“What If…?” Episode 8 Fixes The Worst Part Of Age Of Ultron

SPOILERS FOR WHAT IF…? AHEAD!

Marvel’s What If…? has been working overtime to try and rectify the faults of some not-so-great or downright bad MCU films, from Thor to The Incredible Hulk to Ant-Man And The Wasp, and in today’s episode they’re tackling Age Of Ultron. Even when they’ve succeeded at doing so, I can’t say I’ve been strongly tempted to go back and rewatch any of these movies, but I’ve always been especially conflicted about Age Of Ultron because it’s a movie that has no right to be as bad as it was, and yet in hindsight it’s so obvious why it failed.

What If...?
Ultron | cnet.com

On the one hand, there’s a lot to like about it. As the only Avengers movie taking place between the team’s formation and their disintegration, Age Of Ultron gave us some much-needed insight into the Avengers’ family dynamic, and the relationships at play within the group. It introduced us to Wanda Maximoff and Vision, both enduring fan-favorites. It brought us that epic opening action sequence that spun directly out of events on Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., and which is still the closest the MCU ever came to linking up with Marvel TV.

But…for every great character moment came a cringeworthy interaction between Black Widow and The Hulk, laced with misogyny. Despite introducing us to Wanda, she was burdened with terrible writing and a ridiculously bad Eastern European accent, while her character’s Romani heritage from the comics was erased and has yet to be restored in the MCU. And apart from that one opening action sequence, the battles were largely unmemorable, and the villain Ultron was a comical caricature with no depth or nuance to his motivations.

Unsurprisingly, most of these problems can be traced back to director Joss Whedon. The extent of Whedon’s reprehensible behavior on multiple sets throughout his career is still just being brought to light, thanks to people like Ray Fisher and Charisma Carpenter speaking up about his abuses of power. Whedon’s tyrannical arrogance is how we ended up with a theatrical cut of Justice League so bad that Warner Brothers had to release a better version of the same movie earlier this year, and it’s how we ended up with an Age Of Ultron movie so bad that What If…? had to at least try and fix it.

So of course today’s episode of What If…? is perfectly suited for me, or anybody who’s ever wished that the best elements of Age Of Ultron could be isolated and transplanted into another, better, movie (or in this case, a thirty-minute long animated episode of streaming television), discarding everything that didn’t work…which is most of Whedon’s movie, to be honest. The first and foremost change is that in this new timeline, Ultron (voiced by Ross Marquand) is actually a legitimate threat.

Within the first couple of minutes, we’re treated to an unhappy alternate ending to Age Of Ultron that’s arguably – no, definitely better than the actual third act of that movie. Ultron gets his hands on Vision and downloads his consciousness into the android’s body, before shortcutting his plan to exterminate the human race by simply cracking the world’s nuclear codes and raining fire from the skies. It’s a lot easier and less melodramatic than building giant propeller engines beneath a random Eastern European city, and trying to use said city as a meteor to cause global extinction.

But what do you know, it’s also less effective. Because while almost everyone on earth dies in the nuclear firestorm, two Avengers survive – Natasha Romanoff (voiced by Lake Bell) and Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner). Not exactly useless now, are they? How they survived the initial apocalypse is left a mystery, but it’s very clear when we pick up with them again that they’ve been on their own for quite some time, using their wits to scrape by. On their own, neither of them is strong enough to take on Ultron, but Romanoff comes up with a classic Black Widow plan to save the day, which involves breaking into the apocalypse-proof KGB archives in Moscow – and finding the key to resurrecting HYDRA’s own villainous AI, Arnim Zola (Toby Jones).

What If...?
Black Widow | thecinemaholic.com

Even though I’m pretty much indifferent towards MCU Hawkeye, there is something inspiring about watching these two characters in particular as they struggle to overcome an opponent they know is far too strong at this point to be dispatched with an arrow or a kick. Neither of them has a superpower (beyond Hawkeye’s precision), neither has a great weapon (Natasha finds her father’s shield from his days as Red Guardian, but that’s later), and neither should logically have survived a catastrophe of this scale in the first place. But they did, so they’ll be the ones to stop Ultron or they’ll die trying.

