It’s the end (for now) of our episode-by-episode look at Loki. As always, spoilers lie in wait, threatening evil and ruin.
Years ago, back when I’d find myself in a movie theater two or three times a week, I took in a late showing of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ (2004). It was a week night in a suburban theater, so but for one other fellow way on the other side of the room, I had the place to myself. If you’re unaware or have never seen it, Passion concerns itself with the last day of Jesus’ life, culminating with his crucifixion. Gibson’s movie runs 127 minutes, including credits, and I’d wager that at least 90 of those minutes are given over to flesh-shredding, blood-spattering, bone-cracking mayhem and torture of the most graphic sort. If mainstream American filmgoers have ever been exposed to a movie more relentlessly cruel and violent than this one, I can’t imagine what it might be. There are virtually no concessions to audience expectation. Passion‘s dialogue is primarily in Aramaic, a dialect that very few people still speak…and by some accounts I’ve read, Gibson had to be persuaded to add subtitles! Nor are there any accommodations made to catch anyone up on the story or provide any context. If you know the details and the principle characters surrounding Jesus’ arrest and death, great; if you don’t, too bad. I remember sitting there in the theater, watching this deeply strange and unsettling film, and thinking: Who the fuck is this movie for? Like, seriously…who’s the intended audience for this thing?
Now, full disclosure here: while I couldn’t say I remotely ‘liked’ Passion of the Christ — I’m not sure the word like could or should possibly apply to this movie — I did and do admire it as a singular, personal work of art. It’s utterly uncompromising. That a half-witted hoard of religious nutbars and right-wing randos with a torture porn fetish latched on to the film shouldn’t necessarily count against it (though if you do wish to count it, I’m not the one to argue you out of it). Whatever Passion‘s faults, insincerity and an unwillingness to commit to its own narrative are not among them.
Which is where Loki comes in.
Because though Loki exists at the opposite end of the cinematic spectrum from Passion in terms of intent, commitment, and effectiveness, I found myself asking the exact same question about it: Who is this show for? Setting aside that portion of fandom that reflexively grants their uncritical love to any- and everything Marvel Studios pumps out as an affirmation of their own identity, I’m curious who — if anyone — is watching Loki and thinking, Goddamn, but this show’s really got it going on. Honey, look…there’s an alligator! What will those scamps at Marvel Studios think of next?!
After six episodes comprising one season now in the books, I couldn’t begin to tell you what Loki was about or what, if anything, it was aiming for. We’ve got a God of Mischief who’s neither mischievous nor remotely god-like, and who’s…what? On his way to becoming a better, more trustworthy and civic-minded person by falling unironically in love with a version of himself? Only once does anyone acknowledge or even mention the inherently weird perversity of a person falling in love with themselves; other than that, the show elects to play Loki and Sylvie’s chaste middle-school love affair completely straight. What might love look like between a pair of immortal nihilistic liars who might not be capable of change? It’s an interesting question, but not one Loki shows any interest in exploring. (More than once during the course of this series, I found myself wishing we could dispense with all this Loki / TVA nonsense in favor of watching two characters played by Tom Hiddleston and Sophia Di Martino fall in love over witticisms and tea in the cafe around the corner from Hugh Grant’s Notting Hill bookstore.)
Even by the MCU’s usual standards of zero nutrition carnival food, Loki comes off as something like diet cotton candy. It’s conceptual emptiness deluxe: a sugar-substitute confection of color and puffed air that takes more calories to consume and digest than it provides. The show’s technical execution — direction, photography, editing, etc. — is more than adequate, and at times even dazzling, but the banality of what’s being executed never lets Loki take flight. It’s motion without meaning, spectacle without depth, a show whose parts add up to less than zero. There’s no point at which Loki commits itself to…well, anything. It’s not drama, it’s not comedy, it’s not satire or adventure or suspense or romance. There’s no there there. Just a tepid mix of light comedy and rote moralizing in a context-free vacuum.
Following their enchantment of Alioth in the Void at the end of time last episode, Loki and Sylvie gain access to the sub-void beyond the end of time. A ruined asteroid floats at the center of this sub-void, ringed by a representation of the Sacred Timeline. Upon this ruined asteroid stands a dark and ominous castle. Sylvie and Loki approach the castle, but before Sylvie can kick the door in, it opens of its own accord and they’re granted entrance.
