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Loki, Ep. 2: The Variant

Welcome back to our episode-by-episode examination of Loki.  Fair warning, there are spoilers ahead.

Before we start, let’s recognize that Disney’s anti-piracy game is strong.  Whatever brief window there was that allowed me to take screenshots to better explain the visual tricks of the trade is now apparently closed.  I’ll do my best to work around it, but alas…things were a lot easier when I could just grab what I was looking for right from the scene in question.

Last week’s episode ended in a lethal ambush of TVA Minutemen by the variant Loki, and this week’s episode begins the same way.  This time it’s in 1985, in a tent at a Renaissance Fair in Oshkosh, WI.[1]Mark Gruenwald, the late Marvel editor and writer on whom Agent Mobius is based, was an Oshkosh native, so I imagine the location was chosen for his sake.  The ambush is set to Bonnie Tyler’s ‘Holding Out for a Hero’ — shades of Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Baby Driver (2017), but without the clever syncopation — and this time, in addition to dead TVA agents and stolen reset charges, the variant Loki kidnaps a still-living agent, C-20 (Sasha Lane).  Why?  Who knows?  I’ve got questions, gentle reader.  So many questions, which we’ll get to in due course.

Back at the TVA, Miss Minutes — a sort of animated TVA instructional program that’s somewhere between an artificial intelligence and a hologram — is quizzing Loki on what happens when nexus events branch past red line.  According to Loki and Miss Minutes, when a nexus event branches past red line, the nexus event can no longer be reset, which can ‘lead to the destruction of the timeline and the collapse of reality as we know it.’  And that’s never happened?  Ever?  What exactly would the collapse of reality as we know it look like?

In response to the Oshkosh attack, Mobius gathers a team that includes Loki and Hunter B-15.  According to Mobius, the TVA has ‘pruned,’ or eliminated, more versions of Loki than almost any other variant.  The powers of these Loki variants generally include shape-shifting and illusion-projecting (which our Loki insists is actually duplication casting, a completely different power)…but not, you’ll note, time traveling.  Hmm.

Loki asks why the TVA doesn’t simply arrive at a point in time before the ambush.  Mobius says that nexus events destabilize the time flow; with the branch still changing and growing, they’re obliged to show up in ‘real time,’ whatever that means.  Quizzed about reset charges, which ‘prune the affected radius of a branched timeline, allowing time to heal all its wounds,’ Loki notes that pruning sounds like a nice way of saying disintegrate everything in its vicinity.  Mobius doesn’t dispute the point.

If I’m understanding all this correctly, the TVA in Loki is dedicated to the maintenance of a single time line.  In this model, envision time like a long stretch of river.  The TVA knows where the river starts, where it ends up, and every twist, turn, rapid, and shallow along the way.  The TVA’s job is to maintain the flow of this river — what they call the Sacred Timeline — and to stop any potential distributary streams, i.e., nexus events, from becoming separate rivers in their own right.  Got all that?

The Gang Visits the Renfair.

Two things with the TVA and this Sacred Timeline business:

One, all of this is a lot different from the comics, where the TVA oversees (or tries to oversee) all of time and all of its infinite branches, across the entire universe, only stepping in when something or someone threatens to damage the structure of time and space in a manner that genuinely could collapse all of reality.  The TVA of the comics doesn’t subscribe to any sort of This is how it was meant to be philosophy.  In a universe of infinite possibilities and branching timelines, there’s no such thing as This is how it’s meant to be.  Nor are the TVA much concerned with life or death or moral conduct.  They’re bureaucratic monitors, not enforcers; less police, and more like the DMV, say.  When they do attempt to enforce something, they outsource it to mercenary specialists.

Two, with the TVA of the show and its singular maintenance of a singular timeline, there shouldn’t be any now or then.  Going back to our Sacred Timeline as a river analogy, so far as the TVA is concerned, all things are simultaneously happening, have already happened, and will happen.  The TVA is dealing with the entire river at once, and not experiencing its flow from any one point on its shores.  The TVA knowing an event isn’t supposed to happen doesn’t make sense unless they have knowledge of what should happen.  Another way to look at it is that the TVA are caretakers of a Sacred Book, and they’re constantly poring over it to make sure no one has amended the text.

The team moves to investigate the crime scene in the tent, discovering that Hunter C-20 is missing.  They’d have probably discovered that a lot faster had anyone thought to bring a flashlight, but we forge the chains we wear in life.  “He’s taking hostages now?” says Mobius.  “The Variant’s never taken a hostage before.”

