Cardeas: “Humanity grew out of control and must endeavor to regain its dignity. We must revive the hope that was born one hundred years ago–”
Banagher: “…Through the potential that lies within, we will demonstrate the true power and compassion of humanity…”
Cardeas: “To transcend what is immediate, and realize our God-like potential – the greatness within us that is… possible…”
For all of Banagher’s emotional sensitivity and empathy, and despite his desire to do good by humanity, it is important to remember he is still a 17 year old kid. He begins the series with a sense of confusion over his role in life; as he says to Micott in the beginning of episode 1, “it feels like no matter what I’m doing, I don’t actually feel like I’m there.” I think this lack of purpose, coupled with his nascent Newtype abilities, is what leads him to intuitively seek out Audrey within seconds of her breaking into Industrial 7 (and ultimately save her life by doing so.)
If you read my notes on episode 04, I make it clear how stressful the responsibility of piloting a mobile suit is, especially when you’ve been pushed into doing it by your parents. It is stressful to hold that much responsibility for something we are told over and over has the potential to destroy the world. Coupled with his immaturity and angst, Banagher’s initial piloting career is not a pretty one.
In canon, the Unicorn’s “Newtype Destroyer (NT-D)” system amplifies and feeds on its pilots emotions, turning the pilot into “a processing unit for converting received psycho-waves as killing intent.” When overcome and the NT-D system is deployed, Banagher’s movements are brutal and he fights with a callous disregard for his ammo, his opponent, and his own life – behavior you wouldn’t expect out of Banagher given how gentle he normally is. It’s like he’s not even piloting the machine; and from a certain point of view he is not.
In his fight with Marida in episode 3, Banagher loses himself to the machine and his anger, and the Unicorn moves on its own to deliver a brutal beatdown – hijacking the Kshatriya’s funnels while hacking off bits and pieces of its armor, throwing away beam sabers because recovering them would slow it down, literally ripping off cables and limbs with its bare hands.
However, that moment is also when we begin to see Banagher “master” himself and the Unicorn in that episode. At first, he’s completely lost himself to the machine, giving a dead-eyed stare as the Unicorn moves in for a fatal blow against Marida’s cockpit. But in a moment of clarity brought on by connecting with Marida via his Newtype powers and catching a glimpse of how tortured her life has been, Banagher manages to come back to his senses and shuts-off the Unicorn’s beam saber. Instead embracing Marida’s suit, he gently guides it aboard the Nahel Argama. He later argues with Ensign Mihiro alongside Doctor Hasan that Marida deserved better treatment.
Marida later brings up how Banagher fought back despite being swallowed up by the machine, and that she felt “a powerful negative intent, probably the instinct of the system embedded in that Gundam to seek, hunt down and destroy Newtypes.” She also brings up the human’s ability to discern between the natural and the artificial (something that the Unicorn explicitly cannot do, as it can’t tell that Marida is a cyber-Newtype), and I think alluding to humanity’s ability to know discern other things, like right and wrong. This is a powerful statement, because it provides hope that humans can master their baser instincts by deciding what is “right” and what is “wrong” – something that Banagher goes on to do over the rest of the series.
But not before succumbing to his rage once again at the end of episode 3: after Daguza Mackle sacrifices himself to damage the Sinanju, Banagher loses himself again to the beast in the machine. Angelo calls him out as a “damn monster” in how he fights, as the Unicorn brutally destroys Neo Zeon suits without sparing a glance at them. Banagher became willing to sacrifice himself and burn up in the atmosphere for the chance to kill Full Frontal. It ended in tragedy, with Banagher accidentally killing Gilboa Sant and then going unconscious from the shock and crash-landing on Earth. Banagher goes through a period of great soul searching, culminating in a brutal walk across the deserts of North Africa and an even more brutal talk with Suberoah Zinnerman.
Banagher, inside the cockpit of the Unicorn: “I’m not the key to some box. I’m human! And you’re a machine…built to amplify human abilities. That’s what you were built for. For those of us, who can sense what’s in others’ hearts, other people’s sadness. So please…don’t let anger take control!”
When Banagher, filled with new resolve, later engages Loni Garvey and her shark-like Shamblo in episode 4, they provide a great contrast in how they fight – Loni is overcome by rage, and the Shamblo feeds on that rage to go berserk in a manner not unlike the rages Banagher was prone to before. Meanwhile, Banagher stopped himself from being consumed by the machine; he does his best to fight with his humanity, choosing to be non-violent and walking out of the cockpit in the middle of the battle to convince her of how genuine he is being. Loni, for her part, briefly lays down arms at this, but the beast inside the Shamblo has her back in its jaws when Yonem Kirks is killed trying to open an escape route for her. Ultimately, nothing Banagher could do could save her, and it is only later that he finds success in his attempts to teach the gospel of humanity and self-control.
