Back in February, I wrote a rather long, rather ranty, rather snobby post about Syfy’s The Magicians, which is based on some of my all-time favorite books. Much to my surprise, that post has received more comments than any other post I’ve written, due, in part, to the strange fact that it can be found by plugging the words “Eliot” and “snaggletooth” into Google. Amazing.
I wasn’t planning on doing an update because, truly, I like to minimize the extent to which I bitch about other people’s art. I’m a writer, not a critic, I swear. But having watched the rest of the thirteen-episode first season I…yeah…I just can’t help myself. What follows is my episode by episode reaction to episodes three through thirteen.
Prepare yourselves. Most of it ain’t pretty. (And if you haven’t watched the whole season, stop reading now. Not only will the rest of the post make no sense to you, there are *spoilers* aplenty.)
Episode 3 – Consequences of Advanced Spellcasting. This is the one where the noobs get assigned magical disciplines and Alice tries to make Charlie human again.
I like that we’re slowing down the pace here a smidge and Eliot’s “Love wins” line was classic Eliot but…A party at the Physical Kids’ cottage that looks like lost footage from Ten Things I Hate About You? (What happened to small, tipsy gatherings fueled by wine and cheese?) Charlie’s glowing blue eyes and evil cackle? Alice’s ridiculously desperate (and not particularly well-acted) spellcasting, only three episodes in and before we’ve even got a handle on her character? All things that should be on some schlocky, monster-of-the-week disaster and not here. It’s about tone, people! Again, we’re lacking subtlety and relying too heavily on tropey tropes.
I found the Julia storyline slightly more interesting, probably because I’m just one of those people who likes the concept of hedge witches. But, as one of the commenters on my original post noted, neither storyline is effectively conveying the struggle to learn magic. Even Penny’s “traveling,” which was admittedly cooler than the mind-reader trope, seems too easy. One minute he’s here and the next he’s gone. No otherworldly vistas mysteriously appearing in mirrors followed by hours spent meditating oneself into another world.
The books make it clear that magic is fucking hard—magicians aren’t born magical, they’re just super smart and driven—but, as the title of the episode suggests, these baby magicians are already engaging in advanced spellcasting. I don’t want the show to devolve into an endless string of training montages but they’re making it look like cakewalk here.
World-building details are a hard thing to balance both on screen and in written fiction, but there’s a reason Harry Potter is a worldwide phenomenon. The world-building there is astounding. Both the books and the movies take their time with it. And at Hogwarts, where witches and wizards are born magical, it’s still obvious that magic is no easy feat. Even when the kids are literally waving a magic wand and espousing something in Latin, there are unseen magical muscles being flexed and they don’t always do as their told.
Episode 4 – The World In the Walls. This is the one in the psych hospital.
I despise the “but it was all a delusion…or was it?” trope, so initially I wanted to hurl a shoe at my TV over this one. The twist that Julia and Marina were responsible for it made it kinda work for me. But did we really have to do that to “Shake It Off”? Poor T. Swift…
That said, at this point we’re once again hurtling headlong into some complicated plotlines with a bunch of characters that I only care about because I liked their counterparts in the books. Make me care about them, show!
Episode 5 – Mendings, Major and Minor. This is the one with the mentors and Quentin’s dad and Cancer Puppy.
Eliot and Margo’s side plotline about competing for a mentor? Yeah, sorry, don’t care. Welters should have been cool but wasn’t because, again, it’s all too easy for these characters who’ve supposedly just started learning magic. At this point, it’s clear that instead of using the magic-learning struggle to create stakes, the writers are going to rely on a bunch of messy plotlines that, for the most part, don’t gel.
I do like how they’re developing the relationship between Quentin and his dad here. Quentin’s distant, lukewarm relationship with his parents was one aspect of the books that I could never quite get a handle on. What they do here feels more relatable. And his dad was watching Jurassic Park! Nice Easter egg, showrunners.
(Though we’re getting ahead of ourselves here, let’s note that Quentin’s dad doesn’t pop up again for the rest of the season. So here’s a nice little plot line that the writers dropped like a hot potato and left dangling. Sloppy.)
Episode 6 – Impractical Applications. This is the one with The Trials. I also like to refer to it as “the one that made Vulture give up.” They titled their recap for this episode “Is Anyone Watching?” and then stopped doing recaps. Yikes.
