Written by David Holland
Time travel is an inherently tricky plot device. JK Rowling famously grumbled that the Time Turners nearly complicated the plot of the Harry Potter story beyond salvaging. The writers of “Back to the Future II” left Marty’s girlfriend Jennifer unconscious for most of the movie because figuring out what to do with her timeline was just too complicated. When the MCU introduced time travel in Endgame, they did it in such a way that requires internet video breakdowns to grasp (or you can simply hand-wave it, like this guy). Regardless of what type of time travel you introduce into your fictional universe, you have to be ready to deal with the fallout. And that fallout is going to include internet bros saying you did it wrong. So what better character to provide the perspective for a time-travel story than a magical, chaotic, selfish being who manipulates every situation toward his own ends?
We start in familiar territory – right smack in the middle of Avengers. Or, actually, in the middle of Avengers: Endgame. You know what I mean. We watch the botched stealing of the Tesseract from Loki’s perspective, and the first thing that needs to be highlighted is the fact that our guy never takes his eyes off the prize. While everyone else is watching Tony have a fake heart attack, Loki keeps watching the case with the Tesseract until he finally seizes his chance. Ever since this scene hit theaters, keen observers of the MCU’s Sacred Timeline have been asking – if Loki escaped capture, how would the events of Thor: The Dark World and Thor: Ragnarok have changed? Well, I have a feeling we are going to get some answers.
Then it’s time for the Lore Dump. Instead of explaining it all here in writing, just watch the TVA’s Schoolhouse Rock style video. The short version is that the Time Variance Authority works to keep the Sacred Timeline in tact. When a new timeline branches off, that branch is clipped by the TVA, the timeline is reset, and whatever is supposed to happen happens. The TVA is a combination DMV and police force. There is the veneer of due process and respectability, but people who don’t cooperate get vaporized. The trials don’t seem particularly fair (right to an attorney, anyone?) and there doesn’t seem to be any oversight. This plays in nicely to my theory that hell is a bureaucracy, and also that any institution that goes by its initials in the MCU is inherently untrustworthy.
Interestingly, the existence of the TVA doesn’t preclude time travel – Loki is told that the Avengers were supposed to go back in time for the Infinity Stones. But he was never supposed to escape… although if he wasn’t supposed to escape, how were Steve and Tony supposed to go back to the ’70s for the Tesseract? Shhhhh too many time travel questions.
What does the TVA need Loki for? Someone is killing Minutemen (the TVA’s agents. Get it? Minutemen?) Agents are being ambushed when they respond to disruptions in the timeline. While investigating one such incident in France, Mobius gets only one vague clue.
Most of the rest of this episode is spent with Loki trying to escape in between being shown events from both his past and his future. He sees the cruelty he inflicted in order to rise to power in Avengers, confessing that he didn’t enjoy it but found it necessary. Mobius shows him how he will inadvertently cause the death of his mother. He watches his fragile reconciliation with Thor and his own death at the hands of Thanos. This is what truly breaks him – he thought he was burdened with “glorious purpose”, only to see that he will lose everything and die defeated.
With nothing left to do, he agrees to help. Mobius give him one tantalizing clue about their target: “It’s you.”
Where do we go from here?
This episode had a lot of worldbuilding to do. Like Loki, the audience needs to understand 1) Who is the Time Variance Authority? 2) What authority do they have to do what they’re doing? and 3) How can Loki use this for his own ends? The answer to #1 comes first and is the most textual. Number 2 is probably the most interesting and most mysterious. Loki asks repeatedly why the Time Keepers are allowed to decide what does and does not happen on behalf of the entire universe and the only answer he gets is a deeply unsatisfying variation of Because they can. Never one to respect authority, Loki only recognizes the TVA as formidable when he realizes that they keep copies of Infinity Stones laying around. This is almost more meaningful for the audience than for Loki. Marvel is saying Remember that whole twenty movie arc we just finished about these things? That is *nothing* to these guys. Thanos was small time.
Loki points out how absurd it is that the timeline is guarded by three mysterious individuals, and we’ve all seen enough MCU content to know that he’s probably right. My guess is that when we do meet the Time Keepers, we will see that there is something more nefarious at work here. We also know that the multiverse is going to play a significant role in the future of the MCU. After all, the title of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is kind of a giveaway. The end credits scene of WandaVision seems to hint that Wanda is searching for her children somewhere in the multiverse. Plus there are all of these (still unconfirmed?) reports of Tobey MacGuire and Andrew Garfield appearing in Spider-Man: No Way Home. Whatever happens with Loki and the TVA, I don’t think it will stay confined to this show.
As for question #3, how exactly can Loki use this to his own ends? All of that remains to be seen. Time travel purists would probably have us believe that at the end of all of this, Loki needs to be dropped right back where he came from so that the timeline can be reset. But my guess is that as the series unfolds we will see that the god of mischief has other plans.
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