One of the Minutemen suggests that maybe the variant Loki pruned C-20.  “A Loki couldn’t have gotten the jump on C-20,” says an indignant Hunter B-15.  It’s a bold statement, considering a Loki has gotten the jump on at least eight entire teams of Minutemen in the past ‘week’ or so.

When the Minutemen prepare to spread out to search for C-20, Loki tells them that if they leave the tent, they’ll end up like their predecessors.  “I see a scheme,” says Loki, “and in that scheme I see myself.”  Uh huh. 

If anyone in the TVA had more than two brain cells to rub together, they’d know right off the bat that Loki’s full of shit.  One, Loki’s always full of shit, and two, why should Loki care if a bunch of Minutemen get waxed?  He’d probably wax them himself if he thought he was up to the job.  Instead, the TVA agents stand around listening while Loki gives a Littlefinger-inspired speech that’s a mess of self-aggrandizing hot air, and then they prune the timeline with a reset charge.  Mobius’s investigative team knew the variant Loki was responsible for the attack before they left the TVA, so literally the only thing their investigation turned up was that C-20 is missing instead of confirmed dead.

It never seems to occur to the TVA that the dead Minutemen might just be collateral damage, and that the real target of the variant Loki’s attacks are the reset charges each team carries.  That’s par for the course with the TVA — they’re a remarkably brainless bunch, even by MCU standards — but does it occur to Loki?  It should — in fact, it should be impossible for it not to — but does it?  As a general rule, the MCU doesn’t do duplicity.  Just off the top of my head, I can’t remember any instance in any MCU movie or TV show where what we saw or heard wasn’t essentially true.  It doesn’t leave me hopeful for a show about a guy who’s supposed to be the best liar creation has to offer.

Ravonna Renslayer (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).

Back at TVA HQ, Agent Mobius meets up with his supervisor, Ravonna (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the judge from last episode.  She’s understandably a little conflicted about Mobius’s conscription of the God of Mischief.  “Look, I know you have a soft spot for broken things,” says Ravonna.

“I don’t think so,” says Mobius.

“Yes, you do,” says Ravonna, “but Loki is an evil, lying scourge.  That is the part he plays on the Sacred Timeline.”

“Maybe he wants to mix it up.  Sometimes you get tired of playing the same part.  Is that possible?  He can change?”

What Ravonna should say is, Are we still talking about Loki?  What she says instead is, “Not unless the Time Keepers decree it, and then it shall be so.”

“And how are the old Time Keepers?”

“How do you think?”

“I don’t know, ’cause I’ve never met them.”

Ravonna tells Mobius that the Time Keepers are monitoring every aspect of the case, and that Mobius is down to his last chance with Loki.

Mobius sets Loki to reviewing ‘each and every one’ of the Variant’s case files, to see if there’s anything the TVA missed.  “Well, you’re idiots.  I suspect you probably missed a lot,” says Loki.

“That’s why I’m lucky I got you for a little bit longer,” says Mobius.  “Let me park you at this desk, and don’t be afraid to really lean into this work.  Here’s a good trick for you:  pretend your life depends on it.”

The ensuing research scene owes a visual and sonic debt to David Fincher’s Se7en (1995), mirroring as it does Detective Somerset’s trip to the library with Detective Mills’s concurrent research at home.  Even the music — Bach’s Suite No. 3 in D Major — is the same.

Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in Loki (2021), d. Kate Herron, dp. Autumn Durald
David Mills (Brad Pitt) in Se7en (1995), d. David Fincher, dp. Darius Khondji

The threat of imminent disintegration does indeed seem to motivate Loki beyond his usual bluster and bullshit.  Looking into the destruction of Asgard, Loki notices that no time variance is detected.  Loki rushes to find Mobius, who asks him if he’s read every file pertaining to the Variant.  “The answer isn’t in the files,” Loki tells him.  “It’s on the timeline.  He’s hiding in apocalypses.”  Essentially, Loki explains, if a time traveler sticks to apocalyptic events, nothing the time traveler says or does will make a difference or be noted, as the environment and everyone in it is destined for destruction in any case.

To test Loki’s theory, he and Mobius travel to Pompeii and the catastrophic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD.  Loki contrives to make quite the scene, but sure enough, once the volcano erupts…zero variance energy, no branching in the timeline.  “The TVA would never even know we were here,” says Loki.  “If it were me, this is where I would hide.”

