Syfy adapted Lev Grossman’s trilogy THE MAGICIANS into a series in 2015. The books got a lot of buzz as they followed a group of students at a college for magic and later into a magical land called Fillory. If the upstate New York college, Brakebills, was the anti-Hogwarts, Fillory was the anti-Narnia, and Grossman used the books to comment on the hero myth, entitlement, colonialism and the uses of power.
The show, which airs Wednesdays at 9:00 pm on Syfy, used the original stories as its starting point but has gone in a different direction… several different directions. It stars Jason Ralph as Quentin Coldwater, Stella Maeve as Julia Wicker, Hale Appleman as Eliot Waugh, Summer Bishil as Margo Hanson, Arjun Gupta as “Penny” Adiyodi and Olivia Taylor Dudley as Alice Quinn. Rick Worthy plays the acerbic and alcoholic Dean Fog, and Jade Tailor is Kady, the kick-ass blue-collar battle magician.
In Season One, clinically depressed Quentin and his over-achieving best friend Julia both find, through a circuitous route, that they are taking an exam for entrance into a school for magic. Quentin is accepted and Julia is not, and this leads them both on very different paths. Julia scrabbles to learn magic from street-level practitioners who call themselves “hedges” (short for hedge-witches), while Quentin studies with the obsessive magical powerhouse Alice, drinks cocktails with social influencers Eliot and Margo, and obsesses about everything. When a murderous being attacks Brakebills, Quentin and his friends embark on a quest to defeat it. They go to Fillory, a fictional land in a series of books Quentin and Julia both loved as children. Meanwhile, Julia’s search for knowledge leads her to a horrifying encounter with a trickster god. Quentin’s and Julia’s paths converge toward the end of Season One.
The series is now in its fourth season. We are going to discuss what we like and dislike, and where we think this innovative series is going. We will focus on Seasons One and Two in this column. It is impossible to avoid all spoilers for the show and perhaps some for the books.
We want to know your thoughts too. One randomly-selected commenter with a USA or Canadian address will get a well-thumbed trade paper copy of The Magician King.
A TRIGGER WARNING: We will discuss rape and sexual assault.
Marion: While it got off to a rocky start for me, and my misogyny-senses were tingling through the first two or three episodes, the show improved and continued to improve. For me, interweaving Julia’s story with Quentin’s, instead of telling those adventures sequentially as the books did, made the show immediately watchable. It gave the showrunners the chance to introduce and expand more characters, like the battle-mage Kady. I cringed at the clichés and the sexism in the early episodes – Julia’s magical awakening is a “fake” sexual assault in the bathroom of a bar – but I thought the rhythm of the show worked well. What did you think about that story-telling choice, and about Season One in general?
Bill: I thought moving Julia’s story up and weaving it into Season One was not only a good idea but really an almost essential one. One, we needed to be invested in her, and her relationship with Quentin, early on. Plus, the contrast with Brakebills is sharpened this way, and it gives us a break from just watching what appears to be a bunch of rich prep school folks. In somewhat the same vein, it lets the series jump right into questions of power: who has it, who gets to benefit from it, who gets to be gatekeepers for it, etc. Finally, character-wise giving us Julia’s storyline allows them to somewhat temper Quentin’s unlikable nature in Book One but still show him as not so great in comparison to Julia (and in particular in his responses to her). I tried to think of a downside to moving her story up and really couldn’t come up with one — seemed all upside to me.
It was all upside to me, too – except, maybe, for that scene in the dive bar bathroom that I already alluded too. Threatening Julia with rape seemed like both a cliché and an imaginative Epic Fail given the trajectory of her storyline.
Oh, God, I hated that scene. It pissed me off no end. It may be my least favorite moment in all four seasons. I hated it the first time I watched, hated it even more the second time because I knew it was coming. It made no sense for the narrative or for Pete’s character and seemed to serve no purpose save to show us a pretty young actress in her underwear with the added lurid “frisson” of possible sexual violence. Maybe it was a clumsy attempt at foreshadowing, but still, it seemed a severe misstep by the writers, though luckily one that stands out for its exceptionality as opposed to being a regular occurrence.
Should we talk about the actual rape scene, though, with Reynard? And the aftermath for Julia (and, well, everybody?)
