One thing that Avatar has always been great at is creating various parallels between opposing characters. In Avatar: the Last Airbender, this happened throughout the series in the comparison and contrast between Aang the Avatar and the exiled Prince Zuko who sought to capture him. In Legend of Korra, it’s less of an ongoing theme, but it comes into play in a big way in the finale.
Korra and Noatok
Let’s get this out of the way first, because it’s the most obvious. Korra and teenaged Noatok are almost identical in terms of design. In terms of looks, he might as well be a male Korra, and he’s posed in ways that make the similarities even more apparent.
They even brood the same way!
Noatok, like Korra, is a prodigy who comes to realize that skill alone is not enough to deal with the expectations that are put on him. Like Korra, he builds his entire identity around a power that he believes to be rightfully his rather than crafting a self-image as a person outside of that power.
And, like Korra, that identity comes crashing to the ground in the finale, leaving him with nothing. He loses his followers and influence, and his brother — the last remnant of his former life to whom he returns to after everything is lost — chooses to blow the both of them sky-high rather than accept him back.
In the end, his final tear parallels Korra’s own just before he succumbs to the explosion that takes his life.
Villain and hero alike look the same in despair
Noatok and Tarrlok
The second pair of obvious parallels in the finale exists between the two Bloodbending brothers themselves.
Who knew these adorable kids would grow up to almost destroy a city?
They’re both raised by the same horrible father with the same horrible expectations, even if those expectations affected them differently. They both started out empathetic, turned cold, and became capable of acts of unspeakable cruelty in spite of their inherently decent natures.
And, in the end, they both did exactly as their father Yakone had trained them to do in spite of the opposite paths they took to distance themselves as far from him as possible — Noatok became a Communist-style “savior of the common man” to destroy the bending abilities that he blamed for his father’s abuse of himself and his brother, and Tarrlok became a Fascist-style Councilman to stamp out the criminality that his father embodied through any means necessary, but they both ended up attempting to take over Republic City in the end just as Yakone would have wanted.
By their final scene in the boat, they’ve both lost everything they ever worked for. Noatok runs back to his prisoner Tarrlok, just as Tarrlok ran back to Korra when everything fell apart for him. He states his plans to run away and create a new life just as Tarrlok did after his attempt to keep his illegal use of bloodbending a secret blew up around him, and just as Yakone did when his own crimes were found out. And, judging by the tear Noatok sheds, they both probably realize that “just like old times” is completely impossible for them whether they survive or not.
Tarrlok and Korra
Now, this parallel is one that isn’t entirely contained in the finale. In fact, it starts out a few episodes earlier when they face off against each other in combat.
It’s Tarrlok himself who makes the first comparison, claiming admiration for Korra’s own willingness to go to extremes to get what she wants. He brushes off her claims that he bullies and threatens others to gain their support by telling her that’s the exact same thing she’s doing herself at that very moment.
And then Korra attacks back by making the same kind of accusative comparison between himself and Amon, and everything falls apart.
Extremes tend to meet when both sides lose control
Both Korra and Tarrlok are fighting in completely irrational states, overcome by their own anger and hatred of the words spoken by the other. When they lose themselves in the heat of battle, they’re both equally terrifying; when they realize the true strength of their enemy, they’re both equally terrified.
Neither villain and hero look so different when afraid for their lives
In the end, Tarrlok captures Korra but loses everything he’s worked for in the process. He’s forced to bloodbend (which he clearly hates doing) to detain Korra, possibly for the first time since Noatok ran away, and forced to do it a second time when his actions are found out. He ends up running back to Korra and using his own prisoner to vent to about his failure, at which point Amon finds him, takes his bending away, and imprisons him, completing his loss. By the finale, just like Korra, his entire identity has been taken away from him, and he’s clearly in despair even before he decides that both he and his brother need to die.
Despair’s Final Payoff
By the end of the fight between Korra and Noatok, all three waterbenders have lost their entire identities, with everything they’ve worked their entire lives destroyed before their eyes. Each of them have one thing left — for Noatok and Tarrlok it’s each other, while for Korra it’s her airbending — but all three are so lost to despair that the one thing can’t even begin to compare…
…and that’s where the three parallel stories divide to show three separate reactions to that despair.
Tarrlok comes to the realization that the only thing he can still do is end his father’s legacy, so he chooses active self-destruction to rid the world of the threat his brother still poses and end his father’s influence on his own life once and for all.
Noatok realizes that he truly has nothing left, and does nothing to keep his brother from destroying both of them, passively allowing himself to be destroyed.
And Korra? Well, if Aang’s appearance at the end has anything whatsoever to do with her own decisions, she decided to keep on living in spite of her loss. Even with her identity all but gone, she chooses to survive and breaks through her spiritual block once and for all.
Tarrlok and Noatok’s story is one of tragic inevitability and the inability to change in the face of crushing loss, but Korra’s reaffirms that it’s possible for things to change for the better no matter how low they get. And that’s why I think that it’s thematically more appropriate if Korra did consider giving up and going over that cliff at the end — it would tie her story closer to that of the two brothers and highlight the fact that, in the face of despair, she made the other choice and survived.