No Fate But What We Make: The Magicians, “Ramifications”

Please welcome back to the stage the great… Mayakovsky! He may be exiled to Antarctica, but Eliot, this week, refers to him as Earth’s greatest magician. One with a guilty conscience, a dark past, and a small arsenal of magical batteries.

Probably you see where this is going. But “Ramifications” takes the magicians’ stories in unexpected directions. More than one of this week’s drastically plot-advancing turns, I really didn’t see coming—and at least one of them I’m still unsure about. But at some point along the way, I started to trust this show. It makes mistakes (cough god jizz cough), but it makes them in service of complicated, emotionally resonant storytelling that works on multiple levels, while doing a dizzyingly excellent job of using plot to advance character. When characters stagnate on this show, it’s on purpose.

But right now, everyone’s growing and changing and adapting at a breakneck—and downright painful–pace.

Except Josh. He’s just stoned.

The great Fillorian reveal this episode is far from the magical land, in the distant magical land of Vancouver, Canada, where a tall fan of all things Fillory turns out to be none other than Umber, the other ram god. The one who vanished, and who, it turns out, was the order to Ember’s chaos. The one who would rather watch Law & Order than turn humans into rats. (“That’s been on his bucket list for centuries.”)

So that‘s the force Margo forgot to reckon with. Ember, who must have found these humans “so boring.” They were meant to entertain, not to be heroes. Not to save anything.

This does not jibe with Quentin’s dreamy, magical view of what Fillory was meant to be—nor with everything he’s seen and been through. “You let the Beast happen,” he tells Umber. “You shut out a child who needed shelter, and when he became a monster, you ran.”

Learning that your gods are fallible is never pleasant.

Umber’s plan is terrible: write off Fillory, claiming that some mistakes can’t be repaired, and create a new world. He’s in deep denial, living in a nostalgic, carefully controlled bubble, and he takes no responsibility for a situation he helped create. He doesn’t have to; he’s got so much power, he doesn’t have to care.

But Eliot cares.

Umber: “You love Fillory.”
Eliot: “It’s my home.”
Umber: “Then the clock is yours, your majesty. But heed my warning: Nothing entertains Ember more than a whimsical death.”

Some people crack under pressure, or fold under heavy responsibilities. But not Eliot, who is starting to find his feet. Everything is wrong, but he’s dealing with it, calmly, and with minimal drug use.

“My pregnant wife is locked up in fairy Gitmo, I’m betrothed to a rat, my pinot noir grapes are nearly ripe… my adventure’s just begun, so why else would Ember banish me? Because I’m a fuckup.”

Is he? Or is he just a guy doing the best he can, like the rest of them, or the rest of us? Quentin traded the button away to Puff the Magic Dragon, sure, but Eliot takes that information and keeps going. He pushes Q to figure out what the dragon meant about the first door still being open. He sees Alice struggling, and reassures Quentin: “I know it’s hard right now but it’s gonna be ok. I think.”

These two haven’t had a lot of quality time in a while, and I confess, my favorite part might’ve been Quentin sliding hopelessly down his chair to the floor, and Eliot saying, “All right. Let’s do that,” and following suit. While wearing, I must note, a very dapper suit.

If Eliot is growing up, bearing his responsibilities, Quentin … is trying. He makes a tiny bit of progress, as the episode goes on. The Q who tells Alice he couldn’t leave her like that—never mind what she wanted—is a little bit smarter later on, when he says, “I tried to do the right thing. But I’m not sorry you’re alive, and maybe that makes me selfish.” This is Q’s admission: he wasn’t doing all of this for Alice. He was doing it for himself. What that means, each of them will have to decide.

But nothing Q says to Alice is as great as the speech Mayakovsky gives:

“Do you know what magic is? Energy capable of making this shithole world one fractional speck less unbearable. Because we shits try so fucking hard and that, that is not weakness. Believe me. You don’t like this world? Good. You see its faults? It gives you focus and solitude to actually fix it. … Adderall. To fortify you. Makes you write like Tolstoy. Don’t make face. Drugs are fun.”

Don’t make face.

Speaking of great speeches, I also wanted to applaud Sylvia, when she tells Penny, “I know it’s hard for men to imagine women having their own reasons for doing anything, but I’m looking for my own book.” She gets a very Giles-on-Buffy moment when she has to dump a lot of info on him at once and make it interesting. All the books of currently alive people end in 20 blank pages! And the librarians know, but they don’t know what causes it!

The death of magic, maybe? Just a guess. But I am once again Team Sylvia when she says, “If time loops exist, then I’m team Sarah Connor, no fate but what we make.”

But is she wrong? Her book says she doesn’t make it, and she doesn’t—at least, not with Penny. Who is this girl, with her varsity-level enchantment-cracking skills and her incredible resolve? I hope we still get to find out.