They’re greeted by Miss Minutes, the cartoon graphic app from the TVA, who welcomes them to the Citadel at the End of Time. She congratulates them; they’ve had a long journey to get here, and He Who Remains, the master of the Citadel, is impressed. According to Miss Minutes, HWR created all and controls all, and he has an offer for Loki and Sylvie: they get to be reinserted back into the timeline where they can be together and essentially have everything they want. Tempting, but the offer is rejected, perhaps because even Loki and Sylvie have the sense to realize that a being who created all and controls all wouldn’t need to bargain. “We write our own destiny now,” says a defiant Loki.
“Oh, sure you do,” says Miss Minutes. “Good luck with that.” She disappears, reappearing in Ravonna’s chamber. When Ravonna asks what took her so long, Miss Minutes tells her some things had to get worked out, but the files Ravonna needs are being downloaded. Ravonna complains that the files in question aren’t what she asked for, but Miss Minutes tells her that HWR thinks this will be more useful. “Happy reading!” Miss Minutes chirps, and disappears again.
Back at the Citadel, He Who Remains makes his dramatic appearance, emerging from an elevator. He’s a disarmingly friendly and charismatic man (played by the disarmingly friendly and charismatic Jonathan Majors), clad all in purple, munching on an apple. “This is wild. The two of you…same person…I mean, it’s a little unnatural, but…” He invites Loki and Sylvie up to his office.
“Not what you were expecting, hmm?” says HWR in the elevator, his back to his guests.
“You’re just a man,” says a disbelieving Loki.
“Flesh and blood,” HRW agrees, munching on his apple. “Don’t tell me I’m a disappointment.”
“No,” says Sylvie. “Just a little bit easier to kill.” She swings her sword at his back, but he vanishes, reappearing just behind her, giggling. She tries it twice more, each time with the same result. The elevator opens to a large study or library, complete with a fire in the fireplace — it’s like Doctor Strange’s man cave, but moodier. HRW invites them in, offering them seats in front of his desk, and serves them espresso.
At the TVA, Mobius has returned from the Void to confront Ravonna in her office. Ravonna apologizes for having ‘pruned’ him, but says she couldn’t let him get in the way of ‘our mission.’ Mobius points out that there is no mission: the Time-Keepers are fake, and everyone in the TVA is a Variant. Ravonna insists that it can’t all have been for nothing, and tries to call for back-up. Mobius tells her now that the truth is out, calling for help isn’t going to work out the way she thinks it will.
Cut to a high school corridor in 2018, the now-freed Hunter B-15 leading other TVA hunters on a chase that ends in the office of one Rebecca Tourminet…who looks exactly like Ravonna. Hmm. And this is where we might wish that we’d been presented with some sort of guide for what the rules are with all this time-traveling. Is Ravonna a Variant or is she not? If she is, then who is Rebecca Tourminet? Are there versions of Mobius and Hunter B-15 still extant in their respective timelines?
In the Citadel at the End of Time, He Who Remains is explaining to Loki and Sylvie why they’re unable to kill him: it’s because he knows everything that is going to happen, and is thus able to pre-program his TemPad to anticipate every attack. Every step Loki and Sylvie took to get here, HRW says, was on the road that he paved for them; and everything that needs to happen, will happen, to put everyone in the right frame of mind to ‘finish the quest.’
“So it’s all just a game?” says Loki. “It’s all a manipulation?” You might imagine that a God of Mischief would be more than okay with everything just being a game and / or a manipulation — that he might in fact insist on treating things like a game or a manipulation even when no one else saw it that way or wanted to play — but I guess that’s some other God of Mischief in some other show.
“Interesting that your mind would go to that,” says HRW. He asks Sylvie if she thinks she can trust Loki; if indeed, she’s capable of trusting anyone at all. Loki has a peculiar obsession with the concept of trust that’s weirdly out of place given the ostensible nature and function of its title character(s). This isn’t the last we’ll hear of this trust business.
At the TVA, Mobius tells Ravonna that he thinks people are ready to hear a little truth;Given everything that’s happened in this country since 2016, I got a bitter little chuckle out of that one. namely, that the TVA is a lie. Ravonna argues, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me, that it’s a necessary lie; that without the TVA pruning the timeline, there’d be chaos. Mobius counters that there’s nothing necessary about sending people off to violent death in the Void, and that what Ravonna’s afraid of isn’t chaos but free will.
