Marvel Studios’ TV shows, like their movie counterparts, are tasked with balancing their own narratives within a larger framework: the Marvel Cinematic Universe. WandaVision wrapped up a self-contained story of grief with a disconnected battle, while teasing future MCU stories. While The Falcon and the Winter Soldier had few ripple effects for the larger status quo, it established Sam Wilson as the new Captain America moving forward. The very first episode of Loki introduced a multiverse concept that will be a significant part of future MCU movies. But unlike the conclusions of previous MCU shows, Loki’s season 1 finale, “For All Time. Always.,” is entirely subsumed by the concerns of Marvel’s larger continuity. Its setups push the MCU in a concrete new direction, offering exciting and chaotic possibilities, but the way the series executes this shake-up ends up sidelining the actual story it was supposedly telling.
[Ed. note: Complete ending spoilers for Loki season 1 ahead.]
In the penultimate episode, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino) find their way past the enormous smoke demon Alioth to a mysterious castle “at the end of time.” Their journeys have been leading to this impending confrontation with the yet-unseen adversary controlling the Time Variance Authority, the person ultimately responsible for the way the TVA hunts down Lokis from various timelines. For Sylvie, this means finally being able to exact revenge on the person responsible for her living on the run. For Loki, the significance is far less concrete, since a TVA agent already sped him through an entire movie series’ worth of character arcs in a matter of minutes, by showing him footage from previous Marvel films.
There weren’t many places left for Loki to go as a character at the end of episode 5, though before he sets out for this destination, his ally Mobius (Owen Wilson) tells him, “I hope you find what you’re looking for.” Once episode 6 kicks off, Mobius’ statement lingers in ironic fashion. As Loki and Sylvie enter the castle, they’re met by Miss Minutes (Tara Strong), the TVA’s animated, clock-faced helper, who now speaks on behalf of the show’s mysterious villain and offers Loki the glory he once sought. Being tempted by power has always been Loki’s deal — the Loki we know, and many other versions we’ve met thus far — and perhaps this offer is exactly what Loki needs, if only so he can finally reject power in favor of something more altruistic.
On paper, that’s exactly what he does when he ignores the offer, but it’s because he seems completely disinterested in it to begin with. It’s a far less dramatic trajectory than the character deserves, given his ambition in all his past film appearances. However, following Loki also means taking the series at its word; the God of Mischief isn’t that person anymore, even though the only thing he’s done to demonstrate it is simply state it. The show doesn’t truly test him until episode 6, and then he casts aside Miss Minutes’ offer of a throne alongside Sylvie so quickly and easily that it holds little dramatic weight.
What is it, then, that awaits Loki inside this castle? What is he “looking for”? The question looms large as he and Sylvie carefully make their way through the darkened citadel halls. Director Kate Herron captures this place of black marble and enormous statues with an appropriate air of mystery, peering at the characters from behind pillars, and even rotating the frame so viewers feel uneasy and unmoored. When the answer at the end of the line finally appears, it doesn’t feel connected to Loki in any meaningful way. “He Who Remains” (Jonathan Majors), a never-before-seen character, reveals himself and lures Loki and Sylvie into his office, where the windows look out on the “sacred timeline.” While his subsequent explanations offer them an intriguing dilemma, the way the sequence is presented grinds the Loki story to an absolute halt.
He Who Remains has a casual, almost personable demeanor, which feels especially eerie given his grim surroundings. (Loki and Sylvie, who can’t seem to kill him, remain on guard.) Seated at his table and backdropped by an enormous star-gazing window, He Who Remains explains his story and his reasoning to Loki and Sylvie, using a magical liquid display to spin a tale of how multiple versions of himself across multiple timelines once worked together, but eventually kicked off a multiversal war for supremacy. This version of the villain has since sought to keep a singular timeline in check to avoid such a catastrophe from repeating, and he also claims to have pre-ordained Loki and Sylvie’s arrival at his lair. This, of course, presents the two Loki variants with a pressing question: Do they take him at his word and keep him alive, or risk multiversal chaos by removing him from power?
The problem, however, is that while this question does eventually become pressing, the episode spends an inordinate amount of screen time fixated on He Who Remains as he explains all this backstory, and it spends almost none of that time on Loki and Sylvie’s reactions to what he says. While the duo eventually engage in a sword-fight over what decision to make, the buildup mostly involves this newly introduced character explaining a history that’s barely connected to either of the leads. Of course, eagle-eyed comic fans (and those aware of the cast list of future Marvel movies like Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania) will recognize Majors as a version of Kang the Conqueror, one of the Avengers’ time-traveling adversaries. The show is setting up his presence in future movies by explaining how He Who Remains is the only thing holding back a wave of evil Variant versions of himself. As an explanation for the Avengers’ next big threat, his story is appropriately grandiose. But in a dramatic sense, in terms of Loki the show, He Who Remains is a story-killer of a character.
