A Hard Look at ‘The Magicians’

I was going to write a post about my issues with one of my favorite TV shows, The Walking Dead. I just finished binge watching the last several episodes of the current season. But I got sidetracked when I stumbled upon a little new show called The Magicians on SyFy (well, I found it on Netflix, as I did the other one – thanks, Netflix!).

Six people sitting on and around a couch. Four of them, one man and three women, are sitting, while the other two men are standing and leaning on the back.
source: tvguide.com; Main cast of ‘The Magicians’

This isn’t going to be some long, detailed analysis. It’s just a list of some of my favorite things about the show and some of the things I find problematic. Keep in mind that I’m a newbie, and I haven’t read the books that the show is based on the trilogy by Lev Grossman). But I have read about the books, so I have a little bit of context. When I get some time, I’ll dig into the novels and maybe my opinions will shift. Maybe not.

Caution: Spoiler alert. Watch the whole first season before reading.

Things I Like About The Show:

  1. The premise
    1. Everyone keeps comparing this to Harry Potter, but I’ll say it again. I really, really find the show compelling because I’m a Harry Potter fan. I spent my teenage years with HP, and so this story feels natural to me. Apparently, the writer and the showrunners are quite intentional about this connection, so there it is. It’s great though. It’s got magic and a cool plotline that really does keep you interested and engaged in at least some of the characters.
  2. The characters
    1.  I have some problems here, and I’ll get to that soon, but what I like is that there are some legitimately interesting characters – Julia, Penny, Eliot (sometimes), Martin, Jane, Alice’s parents… ha!
  3. The setting
    1.  Harry Potter was set in kind of like boarding school or high school. Although I found HP super awesome, I also found myself removed from the idea of boarding school having, at the time, never really experiencing it or anything like it or knowing anyone who’d experienced it. The concept made the world of HP that much more “magical” and inaccessible. This show, on the other hand, takes place in graduate school – sort of – which I can easily connect with, having been in grad school now for like 5 years.
  4. The interactions
    1. Although they can come off overly dramatic, I think that the interactions between the characters/actors usually conveys itself as genuine. Genuine interactions in the real world are often awkward. There are awkward pauses and weird stares and gaps and slip ups. This show has got all of that. Blame it on the bad acting. But it works.
  5. Power in the ordinary
    1. This is not a show about a spectacular guy/girl, like a Harry Potter or Katniss Everdeen, who comes of age and realizes that he’s super special, grows into his destiny, beats the bad guy, and saves the day. No. This is about an ordinary-ish guy who’s not very likable – to himself or anybody else – who goes on a journey to eventually discover that he’s actually not that special, and no one really is. Everyone is just ordinary and there is complexity in the ordinary. It’s real. It’s powerful.


Stuff I Take Issue With:

