Dear The Magicians, I have a question: When do Brakebills students, um, study magic? I get that Julia is doing a lot of magic-hunting and you don’t want to show us all learning all the time, but it’s a bit much to ask that we believe that Quentin and company are suddenly up to magical trials when as far as we can tell they’ve gone to about two classes.
Spoilers and secrets ahead!
We pick up right where last week left off, with Quentin, googly-eyed, staring at Penny, who maybe really went to Fillory. Penny is not into this fanboy nonsense about talking animals and dwarf-built castles (your loss, Penny). He has Kady tattoo him with the magical-tattoo-that-keeps-travelers-on-Earth, and he asks her about her mysterious life. If you believed Kady’s story about her deceased mother and hippie father, you are a less cynical person than I, but regardless, Jade Tailor, with her sly eyes and layers, is doing excellent things with this character.
But the real Brakebills story this week involves magical trials, which are—presumably due to arcane rules of narrative and leading roles—run primarily by Margo and Eliot. They are clearly loving all of it: scaring the crap out of Quentin; dressing up in funny robes; pretending to be magical forest royalty; telling the first-years they’re going to fail the first nigh-on-impossible magician-thinking (not magical thinking) test. If they fail, they flunk out. Quentin figures out that the best way to pass is to use Penny’s traveler skills to cheat off Alice, which is perfectly acceptable (as is Penny’s continued refusal to ever fully button a shirt). Their teammate, who doesn’t participate, vanishes. Failure is serious.
Before test two, Margo gives Q a surprisingly endearing pep talk about celebrating the world he’s in, not moping because Penny got to go to Fillory and he didn’t. It’s also a lovely excuse to bring Quentin a champagne bottle full of magical drugs. He wakes up in a forest, where Eliot tells him to shoot a fish with an arrow. As with the first test, there’s a way around it: This mundane test is all about teamwork, and it’s a highlight of the episode that these skeptical, touchy, self-protective magicians figure it out, revealing little but important things about themselves in the process. Kady, miserable, reveals more than a little to Penny when he finds her freaking out while chasing a bird with a net. All her defensive sarcasm has melted away and she’s terrified of losing, of being cast out of Brakebills, where she says she has to be.
In the muggle world, desperate Julia has gone back to the bar of newbie witches, but they’ve been warned not to help her. The bartender with the baby face sneaks out long enough to give her an address, but someone else follows her: another witch, older, who’s also been cast out by Marina. Her name is Hannah, and she is here to tell you about the dangers of addiction. I mean, magic. I mean, you get the picture. Hannah wants to introduce Julia to someone who might be able to help, but when that someone is Kady, the whole story spills out: Hannah screwed up, and Marina’s punishment involved both her magical exile and Kady’s … service. Kady is perpetually angry, understandably, and tells her mom to leave her alone. Julia’s of much the same mind, until Hannah conveniently shows up just when Julia is trying to cast a two-person spell on her own.
This, to put it mildly, doesn’t go well, and poor Hannah dies terribly. It’s nasty and vile and vicious, but everything involving Hannah goes by in such a rush that it feels gratuitous. She doesn’t even get two episodes; she’s here and gone, mostly as a plot device with two purposes: explaining Kady, and showing the consequences of magical addiction.
But why is magic only a dangerously addictive drug if you don’t go to Brakebills? Marina’s the high-functioning magiholic of the bunch, concocting elaborate schemes to get more spells while mocking Julia for trying the same thing; Julia’s on the edge, likely to do something unwise while still telling herself it’s the only way; Hannah was the junkie. But no one at school behaves quite like this, even Alice, who was more fixated on Charlie than on the magic that she thought would save him. Does being immersed in magic keep you from getting greedy? Is Brakebills itself like magical Xanax? Is magic only a drug if you don’t have magical teammates/classmates, and if so, why is Brakebills constantly kicking people out?
These are mostly rhetorical questions; my point is that I’m not convinced by the magic = drug equation (not least because we’ve been down this road on Buffy, and a sad, bumpy road it was). There’s almost a good idea here: if magic is a drug and some people get addicted while others use it recreationally and others are disinterested, ok, that can work. Maybe. But the show seems to trot the idea out primarily as a way to make Julia’s life suck in new and creative ways, which is narratively frustrating. Maybe a little less pronouncing how magic works, and a little more understanding it?
The third test involves nakedness and honesty: the students pair off with the assignment to reveal their “truest selves” to each other. There’s body paint, for some reason, and ropes, which will fall off when each person passes. We are ripe for awkward confessions, and that’s what we get: Penny is falling in love with Kady—an admission that would be dopey from anyone else, but is exactly the kind of thing Penny, who works hard on that lone-wolf vibe, would bury. Kady confesses that she picked Penny, at the start of school, because he seemed like he might be useful. For a minute it seems like she might be lying to protect herself, but her ropes slip off. Alice’s not-really-a-secret is that she’s super-powerful and hides it to seem more normal; Quentin has discovered that getting what you want doesn’t change who you are, and he still has to deal with himself.
This is one of the big ones, the lessons that suck no matter what, and it needed to mean more than it did here. Jason Ralph is excellent at a lot of aspects of Quentin, but not so much his self-loathing; he just seems like an uncertain twentysomething, like most of us are or were or will be. But it’s still his truth: the ropes vanish, the sun comes up, and everyone turns into a goose. What, doesn’t that happen to you when you’re super honest? Sprout feathers, fly south? It kind of sounds nice, actually.
Julia’s story stomped bloodily on the same old territory this week, but we needed that bonding among the Brakebills class—and not just because the grownups, earlier in the season, hinted it would be important. There needed to be some common history among all of them, not just Quentin and Alice and their secret, terrible-idea spellcasting, and they’re finally building that. And now they’re all geese! Won’t that get interesting?
THE BEST BITS
- Margo complaining that the Beast is not “tonally consistent” with the Fillory books.
- “Did you see any animals? Did they talk to you?”
- Eliot should be the boss of everyone all the time.
- “Is someone being creepy on purpose?”
Molly Templeton wasn’t expecting this level of soapiness, but is going with it.