And rest assured that both heroes get to prove themselves in battle against Ultron’s hordes of sentry bots. Their fast-paced fight scenes make good use of What If…?‘s sleek animation style and fluid character movements, and Natasha in particular has some very cool moments, while Hawkeye makes the sacrifice play to save his friend (and Zola’s delightfully chatty consciousness in a robot body) in a scene evocative of Natasha’s self-sacrifice in Endgame. But in this universe at least, only another computer program like Zola has a chance of combating Ultron.

That’s something that becomes abundantly clear as Ultron leaves earth and sweeps through the universe, seeking out life in every corner of the cosmos and eradicating it as part of his objective to protect existence from itself. He obliterates Asgard, Xandar, Ego, and The Sovereign, killing the Guardians of the Galaxy in the process. He cuts Thanos in half with his laser-beam like a slice of salami meat, and takes the Infinity Stones from his corpse, adding them to his already impressive arsenal of weaponry. Captain Marvel (voiced by Alexandra Daniels) puts up a good fight, but Ultron kills her too, releasing a shock-wave that annihilates an entire string of nearby planets. He is without equal in the universe.

But the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a Marvel Cinematic Multiverse now, and Ultron becomes aware of that fact when he overhears What If…?‘s narrator, The Watcher (voiced by Jeffrey Wright), talking about him from outside the boundary of his own universe. Something similar happened in episode four when Doctor Strange Supreme (Benedict Cumberbatch) reached a level of power where he became capable of communicating with The Watcher through the boundary, but the difference – and what ultimately makes Strange Supreme slightly less of a villain than Ultron – is that he didn’t literally break the fourth wall to try and attack The Watcher. Strange Supreme’s greatest flaw was his humanity, but humans are capable of feeling regret and guilt, and even in rare cases of admitting wrongdoing.

Ultron is not human, however, and he has no conscience, which means there’s nothing to prevent him from trying what Strange Supreme would not. What follows is a clash of titans unlike anything we’ve seen in the MCU up until this point, and we just saw Captain Marvel go up against Thor last week. The Watcher is a cosmic entity of indescribable power and intellect, and Ultron is a mercilessly destructive computer program clothed in the synthetic flesh of Vision and spangled with Infinity Stones – when they throw punches, they break holes in the very fabric of reality. At one point, Ultron even goes full Galactus and swallows a star-system whole (but since he’s using Vision’s body, and Vision canonically doesn’t have a digestive system, that should have been the end of him).

The Watcher is a surprisingly good fighter, and Jeffrey Wright finally gets something to do in this show (not that the little motivational speeches weren’t cute and all), but even he is no match for Ultron and must ultimately run and hide. It’s only then that The Watcher realizes it’s up to him to stop Ultron, even if it means breaking his ancient oath to never intervene with the natural course of history. The countless tragedies that The Watcher watched and never did anything to avert apparently weren’t enough to make him question his oath, but losing a fight with a computer is the last straw.

To add insult to injury, the only place where The Watcher can hide is in the remains of Doctor Strange Supreme’s former universe. But in a lucky twist of fate, Strange Supreme might just be The Watcher’s best bet at defeating Ultron. We also know of several other characters who will join the unofficial Guardians of the Multiverse team in next week’s episode, including Party Thor (not sure how much help he’s gonna be, but okay), Killmonger, T’Challa as Star-Lord, and Captain Carter, not to mention survivor Black Widow and AI Arnim Zola. That’s a weird line-up of characters right there, the kind that could only come about via the Multiverse, and frankly I can’t wait to see how they interact.

What If...?
Hawkeye vs Ultron | Twitter @blurayangel

I’m also scared, because the stakes are unusually high going into the finale, and we don’t have any assurance that all of these characters will survive the confrontation with Ultron. The Watcher will presumably live to narrate another season of What If…?, and Captain Carter’s apparently headed for the movies, but everybody else is in serious danger. That’s a testament to the fact that What If…? is largely unafraid to kill off beloved heroes, and to the fact that Ultron is more threatening now than he ever was in Age Of Ultron. It’s never too late for redemption in the MCU.

Episode Rating: 8.5/10

“Loki” Season 1 Ends With A (Big) Bang

SPOILERS FOR LOKI AHEAD!

