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Loki episode 1.02 “Variant” builds on the hook of the first episode, and shows its cards for the rest of the series in an unexpected fashion.
Loki has a really hard job in episode two: build on the hook of episode one and continue to expand the story in a compelling manner so as to effectively render the “hook” inert.
Yes, I know that probably didn’t make a whole ton of sense. But, hear me out. What is a “hook”? Thanks to Professor Wikipedia we can cite a very easy definition:
the hook is the nucleus of both a film and its screenplay. It is what grabs the viewer’s attention, preferably in the first 5–10 minutes, as a reader might expect to find a literary hook in the first chapter of a novel.
In Loki’s case, the hook of the show is Loki finding his way to the TVA, being a fish out of water, and having the ability to travel to any time at any time. It’s an interesting premise, a vibrant world, and hopefully it builds out the character a little bit more, which is something we discussed in the first episode.
The trick for any great show, however, is to eventually move beyond the promise of its “hook”.
Consider the hook for any show as if it were a Hostess cupcake. Tastes great in the beginning but, really, it’s just empty calories. There’s no actual sustenance. Many shows have begun with great hooks — take for example: LOST and the plane crash, Breaking Bad and a science teacher making meth, or FlashForward when the whole world passed out for 2 minutes.
I can pretty much guarantee you’ve heard of LOST and Breaking Bad, but I am also just as sure you probably either don’t remember FlashForward or it’s a show that hasn’t been in your consciousness since 2009. Why? Because the first two moved beyond the hook very deftly and easily, while the third could never overcome the empty allure of its hook. FlashForward wasn’t focused on its characters, or the struggles they had to overcome like the other two, but instead it was solely dependent on the mystery of “why did the event occur?” There was nothing else behind its premise. The quintessential Hostess cupcake.
As we know, there are two main pillars which make any story compelling – character and plot. If one intends on sticking to a single pillar, it better be the best pillar ever created. Unfortunately, in FlashForward‘s case, it did neither pillar any justice. The characters were terrible and the plot was slave to it’s hook – which is why it’s been lost to television history, and is primarily remembered for what is considered to be one of the worst lines to ever grace the small screen.
Putting this into context, if Loki was only about the inner workings of the TVA and how Loki was going to operate in its world, then we’d be in pretty bad shape. Like LOST and Breaking Bad, however, Loki pretty quickly acknowledges its hook, and appreciates it, but slyly tips its cards to its true intent: Free Will vs. Determinism.
Unlike the cringey, and on-the-nose, Ship Of Theseus argument made in WandaVision between White-Vision and Faux-Vision, the posited theory in Loki is handled with far more subtlety. Consequently we need an operating definition for Free Will Vs. Determinism.
(Source) Determinism: The determinist approach proposes that all behavior has a cause and is thus predictable. Freewill is an illusion, and our behavior is governed by internal or external forces over which we have no control.
Free Will: Free will is the idea that we are able to have some choice in how we act and assumes that we are free to choose our behavior, in other words we are self determined.
In other words, are we free, or are our actions pre-determined? And, most importantly, how does this argument affect our main character’s arc/fate in this universe?
Sure, we have the cute opening with Lady Loki beating up agent C-20, and taking her hostage at the medieval festival to the soothing sounds of Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out For A Hero”. There’s also an adorable interaction between Loki and Miss Minutes, some more exposition so we understand what Loki’s purpose, the mechanics of what a Nexus Event is, and how the TVA uses those canisters to reset timelines before the Nexus Event occurs. Loki even tells us about the fine intricacies between projection and duplication. All good stuff that builds on the fine expository hook of the last episode.
Loki, though, efficiently and slyly pushes past all that to arrive on the real matter at hand: are we free or not?
Further evidence as to why these Marvel shows are so important and necessary to the MCU storytelling is the fascinating conversation between Mobius and Loki:
Loki: I mean, you really believe in all this stuff, don’t you?
Mobius: I don’t get hung up on ‘believe’ or ‘not believe’, I just accept ‘what is.’
Loki: Three magic lizards created the TVA and everything in it, including you?
Mobius: Including me.
Mobius: If you think too hard about where any of us came from, who we truly are, it sounds kind of ridiculous. Existence is chaos. Nothing makes any sense, so we try to make some sense of it, and I am lucky that the chaos I emerged into gave me all this. My own glorious purpose. Because the TVA is my life, and it’s real because I believe it’s real.
Loki: So everything is written? Past, present, future. There’s no such thing as free will? So, in fact, you and I here at the TVA – we’re the only ones who are actually free. How does it all end?
Mobius: Because while we protect what happened before, [the Time Keepers] are toiling away in their chamber untangling the epilogue from its infinite branches….[when it’s finished] so are we. No more Nexus Events, just order and we meet in peace at the end of time.
Loki: Only order? No chaos? It sounds boring.
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Remember, this conversation takes place AFTER Loki proves he could find Lady Loki hiding in apocalyptic events completely free of the Time Keepers management. Why is this important? Because it renders Mobius’ theory about the TVA, how they are in control of every event, and the entire hook of the first episode, inert.
