‘The Magicians’ is your next big binge watch
This story contains minor spoilers for Syfy The Magicians.
When the first novel of Lev Grossman’s popular novel Magicians trilogy was released in 2009, it featured Quentin Coldwater, a whiny white Brooklynite with ties to the Ivy League. His trajectory as the protagonist seemed familiar: Quentin, who had always felt like a misfit, discovered he was actually a magician and found himself at Brakebills University, a training ground for chic mages. It was at Hogwarts, in the United States; he was Harry Potter with a sex life. Along with his school friends, Quentin later discovered that Fillory, a Narnia-like world he loved in childhood books, was real.
When the trilogy was adapted for Syfy, the show could have doubled down on Quentin’s treatment as an archetypal hero in the vein of Luke Skywalker or King Arthur. In place, magicians turned Quentin into a mere entry point into a series of ensemble-led battles to save the magic of Earth and Fillory. The show became a group of people refining their collective and individual power. By fusing the nostalgia of fantasy stories and adult themes with self-awareness and fantasy, magicians quickly earned praise as one of best tv shows you do not look.
With so many people seeking escape in all its forms, Syfy’s magicians is a fantastic binge watch, an all-consuming experience with just enough light to distract from the global pandemic. The series has just completed its fifth and final season, and the first four seasons are available on Netflix. Even if you can’t leave your house, you can retreat to realms populated by fairies, aspiring librarians and a few dragons, via a show that relishes in juvenile sex jokes, musical theater interludes and goofy references to geek culture. . (For example, when characters walk through a British phone booth, they describe it, winking at Doctor Whoas a “vaguely TARDIS-like portal”.)
magicians is rude and corny; sometimes it’s awful. Hands get chopped off. In cutaway previews, the show depicts its fictional multiverse as Froot Loop-shaped worlds being devoured by a black hole. Still, it successfully balances silliness with those deadly stakes, as it’s filled with characters complex enough to keep viewers invested in all things bizarre. At a time when many of us feel isolated and scared, it’s a gift to see a group of friends fight to save something as frivolous as magic and as vital as each other. .
Quentin isn’t the only protagonist in the series, but the story crucially begins with him. Played by Jason Ralph, he is moving and serious. Quentin’s childish wonderment makes him an easy target for ridicule but, as his classmate Margo (Summer Bishil) tells him, “it’s because you’re honest about what you love.” Despite a propensity for being an irritating twerp, Quentin is the kind of character you root for because his affection for magic and his friends becomes contagious. The pilot forges the viewer’s bond with Quentin and his classmates through tragedy: they accidentally open a door that releases The Beast, a storybook monster with a swarm of moths for a face which ruffles learned magicians like paper dolls. The students are unprepared to face such great evil, but their actions set off a harrowing chain of events that continues for the rest of the series.
The show takes time to flesh out the ensemble and their respective wounds in ways that allow for powerful emotional payoffs. Quentin is pursued by boredom, by the desire to find secret doors and to flee his life. He admits: “I am in this incredible place. I literally have magic in my life, and I’m still running. I’m still that person that I fucking hate. But the series also explores the ghosts that haunt his Brakebills friends. Penny (played by Arjun Gupta), a hothead who barely appears in the books, becomes a global traveler with a knack for self-sacrifice that surfaces in multiple timelines. In the novels, a gay character named Eliot is made shallow, sad, and one-dimensional, but in the show (played by Hale Appleman) he becomes a scene-stealer who struggles with drug addiction and self-loathing. He demonstrates through his brief romantic threads that even magic can be meaningless without the courage to surrender to love.
Women drive the show with their distinct motivations and talents. Alice (Olivia Dudley) trembles with power and is deformed by it. Kady (Jade Tailor), a scrappy magician character created for the series, becomes the advocate for amateur hedge witches and evolves, through grief, into a mature stoicism. Margo begins as a snobbish party girl on the outskirts of Season 1 but evolves as a true leader; with Bishil’s fire, she becomes much more than the freezing manipulator she is based on in the novels. (She’s also likely to interject swear words like “Voldemont’s clitoris!” and “Jesus-Helena-Bonham-Christ!” dressing up the show’s prolific profanity.)
Although set in a fantasy world, the series navigates the enduring traumas of these characters with skill and realism. One of the forms of pain it explores is sexual assault: the series’ approach to the subject, through a story involving Quentin’s childhood friend Julia (Stella Maeve), is brutal and cruel. The series has rightly been criticized for depicting how Julia’s violation at the hands of a god imbues her with power – an antiquated and alarming trope from Grossman’s books. Corn magicians worked to rectify those missteps by spending more than a season on the spinoff. It goes on to show how Julia is fundamentally affected by the attack without letting it become the only thing that defines her.
Elsewhere, minor characters flow past the sidelines. In a self-aware scene in a pivotal episode, Penny claims, “When you categorize people as sidekicks, you don’t realize their importance to the story, and that story belongs to a lot more people than you realize. think.” magicians insists that even seemingly small characters can become heroes or villains; nothing is static. Watching these friends come together and then part ways again and again in their separate quests is especially resonant right now, when the best any of us can do is isolate ourselves to protect our neighbors and communities. Our value to the collective has put us on lonely paths, but like magicians, we’re in this together.
Quentin, nicknamed Q by his friends, embodies this interplay between withdrawal and looking outward. Unlike most of his classmates, Quentin is such an unremarkable magician that his specialty remains undetermined for years. Perhaps his most notable gift is his obsession with the details of the Fillory books and his affection for the deadly reality of the world as it really exists. (“The air there,” Quentin notes, “is 0.02% opium, which is a pretty unfair trick to make you like a place.”) His constant reference to the minutiae of children’s books makes makes him kind of an immature idiot, but he also helps him and his friends as they try to survive in the strange kingdom of Fillory. Q doesn’t gain power, but he does develop a knack for understanding the relationship between the characters in Fillory’s stories and the real-life journeys he and the other magicians are on.
Q’s passion for these quests is eventually redirected to his friends. In many ways, Quentin’s great escape is from himself. by Syfy magicians is the love story of a young man who learns to look beyond his own darkness and fantasies to dedicate himself to his friends, who are just as worthy, and some, more worthy adventurers than he is. Unfortunately, this impulse to rest the show evenly on the shoulders of its deep cast contributed to issues that made the final season frustrating for some fans of the show. (News from The Magicians’ cancelation hit in early March.) The death of a major character skewed the show’s balance. With a new rift in this carefully knit team, much of the final season swung between mourning and apocalypse, with plot issues threatening to pinch the fabric between magicians‘many worlds. But at its end, the series again offered the promise that even after great loss, a little magic can be saved. The world itself may be changed forever, but those who remain will start over.
It’s a story made more powerful now, given the current circumstances. At a time when many of us are going through our own moments of sadness and anxiety, magicians The series may be the escape the Fillory books were for Quentin. If the books and the show teach that, in a way, magic consists of doors we allow ourselves to walk through, whether to Fillory or other worlds, the show has created even more doors. By concocting a fantasy realm sweet enough to save and friends dear enough to die, the show deepened the stories. magicians could tell who we become thanks to the journey. Thanks to each other.