“Free will?” Ravonna scoffs. “Only one person gets free will: the one in charge.” She announces her intent to leave, opening a TVA dimension door. Mobius tries to stop her, but she easily defeats and disarms him. He asks her where she’s going. “In search of free will,” she says, stepping through the door and presumably into next season, as this is the last we see of her.
One of the odder traits of Loki is that the crux of every episode turns on a conversation — a truthful conversation, no less — in which people speak their minds at length and in genuine fashion: Loki and Mobius in episodes 1 and 2, Loki and Sylvie on the train in episode 3, and so on. As with everything Loki, the execution is usually sound enough, but the concept is all the way wrong. We’d be hard-pressed to find a character less inclined (and maybe less able) to tell anyone the truth about what’s really on his mind than Loki. Trust is for children and dogs is maybe the only thing the showrunners put in their title character’s mouth that really fits. In any case, in a season finale that’s practically all conversation, we come at last to the one that’s central to this episode.
He Who Remains tells Loki and Sylvie that he understands their moral objections to the TVA, but while his methods are deceptive, the TVA’s essential mission isn’t. Without the TVA, HWR explains, “everything burns.” Loki asks HWR what he’s so afraid of.
A long, considered pause, and then HWR says: “Me.”
“And just who are you?” says Sylvie.
“Oh, I’ve been dubbed many names by many people. A ruler. A conqueror. He Who Remains. But it’s not as simple as a name.” Eons ago, HWR tells them, before the TVA, one of his variants lived on earth in the 31st century. A scientist, this variant discovered there were universes stacked on top of his own. Other versions of this scientist were learning the same thing, and they made contact with one another. For awhile, there was peace. They shared technology and knowledge, each using their universe’s own advances to improve the others. “However,” says HWR, “not every version of me was so pure of heart. To some of us, new worlds meant only one thing: new lands to be conquered. The peace between realities erupted into all-out war, each variant fighting to preserve their universe and annihilate the others.”
It was almost the end, HWR tells them, of everything and everyone.
“And then the Time-Keepers came along and saved us all,” says Sylvie, bitterness in her voice.
“No,” says HWR. “This is where we diverge from the dogma.” That first variant, he explains, discovered a creature created from all the tears in reality. A creature capable of consuming time and space itself: Alioth. HWR harnessed Alioth’s power, weaponizing it to end the Multiversal War. He then isolated this timeline — the so-called Sacred Timeline — and created the TVA to stop any further branching, resulting in ages of cosmic harmony.
“You came to kill the Devil, right?” says HWR. “Well, if you think I’m evil, just wait until you meet my variants. And…that’s the gambit. Stifling order or cataclysmic chaos. You may hate the dictator, but something far worse is going to fill that void if you dispose of him.”
“Or…you’re a liar,” says Sylvie.
“Or I’m a liar,” agrees HWR.
“So you just continue to prune innocent timelines?” says Loki, and again, you can feel the tension between concept and execution here. Why would a God of Mischief care about innocent timelines, or subscribe to the notion that innocence itself was anything other than childhood’s lack of experience or the perpetual stupidity of people without the wit to get up to anything interesting? I can well believe that Loki would object to having his free will curtailed, but I don’t know why he’d give a damn about anyone else’s.
HWR proposes that Loki and Sylvie take his place at the head of the TVA, and do the pruning themselves. He presents them again with their dilemma (in case they, and we, missed it the first time around): kill him and destroy the TVA, which results in not one devil, but an infinite number of devils; or Loki and Sylvie take his place and run the operation.
Assuming that He Who Remains is telling the truth — and there’s good reason to assume he is, because as we’ve covered before, people don’t lie in Marvel movies unless it’s made abundantly clear that they’re lying — why choose Loki and Sylvie, of all people, as his replacements? One could make the argument that this is the way events play out, have always played out, will always play out — that time, essentially, is a set course — but there’s very little in this series to suggest that that’s the case. The branching timelines would suggest that different actions simply create new versions of reality. And if, as HWR claims, he’s simply tired of running things, why not choose Ravonna as his replacement? She’s dedicated to the cause, has all the qualifications and experience one could want, and can step into the job immediately. As for the two Gods of Mischief, why not a third choice? Namely, option C, All of the Above: take over the TVA and kill He Who Remains. Alas, that never seems to occur to either of them.