  1. Julia’s storyline
    1. Julia is the most interesting character, by far. In a way (considering the time loop), one might say that this is Julia’s story. She’s the one who didn’t get into Brakebills and because of that enables Quentin to get to Fillory, which is the goal of the main character. But she seems to have her own existence apart from Quentin, which is cool. Now, with that said, I hate how her entire character arc (on the show at least) is governed by sexual assault. In the first episode, she is assaulted by Steve (I think that’s his name) the hedge witch who magically rips off her shirt in the bathroom of a club (after she explicitly tells him to leave her alone at the bar) and uses the shirt to tie up her wrists, all the while magically pushing her to the ground and exposing near nearly naked body to the audience. For what? His pleasure. He magically locks the door and walks in slowly as she’s trying to escape and then smiles, laughs and says that he has no intention of harming her and just wanted to prove himself right about her capacity to use her magical ability to defend herself in that situation. Well, she passes “the test” and is recruited into his little gang. But was all that necessary? Julia asks the exact same question of him. Why does he have to stalk her and sexually assault her (call a spade a spade) for her to prove to him what she’s made of? Oh, as Margo (and others) later says, magic comes from a place of pain. Sure. But women humans can experience pain in a lot of ways besides sexual assault – especially when it’s “harmless” (it’s not) and solely for the sheer enjoyment of a male sociopath.
    2. In the final episode of the season (and this is in the books), she reveals in a flashback that she was raped by a trickster fox god named Reynard (from medieval mythologies) after she and her friends summoned him accidentally. And once he appears in their magically summoning circle, he (in the form of a goddess-looking woman and then taking the form of her friend Richard) kills them all brutally. It’s a horrible scene to watch (and to read). I can’t possible imagine what kind of toll that takes on the actor playing Julia, Stella Maeve. Reynard rapes her after she stands in the way of him killing her friend (and one of the main characters on the show) Kady, but it’s quite clear that Reynard is too powerful and too evil and will do whatever he wants with whomever he wants, as he’s accustomed to, it seems. At the end of the season finale, the group in Fillory finds what we might call “the Beast’s lair” and prepare to take him on. But it’s all futile and he mercilessly attacks them all, except for Julia who’s waiting for her chance to strike. Why she waited until the Beast had attacked everyone is beyond me – but that’s not the point here. Julia clearly has the power to kill the Beast because, in a completion of the earlier flashback, we see that Reynard has impregnated her and she has a miscarriage in the middle of her floor, among all the bloody dead bodies. As gruesome as this is, she now has the power of a god inside her which enables her to successfully challenge the Beast (I’m going to at some point start calling him Martin). Instead of vanquishing the Beast (so much for that), she strickes a deal with him after asking him if he knows how to kill a god. Then, they disappear leaving the gang on the ground dying in the lair. My problem with this is that the writers (Grossman and the showrunners) didn’t need to have Reynard rape Julia in order for her to find the will to get revenge on him for killing her friends. And there could have been any number of other ways that Reynard’s power could’ve been transferred to her – consider all the non-sexual ways that the human body can be contaminated with the essence of another: Reynard could’ve bitten her, for example.
    3. Sidenote: in the book, Grossman’s narrator implies that Julia had some kind of positive feeling about the rape and attributes it to the god power flowing inside of her (you read that right). Excuse me? That’s a cheap way of saying that “she liked it”, and then trying to justify why anyone would’ve liked it – especially those who’ve never experienced it and only fantasize about it. They should just shut up.
    4. My point is, why do male writers always think that rape is the only emotionally significant thing that will spur on a woman? Yes, it does shape the emotional lives of too many women and men (hello, Martin), but unlike what the show/book presents, rape is not the quintessential woman’s story. Women have rich and full lives, and even if they are survivors of rape, it doesn’t mean that the experience governs their lives and actions. Rape is a despicable act and display of male sexual power and it shows up too much in our shows and literature, without being properly dealt with. Julia isn’t made to have sex on her own terms at all in the show – she’s always seduced by a guy or she’s violated by a guy. Her body doesn’t belong to her, and that is a problem. The other problem is that it’s an easy fix for the writers – they just don’t get it.

