Agents of SHIELD Season 7 Episode 8: Why Use Avatar The Last Airbender as the Theme for an 80s Episode?

NATALIA CORDOVA-BUCKLEY, MING-NA WEN

Episode 8 Recap

Throughout S7, Agents of SHIELD has used film and TV themes and tropes from the eras it’s visited in each episode to help tell the story. In S7Ep8, After, Before, which took place in 1983, the show broke from this tradition and explicitly referenced two 21st century shows- Avatar the Last Airbender (2005) and its sequel series The Legend of Korra (2012), both from Nickelodeon.

I found this confusing, since both series were influenced by the Japanese animation style of anime and by Eastern cultures, but they are made by two white, American men, so they are actually neither anime nor Asian. It didn’t make sense to include them in this episode as 80s or Eastern shows. When I write it out like that in a single sentence and you’ve already seen the episode, I imagine the connection becomes obvious, but it took awhile for me to remember those facts about the Avatar series and make the connection.

Anime, the Japanese word for animation, is the term used outside of Japan to refer to a specific style of animation, “often characterized by colorful graphics, vibrant characters and fantastical themes.”(X) The anime style was developed in the 1960s by cartoonist, animator and manga artist Osamu Tezuka. Manga (Japanese comics or graphic novels) have developed over centuries, but began to be printed in their current style in the 19th century. Anime has grown into an industry with 430 studios in Japan.

Manga and anime are wildly popular all over the world. As with the Avatar series, versions of manga and anime are created and beloved by artists and local industries all over the world. But for many, these are not true anime or manga, since they don’t come from the original Japanese manga and anime industries. So there are criteria that are used to determine whether a comic/graphic novel/animation is actually anime or manga or merely in the style of those types of art.

I think Agents of SHIELD was using the Avatar series in order to reference these cases of mistaken identity and occasionally even fraud. One of the major themes running through this season is the real or not real game that’s being played amongst the team members. Who’s a “real” member? Who’s a “real” person with a life that matters enough to be a priority when they need to be rescued? Whose skills and talents are real and helpful and whose aren’t very useful in the long run?

We’ve watched these decisions being made all season long. Enoch had to wait 40 years because Mack and Coulson didn’t value his life or contributions to the team enough to get him sooner. Jemma values every life, and makes rescues a priority. She and Fitz sacrificed everything at the end of season 6 to save the rest of the team. Enoch and Deke also value every life, including the digital lives. Mack, Coulson and Sousa only value human lives and the occasional inhuman. Daisy, May and Elena are the relativists, judging on a case by case basis.

So we have Team Science, Team Strong Arm Agents and Team Enhanced Agents. Coulson is rethinking his team affiliation. Will he switch to team Enhanced Agents or jump a few levels to Team Chronicom?

Elena’s inhuman powers, an inherent part of her genetic makeup, similar to eyesight or hearing in humans, were only valued when the team found a use for them. The same with May’s new powers, which could indicate a fatal process is taking place inside her. There is no interest in pursuing the implications of this process to May or where the powers came from. Mack, as director, views them as sinful, when you come down to it, and wants to avoid thinking about inhuman and supernatural powers as much as possible.

He was visibly happy when when Elena lost hers, though it indicated illness, the way a human going blind or deaf is never a good sign. Her response to trauma was a form of mental illness, including depression, that manifested physically, in that the energy that went toward coping with the trauma left her other systems weakened, so that she couldn’t perform normal tasks anymore. The tasks she felt guilty about and didn’t want to do anyway naturally went first.

It could also be that the brain chemicals which are affected by depression are also involved in her yo-yoing, so she was chemically unable to yo-yo. Either way, it’s a feedback loop with a physical and mental basis. Relieving the mental, emotional and physical depression changed her brain chemistry and she got her powers back. Since she’d always had some trauma and depression holding her back, her powers expanded. The show gave a simplistic, misogynistic explanation for her illness and recovery, which is another whole topic. Her issues were real.

Elena’s story has many similarities to the character of Korra in the series The Legend of Korra. Both are strong, confident, impulsive women who have suffered from trauma, been poisoned, been chosen ones and lost their powers. Seasons 5 and 6 were disastrous for Elena, though she poured everything she had and more into trying to save everyone.

I don’t know why AoS is ignoring the events of S5 and 6 in their deep dive into nostalgia, since some of the characters were so affected by those events. Maybe because this story is being told largely through Mack and Coulson’s eyes. I think the brain scan the Coulson bot was made from might be the one from the Framework, which means he doesn’t remember season 5. And no Coulson will remember S6.