Since its early episodes, the show has focused on a few central narrative questions: What makes Lokis such favored targets for the TVA? Is there such a thing as free will? Is enforced order better than chaotic freedom? And finally, can any Loki be trusted?
The first question, surrounding the targeting of Lokis, seems to have been cast aside entirely (as has, by proxy, the question of why Loki and Sylvie’s feelings for each other seemed to create a branching timeline), since He Who Remains reveals that every action on the show thus far has been supposedly pre-ordained. In the process, that second question surrounding free will ceases to matter too, though it can at least be said that when the scene reaches “the threshold” — the unexplained point from which He Who Remains suddenly no longer has omniscience — Loki and Sylvie finally face what they might do when unburdened by determinism.
The dilemma between order and freedom, on the other hand, is presented in much more potent fashion, when the episode cuts away from He Who Remains’ explanations and focuses on Mobius and Judge Ravonna Renslayer (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). While less consequential for the larger MCU than the Loki/Sylvie conflict, Mobius and Renslayer’s scenes together have a real dramatic tension. They have a loving history which turned professional and then violent, and they have a discernible ideological conflict too: Renslayer holds steadfastly to “the greater good,” while Mobius has begun to see the TVA and its actions in a much less favorable light.
By contrast, much of Loki and Sylvie’s dilemma centers on a character neither one has much history with. When they finally stop being a passive, neutered audience to He Who Remains’ exposition dump, their section of the episode finally springs to life. It takes 30 minutes to get there, but it’s a real conflict, with Sylvie driven by her obsessive need for revenge, and Loki driven by some combination of altruism and self-preservation. The question of “Can you trust a Loki?” comes to a head with a solid “no.” Sylvie’s betrayal, after Loki finally confesses a selfless form of love, is actually affecting. But given that their fight is framed around the villain’s honesty, it’s hard not to wonder what might have transpired if the man behind the curtain was someone they had any history with, someone known to both characters.
Perhaps this Kang variant was always the plan, as a way to expand the scope of the MCU. But the fan theory that some other, more powerful Loki was pulling the strings likely would have served Loki and Sylvie’s story better, and it would have represented a much better opportunity to explore Loki’s chosen themes. It just wouldn’t have served as many future, non-Loki properties.
So much of Loki and Sylvie’s battle in the final episode hinges on the question of whether they think He Who Remains is lying to them. It’s a purely logistical question, and one that comes up independently of whether Loki is lying to Sylvie, and independently of Sylvie’s betrayal. He Who Remains’ true nature is determined by the future needs of the MCU, not by any theme or idea within Loki itself, and it feels entirely incidental to both leads’ arcs. He doesn’t represent any culmination of the show’s ideas. And he isn’t an invitation for either lead to reflect on their own natures, as a good climactic confrontation ought to be, particularly in a story about whether or not these characters are truly capable of change.
If Loki seemed even mildly tempted by the offer of all the power he previously sought, his decision not to kill and dethrone the villain might feel more challenging or resonant. He Who Remains is seeking a replacement, but his appearance this late into the story is akin to if Willy Wonka showed up at the Chocolate Factory only after Charlie returned the Everlasting Gobstopper. Rather than feeling like a dilemma between choosing power and the greater good, Loki’s decision to immediately protect He Who Remains feels, ironically, like the only possible, pre-ordained outcome, given the circumstances. Loki used to be the duplicitous God of Mischief, but this show has smoothed away all the character’s moral wrinkles, so his dilemma becomes less about what his actions represent for him as a person, and more about the larger consequences they might have for the Marvel Universe.
Having some powerful Loki variant embodying the same temptation is merely an idle suggestion. The point is not so much changing the villain’s identity as noting his discernible lack of identity with regards to the show’s main characters. The same alternate-Kang, or any other villain pulled from the comics, could have just as easily presented Loki with some kind of rigorous decision that would define him. But challenging Loki as a character doesn’t appear to have been one of the finale’s narrative priorities. He does clearly suffer when Sylvie betrays him, leaving off on an interesting cliffhanger, but his actual confrontation with the show’s secret, overarching antagonist isn’t much of a confrontation at all.
The presence of He Who Remains serves primarily to set up future MCU stories like What If…? and Quantumania, in which the multiverse and Kang the Conqueror will likely play a part. The second season of Loki will no doubt be one of those future stories — as confirmed by the finale’s credits — but in a saga like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s uncertain when and where this tale will next pick up, or what the continuing story will even look like. (While Loki is now in a radically altered TVA, he’s reportedly set to appear next in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.)
So in spite of the promises it makes, the season’s conclusion can’t help but feel slightly wasted. It opened with the idea of a narrative about whether a former villain could truly be redeemed. But the finale was fixed on an entirely different villain, and not even the one onscreen — the entire story is servicing a villain who’s scheduled to appear several movies from now. The characters are supposedly battling to live freely, but the show ends up treating them with the same deterministic hand as its antagonists, trapping them within the bounds of a pre-ordained larger universe whose continuity takes precedence over anything they want, need, or try to do for themselves.