The Redemption of Loki: Observations on the Series Finale

Despite the fact that comic books and their readers sometimes have to be defended against charges of being less sophisticated than “real” literature, the stories and characters that we know from the world of comics and their adaptations can carry serious literary weight. Such has sometimes been the case with the films and series of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  The latest of the original series to premiere on Disney + is Loki, and the conclusion to the second season (and apparently to the series) reveals both literary and mythic depths that are both surprising and satisfying. Warning: If you have not yet experienced all 12 episodes of the series, major spoilers lie ahead, so beware!

When the series initially premiered, it was following the story of the MCU’s most beloved villain after he managed to steal the tesseract during the Avengers’ Time Heist of Endgame. Loki is a remarkably resilient character (“I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been killed”). Just like the original trickster god of Norse myth, the MCU Loki is a shapeshifter and magician who is generally looking out for himself.  Yet, as the finale shows, even a trickster, known for literally stabbing people in the back countless times, is capable of redemption. Even a villain can become a hero.

In the MCU canon, Loki dies at the hands of Thanos in the first five minutes of Avengers: Infinity War, and yet, he manages to continue through the power of time travel and an alternate timeline that snatches him (or a variant of him) away right after the Battle of New York in the first Avengers film. Although he is a self-declared villain in the vein of Shakespeare’s Don John in Much Ado about Nothing or Richard III, Loki has been popular with viewers since his first appearance in Thor. The character has been a staple in the Marvel comics for decades, but with the advent of the films and the casting of the incomparable Tom Hiddleston, he has truly evolved into something extraordinary. It can even be argued that the runaway success of the MCU can largely be attributed to Hiddleston’s Loki, who has been an integral part of several of the films. With his charming smile and tragic past, MCU Loki has been a villain who nonetheless played upon our sympathy even as he mocked the sentiment that made Thor pity him. He could make audiences weep, as with his reaction to the death of his adopted mother, Frigga, or laugh, as when he complained about falling for thirty minutes thanks to Doctor Strange. By the time of his brutal, sudden, and surprising death (in an attempt to stave off his former patron, Thanos, and protect Thor and the rest of the surviving Asgardians), Loki had evolved to be far more heroic than villainous, though, it can be argued, his last minute decision to grab the Tesseract before Ragnarök engulfed Asgard did allow Thanos to collect the complete set of Infinity Stones and wipe out half of life.

The Loki viewers meet (and come to love) in the series is not as far along the path to redemption as the version killed by Thanos as he was, apparently meant to be. Yet, he quickly finds his way to be more than a mere “mischievous scamp,” born to lose and to ever fail to achieve the “glorious purpose” he seeks. Upon being collected by the Time Variance Authority, which is tasked with protecting the “Sacred Timeline” from branching realities created by Variants like himself, Loki learns about his original intended fate, as well as the deaths of both Odin and Frigga. This knowledge, combined with his discovery that the Tesseract, as well as the other Infinity Stones, is completely useless in the TVA, moves him to grow as a character, as he helps the TVA hunt another dangerous Variant of himself, who turns out to be the enchanting Sylvie, and, in the process, learns that all the people at the TVA are Variants. Over the course of the first season, as he develops alliances and friendships with his former TVA adversaries, like Owen Wilson’s Mobius, he also has the distinction of literally falling in love with himself, as his fondness for Sylvie comes to overshadow his desires for power and for a throne. Sylvie’s insistence upon destroying He Who Remains, the “man behind the curtain” of the Sacred Timeline, leads to a crisis of branching timelines that ends the first season of the show. In the second season, with the freed timelines creating a meltdown of the Temporal Loom, Loki seeks to find a way to save not just the sacred timeline, but his new friends, and, in the process, perhaps his soul.

As entertainment, the series is brilliant, with incredible visual effects, costumes, and sets that span time and the cosmos. The music is fantastic right from the unique opening sequences of each episode. The third episode, set mostly at the 1893 Columbian Exposition, features the Marvel fanfare played as a tinny period piece, and the final episode, titled “Glorious Purpose” exactly the same as the first episode, features both the visuals and the music of the Marvel opening in reverse, a hint of the episode’s elements of repeating events from the past as Loki tries to stop the meltdown and save his friends, often by repeating past events multiple times over many years. After all, he is a god, so time is not usually an issue.

In fact, time is the major theme of the whole series, but especially of its end. The idea that the Infinity Stones are irrelevant in the TVA is stressed by the fact that each one becomes embodied in one of the characters. Loki himself comes to embody the Time Stone, just as his friends each take on the roles of the stones: Casey, whose reset memory doesn’t know what a fish is, is a variant of an Alcatraz  escapee who questions what is real and represents the reality stone; M-15, whose physical power puts Loki in his place right at the start of the series,  represents the Power Stone; brilliant and eccentric Ouroboros/O.B. is a clear cipher for the Mind Stone; Variant Don describes Mobius as his “space name,” and he shares a longing for his lost home and family, like the Space Stone’s famous guardian, Captain America; Sylvie, representing the Soul Stone, is at the heart of Loki’s dilemma, for he absolutely refuses to kill her. He has killed countless people, and He Who Remains claims the only way to save the timeline is by killing Sylvie. Instead, Loki becomes the master of time, like a living version of the Time Stone.

