The Marvel Cinematic Universe series Loki was never as much of a “What’s going on, and how do we decode it?” game as WandaVision was a few months earlier. But it did invite a similar guessing game: figuring out what the series actually was. After the first episode, where Loki suffered his humiliating capture at the hands of the oppressive Time Variance Authority, glimpsed his future in their retro-tech viewers, and reluctantly agreed to help them track down a rogue alternate version of himself, the plan seemed clear: Loki was all set to be a darkly comic intrigue game, where the God of Mischief attempted to uncover the TVA’s mysteries by becoming invaluable to their work, all while manipulating them to his own ends.
Episode 2 changed that up, temporarily teasing a completely different show, where Loki learns he has an actual, valuable talent for procedural investigation, and starts to take pride in honest work under his handler Mobius. But by the start of episode 3, that subplot was dropped in favor of a fast-paced space-heist movie involving a little romance and a deadly need to hijack a spaceship to escape a crumbling planet. That plan, too, fell apart less than an hour after it was introduced, in favor of a completely different tone and story, and so forth and so on.
Virtually none of Loki’s season 1 story beats or developments really get room to breathe. The first season keeps the characters in constant gasping motion, never settling on an idea, a setting, or a tone for very long. That’s been fun, in its own way — it certainly makes for a breakneck experience and a lot of sudden surprises. But it’s possible to appreciate the Loki we got, while also, in keeping with the series’ focus on alternate timelines, dream of a completely alternate reality where the show really took the time to let all its ideas fully flower.
It’s pretty common to gripe that Netflix’s Marvel Cinematic Universe series, with their 13-episode runs, devolved into wheel-spinning and time-wasting during the mid-run installments. But season 1 of Loki introduces enough material to support a show at that length. There’s so much important character movement in the series. Given that Loki pulled himself out of his timestream before the significant changes he went through in the movies, he has to go on an entire voyage of acknowledging his weaknesses and his failures, coming to understand his own loneliness and ambitions, and apparently both falling in love with his Variant Sylvie and coming to feel some sense of responsibility for the state of the universe. Sylvie has to go from rage and distrust for everyone to a softer state where she can at least see the potential for connection that Loki and other people might represent. Mobius and his boss Ravonna Renslayer have their own arcs of disillusionment, with each other and with the TVA. And it all whisks by, too quickly to sink in.
It’s easy to imagine a version of the show that actually takes the time to develop some of the bigger players at the TVA — like poor Hunter B-15 (Wunmi Mosaku), whose decisions become critically important to the story, even though viewers still know nothing about her. We get to see the moment where she weeps over Sylvie showing her the reality of her own past, but we never learn who she is or what that past looks like. She’s a two-point character: point A, hardcore angry doctrinaire badass; point B, defiant rebel reshaping the TVA, with no time taken to consider the transition or her own identity as anything other than a plot device.
And it’s tempting to imagine a version of the show that fully exploits some of its more fantastic and unearthly locations. Loki and Sylvie’s time on the doomed planet Lamentis-1 blurs by with an argument, a few scammy tricks played on the locals, a song, a fight, and a race to an equally doomed spaceship, followed by a moment of hand-holding that’s meant to convey an entire relationship and a moment of emotional shift so profound that it forks the Sacred Timeline. But that setting is as full of potential as any colorful Star Wars world that only ends up serving as a generic backdrop to familiar chase scenes. There’s so much story potential in the prospect of a dueling duo trapped at the end of the world, and trying to find their way out together without losing ground to each other. There’s a literal entire unexplored world suggested in the neon city of Shiroo.
And there’s so much more Loki and Sylvie had to say to each other. It’s notable that during the entire series, Loki never shares any of his history or woes with her, the way she shares with him. That’s because the miniseries doesn’t have time for him to verbalize most of what he’s going through — fans already know his past, the logic says, so why waste time that could be spent on action scenes on having him articulate his familiar pain? But as a result, Tom Hiddleston’s face has to communicate everything about Loki’s internal development, because the dialogue rarely takes time to pin down what he’s thinking or feeling. And his relationship with Sylvie, supposedly life-changing for them both, has to be shorthanded and shortchanged, as he bonds with her without ever baring himself to her.