Mobius sums it up:  “Doomsdays.  The Variant’s been ambushing our soldiers and hiding out in doomsdays to cover his tracks.  In order for this theory to hold, the disasters have to be naturally occurring, sudden, no warning, no survivors.”

I’m not sure that tracks.  Couldn’t the Variant just as well hide in the distant, pre-human past?  And why would the disaster need to be naturally occurring?  Wouldn’t any sufficiently catastrophic and lethal event do?  Ah, well.  Why nitpick?

“How many of those could there be?” says Loki.  I’d have guessed about a zillion.  Mobius says he doesn’t know, but that he and Loki are going to find out.  Their endurance gives out before they find the answer — I guess even gods and creations of the Time Keepers are susceptible to fatigue, and aside from Miss Minutes, the TVA doesn’t seem to have any use for computers.  The pair find themselves in a TVA cafeteria, having a discussion that begins at jet skis, proceeds to faith, and concludes with one of those leaps of deductive reasoning you only ever see in the movies.

Mobius has a magazine at his desk that features jet skis, which Mobius admires as a beautiful union of form and function.  Mobius has never ridden a jet ski, but he likes to read about them, as they remind him of what the TVA is fighting for.

“You really believe in all this stuff, don’t you?” says Loki.

“I don’t get hung up on believe, not believe.  I just accept what is,” says Mobius.

“Three magic lizards…”

“Time keepers.”

“…created the TVA and everyone in it, including you?”

“Right.”

“See, every time I start to admire your intelligence, you say something like that.”

“Okay, who created you, Loki?”

“A frost giant of Jotunheim.”

“And who raised you?”

“Odin of Asgard.”

“Odin, God of the Heavens.  Asgard, mystical realm beyond the stars.  Frost giants…listen to yourself.”

“It’s not the same thing.”

“It’s exactly the same thing, because if you think too hard about where any of us came from, who we truly are?  It sounds kind of ridiculous.”

I’ll point out here that it’s not exactly the same thing, or even close to the same thing:  Loki literally is a frost giant, has personally been to Jotunheim, was raised in Odin’s household as a prince, and lived the majority of his life in Asgard.  None of that is a matter of belief or a tenet of faith for Loki — it’s all straight fact — whereas Mobius by his own admission has never actually met his creators.

“Existence is chaos,” continues Mobius.  “Nothing makes any sense, so we try to make some sense of it.  I’m just lucky that the chaos I emerged into gave me all this:  my own glorious purpose.  Because the TVA is my life; and it’s real because I believe it’s real.”

Loki concedes Mobius’s belief, but if everything is written — past, present, and future — then there’s no such thing as free will.  And how does it all end?  Mobius claims it’s a work in progress.  What then, Loki asks, are the Time Keepers waiting for?  (He doesn’t ask how it can be a work in progress if the TVA’s claim to know everything that’s supposed to happen is true, but I wish he would have.)  According to Mobius, while the TVA protects the past, the Time Keepers are ‘toiling away in their chamber, untangling the epilogue from its infinite branches.’

“I see,” says Loki.  “So when they’re finished, what happens then?”

“So are we,” says Mobius.  “No more nexus events.  Just order, and we meet in peace at the end of time.  Nice, right?”

There’s no way any Loki from any reality would find any of that nice.  “Only order?  No chaos?  Sounds boring.”  He’s not wrong.

“I’m sure it does to you.”

“You know, you called me a scared little boy,” says Loki, “but I know something children don’t:  that no one bad is ever truly bad, and no one good is ever truly good.”  It’s a god-awful, ridiculous line — you don’t even have to delve into the realms of super-hero fantasy to find people who are truly bad or truly good — but the mention of scared little boy triggers Mobius’s memory of the young French boy from episode 1.  The boy had some Kablooie candy given to him by the Loki Variant that obviously was not native to 16th century France.  According to Mobius, Kablooie was only sold regionally on Earth from 2047 to 2051.  Looking for apocalyptic events during that time span, Loki narrows the event down to Alabama in 2050.  I’m not entirely sure how he narrows it down to that, but he does.

Kablooie

Now, if I were Mobius, I might be thinking that the variant Loki had given that candy to that boy with a purpose.  If I were a particularly cynical and suspicious TVA agent, I’d worry that it was the Loki in front of me who was leading me to virtually every conclusion I had.  And I might even wonder if the Loki in front of me and the variant Loki were not in fact the same Loki at different points in time, or if the two were not perhaps in cahoots.

