When I was really struggling with depression, I would lie in bed every day, and I couldn’t get up. And I would watch people doing these normal things, going to their jobs and having their relationships, and I would think, I could never do that. And it felt like they were doing magic. And when I started to get better, and I started getting up, and I started doing all these normal things, I felt like I was a magician.
That’s Lev Grossman on his experience with depression, and on how depression and magic interact in his Magicians books.
In The Magicians, people literally do magic, and the idea that magic can literally cure depression is one of the most beautiful and seductive fantasies of both the books and the TV show. But that’s always balanced by its inverse: the sneaking, insidious suspicion that even with magic you will still feel like a sad, depressed loser. The tension between the fantasy (that magic creates happiness) and the fear (that you are too broken for magic ever to fix you) gives The Magicians its visceral force.
It’s also a tension that was entirely missing from The Magician’s astonishingly weak pilot. Over the course of the first season, the show slowly develops Quentin Coldwater’s (Jason Ralph) quest for a magic cure for his depression in some fascinating directions, first through magic’s sheer existence, then via his stint as a fox, then through his attempts to magically bottle his emotions. But to do that, the show has to work hard to overcome the shoddy groundwork laid in its first episode.
That pilot has a lot of issues—rushed pacing, sloppy character work, the frankly indefensible decision to replace book-Julia’s nerdy academic quest for a safe house with a scene where she gets tied up and has her clothes ripped off—but it was its refusal to give any indication that magic might not actually be a cure for depression that crippled it.
The general consensus on The Magicians’ first season is that it’s at its strongest when it deviates most from the books, like it did with episodes like “The World In The Walls,” or with Penny’s arc. In terms of plot mechanics, that’s more or less accurate: A lot of the issues with the pilot, for instance, came from a desperate attempt to cram 115 pages of Grossman’s first Magicians novel into less than an hour of television, and as the show became more comfortable generating its own plot it became more elegant. But it has consistently been at its most thematically interesting when it’s tracking the themes of its source material, and it only starts doing that halfway through the season.
“Everyone medicates,” says Quentin in the pilot, and in the universe the episode offers, magic is just one of many possible medications. When Quentin gets into Brakebills University, he no longer needs to take his antidepressants. When Julia is denied admission to Brakebills, she cuts her wrists and joins a seedy cult. Cue the faux-edgy tagline: “Magic is a drug. Get hooked.” It’s a world where magic is like nothing so much as a super-antidepressant.
And if magic is an antidepressant, then the fears that accompany it are entirely different than the fears that come along with magic as a fantasy cure. They are external rather than internal: Instead of asking, “What if I am so broken that not even magic can fix me?” the question becomes, “What if I lose access to this drug?” or “What if magic turns me into a sexy dangerous drug addict?” That’s not to say that an exploration of addiction can’t be deep and probing, but in the pilot of The Magicians, it isn’t. Only shallow, easy questions are asked of its characters.
In the books as in the TV shows, Quentin is also depressed, and in the books as in the TV show he thinks that finding magic will make him happy. The difference is that in the source material, that belief is framed from the beginning as a delusion. Quentin is constantly surrounded by unhappy magicians, and by magicians who tell him explicitly that the reason they can do magic is that they are unhappy. In the TV show, the dean of Brakebills is the one who tells Quentin that he won’t be needing his antidepressants now that he has magic. The books destabilize the idea that magic can make Quentin happy as soon as the idea is introduced, and that gives Grossman room to explore depression, happiness, and magic, and create tension. The TV show lives in the fantasy of magical antidepressants for long episodes at a stretch, and that means its exploration of the idea stays shallow for much longer than it needs to.
This shallow externalization of themes that were internal in the books extends even into the pilot’s climactic confrontation with the Beast, the monster from another world who is the primary villain of both the first book of the trilogy and the first season of the TV show. In both, Quentin is accidentally responsible for summoning the Beast. But in the book, Quentin is trying to get back at a teacher for asking him a question to which he does not know the answer, and this is what allows the Beast entry; it’s a stupid bit of childish pettiness on Quentin’s part, and he is powerless in the face of the Beast’s attack. What he takes away from the whole incident is intense shame and guilt that he could have done something so awful—that he could be such a broken, destructive person, even with magic.
In the show, Quentin is nobly attempting to solve a mystery and help Alice communicate with her dead brother when he lets the Beast in. He is one of the few people brave enough to fight against the Beast and is instrumental to its defeat, and what the incident leaves him with is terror that he will be expelled from Brakebills and will lose access to magic. The books leave Quentin afraid of himself; the TV show leaves Quentin afraid that he might lose magic.
Halfway through the season, The Magicians began to allow magic to fail, and by extension allows the characters to be afraid of themselves. Part of that change comes from expanding the magic metaphor, so that Julia leaves her gang of drug dealer hedge-witches to get religious, and magic-by-good-works becomes a metaphor for faith. But most of the change comes from allowing Quentin to begin to fear that magic will not make him happy.
“I’m here,” Quentin says in “Impractical Applications.” “I’m in this amazing place. I have literal magic in my life and I’m still running. I’m still this person that I fucking hate.” As the season develops, Quentin comes to realize that he still has the capacity to hate himself and to make himself unhappy even when he has magic. And although his brief spate as a fox teaches him that “everything I needed to survive was me and it’s not just to survive, but to be happy,” it becomes clear to him a few episodes later that the fox’s lessons are only temporary. “Sometimes it’s not that easy, you know,” Alice tells him, “like when we were foxes.” “I’m sorry I’m not a fox,” Quentin snits in response.
By the end of the season, the closest thing Quentin has to a magic cure for depression is the literal bottling of emotions that he uses to practice battle magic—and it only leads to an intense emotional hangover once the emotions have been let out. The Magicians at last developed a world in which the fantasy of a magic cure for depression—the hope offered by the fox—is balanced by Quentin’s fear that it’s too late for him, that not even magic will truly make him happy.
Part of the reason it took a whole season to get here is intrinsic to adapting a book into a TV show: Themes that a book can lay out almost immediately have to be slowly teased out on an episodic serialized TV show. But laying the groundwork for deeper explorations of a theme does not have to play as shallow and facile. There are ways to give indications that you are eventually going to destabilize your characters’ simple and facile beliefs, and The Magicians’ earliest episodes did none of them. Even “The World In The Walls,” the episode most explicitly focused on Quentin’s depression, offers a simple magical solution to Quentin’s problems. There is no possibility in “The World In The Walls” for a Quentin Coldwater, a clinically depressed magician. There is only either Quentin Coldwater, depressed mental patient, or Quentin Coldwater, well-adjusted magician.
The Magicians’ first season proved to be an incredibly uneven experience, with the show shifting dramatically in quality from week to week. But as it developed and found its voice, it evolved from the story of how a depressed young man uses magic as an anti-depressant, returning to the book’s important theme to create a nuanced and complex exploration of how difficult it can be to live with mental illness in daily life, and how the idea of a magic cure is both seductive in its possibilities and terrifying in its inaccessibility.