In the process, he sacrifices his own happiness to be alone at the end of time, protecting the timelines and the people he loves, realizing the kind of god he must become. The moment that he accepts Mobius’s statement that purpose is often more burdensome than glorious, Loki realizes that being alone, the very thing he has come to dread, is the only way to save his friends and everyone else. His decision to step into his role as Loki Who Remains and out of time is painful, but beautiful, as he becomes truly redeemed, evolving from the selfish, weak charmer of the early films to a powerful, selfless figure that harks back to his Norse roots as well as literary origins.

When Loki saves the timelines, he weaves them together with his iconic green and gold, not only because that is his color scheme (silly side note: a few years ago, I was overloaded with green apples that I turned into beautiful golden jelly that I named “Glorious Purpose”), but because it conveys life and royalty. In the process, he creates a tree of many timelines instead of one “sacred” one. The tree is clearly Yyggdrasil, the mythic Norse World Ash Tree that connects all the worlds. In becoming the protector of the branches and the tree, the TVA also gets a new, positive, destiny.  The entire series makes up a beautifully arranged ring composition. The front and back meet (as one might suspect in a series with characters named Mobius and Ouroboros), and the time paradoxes of the story are recognized by the characters who wonder about the sort of chicken-egg problems that emerge.

As Loki sits at last on his throne, the thing he said at the beginning of the series that he wanted, it is not as a conquering monarch, but as a sacrificial servant-king. The sequence that leads to his transformation into the guardian of all the timelines is absolutely beautiful, from the expression on his face as he looks at his friends and decides what he must do for them, to the way his clothes transform into a crown and robes that are reminiscent of his old Asgardian gear, but with some very different, literary touches. As his crown grows darker, more serious versions of his distinctive Loki horns (one of my other favorite moments in the show is the one when he releases goats before the eruption of Vesuvius, calling him his “horned friends”), it starts by looking like something else. For just a second, it bears a strong resemblance to the crown Tom Hiddleston sports in his fantastic role as Henry V in the BBC series of Shakespeare historical plays, The Hollow Crown. Hiddleston plays Prince Hal in the earlier play adaptations as well. He is a wonderful King Harry, although quite different from the one presented by the amazing Kenneth Branagh (who has also directed Hiddleston as Hamlet). I sometimes call him the “post-9/11 Harry,” more somber and less sure of himself than earlier versions. Hiddleston’s Loki, making his sacrificial choice, profoundly echoes Harry’s realization, on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt, that kings do not have the luxury of sleeping easily, that they bear a tremendous burden and responsibility that is not worth all the “idle ceremony” of the throne. The connection between these two performances of Hiddleston’s, in roles that one would assume are very different, is profound. The episode prepares the audience for the literary allusions early on, as Loki mutters about once wasting time, and now being wasted by time, a reference to Richard II, another piece of that Hollow Crown collection. A quotation from Eliot’s “Little Gidding” is also used as Loki processes the way time works in one of his repeated conversations with He Who Remains. Despite its popcorn-adventure packaging, the series wraps up on a powerful literary note.

It also wraps up with a powerful spiritual message. Beyond the fantastical trappings of a pagan god who takes over the running of the universe from a corrupt predecessor, this is a story of redemption, a story about how a broken, dangerous person comes to terms with his own flaws, and how he grows from utter selfishness to utter selflessness. At one time, viewers may have felt guilty for loving Loki, as he has always been charming, even at his most devious, but now, the character has become much more. Now, he serves as a reminder that no one is beyond saving, that it is better to make the selfless choice, even if it is painful, if the “easier” path comes at the cost of another’s life. It’s a powerful message, and, hopefully, it won’t be one lost on audiences who may have jumped aboard this adventure for the action, but in the process, may find a depth of literary and spiritual power that does indeed carry “glorious purpose.”

 

Comments

  1. I confess I have little interest in the Marvel Comics Universe though I grew up as an avid reader of more than ten titles in their serial superhero picture-books and even less desire to experience Disney products, films, teevee shows, or theme parks. I think this has to do more with the fatigue of age — how to catch up with the intricacies of these things built as they are on familiarity with at least a decade of preceding stories? what in my current concerns will I have to neglect to do that? — than with snobbery straight up, but the latter certainly plays a part.

    I am not, consequently, going to do the screen-time commitment necessary to appreciate as you have the Loki teevee series.

    I am simultaneously delighted, however, and convinced by your exegesis here that a major film-maker and their screen-writers, a group dedicated to crafting stories for the Great Unwashed, has drawn from the Western tradition both with respect to structure — chiasmus! — and Shakespeare. There is hope in this that we are not as close to the edge of the Abyss as an older man often thinks.

    Thank you for the welcome if still discomforting challenge to my prejudices implicit in this review as well as for the consequent reassurance it brought me about popular media. I hope those up-to-speed with the Loki series read and benefit from this review about redemption as much as I have, unfamiliar as I am with the series in question.

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