This is Marvel's third series, featuring Tom Hiddleston as everyone's favorite villain. When we last saw Loki, he was quite dead at the hands of Thanos--except that, oops, during the time travel shenanigans of Avengers: Endgame, Loki grabbed the Tesseract and made off with it when he wasn't supposed to. This show takes off directly from that moment, as Loki lands in the Gobi Desert with the Tesseract, and promptly scales a rock in an attempt to intimidate the three tribespeople who are staring bemusedly at him. Loki immediately starts off as a pompous ass, proclaiming himself "burdened with glorious purpose," which as we will see, turns out to be truer than he knows.
But his braying is interrupted by people coming through a magical door, armored people who take Loki into custody as a "variant" who disrupted the timeline. The woman leading them, identified by the closed captioning only as "Hunter-15," is not only thoroughly unimpressed, she knocks him down with a slo-mo stick. Loki is dragged through the door and the timeline is reset.
Several delightful little set pieces follow, as Loki is processed through the bowels of the TVA bureaucracy. This turns out to be the Time Variance Authority, the massive secret organization that guards the Sacred Timeline, keeps it from unraveling, and punishes "variants" who temporarily create alternate timelines. (Which is a bit sinister, as the Goldman Sachs guy in the episode demonstrates: they're basically wiped out of existence.) First, he's forced to give up the Tesseract; then, he's shoved into a room where his "fine Asgardian leather" is stripped from him and replaced with a bland TVA jumpsuit, which also serves to show off the fact that though Tom Hiddleston lacks Chris Hemsworth's muscles, he is still a fine-looking man.
I mean, there are many reasons Loki is one of the most popular Marvel characters, and some of them even have to do with Hiddleston's Shakespearan-style acting!
Next, Loki is dumped into a room where an extremely annoying cartoon clock, Miss Minutes, takes him through the founding and purpose of the TVA. After that, he's herded into the courtroom, where the judge accuses him of disrupting the timeline and demands to know how he pleads. Loki does his preening, posturing, bellowing best to talk himself out of his trouble, but in keeping with the fact that all the TVA employees are very unimpressed with the "god" suddenly dumped in their midst, he is found guilty in minutes. He's about to be dragged off for what one assumes is termination when the courtroom proceedings are interrupted by one Agent Mobius (Owen Wilson) who takes Loki under his wing and into yet another room. (After a CGI shot of the interior of the TVA complex that was, to put no fine point on it, bad. It looked like something out of the days when computer-generated graphics were just starting, 25 years ago, cheap and cheesy. I'm surprised the powers-that-be let it remain. Maybe it had something to do with the special effects having to be done remotely due to the pandemic.)
A lot of this episode, out of necessity, is setup and exposition. We spend a good portion of the episode's screentime sitting in this room with Mobius and Loki, watching Owen Wilson and Tom Hiddleston play off each other. Admittedly, I would watch Hiddleston emoting over the ingredients of my favorite cereal, and Wilson is a perfect foil for him. But there's a surprising bit of character work done with Loki in these scenes. Remember, this is not the "current" Loki we're seeing, the at least partially redeemed character killed by Thanos. This is the 2012 Avengers-era egotistical, villainous Loki, trying to claim the throne of "Midgard," or Earth. Mobius states he wants to find out what makes Loki tick, and peppers him with a series of insistent questions: "Do you enjoy hurting people, making them feel small and afraid?" "What is it that you think you're really running from?" "I want you to be honest about why you do what you do." Finally, Mobius states bluntly: "You were born to cause pain and suffering and death, all so that others can achieve the best versions of themselves."
In an effort to get Loki to open up, Mobius also plays what he calls "your greatest hits": excerpts from the original timeline Loki was yanked from. This is, of course, clips from the other Avengers movies (aside from a delightful aside where it is revealed that Loki was D.B. Cooper, the hijacker who collected a quarter-million-dollar ransom, jumped out of an airplane, and was never seen again). Loki is immediately affected by the sight of his mother's death, demanding to know where she is. He even tries to jump Mobius, only to be slammed back by a little magical gizmo in the agent's pocket that resets time a few seconds and returns him to his starting point. They are interrupted by Hunter-15, and Mobius has to leave, sternly ordering Loki to stay put. Which of course Loki ignores, as during the moment Mobius was distracted by Hunter-15 Loki managed to palm the little gizmo (which is apparently a Magical Plot Coupon that also has teleportation abilities) and as soon as Mobius is gone he starts jumping all over the TVA complex.
The first place he goes is where he was forced to hand over the Tesseract, badgering the clerical nubbish guy in charge of it into giving it back. In the process a drawer pops open, and we see the single thing about the Time Variance Authority that can humble an arrogant God of Mischief: the sight of said drawer full of Infinity Stones, the most powerful things in the outlying universe, and said nubbish cleric's offhand aside that the agents use them for "paperweights." You can see the horrified realization dawning in Loki's face: "Holy shit, these people can squash me and everything else like a bug."
Loki takes the Tesseract, but having nowhere else to go (since he can use neither it nor his own innate powers to escape the TVA complex) he returns to the room where he was talking with Mobius. The machine playing "Loki's greatest hits" is still there, and he lets it play out. We see the rest of Loki's Avengers storyline: the death of his father and his eventual reconciliation with Thor, and then his own death at the hands of Thanos. The camera focuses tightly on Hiddleston's face during this sequence, and his reactions are an acting tour de force. The file ends, and when Agent Mobius returns, Loki is sitting on the floor, defeated and chastened.
At that point, he breaks down, knowing he can't go back to the original timeline (on account of being dead and all). He also answers Mobius's questions: "I don't enjoy hurting people. I do it because I have to. Because it's part of the illusion. A cruel, elaborate trick conjured by the weak to inspire fear."
"A desperate play for control," Mobius says. "You do know yourself."
(I'm sure it will be pointed out that this is also the mindset of a bully, which Loki is as well. Again, in the hands of a lesser actor than Tom Hiddleston, Loki would be a nasty, unlikable prick. Which in one way he is--but all the same, you can't take your eyes off him.)
Mobius says he can't offer Loki salvation, but he can offer him a job--hunting down the dangerous variant who is killing Hunters and Minutemen. (This is how we're introduced to the agent, at crime scenes in history where Hunters/Minutemen have been sent to reset the timeline and end up getting offed.) Loki asks, "Why me?" and Mobius replies, "Because the variant is...you."
After this revelation, we're immediately whisked to another crime scene, a field in 19th century Oklahoma where a device from the third millennium is extracting oil. (Although, come to think of it, that makes no sense....surely technology from a thousand years in the future would run on something other than fossil fuels.) A team is sent to seize the device and reset the timeline--and in the distance, a hooded, cloaked figure sets the oil on fire, burning all the agents to death.
Well. In terms of holding the audience's interest, or at least my interest, this setup surpasses the previous Marvel series, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and is almost on a par with WandaVision. Most of this is due to Tom Hiddleston, but the directing, sets and dialogue are also top-notch. Since Loki will apparently be hunting himself down, we will need to know where this third variant come from, which makes this show a bit of a noir mystery. In any event, I am definitely hooked.
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