As for the actual rape scene later, those are always tricky at best (really, at best). It fits Margo’s line to Quentin that magical power comes from pain, but that pain having to be rape seems too easy/quick a choice for female characters all too often. Would Julia carrying survivor’s guilt had she spirited her and Kady away been all that weaker an option for trauma? On the other hand, I do like where that storyline goes, so I can live with it, albeit not comfortably. And to their, um, credit?, the show portrays male rape as well, so at least it isn’t a plot point exclusive to the female characters.
I’m at least as bothered by how quickly Julia sells sex as a means to magic and how much of a given that is by Peter. Yes, it fits the drug analogy, but her leap seemed unfortunately fast to me.
Julia selling herself to Pete seemed like a symptom of rushing their stories, which I think is a problem. I’ll talk more about that in the next column.
Getting back to the Reynard storyline, though, I thought they did that scene very well; brutal and horrifying and not eroticized in any way. And the reverberations work, all the way, really, into Season Four. I do like that there’s no moral category of “god-touched.” God-touched is god-touched and no matter what it imparts magic. As for the drug-addict theme, I think they were floundering there a bit. It’s not a bad analogy, though, considering that “supply and demand” is a recurring trope.
I agree the scene was done well, hard-hitting and as painful to watch as it should have been. Magic as drug isn’t a bad analogy; it’s just so often done poorly or at least done too overtly (Yes, I’m looking at you Willow and Buffy the Vampire Slayer).
On to less fraught topics. Penny is a character who never crystallized in the books for me. In the series, thanks largely to Arjun Gupta, he is vividly alive and vividly his own person from Episode One.
I love how prickly Penny is and how prickly he is (or, as Quentin might say from his POV, that Penny is a prick and stays a prick) even as he grows in other ways. Honestly, it’s been so long since I’ve read the books, I don’t recall my reaction, but going back to my reviews I don’t mention him at all, so clearly my impression wasn’t, well, much of an impression. So I’m going with believing the series has improved on Penny. And his comic relief is a necessity, though bringing in Josh meant Penny didn’t have the burden of carrying so much of it.
As an outsider, Penny also offers a critique of white entitlement and privilege.
I think the exploration of power and privilege is one of the stronger aspects of the show. It examines the concept by giving us a white, upper-middle-class man-boy who grew up dreaming of being the “chosen one,” the hero. And why not? Everywhere he went pretty much confirmed that view, if not in the “able to cast fireballs” way he dreamed of, just as young white boys have grown up for seemingly forever. But what the show offers up is the shouldn’t-be-shocking idea that power can rest in a lot of different hands—not always male, not always binary, not always straight, not always white, etc. Nor does it paint all those people as saints for having had power withheld from them; some use that power wisely and some do not. After all, it’s Eliot who down the road tells Margo Fillory just isn’t ready to be led by a woman yet (ouch!).
Margo says: “This is what patriarchy smells like, huh? Not so fresh.” Actually, Margo’s growth arc over the four seasons is fascinating. Sometimes in reviews I use the expression “growing into their power” for a character, but over the life of show we’ve seen Margo do just that, sometimes making terrible mistakes along the way. Unlike Alice, who makes terrible choices and then beats herself up about it, Margo makes terrible choices and says, “I’ll fix this,” which is great except for the part where she occasionally makes things even worse.
Yes, I absolutely love her character, particularly past the first half or so of Season One. She just gets better and better. Still on the topic of power and privilege, Brakebills itself is another method of examining those issues. Why do they get to be the gatekeepers? Why should there be any gatekeepers? What happens when the gatekeepers make a mistake?
Which was a key theme in the books; are gatekeepers even needed? The show is exploring that in depth.
This isn’t to say Brakebills is nefarious, but the show does ask us to question if good intentions suffice as a reason for putting up barriers. Jumping ahead for a moment — I think what’s going on with the library puts this idea more bluntly front and center and with a far darker, more fascistic edge.
I love how the New Order of the Library appears at first in the story. In Season Two a magical creature tells Quentin, “Beware, magician; we only look whimsical.” That warning suits head librarian Zelda to a T. When we first encounter her, we know she’s powerful, but she is almost a caricature with her thick glasses and her 1940s clothes. I love it when she appears out of nowhere with a fire extinguisher when Eliot sets a book on fire. But the well-meaning librarians want to control knowledge and power, withholding it from people “for their own good.”
