Spoilers for Loki episode 1 are ahead. “How do I show a place that’s not on a planet, there’s no sun, and it literally exists outside of time and space?” There was no easy solution to Loki director Kate Herron’s predicament as she helmed the six-episode Marvel Cinematic Universe series about the God of Mischief’s adventures in time travel. The homebase of the Disney+ series is the Time Variance Authority (TVA), an organization that manages the one true timeline. By definition, it cannot exist in any space we’ve yet seen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or any space at all, really. So, what’s a director to do?
“My first point was going to the comics and they had these amazing images of desks stretching off into eternity,” she told Refinery29 on the eve of Loki’s June 9 premiere. She added in a bit of Clockwork Orange (it was filmed in her hometown) and some Mid Century decor. “[We brought] those together and little nods to other sci-fi — the font on the computers is like in Alien and the time doors were inspired by Dune — with also just my own experience as an office temp.”
From that image was born what Herron calls “infinite office space.” Outside of the TVA’s inner rooms packed with out-of-date tools monitoring high-tech concepts, is a vast panorama alive with the whir of transport vehicles and city sounds. It absolutely stops Tom Hiddleston’s Loki in his tracks in episode 1, after he’s been dragged to this liminal space by the TVA’s time-traveling hunters, who arrest anyone who steps off their prescribed path. If ever there was a person destined to shirk their prescribed destiny, it’s Thor Odinson’s adopted brother Loki Laufeyson (yep, Loki has a last name, as the series so thoughtfully reminds us).
“He's one of the most compelling characters in Marvel for me because he's only had roughly around 79 minutes of screen time [in the movies],” Herron said, noting that we’ve now got six hours with the character thanks to the new series. “There's so much more to Loki than we've got to see.” Including, she noted, more of his magic.
But in episode 1, Loki’s magic is locked down at the TVA; without his powers, his mischief is far more lo-fi. The TVA’s judge (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is about to have him erased from existence entirely, when an investigator named Mobius (Owen Wilson) insists that he needs Loki to solve his latest mystery. Upon showing Loki his prescribed timeline, Mobius says that Loki only existed to make everyone else around him better. When he sees how his story is supposed to end, our anti-hero is left feeling used and hopeless. He then launches a very shrewd, but ill-fated escape attempt, and Mobius appeals to his wounded ego: There’s another version of Loki loose on the timeline and only the god himself can outsmart the perp. The final scene of episode 1 shows us this other Loki, their face obscured by shadow, giving a bit more credence to those fan theories that we’re about to see other actors as Loki variants.
The open-ended mystery is a thrill because most MCU fans, at this point, know Loki’s history pretty well. It’s why, when the series replays footage of his past traumas, from his struggles in Thor, to accidentally leading dark elves to kill his mother in Thor 2: The Dark World, to eventually being strangled to death by Thanos in Endgame, Herron made sure to keep TVA-bound Loki in each frame, rather than going full-screen with old MCU footage. “I thought it would be really emotional to have almost like a play of Loki’s life on-stage and he's watching this play out and wants to reach out and touch them, but he can't,” said Herron, noting that she was inspired by the interactive footage from Minority Report.
Before bringing this unfathomably complicated world to life, Herron was perhaps best known for directing several episodes of Sex Education. The Netflix series about a teenage boy who gives his fellow students confidential sex advice may not have time cops, but it does share some characteristics with Loki, including a love of witty repartee and Mid Century aesthetics.
“The one thing I definitely consciously brought from Sex Education was [the idea of] wearing your heart on your sleeve and letting emotions feel grounded and real,” Herron said. But how do you ground a series about a time-traveling god defying the lords of time? The director points to the Marvel series’ quieter scenes, moments in which two characters are just talking, and not fighting, astral projecting, or conjuring. “In the second episode, Mobius and Loki have a conversation, and it is kind of almost like two friends talking about religion and what they believe in. It's about always trying to find the emotional truth between the characters.”
While Loki is unexpectedly emotional, it’s also an absolute oddball. One of the first characters we meet is a hand-drawn animated clock named Miss Minutes (voiced by Tara Strong), whose first scene is part Dolly Parton and part Mr. DNA from Jurassic Park (that sci-fi reference that was actually in head writer Michael Waldron’s script, per Herron). Its time travel rules so far amount to “just go with it.” Several of the characters carry around light sticks that can literally erase people from all time. Add to that a backwards folding storyline and a few dashes of theremin music, and you’ve got yourself a delightfully knotty ball of weird.
“This show is really kind of resetting the rules for what people thought time [travel] was going to be,” said Herron. “We had that great moment in the first episode where Loki sees the infinity stones” — in a desk drawer, of all places — “and Casey's like, Yeah, they're paperweights. I just know if I saw that as a fan, I'd be like, What is this place? What's going on?”
That is exactly what we’re all thinking after Loki’s first episode. But the series, like its namesake, is burdened with glorious purpose.
New episodes of Loki premiere on Disney+ on Wednesdays.