That emphasis on speed and change over details and development particularly gives short shrift to Sylvie. A differently paced version of the show, more akin to something like Lost or even Jessica Jones, might have taken an episode to show the audience her life, and fill in her backstory beyond “Here’s an image of her being stolen away by the TVA as a child, and a couple of sentences about how hard her life was after that.” It’s certainly notable that the series never really bothers to articulate the details of her cunning plan from the opening episodes. (Step 1, steal reset charges, step 2, underpants gnomes, step 3, attack Timekeepers?) Yes, the action conveys the absolute basics of “distract, then take advantage of distraction,” but the show’s refusal to even look at the dynamics of dropping reset charges wherever she sent them really speaks to the writers’ lack of interest either in her attempted master-stroke, or in the universe outside the TVA bubble.
Above all, there’s so much more entertainment potential in the setup of the Void. Its panoply of squabbling Lokis, competing for dominance and resources, is played as little more than a series of visual gags and rapid reversals. But it’s an authentically fascinating world, ripe for any number of miniature stories of intrigue and manipulation, and certainly full of opportunity for self-discovery for our central Loki. Just the existence of two major factions, one led by Thor-killer Kid Loki and the other led by smug, infinitely betrayable President Loki, suggests so much going on below the surface that the series never has time to explore. The conventional-TV version of the show would certainly take an episode or so to tell multi-Loki-war stories. They might not be crucial to the story’s forward momentum, but they’d certainly be fun — and useful for expressing Loki’s many inner conflicts and possible directions. (As a bonus, they’d be an excellent chance to showcase Tom Hiddleston’s range.)
At times, Loki’s frenetic pace does actually hurt the story — like when Sylvie briefly explains her version of enchantment to Loki, then expects him to do it himself, in a crisis situation and on a scale she’s never even attempted. The fight against Alioth amounts to her saying “Enchantment is a complicated process that took me years to learn, you’ve never done it before, and it has nothing to do with the way you’ve always understood magic. But just scrunch your face up real hard, and I’m sure everything will be fine.” Her excuse for never teaching him more, and the show’s excuse for him figuring it out on the fly — “You’re me!” Sylvie says — particularly falls apart in the finale, when she brazenly proves she isn’t him.
It’s one of many sloppy moments in the show that only really works for people who want everything to keep moving forward, regardless of how cartoony that makes developments that are written to be emotional and evocative. We’re expected to believe in their connection by the end: Loki is profoundly frustrated when she doesn’t mirror it back at him. ““Really? That’s what you think of me? After all this time?” he snaps at her when she suggests he still wants the power he was seeking just a few subjective days ago. “All this time” is a bizarre thing to evoke for characters who’ve spent so little of it together onscreen. Picture how much more resonant that connection would have been — and how much more believable the Alioth fight might have been — if they’d actually taken the time to share their magic with each other, and gotten to know each other beyond the briefest and most cursory outline of a de rigueur romance.
People who fully enjoyed the exact version of Loki they got would protest that any more detail, any more conversation, or any more time lingering in these backdrop worlds would just be padding. And for them, it would be. That’s a legitimate take on the show, if you’re only in it to see what the next step of the story is, and where it ultimately ends. It’s not that Loki necessarily needed more time to tell the exact story it’s telling, which is ironically (given its many time-jumping technologies) about people who have very little time left on their hands, and are caught in a constant stressed-out rush to the end. Arguably, Loki and Sylvie wouldn’t have even formed the exact connection they formed if they’d ever had time for a conversation longer than shouted banter and meaningful eye contact.
But for other viewers, who enjoy world-building and character-building, and want to have a little time to marinate in the kinds of colorful settings and setups Loki reveals and instantly discards, the entire series feels like regrettably wasted potential for more nuanced and intricate drama. It’s a series of Cliffs Notes, content with the bare bones of all the action, and never interested in the many warm and pleasurable possibilities of the flesh. The MCU has a constant and well-documented issue with focusing more on what’s coming up next than on the story it’s supposed to be telling in the moment. Loki feels like the latest and greatest example of that — a show entirely devoted to the action, at the expense of most of its opportunities for anything but speed. It is what it is, but it’s easy to imagine it being so much more.
Except for Lokigator. He needs no further explanation or elaboration. He’s fine as he is, without a background, with no thoughtful interaction, and without a series of intrigues and schemes to give him more weight. Lokigator is a brief visual gag and a series of grouchy, bitey moods, and he’s perfect as he is.