There are very obvious visual comparisons of the Unicorn to a beast (i.e. it’s a fucking unicorn), and that extends to the nature of the RX-0 itself. Cardeas characterizes the Unicorn and its NT-D system as “no easy horse to break” in episode 01, and I’ve found that statement held a deeper meaning as the show went on. But just on a visual level, the series incorporates lots of imagery that elevates the relationship between Banagher and the RX-0 from just “a pilot and his machine”, to “a rider and his horse.” At other times, the Unicorn tries to release its NT-D system despite Banagher’s best efforts, extremely reminiscent of a spooked horse fighting against its restraints.
You can see in his earlier fights that Banagher is often literally fighting for control over the RX-0, like its a bucking bronco and he doesn’t have the experience to calm it down (because, well, he doesn’t.) While fighting Riddhe for the last time, Banagher pleads with Riddhe to back off because he can’t hold the Unicorn back any longer (a comment that enrages the Marcenas heir.)
The portrayal of the Unicorn as a beast is more explicit in the manga. In episode 1, the Unicorn’s first appearance is just showing off its insane maneuverability. But in the manga however, that scene is replaced with the Unicorn being in a mock battle against three ARX-007 Silver Bullets (the same machine that Gael Chan piloted when defending the Vist mansion from Full Frontal and his NZ-999 Neo Zeong, at the middle of episode 7.)
That fight ended with the Unicorn going berserk, brutally destroying two Silver Bullets, and the pilot of the third barely surviving because of the Unicorn’s test pilot dying from the extreme G-forces his suit subjected him to outside his control. It is very stark imagery that makes explicit what a wild beast the Unicorn can be.
Banagher’s growth and ability to “tame” the Unicorn is reflected more explicitly visually with the changing of the glow of the Unicorn’s psycho-frame from red to green while in NT-D. The Unicorn, built explicitly as a hunting machine, now produced the same light as that of Amuro Ray’s mobile suit during the Axis Shock, that event which potentially saved the lives of billions during Char’s Rebellion. That glow is, in many respects, a manifestation of Banagher willpower. It first gains that green glow at the end of episode 5, as the spirits of Daguza Mackle and Gilboa Sant, the two men whose deaths sent him spiraling into a depression and into the Earth’s atmosphere, appear before him. He gathers his will in order to drag the Garancieres out of the gravity well, surpassing the limits of his machine. From then on, Banagher’s Unicorn no longer has that aggressive red that looked like so much blood soaking his machine, but a calm verdant green.
By the middle of episode 7, not only has Banagher mastered himself, but he has tamed the Unicorn, too. It literally responds to his call for help, breaking through the walls of Industrial 7 to attack Full Frontal and the NZ-999 Neo Zeong just as Full Frontal is about to deliver a fatal blow to Gael Chen and his crippled ARX-014 Silver Bullet.
One shouldn’t forget Riddhe Marcenas in all this. A latent Newtype himself, his emotional track is the inverse of Banagher’s. From the beginning, Riddhe’s air of calm professionalism slowly dissipates – compare his friendliness when he saves civilians in Industrial 7 in episode 1, to how troubled and frustrated he is in episode 4.
And then in episode 5, at the same time Banagher masters himself and gains the aforementioned green glow on his psycho-machine, Riddhe falls deep into his anger, over Banagher constantly fighting against him, over Mineva rejecting and leaving him, over finding out about his family’s legacy. Symbolically, Riddhe drops the plane charm on the hanger of the Garuda as he looks on in hatred at the distinctive Gundam faceplate of the Banshee.
Riddhe then becomes the second pilot of the Banshee, the sister unit to the Unicorn but even more beast-like – equipped with a more wild, mane-like headgear and sporting a giant claw and even indented fangs on its face plate.
But Riddhe eventually master himself too. You can see the self-hatred as he realize how monstrous it was of him to kill Marida, and he begs for Banagher to kill him. The boy tries to redeem himself by fighting alongside the Unicorn. Riddhe accepts himself and learns to control his rage.
And in a moment of tremendous weakness, as Riddhe struggles and flails to hold back the Gryps 2 laser from destroying the things he’s fought so hard to protect (Mineva, the Box and the wish that came with it), he sees the symbol of his own hope. Just as Daguza and Gilboa appeared before Banagher, a ghostly vision of that plane bracelet that he’d lost aboard the Garuda was there to remind him of what he’s fought so long for, and where he came from. With that, Riddhe steels and calms himself, and the Banshee loses its sickly yellow and gains the same verdant green glow as the Unicorn.
Robot-anime-as-metaphor-for-adolescence stories are really common. But I think that the way Unicorn went about it here, of character growth being portrayed as “control” of both an internal and external beast, is extremely well done. The beasts we struggle with are not always so obvious, but no less important. And it is my belief is that we can all tame our inner selves and free the God-like potential within us (but perhaps with less glowing, eh?)