Penny makes it out, though, with Kady’s book and with a bunch of horrible boils. It’s one good thing for Kady, who at that moment is dealing with so much.

This plot thread is where I got the most unsure about this episode. Much of it is sharp and terrible and hard, from Reynard’s utter cruelty to Gaines’s weird sort of sympathy when he sends Julia away, then forces Kady to do something brutal and damaging—the very thing Julia, shadeless, once wanted to do.

It’s so, so, so awful, one more heavy mark in the tally of Terrible Things That Are Reynard’s Fault. But there is one last moment of grace in John Gaines’s life, when he asks Julia if she thinks about what Reynard did to her:

Julia: “I try to focus on who I was. It’s getting harder, though.”
Gaines: “Reynard thinks he broke you. That there’s no coming back from what he did. Do you think that’s true?”
Julia: “I hope not.”
Gaines: “Well, whatever happens, don’t let him be right.”

This is all Gaines has left to offer. This, and the demigod power that Julia packs into a literal magic bullet. A magic bullet that she doesn’t use, because Our Lady Underground—our Persephone—shows up and asks her not to. Will Julia spare her son?

“You’re a survivor. You’re still capable of mercy, Julia. Don’t let him rob you of that.”

What do we make of this—of Reynard being Persephone’s son; of Persephone knowing what he was doing; of what her goddess justice might look like? “I am so disappointed in what you’ve done,” she says to him, and he throws it back in her face, saying “You left me.” Did she? Is there anything that can give a sympathetic aspect to Reynard’s history, like the revelations about Plover did for young Martin Chatwin?

Season two, in many ways, is about struggling to grow up, to figure out how to handle whatever the world throws at you (or takes from you), because that’s what living is. And more than that, what I think The Magicians is currently about (or trying to be about) is the hard work of growing up and breaking patterns—not just personal patterns, those old habits that die hard, but patterns imprinted on us from the world outside.

Quentin, Julia, even Margo—we know they loved the Fillory stories. Stories with morals and fairytales and talking animals; stories with benevolent gods and scary creatures that mostly turned out ok in the end. But the farther they get into Fillory, the more they discover how many details were left out of the stories they read, and how much work needs to be done.

But those aren’t the only stories they know. They know magic, they know myth, they know each other’s narratives; they know how they all got to where they are, but not how to take the tale in a new direction. Eliot has finally found a place that’s safe for him, where he can be whole, where the person he already was—a farmer’s son, a magician, a child of earth—is meaningful. And to protect it, he comes up with the same plan another hurting young man once came up with. Quentin, maybe more than anyone, believes in stories, and believes in the heroes of stories. He brings Alice back because that’s what a hero would do, and because Alice is a hero, to him. When he says her name to her, he’s telling her a story: This is the person you are. This is everything that adds up to you.

But does it? It’s Quentin’s selfishness, yes, but also his understanding of narrative that doesn’t allow him to see it otherwise. Maybe Alice’s math is different.

Reynard has told himself a story about Persephone—one we don’t know enough about. Penny has been learning to tell himself a new story; he’s had to, to connect with Kady. To expand his role in her life in a way that works for her. And Julia, most of all, is on unfamiliar ground. She wanted revenge. Kady wants her to get that revenge. So do I, for that matter: it’s hard to watch her let Reynard go. How hard is it for a person without her feelings to show mercy? Is there another way for this story to go? A better way? What would that look like? What would a better way to save Fillory look like? What kind of fates will they make for themselves, in the blank pages of their books?

MAGICAL TIDBITS

  • The pocket world! Aren’t we getting straight up into book three stuff here, book readers? Not that we weren’t already, but I didn’t expect anything about creating new worlds to come up this season.
  • “You could say please.” “No, I literally could not.” Not enough Margo this week!
  • “No one has ever brought niffin back to life. Many try, but all [extremely dramatic death noises].” “Blah, blah, feelings, bullshit.” I missed you too, Mayakovsky.
  • No-longer-niffin-Alice is pissed. So pissed. So very, very pissed.
  • “How’s Penny? Still alive? … I could’ve worded that better.”
  • Kady, so angry about what Gaines made her do that she walks right out into danger and throws Gaines’s death in Reynard’s face: “Nothing he wasn’t asking for.” Where does she go next?
  • Julia has her shade back! This, too, I was not expecting. Julia’s story looked like it might eventually head in a similar place to her book-story, but maybe not.
  • I only just now caught the double meaning in the episode title.
  • A troublesome god in one world and a god-killing bullet in another, eh?

Molly Templeton loves stories about stories, and truly hopes this is where this is going, because that Julia story got very, very weird.

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