“Loki” Episode 4 Proves That Marvel Can Do Mystery Boxes

SPOILERS FOR LOKI AHEAD!

The “Mystery Box” style of storytelling used in film and television has become quite popular over the last decade or so, thanks to J.J. Abrams. Mystery Boxes, for those unfamiliar with the term as applied to TV, are stories in which the status quo the characters find themselves inhabiting is generally a mystery upon a mystery built upon yet more mysteries, which only continue to grow deeper and more complex as the series continues, until the overarching throughline of the story becomes untangling the many plot-threads and revealing some intricate kaleidoscope of “highbrow” storytelling where everything intertwines to create answers for every other smaller mystery along the way…at least in theory.

Loki
The Time-Keepers’ Chamber | goldderby.com

In execution, the Mystery Box rarely works as intended because showrunners very rarely plan out the entire course of their series from day one. Abrams’ own series, Lost, famously fell apart in its final season because the mysteries had become too sprawling and convoluted. Abrams’ Star Wars movies, The Force Awakens and The Rise Of Skywalker, also followed his trademark formula but had no cohesion, leading to an increasingly bizarre and unnecessary series of plot twists for the sake of plot twists.

And that brings us to Loki. Because while all of Marvel’s Disney+ shows have tried to follow a small-scale Mystery Box formula in order to drive weekly discourse, Loki is the first one that feels like it’s actually doing it right. In WandaVision, the trail of Mystery Boxes led nowhere, many proving entirely inconsequential for reasons that varied from intentional to accidental. But at least there the initial mystery was relevant to the plot. In The Falcon And The Winter Soldier, the looming question of the Power-Broker’s identity was handled so poorly, only working on a meta level, that it felt completely extraneous and distracted from the thematic heart of the story.

And Loki could still suffer from the same problems, but so far the thing I find myself consistently enjoying about the series is that Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the God of Mischief, is simply too chaotic a character to abide by the laws of a Mystery Box. He’s not the type of character to patiently form a pattern from a tangle of plot-threads – he’s the type to slice the whole thing to shreds. As a result, Loki never revolves around the mysteries themselves, but around their consequences; specifically how Loki reacts to new information, and how he grows. That’s what makes a mystery work: the answer to all of the questions has to be emotionally resonant to the characters and their journeys, not merely satisfying to the audience member who cracked the code.

Another crucial difference between Loki and the two previous Marvel shows is that Loki actually builds upon its central mystery progressively, throughout the first four episodes at least, instead of presenting the audience with the mystery of the season and expecting them not to figure it out within a week (Agnes is Agatha Harkness; well, no kidding). So for instance, up until today the central mystery of Loki had been the identities of the Time-Keepers – who were today revealed to be convincing fakes, a bunch of lifelike androids serving as figureheads for the Time Variance Authority. Heading into next week’s episode, that mystery has now changed to “who is actually running the TVA?”, because it sure as Hel isn’t the Time-Keepers, and never was.

For a moment, however, I was myself deceived by the Time-Keepers – and that was great, because it made my joy when they were revealed as fakes all the more cathartic, although I was suspicious of their authenticity when they asked to personally oversee the execution of the Loki Variants. I’d always been of the opinion that the Time-Keepers never existed, were being held hostage by someone at the TVA, or were three large skeletons gathering dust in a storage room somewhere, so I’m very happy that not only was the first of these theories correct, but that the answer proved meaningful to both our characters, particularly Sylvie Laufeydottir (Sophia Di Martino), and that this mystery was resolved with two episodes left to go: two episodes which can now tackle the big question of who’s really pulling the strings.

I mean, not to sound too predictable, but…it’s totally Kang the Conqueror, right? It just seems a little too convenient that Judge Ravonna Renslayer (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), Kang’s love interest in the comics, is the only TVA employee with unrestricted access to the Time-Keepers’ chamber. Speaking of Mbatha-Raw, her performance in episode one was okay, but she has quickly become a highlight of the show for me: watching the fa├žade of weary charm and humor she’s built to mask her penchant for cruelty begin to come apart is truly chilling. As for other suspects who could be behind the TVA’s creation, Miss Minutes comes to mind – but somehow, I don’t think the show will veer in that direction.

