Loki, He Who Remains, and the Responsibility of Thinking Beyond Yourself
No longer thinking of Free Will in the binary
First of all this entire post is one massive f*cking spoiler so please stop reading if you care about the season finale of Loki and have not watched it. There are also semi-spoilers/speculation about Ant-Man toward the end. The last important caveat being that I'm a pretty passive Marvel fan, in that I've only seen the movies (all of them!) and watched X-Men: The Animated Series when it was airing live in primetime. Please forgive any missteps in my lack of canon knowledge and take that as an opportunity to inform and correct - I promise I'll be gracious if you're respectful.
With that out of the way, I want to take a casual glance at some pretty meaty topics that were introduced in this first season of Loki and turned all the way up in the finale. Naming the thing - we're talking about the existence of free will. From the very first episode, we saw the god of mischief rendered literally powerless in a sanctuary outside of the time and space boundaries of all the known universes he's traveled to. We got to see him plucked from timelines he's stumbled upon, removed from ones of his own creation and made to serve time in the prison of a time-loop that forced him to have a really introspective moment in a way that only reliving your biggest embarrassments repeatedly can do (hello fellow anxious, Capricorns. We know this affliction intimately). In meeting himself in Sylvie, our Loki finds an equal and a partner he can trust enough to journey to the ends of time with on a quest to unmask the Big Bad beyond the TVA.
By the time we found out the façade of the TVA was just that, I had no idea how the story was going to come together with only two more episodes left. Then, in the finale where Loki and Sylvie finally make it to the end of time, Jonathan Majors shows up as He Who Remains, to explain how he exists as the anchor of the TVA and ensures that the multiverse does not return to the chaos of his origin time where infinite versions of everyone, but especially himself, are embroiled in an inter-dimensional war that threatens to destroy everything. Where things get beautiful is his explanation of how he's the reigning variant of himself, currently wielding the power that limits free will to prevent all time from falling back into mayhem; a job he's been successful at for an indeterminate amount of time, but has grown weary of and needs to find a replacement. Our Loki (Plural Loki is just Loki, right? Like fish?) surprised him in that "It turns out, that person came in two. But it's definitely you two." And so he, in his all-knowing power in that moment, reveals to them that their options are to take over his post as joint leaders of the TVA or, kill him and unleash the wrath of the infinite versions of him that are hell-bent on conquering (ahem) their universe and all others.
This is where the primary question arises, and I'm sorry friends that it took me 3 paragraphs to get here, but it took Marvel 5 episodes and 25 minutes to set it up: can Sylvie get over her bloodlust and fury-inspired vengeance rampage, to secure the future of the multiverse until the time comes to pass the torch? The answer is, no. And the subterfuge of the entire inaugural season is that, yes, this show called "Loki" is about Loki, but not about our Loki. Our frustratingly-nameless Loki endured an endearing and occasionally heart-breaking character arc, if only to still be hopelessly narcissistic and fall in love with...himself. But he was at least willing to consider the idea of something bigger than himself and risk his life in the hands of the one he loved in order to protect that idea long enough for it to be considered.
Sylvie on the other hand refused to hear reason that didn't align with a story she'd been telling herself since before the existence of our Loki, even when it came from that Loki, in whom shed' begun to fall in love. She even went so far as to question whether or not this was all our Loki's plan and accused him of creating this ruse from the beginning, which is so absurd considering the circumstances and what they'd been through. Anyway, to bring this back to free will, one thing I think this series did well was frame the conversation outside of the binary of "we have it" or "we don't have it". I've never thought or read on the concept long enough to have arrived at the proposal of more gray area, but I feel like the evidence is there in so many ways right in the real world we live in.
The idea that that free will could exist in a "safe zone" of "these are all acceptable outcomes" is present in how we live our everyday lives guided by a set of governmental, religious and/or societal boundaries, enacted IN THEORY to protect us and those around us. Thinking about time and choice at large, it's fairly easy to extend the example to our existence itself. I.e. an acceptable range in which we're able to make decisions about our lives, that seeks to protect us from choices that could have damaging effects beyond our comprehension or knowledge on a much larger and potentially cosmic scale. This raises red flags on a lot of things like what about people suffering on earth now and how the entirety of this conversation presupposes the existence of some higher being, right? Yes, which brings me to the unique weight of the decision Sylvie had to make. But quickly, the idea being that homelessness, poverty and disease on an earth-global scale pales in comparison to a decision made here that could multiply the existence of that across multiple universes for instance. And yes, this whole thing presupposes a higher power, the entirety of the marvel universes presupposes many higher powers including The One Above All.
Back to the show, Sylvie had been pruned at a very early age and somehow escaped to live in the chaos of one apocalypse after another. The loneliness and desperation of that life on the hunt to take down whoever was responsible for her pruning, hardened her to an almost unreachable point. As comic irony would have it, the weight of ruling the very system she'd been victim of fell into her hands, finally closing the book on any hope she may have been holding onto of ever returning to a normal life, or at least the normal life of a Loki. That's such an impossible thing to ask of her, of anyone, but Marvel did. On the flip side of that, our Loki lived much of the same life she probably would have, as we learned in episode 5 where we got to see how impossible it is for a Loki to be anything other than a Loki. But our Loki was different and, having lived that life, was the only person to communicate to Sylvie that, in order for them to have anything other than what they'd always had, they had to step outside of themselves and, maybe looking out for the divine order of the universe is that thing. Watching this fight between them play out in real time was infuriating for me because the choice seemed so easy. But in writing this out right now, I've had to really think about the life that Sylvie lost. I had to imagine the earth-shattering realization that your choices were not your own, or at least not in the way you thought, and the weight of what was being asked of her in addition to the price she'd already paid was truly impossible. To be honest, I probably would've still chosen to protect the divine order of the universe, but it may have been a harder decision than I was giving her credit for. One more thing that made her choice to kill He Who Remains even more upsetting was, the point at which the outcomes were written had passed, so in those final moments she finally HAD free will and could have opted for some other option. The power was in her hands in that moment.
To both wrap this up and make matters worse, Sylvie chose to kill He Who Remains, unleashing the infinite versions of himself that we now know (because of Ant-Man news) will likely be the beginning of Kang The Conqueror's story in season 2 of Loki somewhere around the release of the Ant-Man movie in 2023. I could draw a million parallels about the dangers of white women with short haircuts, or problems with the optics of a scorned white woman stabbing the single Black man that was literally holding the universe together, the idea that a male Loki would be more level-headed than a female one, or a million other things that just feel like too low hanging fruit. Instead, I want you, dearest reader, to always think about what well is feeding the emotions behind your decision making. Are you challenging yourself to think beyond your immediate circle (within reason and healthy balance)? Are you anticipating the ripple effect of your actions and how they most assuredly will impact people in ways they may not be prepared to recover from? Because whether you believe we have complete free will, or free will within reason, the immutable fact of both scenarios is that your choices effect the circumstances that someone else's free will has to operate within. Marvel Comics gave us a scene where the most famous god of mischief told himself to take a beat to think about the bigger picture and that's something I think we should chew on for a bit.
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