The cost of free will in the Marvel Cinematic Universe(s) was high: so high we can’t even begin to comprehend the vast number of ramifications that will spin out of Loki‘s climactic finale…so high that I’m still not entirely sure what actually happened in this episode, except that notably no one died, leaving all our major players on the board heading into what will surely be an even stronger and stranger second season (and oh yes, season two is very much a go: Clark Gregg spoiled that over a year ago, in fact, but a mid-credits stinger at the end of today’s episode outright confirms it).

Loki
Sylvie and Loki | indianexpress.com

I do want to touch on that latter fact before we dive into the embarrassment of riches this finale has to offer in and of itself. Unlike WandaVision and (at least for now) The Falcon And The Winter Soldier, Loki is not and was not planned to be a miniseries, which means its stories, thematic through-lines, and character arcs don’t all wrap up conclusively at the end of this first season. They each have satisfying payoffs for the time being, but…they’re a work in progress, which makes it more difficult to pass any kind of final judgment on them.

Take, for example, the romantic arc between our dual protagonists, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino). Adored by some as a positive message of self-love, loathed by others as being just shy of incest, either way it’s been building towards something: and that something is a pretty powerful kiss in the final minutes of the episode, albeit one which Sylvie uses to her advantage so she can send Loki hurtling through a portal into another timeline while she deals with the series’ antagonist alone. That arc is by no means finished. Loki loves Sylvie deeply, and he makes that clear when he tells her he can’t bring himself to fight her. Sylvie loves Loki too, and it seems to physically hurt her because of how hard it is for her to trust anyone. That kiss is a great payoff to the journey these two have been on, and it can be a great building-block for future tension and conflict in their relationship.

Similarly, throughout the series we’ve seen Loki become capable of unprovoked acts of empathy, courage, and rational thinking for pretty much the first time in his life. That’s not to say he still doesn’t struggle: when Miss Minutes (voiced by Tara Strong) pops up in the Citadel at the End of Time like a horror-movie jumpscare to offer Loki and Sylvie the future of their dreams as a last-ditch effort to save the Sacred Timeline, the pained expression on Loki’s face and Natalie Holt’s gently wailing Asgardian theme (subtly reminding us of the pain and trauma Loki suffered on Asgard, the motivation for so many of his cruelest deeds) suggest that he’s strongly tempted to take what the animated clock is willing to give him – a timeline in which he prevails at the Battle of New York, survives his encounter with Thanos, and obtains the Infinity Gauntlet.

But the thing is, Loki wants to be a better person than what the Sacred Timeline has planned for him. He’s seen the best of what people – including his own Variants – are capable of, and he wants that, both for himself, and for the people whom he’s grown to love. He wants Sylvie to live the life of her choice, without the Time Variance Authority hounding her for whatever reason. He wants Mobius (Owen Wilson) to be able to live the life that was taken from him by the TVA, maybe even get a jet-ski along the way. He wants to be good, and the only way to do that is to free the timeline…which he does. And if Loki was a miniseries, this would have allowed for a triumphant conclusion to his arc. But it’s not, so this is merely the beginning of what can potentially be a fascinating internal struggle for him as he grapples with doubt, guilt, and perhaps an acknowledgment of the fact that he no longer has an excuse to not be good.

Oh yeah, no biggie, but Loki and Sylvie opened the Multiverse…for real, this time. We all kind of jumped the shark after episode two, thinking Sylvie bombing the Sacred Timeline was equivalent to creating a Multiverse (it wasn’t, and that was something the show nearly adequately clarified), and before that during the WandaVision era we all assumed Wanda would open the Multiverse even though, ironically, she ultimately progressed enough as a character to stop herself from doing that (different strokes for different folks), but this time there can be no doubt. The MCU has officially crossed what Kang the Conqueror (Jonathan Majors) refers to as “the threshold”, a Nexus Event from which there can be no turning back: the Sacred Timeline he’s worked so hard to design and cultivate is finally unraveling piece-by-piece, shedding billions of new branch timelines every moment, and making Multiversal war a matter of “when”, not “if”.

