Arjun Gupta, Olivia Taylor Dudley, Jason Ralph, Background Actor NBC Did Not Identify, Hale Appleman / Eike Schroter, Syfy

Finally, an episode of The Magicians that doesn’t rush through ten different plots at once! We get the Brakebills kids going through some tests, and Julia trying to break into Marina’s magical file cabinets. That’s it! And, following the course we’ve seen all season, everything works out for the Brakebills folks, and something new and horrible happens to Julia. And even Penny and Kady get some actual development! Gold stars, all around.

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The premise, that the more senior students are testing out the more junior ones, was a bit iffy. If the show had spent any time developing any of the professors as characters, there wouldn’t have been a need for Eliot and Margo to randomly run the trials for everyone. What teacher would look at the two of them and think they’re responsible enough to be trusted with that job? Also, the notion that Brakebills is perpetually looking for excuses to kick students out is getting a bit tedious. Do they really want to create a million Marinas? Difficult coursework and high standards are one thing. Expelling students for failing in tiny ways does not seem like the best teaching method.

There’s also, finally, a moment of connection for Penny and Quentin. The two start off the episode with as much animosity towards each other as ever, with Penny quickly losing patience with Quentin’s Fillory fanboyishness, which proves less than helpful for his issues with the Beast. But by the time they’ve done a little light cheating together to pass to the next level of their trials, they’re on one team. Which should prove useful for whatever actual Fillory mystery is heading our way.

The progress on Kady’s story was nice, if still confusing. We learn it’s her mother’s fault she’s trapped by Marina, but it’s still unclear what the actual rules of the entrapment are. Also, why would she tell Penny the truth about what’s going on with her if she didn’t actually care about him? But saying that their entire relationship is a lie causes her ropes to fall away. So does she care about him or not?

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Julia, meanwhile, gets to work really hard for something only to have it fail and watch someone die in front of her. The show is drawing a pretty clear parallel between the need to do magic and a drug addiction, even explicitly so, in the episode where Julia lies to James and tells him that’s what was wrong with her. Now someone has essentially died of that drug addiction. And we know it’s not going to be enough to stop her from doing magic. It’s an ambitiously bleak comparison, from the briefness of the highs Julia experiences from finding new spells to her desperate search for even better ones. How many more rock bottoms can she hit before something truly unfixable happens to her? She has no bridges left to burn if she needs help.

Maybe Quentin is the one who needs help, though. He seems to have become a goose. But at least he got in some meaningful self-reflection before it happened. At this point in the season, post-fight with Julia, post-conversation with his father about dying, it was about time for him to express something deeper about his Brakebills experience. The notion that magic hasn’t helped him stop being a person he doesn’t like is basically the same problem everyone experiences after getting something they really want—you’re still you, but with a super cool girlfriend, or a better job, or whatever you’re searching for—but it’s a message the show (and the book) are particularly focused on. For Quentin, learning that lesson is hard but helpful, molding him into a better, more sensitive adult who may even learn to like himself some day. For Julia, that path involves becoming a worse and worse version of herself. It’ll be a fun dark spiral to see where this leads them both by the end of the season.

Stray Observations:

  • Quentin saying “Is someone being creepy on purpose?” is what I wish everyone would say in horror movies when something goes bump in the night.
  • Margo’s complaint that a dark and scary Fillory “is not tonally consistent with the book” had an endearing “Comic Book Guy” feel to it. Margo, secret nerd?
  • It’s sort of a throwaway, given that we’re more focused on Kady’s big confession and whatever Quentin is about to say, but Alice’s comment about how she doesn’t even know what she’s capable of is going to come back, right?
  • I don’t totally understand what junior cowboy camp would involve, but it seems like something I would have begged to do as a child (Horses! Adventure!) then hated in reality (Hot weather! Scary bugs! No TV!).

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