The Infinity Stones don’t matter? Who cares. Loki’s realization that the TVA might be the most powerful force in existence? Doesn’t matter anymore. What does matter is Lady Loki’s plan proves there is more to the story than just the timey-wimey hijinks of the first episode.
An argument between mere mortals for time immemorial, Free Will vs. Determinism is how this show moves beyond its hook, and keeps the story moving forward beyond plot mechanics.
By the end of this series, we will hopefully watch Loki struggle with his place in this argument and make choices that shine a greater light on his truer nature. As Robert McKee states in his book Story:
True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure – the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.
Choice is the ultimate goal because it allows us to invest in character, which makes the story that much more personal. The more personal the story means a more compelling struggle, which translates into more drama. As such, the more drama we have, the story becomes exponentially better. Make no mistake, we’re already witnessing the story moving into the position of hard choices.
Loki tried to stall at the beginning of the episode, only to be outsmarted by Mobius. He tested his boundaries, and it’s action he continues to follow even when he tells Mobius later on that he’s “ten steps ahead of him, and [he’s] playing his own game.” Of course, once again, only to be outwitted by everyman Mobius as he recites Loki’s overly predictable plan to get in front of the Time Keepers and overthrow them.
Do you see what just happened there?
By doing what he thinks is unpredictable, Loki is predictable. His actions are prescribed. The more and more he tries to outwit Mobius (take for example copping to the fact that he has literally stabbed people in the back “like 50 times”) the more determined his fate is going to be – he will always be the god of mischief. He will always be the capital v Villain.
You could even argue that Loki goes into Roxxmart, where they finally figure out Lady Loki is hiding, with the plan to actually find the “lesser” Loki variant and prune her from existence like all the other Loki’s who have been pruned by the TVA. Perhaps there was a smidge of chance he would betray Mobius’ trust, but I honestly believe Loki desired to earn the trust of the TVA agents (if for nothing else than to somehow gain an audience with the Time Keepers and enact his laughably predictable plan.)
So how did we go from Loki admitting he needs to earn trust, to Loki blindly following Lady Loki into the time door? Free will of course.
The first episode, and even the second, establishes that Loki is at the TVA because the Time Keepers have allowed it. Can he go back to his timeline? No – but his future is still determined by the Time Keepers. Order. No chaos. Remember what Loki says about no chaos?
But, why? It’s easy to limit our answer to free will, and the desire to stand firmly in denial of determinism. But, is that it? Is it that simple? Well, like all things regarding Loki – no. No one good is every truly good, and no one who is bad is ever truly bad. The same can be said about Loki’s literal and figurative choice to run after Lady Loki whilst Mobius and the TVA crew barrel down the aisle to stop him.
“What do you want from me? What is this about?!” Loki screams at his variant counterpart, and we get the gorgeous reveal of the variants true form as Lady Loki. Keep in mind, our version of Loki is the Loki who was just captured after the events of Avengers, and up until this point, every situation in which we have seen him interact has, in fact, been about him. It’s only natural for him to assume he has a larger role to play in whatever plan which has been set in motion. It HAS to be about him – because it always has been. So when Lady Loki confidently responds to Loki’s line of questioning with “this isn’t about you” as the canisters are ejected into whatever time-reality they are headed, we are physically shown what we can presume Loki had just recognized: Nexus Events are birthed at an uncontrollable rate throughout the “Sacred Timeline.”
Lady Loki’s plan is a tactile representation of Free Will and the undoing of the “Sacred Timeline” as maintained by the Timekeepers — who are tactile representation of Determinism. Despite his hatred of the “lesser” Loki, our Loki finally reacts in an unpredictable manner: choosing free will over the order he promised to uphold with Mobius. Instead of being reactionary, desperate, or fulfilling the orders of a giant purple alien in Thanos, Loki chooses to be proactive in his desire to live a life free of any strings.
Lady Loki may have caused the scenario, but Loki chooses to jump into the unknown for the sake of his destiny – and perhaps to learn a little more about what Lady Loki has planned for all these years. As a result of this overall plan, it’s implicit that Loki doesn’t see Lady Loki as the “lesser Loki” anymore. But, rather, an equal from which there might be a lot to learn. Like how to take sole control of his life and break the bonds of Determinism ::cough:: The Time Keepers.
APROPOS OF NOTHING FOR LOKI EPISODE 1.02 “VARIANT”
- Watching B-15 take Loki’s daggers away was one of the most underrated and funny moments of this series.
- The Pompeii scene is a perfect example of excellent chemistry between leads – The Falcon And The Winter Soldier should be furiously taking notes.
- Anyone else think of Roz in Monsters Inc. when Loki chats with the archive librarian?
- “Yes, very sad…..anyway….”
- Exposition done well with just a little salt, pepper, salad, and a Boku juicebox. Much credit to the writers.
- Who else here thinks the Time Keepers are crock of sh*t?