Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Illustration for article titled When iThe Magicians/i finally grew up, it left its most compelling narrative behind
Photo: Eric Milner/SYFY

In the first moments of its pilot, The Magicians established what one of its deepest pleasures was going to be. The camera pans over a gray and gloomy city scene, with piles of old snow on the ground, a chilly wind blowing, and people bustling about. The focus lands on a nondescript, graffittied metal door of the kind found on countless city streets, and then suddenly the door swings open to reveal a golden-tinged, idyllic-looking pasture. It’s drastically different from what we’ve just seen: lovely and warm, and totally impossible. A man strides through; the door shuts. Magic is real—it’s just hidden unless you’re special enough to know how to look for it.

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This tantalizing glimpse of the fantastic provides much of the early conflict on the show. Protagonist Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph) is miserable, depressed, and angry. He’s been in and out of mental hospitals his whole life, and has just finished college with not much enthusiasm for what’s ahead. He’s also obsessed with a series of children’s books he read as a kid called Fillory And Further, a Narnia-esque story about a family of kids that has adventures in the titular magical land. His problem isn’t just that he only knows how to connect through pop-culture references; it’s that he’s still waiting to be rescued from his own life. When the man who walked through the impossible door offers him the chance to study magic at a special graduate school called Brakebills, it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to him. But it’s also the worst. He’s still more or less the same person he was before—just happier and with an unfortunate sense of his own superiority. He’s immature, selfish, and cruel, and so determined to hold onto this new world that he doesn’t care what damage he leaves in his wake. Magic doesn’t automatically improve the user.

Illustration for article titled When iThe Magicians/i finally grew up, it left its most compelling narrative behind
Photo: Eric Milner/SYFY
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It’s a common problem among his peer group, and conflict derives, frequently, from what might be called a series of self-owns. Early on, Quentin is casually vicious to Julia (Stella Maeve), his childhood best friend who can do magic but doesn’t get a ticket to Brakebills. He can’t help but gloat that he can do something she can’t, humiliating her. Broken-hearted, Julia can’t let go of the glimpse she’s been offered, and takes on more dangerous methods of gaining power, all of which end up harming her and those around her in ever more terrible ways. Meanwhile, Quentin and his Brakebills friends are incapable of going on any magical quests without bickering, boozing, and betraying each other throughout. There are plenty of other magical beings who throw a wrench in the proceedings along the way, from fairies to gods to a group of merciless librarians, but it’s nearly as often one of the core squad of young magicians causing the problem that derails our heroes’ quest at the last minute, stealing defeat from the jaws of victory.

All told, it makes for slightly maddening viewing. If these people could just get their shit together for one minute, this would all go so much more smoothly. But it’s also what’s made the show tick. Our bumbling squad is painfully human, and growing up is hard, and all of us make mistakes when we’re young. But their mistakes come attached to superpowers, and the stakes of their conflicts are usually world-ending.

Even while its characters are constantly screwing up, The Magicians shows them endless forgiveness. No one is ever cast permanently out of the fold, no matter how badly they’ve behaved. Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley), Quentin’s sometime girlfriend and the most powerful of the gang alongside Julia (The Magicians is indisputably a matriarchy), goes from a mad quest for more power to a deep insecurity about her own yearning for that power, to something like a painful peace with herself. Julia hits some incredible lows, betrays the group viciously, gives up her soul, achieves divinity, loses it, and eventually becomes the de facto leader of the squad despite having left them to die at the end of season one. The rest of the Brakebills gang goes from the very definition of callow to seasoned veterans of conflict, with Margo (Summer Bishil) and Eliot (Hale Appleman) learning to be leaders, Penny (Arjun Gupta) softening his impatience with the world, Josh (Trevor Einhorn) gaining some self-confidence, and Kady (Jade Tailor) letting herself find joy and purpose again after heartbreak.

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Even Quentin’s patented defense mechanism of retreating to his beloved pop culture gets tested and seasoned into something more hardy. After the villain of the first season is revealed as one of the Fillory kids, Quentin and his pals have to kill a very literal representation of their childhoods, grown twisted and despicable in the very land they’ve all dreamed of. But pop culture also proves capable of saving them, as it did when they were screwed-up children. In season two, the show began having an annual musical episode, kicking things off with a joyful, triumphant group version of “One Day More” from Les Misérables. It’s goofy and dorky and heartwarming—Margo has conjured up the musical performance to help Eliot face a battle. Each subsequent musical episode was also about helping a downtrodden member of the cast. A group singalong of “Under Pressure” somehow becomes, in the world of The Magicians, a tremendous gesture of empathy and love for its tangled-up band of misfits.

Progress is slow, but all members of the magic squad begin to take painful steps toward a sort of grace. They stop hurting each other so relentlessly, and friendships form between even the most disparate among them. This is most apparent in the way The Magicians handled Quentin’s death at the end of season four. By the time Quentin performs the magical equivalent of leaping in front of a bullet to save them all, he’s reconciled with Alice and learned to master his own magical specialty. The entire group has united in the common cause of defeating a monster. Quentin’s final moments are with his one-time nemesis Penny, who sends him off with a loving embrace. Their final conversation is devoid of the conflict that once haunted them, and is instead about Penny reassuring Quentin that his sacrifice was genuine, and not a latent manifestation of the mental illness he’s spent his life struggling with. It’s heartbreaking, but depicted beautifully.

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Illustration for article titled When iThe Magicians/i finally grew up, it left its most compelling narrative behind
Photo: Syfy

But that finale also obscures an unfortunate truth that had started to become apparent in the fourth season and was even clearer in the final, Quentin-less season. As gratifying as it is to watch this group of fuckups become better people, it’s also less dramatically compelling. There’s a pat quality to The Magicians’ later quests. These people know what they’re doing; they just need to tap the right resources, master the right spells, and get things moving. The show is as quippy as ever, its characters just as charming, but it’s lost the painful yearning of its early seasons. There’s no rule that says happy endings have to be boring, but it’s safe to say that they’re a lot harder for a show that built its dramatic momentum on people being kind of miserable. There are only so many ways for a new danger to strike Fillory or Earth, or a new nemesis to threaten the team, before the stakes start to drop precipitously. Even the show’s meta jokes about pop-culture tropes began to reflect a certain weariness about the peril they were all somehow in again. All that character development was a double-edged sword for the show: These people really, profoundly needed to grow up already, but doing so made for a less spiky, less rich show. There was an emotional satisfaction to seeing all those troubled young people become stabler, happier adults, but the show couldn’t quite seem to find the same emotional highs and lows once they had.

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Which isn’t to say the show is departing on a sour note. For the duration of its run, The Magicians was a crown jewel for Syfy, with gorgeous production values and a top-notch cast and crew. That it lasted five seasons given the unsustainability of “being young is hard” as a concept is a credit to the creativity of its creators. It’s sad to see it go, but not too worrying. Whether we’re watching The Magicians’ adventures or not, it’s easy to feel confident that this group can handle whatever comes their way.

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Lisa is a writer and editor based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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