Quentin Coldwater is a pain in the ass. It took me a long time—three books, really—to come to that conclusion, but as the notion grew on me, over the course of reading Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy, I started to do a strange thing: I started to like him for it.
I started reading the series thinking, This is the main character, so he’s our guy, right? He’s the hero? Even when he was annoying. Even when the women in the books kept suffering on his behalf, I kept on trucking, convinced something was going to happen. Eventually it did, but it wasn’t what I first expected. I’ve long wondered if Grossman knew, when he started The Magicians, what an unlikable little bastard he’d created, or if he did what I did as a reader and let himself be led by his main character at first. There’s a lack of self-consciousness to the first book, a willingness to let Quentin try to be the hero he thinks he must be. That fades as the series goes on, as Grossman explores other characters’ adventures and broadens his world.
Maybe I just love the idea that the author figured out his protagonist’s failings along with the rest of us. When The Magicians, Syfy’s adaptation of the series, started off with a Quentin Coldwater who was actually depressed, just not a mopey bastard, I got wary, not least because poorly presented mental illness is one of my least favorite narrative tropes. That notion fell somewhat by the wayside, though, as the show packed more and more into its first season. Two excellent things became clear very quickly: One, the showrunners made a very smart choice when they set Julia’s storyline, which isn’t explored until book two, alongside Quentin’s from the start. And two, they understood what Quentin Coldwater isn’t.
He’s not the hero.
Plot details from the first season of The Magicians are discussed below, with spoilers!
From its cliffhanger first episode to its cliffhanger finale, The Magicians played with tropes and types, taking its superb cast through the requisite is-it-all-in-my-mind episode (with a surprisingly effective payoff); trying out a haunted house one week; playing with expectations another. What looked like a fluffy aside involving a magical
gin djinn led into one of the show’s most brutal scenes, as cocktail aficionado, sartorial maestro, and all around life of the party Eliot made short work of his evilly possessed boyfriend.
That moment, in “The Strangled Heart,” is the season’s pivot point. It’s also the point at which I started to ask how well the show would ultimately handle the themes it layered on top of its magical story. Like any adaptation, The Magicians changed things from its source material. Ultimately, it presented itself—cleverly—as an alternate timeline from the books, a satisfying way of allowing all versions of the story to be legitimate within its own narrative universe. It combined and modified characters, giving us a much more badass Penny and creating a love interest for him, the “sultry but damaged” Kady, who has bits of a few book characters in her makeup but is, as played by Jade Tailor, entirely her own person.
But it struggled, all season, with how much it wanted to be about more than just undoing one young man’s notion of heroism and importance. As I’ve written about before, the parallels in Quentin and Julia’s stories explored privilege, and how much harder it was for Julia to obtain the same things that were just handed to Quentin. Terrible things happened to those around Quentin; many of those things happened to Eliot, a gay man, or Penny, a man of color, while Julia’s narrative overflowed with struggle and pain and death.
I do think the show aimed to demonstrate something with this, to use Quentin’s relatively easy existence to illustrate how everything is harder for everyone else. No one else thought they were any sort of chosen one, and their heroism manifested not out of a desire to follow a certain narrative path, but because it was necessary. But the things that happened to everyone else too often seemed added primarily to jack up the drama. Not sure what to do with Eliot? He can always be more miserable! Penny too badass? Make him suffer! It too often gave the impression that there was no there there.
In her essay “Some Men Are More Monstrous Than Others,” Kameron Hurley makes a point about the difference between a television show that portrays misogyny and a show that is misogynist. Mad Men is her example of the former; True Detective, the latter. The Magicians, for the most part, stays just on the side of the former. It depicts racism, sexism, bigotry, but the show itself isn’t racist, sexist, bigoted. It’s set in a world where those things exist and cannot be avoided; Quentin is the beneficiary of a system that rewards him just for being him, even though he accomplishes very little. He is, as Jane Chatwin tells him, the volunteer tomato: He’s in the fight because he chooses to be. He doesn’t have to be there. Eventually, he realizes this—and accepts that it doesn’t make him special, or heroic, or powerful, or even necessary. It’s a great moment for Q. But at the end, The Magicians swerved dangerously close to the other side of the line when it equated being touched by a god with the presence of god semen, and erased Eliot’s sexuality.