“You treated real people’s lives like some kind of game,” an indignant Sylvie says to HWR. It’s bold talk for a Goddess of Mischief. For one, treating people’s lives like some kind of game is pretty much her cosmological job description. For another, if we can trust what we were told way back in episode 1, Sylvie has killed at least two dozen TVA hunters, knowing full well they were brainwashed Variants.
HWR tells Sylvie it was nothing personal. Sylvie says it was personal to her, and a frustrated HWR tells her to grow up. “We’re all villains here. We’ve all done horrible, terrible, horrific things. But now…we…you…have a chance to do them for a good reason.” The camera closes in on He Who Remains, and for the first time he looks somewhat uncertain. “We just crossed the threshold,” he says. The camera pulls back out, far enough to include us looking over the inside shoulders of Loki and Sylvie. This is one of only two times in this episode that the camera pushes in like this. In general, a close-up indicates something personal or important, so we can surmise that in this moment, He Who Remains has a realization that’s so intensely personal to him that he practically forgets there are people in the room with him.
HWR admits he fibbed. He knew everything that was going to happen up to a certain point…but that point has just passed. Now, he says, he has no idea how the rest of this is going to go. “I’m being candid,” he says cheerfully. Outside the Citadel, the Sacred Timeline begins to branch.
“So that’s it?” says Loki. “That’s it? This is what happens at the end of time? And now you’re just gonna sit there with all that freedom and let us decide your fate?”
“Yes!” says HWR. “What’s the worst that can happen? You either take over and my life’s work continues, or you plunge a blade in my chest and an infinite amount of me start another Multiversal War, and I just end up right back here anyways.”
Sylvie is out of her chair in a flash, aiming a killing blow with her blade at HWR. Loki stops her, asks her to hang on a moment so they can talk about it, but Sylvie’s in no mood for talking; she’s for finishing what she started. She attacks again, and Loki stops her again, while He Who Remains looks on, amused.
Loki thinks that He Who Remains is telling the truth. What if by killing him they make things worse? Sylvie concludes by this line of reasoning that what Loki really wants is the TVA throne, which Loki denies. “What was I thinking, trusting you?” she says. Loki counters, saying that she never trusted him, and here we are again with this show’s bizarre obsession with the concept of trust. They’re both fucking Gods of Mischief. No one in their right minds would or should trust either of them, and who would know better not to trust a God of Mischief than another God of Mischief? Loki and Sylvie both have lived for decades, if not centuries or millennia, as back-stabbing, treacherous narcissists, and now they’re crying about people not trusting them? It’s ridiculous.
“Why aren’t we seeing this the same way?” says Sylvie.
“Because you can’t trust,” Loki says, “and I can’t be trusted.”
“Then I guess we’re in a pickle.”
She attacks, and now the pair begin fighting for real. Sylvie appears to get the better of it, but again, just as she’s about to kill He Who Remains, Loki gets in the way of her blade, begging her to stop. He throws his own weapon away, and manages to calm her somewhat. Loki tells Sylvie he doesn’t want to hurt her, nor does he want a throne; he just wants her to be okay. She starts to cry, and then kisses him, with sorrow and longing. “But I’m not you,” she says, breaking the kiss. She opens a TVA dimension door behind Loki with her TemPad, and kicks him through it back to TVA headquarters. Before he can recover or jump back through the door, it closes, leaving him shocked and broken hearted. It’s a good moment for Tom Hiddleston, who isn’t typically asked to do much more in this role than speak clearly and look indignant.
Free from interference, Sylvie asks He Who Remains if he isn’t going to beg for his life. HWR seems more perversely delighted than frightened or disturbed. He allows he could beg for his life…but doesn’t. With nothing more to be said, Sylvie simply looks him in the eye, draws back her blade, and plunges it into his heart. Pretty hardcore for a Disney joint. He Who Remains just laughs…or laughs as much as a person can laugh with a small sword sticking out of their chest, puncturing vital organs. “See you soon,” he tells Sylvie, and dies. Her life’s mission complete, Sylvie sinks to the floor and begins to cry, while outside the Citadel, there’s a cracking sound as timelines begin to branch in their fractal millions.