      Girl floating in the air, horizontally, with books flying around her. Poster for 'The Magicians' on Syfy.
      Source: o2tvseries.com
  2. The characterization of women… all of them
    1. Why are all the women on the show so attached to the male characters? Margo is literally always attached to Eliot. As their lives draw apart, they are seen to almost fall apart without one another. Get over it. Alice seems to come into her own only in relation to Quentin. Her shining moment comes at the end, post-threesome where she really takes agency and has sex with Penny (even though it’s his idea, not hers). but after that she’s a lot more independent. But she’s still tied up with Quentin’s world. She’s even abandoned her search for her brother in order to follow Quentin’s quest. Yes, the Beast is everyone’s problem, but she kind of just got sucked into it.
    2. Julia -well, I just wrote about her, but she’s all messed up and on the self discovery journey because she can’t fit into some patriarchal ideal of acceptance. So, now she must find her own way and she does! But along the way, she is still seen to be used by men, (even, Richard) and not be able to use people to her own advantage as she does in the books, I hear.
    3. And what ever happened to the Marina storyline? I thought she was going to be some “big bad” of season one. Maybe she’s just an opportunist who’ll be back in league with Julia and the Beast/Martin. I mean, she does seem to be attracted to power. But nonetheless, Marina’s storyline just got thrown out to focus, again, on Quentin (and Julia’s growth, I suppose). She does show up in the last episode, repentant, to wipe Julia’s memory. So I guess that’s something to chew on. So Marina can only genuinely care about Julia, another woman human, when she’s been sexually assaulted raped? News flash: women can care about one another for reasons other than the experience of sexual violence.
    4. Kady is cool. I’d be her friend. But why does her characterization have to play into literally every bad girl stereotype? Come on… They tried to make her “complex”, but it’s all typical. She’s a slacker but super smart and self-trained, has a addict-mother who left her hanging (i.e. pimped her out), dresses like a hipster, school is “everything” or she’s out in the streets, is the first to have sex, falls for the bad boy on the show, has commitment and trust issues… what’s new?
    5. Margo is not a whole character… she’s a type. And it’s just generally bad acting. Moving on.
    6. Eliza/Jane has so much potential, but she’s underused. She’s relegated to a fairy godmother type, a Hagrid, for Quentin. She seems to be super powerful, but we never see her magic though it emanates from her, and we hear about it with the time loop. But that’s it. And then, she dies. And she shows up in Fillory, but who knows if she’ll be back. She was just a plot point to get the story – Quentin’s story – going. And her death is a little more than a spurn to get Quentin moving along to Fillory and to stop the time loop in Quentin’s life.
    7. The female professor who likes and cares about Penny played the role of Dean for one whole episode while he was incapacitated after the Beast’s attack. Most of us couldn’t believe that the show would kill off what seemed to be such a prominent character in the very first episode. But most us of rolled with that punch and figured that the show would be one of those “no one is safe” types. But then, he came back, and the female professor/interim Dean was nowhere to be found except in the service of Penny, her academic inferior.
  3. They kill characters off too quickly
    1. But it’s a magical world, and as we’ve seen, anything is possible and surely some of these characters will return. Jane came back. Kady’s mother came back. Will Penny’s hands return?
    2. But the problem with this is that we don’t have enough time with certain characters in order to really feel anything about their deaths. If someone dies, and it means something to the characters, let it mean something to the audience too. Implicate us in the drama too. Don’t leave us behind, wanting.
  4. Quentin really sucks in the show
    1. Come on… I like the idea of putting mental illness front and center. Sure. But it just doesn’t work here. He keeps whining about it and using it as a crutch, when it’s really not. And he doesn’t talk about it as if it’s a part of how he experiences the world. He talks about it whenever he’s in a tight spot and needs an excuse to try and justify his ridiculous behavior and foolish decisions, particularly with Alice.
