What, exactly, is the advantage of serialized television over movies? Is it just to elongate stories, and get viewers excited about what happens next, and what happens after that, for months or years on end? Or is it the opportunity to really get to know the characters in these stories, so that what happens to them next matters more emotionally than if the viewer had only spent a couple of hours with them?
The last 20 years of TV — and the streaming era in particular — have conditioned a lot of the audience to value plot over all else. But that approach leads to diminishing returns in a hurry. If I don’t know or care about the people these twists and turns of the story are happening to, then the twists themselves quickly lose all meaning or sense of entertainment. Many of the best dramas of this century have understood the importance of pausing the plot to spend some extra time establishing who these people are and how they relate to each other — like “Tricia Tanaka Is Dead,” the Lost episode where Hurley and the guys spend an hour fixing up a Dharma Initiative van just to have something to do; or “Fly,” the polarizing but brilliant Breaking Bad hour where Walt and Jesse try to catch an insect intruder in the Super Lab. If all you care about on those series is the plot, you could easily skip each chapter (though the Dharma van actually serves a minor purpose later in that season); if you’re on a long-haul journey with Hurley or Walt, then episodes like that greatly enhance the whole experience.
Those episodes also, to be fair, come from an earlier era when dramas produced more installments per season. Lost made 22 episodes surrounding “Tricia Tanaka,” while “Fly” was one Breaking Bad episode out of 13 in 2010. But as dramas have pared down to making 10 episodes or fewer per year, rewarding digressions like those have become unfortunately rare. And given only six episodes to play with, one might assume Loki had no time whatsoever to jump off the narrative tracks that had been laid through the first couple of hours.
But that’s exactly what we get with “Lamentis,” even if Loki and his female variant — who here reveals that she has adopted the name Sylvie — spend much of it riding a luxury train. As Loki and Sylvie race for survival on the pre-apocalyptic moon that gives the chapter its title, the larger plot of the season is placed entirely on hold, and most of the supporting characters are either absent entirely (Mobius, Hunter B-15) or appear only briefly (Ravonna). In terms of Sylvie’s plan for the Time-Keepers, the TVA’s plans for Loki, Mobius’ true identity(*), and all the other questions set up in previous weeks, nothing of importance happens here. Loki’s quick moves with the TemPad, and then the device’s mechanical difficulties, simply seem to delay what Sylvie was planning, and it’s clear she intends to pick up right where she left off if they can get off the moon before its neighboring planet crashes in and kills everyone on it.
(*) Sylvie’s conversations with and about Hunter C-20 reveal that the TVA employees were not, in fact, created by the Time-Keepers, but rather are variants who have had memories of their past lives erased while put in service to the Sacred Timeline. Perhaps Mobius really did get to ride Jet Skis in the Nineties?
But “Lamentis” (written by Bisha K. Ali, and again directed by Kate Herron) recognizes that if we don’t understand who Sylvie is, and the ways in which she is and is not like her male counterpart, then none of her endgame really matters. The detour is as crucial as — if not more crucial than — everything that happened before, and will come after our odd couple of Lokis make their way back to the TVA offices. And also? It’s entertaining as Hel.
While Owen Wilson was a huge part of what made the earlier chapters fun (and even merely watchable during some of the bigger infodumps), Loki gets by just fine without him for a week, because Tom Hiddleston and Sophia Di Martino also have chemistry in spades, and because it’s important to see what differentiates the two variants without anyone else getting in the way. They run into a gun-toting homesteader and various guards and train crew on their trip to hijack the ark that’s meant to carry the moon’s richest citizens to safety, but all of those people are just props in the battle of wits going on between Loki and Sylvie, as each takes the other’s measure and tries to figure out how to beat him or her — or if they even want to.
That Sylvie keeps talking about her powers of enchantment, and that she has chosen this specific name, led a lot of Marvel fans last week to speculate that she is in fact not a Loki at all, but the Enchantress, a classic Thor comics villain who in a later incarnation also went by Sylvie. It is certainly possible that Sylvie could take on Enchantress as her new moniker by the end of this story. But this feels more like the MCU’s habit of combining aspects of comics characters (say, making Bucky also be the White Wolf, who on the page is T’Challah’s adopted brother) than a bait-and-switch. It’s not just that the TVA is convinced that Sylvie is a Loki variant, but that Hiddleston and Di Martino are so clearly playing different aspects of the same character. She moves like he does when she fights (the maneuver where she uses her crown as a weapon is straight out of a move he pulls in the final Thor: Ragnarok fight on the Bifrost); she’s cagey and smug in a similar fashion to how he so often is; and she’s always certain she’s the cleverest one in the room — because she usually is. We learn precious little about her own backstory, but she looks upon Loki’s Asgardian upbringing, which he so often resented, as a paradise compared to whatever she went through. And her fixation on the Time-Keepers, along with her comment about how long they’ve been trying to kill her, suggests that the TVA has played a big role in depriving her of the life she feels she was owed.
This is delicate stuff to get across, especially without Sylvie just delivering a long autobiographical monologue that she wouldn’t plausibly do at this stage in knowing Loki. It needs a whole episode to work as well as it does, and the setting — where meteors and other planetary chunks are constantly endangering our heroes and the various people they meet — makes it feel like an unlikely but appealing cross-pollination of a high-end Doctor Who episode and Before Sunrise. We know they’re going to survive because there’s still half a season to go, but the constant threat level — up through that impressive oner-style sequence at the end where Loki and Sylvie try to fight their way through a riot, only to watch the ark blow up before they can get on it — adds welcome, necessary tension to what’s otherwise a game of intellectual cat and mouse between two relative equals.
“Lamentis” is also an excellent example of the ways in which these new MCU shows can do things differently from the films while still feeling like part of the same broader story. A Loki standalone movie could have room for an abbreviated version of this episode, but it couldn’t take up 40-odd minutes of that movie’s running time, and whatever bond the two characters developed, with each other and with the audience, would feel far more superficial than it turns out to be here.
Whether Loki and Sylvie keep working together when they get off the moon, or he returns to being (as Sylvie puts it) a consultant for the boring time police, what comes next is going to resonate much more because Michael Waldron and company were willing and able to take a brief break from what’s happening next to instead dwell on why it’s happening, and to whom. That’s not filler, but the whole point of telling long-form stories on television.