Speaking of which, this event clearly provides the launchpad for Marvel’s fourth Disney+ show and their first animated project, What If…?, which we can now surmise will kick off with this chronological equivalent to the Big Bang, exploring timelines diverging from the events of the MCU films. Spider-Man: No Way Home will also continue the Multiverse saga (suddenly, it doesn’t seem so unlikely that Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield are in the movie), and Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness will either end it or further exacerbate the situation. Given that Kang is still officially set to make an appearance in Ant-Man And The Wasp: Quantumania, and the version of Kang we met in this episode is already dead, I’m inclined to guess the latter. Loki is also now reported to appear in Multiverse Of Madness, so let’s just say the MCU is getting weird.

Loki
Kang The Conqueror | leisurebyte.com

I mean, I already suspected that when the Loki finale opened with the disembodied voices of our beloved Marvel heroes playing over the title cards, mixing with audio of real-life figures including Nelson Mandela, Maya Angelou, Greta Thunberg, and Malala Yousafzai – all meant to convey the disorienting effect of crossing over from the Sacred Timeline, which takes shape as a ring encircling Kang’s Citadel, into an alien region outside of time and space. The Timeline’s circular shape is interesting to me: for one thing, it once again brings to mind images of the Midgard Serpent from Norse mythology, Loki’s monstrous offspring which wraps around the world and bites its own tail. But it also explains the strange nature of time in the TVA, how everything past, present, and future, seems to be happening simultaneously even though the TVA’s own diagrams misleadingly represented the Timeline as a straight line. Circles are potent symbols, as they can have both positive and negative connotations, representing everything from perfection, wholeness, and eternity (i.e. Sacred Timeline) to a sense of meandering and endless repetition. From Crystal Clear Intuition, “A circle protects against chaos and unpredictability, and invites an element of “trusting the universe””, which perhaps helps to explain why Kang chose it: it’s foolproof against Loki’s.

Before I start rambling about the symbolism of circles (and oh boy, am I tempted), let’s move on to my next point: which is that Kang actually wants the Loki’s to succeed, as long as they do it on his terms. It’s never explained exactly why (and that is something I wish we’d learned in this season), but he’s been guiding Loki and Sylvie to his Citadel specifically so they can take over as new heads of the TVA, continuing his life’s work (did I mention that circles also represent transition?) with the same set of authoritarian instructions for how to pick and choose which timelines get inducted into the Sacred Timeline, and which get pruned; sacrificing free will for the promise of stability across all of time. The other option, which Kang wearily admits will end up with him back in the Citadel in a couple of eons starting over again, is to kill Kang and free the timeline, thereby starting a Multiversal war and unleashing the infinitely more dangerous and evil Variants of Kang who also started the first Multiversal war.

Essentially, it’s like a dark and epic twist on Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, if Wonka was a maniacal Time Lord hellbent on controlling all of existence, and the Chocolate Factory and its workforce of Oompa-Loompas were the TVA and its army of cheerfully brainwashed Variants.

Now, it’s not quite perfect. The finale, despite being a lean forty-five minutes long with credits (and no post-credits scene), drags at points, and the bulk of the episode being Kang sitting behind a desk expositing in slow loop-dee-loops about the Multiverse while Loki and Sylvie sit stone-faced across from him and do little to engage with the information or react to it is neither compelling in theory nor heightened in execution by any outstanding narrative trick from the writers (even punctuating the conversation with more frequent action beats or slight changes in location would have helped to keep the episode running more smoothly), unique cinematography, or mesmerizing acting choices.

Jonathan Majors’ Kang is an interesting conundrum: simultaneously eccentric in a bold purple and green outfit with flamboyant, theatrical mannerisms, and muted, with slow and disjointed line deliveries just grating enough to provoke a sigh of relief when Kang finally drops the act, so to speak; revealing an exhausted, weather-beaten noble figure behind all the self-gratifying affectations of a character whom I was beginning to worry was looking mighty two-dimensional for a villain Marvel intends to keep around. But of course, he’s only the first of many Kang Variants to come, and this version of the character has long since dropped the Kang from his name and scoffs at the title of “Conqueror”: he prefers the honorific He Who Remains, an acknowledgment of his permanence, and an opportunity for an interesting conversation about how his name and even his identity matter less than his place and purpose in the timeline, which helps to make this Mystery Box reveal a success. With He Who Remains dead by the end of the episode, one can reasonably hope that when our next Kang Variant appears, he’ll embody more of that dignity which we only get to glimpse in this threadbare version.

