In every Marvel show, inevitably, the story and the genuine artistry on display end up clashing with certain narrative and aesthetic demands, be they genre expectations, shared-universe building, a stifling production hand, or some combination of the three. WandaVision, a story of grief, was subsumed by fireworks and lore. Loki, a free-will-versus-determinism dilemma writ large, ended by teasing future boss fights. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier all but stopped dead for a centrist lecture, and Hawkeye’s intimate tale of a hero missing Christmas devolved into a cameo circus. This possibility has always loomed large over Ms. Marvel — its title is practically a warning — but the series has built such a rich visual and thematic foundation that even the disjointed back half of “Time and Again” can’t stifle its emotional triumphs. The episode ends strangely and suddenly, but along the way, it commits to the small screen far and away the most rousing images in any Marvel production.
The usual orchestral suite over the Marvel Studios logo is replaced by “Tu Mera Chand” (“You are my moon”) from the 1949 film Dillagi, an anachronistic choice for a partition-focused episode but one that immediately conjures a nebulous nostalgia for the era (and, for many South Asian viewers, perhaps a grandparent-specific nostalgia, too). What’s especially fitting is that the Naushad-composed song was sung by actors Shyam and Suriya, who were from the part of Punjab that would eventually become Pakistan — they were born in Sialkot and Lahore respectively, where two of my own grandparents were from — before they migrated to Bombay, where Kamala’s family lived in the comics, and where I myself grew up.
“Time and Again” strikes with an immediate specificity and a sense of history boiling over into the present. The screen morphs into a monochrome 4:3 newsreel to set the stage for the partition; the opening lines of Jawaharlal Nehru’s speech as the first prime minister of a free India are quoted (“At the stroke of the midnight hour”), though not without nods to Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah or to the violence that would touch millions of migrants forced from their homes. This is the scene in which Kamala magically found herself at the end of the last episode, but the series doesn’t immediately return to it. Instead, it goes back further in time, to 1942 — presumably right after an earlier flashback in the show — detailing how Kamala’s fierce great-grandmother Aisha met her great-grandfather, Hasan (Fawad Khan), an old soul determined to buck the British praxis of divide and rule.
Returning director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy imbues the duo’s tête-à-tête with silent tension in an uneasy meeting that bursts at the seams with unspoken chemistry, but she also paints their initial meetings with a romantic flair, focusing on Hasan’s kindly eyes and backlighting Aisha with a halo woven from the rising sun. Before long, their withheld glances bloom. The episode skips forward months, and then years, but it tells its story with an old-world cinematic grace, with Hasan’s field of roses forming a soft-focus canvas for a newly happy (and newly pregnant) Aisha. She even wears a rose in her hair. It’s beautiful and lyrical, but it’s a temporary respite as August 1947 approaches, threatening to make the Clandestine Aisha a refugee twice over.
As local anti-Muslim sentiment forces Hasan to consider leaving India, Aisha’s own tale of a lost homeland catches up with her in the form of Najma, her inter-dimensional compatriot; they’re both illuminated by Aisha’s lantern, but there’s an expert difference in how they’re lit. The light falls softly across Aisha’s face, but it’s slightly harsher on Najma, hitting her from a lower angle, like a Universal monster emerging from the shadows. Playing Najma, Nimra Bucha captures a dangerous unpredictability, whipping subtly between imposing and loving. She showed her true colors last week (when she abandoned her own son, Kamran, in the present), and even though the character isn’t afforded much growth or interiority — especially later in the episode — she makes for a vicious antagonist in concept. She demands loyalty at any cost, and she views Aisha hiding the bangle from her (and preventing her from opening a dangerous rift in space) as the ultimate betrayal.
The episode’s real and fantasy narratives become perfectly mirrored in this moment. Najma wants to return home to her realm, but Aisha has found a new home — and yet, her idea of “home” has also been called into question by forces larger than herself. Home, it would seem, is wherever Hasan and Sana are, but this idea isn’t so much a romantic realization as it is a last resort. Hasan’s family has lived in their village home for generations, and it could all be gone in an instant. It’s here that Aisha turns to the wisdom of Rumi, the 13th-century Sufi poet Hasan quoted when they first met, which she eventually inscribes on Kamala’s bangle: “What you seek is seeking you.”
