So many spoilers ahead!
Season four of The Magicians was always going to struggle in its ability to live up to its predecessor, one of the best seasons of television in recent memory. For the most part it found success with episode to episode moments of greatness that couldn’t conceal a messier over-arching plot that revealed itself fully in the last few episodes. And now, following the decision to kill Quentin off the show, the showrunners are going to need to deal with clunky plotting that resulted in memorable sequences but narratives which were often frustratingly inconsequential.
Julia goes the entire season grappling with what it means to be part human and part God only to have the decision to choose one or the other taken from her while she’s unconscious, relegated to a romantic subplot that didn’t offer a similar impact. Julia has always been disserviced by the show, despite arguably being the most interesting part of since in season one, a potential that was all but forgotten. Similarly, Eliot being possessed by a monster lead to a staggeringly tremendous episode that again, only led to annoyance with the promise of declarative love wasn’t ever to be acted on as real Eliot and Quentin never were given a moment to share together by the time Quentin had made his sacrifice. It’s made all the more damning when we realize how secondary the monster was when, once again, it’s the Library acting as the big bad at the season’s conclusion. Even Alice and Q’s romance was shoehorned in at the end despite the show taking great strides in finally making her a viable and interesting character outside of that dynamic.
It was a frustrating season, but one that sparkled with momentary beauty of character insight, most often when it came to Margo. Even the finale has moments of greatness and in particular it last 20 minutes, which were stunningly shot and created a greater sense of universality as we see Hedge Witches all over the globe working in tandem to stop the monsters (both literal and potential) and gain back magic. Unfortunately, any strengths of the season will always be injected with a sense of bitter sweetness of “what if’s” regarding a character who’s grown from being the least interesting on the show to the one who contained the series heart.
The Magicians has always worn the identity of a mid-to-late twenty something grappling with themselves with depth and complexity. The characters possess such power at their fingertips and the hope of endless possibilities (like so many blissed out early 20 somethings naively feel) but are completely lost in what to do with it. Over the seasons they’ve gone through real life events such as addiction and assault, new career paths and sexual identities, relationships that come and go just to return again and triumphs that quickly turn to more challenges. All of this has been filtered through the magical lens and, ultimately, we were always destined to arrive at a point where death was their latest hurdle.
The pain and frustration that comes with losing a believed character often is twofold: it’s both about the loss and how it’s handled and, at the very least, Q’s death was handled relatively well. There’s a real sense of mourning that comes along with Quentin’s split second decision, one that even in the underworld we give witness to as he grieves having only one last chance to look at the friends and loved ones he’s about to leave behind. It’s palpable as Q weeps at the notion that this was an irreversible act and that the next step forward is an unknowable one, even if Penny’s is a comforting, familiar face to give him his final rights before stepping further into potential oblivion.
On one hand it was a remarkably evocative goodbye, one where we see how one life can both touch and change so many for the better. Quentin didn’t just enter Eliot, Alice and Julia’s life to be a friend forgotten with time but a crucial individual who would help shape their worlds and make them stronger by association. His, like so many others, was a life of staggeringly rich connections and it’s a vacancy in both the character’s and show’s world that won’t go unnoticed, even as they venture forward into new adventures in season five. Quentin was more than a deck of cards, a forgotten crown, an acceptance letter or bitten peach. He was a source of love, compassion and determination that made those totems so crucially representative of the man he became over the shows run, transforming from a timid would-be leading man to a hero accepting his fate as someone destined to mend small objects. The smallest cracks can cause great foundations to crumble, so where there was room to perceive his focus as uninspired or weak, perhaps instead we were always meant to see him as the glue.
Despite all this some of that beautiful, metamorphic tragedy is lost when it’s further contextualized and we remember all of the character beats that lead us to this point, specifically his mental health. As recently as the penultimate episode, Quentin spoke of his depression and how the magical land Filory (which in his adulthood would turn out to be more real and bleak than he could ever imagine) helped keep him alive, lifting his spirits when nothing else could keep the monsters from under the bed or the dark clouds at bay. How many of us have looked to works of transfixing fantasy as a means to spread an escapist balm on mental wounds that have festered overtime? We immerse ourselves in fiction to transport ourselves elsewhere and it was just one small part of Q that was easy to relate to, that made him impossibly human in a world overflowing with magic.
Characters die. And, in the case of Quentin, he got as fitting and superbly performed send off as any character could these days when deaths are intended more to shock than move. The mourning for fans of the show is a collective one because so many of us saw ourselves in Quentin’s ordinary nature striving to guard his heart while simultaneously risking it all to be better – larger than even the heroes of his childhood fables. His pain was rooted in a reality so many of us understand and it meant that his triumphs and losses felt greater than they were. There was a clear delicacy in how the showrunners orchestrated his departure, even allowing his death scene itself some form of transcendent beauty as he seemingly transforms into sparkling matter, rather than simply perishing before us. Regardless, the initial response is one where it feels like after the season he had it was a misstep.
Quentin confesses to Penny that he’s worried that his act in the mirror world wasn’t one of quick thinking courage to save his friends, but a moment where he could commit suicide and none would be the wiser. Penny’s answer to this is to show him how his life touched that of his friends as they tearfully sing “Take On Me” and asks him if he really thinks it could have been a choice to leave all of that behind?
While it’s perfectly acceptable to have a character dealing with depression and suicidal thoughts die by acts that aren’t based on their mental illness, it seems a greater shame to dismiss a character (recently affirmed to have non-heteronormative leanings at that) and his entire arc with such questionable logic. The character has grown leaps and bounds since the start and has been largely aided by a steely but vulnerable performance by Jason Ralph, but even though his demise came at the time of a self-reflecting realization it also came after a season where he was detached, angry and defiant in the face of real danger. A greater and more fulfilling ending would have been to allow Quentin reprieve – of unburdened happiness. Instead, we were left to flounder as relationships were either left in open ended status such as his and Alice’s, or never allowed the time to flourish like they’d been promised such as his and Eliot’s (a particular cheat fans are feeling burned by.)
There was such an intuitive beauty in Quentin’s ability to see light even in his darkest days, a cog in a bigger picture whose want for a just world and capacity for love was able to transform those around him. A mender of small things, Q’s reach was far and wide, encompassing those he touched like a smattering of golden flakes – undoubtedly fragile but magically transformative as it catches the light.