That said, I also didn’t expect selfcest discourse to emerge from this latest episode, yet here we are. Yes, much to the horror and disgust of some fans, it was revealed – or at the very least, strongly implied with the potential to be a misdirect – that Loki has romantic feelings for Sylvie, who is meanwhile confirmed beyond a shadow of a doubt to be a Loki Variant who diverged from the timeline as a very young child for reasons still unclear to Sylvie even as an adult, although she tells Loki it might have something to do with having been born the Goddess of Mischief – and if the TVA pruned her because of her gender, the fact that they waited until she was around ten instead of soon after birth suggests that she could be coded as transgender or gender-fluid rather than having been assigned female at birth. Loki is gender-fluid in the comics and according to a dossier used as set dressing in the show, but this has yet to be addressed through dialogue.

However you interpret that, the fact that Sylvie is a Loki variant has provoked some heated discussion over whether it’s problematic to ship the two together, because someone has to get outraged on behalf of the alternative versions of ourselves with whom we’ll never interact, much less do any of the things that individuals on Twitter are legitimately concerned about. Personally, I find the topic conflicting – because on the one hand, I don’t ship Loki and Sylvie, but on the other hand, a narcissist like Loki falling in love with himself is arguably one of his milder offenses, if we take into consideration the fact that Loki is the same Norse deity who turned into a mare so they could seduce a stallion and have a magical horse baby.

Loki
Sylvie | superherohype.com

Seeing as that latter fact has never made it into the movies or the new series, however, I’ll admit I didn’t expect Marvel to actually go in this direction with a controversial selfcest pairing. Nor was I prepared for the real kicker, which is that whatever Loki and Sylvie feel for each other, whether it’s mutual attraction (I don’t think so, given Sylvie’s confusion when Loki seemed tempted to kiss her), unrequited pining on Loki’s part, or something completely platonic like I’d prefer, it’s powerful – powerful enough to cause a Nexus Event in an apocalypse where Nexus Events were previously established to be impossible because nothing you do in an apocalypse has any chance of altering a timeline bound for total obliteration – unless you hold hands with an alternate version of yourself, apparently. Powerful enough, too, to bring down the TVA; or at least that’s what Mobius (Owen Wilson) says, and I believe him, even though I hope it doesn’t take a Loki/Sylvie kiss to do that.

And for the record, it’s totally okay to be disappointed or angry that the MCU’s first canonically queer and theoretically genderfluid characters are heavily implied to be falling in love with alternate versions of themselves, and that’s an important issue to raise. It’s a sentiment I largely agree with, and I hope both Loki and Sylvie find other romantic partners in the near future. But if your problem is specifically with selfcest in general, a thing that quite literally does not and cannot exist, and if you’re going around claiming it’s equivalent to real-life incest or calling the director and creative team perverts, then…I don’t really know what to tell you. Weird stuff happens in fiction sometimes, and Loki has always been a weird character in his mythological pantheon and in the MCU.

But whether or not Mobius was right about Loki and Sylvie causing a massive Nexus Event by falling in love, this theory doesn’t get tested out before the TVA, alerted to Loki’s presence, comes to arrest both Variants: solidifying my biggest complaint about last week’s episode, that the cliffhanger, while epic, felt like it would be easily resolved. An intriguing Marvel Easter egg flits by in this sequence, as Mobius runs through a list of Variants brought in by the TVA at one time or another – including vampires, who have never appeared in the MCU to date. It’s not much, but it feels like pretty solid groundwork for the Blade movie we’re supposed to be getting soon.