    2. Also, on the show, he’s older than he is in the books – everyone is. His behavior just doesn’t suit his age. I’m not saying that there aren’t people like that. And being obsessed with a kid’s fantasy book isn’t a bad thing. What a smart writer would do is make a depressed adult man’s obsession with a kid’s fantasy book into a “cool” thing, while making everyone else around him – the usual “cool kids” – look weird and cooky. That’s how to give privilege to the disprivileged. But that’s not what the book nor the show does.
  5. The updated setting of the show
    1. I get that the network wants to target a certain viewership here. They want the same people who grew up with Harry Potter, who are now older. Like me. And these people are now relatively recent college grads, many in graduate or professional school, or starting careers and families. I get it.
    2. The setting of the show is grad school, but the books are college. The ages of the characters increases to fit this setting. But that’s the only change. The behaviors are the same. Here’s the thing, you can’t just say that someone is 25 when they act 18 and brand new to the world. There are so, so many things that the showrunners did not really think through when moving things up to graduate school. I assume it’s because none of them had ever gone to graduate school or consulted someone who had gone. That’s sloppy and offensive. There are no alumni admissions interviews for grad school. Graduate schools don’t send letters to parents – that shit is over once you graduate from college. There are no mass admissions exams (but I’ll let that one slide, but it’s a “special school” for students with a certain kind of aptitude).  Graduate students don’t typically live on campus in dorms, and in the case that they do, rarely is there a “dorm culture” or “campus life” culture that they’re a part of. Graduate students don’t spend much time on campus, unless it’s in the library, which they’re rarely in on the show. There are no frat houses in grad school. How do Eliot and Margo spend so much time partying and caring about everyone’s social life? When you’re in graduate school, you don’t have that kind of social life on such a regular basis – and it’s not like they’re shown to be non-studying geniuses (which also don’t exist in grad school, especially in twos).
    3. Here’s what the show could’ve done better on this matter:
      1. Go with this premise at the beginning: Julia is at Yale already, and doing really well, but is feeling unfulfilled with her privileged life and boyfriend. Quentin, her lifelong friend and suppressed love interest, is bored and lonely at his mundane job after having been rejected from a number of grad schools (even with a 4.0 GPA- talk about real life). He’s clinically depressed, and she likes to hide her true feelings from everyone, including herself. One day, Quentin gets a package (in the mail, or by mysterious courier) containing a manuscript of the lost volume of his favorite book, but looses a page and while looking for it, is transported to a magical world/school where all his dreams, and nightmares, come true. Julia, who is transported to the same place, is rejected for the first time in her life and is sent on a obstacle-filled journey of personal discovery like she’s never experienced before. How’s that?
      2. Forget the letters altogether. Grad schools don’t deal with parents, and even if you live with your parents post-college (or around the age of 22-25), your mail is addressed to you and you alone. As Penny would say, and I hate this phrase, grow up.
      3. The admissions exam is cool, but say that they’re a part of a larger, already well-known institution. So, it would be something like the “Brakebills Institute of Magic” at Cornell University, and it would be a complete secret kept by only a few magical liaison people at the larger institution who keep things under wraps and running smoothly. This would be cool, too because it would further link the consequences of the real world and the magical world.
      4. Also about the exam and the initial courses: graduate school is already about specialization upon arrival. You don’t start with basics (another failure of the show). But if that’s how it’s going to be then ok. Have the “basics” build upon already existing subjects that your average college graduate, or the like, would already know, i.e. Chemistry of magic, ancient Egyptian art and magic, etc.
      5. The characters can live away from school and it would still work just fine. Heck, they could even live in a house together. Maybe they’re all having trouble finding good housing in NY (I would personally like to change the show’s setting to Boston, which is about the only other place on the East Coast where this scenario would make sense. Plus Boston already is full of colleges) and they end up like The Real World – a group of strangers start living in the same house and discover that magic brought them together. Real grad students often rent out whole houses and live in them. But the houses aren’t on campus. That’s the deal. But it would still work. Quentin and the gang could easily get to campus via subway or teleporting… Heck, it could be down the street from school for all I care, just as long as it’s not on campus proper. You could make Eliot and Margo the remaining tenants from the previous year and have Quentin, Alice, Kady, and Penny move in with them. Voila!
