The beginning of Loki’s second season had been promising, but five episodes in and inching towards its conclusion, you’ve got to wonder what’s going on. Is there something we’re missing or is the show really undoing what they themselves introduced?
At the end of the fourth episode, we had the debris travelling towards the Time Variance Authority ( TVA) at a brisk speed, and the consequence of the clash was obscured with a brilliant cast of a white light. This episode picks up from that point, and we have Loki (Tom Hiddleston) standing alone at the institution in a flummoxed state as every article around him turns into mobile miniature branches.
Loki is erratically glitching from one branched timeline to another. These are not coincidental time slippings: he is only appearing in particular years where specific people are present: Casey (Eugene Cordero), B-15 (Wunmi Mosaku), Mobius (Owen Wilson), O.B.(Ke Huy Quan) and Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino). Here, their stories are cobbled together quickly: Casey aka Frank is a prisoner who engages in petty thefts in San Francisco in 1962. In New York, 2012, we find B-15. She is a doctor, and we see her nursing a fractured young girl. Following this, Loki glitches to 2022 in Ohio, where he finds Mobius, who sells jet skis, and is a single father of two sons.
The show insouciantly handling Mobius’ section feels distinctly irreverent, when you consider how generously it focuses upon how he evades knowing about his past, the assumption being that the reckoning with the trauma of what he had lost would be unbearably disconcerting. It falls neatly in line with a grating whim of this season’s storytelling, which is to acquire the viewer’s emotional investment at certain moments, only to deliver an underwhelming conclusion. Take, for instance, episode 4, when we have Judge Gamble (Liz Carr) coax B-15 into giving General Dox another chance, and there is an entire section dedicated to elucidating how General Dox, even if she has a competing vision for the TVA in her mind, only needs to be convinced that incorporating branched timelines is in the best interests of TVA. It sets up the potential for them to collaborate with General Dox to take on He Who Remains, but in the span of the same episode, Dox is boxed to death in a fanciful, tempad-textured, opaque square along with the rest of her supporters. It is an anticlimactic resolution to a set-up.
After the three successive molten mozzarella apparitions, Loki appears in Pasadena, California in 1994 where a chunk of the episode’s exposition is present. Loki finds O.B. (Ke Huy Quan) here, known as A.D. Doug in this timeline, and is a professor at Caltech University. He is also a struggling science fiction writer who is trying to build up intellectual credibility for his novel. The two put their heads together on how to save the TVA from the catastrophic explosion.
The over-eagerness with which O.B. is ready to assist Loki in this timeline feels unearned, and gives the sense we have moved from A to Z in a matter of seconds. This quick collaboration is reasoned as O.B. already being familiar with the concepts Loki seems to be referring to due to his novel, hence, a breathing space for contemplation is pushed out for the sake of hastily providing explanations that have been absent for the large portion of the season.
Loki discloses to O.B. that he needs to travel to a space where time doesn’t pass, and O.B. analyses that to be a work of fiction, rather than science, because scientifically speaking, such a space can’t exist, but fictionally considered, it can. O.B. asks him to focus on the “why” as fiction does, instead of “what” and “how” of his dilemma, like science does. “Why” does he want to save the TVA? Loki shares it is because he wants to save the world from the disastrous consequences of what He Who Remains hinted at the end of season one.
Loki’s moral stance to save the TVA, and the conviction with which he wields it, is slightly jarring not just because it errs as inconsistent with how mischievously grey the character is supposed to be, but also because TVA is portrayed as a fascist organisation in the first season. Why is Loki not siding with Sylvie, whose misgivings against TVA seem rightful? It makes sense why he would want to save Mobius, and other members of the institution, who were brought involuntarily by He Who Remains, and their memories were erased. But why does he want to save the institution, when we barely have enough context for what it's alternating operating philosophy could be?
Loki’s glitching is not random, O.B. concurs, but rather happens with a purpose because he is only travelling to specific points in time, appearing in front of a fixed set of people. These people have their own temporal auras, and if the same people who were in the room with Loki when the explosion happens, are brought together, they will be able to locate where the TVA is, because their collective temporal aura will act as coordinates for them. Loki hands the TVA handbook to O.B., and asks him to make a TemPad so that the travel between these branched timelines is uncomplicated. O.B. is gleeful about the fact that in some space he is a bestselling author, but the fantasy is tempered by Loki’s reluctant “sort of”.
Loki involuntarily glitches again, and finds himself in 2022, Ohio - Mobius’s branched timeline. There, Loki gently explains to him how he needs to come with him so that they can save the world, and his boys, from an impending disaster. Mobius hesitates at the prospect of leaving his boys behind, but Loki assures him that after he cooperates with the process, they will conveniently, and neatly place him right where he had left with them, time-wise. This means that Mobius’s boys would never even notice that he was actually gone. But Mobius contests this by saying that “he” would know, even if they wouldn’t, which is the closest we come to in this episode in terms of concrete stakes.
O.B. is able to build a TemPad with the handbook, and it takes a fraction of a second for Loki to gather other members of the TVA. The last one in the process is Sylvie, whose cynicism so far has been unshaken by Loki’s moral platitudes through the course of the season. She questions why he is so insistent on bending over backwards to save the institution again, and her cynicism eventually leaks unto him, who tells the others, all of whom are present in O.B. 's workspace, that there was no point in their dogging efforts.
But Sylvie would bear the brunt of the consequences Loki warned her of, because once she makes a foray into her favourite record store, the record store owner, and the entire branched timeline, succumb to an unknown force, and everything turns into the mobile miniature branches that Loki had seen in the beginning of the episode at the TVA. She is just in time when she makes it to O.B. 's workspace, warning them of the urgency with which they need to go back in time and fix the temporal loom.
Everyone at O.B.’s workspace has begun to succumb to their timelines collapsing, and turn into miniature mobile branches. Loki watches this helplessly, till he figures out how to time slip voluntarily. This means that he is able to travel into the past to a few minutes ago, and tells them he has his time slipping condition in control, and they need to act fast so that the branched timelines do not collapse, and TVA is saved.
This is the penultimate episode of the season, and it has explained how easy it is to undo the calamitous estimation that it established. If everyone can be neatly placed back on their respective timelines once this is all over, and Loki can always travel back in time giving them endless chances to tackle what they are up against, there is a rasping sense of hollowness and cowardice. It begs the question: What was the cost of He Who Remains ordaining these people into the TVA, and erasing their memories?