It is a bold move, to end a season with what is essentially the Architect scene from Matrix Reloaded.
Jokes aside, the finale of Loki surprised me, pulling away from the big action scenes and subverting expectations with the identity of the true creator of the TVA, He Who Remains. He’s played by Jonathan Majors, who is already announced as playing Kang the Conqueror in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, but the refusal to call the character by that name here is fascinating. Is it a case of Marvel wanting the big name-drop to be a part of an actual movie, rather than a Disney+ show? Is it an allusion to Kang’s comic-book origins, and the many aliases by which he’s known? Probably both!
Either way, it’s an elegant punctuation point on the show’s statements about identity, the ones people are born to and the ones they choose. Earlier in the series, when we’re introduced to Sylvie, she emphatically rejects the name “Loki,” saying that’s not who she is. He Who Remains needles her with this at one point in the episode, serving up tea to both her and Loki, and calling them both “Loki.”
Majors is a delight in this role. He’s charming, funny, animated, but it’s subtle moments like that in which he’s able to really play up the fact that He Who Remains is the antagonist here, if not the villain outright. He disrespects Sylvie’s identity by misnaming her, but the show as a whole is careful not to repeat that message to viewers; He Who Remains is never called Kang, because this version of him does not claim that identity.
Instead, as he tells the story of his variants meeting each other, of the advent of a multiverse (and then a Multiversal War — put that one in your pocket for a future Avengers subtitle), and the trick of the Time Variance Authority, it becomes evident that He Who Remains is desperate, old, doing his best to flee a role he can see the shape of. He does not use the name Kang here because he does not want to be Kang. That he cannot escape the trappings of conquest and authoritarian rule is a separate, tragic point. He Who Remains is so focused on avoiding the identity of Kang that he has overlooked the fact that his behavior is the same, establishing a conquering regime of his own in order to mercilessly police the timeline and prevent his idea of a calamity.
But of course, what of Sylvie’s calamity? What of the calamities of various Lokis, of Mobius, of the Minutemen? This is where his viewpoint fails; he considers the tragedies he’s inflicted on others as lesser, acceptable. It’s that callousness that keeps him from breaking out of his role, just as the need for vengeance keeps Sylvie from breaking out of hers.
It’s hard not to draw a parallel here between He Who Remains and the Classic Loki played by Richard E. Grant last episode. There, that version of Loki admitted that he would never have been pruned if he had maintained his self-imposed isolation following the events of Avengers: Infinity War. Instead, he got lonely, and attempted to reconnect with Thor.
Here, He Who Remains admits that he has allowed, even engineered, the events that allow Loki and Sylvie to find him. He is old, he says, and looking for a replacement. That’s the crux of his gambit here: Will Loki and Sylvie allow him a graceful exit and jointly assume his role as overseers of the TVA? Or will they follow through on their quest, with Sylvie giving in to her need for vengeance? Even he doesn’t know, as he’s only engineered the flow of events to a certain point. The choice beyond that belongs to the two of them.
Of course, those choices seem foregone, much like the MCU’s commitment to blasted wasteland environments. Loki has, over the course of this series, been confronted multiple times with the abject failures of his schemes for power, the ways those have cost various versions of him his life. He has seen what happens when he reaches for the throne, and so when it is offered to him, he is clear and firm in his rejection of it. It’s a journey that brings this version of the character back around to the version who died at Thanos’s hands — if not redeemed, then at least on a path to redemption.
Sylvie, meanwhile, has been hunted. From apocalypse to apocalypse, she has been chased by the TVA, who have committed untold numbers of Minutemen agents to the cause. Consider, too, that He Who Remains has found these losses acceptable. If he is to be believed, and his control is absolute, then he could have at any point created a situation that allowed for her capture. Therefore, the fact that she remained free was itself by his design, as were the deaths of any individuals the TVA sent after her. He had her timeline pruned while she was a child, and then spent her lifetime radicalizing her against him, only to offer her a choice that he knew she didn’t care about at the end. The offer of power, control, those are offers meant to appeal to Loki, not Sylvie. Sylvie has been allowed one purpose in all of this, and that is the quest for vengeance.
That’s where the lie in his plan is revealed. It might be true that he created this confrontation with no idea how it ended, but he didn’t do so without consideration. These events were engineered specifically to put both Loki and Sylvie at odds. Even now, as he tells them they were the only ones capable enough to reach him, he considers them lesser than him, playthings for his amusement. For all that he has taken credit for the creation of the TVA, for all that he has attempted to cast himself as a benevolent dictator, He Who Remains is willing to sacrifice everything on a game of chance between two variant gods of mischief.
This scene is so monumental that it’s almost easy to forget the other characters along the way, and that’s to the episode’s detriment, since it is after all supposed to be wrapping up the season’s story as a whole. Mobius finally confronts Renslayer, but the encounter is short, and ends with him on the floor. Renslayer departs through a portal to destinations unknown. Hunter B-15 leads another TVA agent to an encounter in a teacher’s office as a means of exposing him to the truth: the teacher is another variant of Renslayer. These are scenes that should have consequences, but don’t, at least not yet. When Loki is returned to the TVA by Sylvie, he finds it changed. Mobius and Hunter B-15 have no idea who he is. The statuary is different now, depicting an unmasked He Who Remains, or perhaps one his more militant variations. They’re large, open-ended questions that are worthy of exploring, and that’s where the show Loki itself proves to be a variant from the other Disney+ shows set in the MCU thus far: It’s getting a second season.
As a series, Loki has tried interesting things. It’s flirted, however timidly, with concepts of gender, with the wages of authoritarianism and the rejection of it, with the idea of what identity means to a person, and it’s flat-out fallen down on its face with regards to depictions of race. This came up a couple of episodes ago, but it’s worth pointing out here, too: He Who Remains is painted as the central antagonist here, and like Renslayer, like the two most prominent Hunters (though I am pleased and grateful to see that B-15 has in fact survived to the end of the series), he’s Black. His final scene is him being run through with a sword by a white woman. Last episode, the Loki who proved to be a turncoat was Boastful Loki, the only Black member of the group who rescued Hiddleston’s version. For a show that seemingly takes so much pride in pushing boundaries, this leaning into the idea of marginalized identities as villains for the white heroes to conquer is disturbingly regressive. Here’s hoping that season two gets a little braver, and pushes back on this idea in a meaningful way.
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