‘Loki’ is Kafkaesque in a way we don’t usually see

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PJ GRISAR, THE FORWARD

In the first episode of “Loki,” the titular God of Mischief learns what Kafka proposed long ago: the world is controlled not by deities and strongmen, but by the soft totalitarianism of paper pushers.

Trapped in the municipal-looking headquarters of the TVA (Time Variance Authority — any resemblance to DMV seems thuddingly intentional), Loki encounters a series of middlemen. These office workers execute commands from a trio of “Time-Keepers” striving to keep their approved timeline consistent to prevent calamity. Loki is what’s called a “variant,” a being in the timeline that went rogue, and the TVA has collared him to answer for his crimes.

The process is needlessly complicated and disorienting.

Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is sucked down a chute and confronted with a mountain of papers — everything he’s ever said — and made to verify each sheet. When he says “What?” A new paper squeaks out and is added to the pile. In the largely empty bureau, under the outmoded glare of circa-‘60s light fixtures and the drone of Muzak, a guard tells him to take a number. “What is this, a deli?” the man in front of him says.

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The vibe of the pilot, now on Disney+, has some of the trappings of Kafka’s “The Trial” with its air of arbitrary persecution and clerical menace, and more than a dash of Albert Brooks’ “Defending Your Life” as Loki reviews footage of his past actions with Owen Wilson’s Agent Mobius.

Grounded in a muddy traffic court aesthetic, “Loki” stands out from the whimsy of shows like “The Good Place.” As is the case with so many things we might label “Kafkaesque,” the episode speaks more to our time and modern contortions of bureaucracy than the ones Kafka was drawing from. It also has a dense, if dusty, sci-fi flavor that’s more “Brazil” than “In the Penal Colony.” Still, I think Kafka would like it for at least this reason: it’s funny. And in particular, it’s funny about free will.

There is a tendency to read the work of Kafka as tragic or glumly prescient meditations on fascism. But it’s well-documented that Kafka would laugh at his stories while reading them aloud. Philosopher Dimitris Vardoulakis has contended that Kafka placed his protagonists — from Josef K. to Gregor Samsa — in hopeless positions as a critique of the merits of free will, or the illusion that it exists. Kafka invited us to laugh our way to agency and challenge the powers that be.

Series creator Michael Waldron appears to be operating from the same playbook with a bit of Marvel panache. Even when Loki challenges Mobius about the TVA’s way of operating, he is rebuffed by a kind of comic futility.

“I know what this place is,” Loki says, “It’s an illusion. It’s a cruel, elaborate trick conjured by the weak to inspire fear — a desperate attempt at control. Now you all parade about as if you’re the divine arbiters of power in the universe….”

“We are,” Mobius interjects.

“You’re not! My choices are my own,” Loki insists.

Mobius then shows Loki a clip of himself from the first “Avengers” film, denouncing the pain of freedom to a crowd of onlookers. The clip, recorded by an omnipotent TVA, suggests that Loki himself, and all the people he tried to enslave, were never free to begin with. They were being watched, and there are consequences for straying from the path, whether the crime is known — as it is here — or unknowable as in the case of literature’s most enigmatic trial.

It’s too early to tell where “Loki” will land on the question of personal agency or what role regulating agencies should have in our lives. Like Kafka’s characters, he may end up trapped and flailing at a world he can’t change. More likely, he will find a way to assert himself within his circumstances. Either way, he’ll give us plenty to laugh about.