How much more can you ask for in a television series than the ability to elicit such high strung reactions of joy with the simple words “peaches and plums motherfucker?” Since its inception The Magicians has dared to go bolder than any of its predecessors, but only once they shook off the familiar trappings of over familiar genre setups; season one was mere table dressing compared to the places it’s since gone with such gleeful abandonment you can’t help but wonder if it wasn’t planned all along. Disguised as a show about a straight, white twenty-something selected as the chosen one before upending everything, the lead became canonically bisexual (or pan – though it’s never truly noted) and the fiercest combatants on the series are women, and primarily women of color at that. It’s not a bar clearing that should feel as monumental as it does and on its own is revelatory enough to warrant a watch, but it’s what is done with the characters who burn down tropes at every corner that make it so uniquely peculiar and expectation shattering. To be a fan of The Magicians is to work in hyperbole simply because nothing else quite does it justice. In the fifth episode of season four, quite like it did in last season’s tremendous fifth episode, Sera Gamble and the rest of the showrunners have once again created something that truly lives up to the hype, doled out with equal measures trepidation and whimsy, filled with as much grief as there is hope. Further breaking down barriers of where we’ve expected it to swerve next, and it’s possibly the most romantic thing the show has done to date.
“Q – I’m sorry. I was afraid and when I’m afraid I run away.”
There’s plenty more that happens in this episode, all of it equally fascinating in terms of what we continue to learn about the characters we’ve come to so deeply care about. Margo, after being given such standout moments last week, takes something of a backseat here yet her resolute nature is on display throughout as she channels her natural ferocity into getting Fillory back into working order. This consists of placing her emotions on the backburner, telling Fen that she can’t allow herself to feel because if she does she might never stop and that’s no way to get started on accomplishing anything.
Penny and Julia (who shared electric chemistry in their moments in the last episode) aren’t given nearly enough to do, though we do see Penny kidnapped (or at least knocked out by a strange assailant) and Julia learning the hard way (again) about the unbeknownst collateral consequences of being a Goddess. People who follow her will die – and do so needlessly. As she’s told rather bluntly, she’s got the worst bits of human and gods in her right now, rendering her powerless and immortal and forcing her learning how to balance immense knowledge and passion without any actual power to save lives. Julia has always been the true golden-hearted heroine of this story, good even after seeing the worst the world has to offer, selfless even after being brutally hurt. She’s always going to face challenges, making for such an enthralling hero through her simple perseverance of heart and intellect and not due to any gift she was bestowed or born with.
On the other end of that spectrum, Alice has always been the show’s most naturally gifted character, though she’s rarely the most enjoyable one to spend time with. This hasn’t dramatically changed, but seeing her in control of her own narrative and actively searching for a sense of redemption is a smart way to take a character who too often has been separated from the main drama. We care so much for Quentin, Margo, Eliot, Penny and Julia (even Josh to a degree) not just because of their own defining personalities and quirks, but because of the relationships they share. Julia and Quentin’s friendship, Margo and Eliot’s soulmate attraction, even Penny’s sardonic foil to the rest all make for dynamics that are rich in thematic weight and unfortunately, Alice has only ever shared that level of narrative substance with Quentin, who works much better with the others.
“If I ever get out of here Q – know that when I’m braver it’s because I learned it from you.”
From the start Eliot has been one of the shows most well-rounded characters, in large part due to Hale Appleman’s lethargic, elfish charm that makes him a perfect fit for this world. Quentin was on shakier ground when he was first introduced but from season two on there was a clever subversion through committed work by Jason Ralph and the writers that made sure we saw through all of the cracks in Q’s persona in a manner that flirted with steely vulnerability rather than any of the nice guy fragility that made him previously so hard to like. Together, as we saw with last year’s “A Day in the Life” and with this weeks “Escape From the Happy Place” these two are a duo that do their best work together, and they might be the most romantically suitable pairing on the show to date.
It’s a thrill to realize this hasn’t all been wishful thinking. After spending a lifetime together and having slept together at least twice, in this episode we realize that Eliot’s most shameful moment in a lifetime full of embarrassments, regrets and trauma is the moment where he brushed aside Quentin’s very sincere suggestion that they try and make an honest attempt at a relationship. Blocking this moment out and in attempting to reach his friends through a door in a memory scarred with the severity of ill-conceived abandonment – all excellently juxtaposed with the “happy place” where he’s safe from the beasts locked with him inside the monster – Eliot is for the first time able to look at himself truthfully. Not liking what he sees, he promises Quentin that if he manages to get out and if they can save him, then he’ll be better, braver and maybe, just maybe, give him a different answer than before.
“50 years! Who gets proof of concept like that. Peaches and plums motherfucker. I’m alive in here.”
Eliot breaks through, if only for a moment, but the shift is remarkably dramatic as Quentin goes from being ready to say goodbye to one of his best friends forever to brashly ruining their plans by saving him. Eliot gets through because of a memory only the two of them have, one of concrete evidence that they work together. Alice and Julia might’ve been the ones seemingly poised as Quentin’s main love interests from the start, but maybe he’s been meant to get the boy all along.
Perhaps this isn’t how the show will go down, though if that’s the case it will quite the shame because so few (if any) shows are as self-assured in their storytelling and audience to take what is considered such a turn from most typical, heteronormative storytelling beats.
What matters now, however, is the idea of two lost souls barrelling at one another when all seems lost. Eliot was the first person Quentin met at Brakebills and it’s Quentin who jettisons Eliot into the brief moment of agency over his body to let his friends know that he’s alive. Maybe they aren’t the main couple of the series, if there’s even meant to be one, but their stories keep finding ways to weave themselves into a tangled knot that is getting tighter the longer the tales get, the to-be continued that keeps anchoring the strongest and most climatic moments of the show. There’s a draw to these two characters who battled with deep loneliness and senses of purpose, who have been written as being depressed and hopeless but have laid it all on the line in the past to protect their loved ones who have started to fill in their missing pieces.
If anything, “Escape From the Happy Place” celebrates these lost and buried traumas because they remind us of not just who we are, but what we can manage to overcome. There have been so many monsters on the show who turned down that path because of past horrors suffered through, further inflicting pain on others because it’s all they know and remember. What makes the characters of The Magicians so special and so deeply flawed is that they too have endured and suffered, but have managed to redefine their pain into a purpose greater than the sum of its parts. In Eliot’s case, after what he’s gone through and after seeing what there is to live for, it finally makes the fight against the monster trapping him in his own body no longer hopeless.