By Benjamin Rose, Editor
Note: This article has been split in half for its length.
Yeah, this is one of those articles. The thing is though, it’s not even subtle. From its opening scene, in which Past!Loki hurtles into a sand dune in the Gobi Desert and starts to lecture a group of Mongolian peasants on how he is “burdened with glorious purpose”, Loki is intent on sketching a priviliged white man’s fall from grace and then opening up a potential redemption arc. That the episode makes zero explicit reference to race is beside the point. The stock caricature of the elite white male loser, who believes the cosmos caters to his existence when in fact he’s a mediocrity who sucks at everything, has become such a staple of intersectionality-inclined media narratives at this point that it doesn’t need specifying. As someone who overlaps a bit with the target demographic, I have grumbled about this and adjacent issues on occasion, notably here: Amazon’s Lord Of The Rings Will Please No One – The Path (thepathwitcher.blog), and of course here: The Mandalorian S1E5 Review: The Gunslinger – The Second Stylus. When done vindictively, as it was in Mando S1E5, it gets old real fast, and was a misfire on multiple levels in that instance. Toro Calican is too slimy and stupid to make a compelling villian, and including him in the episode at all cut screentime from Fennec Shand’s introduction, though she later went on to become a major player in The Mandalorian. At any rate, the pilot of Loki avoids these pitfalls on a number of levels.
The first aspect is Tom Hiddleston, who has always been charming as Asgard’s resident egomaniac. The second is Loki the character, whose MCU redemption arc was cut short when Thanos strangled him in Avengers: Infinity War way back in 2018. This Loki is the unreformed Past!Loki of the first 2012 Avengers film, who managed to escape from custody when the Avengers did their time-hopping thing in Endgame. Thus Show!Loki is still a murderous asshole who aspires to Kingship and Godhead, not the slightly nicer Film!Loki who was spared quarantining with Thor and whoever the rock man Taika Waititi voices is called. The upshot is this opens the door for some interesting character development and a redemption arc rather than just kicking sand in a Brett Kavanaugh wannabe’s face to make a point. Loki deserves to be and is taken down a peg, but rather than cultural score-settling, the pilot functions as a surprisingly earnest investigation into entitlement, narcissism, and the means by which toxicity is often a cover for a wounded psyche. Loki is humanized—not in the sense of being given a pass for his crimes (or ridicule of his ego), but in the sense of the respect the episode confers on his inner life and its explicit connection between the poverty of the latter and the nihilism of the former.
After his rousing two-second speech to the Mongolians, Loki is interrupted by the appearance of armored officers of the Time Variance Authority, a shadowy organization working on behalf of the Keepers of the Sacred Timeline of the MCU multiverse. Confused yet? Hold on. After a typical bravado-ridden attempt to hack his way through the patrol immediately fails, Loki is taken to the Time Variance Authority HQ, a prison-like realm beyond space of tremendous power where even infinity stones are relegated to the status of paper weights. There he is stripped of his “fine Asgardian leather” by a robot, garbed in a “variant”-labeled prison uniform, forced to sign a stack of papers verifying that “this is everything you’ve ever said” and tested to make sure that “to the best of your knowledge, you are not a robot, and do indeed possess what most cultures would call a soul.” In between these scenes we see some Jack Black-looking white guy who has also run afoul of the Time Variance Authority being hustled along through the same process as he rants that “My dad is on the board of Goldman Sachs. One little phone call, and your whole job is privatized!” This gets him nowhere and, when he refuses to take a ticket given to him by the TVA to queue up to meet a judge, he is summarily “pruned”, that is, vaporized. More on that later.
The imagery of Loki, quite literally a white male super villain, being thrust into a carceral state presided over by Black women, in the form of Renslayer and his arresting officer Hunter B-15, is crucial for the very reason that in terms of the actual demographics of the American justice system, it is usually the opposite in real life. The inclusion of the Goldman Sachs bro is equally intentional, an explicitly privileged foil to Loki who, in being reduced to the same hapless condition as Loki, makes Loki’s grandiosity look all the more absurd. If I’m in the same boat as that guy, perhaps I’m not so special after all. This is reinforced by the refusal of the Goldman Sachs bro to take his courtroom ticket and his desperate lying attempt to blame the ticketing officer for his refusal as he is vaporized. The argument is one common to contemporary culture: that privileged white men act with impunity and blame others for their failures when held to account. A certain pair of sexually abusive Andrews getting attention in the media this week come to mind (i.e. Prince Andrew and Andrew Cuomo).
