Television is so rarely everything you want it to be. Sure, there are great series and ones that on a technical level stand leagues about this little SyFy show that could, but few have the ability to target the heart of television fans so acutely and with the effervescent wisdom of knowing exactly which aspects of storytelling are universal. Dressed in the trappings of magic, mystical beings and mayhem, The Magicians is a show which is much more about the friendships made in young adulthood, demons faced in an uncertain and increasingly unsteady world and the volatile emotional arena that is the inexplicable unknown. Sure, there may be cursing rabbits, loving relationships between humans and sloths, a sentient boat and worlds inside worlds of alternate universes, but all of these otherworldly aspects and details are cut straight through by the power of unbridled compassion, companionship and loss.
Being an adult is hard and The Magicians understands this and exploits it and both we and the show are the beneficiaries of its acute wisdom. The series had some growing pains until the deep bench of richly drawn characters began to share screen time in perfect balance and the leading hero, Quentin, was established firmly as a player who understood he was far from the series’ main protagonist. By the time the end of season one rolled over into season two, the series truly began to understand what makes it stand out in a very crowded field.
It’s a vividly told story, one that continually outpaces itself in major occurrences and shakeups, lapping one plot point with the next twist until the story is so rapidly developed that it’s difficult to keep everything in place. That confidence in the audience to keep the hell up and its reliance on the fabulous actors portraying the characters means that The Magicians is able to take risks where other shows would be too timid.
Season three dedicated an entire episode to short vignettes that followed a number of peripheral characters, had a musical episode that culminated in a soaring and unifying sing-along to Queen’s “Under Pressure”, followed by an episode where two of the leading characters lived out a life in a small plot of land, fell in love, raised a family and passed away peacefully just to be ripped back into their proper timeline. It was daring and hauntingly melancholic in some moments and undeniably absurd, poignant and hilarious in others, combining genres and tones that rather than causing an unpleasant dissonance instead resonated in perfect harmony.
Beyond the structure and risk taking there are the characters who so assuredly ground the series wilder moments. The version of Quentin, Julia and co. are unfathomably different than the versions we first met, to the point where the season three cliff-hanger is all the more crushing when the worry about how they’ll find their way back to themselves sets in. Julia, following all of her continued trauma, finds power in healing, offered the position of a god before sacrificing it all to save her friends. Margo and Eliot, the two vain and detached sidekicks of season one, became High King’s (yes, both of them) and care deeply about Filory and their friends – with Eliot risking everything to save Quentin from his self-sacrifice at the end of season three (to possibly devastating results). And Quentin has grown on the micro scale, coming to a place of self-acceptance where he knows what he can do and when to do it, with a moral compass that will push himself through his fears and concerns of the impossible unknown of the future.
Season three ends on a fantastic and frustrating cliffhanger, as we watch the versions of these characters, with their minds wiped, going through life unaffected by magic and torn apart. The kicker comes in the form of Eliot, who has been inhabited by the beast, coming to Quentin to help him enact revenge on those who have done him wrong. It’s unsettling – not only because we’re given a moment of optimism when we believe that, against all odds, Eliot has found Quentin through the fog – but also because it’s such a deconstruction of characters we’ve come to love that there’s a sense of no return that accompanies it.
And while I’d like to think the real Eliot is still possible to save, I’m proactively arming myself for anything but.
The heart of this series is this group of unsuspecting people who found one another when the world turned dark and dire on them. It’s the makeshift bonds of those dealt tough hands in life who recognize the masked pain and tight smiles and the joy that comes when there’s a shared triumph. There’s little doubt this group will find one another again – without that core there is no show – but it will be a journey greatly touched by tension and want as we will them to reunite, save Eliot and continue their paths to better adjusted adults who can both save the day from a monster who presents a threat when bored and unloved.
Maybe I’m at a point in my life where shows like this mean something more. Where a friend is willing to fire a bullet straight into a monsters heart rather than lose you, or where a young woman who’s endure such trauma is still willing to sacrifice literal parts of herself in order to honor the bravery of her friends – maybe those are moments that touch me so deeply as a twenty something floundering.
Maybe, more than anything, there’s something about Quentin ready to give his life to save magic and his friends not because he wants to, but because through his struggling he’s learned that he can handle it. That at the end of trauma there’s an inner strength that might just compel you save the world after accomplishing saving yourself. It’s that slimmer of hope that against all odds you persevere and you life another day no matter the mounting odds against you, no matter how big or small but in spite of that. The Magicians, in season three and beyond, is a belligerent and defiant rallying of damage and heartache and want, viscerally emotive in its naked, open armed appeal to those in need of relatable escape.