• Samantha Cross

Archives on TV: Loki

Is it just me or do the Marvel Studios television shows and movies really like using bureaucracy and records as an important aspect of storytelling? Because they're kind of everywhere: S.H.I.E.L.D. gathers intel on prospective Avengers, HYDRA gathers intel on prospective fascists, Carol Danvers breaks into a military archives to learn more about herself, the What If series of alternate Marvel universes hinged its entire end game gambit on information found in the KGB Archives, and now we have Loki, a television series about everybody's favorite God of Mischief that relies entirely on the existence of a massive archive to justify itself and provide character motivation across the board.


Unfortunately, they don't refer to the massive archive as an archives until the last minute of the last episode of season one. So keep that in mind as we explore the inner workings of the Time Variance Authority (TVA).


Thematically, Loki is six episodes that asks whether or not a person, in this case Loki (Tom Hiddleston), is more than just their destined role. Is Loki only a foil for the Avengers? Is his only purpose to ensure actual heroes rally together to stop him? Are Lokis always destined to lose?


A byproduct of timeline shenanigans in Avengers: End Game, Loki managed to escape following the Battle of New York in the first Avengers movie using the tesseract to transport himself elsewhere. He doesn't get to enjoy his freedom for very long before hunters from the TVA arrive and whisk him away to their anachronistic, but still futuristic headquarters. Loki is informed that he's a Variant, an alternate version of himself who strayed from his path on the Sacred Timeline established by the TVA's founders, the Time Keepers. We then meet Mobius (Owen Wilson), an agent of the TVA who wants to use Loki to capture another Loki variant who's been a thorn in the TVA's side for an indeterminate amount of time. But, as is the case with most things, nothing is ever what it seems.


So that was episode one. Episode two, "The Variant," introduces the audience to the TVA proper as Loki takes on the role of agent/consultant to track down his variant - who we later come to know as Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino). In order to track down the variant he needs to consult the case files, of which there are many. A good portion of episode two is set in the massive space we will eventually learn is the archives, but it remains a nameless place for the time being. Loki is given a stack of case files, folders, and binders all containing information about the variant and their interactions with the TVA that he then goes about disorganizing in a Gandalfian fashion as he moves papers and files around with absolutely no respect for original order! I do find it interesting that there's nary a banker's box to be found. I don't know why, but I expect more boxes.



Taking some time to see how far he can push his charm and manipulation, Loki then tries to procure a number of classified files from a woman who is credited as "Archivist" on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB), played by Dayna Beilenson. But, again, she's never referred to as an archivist in the episode. There is also an actor credited as "Archives Shusher" who does exactly what you might think. She shushes Loki as he talks out loud to himself.


We've once again hit the misconception of libraries and archives as one and the same. The presence of the Shusher indicates a library-esque setting - because talking while researching is forbidden - even though the aforementioned characters are in an archives. The aesthetic and setup of the archives is also heavily inspired by libraries - specifically the Toronto Reference Library though the filming was mostly done in Atlanta, Georgia - with the open and exposed stacks, research tables within the stacks, and filing system headings displayed prominently above their sections. There is no indication of how the files and records are processed or organized, so unless someone from the Loki team has a spreadsheet of the TVA archives' structure and filing system, it's anybody's guess.



That being said, records and files are everywhere in season one, including the closing credits of every episode. They are the bread and butter of the TVA, but they're also a thematic tool. The presence of files and records indicates a classification system in place, an implementation of order that's been followed and enforced. The first episode shows the audience inklings of there being something wrong with the TVA through the absurd levels of bureaucracy imposed on Loki and then uses the files gathered on him to put his past actions as well as his predetermined future on display. The files establish a narrative, one that Loki has deviated from in violation of a timeline created by some invisible hand. The case files that supposedly contain all known information about Loki reinforce a status quo as dictated by the Prime Loki as well as the Sacred Timeline's approval of Prime Loki and his actions. By acting in opposition to what the case files dictate, Protagonist Loki is the walking antithesis of the TVA's core philosophy.



Records and archival collections as the truth or a truth is entirely based on how you approach the postmodernist theory behind constructed narratives and the inherent power of the archives to facilitate those narratives. Basically, go read some Derrida because Loki takes that inherent power of the archives and amps it up to a cosmic scale.


In the season finale, Loki and Sylvie find the creator of the TVA, He Who Remains (Jonathan Majors) who is himself a variant of Kang the Conqueror, though he's never outright named as such. He tells them about the initial peace between himself and other variants in the multiverse that was eventually shattered when less than peaceful variants of himself attempted to conquer and seize power. To ensure the survival of reality itself, He Who Remains created the Sacred Timeline and the TVA, along with the Time Keepers, to enforce it. In doing so, Kang appointed himself a cosmic archivist - creating a narrative and crafting a truth while weeding out or "pruning" deviations that contradict his reality. In his mind it was for the greater good regardless of the violence inflicted on variants removed from the timeline.


As allegories go, Loki makes a good case for the consequences of archival practices. Silences in the archives exist because records were discarded by archivists and record-keepers based on personal bias, historical precedent, institutional pressure, or all of the above. The collections found in the archives do not come fully formed, they are molded by people and people make mistakes and sometimes those mistakes have consequences we cannot fathom. There are measures of accountability that can be created and enforced but that's entirely up to the institution where those records live. And before you think that means we should just keep everything, that's not the way it works.


Archival collections are a balance between detail and summation, accuracy and authenticity, witness and watcher. They ask you to take a closer look but they require you to take a step back and see the bigger picture. Archives are the connective tissue of history but it can never present the truth of it because history is composed of many truths from many different points of view. The past may be prologue but it has no more authority over the future than Loki Prime has over Protagonist Loki.


His truth is yet to be written - but would you really trust it anyway?

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