Baatar Jris pretty severely disliked but really has a very tragic and one of the most subtly developed backstories of the series. It’s mostly framed by how his family’s denial serves to push him closer to Kuvira, a move which reinforces his commitment to her cause in a very questionable way.
The very first we see of Baatar in Book 4 is literally just him being associated with Kuvira, which already sets us up to consider him a “villain”, although in “After All These Years” it’s hard to instantly tell Kuvira’s motivations–we know she’s definitely not messing around, but there’s nothing really to indicate that she’s doing anything really wrong–harsh, yes, but not wrong. The big surprise comes when we learn that she and Baatar are engaged and we get this adorable exchange:
But what really begins to take form in this episode is Baatar’s relationship with his family and how it’s changed since Book 3. Upon seeing his sister, Baatar is not hostile whatsoever and pretty nicely asks her about Suyin. It’s Opal who seems to harbor all the resentment of his “betrayal”, which is a little strange because she probably wasn’t even in Zaofu when he and Kuvira left, being part of the Air Nation and all. The weight of his action in the Beifong family is such that even she feels personally betrayed.
(If he didn’t care why would he ask in the first place…?)
The Beifongs seem to really resent Baatar for leaving Zaofu. I know Suyin was pretty angry at Kuvira for leaving, but at that point she really had no right to be. Kuvira and Baatar were leaving for legitimate reasons, and while they might have taken most of the guard with them, everyone left because they wanted to. It’s Suyin who takes this as an offense, an act which is very consistent with her character. Family is everything to Su–it’s what she built Zaofu to center around, and what she ultimately realized was her goal after years of a troubled childhood. When it comes to Zaofu and especially her family, she doesn’t take anything lightly. It’s probably very difficult for her to accept that her son and her protégé could ever find anything wrong with Zaofu to the point where they leave it altogether. Her family and Zaofu are two aspects that she considers unquestionably good, and this betrayal does not sit well at all with her.
Like the guard from Book 3, Suyin is hell bent on condemning Kuvira’s “betrayal”, and consequently Baatar’s as well. His motivation for leaving, however, has nothing to do with “betrayal”. Baatar’s driving motivation is change–he doesn’t want to “go on living in his father’s shadow” anymore. He obviously wants to be his own person, dropping “Junior” from his name in the interest of actually achieving this goal. Even though literally everyone (except Kuvira) ignores this in the interest of spiting him, it takes on a totally different meaning when his own parents refuse to do it as well.
(I know this is before he says “It’s just Baatar now”, but his tone of voice makes it sound like he’s told her this before)
This is an example of just what exactly their treatment of him in Zaofu must have been like. When he fit into his role as his father’s son: Baatar Jr., the engineer, everything was peachy keen. Once he makes his own choice to join Kuvira in stabilizing the Earth Kingdom, however, putting his talents to a different and arguably more just cause, he’s labeled a traitor, his choice (probably one of the first big decisions he’s made in his life) labeled “betrayal” by his sister and indirectly his mother. His desire to become a new person, no longer living in the shadow of his father, is completely invalidated by his family. This is clearly shown in Suyin and Baatar Sr.’s actions: by emphasizing the “Junior” he so desperately wants eliminated from his name, they show their refusal to recognize him as anything but a carbon copy of his father.
He explicitly tells them that “living in his father’s shadow” is the last thing he wants to do with his life, and yet Su completely ignores him and tells Baatar that the real problem is that Kuvira “brainwashed” him. Baatar Sr. looks at least a little surprised in this moment, but Su completely brushes aside Baatar’s actual feelings and acts like he isn’t an adult capable of making his own decisions. His entire family basically shuns him the minute he decides to do something on his own.This has to be a pretty big deal for him, especially since Su’s side of the Beifong family emphasizes the strength of family over everything else. Indeed, he seems to be seeking approval for his actions on more than one occasion, but his family can’t see past his association with Kuvira to realize this.
When he directly gives Suyin the chance to validate his choice, she completely shuts him down. At this point, Su is still too angry to see past Kuvira’s and his betrayal–which she eventually does, as we’ll see later. Her refusal now, however, only serves to strengthen Baatar’s resolve.
By “Enemy at the Gates”, there’s still a part of Baatar that thinks somehow his parents will come around. Once Kuvira takes Zaofu, the ultimate show of her power and accomplishment, Baatar expects his Huan and Baatar Sr. to bow like the rest of the population, at least externally recognizing what he’s indirectly accomplished.
Things have escalated far too highly for this to even be an option, however, and Baatar Sr. shuts him down the final time, saying “I’m so disappointed in you, Junior”. This is the final straw–Baatar can no longer ignore the fact that his family will never accept him. Pride and temper on both sides leads to this final culmination. Baatar’s anger is a response to the hurt he feels by being denied. The more his family antagonizes him, the more committed Baatar becomes to Kuvira’s cause–not necessarily for the right reasons, as we see in “Kuvira’s Gambit”. Baatar finally solidifies his commitment to Kuvira, as if it wasn’t already strong enough, after his father’s words.
The fact that he acts pretty antagonistically towards his family members isn’t just because he’s being a dick. They make him out to be “the bad guy”, so that’s what he becomes, enforcing his commitment to Kuvira’s cause. He no longer feels accepted by his family and thus further estranges himself.