      6. Show more library studying and you can even make them study in groups. And I’m not talking about some hazing ritual. I mean really studying for something. Alice, in the existing show, does in fact explain to Quentin that she works hard to study her magic. But we rarely see her studying after the first couple of episodes. And she keeps getting interrupted. So we’re led to believe, like everyone believes, that she is just naturally gifted or learned from her family. If we actually saw them studying more, it would feel more like grad school, where your entire campus life consists of the library and class.
      7. Give Eliot and Margo something else to do besides have sex and drink all day. the final year of grad school is the toughest, in most cases. But even if it’s the easiest, it’s definitely not that easy. Idea: Let them be real mentors to the first years. Instead of some weird and unconvincing Mean Girls trip, Margo could prove to be a seriously great mentor (if not friend) to Alice and Kady. They could talk – and argue even – about magic and life. They don’t even have to talk about boys. If Margo wants competition, let the competition be about becoming the best magician. If she like competition, she should be at least marginally as good as Alice. But Margo rarely does any kind of magic on her own. Eliot does prove to be more interesting in the show than Margo, and is a friend and mentor to Quentin on both life subjects and magic subjects. It’s a fuller relationship that we just don’t see so far with Margo and Alice or Kady or Quentin.
        1. And I don’t mean that there need to just be male-male and female-female friendships represented. Margo should be a better friend to Quentin and Eliot to Alice than they are shown to be.
        2. I really, really like how the show handled the Alice-Penny friendship-turned-revenge sex-turned- friendship thing. Sex doesn’t need to determine the relationship between two people. Good job.
    4. Bullying happens in all aspects of life, at any age, in all spaces. But in this show, it’s just not convincing. Penny’s bullying of Quentin is so incredibly juvenile. The bullying that occurs for adults in real life is entirely nuanced and often undetectable, which makes it harder (in some ways) to prevent and anticipate on both the parts of the victim and the perpetrator. Penny knows that he’s bullying Quentin, and his reasons are really bullshit to everyone including himself. Quentin likewise knows that he’s being bullied and whines about it all the time. Here’s my idea of how the show could be better on this matter:
      1. What if Penny doesn’t realize that he’s been bullying Quentin (which makes for a much more powerful resolution of their friendship and comradery later in the season). He can still be aggressive, but let’s make him aggressive to everyone he meets. That way, he’s just an aggressive person and performs this hyper-masculinity to get attention and to avoid appearing vulnerable and in need. As such, he’s so busy being this hyper-masculine man that he doesn’t take the feelings of others into account – because that’s how he’s always been treated- and doesn’t realize how/that he’s abusing Quentin
      2. For this to work, Penny needs to actually want to be Quentin’s friend. His desire to be Quentin’s friend is underscored by his intimidation of him. The tragedy then becomes Penny’s inability to understand why Quentin doesn’t want to reciprocate the friendship he’s offering. But Penny only knows how to interact with people in one way (which is why Kady “gets” him) and what Quentin needs in terms of care (because of his disposition) is not aligned with what Penny is offering. But Penny doesn’t get that so he just keeps on pushing him.
      3. What Quentin needs in terms of care is offered by Eliot, which is why he takes a liking to Eliot. But he and Eliot don’t entirely “get” each other like he and Penny could. It’s like Quentin’s relationships with Julia and Alice. Julia “gets” him, but doesn’t offer the kind of care that Quentin needs. Alice is the same but reversed. Or maybe I got that backward.
    5. Julia and Quentin sitting side by side. Julia is trying to conjure magic with her hands. Quentin is looking at her with concern.
      Source: Tvinsider.com; Julia trying to show Quentin her ability to conjure magic.

