For the most part, The Magicians has been smart about making changes from the books: It’s picked up the pace, set Julia’s story alongside (and at odds with) Quentin’s, and raised the tension. This week is an exception, though it ends on a high note.
Quentin may be a jerk, but he’s not totally oblivious: he goes to Dean Fogg to ask what, if anything, will happen to Julia after last week’s college invasion. Why isn’t Fogg wiping her memory? Fogg explains that she’ll just find out about magic again, and go through of all of this again—lather, rinse, repeat. The hedge witches know better than to come back to Brakebills.
But Julia doesn’t know better than to go back to the hedge witch safehouse. She wants spells, but no one, least of all Pete, is going to go against Marina.
It’s Alumni Week at Brakebills, during which students are super-competitive with each other in hopes of being chosen by a mentor. Fogg finds Alice working on a charming little farm and asks her to come back, admitting that he made a mistake when he didn’t invite her to the school in the first place. He felt responsible for Charlie, and didn’t want to be the cause of more loss for her family. The most telling thing about this? He wants her—and her talent—back at the school even though it’s clearly not a safe place to be.
Margo and Eliot are present mostly as an entertaining side plot with a heaping teaspoon of character development. Eliot makes pop culture references; they spar over the attention of a powerful alum who happens to be Alice’s aunt; and they disagree about welters. Welters is the quidditch of The Magicians, an elaborate magical game with rules I won’t even try to explain succinctly. Margo loves it, because Margo loves winning. Eliot says it’s boring as death, because Eliot is dramatic.
Unsurprisingly, Penny isn’t playing welters or playing along with everyone’s efforts to find a mentor, because he doesn’t want one. (He might be a little distracted by the voice he’s constantly hearing calling for help.) So of course one shows up: Stanley, a fellow traveler whose dubious advice is basically to stay put. He shows Penny a tattoo that will bind his body to earth, leaving him only able to travel with his mind via astral projection.
It’s all sparring and games and ugly tattoos until Alice brings Quentin a note that says his father is sick. This is where new plot starts to feel shoehorned in: in the books, Quentin’s parents are beyond disinterested, leaving him free to basically do whatever he needs to do, magician-wise. But in order to have Quentin’s plot parallel Julia’s, the show needed to have an incentive for him to overreach, to want too much from magic—and it provides that in his father’s brain cancer diagnosis.
Papa Coldwater isn’t trying any treatments, which makes Quentin go into saving the day mode—though not before questioning his father’s choices. His dad tells him a story about a model plane that young Quentin broke, and how sometimes, trying to fix things just makes them worse. Quentin, unsurprisingly, doesn’t really listen.
In Brooklyn, James and Julia have a cute domestic moment (“I baked!”) that should have happened earlier to establish their relationship, but it’s pretty clear where this road is heading, so let’s enjoy it while it lasts. When he leaves, Jules does a spell to create invisible fire, which is unwise even when your “Brooklyn” apartment is that spacious. She goes to Pete for help; he’s moderately sympathetic, but questions her decision to call him rather than her boyfriend.
The best thing about this scene is Julia’s face: considering, shifting from desperate to decided, and maybe halfway back again. And then she chooses to trade herself for information. It’s so uncomfortable—so very, very uncomfortable, and so fraught. Is Julia making a terrible choice? Yes. Does she feel like she has no other options? Yes. Is Quentin also angry and demanding more than anyone wants to give him? Absolutely.
But there are few consequences on his end. At Brakebills, the first welters game is too small in scale and over too quickly; it ends when Q unleashes a giant spell that wipes the board (an assist from Alice brings it back under control). Margo is the happiest we’ve ever seen her, but also concerned: Why was Quentin able to do that massive spell? They have a bonding moment about how shitty it is that magic runs on pain and not sunshine or cocaine, and the gears in Q’s head start turning: with all this ugliness in his life, maybe he can use magic to save his dad, no matter what the grown-ups say.
And maybe Julia can find more magic. She goes to another safehouse—the information she got from Pete—but these magicians are newbies with nothing to offer her. She’s furious at Pete, who she sees as not holding up his end of their agreement. He tells her she’ll have to leave town if she wants to find real talent that’s not, well, Marina. And then he shows his hand: “We could go.”
The “we” ruins it for Julia, who professes her love for James. When Pete scoffs, reminding her that they slept together just days ago, that James doesn’t even know about what matters most to her, she says fine, she’ll tell James about magic. Unless Pete gets her more spells.
This is a bad idea. Everything in this episode is a bad idea, except winning at welters, jokes about Middle-earth, and Eliot’s precious cupcakes. Even meditating is a bad idea, as Penny finds out when he astral-projects himself into a dungeon. The crying girl he’s been hearing is on the other side of a heavy door with an emblem of two ram’s heads. Penny, bodiless, slips into the room and discovers the girl’s traveler tattoo just moments before the Beast arrives, refers to the girl as Victoria—and then looks straight at Penny, who wakes up, totally freaked out. He goes to yell at Stanley, who told Penny he was the first traveler in 35 years. Just kidding! This Victoria was in that missing third-year class.
Continuing on the bad idea train, we have Alice, drinking something terrible. Bless Eliot, who comes along with what looks like a Manhattan and an invitation to join his three-year drinking program. They’re just about to bond when Quentin drags Eliot away to ask about “cancer puppy.” For some reason, they have a 150-year-old puppy who is bespelled to stay a puppy but also riddled with cancer and can you maybe, possibly, guess where this is going?
Quentin, overreaching, kills cancer puppy. Fogg gives him a sternish talking to about how the best magicians in the world couldn’t do that spell, let alone a middling first-year like Quentin. And that’s it: he gets a warning. Magic can only be used to fix some things. Like model airplanes. Back at his dad’s house, Quentin reveals his powers to his dad, and nothing bad happens. His dad knows the truth, and maybe they can understand each other better. This is the opposite of what happens when Julia next sees James, whose blank smile gives away the situation before he opens his mouth. He has no idea who Julia is.
Julia flips her shit at Pete, who claims they didn’t do it to hurt her, but to save James, because she’s out of control and wouldn’t take any of the hedge witches’ advice. (Once again, people are protecting other people whether they like it or not.) Julia is back at square one, again, having lost even more than she did last time.
And Quentin is still at school, where Penny, reluctantly and at Kady’s urging, asks for his help. Penny shows Quentin a drawing of the door he saw, and Quentin’s face is incredulous, hopeful, fearful, and amazed when he says, “Penny. I think you were in Fillory.”
And finally, we’re back on track. This episode could’ve been half as long; the Alumni Week was a fluffy misdirect, especially given that no one really got a mentor (Penny seems to sort of have one, reluctantly). It gave us more time with Eliot and Margo, being bitchy and mean and also sympathetic and observant and enthusiastic about various things, but it wasted way too much time on Quentin’s obsession with fixing his dad, and how magic can’t solve everything—a lesson we already learned via Charlie. Quentin’s support system is his friends, not his family, who we barely know, which makes the dad plot wibbly at best and a bit of emotional button-pushing at worst. And his arc here only really works as a mirror to Julia’s: he has the support and protection of classmates at a magical institution, and she has … herself. There’s nothing left to take away from Julia, Quentin is still stubborn, and most of the hour was spent treading water.
Can we go to Fillory next week? Pretty please? With Eliot’s cupcakes on top?