Hale Appleman, Summer Bishil / Eike Schroter, Syfy

There’s no good time to make a huge decision. When something matters enough, no matter how long you wait, and no matter how many variables you consider, you’re always going to have to make a choice, come what may. The characters of The Magicians have to make difficult decisions all the time, generally while lives are hanging in the balance. And sometimes they make deeply impulsive choices, as Eliot does here, when he decides to face off against a rival king. But while he thinks he’s invincible (not so surprising, considering how many times he’s avoided death), his peers all know that they’re stuck with something that will haunt them no matter what they do.

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The most troubling of these is Margo’s, since she hands off someone else’s baby. It’s clearly not a choice she makes lightly, but it’s also a choice she doesn’t get to make. Granted, she’s a queen, and she occasionally is going to do unpleasant things for the greater good, but it reeks of plot contrivance that she doesn’t tell Fen the details of the deal she made. Fen loves Eliot and she knows what a mess he’s gotten into—she deserves to be in on the decision Margo makes. Besides, Eliot still wouldn’t know, and so there would still be the dramatic tension of someone he cares about betraying him. There are times when Margo works better as a character conceptually than in action. She’s funny, and her bond with Eliot provides some needed emotional grounding for two very arch characters, but at this point in the show, everyone else has gotten more character development than she has. Other than Prince Ess, most of what happens with her is her response to other characters, but she’s foregrounded in the Fillory action in a way that makes her lack of personal drive more noticeable. What does Margo even want, other than the continued survival of Eliot? We know what drove him to Fillory, but we don’t really know what Margo gets out of it. Does she miss Earth?

The other big choices in the episode feel more earned, because they happen a bit more organically, and because they’re linked together. Quentin has been struggling with what to do with Alice for some time, and his ultimate move to let her go happens only after he’s missed the chance to kill Reynard. Which it’s not entirely clear Alice could have done. But even that choice only happens because of Julia’s actions. She never even asks him to consider the possibility—she just tosses him at Reynard’s feet. It’s enough to push Kady over the edge of believing her best bitch can be saved. So Julia’s now gone from a Fillorian prison to a Brakebills prison. Both places she once dreamed of visiting, albeit probably not the prison parts, and both places she can’t wait to get away from now.

Another reason the big Kady/Quentin/Julia choices work better is that they follow the Buffy the Vampire model of playing out real-life problems through the prism of a fantasy world. There isn’t exactly an analog for what Margo does, but the others are facing issues that are pretty common for young adults. Like admitting a close friend has become someone you don’t recognize. Or facing the consequences of acting too selfishly. Or finally letting go of a relationship that has ended. There may be niffins and shades and magic prisons here, but all of this is the tough, shitty stuff of becoming an adult.

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Oh, did something else happen in this episode? Of course the ridiculous Les Miserables singalong is delightful. But putting aside the absurd joy inherent in an impromptu musical number, it even makes sense for the characters. These are people who live their lives through their love of pop culture. Huge developments on the show would not have happened if these people could surrender their affection for a children’s book series. Why wouldn’t they use pop culture to work up the courage to face their challenges?

Sometimes magic used for fun has a dark and disturbing undertone, as in “Cheat Day,” when Quentin let Emily wear an Alice costume, possibly the best episode of the series. And yet if these characters never used magic to have fun in the earnest, nerdy, full-hearted way of grown up theater kids, it would make the dark times almost unbearable. Life may be hard, and painful, and full of terrible choices between bad and worse, but if you can’t take a moment to belt out “One Day More” with your friends, what are you doing here?

Stray observations

  • “Is that Senator Gaines?” “Probably. I mean, why not?”
  • Didn’t get into the Senator Gaines thing because it’s mostly buildup thus far, but it’s always nice to see Christopher Gorham. Also, I keep combining his names to be Chris Gaines, the immortal Garth Brooks alter ego. Will the show follow the pattern of most myths, when the gods are selfish and unpredictable, and the demigods are noble heroes? He seems pretty noble so far.
  • “Sorry I had to skip some verses. They’re great, but they don’t really apply to our situation.”
  • OK, how much of their production budget did they blow on the rights to that song? I will freely admit to having watched it twice so far.
  • I’m trying to make a very labored Eponine/Cosette comparison to Margo and Fen. The innocence of Fen’s connection to Eliot suggests she’s the Cosette, but of the two of them, he probably really loves Margo, right? So then she’s the Cosette. Except OBVIOUSLY Margo would be the Eponine. I think Fen was singing the Cosette parts of the song, but I’m not that up on Les Mis to know. I’ll let the musical theater fans battle it out.
  • The faces of Prince Ess and his father when the Fillorians show up in full song were pretty amazing.
  • If you’re interested in some of the creative decision making behind the abortion storyline, Buzzfeed has an interview with the showrunners about it.

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