And while it’s hard to imagine Judge Ravonna Renslayer (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), Kang’s love-interest in the comics, ever falling for He Who Remains, it’ll be interesting to see if the series pursues a romance between her and one of Kang’s Variants. Renslayer is one of those characters who’s really grown on me over the last few episodes, as Mbatha-Raw has gotten a chance to dig into what makes the villainous bureaucrat tick. She genuinely wants to know who’s behind the TVA, and she’s angry at being lied to, but not for quite the same reasons as Mobius or Hunter B-15 (Wunmi Mosaku): rather than being upset about having her past life stolen and erased by the TVA, she’s simply annoyed that something is preventing her from doing her job to the fullest and hurting the maximum amount of people that she could be hurting if she knew the will of the TVA’s founder. Near the episode’s end, she departs on a search for Kang that will inevitably lead her to one of his Variants – a far cry from her past life as an elementary school teacher in Ohio, but a way to keep the character deeply intertwined with Loki‘s story.

Loki
Ravonna Renslayer | radiotimes.com

As for Loki and Sylvie themselves, the finale separates them in time for the cliffhanger ending that leaves Loki in an alternate timeline where the TVA is ruled over by a Kang Variant who makes his presence known with giant statues replacing those of the Time-Keepers, and Sylvie in the Citadel, watching with horror as the Sacred Timeline disintegrates before her eyes. A lifeless Kang with Sylvie’s sword plunged into his chest offers no guidance or words of advice for how to deal with the catastrophe. I guess it’s time to get Doctor Strange on the phone! And maybe Wanda Maximoff too, while we’re at it. We are totally going to see Marvel’s holy trinity of magic-users onscreen together in Multiverse Of Madness before we even get around to Loki season two, and I am HYPED.

Episode Rating: 8/10

“What If…?” 2nd Trailer Review!

In a franchise that has historically been very strict about what is and what is not canon (nobody knows that better than Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. fans), the medium of animation provides Marvel an incredible opportunity to expand upon the potential of Loki‘s Multiverse shenanigans and explore alternate universes branching off from the so-called Sacred Timeline – in an anthology series named What If…? that will remain (at least as far as we know) entirely separate from the live-action MCU. But although you might think that would narrow its appeal with hardcore fans who tend to get obsessive over the canon debate too, the broad variety of stories being explored in What If…? will likely make this a must-see event.

What If...?
What If…? | etonline.com

The format of the series is simple yet unique. One episode for each Marvel movie released thus far, but putting a twist on the version of events we know from our canon, and following the consequences of that twist down a winding rabbit-hole of endless possibilities. Until today, the marketing for What If…? had largely focused on just two or three storylines: one in which Peggy Carter took the Super-Soldier Serum during World War II instead of Steve Rogers and became Captain Carter (not Captain Britain, although the Union Jack is emblazoned on her vibranium shield); one in which a young Prince T’Challa was abducted from Earth by aliens and became a Ravager in place of Peter Quill; and one in which Bucky Barnes fights a zombie version of Captain America, in what I think might be the series’ Captain America: Civil War episode.

Everything beyond that had been just quick glimpses and unconfirmed rumors until today’s new trailer, which starts out in the back of an armored vehicle moving through the Middle East – yep, the same one where Tony Stark was ambushed in the opening of Iron Man and nearly got blown to bits by one of his own Stark Industries missiles, commencing his journey to becoming Iron Man. But this time around, something unexpected happens. Killmonger – as in Black Panther‘s Killmonger – leaps in to save Tony Stark’s life, effortlessly lifting the missile and tossing it into the sky. And from there, the trailer only gets weirder.

We see an armored Natasha Romanoff zipping through the battle-damaged streets of a city on her motorcycle, having been the only member of the Avengers to survive Ultron’s extinction-level apocalypse in Age Of Ultron. Pepper Potts, wielding some kind of high-tech gun, fights alongside Shuri and the Dora Milaje. Loki invades Earth, not with hordes of Chitauri aliens, but with Asgardian troops; while a tattooed frat boy Variant of Thor parties it up on the planet’s surface. Okoye hurls a spear at a levitating Wanda Maximoff. T’Challa and Yondu fight a muscular, cybernetically-enhanced Variant of The Collector from Guardians Of The Galaxy. Doctor Strange duels Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One. Howard the Duck is just…there, for whatever reason.

