Who is Loki?
Audiences have had a solid decade to figure out who the Norse god played by Tom Hiddleston is. Audience surrogate and TVA agent Mobius (Owen Wilson) has had a lifetime. What of Loki himself? He's been the embittered son in Thor (2011), the genocidal maniac in The Avengers (2012), the child who's finally found some semblance of acceptance and family in Thor: Ragnarok (2017). But in the first episode of Loki, defeated and at his lowest, when he watches a life he'll never be able to live out play out on a screen, he finally acknowledges who he really is. His insecurities have pushed him into adopting a veneer of cruelty, he muses, but that's not who he wants to be. The beauty of a time-travel show is that it allows you to quite literally revisit past versions of yourself and decide whether you're still the same person. Loki, by the end of the show's pilot, quite definitely isn't.
The same sentiment carries over into the season finale when Loki impores his female variant, Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino), to not put herself first for once. "This is bigger than our experience," he says. It's an amusing statement, coming from a longtime narcissist, made when he's quite literally faced with himself.
As the finale begins, the two find themselves on the brink of discovering the being who dictates the flow of time itself and who decides which people and events get to be part of our current timeline. The element of mystery, teased in the show's penultimate episode, finally picks up steam.
In the two Marvel shows released earlier this year — WandaVision and The Falcon And The Winter Soldier — the protagonists have also been the antagonists. WandaVision follows Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) on her journey of coming to terms with her grief, but her methods of coping with it, which include accidentally enslaving the inhabitants of a small town as she tries to create a world modelled on sitcoms (who among us hasn't?) make her a villain in their eyes. In The Falcon And The Winter Soldier, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), chosen to be the next Captain America by virtue of him being a good man, gives up the shield, paving the way for a much more sinister Captain America (Wyatt Russell) to take his place. Given this recurring theme, and the sheer number of Loki variants we've met through the series, it wouldn't have been a surprise to discover that the man behind the curtain was yet another Loki. But less than 10 minutes in, there's a big twist as the MCU brings in…
…Kang the Conqueror. Introducing the MCU's next major big bad, after a decade-long Thanos run, in the final episode of a show that's barely foreshadowed his appearance (remember Qeng tower in the corner of the last episode?) is a big risk. It's a twist predicated on viewers following every bit of MCU casting news and knowing that actor Johnathan Majors will play Kang in Ant-Man And The Wasp: Quantumania, still two years away from release. For hardcore fans, it's a gamble that pays off. The first sight of Kang, seated inside an elevator, awed at the sight of two Lokis in one place, is a genuine thrill. For casual fans, I'm not sure the moment will prove to be as shocking. After all, the episode doesn't even drop his name.
The episode goes around in circles for a bit as Kang explains how and why he created the Sacred Timeline, pruning events and people he doesn't see fit to exist at will, while Sylvie and Loki counter his claims. Kang's actions make him the only person in the universe with free will, everyone else just living out lives he's predetermined for them. "I paved the road," he says. "You just walked down it." It's cruel, but Kang has good reason. If he doesn't prune the timeline and kill those who breach it with ruthless efficiency, crueler versions of him, from different timelines, will arrive to cause greater pain and destruction. The choice is either stifling order or cataclysmic chaos, he explains. In a great, if not exposition-heavy twist, Kang's cruelty is actually a kindness. He's doing the best he can to stave off more evil versions of himself. Kill him and a hundred Kangs, more brutal than himself, will arrive to take his place.
Unwilling to believe him, that's exactly what Sylvie does, against Loki's wishes. It's ironic that Loki, after a whole six-episode character arc dedicated to transforming him from a backstabber to someone trustworthy, is still betrayed by none other than himself. Sylvie exploits Loki's love for her to manipulate him, a plot choice that's necessary for the story to progress, but antithetical to its larger themes. Loki's character development from a narcissist to an altruist, and his whole spiel about there being a world beyond himself, is undercut by the show's insistence on having him fall in love with…himself. It didn't think this one through.
At the height of the WandaVision discourse, fan theories that the demonic entity Mephisto would be revealed as the show's big bad reached a fever pitch. It's a risk any show adapted from popular source material faces — a fandom that's read ahead will begin to map out a version of the show in their heads, only to be disappointed when it doesn't pan out like they thought. For anyone watching closely, the big bad in WandaVision was always going to be grief. Introducing another major villain for shock value would've diluted Wanda's attempts to cope with loss. Loki, however, walks this tightrope admirably. It not only provides an even richer insight into the psyche of its titular character, his struggles with loss, identity and trust, but it also drops this big finale reveal, guaranteed to change the MCU forever, in a way that still feels seamless. The episode's big franchise moves and setting up of future instalments don't overshadow great character moments, like Loki's heartfelt declaration that he no longer wants the throne of Asgard, the one thing he's felt cheated out of since he can remember.
The final five minutes are a doozy. With Kang dead, the last defence against the timeline splitting has disappeared and the multiverse has opened. Loki is transported back to the TVA, where he tries to warn Mobius about the incoming threat. Mobius, who's so far seen Loki with more clarity than he's ever seen himself, now has no idea who he is. Loki looks around in disbelief, slowly realizing that this isn't his timeline. The statue of the Timekeepers he's so used to seeing in his timeline's TVA is now a statue of…Kang. Cue credits.
The 'Loki will return in season 2' title card is simultaneously the best bit of Loki news this week and the most frustrating ending to a finale that raises more questions than answers. Where has Ravonna Renslayer (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) disappeared to? What are Kid Loki (Jack Veal) and Alligator Loki doing in The Void? Will Loki get back to his original timeline? Will different iterations of Kang start popping up across MCU films and TV shows? Simultaneously setting up Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021), Doctor Strange In The Multiverse of Madness (2022) and Ant-Man And The Wasp: Quantummania (2023), this episode is the satisfyingly unsatisfying beginning of the end.