Perhaps sensing the change in the air or the currents of destiny suddenly flowing another way, Loki rouses himself to search the halls of the TVA for Mobius. He finds him in the archives section, Mobius in mid-conversation with Hunter B-15. “That’s, what, 63 new branches in this unit alone?” he says.
“Does he want us to just let them all branch?” asks B-15.
“At this point,” says Mobius, “how are we even gonna stop it?”
“We can’t!” shouts Loki, interrupting. Mobius looks puzzled as Loki breathlessly tries to explain. “It’s done, Mobius. We made a terrible mistake. We freed the Timeline. We found him beyond the storm. A Citadel at the End of Time. He’s terrifying. He planned everything. He’s seen everything. He knows everything. It’s complicated, okay? But someone is coming. Countless different versions of a very dangerous person, and they’re all set on war. We need to prepare.”
“Take it easy,” says Mobius, who clearly doesn’t recognize Loki or understand a word he’s saying. “You’re an analyst, right? What division are you from? What’s your name? Who are you?”
The realization that he’s likely in a whole other timeline from where he started begins to dawn on Loki, and when he looks where the giant statues of the Time-Keepers were, what he sees instead is a statue of He Who Remains.
Kang the Conqueror.
And…scene. Roll credits.
This, that, and the other…
- Though He Who Remains is never explicitly referred to as Kang the Conqueror, that’s exactly who he is. The purple color scheme, the ‘ruler, conqueror’ line, the 31st century origin story, and the armor on the statue at the end of the episode…all of it points to Kang the Conqueror.
- Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Kang’s first comics appearance was Avengers #8, Sep 1964. Maybe. In the comics, there’s plenty of evidence that different people — Immortus, the Scarlet Centurion, Rama-Tut — are all Kang at different points in time. Oh, and he’s probably related to Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four, and maybe to Doctor Doom as well. It is, as Loki says at the end of this episode, complicated. Jonathan Majors gives Kang a cheerful eccentricity that’s not found in the comics version of the character, where he’s more like a futuristic Genghis Khan with a time machine.
- In addition to Lee and Kirby, Kang’s origin story in Loki borrows from several other sources in the comics. The main ones are Steve Englehart’sIf his name sounds familiar, Steve Englehart was the writer who put the Vision and the Scarlet Witch together. He’s also the fellow who wrote the Secret Empire stories in Captain America, … Continue reading Kang stories in Avengers #129 – 135, Giant-Size #2 – 4 (Nov 1974 – Jun 1975); Roger Stern, John Buscema, and Tom Palmer’s Council of Kangs story in Avengers #267 – 269 (May – Jul 1986); and Kurt Busiek and various artists’ Avengers #41 – 55 (Jun 2001 – Aug 2002), which features Kang doing some legit conquerering and culminates in a straight-up ass-whupping courtesy of Captain America. Finally, Jonathan Hickman toyed with the idea of a council of variants getting together to share ideas and solve problems, though he did it with Reed Richards in Fantastic Four #570 – 611 (Oct 2009 – Dec 2012).
- Though I haven’t seen it mentioned or alluded to anywhere, this final episode of Loki put me in mind of the conclusion of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, in which another pair of heroes are put in a kind of moral checkmate by an all-seeing, all-knowing villain who makes his home in a distant citadel. Like Loki, Watchmen too deals with matters of time (though not, we should note, time travel or alternate timelines). One of the reasons that Watchmen‘s treatment of time works is because clear, concise rules are laid out for the reader. That’s not the case with Loki, where the nature of time and how it works remains fuzzy from beginning to end.
And that’s that it for Loki. As always, hit me up with your questions, comments, death threats, insults, and suggestions. Anything you’d like to see dealt with in future installments of Opposite of Cool? Let me know!
|↑1||Given everything that’s happened in this country since 2016, I got a bitter little chuckle out of that one.|
|↑2||If his name sounds familiar, Steve Englehart was the writer who put the Vision and the Scarlet Witch together. He’s also the fellow who wrote the Secret Empire stories in Captain America, providing the tone and broad subject matter that would inform Captain America: Winter Soldier over four decades later. And if all that weren’t enough, Englehart also co-created Shang-Chi, the Master of Kung Fu, with Jim Starlin, the creator of Thanos. The MCU owes a tremendous debt to the works of Steve Englehart, to put it mildly.|