What If...?
Captain Carter | buzzfeed.com

Before Loki, I was intrigued but bewildered by the concept of What If…?, but now we know so much more about the mechanics of the Multiverse in the MCU that we can kind of get a sense of what’s going on, and perhaps even why. These are all timelines that branched but never got pruned, Nexus Events allowed to spiral further and further out of control, leading to chaotic crossovers with other alternate timelines, and what Miss Minutes described as “multiversal war”. We can see some of that going on in this trailer: Variants like Captain Carter and T’Challa as Star Lord won’t be confined to single episodes, but will also join forces across time and space – leading to a clever recreation of the iconic Avengers group shot in the first Avengers movie that also includes frat boy Thor, a Gamora Variant who’s dressed in golden armor like her adoptive father Thanos and is even wielding the Mad Titan’s sword, and a character who is possibly Killmonger, wearing the Black Panther suit.

Of course, if the Time Variance Authority isn’t around to prune these timelines and prevent a Multiverse, it raises the question of why. My guess is that at the end of Loki, the God of Mischief’s efforts to burn the TVA to the ground are successful, finally freeing the universe from authoritarian control and allowing time to do whatever the hell it wants. Whether the characters in What If…? will discover that and try to hop over into the MCU’s reality remains to be seen, but that could precipitate the Multiverse Of Madness which we know Doctor Strange will be dealing in with his hotly-anticipated sequel.

The only person who seems to have any answers is an ethereal cosmic being known as Uatu the Watcher, who will narrate the series and preside over events, hopefully cluing in audiences as to what’s really going on. Will he always remain on the sidelines, watching but never interfering with time? Will he be mentioned in the MCU at any point? Where does he even come from? As Darcy would say, “don’t know, don’t know, and…don’t know.”

What If...?
T’Challa and Yondu | nerdist.com

What I do know is that the animation on this series looks brilliant: crisp, clean, and richly detailed, allowing for the kind of spectacle sometimes unattainable in live-action except through extensive use of CGI. With the exception of Robert Downey Jr., the voice-acting is provided by the same actors who originated these roles in live-action, including Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa, in what will be his final posthumous performance. And my expectations for the next wave of Marvel Disney+ shows are at an all-time high after the resounding success of Loki. I was always excited for What If…? because I’m a big fan of animation, but I’m sold on the concepts at play here too after this amazing trailer.

Trailer Rating: 8.9/10

It’s Only Been 2 Episodes, “Loki” – How Did You Already Destroy The Timeline?

SPOILERS FOR LOKI AHEAD!

Dear everyone who complained (sometimes with legitimate reason, to be fair) that it took forever for things to happen in the Marvel Disney+ shows, and that what did happen had no immediate effect on the movies – are you happy now? Because we’re only two episodes into Loki, and the entire duration of the Sacred Timeline, from its highly classified beginnings in the ancient past to its conclusion in the far-distant future, just got carpet-bombed into oblivion, causing gods only know how many new timelines to emerge at once, probably irrevocably altering the landscape of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. You all kept asking for a Multiverse of Madness; well, I think you just got one.

Loki
Loki and Hunter B-15 | rollingstone.com

But I think the biggest testament to the strength of the writing and direction behind Loki (shoutout to Michael Waldron and Kate Herron, respectively) is that, in just two episodes, we already care enough about many of the characters in the Time Variance Authority that we can empathize with them as their entire life’s work, the preservation of the Sacred Timeline, comes crashing down around them. That empathy will never translate into sympathy for the institution itself, which is a mechanism designed with the sole intent and purpose of eradicating free will from the universe, but I feel for the people there: perhaps because I genuinely believe they are people, not beings called into existence by the Time-Keepers.

That said, I don’t doubt that there’s a good and probably sympathetic reason behind why the series’ current villain, a rogue Loki variant who for the purposes of simplification I will be referring to as Lady Loki (Sophia Di Martino), chose to obliterate the Sacred Timeline, rendering it no longer sacred nor singular. I can definitely appreciate the poetic irony in her using the TVA’s own technology to undo all of their work in an instant, dropping hundreds of volatile “reset charges” into an equivalent number of random points on the Timeline. And that’s what leads me to believe she’s doing what she does for a reason, something beyond an innate desire to see the world burn: because she seems to have purposefully singled out the TVA for her vengeance.