Indeed, it seems as though his desire for change which initially estranged him took root long before. The resentment he’s harbored towards Zaofu and his family shapes his actions but can’t fully disguise the fact that he still puts stock in the idea of family.
The fact that he says “long ago” indicates that he’s felt out of place in Zaofu for a while, precluding his departure with Kuvira. He could have said “three years ago” or “since we left”, but he specifically says “long ago”, as if Zaofu stopped feeling like a place where he felt at home before he actually leaves.
However, his commitment to family isn’t weakened, just transferred. Growing up in a family environment like the one Su maintains, where family is the most important aspect, isn’t a value that just simply vanishes.
The difference between these two instances is the difference between Baatar’s outer feelings of resentment and his inner feelings of belonging, which is shown when he’s at his most emotionally open. Zaofu is still a place where he can be at home–with Kuvira, he can regain the sense of family that is being denied to him by his actual blood relations. He never abandons his connection to the idea of family–it just shifts in order to accommodate the person who is willing to show she cares for him–who he can actually consider family. When he says “Let’s go back home and get married”, it’s clear that Zaofu is still a place he can feel at home, contrary to his statement above, and it’s just that he can no longer feel at home there with his family who time and time again refuses to accept him as he wants to be.
His commitment to the cause is therefore mostly based on his commitment to Kuvira, but even though he’s angry to the point where he’s forsaken his family, internally he still loves them. I’m not going to pretend he doesn’t take this to a hypocritical and somewhat questionable extent–apparently chaining Zhu Li up to be blown up by super weapon blast is fine with him, but when Opal gets in the way, the test needs to be stopped immediately. He’s perfectly fine making sacrifices when no one he’s personally invested in is involved. This is, however, a perfect example of how his belief in Kuvira’s cause is mostly based on devotion to Kuvira, which comes to a head in “Kuvira’s Gambit”.
It’s also in “Kuvira’s Gambit” that Suyin has finally seemed to actually begin to understand Baatar. Her plea to him might have worked, too, if it hadn’t come so late in the game (or if it had included Kuvira).
This is where we come to one of the most heartbreaking points in Baatar’s story. Suyin is still unsure of what actually prompted his desire to leave, but she appeals to him by letting him know that regardless of his motives, their family was heartbroken when he left. Just look at Wing, Wei, and Opal! Wing and Wei both have angry, defiant expressions, and Opal simply looks sad. Although hurt, they still lost their big brother. Suyin conveys to Baatar that she wants to reconcile with him while simultaneously recognizing that he had motives for leaving. She finally recognizes him as separate from the standard she clung so desperately to before. He isn’t “Baatar Jr.” anymore, and Su is genuinely trying to understand him. When she says “Stop all of this and come home. We want you with us”, it’s far more effective than earlier when Baatar Sr. said “Son, you belong here” in “Enemy at the Gates”, because she is finally telling Baatar, not Baatar Jr., that he is accepted. She wants to understand.
Suyin’s realization, while a victory, comes far too late in the game to sway him. Kuvira is the only one he considers family now–Kuvira, the only one who supported him, who actually respected his wishes, who dropped the “Junior” from his name, at a time when no one else would. She was the one who “set him free”. His family’s continued hostility only further separated him from them and gave him a newfound fervor for Kuvira’s cause. By this scene in “Kuvira’s Gambit” Baatar wants his family’s acceptance desperately but has been denied it time and time again. He’s found a new family–Kuvira–and by the time his mother finally understands this it’s too late. He’s done trying to win their acceptance. Suyin’s reaction is what is so incredibly heartbreaking–she has literally played her last card too late in the game to save him. It’s Korra who realizes that the only way to break him is to appeal to the one thing he’s placed all of his self-worth and care into: his relationship with Kuvira.
This cycle of resentment and anger has only pushed Baatar to bolster Kuvira’s cause for the wrong reasons–devotion to Kuvira herself instead of Kuvira’s actual goal. He deludes himself into thinking that she has the same type of misdirected drive.
Those three words are the sound of the beliefs he’s built up over the past three years shattering in the blast of the spirit weapon: his belief in Kuvira, his belief in family, and frankly his belief in himself.
The stock he’s put into his relationship with Kuvira is shattered, and Baatar finally realizes where all his misplaced fervor for her cause has brought him. He ignored the more questionable things going on in the Earth Empire in order to align his vision of what is right with what was really going on.
He can no longer blindly put all his faith into Kuvira and justify going along with the things she is personally willing to do and capable of, because honestly his will and drive were never as strong as Kuvira’s. (Are anyone’s?) Without this outer justification, there’s nothing he can do to save her except try and help stop her. He only gives Mako and Bolin the directions to cut the power to the suit, the only way he can help stop her without putting her life in danger.
Baatar’s ending, however, is ultimately unresolved. Suyin seems extremely inclined to grant him forgiveness and “work things out”, which is super double standard-y of her, but we don’t know what Baatar himself will actually do. It seems inconceivable that he can ignore his actions following the jarring events of “Kuvira’s Gambit”, which forced him to realize how far he had gone for the wrong reasons. There is no telling how he will deal with his transgressions, especially in light of his mother’s proclivity for forgiveness, but hopefully through all the anger and misperception he can finally be able to reconcile who he was with who he wants to be.