Loki season 2 episode 3 review | A timely romp at the World’s Fair

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The latest episode of Loki – 1893 – is impressive, but also serves as a metaphor for where the Marvel Cinematic Universe has landed. Spoilers…

Loki really needed an episode like 1893, which arrives just at the right moment to give Marvel’s time-travelling series the propulsion through space and time that it needed.

The first two episodes of the sophomore season of Loki had established the key problem at the heart of the Time Variance Authority – the temporal loom keeping the Sacred Timeline together is breaking and Loki (Tom Hiddleston), with his partner Möbius (Owen Wilson), must find a way to keep it stable. The ‘previously’ segment does an excellent job this week of, appropriately, tying together all of the strands we need to know going into the episode, given Loki was in danger of losing casual viewers.

One aspect that really becomes apparent in 1893 is just what a giant metaphor the TVA is for Marvel Studios right now. Having created a many-headed hydra (hail Hydra!) now threatening to spiral off in a dozen different directions, causing audience confusion in the process, there’s a renewed call for order and stability amongst the broader sense of storytelling. The Sacred Timeline is in essence the audience’s constant, one Marvel seem at pains to point out needs protecting.

That’s certainly the thrust of Loki’s second season thus far, crystallised by this episode, as the four main players – Loki, Möbius, plus grumpy variant Sylvie (Sophia di Martino) and a reintroduced Ravonna Renslayer (welcome back, Gugu Mbatha-Raw) – assemble as the series spirals back to the consequences of killing He Who Remains (Jonathan Majors). That’s the variant of Kang whose death has sent the temporal cosmos spinning out of control. He represents that Marvel stability that has been so upended since the Multiverse saga was ushered in.

Majors makes his proper return to Loki here after being teased, in previous outings, in the form of his statue image or his voice, appearing as Victor Timely, the original He Who Remains at the beginning of his journey The one born and raised inside late 19th century Chicago. Or is it? The captions introducing when we are handily tell us whether we’re in the ‘sacred’ or ‘branched’ timelines, and the Chicago World’s Fair around which this episode pivots seems to operate in the latter. Suggesting what we’re seeing was not the original flow of events that led to He Who Remains.

Just to divert on this point for a moment, because it speaks to Marvel’s time travel rules. This episode of Loki strongly resembled Doctor Who even more than usual at points, a show that by its very nature plays fast and loose with continuity, but has suggested there are ‘fixed points’ in time that can’t be changed. Lost, another major time travel proponent, had the idea of time always flowing in one direction, with everything that happened having always happened. We have no free will in that scenario because we can never alter events. We merely play a part.

Loki suggests differently. This could have been a predestination paradox when Renslayer provides the young Victor with the instructions his future self gave her to pass his way, but if the timeline has branched, then is she creating a new future? The TVA guidebook has more than a whiff of River Song’s diary from Doctor Who about it, filled with the Doctor’s ‘future history’. That too robbed him of his agency, as River always knew where he was headed. Given Loki is all about free will vs predestination, as it often points out in dialogue, these story choices feel primed to directly question that.

The question is whether everything we’re seeing always happened to the He Who Remains at the end of time, or whether this is an entirely different chain of events. We don’t know, at this stage. The story could play out in different ways. Yet everything continually comes back to the need to re-establish order over chaos. Renslayer, marking her own ambitions, even states it: “I am order.” She contrasts Sylvie who is currently an agent of chaos, which is ascribed to free will. Which makes me think there will be no ‘Sacred Timeline’ when Loki is all said and done.

In that sense, does Loki contain a conflicting message? Loki himself is currently very much operating against his core programming of creating chaos, dialling down the trickster (he does it once here, to comedic effect) as he works to try and secure the TVA and the correct flow of time. If we are meant to consider an ordered universe, a structured flow of events, as the right path, then what does that say about Marvel if they blow it all up by the end of Loki? Presumably to pave the way for, amongst other things, the more sinister Kang variants of Victor/He Who Remains to try and conquer the multiverse?

Which is it? Order or chaos? Perhaps both. Fans are speculating that this will lead to Marvel’s first ‘crisis’ event, in which they can reboot the ‘sacred’ timeline come the end of this grand narrative, cherry picking the elements they like and rebooting those they don’t – paving the way for new Tony Starks and such like… Maybe. Loki will factor presumably quite crucially into that larger tapestry and the choices made here will impact it. Majors’ prominence remains a PR problem (however fun he is as the huckster, gawky Nikola Tesla he portrays here). But those feel like problems for another day.

Crucially, 1893 has the feel of a Loki episode playing to the series’ strengths. A strong historical location, allowing for a combination of Victorian-era Americana, some knockabout capitalist villains, and Möbius laughter as he pretends not to be a time tourist. It balances elements of comedy and fairly melodramatic Marvel storytelling rather deftly, retaining a sense of atmosphere whilst factoring into a broader storyline.

Unlike last week, it also doesn’t feel like its, pun not intended, playing for time.

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