Mobius gets Judge Ravonna to sign off on a detachment for 2050 Haven Hills, Alabama.  Ravonna is rightly skeptical — “And this is all based on a theory from the variant who just blew your previous mission?” — but okays the mission, with the provision that the blame will fall squarely on Mobius if it doesn’t work out.  What would that look like?  Would Mobius be retired / recycled and replaced with a superior version?  Mobius 2.0?

The leader of the Haven Hills detachment is Hunter B-15.  After she nixes the idea of Loki being given his knives by Mobius, she gives the briefing:  “Roxxcart is a vast superstore common to the era.  It consists of a series of sprawling sections, including a large warehouse.  This warehouse is being used by civilians as a shelter trying to ride out the storm.  Remember, this is a class ten apocalypse.  While the Variant shouldn’t know we’re coming, he could be hiding anywhere and should be considered hostile.  So stay alert.  Every time there is an attack, the Variant steals a reset charge.  He’s planning something.  We just don’t know what.  So keep an eye out for the missing charges, and if you see a Loki, prune it.”

No one raises a hand to remind B-15 that the God of Mischief is a shape-shifter, so how would any of them know whether they saw a Loki or not?  Also, if the TVA is as certain as they seem to be that they’re going to find the variant Loki at this apocalyptic event, why not just drop a bomb, eliminate the entire mess at one go?[2]I couldn’t help but think of Jessica Chastain’s implacable Maya from Zero Dark Thirty (2012):  “Quite frankly, I didn’t even want to use you guys, with your dip and … Continue reading  Maybe the TVA doesn’t have bombs, and rave-stick truncheons are the pinnacle of their weapons technology.  Who knows?

The Gang Visits Roxxcart.

It isn’t a terribly large team that’s sent to the apocalyptic event — it doesn’t look any larger to my eyes than the teams that the variant Loki has already successfully eliminated — and their firepower is further diminished when Hunter B-15 elects to split the team to search separate locations.  Maybe the TVA suffers from a personnel shortage as well as a weapons technology deficiency, the Time Keepers too preoccupied in their chamber to make more TVA agents.  Over the objections of Mobius — “Of course he’s a threat!  Do you not remember the Time Theater?  That’s why I want him with me!” — B-15 takes Loki with her.

Time Theater?

All of it is being watched by the variant Loki on the Roxxcart security cameras, who sets some kind of timer for 20 minutes before leaving.

Walking through the giant Roxxcart store, Loki and B-15 come across a young man shopping for Azaleas (“It’s a hurricane sale,” he explains.  “Half off.”).  When B-15 gets close to him — which, you know, she wouldn’t have to do if she had a weapon with a range longer than her arm — the young man reaches out, a green energy aura passing from him to her.  He collapses, and the now-possessed B-15 turns around to face Loki.

“Is he dead?” our Loki asks of the collapsed young man.

“No.  They usually survive,” says the variant Loki / B-15.  “So.  You’re the fool the TVA brought in to hunt me down.”

While the two Lokis get acquainted, Mobius and his team locate the missing Hunter C-20.  “It’s real,” she says.  “I gave it away.  The Time Keepers.  I gave it away how to find them.”

After the possessed B-15 passes her possession on to a store clerk, our Loki tells the variant Loki that he’s going to overthrow the TVA, and he could use a qualified lieutenant.  The variant Loki declines the offer:  “I’m not interested in ruling the Time Variance Authority.”

“If you don’t want to rule the TVA, then what do you want?”

“It doesn’t matter.  You’re too late.”

Loki notices one of the reset charges on a nearby-shelf, and mistakes it for a bomb, despite having seen plenty of reset charges up close.  “I see,” he says.  “That’s your plan.  Lure us all here so you can blow the place up.”

While Loki’s talking, the possessed store clerk disappears into the shadows, and is replaced by a possessed burly redneck — he’s called Country Hoss in the credits! — who proceeds to beat Loki up.  Loki straight-up tussled with Thor in past movies, but now he’s getting his ass whupped by the Cable Guy.  Loki’s the son of a frost giant.  He shouldn’t be getting tossed around by the likes of Country Hoss, no matter how possessed Country Hoss is.

Loki takes his beating, but recovers in time to watch Country Hoss set the final reset charges.  “Brace yourself, Loki,” says Country Hoss, and then collapses, his possession at an end.  Loki turns to see the variant Loki herself — yes, herself — there in the flesh.  “This isn’t about you,” she says.

Variant Lady Loki (Sophia Di Martino).