      What I think would make this really great is that Quentin already doesn’t have the capacity to seriously care about anyone else in a meaningful way, or even himself. But then, when he does care – about Julia, about his dad, about Fillory – he goes overboard, only to be constantly rejected – by Julia’s affection, by his dad’s care and attention, by Fillory’s realness and his fantasy of it. Depression is all about an oscillation between caring entirely too much and not caring at all. Both result in inaction, paranoia, extreme fatigue, and self-deprecation. It, like bipolar disorder, comes with brief, high highs and long, low lows.

      1. We need to see the limits of Quentin’s depression. He needs to go to dark places and we need to also see him in joyful places. We need to see the toll that a serious rejection from Julia takes on him, or the serious implications of the reality of Fillory and Christopher Pulver, or the death of his father. Sure, he got mad when he found out that Pulver was a pedophile, and threatened to kill him, but that’s it. That sounds more heroic than depressive. Not saying that the two are opposites, but it just doesn’t fit his character. I need him to really grapple with that reality, and with the reality of meeting Jane/Eliza and her death. I need him to really suffer, and I need him to recover.
      2. Maybe Alice dies and his father dies and Fillory is crap, and he tries to shoot for Julia again, now that he’s generally more confident and all. But she rejects him too, and in a spectacular way – maybe he catches Julia sleeping with Penny (in a marvelous long-awaited moment of sexual control for her). So now, Penny (who’s just become his bff – see my notes above) had had sex with the only two women he’s ever cared about, and arguably Julia was the piece de resistance of his hopes and dreams. At least he was able to enjoy a brief relationship with Alice, and her sexual escapade with Penny was entirely an act of vengeance. But I can see this walk-in on Penny and Julia to be completely crushing for Quentin, which would show that glass houses break easily and he can’t just smooth over the deep crevasses in his life. It would show that depression finds a way of creeping back up into your life even when you think it’s all gone away, and sometimes, when it’s not dealt with, it comes back even worse. At this point, I would want to see Quentin at his wits end, thinking that he’s lost everyone who’s ever meant something to him. I want to see him walk to the ledge. I want him to realize that magic can’t solve all his problems. But I also want him to come off the ledge and realize that there’s still something left to live for. That’s the journey Julia went on. Quentin needs it too.
      3. And after all that, once he’s in a better place – for himself – I need him and Julia to hook up. Like, for real. And I don’t want them to feel guilty afterward. You see, Quentin thinks he loves Alice, but he really doesn’t. He loves Julia. Alice is a substitute for Julia. He still dreams about Julia. He still gets weak when Julia is around. I have a Julia in my life, too. I get it. We all have a Julia in our lives, or had one at some point. Hopefully you married yours, if you’re married to someone. Quentin and Julia should not turn out like Harry and Hermione or Katniss and Gale. Quentin and Julia should be Katniss and Peeta. This would be Quentin’s high-high.
        1. Ok, so it doesn’t have to be a “hook up” per se. But it needs to be something genuinely romantic. Some kind of reciprocation and reconciliation, and promise for a romantic future. And if they should remain friends, then Quentin needs to be genuinely happy with that outcome. And he should stay single. Somehow, I think he’s happy alone (if not with Julia), just so long as he’s noticed, cared for, and taken seriously in his environment.
  6. Put more people of color on the show, and not in marginal roles.
    1. Penny is great (especially the moment in Quentin’s dream where he calls him a racist – loved it), and so is the Dean. But that’s not enough. There are some “colorful” people in Julia’s life (black people, people with disabilities), but they all live on the margins of magical society – in the “real world”. They all practice magic illegitimately, on the borders of accepted knowledge. Even someone like Kira, the black woman whom Julia meets mentally, is a brilliant spellcaster and mathematician, but like all the people Julia encounters on the outside, is living an unfulfilled life, always wanting, always desiring but never being completely free to desire. They’re always policed and agitated by the authoritative Brakebills magicians, and even the idea of Brakebills. As we learn through Julia, there is Brakebills-regulated magic and there is a world of other magic that Brakebills prohibits and labels as inferior, dangerous, or uncontrollable. Brakebills is conveyed and enforced as the locus of ableism and white supremacy, privilege and patriarchy. And what the Dean says, goes.
    2. Even though the Dean is black, he still occupies a place of and must master the performance of whiteness – ask Barack Obama about it. The Dean is also disabled, but gripes about it all the time. It, however, is pretty great to see him elect to live with his blindness even once he gains the ability of his hands again. But there is still something sinister about his reasoning. And let’s not forget he’s a magical negro. The only thing that separates him from Bagger Vance is his class status in the context of the show. He’s defined in relation to an unspecial white man, Quentin. Like Dumbledore, he serves as a kind of hard-truth mentor for Quentin, but unlike Dumbledore, seems to always be one step behind the truth or completely oblivious to it, instead electing to care only about “his own problems” and not the ones he can’t himself fix. The moment in the office in the penultimate episode where Quentin questions him about Fillory and Jane is meant to make Quentin look clever, innocent, and ambitious, while making the Dean look lazy, out-of-touch, secretive, and self-centered. The same exact thing happens in the very first scene of the show, where Eliza walks up to the Dean sitting on a bench. Though we don’t know these characters at that point, the effect is the same – the Dean is made to look secretive, calculating, intellectually lazy, and self-centered in order that Eliza be shown to be inquisitive, anxious, caring, and innocently selfless. That’s how white privilege works – on the backs of black people.

More hope for Season 2!

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