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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 façade 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.
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.
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.
I can’t tell what’s more mind-boggling to me: that in a single night, the Marvel Cinematic Universe went from having precisely zero canonically queer characters (leaving aside Gay Joe Russo because I will do literally anything in my power to expunge that atrocity from my mind) to having not one, but two whole canonically bisexual characters, or that it took thirteen years to do what ultimately cost Loki (Tom Hiddleston) only about ten seconds in today’s episode of Loki – confirm, in a single line of dialogue, that he’s attracted to both men and women.
And yeah, thirteen years is a long time to wait, but take into account the fact that Loki has been depicted as queer in Norse mythology for literal centuries, and the MCU is alarmingly late to the party. The perfect time to organically reveal Loki’s bisexuality in the movies was ages ago – at the very least in Thor: Ragnarok, where the sexual tension between Tom Hiddleston and Jeff Goldblum was so palpable you could feel it even without the script slyly hinting that Loki had seduced Goldblum’s Grand Master, or vice versa. But remember Marvel’s excuse for why a single shot of a woman exiting Valkyrie’s bedroom had to be cut from that film, thereby entirely erasing the only hint of that character’s bisexuality? Because it was “distracting”.
Apply that same faulty logic to all instances of queerness, and it’s no wonder why Loki had to be three episodes deep in his own solo TV series before he could even so much as address his sexuality, with a line straight out of Shadow And Bone bicon Jesper Fahey’s playbook: “A little bit of both.” My hope is that, in the near future, it won’t have to take this long before Marvel characters can be queer upfront instead of having to Trojan Horse their way into audiences’ hearts for decades: and the fact that the writer of today’s episode, Bisha K. Ali, is also presiding over the writers room for the upcoming Ms. Marvel series (as concerning as some of that show’s casting choices have been) is a promising sign. I also hope that Loki director Kate Herron is able to return to the MCU after this series is completed.
And while fans had been hoping for Loki to be confirmed as queer for years because it was just the logical thing to do, I also appreciate that Marvel took an additional tentative step forward, and did the same for Sylvie Laufeydottir (Sophia Di Martino), whom last week we only knew by the title of “Lady Loki” – a title I will no longer be using for her, since it’s become abundantly clear that while she appears to be a Loki Variant, she doesn’t identify with him or many of his experiences. But like Loki, she does seem to be queer – or at least Loki says he suspects as much, and she doesn’t argue the point. It’s hard to say if that makes her canonically queer or not…kind of?
But yeah, apart from (possibly) being bi and doing crimes, Sylvie actually has surprisingly little in common with Loki. The exact details of where/when she came from, who raised her, and why the TVA wants to eradicate her from existence are still unclear, but we got a couple of hints. She was adopted, like Loki, but her adoptive parents never hid that from her. Crucially, she doesn’t seem to have had a strong relationship with her mother – which shocks Loki, given how instrumental he considers Frigga to be in nurturing his talents from a young age when Odin regarded him as a hostage rather than a son. Sylvie therefore learned magic on her own, and seems to have tapped into a vein of chaos magic that allows her to manipulate minds much like Wanda Maximoff.
Lastly, it seems she chose to live permanently as Sylvie, as evidenced by her telling Loki that she doesn’t use his name “anymore”. So the character’s gender-fluidity is apparently an element in the story, and not just on literal paper. But Sylvie mentions that the Time Variance Authority has been hunting her for her entire life, meaning she varied from the confines of the Sacred Timeline at a very young age, perhaps when she chose to live as a woman. If that’s the case, it’s no wonder why she’d get so angry at Loki for calling her by his name. It would also explain why she’s going after the mysterious Time-Keepers who supposedly preside over the TVA – because what right do they have to judge who gets a place in the Sacred Timeline, and who doesn’t? We know other timeline alterations have been authorized by the TVA, so what does ultimately inform the Time-Keepers’ decisions?