Alone with Mobius in the interrogation room, Loki tries his best to tell the agent about the true intentions of the TVA without sacrificing any of his leverage. It’s significant that ultimately Loki’s care for Mobius’ safety outweighs his own desire for freedom – and he tells Mobius that he and everyone who works at the TVA are Variants, something it’s clear Mobius has always known on some subconscious level he’s been too afraid to access, but Loki’s words put everything into perspective for him. The same thing happens to Hunter B-15 (Wunmi Mosaku), who defies all of her training to break Sylvie out of prison so the enchantress can show her a glimpse of her past life. I would have liked to have seen Hunter B-15’s memories and learned her real name instead of just watching her talk about what she’s seeing, but Mosaku is such a good actress and sells the heartfelt scene so well, I’ll give it a pass.

For both characters, waking up to the reality about themselves requires trusting someone they’ve been taught to demonize. And both characters also take steps to undo the damage they’d caused by fighting back against the system that had been using them – though their actions come with sacrifices. B-15 gets knocked unconscious while battling her fellow Hunters, while Mobius sets Loki free and is almost immediately thereafter pruned out of existence by Renslayer and her bodyguards, after a brave showdown between the coworkers that ends with Mobius defiantly embracing the past life that was stolen from him with the most iconic final line (temporarily final line, most likely) ever uttered: “I might have had a jet-ski.”

As compelling as this material may be, I do think this entire sequence of events could have been tweaked slightly to make the episode’s first half flow more smoothly, because the pacing is a bit slow. Between the slightly redundant and disconnected scenes of Mobius and B-15 learning about their pasts; the frustratingly brief flashback to Sylvie’s childhood that feels as though the creative team only had the budget for a single establishing shot of Asgard; and the fun but eventually tiresome scene of Loki trapped in a TVA-designed mind prison with a timeloop of a vengeful Lady Sif (Jaimie Alexander) that feels like an extremely random and inorganic way to bring back the character, this episode isn’t quite as polished as last week’s, and a couple of scene transitions feel clumsy.

But towards the end, the episode finds its groove and settles into it very snugly, just in time for a major action scene in the Time-Keepers’ chamber. After beheading one of the Time-Keeper animatronics, Loki and Sylvie are left confused about what to do next, and the plot could easily have trailed off at this pivotal moment – but Loki takes advantage of this quiet scene to try and confess his feelings to Sylvie. He’s interrupted by what has to be the most shocking twist in a very twisty episode: Renslayer stabbing him in the back with a Hunter’s baton, pruning him just as she did Mobius before being disarmed by Sylvie.

But for Loki, his story is just getting started. In a mid-credits scene, the series’ first thus far, the God of Mischief awakens in a desolate area surrounded by the ruins of New York City, prompted by an old man’s voice. The moment I heard that voice, I guessed what we were in for when the camera pans around to reveal who’s talking, but not the scale of the reveal: for it’s not only Richard E. Grant standing there, dressed from head to toe in a wonderfully hideous comic-accurate Classic Loki costume – it’s also Kid Loki (Jack Veal), a popular member of the Young Avengers team, and Boastful Loki (Deobia Oparei), an original character who has no clear precedence in the comics, but who carries a large hammer: perhaps because, like Thor in the MCU, he is his universe’s only being worthy of carrying Mjolnir, something that would certainly explain his boastfulness.

Loki
Loki Limbo | comicbook.com

These humanoid Variants are also joined by one very peculiar new addition to Marvel canon – Loki the Alligator, a toothy reptile companion to Kid Loki who wears an adorable miniature gold helmet. I’m not sure if this is a version of the shapeshifting god who just prefers living as an alligator for reasons, or if he was born in an alligator in his timeline, but one thing is clear. Wherever Loki is now, is wherever the TVA has been discarding all its Loki Variants every time one gets reset; some kind of Loki Limbo. And that means plenty more deep lore and obscure references for us to examine next time we catch up with the trickster.

Episode Rating: 8.5/10

Go ahead, disagree with me (or agree, that's cool, too)