In Syfy’s The Magicians, magic comes not from talent, but from pain—or so says Eliot, the excellently dry older student who has, inexplicably, taken a liking to Quentin Coldwater. (“I bond fast,” he says.) Eliot being a bit on the dramatic side, this should be taken with a grain of salt (or perhaps a salt-rimmed cocktail), but there’s plenty of pain, and angst, and anger to go around in the uneven second half of the show’s premiere, which would like to remind you that magic is not the solution for everything (or maybe anything).
Not long after the attack that ended “Unauthorized Magic,” Quentin, still disoriented, is being questioned by Professor Sunderland: What happened? Why did the Beast know his name? He doesn’t know; he barely knows what happened, piecing it together in flashbacks. The dean had a silver pocketwatch that got into Quentin’s hands and, when he pushed the button, whatever spell had been holding the student still snapped. Kady—previously known only as Penny’s snarky girlfriend—threw ineffective battle magic that she most certainly didn’t learn at Brakebills. And Alice, wide-eyed, efficient, and almost alarmingly calm, did a clever little spell that killed off the Beast’s face-hiding moths until he stumbled back through the mirror from whence he came.
Penny, direct as ever, shattered the mirror with a chair. Every one of them played a part in the creature’s departure, but it’s hardly made them a team—except that they’re all freaked out about the part they played in the Beast’s appearance. Penny wants to split; Alice and Quentin just don’t want to get kicked out. What Kady wants is a mystery, though she seems a little desperate as she talks Penny into staying, suggesting they go do something stupid if he’s leaving anyway. That stupid thing turns out to be liberating a few choice items from the clubhouse of the Physical Kids, the group of students to which Eliot and Margo belong.
Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, Julia is still in a creepy warehouse with creepy Pete, the guy who cornered her in a bar bathroom. Without a lot of fanfare, he locks her and another newbie hedgewitch, Marina, in a meat locker and tells them to get themselves out. Fancy that: Quentin’s desperately afraid of being kicked out of Brakebills; Julia’s desperate to get out of a meat locker. The compare and contrast between Quentin’s ability to mess up his cushy future and Julia’s struggle to have a magical future is not exactly subtle, but Julia’s frustration, which manifests in both ire and longing, is a good balance to Quentin’s total freakout.
Terrified Quentin can’t stop stammering, slouching, and skittering his way through the episode, through questioning by Sunderland (they’re all terrible liars) and a moment with Alice, where he theorizes that since the Beast had to have come from somewhere else, hey, maybe he came from Fillory! Alice speaks for the entire audience when she says that’s a leap—but her obliviousness to everything Fillory and Chatwin-related gives the episode an excuse to (a) give us the Brakebills’ version of a computer lab, which is curiously full of windchimes, and (b) have Quentin show Alice a cheerfully cheesy faux-documentary featuring Fillory expert “Dev Fleischman.”
The trouble with Quentin’s storyline in this episode is that it’s impossible to believe that he’s really getting kicked out of Brakebills, no matter how hard Jason Ralph sells Quentin’s worry (and he spends ever so much time looking worried/bedraggled/put upon). The show didn’t spend all this time setting Brakebills up—the tour, the Physical Kids’ house, every scene with Eliot, the backstory of how Alice got there—just to kick him out and wipe his memories in the second hour. His panic is just a time-filler that builds to two things: a confrontation with Penny, who apparently tells Sunderland a version of the truth in which everything is Quentin’s fault; and a long phone message to Julia.
The phone call is Quentin’s character in a nutshell: last week, he had no time for Julia and her desperate need to reconnect with magic, but now he needs something—and he’s just as afraid having to go back to the mundane world and be “a depressed supernerd” as she ever was. For her part, Julia is far too busy to pick up Quentin’s aborted call: she’s still in that meat locker, with the wide-eyed and not notably helpful Marina—and an animated corpse. She is literally getting her hands dirty with dead-guy guts while Quentin flails about the consequences of his presumptuous magical overreaching.
The confrontation with Penny is oddly satisfying, as Quentin’s attempt to use Kady’s battle spell rebounds and sends him flying though the air—and gets both sent to the magical infirmary (which doesn’t appear to use any sort of magical anesthetic). Penny doesn’t even do any magical to defend himself; he just has the magical crystal that he and Kady stole earlier. It’s one more thing for Quentin to want, as its deflecting powers might keep him safe from the dreaded mindwipe.
But the crystal is part of one of the episode’s misdirects (though I wouldn’t be surprised if it reappears later in the season). At Brakebills, the “specialist” sent in to handle Quentin’s expulsion is none other than Eliza, the paramedic who gave him the mysterious sixth Fillory book—and her interests, though unclear, do not include booting Quentin out of school. Instead, she gives him one more chance—and a real-talk speech about not being remarkable. He’s just another inadequate magician, like she is, and he there’s no real reason why the Beast came for him. “You can either step it up, or not,” she says. (“Not” doesn’t really seem like much of an option.)
In Brooklyn, Julia dismantles the meat locker door with mundane means and comes out snarling. All that just to impress Pete? No: to impress Marina, who reveals herself as the level 50 boss-witch and looks at Julia like she’s found the most wonderful pet. (Kacey Rohl’s ability to switch Marina from naïve baby-witch to queen bee is a total delight.) Marina and Pete tell Julia not to be mad; she just learned so much that will be useful when she too hits level 50! And Marina has a lot of knowledge to share with the right people—knowledge that includes connections at Brakebills.
She also has something over Kady, who is quickly revealed as Marina’s Brakebills hookup. What that something is, we’ve no idea. “The Source of Magic” pretends to make a lot of statements—from Pete telling Julia that not every problem can be solved with magic to Eliza telling Quentin he’s not that remarkable to Eliot’s theory about where magic comes from—but most of them don’t seem entirely accurate. If Quentin’s so unimportant, so destiny-free, why does the Beast know his name? If magic comes from pain, why don’t more people have it? (There’s certainly enough pain in the world to go around.) And while it’s clearly true that not everything gets solved by magic, it was powerful Alice who repelled the Beast—and the strength of our young magicians is exactly what poor injured (but not dead!) Dean Fogg and Eliza are concerned with.
Overall, it’s an uneven episode that mostly moves pieces further into play: Julia levels up; Quentin discovers that he’s not the hero in some predestined quest, except maybe he is; Marina enters the game; Kady gets a name; and, oh yeah, Penny reveals that a very particular voice in his head led him to Quentin and Alice that night. Is this the key to everything that’s happening, or just another misdirect? Despite the stop-and-start feel of this week’s story, there’s enough intrigue—and hedgewitch magic—to justify sticking around to find out.