But it is two particular lines of dialogue in the courtroom scene that stand out and feel very on the nose. The first is the line, “it never was your story” as Loki is being taken away to his execution. Why is this relevant? Because in most stories told in Anglo-American media until very recently, the opposite would be true. Loki is intelligent, charismatic, good-looking, and contemptuous of authority. He is, on paper, the classic anti-hero archetype of Anglo-American 20th century fiction, going back to James Dean and Holden Caulfield of the 1950s. In any media environment extending back before 2014 or so, it unequivocally would have been Loki’s story, mostly because a white man challenging established systems of power in a white male-majority media environment is less threatening to the order of business than a white woman or a BIPOC person doing so. And, speaking in terms of recent history, it can no longer be taken as a given in politically progressive media (which is effectively most media, in name if not in practice) that a white male iconoclast seeking to upend the established order of power is a positive force….
The second line is more of a joke, but still functions as a subtle commentary on race and the undermining of traditional hierarchies. When Mobius intervenes to save Loki, there is a tense exchange between him and Renslayer where, literally staring up at her as he stands below the bench, he quips, “I feel as though I’m always looking up to you. I like it, it’s appropriate.” The line is enhanced by the physical awkwardness such a conversation entails from a height standpoint, and further contributes to the inversion of a dynamic wherein white men almost always have power at the expense of Black women, not the other way around. Before I proceed to talking about the dynamic between Mobius and Loki, however, I want to side-step the racial issues and look at the authority of the TVA objectively, an authority which seems totally unjust and arbitrary if it is abstracted from its meta narrative role in inverting real-world racial inequalities.
The TVA is a cosmic police state ruled over by three authoritarian Time Keepers who seem to have few qualms about summarily condemning and executing “criminals” in show trials for “offenses” against the Sacred Timeline. What are these “offenses” precisely? Anything from starting an uprising to showing up late for work, according to Miss Minutes, the TVA’s cartoon mascot and narrator of the info video Loki is shown in the courtroom lobby. Later, when Loki objects that the TVA have never intervened in his crimes in the past, Mobius corrects him that the TVA operates according to principles of order and chaos, not good and evil. At the seat of “the greatest power in the universe”, arbitrary violence is utilized to preserve cosmic order, and those who offend against this cosmic order, intentionally or unintentionally, are sacrificed as subhuman rubbish in a multiversal housekeeping enterprise. When Loki derides the TVA as, “…an illusion. A pathetic attempt on the part of the weak to exercise control through fear”, one immediately grasps the irony with which this statement applies to Loki himself. But might he also be correct?
The episode ends with Loki succumbing to the realization of his own toxicity when he views a future recording of his mother’s death in Thor: The Dark World and the destruction of Asgard and his own death in Thor: Ragnarok and Avengers: Infinity War, but he only resigns himself to view these recordings after he realizes the Tesseract and other infinity stones are useless in the TVA. In one sense, this serves the narrative thrust of the episode: Loki can only be redeemed once he has lost the ability to escape accountability for his actions. But in the other sense, it serves to underscore the fact that an organization run by “three space lizards” and accountable to no one possesses a power surpassing gods with no oversight and a demonstrated penchant for violence, including against those whose only “crime” seems to be being in the wrong place at the wrong time. That’s a questionable way to run a universe, and a prime example of how meta-analysis of even self-consciously progressive media does not always uncover unproblematic results. But the very notion of problematic art is itself problematic, for it supposes the belief without argument that art exists for the purpose of moral instruction, and that out of the myriad forms of morality which have existed across human history, Anglo-American Intersectionality is the summum bonum of them all. But that is a philosophical question un-germane to my analysis, and we should get back to the substance. Catch Part II of this article tomorrow!