The second chapter in Loki’s debut series takes a slightly different shape from its predecessor. Whereas Glorious Purpose was more interested in attempting to define Loki’s (Tom Hiddleston) internal logic and purpose within the MCU, The Variant functions more as an intergalactic detective story. During the final moments of episode one, Loki learned of another version of himself who’d fled the TVA after their arrest, and is now hiding throughout history.
The Variant is a thrilling follow up story to Glorious Purpose, adding a sense of direction, urgency and mystery to the series while simultaneously building upon the foundations established last episode. This time, we’re given a hands on feel for the TVA’s daily actions as they potter about time and space, tidying up any discrepancies detected throughout the cosmos. Seeing Loki and Mobius (Owen Wilson) travel through to different periods of history as they attempt to catch up with the variant Loki establishes the episode as a cosmic murder mystery.
We talked last time around about how Loki feels like the MCU’s answer to telling a Doctor Who type story, particularly in terms of its aesthetic and narrative approach to storytelling. The clashing of two commonly-distinct genres is yet another characteristic that can be found within the BBC sci-fi series; as the show has been known throughout it’s 58-year history to take genres and/or existing film concepts to experiment with in the context of a Doctor Who story. Loki’s decision to opt for a similar model in episode two further cements the ideas of this show as a spiritual counterpart to the UK sci-fi series.
A detective story in which our investigators have to venture across the stars, piecing together patterns and circumstance in order to catch the culprit is an incredible idea. It’s the sort of concept that’s capable of yielding whole seasons’ worth of content, let alone being used to drive a single story in a six-part series. Assimilating multiple genres in this manner creates the potential for new ideas to be formed, something occurs throughout this story. One of the central mysteries lying at the heart of this episode is how is Loki’s variant keeping out of the TVA’s line of sight? Surely if you’re an agency to spot when a single moment in history spirals off its tracks, there’s no way a person from another time zone could possibly remain in the shadows. Even the smallest of interactions with a resident of a time period would be enough to divert history in the long haul. The answer to this question is that the variant is camping out in the shadows of apocalyptic events; timelines lacking any kind of future. By setting up shop in the weeks and months prior to a city, island or planet from total annihilation, there’s no future timeline to be disrupted. You could run around smashing the place up, yet the world-shattering outcome could remain completely unchanged from your actions. Essentially, this idea is a restructuring of a common question at the heart of many crime dramas; how is the culprit hiding in plain sight? Usually this kind of mystery will be explored through the perpetrator’s ability to slip past CCTV units without being detective. This being a time-travelling adventure about multiverses and gods, however, it’s given the opportunity to take an age-old trope and transform it into something completely unique from what we’ve seen before. It’s a terrific re-invention of a conventional trope, the sort you certainly couldn’t port to an earth-based detective show.
In addition to the all the genre-clashing kicking off here, there’s a sense of anxiety pottered throughout the episode. This time around, our version of Loki has reverted back to his untrustworthy antics, delivering misleading info dumps to outwit the TVA at every opportune. Besides eroding the TVA’s trust of him even further, Loki’s deceit creates a narrative uncertainty throughout. As we watch Loki supposedly pieces together certain clues, audiences are quick to learn he’s fabricating various ‘facts’ to dupe the TVA and scarper across the stars. This makes for an unreliable narrator, forcing us to second guess all information headed our way. The inclusion of false discoveries and twisted truths adds to the layer of mystery propping up this episode.
Loki’s deceitful motives establish his character as an anti-hero. During the first chapter, it felt at times as if the writers were working to fast-track the character from villain to hero before the end credits arrived. Turns out, this isn’t entirely the case, as he’s still more than willing to fib through his gums if it gets him to where he wishes to be. It’s a nice shift from expectation, as it feels more in-line with the character we know him to be at this point in his story. Re-defining him as a noble hero just hours after he tried to enslave 2012 earth isn’t the most plausible of situations, which is why it’s good they’ve opted not to fully redeem him just yet.
Aside from Loki’s fib-telling trickery, there’s also the Time Variance Authority to watch out for, who certainly aren’t one may call candid individuals. We’ve still no idea at this stage as to why they’re zipping across the universe, arresting people exerting freewill and retaining a so called sacred timeline. They claim to be working for an enigmatic group of beings called the Time-Keepers, yet considering the absence of evidence toward these beings existence or reasons for retaining history, it all sounds like a religious cult at this stage in the game. The TVA act as though they are law enforcers plucking bad guys from the history books, yet for all we know, they are blindly following a dogmatic ideology. For all of Loki’s willingness to escape, perhaps he has the right idea. I mean would any of us be comfortable hunting down a version of ourselves because a shady agency with a vague mission statement asked us to?
Amidst all the dishonesty, trust-issues and ambiguity between our protagonist and the enigmatic TVA, the episode climaxes with our so-called heroes locating the fugitive Loki, who’s camping out in a hurricane-struck 2050 Alabama. The episode ends with the revelation that the variant they’ve been chasing is a female incarnation of the God of Mischief named Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino). Before the credits role, Sylvie drops a stockpile of reset charges onto various points in history, generating timey-wimey catastrophe big enough to throw the TVA into complete disarray whilst she skips into the void. Hot on her trail, our version of Loki follows her through the time portal.
The introduction of Sylvie is the Loki’s first step in establishing the potential of a Marvel Multiverse. For one thing, it’s introducing audiences to the concept where you can have totally different incarnations of the same character who aren’t necessarily the same as their original counterpart. The traditional concept of a parallel universe within science fiction and fantasy is the idea of a single event changing the course of history; retaining the general look of the primary timeline albeit with a couple of differences. Usually, to tell this kind of story, you’ll have the same actors playing both versions of the same character from diverging universe. So far, Loki has appeared followed this principle. The divergent timelines have all allegedly branched off from a seemingly-singular moment in history, implying that all alternative versions of a given character look and behave in much the same way as their primary counterparts. We’ve been led to believe that the variant Loki and Mobius have been chasing was another replica of Tom Hiddleston from an earlier (or later) point in the character’s history. Sylvie’s introduction reveals that this is not the case.
It’s only a brief scene within the larger context of the episode, yet it’s one that flings open a door of possibilities for future Marvel projects. Films where you can recast entire characters, or even shift their genders, backstories or origins if and when required. Even while a mysterious time agency keep from preventing the multiverse from breaking open, the possibility for dissimilar incarnations of well-known characters are working to break free and change what it means to be a character within the MCU.
There’s a metatextual comparison to be made between the TVA and the school of thought that works to gatekeep various characters and/or stories within the Marvel canon from altering. The TVA’s obsession with keeping events unchanged reflects the idea of TV shows or films diverting from source material as being somehow wrong. The same can be said for the authorities’ desire to catch and expunge Sylvie’s existence; a reflection of the animosity held within some corners of fandom over the possibility of gender-swapping or reinventing a pre-established character from the ground up.
It would seem that the breaking down of gate-keeping origins and character foundations is where Loki is now headed. It’s taking pre-conceived ideas of sacred timelines and lure, before disassembling them before our very eyes. We’ve just spent 54-minutes of television been told that the Loki variant on the run is a threat that must be stopped. Except by the end of this very same story, we’re invited to ponder a possible alternative to this claim; perhaps the culprit in question isn’t a monster because they are dangerous or evil, but because the TVA doesn’t like change. We’ve just spent an episode learning about the laws of a so-called sacred timeline, now let’s enjoy as we watch the very same show burn that very same rulebook.