Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Magicians returns to mourn its past and try to figure out its future

Illustration for article titled The Magicians returns to mourn its past and try to figure out its future
Photo: Syfy

Any show heading into its fifth season may feel the need to take some big risks to find new stories to tell, and it’s safe to say The Magicians took a pretty massive one at the end of the fourth season by killing off its main character. The new season finds its remaining core characters unusually out of imminent danger, but the show returns suffused with grief, as all of them struggle to figure out what their lives mean in the aftermath of Quentin’s death.


What makes the entire situation more complicated is that the show gave Quentin (Jason Ralph) a hero’s exit: He died saving the world. Which means that his death weighs even more heavily on the survivors. What can they possibly do now to make his sacrifice worth it? What meaning can their lives have to earn what he did for them?

They’re all dealing with this trauma in their own ways, but unsurprisingly Julia (Stella Maeve), Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley), and Eliot (Hale Appleman) are the most wracked by grief, since they were closest to Quentin. The premiere takes place a month after the events of the prior season, and they’re all coping in the ways you might imagine, with Julia searching for meaning, Alice barely leaving her bedroom, and Eliot trying to numb the pain with various substances. Resolution isn’t easy or simple—this is too smart a show to suggest that any of these complicated, oft-traumatized characters would simply start fresh without making some terrible choices along the way. Nor does it forget the terrible things they’ve all done to each other over the years; the past continues to haunt everyone for reasons beyond Quentin’s demise.

In prior seasons, and certainly in the most recent one, The Magicians had spent some time arguing that Quentin did not need to be the main character in this story. He was not the smartest or the most powerful, nor was he the most capable problem solver—obviously, that’s Kady (Jade Tailor). And the series did ample work letting other characters stand in as protagonists over the seasons, with everyone from Margo (Summer Bishil) to Fen (Brittany Curran) successfully serving as the driving force of a story arc. But by eliminating Quentin altogether, the show has lost an important fulcrum for the action, and the degree to which everyone is now mourning him only emphasizes that the plot has lost the person who, at least conceptually, was tying everything together.

Season five’s early episodes show some of the strain of that issue—the main members of the crew are tossed apart in different directions, with no uniting cause beyond the constant fluctuation in the availability of magic, which leads to uncomfortable questions about why this group is even talking to each other anymore. An early effort to bring back some Fillory quest hijinks with Julia trying to take Quentin’s place feels wildly out of place, and it’s hard to tell whether the show is intentionally reminding everyone how different the series is now. The plot feels imported out of season one, and awkwardly so. And some on-the-nose commentary about how many different people have prevented the world from ending serves to accidentally deflate the stakes. It gives the whole operation a “this again” energy, which doesn’t help a show trying to rediscover its creative footing.

But the biggest loss in Quentin’s absence may be his general sense of wonder. So much of the show had been about his love of pop culture, and in particular the Fillory books, and how his own development as a person had suffered because of it. There are still jokes aplenty about pop culture (all of these people have always been pretty pop culturally aware), but there’s no character who’s quite as invested in it as Quentin was. The show even sort of lampshades it by pointing out that Eliot, despite being High King of Fillory and spending years there, still hasn’t read the infamous series of children’s books about the country. There’s a missing worldview there, a metatextual wink that’s gone, and it’s hard to imagine what the show will be like without it. If this was a fantasy adventure show for people who had never quite outgrown their childhood fantasies of adventure, what is it now?


In the first three episodes, at least, the show seems to be setting up Julia as its protagonist (with Maeve getting the opening credits boost along with it)—she’s the one in search of a quest in the beginning, even if the Fillory jaunt doesn’t quite work out. Julia has always been the show’s secondary protagonist, the hero Quentin could never quite be. She makes a certain amount of sense in the role, but she’s also a bit of a Buffy in the hero department: Serious, skilled, competent, epically tragic, but a little too reliable. It’s almost a shame the show hasn’t repositioned around, say, Margo, who’s been a constant contender for best character on The Magicians since the show premiered, and whose continued inability to stop herself from screwing up her own life is near-Quentin levels of impressive. Or Eliot, who got stuck treading water all last season while he was possessed by a malevolent force, but whose long slow quest to let himself love and be loved has been a constant source of fascinating drama.

Whether the show can find its post-Quentin raison d’être is not quite clear in the early episodes of season five, but all the legwork The Magicians has done over the years building up its surrounding cast (and the fact that there are multiple strong competitors for a new lead) suggests there’s plenty of ground to cover for however long the show keeps running. It’s not the show it once was, but to the show’s own point, it’s not like it’s been “Harry Potter for adults” in a long time. If it can find a way to tie together these various mourning, screwed-up heroes, and have them keep battling their way toward the best versions of themselves, there’s probably always going to be a good reason to watch The Magicians.


Contributor, The A.V. Club. Lisa is a writer and editor based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.