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

The Magicians takes finale-sized risks in a mid-season episode

Jason Ralph, Olivia Taylor Dudley
Jason Ralph, Olivia Taylor Dudley / Carole Segal, Syfy

Last year, The Magicians pulled off a great finale that reshuffled the expected narrative of the show. The villain escaped, our heroes were still in danger, and the show fully demonstrated its willingness to veer off course from the books when it served the plot.

This episode isn’t necessarily outdoing the finale, but it is nonetheless impressive for its daring. The Magicians just aired a season finale in the third episode of its second season. The romantic lead turned herself into a monster to defeat the bad guy, and our hero then killed her himself. We’re left in utter despair for him, for her, and for the show’s other lead, who loses all hope for completing the one act that she thinks will bring her peace.

To put it in some Magicians-style language, that is some bleak shit. And while there were moments where the show tipped its hat about the upcoming events (it’s both necessary to re-explain what niffins are in the Previously On, and a total spoiler for what’s about to happen), that didn’t stop anything that transpired from feeling earned. That scene with Quentin and Alice in the carriage tells us things are about to get real bad, but it also serves as the emotional crux of the episode. Their romance has been backburnered this season in favor of the overall quest structure, but those quiet moments in the carriage are like a window into a different show, one where these are ordinary young people, trying to work out their romantic dramas. Sure, their priorities are elsewhere, but even they like to remind themselves, occasionally, that real life still exists for them.

The rest of the episode is notable for the complete difference in tone from what follows. If you weren’t tipped off by the niffin recap, you couldn’t be blamed for thinking this was yet more hijinks for our heroes, to be followed by the usual snarky resolution. Namely, it kills a little time while Julia’s plans get put into play. Martin’s curse is dispatched, ultimately, fairly easily (anyone surprised that Margo was the final survivor?), and two of the cacodemons are released. This also sets up Quentin’s cacodemon as the Chekhov’s knife of the latter half of the episode. It’s not a question of if the one remaining cacodemon is going to come into play so much as when.

And Julia goes ever further down a dark and lonely path. It’s hard to imagine how much lower she can get than what she has now: She got Marina and Alice killed, Martin is gone, and Reynard escaped with the knife. Wonder if that urge to remove her emotions will come back? She has almost no options now for going after Reynard. The Brakebills kids got a magic spell to substitute when they lost that knife, but it seems unlikely that Julia will have similar options, given that she lives in the Dickensian version of the show.

That was also a deeply unsatisfying way for Marina to go, but in the most Magicians way possible. She wasn’t likeable, she wasn’t a hero, but she was resilient and tough and funny and clever. And contrary to what pop culture tells us most of the time, sometimes that’s just not enough to survive. Whether her death offscreen suggests something else happened in those final moments or not, the show loses an interesting wildcard with her absence.


So where do you go after you finale in the third episode of the season? We’re about to find out. Quentin’s speech to Alice in the carriage felt so aspirational—he knows he’s not quite there yet, but he’s so determined to become a man that could deserve her. It was such a positive sign of growth for the character, but he now has to live with the knowledge that he killed her. And it was only necessary to take that step after he jumped in to save Julia, who wasn’t exactly demonstrating a worthiness to be saved.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that the show gave Alice one hell of a sendoff. That was Harry Potter willingly going into the Forbidden Forest at the end of the seventh Harry Potter book, to use the show’s own reference. She knows what she’s getting into by going to face Martin with only Quentin to help her, and then turns herself into a monster because she knows it’s the only way to stop him. Whether we can believe her niffin form or not that she did it on purpose, she definitely knew it was a possibility. To which it feels like the only apt response is just a hearty, damn, Alice.


Stray observations

  • “I missed you all, and I was bored.”
  • “Is your problem cartographical in nature?”
  • If I were ever shot in the ass, I would surely not have the presence of mind to say, “You shot me, you cock.”
  • Speaking of Margo, she has some unexpected knowledge of Conan there. Though to be fair, she’s also read the Fillory books, so maybe we should just assume all the Brakebills kids have a deeply nerdy core.
  • The other tragedy of Alice’s death is we will never get to see what adventures she could have had with those talking horses.
  • Man, Ember really sucks.
  • I mentioned this last year, but there is a pretty convincing argument floating around the internet suggesting that the true hero of the Magicians saga is Julia, and to a lesser extent Alice. A lot of the major action happens around them instead of Quentin, and there’s all sorts of fascinating hero’s journey stuff about Alice having to do with her agony about her brother turning into a niffin and how tangled up it is in her ambivalence about her own powerful magical abilities. But at the end of the day this is Quentin’s story (and Julia’s, in the TV show), even if he’s not the hero. All of which is to say, there’s a part of me that wishes we got more of Alice’s story because it’s such good stuff, but I recognize that you can only do so much with the time you have per episode.
  • That said, if Syfy would like to do a miniseries about everything that gets Alice to where she is, I would totally watch it.