Mack prefers to repress bad memories rather than talk them through, as does May. Jemma’s memories are impaired by her implant. Deke carries low status with the group. Like Elena, Daisy is in constant trouble with the team or in peril. That doesn’t leave anyone to make the team work out their ongoing issues with each other and their own issues. There’s still a lot of bad blood between them from various mutinies and disobeyed orders over the last 2 seasons and the same behavior patterns have continued this season.

When they disagree with Mack’s orders as director, the team members all tend to ignore him and work around him, leading to a certain amount of anarchy. Unlike Coulson, he doesn’t really want the job and doesn’t have much respect for several of them or their jobs, and everyone knows it.

So he isn’t fostering an atmosphere of professionalism, including respect for each other and the hierarchy or encouraging open communication. Heck, he actively forgets to include key team members and lets others interrupt meetings to insult the meeting leader. Sibyl chose Nathaniel as her ally because he can develop inhuman powers which compete with their strongest fighters and his anarchy can mix with theirs to further destabilize their already unstable power structure.

Which brings us back around to the film and TV themes and Sibyl. I think she’s either working from the brain scan the Cronicoms took of Fitz 2, who hadn’t met Deke at the time, or the Framework brainscan(s). Her machinations are targeting the weaknesses of everyone but Deke and they aren’t using knowledge that the Fitz who died would have acquired during his solo time (such as the cracked Earth storyline).

If the team would figure that out, it could help them enormously. The Chronicoms are using the language of films because Mack used that language in S4, especially and as the director, destabilizing him would destabilize the whole team. But I think Fitz is also sending messages through film references, such as shifting Afterlife into Avatar. Elena may have watched the series, which was known for its inspirational storylines, and drawn strength from the similarities, even if only subconsciously.

But let’s get back to the mistaken identity theme. One of Avatar’s main characters, Zuko, is a firebender who briefly uses the alias Lee. Zuko/Lee is a conflicted, harsh character who switches sides multiple times. His father burns his face, leaving him scarred over one eye. He and the Li we met at Afterlife have obvious similarities. Kora from Afterlife also has similarities to both Aang and Korra in that she’s driven out of her home and must learn to use her powers.

But the most important fraud is Nathaniel. Just as Avatar can be mistaken for anime, he’s easily mistaken for the real thing. But he’s not genetically an inhuman. He’s been surgically enhanced to function as one, but he probably won’t be able to pass the diviner test. Nathaniel is set up as the fraudulent inhuman master.

That’s the only reason I can figure for Li and Jiaying to have done that particular test, and to show us that it doesn’t affect robots either way, so we can now tell what someone is when they touch it. They let May stay in Afterlife anyway, even though she’s not an inhuman. In S2 and 3, the diviner killed multiple times, on both sides of the fight, and was the reason Coulson lost his arm. Mack saved his life by chopping it off with an ax.

Deke is set up as another version of Zuko, the one who’s far from home, in hiding, and desperate for paternal approval but never quite able to get it. Zuko was both a villain and a chosen one at various times. Deke was both in S5.

Li, our other Zuko, has some secret that Kora knows. He kept her powers unstable so that Afterlife wouldn’t trust her or believe her if she told the truth. He was trying to kill her to suppress the truth forever. I don’t know if he was sexually abusing her or if he’s involved with something shady and she discovered it, but I expect we’ll find out eventually, especially if she gains power and confidence as Nathaniel’s 2nd in command.

Or as much power and confidence as she can gain in the few remaining episodes.

Li’s relationship to Jiaying suggests that she’s a possible Azula, the powerful alternate heir to the Fire Lord throne. Could Li’s secret have something to do with Jiaying and her powers or position at Afterlife? She and both of her daughters have now all been driven out of the compound at various times.

There’s one last, possible reference to Avatar. At the end of the episode, Deke asks Enoch if he can play drums. Enoch’s answer, that he can keep tempo, was improvised, but the overall sentiment that, a Chronicom, and especially Enoch, can do anything, is ongoing. Enoch and Aang, the titular last airbender and practitioner of all four elemental powers, both have shaved heads. Maybe we’re looking at the beginning of a beautiful friendship, like Zuko and Aang had in their show, in which Enoch, who is a master of adaptation, just as Deke is, shows him how to do so without copyright infringement.

Episode 8 Recap and Discussion of Episode 9 Promo

Image courtesy of ABC.

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