When The Magicians first began to air the intrigue was natural for those who hadn’t read the books the series was loosely based on; it was an attractive cast in a fantasy setting described as “sexy Harry Potter”. Who on earth wouldn’t be attracted to such a descriptor? As the debut season progressed there were bumps along the way as the writers dealt with how to make Quentin a likable protagonist even if he was also, often, a gigantic tool, how to keep the narrative from slipping entirely out of their grasp as storylines dragged, and how to get Eliot into more screen time to work off of Hale Appleman’s obvious charm.
For the most part however, the show was enjoyable, if rocky, ride that won points based on the natural chemistry in the cast and that no matter how contrived a plot development could be, we had grown to care immensely for these characters and the adventures they went on. This was so much so that by the end of the season one finale when nearly all of the characters were left for dead, we worried about their fates.
Early on in season two we were given a reprieve from that worry as they were all brought back from the brink of death and with that the show was given a greater, more confident sense of light. Every aspect of the show from the performances to the set design to the ability to hold onto a single narrative of recovery for the entirety of the season was stronger than it had been and all of the worries that lingered from season one were squashed. Far unlike any fantasy television show you’ve seen, it was able to create something beautiful out of mangled emotions, surreal musical numbers and 20 somethings who are realizing that life is sometimes unbearable tough. The Magicians in its sophomore efforts became one of the best and most entertaining series on television and what made it even more thrilling was that the tonal balancing act was so tremendous that it was always a surprise when something didn’t manage to break apart.
One of the best things the show was able to do for itself was to bring Eliot’s character further into focus as he had to push his addictions and death wishes (somewhat) into the background in order to rule Filory as High King along with his bambi, High Queen Margo. Appleman for his part was seemingly born to don the elegant costumes he wore as King and his journey is fully one of becoming an adult with consequences to his actions and rules that define his leadership, for better or worse. Every tic, every sardonic line is given a sense of off beat charisma due to his understated performance and if the show is smart they’ll keep him in the focus in season three as well.
Stella Maeve as Julia was always one of the most intriguing aspects of the show, starting back from day one where we couldn’t quite get over the sense that she, not Quentin, was supposed to be the real hero of the show. Instead, due to some tricky time magic, she was instead rejected from Brakebills and found herself on the fringes of the magical society, playing out some of the heaviest themes on the show such as addiction and recovery and revenge following a sexual assault. She gives us our over arching narrative in season two as she actively tries to avoid becoming like the Beast, so wrapped up in his need to defend himself as a child that he in turn becomes something corrupt and loathsome. Her story was trying at times due to the difficult nature but Maeve imbued Julia with just the right amount of steely resolve and vulnerability to make her a character worth rooting for.
However, despite the wonderful characters on the show who are naturally more intriguing, it was the development of the lead that made all the difference in the world. Quentin’s slow and often times painful realization that just because magic exists doesn’t mean that magic is able to save the day and that this place of magical escapism that he so often wandered as a anxiety ridden child was in fact soiled was some of the best storytelling the show has done.
You can’t have a great show if you don’t have an engaging leading character, no matter how much leg work the supporting characters provide. Jason Ralph was excellent this year in portraying Quentin’s grief over loosing Alice as he wears that loss as a (sometimes literal) physical burden. Perhaps the strongest episode the series has done to date, “Cheat Day”, an intimate and heartbreaking look at the scars the dead leave behind, was almost solely focused on Quentin and his journey. An episode just focused on him in season one might’ve been a bore where this year, in par due to Ralph’s performance but also due to how beautifully meditative the scenes were shot, it was an absolute highlight.
The nature of this show is ridiculous and that’s a significant aspect of the show. Even the characters themselves become increasingly exasperated by the scenarios they find themselves in but what makes it work is that it all at the very least feels honest; the characters and their motivations are never shoehorned in for plot convenience but because they feel like real actions these people would take. This means we can watch as Eliot complains about his betrothed turning into a rat, a foul mouthed sloth giving government council and a cursing, embittered dragon knocking Quentin and Julia out without batting an eye. The absurdist nature is key to the success of the show and its that juxtaposed with the gritty reality of the characters emotions and their personal journeys into becoming adults that makes it such a constant delight.
The Magicians, despite it’s naysayers, rose in the ranks in season two to become one of the most addicting shows on air and with the magic cut off for our characters entering next season, all of whom are splintered off in separate realms, there’s so much more we’re ready to explore.
Season Grade: 9/10
Finale Grade: 9/10
Best Episode: “Cheat Day”
[To read my entire season two coverage of The Magicians, go here.]