While the famous philosophical tidbit doesn’t actually appear in the poem Hasan recites — A Great Wagon, which alludes to his first meeting with Aisha in a field of grass — “What you seek is seeking you” has thus far formed the backbone of the series, so the inaccuracy is worthwhile. On the precipice of uprooting her family, it becomes Aisha’s refuge, a fleeting hope that there’s something waiting for her on the horizon, as she and Hasan join an enormous crowd of refugees trying to board the evening’s last train to Pakistan. For Kamala, Rumi’s wisdom represents the culmination of a journey of self-discovery, and she discovers its meaning when it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. She enters Aisha’s tale at a pivotal moment, closing a time loop in which she becomes part of the magical story about Sana that she grew up hearing.
After Aisha is fatally wounded by Najma, she uses her powers to conjure Kamala from the present (though for a moment, she believes she’s summoned a teenage Sana). Their meeting, while short, tugs at the heartstrings; so much of their family and history is being left behind, but Kamala is able to connect with a past that ought to have been lost to her. Not only does she get to meet the superhuman owner of her Clandestine bangle, but more importantly, she gets to briefly know a great-grandparent who never made it across the border alive in 1947 — a story shared by many of us. As fantasy scenarios go, it’s a particularly powerful one, as is Kamala’s subsequent act of heroism: reuniting a young girl with her father at a violent moment in history.
The episode marks a major mainstream success for both Obaid-Chinoy — whose documentary installation Home 1947 exhibits stories of partition — and for writer Fatimah Asghar, a poet whose works have frequently circled these themes. Perhaps this is what makes it all the more disappointing when the show returns to the present for a few quick-fire, effects-heavy scenes that barely fit together. A rift in space opens and kills Najma’s compatriots; as she stands before it, Kamala swiftly convinces her to change her mind by reminding her of Kamran, at which point she turns on a dime, apparently sacrificing herself to close the portal. But it all goes by so fast and mechanically as to make one wonder if Obaid-Chinoy and Asghar were involved in these scenes at all. (Marvel, after all, is known to produce its pre-visualized action elements in-house.)
Even once the bombast is dispensed with, the episode’s lulls remain palpable — and awkward. Muneeba and Sana catch up to Kamala with but a single scene’s notice, and their interactions feel more strained than is otherwise typical of the show, with editing and shot choices seemingly aimed at treating their interactions as expositional inconveniences rather than the dramatic heart and soul. Muneeba’s realization about Kamala’s identity and her own mother’s stories is sped through, robbing Zenobia Shroff of a pivotal emotional moment. It may seem like a minor gripe, but rather than holding on Shroff’s reaction (or even Iman Vellani’s), the edit ricochets between Muneeba, Kamala, and Sana as they deliver information, and the scene quickly moves on. Granted, that information is deeply character-centric — Sana is finally handed a photograph of her mother — but for an episode in which the fraught dynamic between mothers and daughters across four generations is contextualized against volatile real-world history, the scene doesn’t focus very much on those relationships or how these events might shape them. (Though for what it’s worth, a later scene of the three women hugging, framed through a mirror lined with family photographs, is a deft visual choice.)
The missteps only pile up from there. Muneeba reacts to Kamala using her powers as if the episode were ticking off a checklist (it’s a stilted, wonderless shot that fails to justify the dazzling display unfolding entirely offscreen), and while the climactic sequence hints at a touching dynamic between Bruno and a newly powered Kamran — they both feel abandoned by their parents — it cuts off mid-line and mid-action courtesy of a DODC drone. An episode filled with meaning ends on a meaningless, tensionless shot of an explosion; it almost seems accidental.
It’s an oddity for a show otherwise so well put together. However, despite its brushed-over emotional core and a head-scratching conclusion that lets the air out, “Time and Again” features some of the series’ strongest moments. Provided Ms. Marvel can adequately bring this history into the narrative fold, next week’s finale could very well render these aesthetic blunders moot.
• Unlike the comics, in which Kamala’s symbol and sash imitate Carol Danvers’s old ensemble, the show sees her slowly building her costume through personal experiences. This week, Bruno’s mask and Waleed’s blue tunic are joined by Kareem’s red scarf and Kamala’s own necklace, which Muneeba finds broken in the shape of a lightning bolt.
• Speaking of clothing, the episode’s final scenes may be the first time we see Kamala rock a casual outfit with confidence (those are some great pants). Our girl’s come a long way.
• Unfortunately, it’s no surprise that Kareem is wanted by the U.S. all the way in Pakistan, since the show has entwined the American government’s pursuit of superheroes with real-world targeted persecution of Muslims.
• It’s impossible not to love Kamran, especially when he’s vulnerable, but you have to feel for Bruno when he realizes Kamala prefers a guy who confuses Nikola Tesla for Elon Musk.
• It feels weird to pick another Muneeba quote of the week since she’s given so little screen time (and what little she has is so awkwardly staged), but threatening to microchip Kamala in a moment of anger and concern is pretty on point.