'll be bland with the first stance: there's absolutely no evidence supporting this. Not just ample, actual evidence, but even in theory, it simply doesn't hold up. It is an entirely fan-made perception that Raava, and by extent Vaatu, offer a power boost to the bender. I will agree with the view that the Avatars are benders with the highest of potential. But other benders, who aren't Avatars, are also prodigious and have potential as much as any Avatar, with their elements that is. Beyond that, potential is not to be mistaken for an automatic power boost. If Avatars had a default increase in power simply on account of Raava being inside them, without entering the Avatar State, then no other bender would be capable of matching them, which, needless to say, is completely, canonically, inaccurate.

The third option is potentially the most logical, or understandable, but equally invalid. Unalaq was one of the most spiritually gifted individuals in the world, and he had studied the spirits his entire life. Avatar Korra could only dream of matching him on that department. We also see Unalaq entering a prolonged Dark Avatar State in the beginning of the battle, so some would argue this gave him lasting power for the rest of the sequence. Now, outside of the fact that this blatantly doesn't follow the established rules of the Avatar State at all, there's other factors to consider here too: for one, why would Unalaq have to enter the Dark Avatar State again later on in the battle when he was pressed? Some have also said that he simply used the Dark Avatar State plentiful off-screen, or in moments where we didn't have a clear view of his face. However, under the effects of the Dark Avatar State, Unalaq's waterbending was colored with a darker tone, somewhat matching the purple of his eyes too, and this was only the case when we explicitly saw him use this power, in the beginning and end of the battle. I therefore see no reason to assume he wasn't fighting under his own, "base", power for the rest of the scene. Such an assumption would also be reaching for fairly obvious reasons. I want to be clear here too, Korra was entering the Avatar State for brief power boosts at times, but Unalaq did not seem to be doing so.

As for the second stance, this was the one I'd adopted for so long. Afterall, it is the most convenient. But it really doesn't hold up in the end. Unalaq was a pretty intelligent villain, he would never risk sacrificing his beliefs and world view over a petty -- by comparison -- sibling rivalry. He also wouldn't waste time fighting Korra's little pro bending pals and giving her the opportunity to stop him from fusing with Vaatu and become the Dark Avatar. It is painfully obvious at this point that this would be, at best, out of character for him. And of course, the Unalaq of the final battle would not have allowed for this to happen, either.

So then what did make him so powerful?

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I reached my conclusions after focusing a little bit more on the setting of the battle, instead of the characters themselves. Unalaq has fused with Vaatu. The battle starts inside the Spirit World in front of the Tree of Time, and escalates when Korra and Unalaq go through the southern portal and back into the physical world. This all happens during the Harmonic Convergence, the phenomenon that occurs once every 10,000 years, and Korra tried to prevent, but failed.

My first, kind of, food for thought was when I was listening to the Creator's Commentary for the episode by Mike and Bryan. Bryan took note of the sky's colors during the battle, as we see the fight moving from the spirit world to the physical world. He commented on how interesting it was that the sky looked the exact same both in the spirit and the physical world for once, and how unusual it looked for the latter, because of the Harmonic Convergence. What happens during that time is that the planets align, and spiritual energy is greatly amplified. This amplification is visually portrayed in the form of the spirit lights (like a visible aura) covering the entire planet:

Book 2: Harmonic Convergence
Book 2: Harmonic Convergence

Let us look at the established effects the Harmonic Convergence had on humans and spirits alike; the southern and northern portals merge, and Raava and Vaatu become more powerful than ever. Before Wan's time, this meant that Raava had to battle Vaatu and force him to submission until the next Harmonic Convergence, so that light would prevent over darkness, and peace would prevent over chaos in the universe. Once Raava fused with the spirit of the Avatar, it meant that the Avatar themselves had to fight Vaatu every 10,000 years, and lock him inside the Tree of Time. During the Harmonic Convergence, Vaatu becomes powerful enough to break out of the Tree of Time. And this was Unalaq's plan all along -- to be there, next to the Tree of Time during that moment, when Vaatu was powerful enough to break out, and fuse with him to become the Dark Avatar.

As a sidenote, another showcase of the boost in spiritual energy was Jinora's spiritual projection. As she herself mentioned, it isn't normally as powerful as it was during the Harmonic Convergence. And also take note of the gradual increase in intensity of the aura around Vaatu's body, as the Convergence is about to begin.

But how does all this fit in Unalaq's power boost? At this point, it's good to remember that the gift of bending is a spiritual one. And while this doesn't mean that the average bender and their power would be affected by the Harmonic Convergence, just as the average spirit and their power isn't affected, the (Dark) Avatar and their power should be affected, in the same way that Raava and Vaatu are affected. It all became very clear to me when I looked back into a very, very crucial story point of the second book: how Raava and the Avatar are essentially one, permanently fused. And in the same way, Unalaq was, by that point, permanently fused with Vaatu. In fact, he initiates the battle in question with this:

"We are now one."

Unalaq (The Legend of Korra, Book 2: Spirits, "Darkness Falls")

It was a powerfully delivered line. Basically, it is clear to me that the reason Unalaq was more powerful during that battle was this. In the same way Raava and Vaatu were stronger, Korra and Unalaq also were. So, in a way, you could say it was because he fused with Vaatu. But it is all a matter of timing too; if it weren't for the Harmonic Convergence, his power level without abusing the Dark Avatar State would likely remain the same as before.

This is my take on the whole issue. I really hope I shed some new light on the subject, and I'd like to discuss it with y'all in case I missed something, or didn't consider it. Unalaq is often used in VS battles, and in quite controversial ways at that. Not everyone will agree with this, but it is by far the most plausible theory I can think of on the matter. And frankly, it is the only one I've seen so far that's supported by actual evidence and not pure speculation. In any case, it might spark some conversation!

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