(This article is full of significant spoilers for the season finale of “Loki,” including details about the ending)
Since the premiere of “Loki” in June, we’ve been expecting Kang the Conqueror to show up. The evidence was overwhelming, and it all pointed to at least a cameo at the end of the season. But this post isn’t a victory lap to congratulate myself on making a good prediction for once, because we weren’t quite right.
So in the finale, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino) reach the Citadel at the End of Time, and meet the architect of the TVA, and so he claims, everything else they’ve experienced in their lives: He Who Remains, played by Jonathan Majors.
We reported last year that Majors had been cast in the MCU as Kang the Conqueror, though his appearance in “Loki” specifically was never confirmed. And maybe that’s because Majors was technically not playing Kang on “Loki,” but rather a different version of the human being who would become Kang. A Kang variant, basically, but we’re going to have a semantic discussion about that term later on.
During his chat with Loki and Sylvie, which lasts for most of the episode, He Who Remains lays out his whole deal. He tells them that he created the TVA, and that he ordained the path that led them to this specific moment. Everything that’s happened on this show was his doing. Everything.
He tells them that he wants to retire, and gives Loki and Sylvie a choice: kill him and allow the multiverse to come into being, or take over control of the TVA.
And then he talks about himself.
“I’ve been dubbed many names by many people. A ruler. A conqueror. He Who Remains. A jerk. But it’s not as simple as a name.”
It’s not as simple as a name, because this guy is from a multiverse. There are many versions of him, so his name doesn’t necessarily clear up who this specific individual person is. Because his name refers to all versions of him — good, bad, and in between.
“Eons ago, before the TVA, a variant of myself lived on Earth in the 31st Century. He was a scientist, and he discovered that there were universes stacked on top of his own. At the same time, other versions of us were learning the same thing.”
This tells us we’re dealing with Nathaniel Richards, which was Kang the Conqueror’s given name. But while Kang the Conqueror is Nathaniel Richards, Nathaniel Richards is not necessarily Kang the Conqueror. Remember, it’s not as simple as a name.
After a while, Richards says, these multiversal interactions stopped being peaceful.
“Not every version of me was so pure of heart. To some of us, new worlds only meant one thing: New lands to be conquered. The peace between realities erupted into all-out war, each variant fighting to preserve their universe and annihilate the others.”
Maybe one or more of those guys was Kang the Conqueror. I’m not sure I buy it, for reasons I’ll lay out below, but it’s certainly a valid way to look at this story. And it’s a fun idea.
Finally, late in Richards’ autobiographical monologue, he tells us which Richards he was.
“That first variant encountered a creature created from all the tears in reality, capable of consuming time and space itself,” Richards tells Loki and Sylvie, talking about the smoke monster Alioth we saw policing The Void in last week’s episode. “I weaponized Alioth. And I ended the Multiversal War. Once I isolated our timeline, all I had to do was manage the flow of time and prevent further branches.”
First thing here: in the multiverse, everyone is a variant. There is no “original” version. So when he talks about the “first variant” there he just means he’s referring to the first version of himself that he had mentioned earlier in this story, and not some hierarchy of versions of himself.
Second: this version of Richards that we know is that that first variant. Which means he is not including himself among the warmongers — those were other variants. He could be smudging the truth, what with villains often think they’re the hero and all that. Not to mention that he may actually have destroyed all those other universes, which is not something you would think a nice person would do. On the other hand, none of us has ever been in a Multiversal War. Let’s just say we don’t have enough context to judge this guy.
That said, Hollywood storytelling conventions tell us we can trust most of what Richards is telling us, because season finales don’t usually end with a lie that has to be unraveled later. In a normal story built for mass appeal — which is what “Loki” is — it would be safe to assume he’s telling at least most of the truth. Because if we couldn’t, then we simply would have no idea what happened on this show. So we have to assume that we’re mostly getting truth here, or at least the truth as he knows it.
So if this guy spewing all this exposition at Loki and Sylvie isn’t Kang, then who is? Well, I think we saw a statue of him in the last shot of the episode.
Near the end of Sylvie and Loki’s chat with Richards, they ask him how he could trust them with this choice.
“What’s the worst that can happen? You either take over and my life’s work continues, or you plunge a blade in my chest and an infinite amount of me start another Multiversal War. And I just end up right back here anyways. Reincarnation, baby.”
Sylvie kicks Loki back to the TVA, then kills Richards, triggering the multiverse. And then Loki, after discovering that Mr. Mobius (Owen Wilson) doesn’t know who he is and noticing a new monument decorating the place, learns that Richards was wrong. He didn’t end up back there. Now a Richards variant, whose statue looms over the TVA lobby, is openly leading the TVA instead of hiding behind the facade of the Time-Keepers. The multiverse didn’t just give us a bunch of new alternate timelines — it gave us a new TVA as well.
Richards thought that if the multiverse came into being that the exact same stuff that he experienced before would play out again. But it didn’t. Maybe there was another multiversal war, with just one Nathaniel Richards remaining by the end — but a different one this time. A bad one. Kang the Conqueror.
It’s exactly the kind of poetic dualism that Hollywood storytellers love. And it preserves the multiverse even with a new TVA, because as his title indicates he would probably want to conquer other realities, not destroy them — and the TVA, which was Kang’s enemy in the comics, could certainly help with that
Understanding what’s happening at the TVA here is difficult to discuss. There’s no before or after for the TVA — remember, it exists outside of time. That is a hard thing to depict in this specific sequence because, likewise, there’s no before and after the multiverse. When the multiverse came back, it simply was there, and from the TVA’s perspective all of time played out at once, including that hypothetical multiversal war if it actually occurred.
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And it would have been affected by those events, because even though the TVA is outside of time and the multiverse, it only exists because somebody from inside the multiverse created it. If there’s a different Nathaniel Richards in charge, that would either erase the TVA completely, or change it dramatically. But how to you portray that change to the TVA as it’s happening? You can’t, because it’s basically indescribable. Something like that is outside the scope of our understanding. But they can show us the effect of the change, which it seems like they did.
All of this is paradoxical, at least to how we perceive reality in the real world. “Loki” is using its own logic, though, for all this multiverse stuff, and since it’s all very new still we can’t work out that logic just yet. As with Netflix’s twisty German time travel series “Dark,” you’re just gonna have to accept that paradoxes are going to be a part of all this multiverse stuff.
Though “Loki” is certainly not even attempting to operate on the heady level that “Dark” was, it is dealing with similar physics concepts. So if you try to apply our own normal cause-and-effect logic to it, there’s gonna be trouble. Unfortunately, “Loki” didn’t exactly lay down its own internal logic for us to go by, so there’s only so much we can infer about how things will work post-“Loki.”
In any case, it’s a safe bet that any Nathaniel Richards we meet from here will be distinct from the one we just met. And I look forward to his next appearance, even if it’s another non-Kang one, because after seeing his performance this episode it’s clear that Jonathan Majors is gonna knock this role out of the park.