I can’t really blame them. The Trials were dumb. They were an attempt at character development that went nowhere and were full of overly-literal clichés (seeing a pattern here?) and outright silliness. Cowboy camp? The truth will set you free? Seriously? At least at the end there was the promise of Brakebills South.
Julia’s plotline seemed much more solid by comparison in this episode though it still went too fast for me. Kady’s mom, we hardly knew ye. I can’t even remember her name now because she was gone in the blink of an eye.
Episode 7 – The Mayakovsky Circumstance. This is the one at Brakebills South.
Though I think they could have stretched this out to two episodes to build tension, it’s considerably more solid than what’s come before it. It actually makes magic look hard (though not as complex as the books) and the fox hookup was handled better than I would’ve expected. And I totally dug the show’s take on Mayakovsky.
I found Elliot and Margo’s hijinks-of-the-week completely unnecessary. I get that it was a way to work Mike into the plot, but that could’ve been accomplished in roughly a zillion other ways that actually made more sense and weren’t silly and, frankly, boring. It also required introducing yet another character and then dropping him (What was his name again? Todd?)
And since we’re on the topic of Eliot and Margo’s hijinks, which involved accidentally conjuring a djinn when they were trying to make some magical gin *rolls eyes* and prepping for a debaucherous week in Ibiza, let’s talk about one particular way fiction can go wrong when it tries to be an adult version of something that’s typically for kids or YAs. In other words, when you say The Magicians is kinda like a grownup take on Harry Potter, people automatically go, “Oh, so it’s full of threesomes and cocaine and booze, right?”
Here’s the problem with that. Though sex and substance use/abuse are inevitably going to pop up because they’re often big factors in the lives of adults (particularly twentysomethings), you can go too far. If you rely on these things over and over to signify your grownup-ness, you end up with a very shallow take on adulthood. As Aida so eloquently put it in a comment to my original post, you don’t get Harry Potter for adults, you get “Harry Potter for teenage Gossip Girl fans.”
Episode 8 – The Strangled Heart. This is the one where Penny and Quentin get attacked by a possessed Mike, Eliza/Jane dies, Eliot kills Mike, and Julia says a magical prayer to Our Lady Underground.
Quentin and crew’s storyline moves a mile a minute here. If I didn’t care about book-Eliot, I can’t imagine I would have been at all invested in show-Eliot’s reaction to the truth about Mike and Mike’s death. The writers introduced Mike ONE episode ago. Like Kady’s mom, he was here and gone faster than you can say avada kedavra.
Eliza’s death was an interesting wrinkle and Julia’s plotline felt like the writers had finally settled on a direction for her. Maybe I’m just saying that because it echoed aspects of the books and I could see where it was headed. Hard to say.
Also, Stella Maeve seems like a talented lady. Can we maybe film a scene where she’s not asked to stare blankly into space with slightly parted lips and half-lidded eyes? Thanks.
Episode 9 – The Writing Room. This is the one where the gang travels to Chris Plover’s old digs and finds it super haunted.
Well, halle-freakin-lujah. Maybe my standards have been torn to shreds by this show, but I actually thought this episode was completely solid. Though very little of it *felt* like the books (particularly the paranormal phenomena), the storytelling was spot on, they didn’t try to cram in a million haphazard ideas and plot threads, and it actually made me feel some things. And I thought the dialogue near the end between Eliot and Alice about the fairness/unfairness of the world was some of the best character development we’ve seen, and some of the best acting. Finally, Julia’s plotline with Kiera gave me some genuine feels. Bravo, Syfy!
Episode 10 – Homecoming. This is the one where Penny is stuck in the Neitherlands and Quentin and Alice head to Alice’s house and find her parents in the middle of a Roman orgy.
Okay, there were a LOT of things I liked about this episode. The Neitherlands were pretty cool, especially the library. I LOVED that it looked like the basement of a college library badly in need of renovations and the exchange between Penny and the librarian was hilarious. In addition to the clever dialogue there, there were some excellent one-liners, including quips about sex dreams passing the Bechdel test and the Garden State soundtrack. “You haven’t even touched your penis”—classic. Also enjoyed Alice gaining the confidence to ask for what she really wanted in bed (yay Alice) and Julia’s plotline really seems to be coming together here. I was happy to see they found a meaningful way to work Kady back in instead of just dropping her like Quentin’s dad.
And yet…so much of this episode was still a disaster for me. Sex magic based on mutual orgasms? Mostly this is just ridiculous, but we’re also once again falling into the “What makes this adult?” trap.
