Heroism has always been at the heart of The Magicians. But that’s only because heroism plays a role in our regular lives and exists in many different forms. There are many types of heroes out there and The Magicians was always good at subverting what that term actually means for regular people.
Quentin Coldwater spends much of season one believing he’s the Chosen One. A common literary trope, the “chosen one” is at the heart of all heroic journeys: a seemingly normal person learns they’re something special and/or they have a big role to play in some larger world-ending threat. In fantasy, this is more explicit, but the “chosen one” narrative can take shape in any form. Typically, this person refuses the call initially and then through some obstacles (usually involving the loss of loved ones) finds their way to fulfilling their destiny. What’s so profound about someone like Quentin – who, yes, does exist in a fantasy world and occupies the role of the “chosen one” – is that he ultimately learns he isn’t living the narrative of the heroes he’s read about in other stories. He is not, in fact, the chosen one.
Season one culminates in this realization. To Alice, Quentin sums up the first season in a short bit of dialogue:
“My entire life, ever since I first read Fillory and Further, I’ve been waiting for some powerful being to come down and say ‘Quentin Coldwater, you are The One.’ Every book, every movie, it’s about one special guy. Chosen. In real life, for every one guy, there are a billion people who aren’t. Almost none of us are The One.”
Quentin’s statement is further exemplified when it’s Alice who takes on The Beast. Quentin’s moment of heroism then comes from him letting go of this fantasy he built up in his head that to sacrifice himself meant his life was worth something. Or, more simply put, that “destiny is bullshit,” as he says to Eliot during their crowning ceremony in the season two premiere.
If we’re talking about subverting the typical white male heroic journey, The Magicians accomplished that way back in season one when their white male protagonist realized that maybe this story isn’t really his, at least when it comes to the big characters-stepping-into-their-heroic-roles moment. A female is the more powerful magician and takes on the Big Bad of the season and an out queer character becomes the prophesied High King of Fillory (almost in the same way the Pevensie children become the Kings and Queens of Narnia). There’s even a trial here, one that Quentin was sure he was going to pass.
Looking at this early arc for Quentin on the heels of the season four finale, “No Better to be Safe Than Sorry,” in which Quentin does take on the more typical hero death, the missteps from this season are even more apparent. Suddenly, the heroic death becomes the pivotal moment for another subversion, according to showrunners Sera Gamble and John McNamara. Namely, that the character who was supposed to be safe, isn’t. In doing so, The Magicians goes back on their original idea that the white male protagonist isn’t the hero.
Pop culturally, we’re living in a time when sacrificial deaths no longer are the epitome of a character’s potential. In season seven of Game of Thrones, Daenerys Targaryen speaks of heroes as people “who do stupid things and then die.” It’s important to note that in this conversation with Tyrion Lannister, Daenerys distinguishes bravery from heroism. While Game of Thrones is populated with mythic stories and legends of brave knights and Azor Ahai, those identities are so clouded in mystery they become a mere afterthought, at least to the characters who, from a bird’s eye view, occupy those roles. Not to mention, Jon Snow, heroic in his morality, dies at the end of season five by the hands of his brothers and is resurrected in the early episodes of season six. (Interesting to note that in the interviews following his character’s death, Kit Harrington also said he wasn’t coming back to the show.)
Star Wars: The Last Jedi also questions the traditional idea of heroism. Poe believes he’s not doing all he can if he’s not going in guns blazing, something he argues is the only way to take on their enemies. General Leia has a different approach, however, a more calculated plan of action. The more smart one, too. The idea that heroism has to be sexy or that being a martyr is the only way to prove you’ve done everything you can is long past.
Killing off your white male protagonist isn’t revolutionary. Not only because it’s been done before, but also because by calling this a subversion of the white male hero, it ignores all the other facets that make up Quentin Coldwater: his queerness, his depression, and his history with dealing with his mental illness. There’s also his capacity for love, not just for his friends but also for the stories he grew up reading. If The Magicians takes its roots from The Chronicles of Narnia and Harry Potter, then Quentin is the embodiment of the generation who grew up reading those stories and wishing they could walk right into a field of natural light and be asked to take an exam for a magical university.
In season one, the chosen one myth is taken down a peg. So maybe it’s more about bravery than heroism. Afterall, what makes us brave are the people who go on these journeys with us and how we choose to tackle the challenges we’re faced with. There’s no need for martyrdom. In the season three finale, “Will You Play With Me?”, Quentin attempts to take on the sacrifice by being the one to stay in Blackspire for an eternity as babysitter to a powerful god. Eliot and Alice both attempt to stop him, but it’s Eliot’s words that are the most important: “I didn’t actually agree on anything. But I did decide that one of my best friends wouldn’t spend the rest of his life locked in a prison guarding what turns out to be not a really scary monster.” Again, The Magicians says this destiny thing is kind of bullshit.
So what happened in season four? Quentin’s journey comes full circle. In a time when he wasn’t vying to be the Chosen One, he sacrifices himself. He asks Penny40 whether he died saving his friends or did he just find a way to kill himself. The show seems to say that because his friends will forever be changed for knowing him, of course his depression didn’t play into his final act. By saying this, it forgets everything that happened to Quentin during the rest of season four. The death of his father, his drive to save Eliot, his disillusionment with Fillory, his incredibly terrifying moments of self destruction. They all play into “No Better to Be Safe Than Sorry,” but why is this the send off for a character that represented so much of its audience?
He’s not okay and he hasn’t been okay for a whole season. And not being okay is okay. But in the stories we watch, it’s better to see someone fight to have the strength to be okay. Ending his story while he’s still disillusioned with everything he once believed doesn’t feel revolutionary because, well, it’s a major bummer. When thinking of the The Magicians as a metaphor for adult life, especially adults in their twenties, when life can feel like a roller coaster of highs and lows, when the disillusionment of childhood informs the first moments of adulthood, Quentin’s end feels even more like a blow. In season four’s 12th episode, “The Secret Sea,” Quentin asks the Drowned Garden, “Shouldn’t loving the idea of Fillory be enough?” For accessing the secret sea, it seemed to be. So, why isn’t it enough to save his life in the end?
How incredibly more moving Quentin’s journey would have been if it had culminated in hearing Eliot’s words in real life: “When I get out of here, know that when I’m brave it’s because of you.” It doesn’t take a hero to be brave, but it does take bravery to change people’s lives, not through sacrifice, but through the seemingly small actions taken in their everyday lives. Perhaps it’s in taking a risk with a relationship or rekindling one. Or maybe it’s in admitting you’re not okay. How wonderful it would have been if it was words that had saved the day, rather than a noble sacrifice?