[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Loki” Episode 6, “For All Time, Always” — now confirmed as the Season 1 finale — including its ending.]
To create an intriguing, if imperfect, ending for an MCU TV show, all Marvel had to do was not end anything at all.
On a big-picture level, that makes sense. Not ending things is what the superhero storytellers do best, even if “Loki” marks the first time one of their series embraced its own never-ending timeline. With “WandaVision,” the first episodic MCU narrative to premiere on Disney+, the finale struggled to live up to expectations in part because it was billed as a limited series, yet never fully functioned as a standalone arc (to say nothing of its issues delaying and addressing Wanda’s trauma). “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” painted a murkier reading of its intentions by submitting as a Drama Series at the Emmys, while seemingly setting up a new movie instead of a new season. (Its finale, meanwhile, was just a clunky mess.)
So heading into the final hour of “Loki,” Marvel die-hards and casual fans alike had reasons to be nervous. And throughout Episode 6, some of those fears played out: “For All Time, Always” didn’t provide much of a conclusion, so much as it introduced a key new character and teased bigger developments across the MCU — much like the series did in its first few episodes, when exposition ran rampant and Loki (Tom Hiddelston) himself felt like an afterthought. It also leaned heavily on overt references to comic lore (repeatedly refusing to even name the new character, who I’m just going to call “Kang” for brevity’s sake) and more subtle homages to pop culture inspirations, like “Lost.” (Honestly, I respect last week’s nods to Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse’s landmark series more, after seeing how they set up the Jacob/Kang parallels this week.)
Like it or not, that kind of “do your homework” approach to storytelling is fully part of the Marvel playbook, and for those who care about spotting easter eggs, it undoubtedly made up for any missing emotional resonance in Loki and Sylvie’s (Sophia Di Martino) personal journey. (I would love to know the range of reactions to their climactic kiss. I wanted to beam with pride at our self-loathing boy learning to love himself, but instead, I recoiled in uncomfortable distress.) Still, it’s in that moment, and Sylvie’s ensuing betrayal, that the “Loki” finale delivered enough closure to function well-enough as a season finale — which is exactly what it was. The closing credits gave Season 2 Marvel’s official stamp of approval, ensuring what we just saw wasn’t a series’ ending. Loki will return, and not just in the movies.
How exciting that return will be depends largely on if creator Michael Waldron and his Time Keepers at Marvel treat “Loki” like a TV show or a movie. With a blockbuster film, you greenlight a sequel in the hopes of recreating the magic of the original — sure, you need to be able to continue the story, but the big studios typically just want the same movie, told all over again, only bigger and “better.” But in TV, first seasons are a learning experience. The writers observe what works and what doesn’t, and adjust accordingly for Season 2.
Without knowing or speculating on what will happen to the variants of He Who Remains, aka Kang the Conqueror, aka the amazing dude played by fresh Emmy nominee Jonathan Majors, I would hope future “Loki” seasons are inspired by his electric presence. For anyone who’s missed out on the actor’s sterling early work in “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” “Da 5 Bloods,” and HBO’s Emmy-anointed “Lovecraft Country,” perhaps seeing Majors casually perched on a black leather bench was a bit anti-climactic. The wide framing and distanced camera position chosen for his reveal by director Kate Herron certainly upended the kind of towering, malevolent, all-powerful staging we expect for a Big Bad’s unveiling.
Not only did that presentation turn out to be well-suited for a villain who leaves Loki and Sylvie’s fate to them (as well as one meant to be enigmatic as a “villain”), it played perfectly into Majors’ joyfully weird portrayal. Whether it’s the mocking way he rolls his R’s or his insular movements, as if the purple robe keeps him from gesturing too broadly, Majors is a delight to behold. He manages to make a long, long conversation fairly fun, and every choice he makes is designed to keep the audience from getting a solid read on his motivations.
“Don’t tell me I’m a disappointment,” Kang says, as he chews on a piece of fruit, calling out fans who wanted an explosive final fight while keeping his back safely turned to his would-be attackers. That meta commentary continues when he tells a wary Sylvie why she’s here: “Come on! You know you can’t get to the end until you’ve been changed by the journey. This stuff, it needs to happen — to get us all in the right mindset to finish the quest.” While I could spend eons complaining that so much of “Loki” felt like it was drearily going through the motions, Majors, at least, has enough fun embodying Kang to make walking these final steps feel like hopscotch instead of obligatory plodding.
From there, Kang becomes a Rorschach test, either manipulating Loki and Sylvie’s minds to get exactly what he wants, or forcing the two Loki variants to prove how much they’ve grown. What he tells them — about he was once a mere scientist, living in the 31st century, who discovered parallel universes, met his own variants, and then won a Multiversal War started by the worse, evil versions of himself — is either a lie meant to maintain the status quo he’s established, or the truth, meant to ensure a peaceful future. Kang gives Loki and Sylvie a choice: They can either take control of the sacred timeline, relieving him of his duties, or kill him and leave the universes to chance. Kang is either preying on their heightened emotions to exact his chosen fate, or testing them to see how much they’ve changed over the last five episodes. There’s no way of knowing which is the truth, even after a choice has been made, but it’s clear only one of the Loki variants can pass.