The timers on the reset charges hit zero, and they all begin to go off at once.  Dozens of them, disappearing into little dimension doors that open up beneath him.

The screens at the TVA begin to light up like Christmas trees.  “Somebody just bombed the Sacred Timeline!” says one distressed TVA monitor.  He’s not wrong; branches begin spreading off the Timeline in dozens, maybe hundreds, of spots.

Back at the Roxxcart superstore, the variant Loki opens up a TVA dimension door — she’s pretty handy with their technology — gives our Loki a little wave, and steps through.  Mobius and his team come running hard on her heels, calling for Loki to wait.  Rather than stick around to face pissed-off TVA hunters and possible disintegration, Loki elects to follow the variant Loki through the dimension door just before it disappears, leaving the frustrated TVA agents behind.

Cue credits!

____

Let’s get pruned…

  • I don’t know how I missed it from episode 1, but the TVA’s set design borrows heavily from Fritz Lang’s influential Metropolis (1927).
TVA skyline, Loki.
  • I strongly suspect we’re going to find that there’s more than a little Wizard of Oz-style bullshit going on behind this Time Keepers story.  I also strongly suspect we’ll discover the variant Loki herself was or is a rogue agent of the TVA.  In the mythology, Loki is a shape-shifter, not tied to any one gender or even any one species, so I wouldn’t completely rule out the idea that the variant Loki is our Loki at a different point in time.  I don’t think it’s likely — probably too fussy for the MCU — but I wouldn’t rule it out.
  • In the comics, agents of the TVA are, with rare exceptions, all the same.  Part clone, part drone.  They don’t have personalities, don’t even have faces, and they’re not human in any sense of that term as we’d understand it.  Their ‘lives’ are spent monitoring their timeline, and that’s what they do.  In the show, Mobius says that everyone in the TVA was created by the Time Keepers.  So why create them as individuals?  The TVA agents in the show all look and act distinct from one another.  Casey at the front desk says he spends his life at the desk, but Mobius takes breaks to read jet ski magazines and eat lunch, and we see from this episode that he feels the effects of fatigue.  TVA hunters seem to experience pain and fear and death as humans do.  They can be knocked out, stabbed, beaten, etc.  They’re male and female.  Why?  Do the hunters get together to make little hunters?  Why wouldn’t the Time Keepers make all their TVA creations the same, and create them in vast multitudes?  If a hunter team gets eliminated, why not just make more hunters?
City skyline, Metropolis.
  • At the risk of coming across as a miserable, pedantic bastard, the TVA’s weapons (or lack thereof) make me squirm with the most severe displeasure.  All of history, past and present, to choose from, and the best weapon they could steal or invent is a stick with a night light on the end of it?  One that makes cocking rifle sounds but doesn’t actually do cocked rifle stuff?  The hunters would literally be better off carrying slingshots, or even paint-ball guns.
  • Loki’s first appearance as a woman was Thor #5 (Jan 2008) by J. Michael Straczynski, Olivier Coipel, and Mark Morales.  The female aspect didn’t last long; he’s still traditionally represented as a male character, with the understanding that such things are kind of fluid where Loki’s concerned.
  • Roxxcart is a huge WalMart-type super-store likely being run by Roxxon, the Marvel Universe’s official evil energy corporation.  Roxxon’s first appearance was Captain America #180 (Dec 1974), created by Steve Englehart and Sal Buscema.
  • The variant Loki’s wave at the end of the episode made me think of Hermione Corfield from We Hunt Together (2020).
We Hunt Together GIF by Showtime
Hermione Corfield, We Hunt Together (2020).

And that’s that. Questions or comments, please let me know!

References

References
1 Mark Gruenwald, the late Marvel editor and writer on whom Agent Mobius is based, was an Oshkosh native, so I imagine the location was chosen for his sake.
2 I couldn’t help but think of Jessica Chastain’s implacable Maya from Zero Dark Thirty (2012):  “Quite frankly, I didn’t even want to use you guys, with your dip and Velcro and all your gear bullshit.  I wanted to drop a bomb.”

2 replies on “Loki, Ep. 2: The Variant”

As always, an entertaining write up.

I must admit that, thus far, this isn’t really feeling very Loki / Asgard-y.

Some fun dialogue here and there, but I’m not drawn in and chomping at the bit for the next episode yet.

I had that problem with WandaVision too, and that landed more or less alright.

Certainly I’ll be watching all of it, but so far I find myself most interested in what they plan on doing with Casey.

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