Is she really Lady Loki, though? She only reveals herself in the episode’s final minutes, and is never named. When Loki (Tom Hiddleston) addresses her as a Loki, she flinches and says she doesn’t want to be called that – but at the same time, goes along with his assertion that she is him, and even remarks that it’s the other way around; he is her. But given the fact that Di Martino bears almost no discernible resemblance to Hiddleston, and that the hairstyling team chose to accentuate that by giving her short blond hair in contrast to his long black locks, the only visual clue she offers for why we should be calling her Lady Loki is her golden tiara, which sports a single, rather unimpressive, devil’s horn – the other having been rudely hewn off.

I know it sounds bizarre to nitpick what seems so obvious, and it’s very likely that Sophia Di Martino is playing Lady Loki, but this series keeps reminding us not to take anything at face value, so I feel I’d be doing it a disservice if I didn’t…well, question everything. A prime example of this is the matter of the Time-Keepers, the trio of mysterious alien deities who supposedly rule over the TVA. Mobius M. Mobius (Owen Wilson) admits in this episode that he’s never actually met them, and Judge Ravonna Renslayer (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) once again coyly avoids a question about where they actually are and what they’re doing. Renslayer is conveniently the only person allowed to speak with the Time-Keepers, although she’d be a lot more convincing if she ever had anything to report from them except that they’re busy.

Loki
Lady Loki | hollywoodlife.com

Even Mobius is starting to ask questions – although he’s more interested in why Renslayer apparently has another analyst secretly working for her on the side, than in the identities of the space lizards whom he still believes created him. Remember what I said last week? Loki’s mere presence in the TVA, his unpredictable nature, his critical thinking skills, his knowledge of the outside world, all pose a threat to the organization’s ability to demand blind subservience from its workers by telling them they have no purpose outside protecting the Timeline. He’s rubbing off on his co-workers, instilling the flame of rebellion in the very heart of this violent system, and they don’t even realize it yet.

Whoever actually runs the TVA definitely realizes it, however, and that’s why Renslayer is so intent on shutting down Mobius and Loki’s operation. I think that’s even why Miss Minutes (voiced by Tara Strong) herself comes down to Loki’s office cubicle to keep an eye on the God of Mischief, prompting a hilarious scene in which Loki tries to swat the talking timepiece with one of Mobius’ magazines about jet-skiing in the early 1990’s. Someone at the top knows how dangerous Loki is, and wants him gone before he corrodes the foundations and brings the whole structure tumbling down. I know it’s you, Kang.

But in an awkward turn of events, it’s Loki who ultimately figures out that the Variant has been hiding in apocalyptic events and natural disasters throughout history as a way of masking their trace on the timeline (an absurdly clever reveal that gave me shades of Connie Willis’ Passage: brilliant novel, highly recommend), and it’s Loki who warns the TVA agents about duplication-casting, a power which Lady Loki later uses against the agents (not to be too much of an Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. nerd, but Lady Loki’s ability to transfer her consciousness from one person to another, using human bodies like stepping-stones, reminded me of the S.H.I.E.L.D.┬ávillain, Izel). My point is that Loki is actually a huge asset to the TVA.

And Loki knows it. So at the end of the episode, when he’s given the opportunity to stick around with the TVA or follow his own Variant into a time-portal, he chooses the latter – essentially removing himself from the board, rejecting the TVA’s attempts to turn him into a pawn. What he’ll do next depends on where and when he emerges from the portal, but that’s the beauty of it: even he doesn’t know that information! He’s just causing chaos because it’s what he does, because he’s a trickster god.

Loki
Loki and Mobius in Pompeii | flickeringmyth.com

There’s a scene in this week’s episode where Loki is reading through a case file on Ragnarok, which he helped bring about. As Natalie Holt’s excellent score shifts to a somber tone and brings in the sounds of Scandinavian instruments, the camera closes in on Loki’s intense blue eyes. What’s he thinking, as he reads about the thousands of Asgardian lives lost that day? Is there grief there? Vindication? A little bit of both? What makes it so chilling is that we don’t – and may never – really know.

Episode Rating: 9.5/10