Lev Grossman’s The Magicians is the first of a trilogy that gets better and better with each book. It’s smart, referential fantasy for and about readers, with a main character who’s as obsessed with a series of books as any of us ever were with Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter or Narnia. Syfy’s adaptation of Grossman’s series officially starts with a two-episode premiere on January 25th, but a sneak peek of the first episode aired last night. Streamlined, aged up, and wasting no time getting to the action, The Magicians has a lot of promise.
Spoilers for the first episode (and some discussion of the books) follow.
While I don’t want to focus too much on what’s changed from the book, one structural change is key: Grossman sticks close to Quentin; we’re always in his head, hearing his thoughts (even when we might not want to know), and the show has to open that up. (Sort of like how The Hunger Games films had to get outside Katniss’s head, but here there’s a little less child death.) So we start somewhere else entirely: on a park bench, where a man waits for a woman. She’s late. He’s testy. She’s testier. She drops what looks like a strangely heavy moth into his lap and tells him, “It’s happening.” Something is coming. Some grownups know, and they don’t seem happy.
Quentin Coldwater is currently oblivious to all this, being engaged in getting out of a mental hospital. He checked himself in, and he wants to go home, even if home means hiding behind a red Solo cup at a party where no one appreciates his nerd minutiae. (In the real world, there are always people at parties who care about nerd minutiae, but not here, apparently.) Quentin retreats to his bedroom to comfort-read one of his beloved Fillory books, which neatly comes to life onscreen as he narrates the story of three Chatwin children—twins Martin and Rupert, and their older sister Jane—who went through a clock to a magical land. Fillory glows with warm sunlight; there are clocks in trees, and familiar giant moths settled in clusters on branches.
Fillory, like Narnia, or like a book, always kicks the adventuring children out when the story is done. Quentin just keeps going back to the books, again and again. But now he’s going to grow up, he tells his best friend, Julia (a perfectly prickly Stella Maeve), and sell his prized books on eBay. It’s all very symbolic, Quentin giving up on the stories that sustain him, accepting that in the real world he’s just another ordinary person, one without a heroic narrative or a magical secret.
Except, of course, he isn’t. Sort of.
When Julia walks him to a grad school interview the next day, everything changes, and not because the fellow who was supposed to interview him is dead (later, someone makes a snide crack about diabetics and Oreos that really should’ve been cut from the script). The paramedic who arrives is, oddly, the woman from the first scene, and she gives Quentin an envelope with a mysterious sixth Fillory book that isn’t supposed to exist. His excitement seems out of place to Julia, and they get into the kind of fight you only have with someone who loves you and knows you very well. She’s pissed at him for caring more about the book than the dead guy. He’s pissed she doesn’t still care about Fillory like she used to. She knows he was in the hospital. Again. They’re mean and perfect, and they’d be over it by the next day, if life—in the form of a magical college entrance exam—didn’t interfere.
Quentin is so prepared for this. He’s living a Fillory story, essentially: he stumbles through a tired garden and onto the sunny lawn of Brakebills University, where someone whisks him off to prove that he’s smart and magical, and then he’ll get to have lots of adventures and make new friends. It’s Fillory, except it’s also grad school (upgraded from plain old college in the books), so probably there’ll be a little more homework. But that’s ok. Quentin passes, egged on by Dean Fogg, the man from the first scene.
Julia fails, and is sent home, her memories supposedly wiped, though she’s too clever to let a little thing like a forgetting spell work on her. Quentin asks a few questions, then accepts everything, including Fogg’s suggestion that he hasn’t been depressed; he’s just been alone. Everyone medicates, out there in the real world, he says. “Here, we hope you won’t have to.”
The show is, wisely, vague about whether or not Quentin is actually depressed, and not just another human who wanted his life to be more meaningful than it felt. The hospital and the meds are there to illustrate Quentin’s mental state, and are probably a better tactic for that than, say, a voiceover about his feelings. But to make magic the cure for Quentin’s problems would be too tidy, to say the least. I don’t think it’s meant to be that simple, given that in this fictional world, magic isn’t always helpful and is often fairly deadly. (“Spellwork,” Quentin’s new friend Eliot says, “is not unlikely to murder you, and if so, oh well.”) The connection between unhappiness and magic is present in the books, but here it’s made tangible in a way that I’m not sure works—though I’m reserving judgment on that until we see how it plays out.
Brakebills is Hogwarts and the Ivy League and a glassy modern office building, bound up into a mishmash of clean, bright, airy rooms and cozy wood paneling. Quentin, who doesn’t get to do a lot of magic yet, is rather better at making friends with his fellow magic students than he was in the regular world, but his attempt to kiss up to brilliant, overachieving Alice gets him exactly nowhere—until he wakes up from a dream about Jane Chatwin with a weird symbol burned into his hand. It’s enough to make Alice take him seriously enough to involve him (and, through a bit of handy psychic eavesdropping, his surly roommate Penny and Penny’s girlfriend) in an elaborate summoning spell, the effects of which are not immediately apparent.
But what about Julia? Grossman doesn’t get to her story until book two, The Magician King, and one of the show’s smartest choices is to weave her narrative in with Quentin’s from the get-go. Back in Brooklyn, she’s been researching herself into a stupor, trying to find evidence that magic is real. Her boyfriend calls Quentin in for help, but he’s useless: he’s bought entirely into Brakebills mythology, and is certain the powers that be would know if Julia were really a magician. Her sparking fingers prove nothing. Quentin’s dismissal is extra cruel given that, just a few scenes before, all he wanted was for her to care about magic—real or imaginary—as much as he did.
And poor Julia’s night just gets worse: in the bathroom, her buttons start popping off, and her shirt attacks her. In walks a fellow from the bar who tried to chat her up. He’s smug and creepy and obviously using magic to harass her, and when she goes full-on glow-fingers to break free, he smirks, saying, “I just needed to see if I was right.” So, to recap: Quentin is given a position at a prestigious university with very little fuss or challenge, other than that Fogg yells at him for a minute; Julia is going to have to fight for a drop of power, and endure gendered humiliation to get it.
Not that Quentin’s time at Brakebills is going to be all flying cards and magical things to smoke. When he’s next in class, time stops, everyone freezes in place, and out of a mirror steps … someone. Someone with a lot of moths obscuring his face. Someone who does a little shuffling dance around the classroom before quickly and effortlessly dispatching two full-blown magicians. Someone who stops in front of Quentin, says his full name, and coos, “There you are.”
This is mostly a set-up episode, as premieres tend to be, and it’s a dirty tease, ending at a moment when it seems like no one should get out of that classroom unharmed. (It’s unfortunate that the moth effect goes a little wibbly just when it needs to work the most, when the stranger leans in front of Quentin.) But it’s much more focused than the book, which spends a good long (delightful) while wandering around campus, skipping over big chunks of Quentin’s first year and a half of school, and generally giving him a moment to enjoy himself before things go entirely sideways. The dropped hints and eerie dreams promise that something big and strange is going on without giving too much away; darkness slowly seeps in right from the beginning, even if Quentin is mostly oblivious. If the characters haven’t quite been fully established yet, the groundwork is there, and Julia and Quentin’s friendship, built over years and now deeply strained, is complicated in the right ways. And we don’t have to wait an entire season to see Julia’s witch training! Although as this episode’s underlying theme might be “Be careful what you wish for in your fantastic narrative, as it may come back to bite you in the throat,” I’ll try to keep my expectations in check.
Molly Templeton is sure she’s not good enough at math to get into Brakebills, but that wouldn’t stop her trying. You can find her trying to do spells on Twitter.