“Why aren’t we seeing this the same way?” Sylvie asks her one-time partner-in-crime. “Because you can’t trust, and I can’t be trusted,” Loki tells her. In turn, Loki does everything he can to get Sylvie to trust him, even dropping his sword as she puts her own to his neck. “I don’t want to hurt you. I don’t want a throne,” he says. “I just want you to be OK.” They kiss, but Sylvie then reminds him, “I’m not you,” and sends Loki back to the TVA, kills Kang, and watches as the once-linear timeline outside cracks into many, many divergent tracks. (Perhaps setting up Marvel’s next series, the animated entry, “What If…“) Sylvie remains tied to the identity she forged well before “Loki” began; Loki embraces a new side of himself, only to face similar heartbreak soon after; Kang exists in between identities, letting the two protagonists choose which version of himself audiences will get to know in future seasons (and movies).
Back at the TVA, Loki soon learns things have changed: Mobius (Owen Wilson) doesn’t know who he is, and instead of nameless, faceless Time Keepers running the show, a statue of Kang implies one of the scientist’s more power-hungry variants is in charge. How that will effect Loki’s future, as well as the rest of the MCU’s, remains to be seen, and thankfully, Season 2 should at least tackle our titular star’s future.
But what works about Season 1 lies in what’s changed — and is still changing — within Loki. Yes, “WandaVision” forced Wanda to confront her reality instead of hiding in a repression bubble, and “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” explored Sam Wilson’s hesitancy to accept the Captain America mantle. But those journeys boil down to optional viewing (Sam already accepted the shield in “Endgame,” making sure anyone who missed the TV show can still keep up with the movies) and each passing episode often felt like filler (again, “WandaVision” avoided talking about Wanda’s grief for far longer than it spent addressing how it’s changed her). “Loki” had plenty of its own problems: It was bogged down by exposition from start to finish and its priorities often felt misplaced. The TVA, the multiverse, and Kang all felt more significant than the main character. Despite what some may claim, this was not a wildly fun or creative show, compared to some of 2021’s other gems — that the mere presence of alligator could steal the spotlight for an entire week only speaks to a limited “Loki” inventiveness.
Still, Loki’s evolution is being executed in meaningful stages and with notable complexity, as our God of Mischief took a big step forward psychologically and was dealt a heavy blow emotionally in Season 1. On the one hand, Loki learned to put his ambition and resentment aside for the greater good. He loves Sylvie, and whether you see her as her own distinct person (as she clearly does) or a variant of Loki, that’s a meaningful commitment for someone whose former loved ones have lied or left him, and who struggles to love himself. On the other hand, his worst fears were realized: Sylvie couldn’t trust him, chose not to stay by his side, and kicked him back to the TVA, where his old friend Mobius doesn’t even recognize him. Loki is again alone and hurting — what will he do now? Will he revert to his old ways, acting in his own self-interest and creating malevolent mischief? Or will he warn everyone about Kang, seek out Sylvie, and embrace the responsibilities thrust upon him by (gulp) actually caring about people? Which of his identities, which of all the Lokis we’ve met, will emerge?
Either way, Season 2 will have to answer the question lingering over the series: Can anyone really change? Here’s hoping “Loki” answers in the affirmative.
♦ Let me first apologize to Gugu Mbatha-Raw for writing some 1,600 words about the “Loki” finale without mentioning the fate of her character, Ravonna Renslayer. Mbatha-Raw is a talent whose full potential has yet to be tapped, in the MCU at least, and that much was made clear by her fiery altercation with Mobius, as well as her tease-y exit into the unknown. Clearly, Ravonna feels the same way I did about the fast friendship between Mobius and Loki, and her eons-old friend’s perceived “betrayal” will serve as ample motivation to find “the one in charge,” so she can obtain free will, at least for herself. Per Marvel experts, that likely means an eventual team-up with Kang, but we’ll have to wait and see how this version of Ravonna’s fate plays out.
♦ Also: What’s to become of B-15, played by the excellent Wunmi Mosaku? Last we saw the rebellious hunter, she was luring her fellow TVA guards into Ravonna’s classroom, circa 2018 — presumably, to prove to everyone that the Time Keepers didn’t conjure TVA employees out of thin air, and they were instead real people with real lives (like Ravonna the teacher) who were plucked from their timelines and brainwashed to serve Kang. But that rebel guard was then replaced when Loki was sent back to a divergent TVA: Mobius doesn’t know who he is, and B-15 doesn’t seem to either. Can Loki find a way to make them see the truth all over again, or, dare to dream, bring back their former selves? For all time… always.
♦ I know at least some viewers theorized that Miss Minutes was going to morph into the big bad, and while that didn’t happen, she clearly knows more about what’s really going on than any other animated talking clock.
♦ Seriously, everyone. Go back and watch “Lost.” What a show.
♦ Does the new Mobius still love Jet Skis? Will Jet Skis be the thing that reminds him of his other, original variant? Will he ever get to freaking ride one?! These are the questions I need answered. Sorry, Loki.
“Loki” Season 1 is streaming in full on Disney+. The series has been officially renewed for Season 2.