Eliot is a brilliant character, and while his base personality is imported straight from the books, Hale Appleman has such presence, and such a delicious way with a bitter/sarcastic/funny line, that he gives Eliot unexpected depths. But the season’s worst cliches often fell to his character, and never more egregiously than in the finale, in which Eliot married a Fillorian woman (who also has no say in the matter) in order to advance a half-baked plot.
Bafflingly, the show presented this situation not as a terrible choice that Eliot made for the greater good, but as something Eliot almost cheerfully opted to do because it might bring meaning to his life. This is what all of Eliot’s misery, all the time he’s spent being neglected by his friends, was for: to set him up to make this choice. Sex and drugs and magic only led to misery, so somehow, maybe being magically trapped in a straight marriage for all time will fix it?
Neither this nor the bottle of god-jizz Quentin gets from Ember, one of the gods of Fillory, are from the books. This icky plot point is a matter of taking an unpleasant notion from The Magician King and making it weirdly, grossly literal. Julia and her friends, believing they were summoning a benevolent goddess, instead conjured up Reynard, the trickster fox-god, who killed almost everyone and possessed Richard’s body. Julia put herself between him and Kady, who escaped while Julia was god-raped.
What this does to Julia is a huge part of her story, and her contact with a god has repercussions. Here, that god-contact is transformed into … the transfer of power via semen. God-jizz bestows the power of a master magician, which is how Julia and Alice, who drinks the bottle of gross, can reach true magical heights.
Our already powerful female magicians are not deemed powerful enough until they take manliness into themselves. And this, as with Eliot’s story, is where The Magicians went drastically astray. If I squint, if I put on my rosiest glasses, I can see what they were trying to do, because they kept almost, almost making an effective commentary on sexism, on the mistakes of believing narratives that privilege masculinity at the exclusion of everything else. Men believing they’re the only heroes are not helpful. Stories about manly power turn out to be untrustworthy, because in the end, when they confront the Beast, Alice is still struck down. Penny still loses his hands (which seems needlessly cruel, given what he’s already gone through). Margo and Eliot, inexplicably, just get knocked out.
Frustratingly, book-Alice was powerful enough without any god-given power-ups, though the power she channeled had terrible consequences. But the show sacrificed Alice’s narrative for Julia’s in a fascinating, if flawed, change. In the finale, Julia learned a lot of things, all of which add up to one truth: her narrative was never her own. This is true of all of the main characters, playing out timeloops at the whim of Jane Chatwin, but Julia really believed that she had found something bigger and better than Brakebills.
When her memories came roaring back, though—what did she make of her story then? She didn’t make the choice that ultimately led her into Reynard’s presence. And so in the end, when given an opportunity, Julia takes it—she takes the magical knife and the Beast, who already knew how to kill a god. She takes her story back into her own hands.
Or was it her story all along? This season has made a quiet but interesting argument for Julia as the true central character, which delighted those of us who read the books and came to the same conclusion. But given that the showrunners have said that they have six seasons’ worth of material for The Magicians, I have another idea: What if there is no main character? What if every season centers on one of the key six—Quentin, Julia, Alice, Penny, Margo, and Eliot—while including all the others? It would be a brazen way to assert the absence of a single hero, and would give me hope that maybe someday Margo gets her due, and Eliot gets his life back. Everyone is the protagonist of their own story, so why not explore that concept, season to season?
I’m not holding my breath for this to become a reality, but this approach would fit well with what I think The Magicians is really about: not magic, or heroics, or inevitable death, but growing up, and the fact that you always do that alone. A lot of coming-of-age stories are about the lessons you learn early, but this is about the lessons that come later, in your 20s, when you might feel like you should have learned all the hard ones already. And one of the hardest lessons is that believing a story about yourself won’t make it true, even—especially—if you think you’re the hero.