I was a little surprised when Penny, of all people, accepted this worldview. Even in the early days of the show, when he is retrieving overdue books for the library, he has no problem with it, and it’s Kady who’s chafing under the idea of knowledge/power being held in the hands of a privileged few.
Yes, it does come as a bit of a surprise. But then, Penny’s magic has been more troublesome to him — the voices nearly drive him crazy, the teleportation is at first uncontrollable and risky, so perhaps he’s more open to the idea of magic as dangerous than the others. I wonder too if he’s the flip side of Kady in that both of them are the non-privileged set, and so one goes the path of “screw you, nobody’s telling me what to do when I finally get a chance at some power” and the other goes the alternative path of “freaking rich folks think you can play with this stuff; you don’t know how real it can get.” Maybe?
I think you’re on to something there.
I do like how that library storyline is set up relatively early. In fact, one of the other aspects I like about this show is their narrative structuring. We get these lengthy, well-plotted storylines like the conflict with the Beast, and we also get these little mini-arcs running for a few episodes, like rescuing Julia’s shade or Reynard’s son, and then we get lots of potential plots or future plots seeded throughout. Somewhat similarly, I like as well how we get a variety of genres within these: a mystery, a bank heist, horror of course, etc. Not every one is a hit of course, but overall I think narrative structure and variety is a real strength of the show. And of course, so much of this is meta-narrative. Learning the truths behind the stories we tell to make ourselves and others feel better, learning we’re not “the hero” as our stories had set us up to be, learning you were writing someone else’s story this whole time, learning how stories (i.e. life) are not clean and well-plotted and linear and “nice,” and learning as well how to break out of the stories of our lives, make new ones. That seemed to me to be a lot of what Season Two in particular was about. What are your thoughts?
I do love how the show plays with narrative and often flips the conventions and the way they make us question our assumptions. I think that some of those mini-arcs, as you called them, are rushed, and there is a pattern of rushing the season finales. I’ll talk more about that later, probably in our next column.
Bill, what do you think about the gods in this show?
As for the gods, I know what the show says they represent — order and chaos, the twin poles of existence, one needing the other. And I think that’s certainly true, if not particularly original, you know, being a roughly 6000-year-old theory at least (and probably pre-dating our written records by quite a bit). But I also think they, or at least the two Fillory ones and maybe Reynard as well, are a good contrast to the humans in that the gods live repercussion-free. They screw up and it’s trash the old world and build a new one, or just leave. But our human characters don’t have those choices. As Eliot might say, they have to live with their fuck-ups, unfuck the ones they can, and recognize some are not unfuckable, and move on and do the best not to fuck up again in the same way (cause sure as, well, fuck, they’re going to fuck up again, being human).
I am very interested in these gods, and a little worried by them. As you point out, the show is currently using a conventional model, and I do like the idea of layers (or hierarchies, actually); there are gods like Ember and Umber, and there are “parent gods” who are more powerful and usually more aloof. At the end of Season Two, it’s not quite clear what they are, just as it isn’t really clear, yet, what magic is… what its source is. I want to know more, but at the same time, I like how the individual gods we’ve met have been characterized. And the contrast of consequence-free deities versus consequence-ridden humans is stark here.
Overall, for me the show has hit a home run with storytelling, writing and brilliant casting. I have now seen all of Season Four and I know things are going to change drastically again. What about you? Will you keep watching?
Oh yeah — this quickly became one of my favorite on-going series for all the reasons you listed. It’s killing me, but I’ve put off Season Four to rewatch the show with my son (his first time through). We’re nearly to the end of Season Three though, so I can almost taste the next season. It’s quite possible, as I’ll be on break soon, that I’ll burn through it all in a few nights’ time and then rewatch it with him more slowly. And even as I just wrote this, I decided that’s exactly what I’ll be doing…
Sounds like a plan, Bill!
Readers, we’ve discussed quite a bit. What are your thoughts on the adaptation? One randomly-selected commenter with a USA or Canadian address will get a well-thumbed trade paper copy of The Magician King.