The “Loki” finale has these powerful lines as food for thought: “Free will? Only one person gets free will. The one in charge.”
It helps that this was delivered by Ravonna Renslayer, played by the brilliant actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw, best known for portraying Kelly in the Emmy Award-winning “Black Mirror” episode “San Junipero”, which incidentally is my favorite one. In a Disney+ series overflowing with talent and incredible performances, Mbatha-Raw makes Judge Renslayer one of the most compelling characters. In fact, more than the hero’s journey (or villain’s journey, since this series is about Loki), time travel shenanigans (reminiscent of “Doctor Who”, where Mbatha-Raw also appeared), and identity, the “Loki” finale shows us that the central question around which this series revolves is: “Does free will exist?” And if it does, would people choose free will instead of their own salvation? Spoilers ahead, if you haven’t watched the “Loki” finale.
Of gods and men
A judge who rose from the ranks of the Time Variance Authority (TVA), Renslayer is the one overseeing the Loki variant investigation. And in the “Loki” finale, we see how much this investigation has cost her. Renslayer appears to be a true believer. Someone who was convinced that the TVA was serving the greater good and devoted her whole existence to this mission. Only to discover that it was all a lie.
As she tells her erstwhile friend, TVA agent Mobius M. Mobius (Owen Wilson), however, just because the TVA was a lie doesn’t mean she has to give up the mission.
“But what if it’s a necessary one? Someone created the Time-Keepers. They created this whole place. They gave us all purpose. I have to believe they had a reason,” Renslayer tells Mobius.
What’s brilliant about the “Loki” finale — Episode 6 of this first season — is that it cuts back and forth from Renslayer and Mobius at the TVA headquarters, and to the citadel at the end of time where Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and his fellow Loki variant (albeit female) Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino) are having a mindblowing conversation with the person who actually — or at least claims to have — created the TVA.
He Who Remains
Throughout the “Loki” series, fan speculation had been running rampant as to who would turn out to be the Big Bad and the real creator of the TVA. Those of us who are also comic book fans, in particular, felt that all the clues in the show pointed to the time-traveling supervillain Kang the Conqueror. Unfortunately, fans had been burnt before by “WandaVision“, where all signs seemed to point to Mephisto — basically the Devil in Marvel Comics — but they turned out to be red herrings.
And so fans were bracing themselves for another fakeout. Even those who believed it would be Kang also felt that Marvel Studios wouldn’t actually dare to do it. Especially since Kang the Conqueror was rumored to be the Big Bad of Phase 4 and maybe even Phase 5 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, taking over from Thanos.
Surely, you couldn’t expect such an important character to be introduced on a Disney+ TV series?
A cameo, maybe. Or a name drop.
But Marvel Studios actually did it. And how!
Imagine how many jaws dropped when He Who Remains finally appears. And we see Jonathan Majors, best known for portraying Atticus Freeman in “Lovecraft Country” — and for being rumored to have been cast as Kang the Conqueror in the MCU film “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” scheduled to come out in 2023.
Here. Now. In front of Loki and Sylvie.
And telling them that this was all part of the plan. His plan.
Sylvie: No, we broke out of your little game. That’s how we got here.
He Who Remains: No, wrong. Every step you took to get here. Lamentis. The Void. I paved the road. You… You just walked down it.
A Kang by any other name
In a series about the trickster god Loki and his many variants — even the titular character in this series is just a variant of the mainstream MCU Loki who died in “Avengers: Infinity War” — who are used to spinning lies, manipulating people, and not trusting anyone, it’s interesting that as the viewers we don’t really know if characters are telling the truth.
We saw it before with Renslayer, when she offered to help Sylvie. And we see it again with He Who Remains, when he admits to fibbing when he claimed he knew how everything would end, after they cross the threshold and he no longer knows what will happen next.
Renslayer tells Mobius that since someone created the Time-Keepers, they must have had a reason. And it turns out she was right, because here is He Who Remains explaining to Loki and Sylvie why he created the TVA and invented the Time-Keepers, and the necessary role that he and the TVA play.
“Without me, without the TVA… everything burns,” He Who Remains tells the two Lokis.
Which brings us to the twist that not even those who believed Kang the Conqueror was behind the TVA saw coming. He Who Remains created the TVA to protect the universe from himself.
And who exactly was he, for him to be so afraid of himself?
“Oh, I’ve been dubbed many names by many people. A ruler. A conqueror. He Who Remains. A jerk,” he tells Loki and Sylvie.
And proceeds to give the MCU backstory of Kang, without actually mentioning the name “Kang” at all.
What fills the void?
He explains how before the TVA, the multiverse existed, and his variants discovered this. And that not all of his variants were as “pure of heart”, and so saw these other universes as new worlds to conquer, thereby unleashing the Multiversal War that nearly destroyed all existence.
Until He Who Remains found a way to weaponize Alioth and end the war. After which he set up the TVA to protect this single Sacred Timeline and prevent any new timelines from branching out.
Everything was planned, He Who Remains explains, to bring Loki and Sylvie to this citadel at the end of time, for this moment.
“You came to kill the devil, right? Well, guess what? I keep you safe. And if you think I’m evil, well, just wait till you meet my variants. And that’s the gambit. Stifling order or cataclysmic chaos. You may hate the dictator, but something far worse is gonna fill that void if you depose him,” He Who Remains says.
And so he offers Loki and Sylvie a choice. Kill him, in which case they would unleash an infinite number of him, who are far worse. Or the two of them can take his place and continue running the TVA, because he is tired and has found that the two of them are the right person for the job.
Is He Who Remains telling the truth? Loki believes him. Sylvie doesn’t. And, honestly, who can blame her?
The betrayer is betrayed. Sylvie makes her choice.
A multiverse is born
And so Sylvie’s choice gives birth to the multiverse. Or perhaps, more accurately, a rebirth.
It’s mindblowing that Marvel Studios actually decided to show the birth of the multiverse — a cataclysmic event that will shape Phase 4 and the future of the MCU — on a Disney+ series. So much for Disney+ not really having a major impact on the movies.
Because. This. Is. Huge.
Which again begs the question: does free will exist? Did Sylvie make this decision of her own free will? Or was she fated or manipulated into making this choice?
From the point of view of Sylvie as a character, I would argue that this was the only choice that was true to her character. Did we really think that after being on the run all her life and plotting revenge against the author of all her misery, that she would suddenly give up her purpose in life?
In this sense, she and Renslayer have stayed true to their mission.
Who is the author?
From a meta perspective, of course we as the viewers knew Sylvie would make this choice. Because the next MCU films on the horizon are “Spider-Man: No Way Home”, where the multiverse is supposed to be in play because it will feature characters from the previous two Spider-Man franchises that starred Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield, and “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness”, where the Sorcerer Supreme will deal with the fallout from the Disney+ series “WandaVision”, whose Wanda Maximoff a.k.a. Scarlet Witch will be part of the movie.
In retrospect, I guess this explains why no “Spider-Man: No Way Home” has been released even though it’s just months away, because it would have spoiled the ending of “Loki” if it features the multiverse.
Free will? In fiction, it’s easier to see that free will doesn’t exist. An author implies the absence of free will, because the author has written the story and knows how it ends.
As characters, Loki and Sylvie may have thought that they have free will and acted as if they did.
As viewers, we could only speculate about what would happen. But the author or authors of “Loki” already knew how it all ends.
But what about real life? Does it have an author? A meaning? A purpose?
I think one of the things we can take away from the “Loki” finale is that what’s important is to act as we have free will. To live as if we have a mission. And to somehow make it come true.