Spoiler alert: Loki is, ultimately, a cog in the Marvel cinematic universe (MCU). This is a serious imposition because, amongst other additions of Phase Five, which suffer from filler-like quality, Loki gave us an original, jargon-riddled, kooky invention entailing chronicle. Conceptually, the series had ambition and a brilliant cast that blathered off the indulgence of its concepts with such conviction and emotional heft that you could argue that it transcended the momentous limitations of the studio it is a part of. That was, however, in season one. In the follow up, Loki succumbed to the demands of the franchise, which, with its inter-connected-ness, has effectively whisked the charm out of the stakes of individual narratives. The MCU is now a behemoth whose larger, end-of-the-world stakes consistently have to be fed, and it seems insistent on ignoring critiques of fatigue caused by churning out the same formula.
The final episode of Loki’s season two starts with the most inspired sequence of the season: Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is magisterially time-slipping to protect the Time Variance Authority (TVA) and prevent the implosion of the temporal loom that holds the sacred timeline together. He ventures into the past multiple times: At first, to the point, two episodes ago, when he coaxed Victor Timely (Jonathan Majors) to move towards the loom faster right before the implosion. When this fails, he goes back further, to when O.B. (Ke Huy Quan), Mobius (Owen Wilson), Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino), and Victor Timely gathered to discuss how the capacity of the temporal loom may be enlarged to incorporate the branched timelines that have unfurled since Sylvie killed He Who Remains (who, as it turns out, has not remained, despite his moniker).
These several, and urgent, attempts finally end up working. Yet even after it seems like they’ve succeeded, the temporal loom breaks. (We must resist the temptation to imagine this section as a creative representation of the powers that be at Marvel Studios trying to figure out what they can do to their plotlines and the figure of Kang now that Major has been accused of abusive behaviour by multiple women.) As the temporal loom threatens to explode, Victor Timely explains it’s a scaling issue. The branches are developing and duplicating at an infinite rate and no mechanical hardware can account for infinity.
Loki, then, time slips to when Sylvie is about to kill He Who Remains, hoping to convince her to change her mind. However, Sylvie is stubborn in her resolve: She thinks of Loki as untrustworthy and deluded. Here, a similar pattern follows. Loki keeps time slipping to the past to stop Sylvie, only to feel helpless against her obstinacy. He Who Remains pauses time, and then guesses on Loki’s behalf that they are having complications with the temporal loom. He drops a bombshell: The temporal loom was never meant to incorporate the newer branches. It was, instead, a failsafe created by He Who Remains and was meant to implode to preserve the Sacred Timeline. The TVA getting destroyed by the radiation was just “collateral damage”. “What a waste of time,” Loki says at one point, a sentiment that is hard not to apply over the show’s season-long curve, which philosophically locates itself right where the first season ended.
He Who Remains offers two options to Loki: Loki can kill Sylvie and save the TVA and his friends, and keep the sacred timeline intact. Or he can destroy the temporal loom before it implodes, which would mean the war that He Who Remains had threatened at the end of season one of Loki. Can Loki replace the temporal loom, which keeps chaos at bay and holds infinite timelines together, with something better? Faced with this terrible choice and unable to surrender to either, Loki time slips to an even earlier point in the past, to a conversation he had with Mobius right after he was arrested by the TVA.
Changing the track of their conversation, Loki asks Mobius how they decide and make peace with the “pruning”. Mobius shares an anecdote: Once, two hunters were tasked with pruning a very young child to conform to the rules. One hesitated, feeling sentimental, and the other stepped in to finish the task, but the hesitation was enough to lead to branched timelines, which had severe consequences. Loki guesses correctly that the two hunters were Ravonna Renslayer (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Mobius. Mobius suggests that chasing purpose is not supposed to be comfortable, and it is more burdensome than it is about glory. “You just have to choose your own burden,” he tells Loki.
Once more, Loki time slips to when everyone is in O.B., aka A.D. Doug’s workspace, and everyone is about to be spaghettified. But right before Sylvie is going to be folded into that fate, Loki imparts to her everything he has learned about the Temporal Loom, and that he has made the option to kill her and protect his friends and the Sacred Timeline because the other fate, the war on the world as we know it, seems far more egregious. Sylvie shares that she has grown up at the centre of apocalypses, and perhaps he should consider that sometimes it is better when things are destroyed.
If it bothers you that Loki trying to save the world is a character inconsistency, then make peace with the fact that this series only superficially acknowledges the conflicting portrayal. It mostly shows him as a good-at-heart chap, and his mischief — once a key trait — is barely present in this season, which had little time for goofiness.
Loki’s final choice is to be the one who walks through the radiation — which strips his regular clothes to reveal his divine garb, complete with the horned crown — destroy the loom, turning it into a throne. Then, using his divine magic, he infuses life into the inert branches of the timeline, physically holding them together. Seated on the throne, which is beyond the boundaries of the TVA, Loki is shown to have finally achieved the godhead that he so desperately has yearned in previous outings (especially when he was playing the villain). In one of the few truly beautiful graphic moments of this season, Loki with the stories and timelines that are his glorious purpose become the beating heart of Yggdrasil, the universal tree from Norse mythology that spans and connects all realms and beings.
Some amount of order is restored to the TVA after Loki prevents the apocalypse. We see Hunter B-15 (Wunmi Mosaku) and Casey (Eugene Cordero) engage in an affectionate exchange, which is also a grating reminder how criminally underutilised the two actors were this season. They are monitoring all of He Who Remains’ variants on a screen in the TVA. A revised TVA handbook (this time it’s a golden yellow) is available on people’s desks and O.B. unboxes one to gaze at it fondly. In 1872, in a shack in Chicago, a young Victor Timely does not find the book, because the sequence of those events has been changed.
Mobius decides to retire from the TVA. He needs to see what he is protecting, he reasons, and the next we see of him is in a branched timeline, looking at a version of himself jostling around with his sons. Sylvie apparates there, to check in, and he expresses his desire to stay a little longer, to “let the time pass”. The show then switches to Loki, who we see on his throne, in the midst of gleaming, green branches of time.
While it isn’t without its moments — most of which were too little and came too late — this season, Loki’s storytelling suggests MCU’s thirst for over-the-top, saturated fatalistic stakes is far from over. Any innovation, kookiness and quirk must be sacrificed at the altar of interconnectedness. If only the studio would resist this urge and instead build up stakes for various characters with more integrity and independence.
A rousing question has plagued the MCU since Avengers: Endgame (2019) and it still commands attention. What do stakes mean in the multiverse? What is it that cannot be neatly, and conveniently undone? Loki, to its credit, still manages to rip through the fabric of this conundrum, and offer a new set of issues for us to mull over in this season. However, it also lays a tombstone upon the irreverent and charming god of mischief and replaces the old Loki with a sombre, teary-eyed god of stories and timelines, holding multiverses together and, burdened with his glorious purpose.