Sylvie is looking for answers to all those questions when the episode opens, and we find her infiltrating the mind of a captured TVA agent named C-20 (Sasha Lane), probing for information about how to reach the Time-Keepers, and who guards them. You see, Sylvie is still operating under the assumption that the Time-Keepers actually exist, and I simply don’t think that’s the case. It’s telling that C-20’s intel leads Sylvie straight to the offices of Judge Ravonna Renslayer (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) – the same Ravonna Renslayer who, in the comics, was the one true love of Kang the Conqueror, a tyrannical villain intent on controlling his past, present, and future, by bending time to his will. It’s not like Renslayer has historically been a TVA operative in the comics: Marvel gave her this role for a purpose, and I think that purpose is abusing the authority of the TVA to destroy anything that could threaten Kang’s chances of conquest.
It wouldn’t be the TVA’s first shady deed. Sylvie later reveals that all of the organization’s millions of workers are Variants, whose memories of their former lives are deeply buried under layers of brainwashing and propaganda. Sylvie is able to briefly reconstruct an expensive resort restaurant from C-20’s memories during a trippy exchange accompanied by Hayley Kiyoko’s very apt “Demons”, but imagine if Sylvie – or Loki, with proper training – were to perform her trick on Mobius? I’d bet good money that in his past life, he was a jet-skier from the 1990’s.
Unfortunately, Sylvie’s attack on the TVA doesn’t go as planned, as Loki is forced to drag her through a time portal to escape from Renslayer. A lot happens in this sequence – which all takes place in the first few minutes of the upsettingly short episode – but Loki taking an opportunity to steal his daggers back from Hunter B-15’s locker, and Sylvie trying to use Loki’s life as leverage over Renslayer, only for the judge to encourage her to kill the God of Mischief, were definitely highlights of what I feel is only the warm-up to a much larger assault on the organization coming later in the series. Look back at the trailers, and there’s a shot of Renslayer standing on her desk wielding her baton that we still haven’t seen – so someone must get past her office’s gilded doors, and whatever they discover there will be huge.
The time portal unceremoniously deposits Loki and Sylvie on Lemantis-1, in the year 2077, shortly before a collision with a nearby moon is set to wipe out the purple planet’s entire civilization, unless they can escape upon a spaceship named the Ark. This survival quest gives the two characters plenty of time to bond and wear each other down a little – perhaps a little too much. Despite being given ample warning that “perverse fanfiction” would come out of the pairing, there’s still discourse around whether it’s problematic to ship what Twitter dubs “selfcest” – a thing that to the best of my knowledge is literally impossible in the real world barring any sudden advancements in cloning technology, and thus is not worth being alarmed about. That being said, Loki and Mobius are where it’s at, thank you very much.
In Mobius’ absence, however, I’ll give you that Di Martino and Hiddleston are loads of fun, and their dynamic is perhaps a bit more lively and energetic than Hiddleston and Wilson’s circuitous banter. Di Martino isn’t trying to parody Hiddleston right back at him, something that could easily have become grating: instead, her Sylvie has a world-weary frustration and cynicism that plays well off of Hiddleston’s nihilistic good cheer. There are some hilarious moments when the two accidentally discover a trait they have in common, such as when the two argue about who’s the most flagrantly hedonistic, but they also share a poignant outlook on love that comes with their timelessness, and an appreciation for sharp objects (although Di Martino carries a sword, and is a more efficient fighter all around – after shedding her burdensome cloak, ditching her tiara, and letting her hair down as she plunges into battle, she feels like she fully comes into her own).
The episode’s final battle, an experimental long-take sequence unusual for Marvel, is a beautiful display of both Sylvie and Loki’s magical abilities that makes me desperately want a video game based on the show, where a player could switch between the two characters. The frantic running and backtracking through the labyrinthine streets, the rotating camera movements, not to mention the central conceit of avoiding falling objects while progressing towards a prominent object in the middleground – the Ark – which blows up dramatically when a certain point is reached: all of it seems designed to mimic third-person gameplay, and it’s random yet glorious.
Unable to enjoy the visual splendor from their vantage point, Loki and Sylvie will have to find another way off of Lemantis-1 before it implodes. And with just three episodes left to go, I hope there’s enough time for them to explore the Multiverse that Sylvie created when she attacked the Sacred Timeline last week, while allowing for a satisfying conclusion to the mystery of the Time-Keepers. But the fact that Loki is all but officially confirmed to be getting a second season gives me hope that whatever happens, there’s more to explore in this bizarre, wonderful, corner of the MCU, and that by then Loki and Mobius will be the happy couple we honestly deserve.
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.
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.
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. villain, 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.
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.