The same can probably be said of Alice’s parents and the whole Roman orgy thing, which was clearly a take on book-Alice’s parents except with all the clever subtlety and nuances blown to smithereens.
Episode 11 – Remedial Battle Magic. This is the one where Quentin and crew start bottling their emotions to do battle magic. *repeatedly slams head against keyboard*
Literal bottling of emotions?!?! Are you fucking kidding me? I’d once again say this is something that belongs on The CW, but that would be insulting to The CW. Even those shows are too smart to touch such a dumb, heavy-handed, SUPER-literal take on magic. Bad Syfy! NO! What were you thinking? See, what we need right now is a great excuse for some atrocious acting…
The world-building here is also pretty sloppy. In what multiverse does it make sense that battle magic is somehow different from all other magic, even when you’re just using it to topple a glass bottle instead of actually attack a person? And since Quentin easily imitated Kady’s battle-move in the pilot and Eliot killed Mike just a few episodes ago, how freaking convenient that Kady slips in a little exception to the exception for us—battle magic can only be done if you’re one hundred percent clear, oh, except if you’re just super emotional and full of adrenaline like a mom trying to save a baby trapped under a car. Syfy, your internal logic there is fucked.
And the threesome…oh, the threesome. Here’s something pulled from the books that made perfect, funny-sad sense given the context. In the books, the characters have known each other for YEARS when this happens. They’ve already graduated from Brakebills and they’ve been living in NYC, trying to stave off boredom and find meaning in their magical lives. Add a little too much wine to that already heady mix and it makes sense that a clumsy threesome is how the night ends. In the show, it just feels forced and like another desperate way to say, “See, look how edgy and ADULT we are!” Quelle surprise.
And the threesome wasn’t the only thing in this episode that felt forced and inorganic. The probability spell at the beginning was totally unnecessary and mostly just confusing and didn’t effectively explain why, all of a sudden, Eliot and Margo give a shit about The Beast and have decided to join Team Quentin.
Episode 12 – Thirty-Nine Graves. This is the one where Team Quentin finds Josh in the Neitherlands and Team Julia gets closer to summoning a god.
Josh was by far my favorite secondary character from the books so I was beyond excited when he finally popped up in the show, albeit briefly. And he was funny and nerdy and, overall, pretty Josh-y!
Like the threesome, Alice rebounding with Penny wasn’t nearly as hilariously awful and satisfying as it was in the books, but, good lord, did I love Margo’s “I’m not going to apologize for having sex with you” line. In fact, her take-no-prisoners ‘tude throughout this whole episode makes her more Janet-esque than she’s been all season (perhaps it’s no coincidence that the Neitherlands librarian calls her Janet in this one). Eliot’s total collapse came off as a little melodramatic and unearned but there was cool librarian and Neitherlands and Josh so I’m willing to forgive.
And minus the dumb thing about the tightness in Kady’s chest disappearing, her trip with Julia into the seedy underbelly of Manhattan to find OLU’s bridge-troll worked for me. It seemed like the gritty NYC counterpart to the book’s romantic summer in Provence.
Episode 13 – Have You Brought Me Little Cakes? This is the season finale in which Julia remembers something positively horrific happened to her right before she and Quentin take on The Beast, Penny loses his hands, and Alice dies (maybe?).
There were, of course, things I didn’t like. Fillory could have been cooler, even with a minimal budget—the show promised glorious whimsy and delivered a dreary woodland full of bad costume makeup (I mean Ember…come on). I didn’t need to see Alice drink magical sperm or see her and Julia’s eyes glow with godpower after being exposed to said sperm. Could’ve done without the Eliot marrying a lady plotline. And the overall plot, with all its gazillion threads that needed to be tied up, just reveals what a mess the writers got themselves into over the course of the season.
And yet, a lot of the finale worked for me. The “last time loop” aspect of the plot was a very clever way to up the stakes. I liked Quentin’s realization that he might not be the hero of the story. As sad as I was that Alice didn’t get to make her epic grow-the-fuck-up speech from the book, I liked the twist with Julia and the fact that they left The Beast alive (that was a surprise, even for book-fans).
So will I be watching season two?
*throws hands up* Probably yes. Though I highly doubt I would have soldiered on with this partial train wreck of a show if I hadn’t read the books, I’m dying to know how the writers plan to clean all this up and see if they’ll learn from their past mistakes.
And is Alice dead? I mean, WTF?