'The Magicians' Season 4 Finale Is a Master's Class in How NOT to Treat Queer Characters
By S.E. Fleenor | TV | April 25, 2019 |
By S.E. Fleenor | TV | April 25, 2019 |
Spoilers for The Magicians Season 4 finale.
By now you already know that The Magicians’ Quentin Coldwater died in the Season 4 finale. Yes, D-E-D, dead. There’s no resurrection in the works and no trick of astral projection or Niffin state of higher being can bring sweet, depressed, narcissistic Quentin back.
The decision to kill off a major character — the major character, if the Lev Grossman novels still mean anything (they don’t) — is almost always controversial. But we live in the day and age of Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead and Thanos snapping half of the Avengers (and the universe) into nothingness. Any character could die at any moment (and sometimes all of the characters could die at any moment) and that’s the brave, new, kill-happy world our media is made in.
So, why does it matter that Quentin is dead?
Well, my friends, let’s revisit a little trope we like to call Bury Your Gays. Throughout media representations of queer folks, reaching back to 19th-century Victorian novels, the formula has been about the same: An LGBTQ+ character is introduced, they reveal their sexuality or an attraction to a specific person, and then they die, die, die, often horrifically. This trope is also called Dead Lesbian Syndrome due to the overwhelming number of queer women who have been slaughtered onscreen — not exactly the representation queer women have been begging for.
Back when archaic censorship laws ruled the page and the screen, writing about queer characters was taboo and the only way queer writers, or folks who wanted to create queer characters, could include LGBTQ+ characters was by portraying them unfavorably. Queer characters could exist, but only as a warning of what a “perverted” life would bring you. So, in order to get some kind of representation, LGBTQ+ characters had to suffer.
Sounds a little rough, huh? Like who would really bury their gays? Oh, just Buffy the Vampire Slayer, True Blood, The 100, The Walking Dead, The Expanse, Jessica Jones, Xena, Smallville, Battlestar Galactica, Hex, Torchwood, Hemlock Grove, Teen Wolf, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Dracula, The Vampire Diaries, Arrow, Salem, American Horror Story, Ascension, Lost Girl, Scream, The Shannara Chronicles, The Exorcist, Van Helsing, Doctor Who, Gotham, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Purge, and last but not least (and not for the first time): The Magicians.
Let it be noted that I have only included science fiction, fantasy, and horror TV shows on this list and only those that I know about. The list is much, much longer when you include non-genre TV shows and film. (Autostraddle has a very complete list of queer women on TV who have been killed off, for those of you who feel like being sad.)
Oh, did you recognize a bunch of queer-friendly shows in that list? Does that somehow feel like a violation of the promise made when a series goes out of its damn way to present itself as queer and feminist?
EXACTLY. And, that, my sweet babies, is why people are pissed about the death of Quentin Coldwater, generally speaking. We’re sick of seeing queer characters die over and over again. But, what specifically about the death of Quentin is so frustrating? I’m so glad you asked.
Full disclosure: I’m not going to get into the creators’ rationale for killing off Quentin. I’ve read all the interviews with the creators and with Jason Ralph, who plays Quentin, and they all read like a whole lot of familiar BS. (At least Hale Appleman, who plays Eliot, gets it.)
In the first season of The Magicians, Quentin, Eliot, and Margot have a threesome. It’s the first time Quentin has sex with a man, as far as we know, and it’s the first time we see him start to confront his queerness. In Season 3’s “A Life in the Day,” Quentin and Eliot end up in a different Fillory, from before they were born, where they must solve an unsolvable puzzle. As they spend a lifetime working on the mosaic, they fall in love, raise a child, and make their queer family work. Upon returning to the main timeline, barely a word is spoken about their encounter, and queer folks everywhere braced ourselves for that experience to be treated as an anomaly from another timeline. (Another weird queer trope where characters get to be LGBTQ+, but only elsewhere or else when or, or, or…)
Season 4 brought unexpected twists and turns, such as Eliot being trapped inside his own mind by the Monster. With that, many a fan prepared to let Queliot rest. And, then “Escape from the Happy Place,” took us into Eliot’s mind and — after exploring a lot of deep trauma that has a particularly queer flavor to it — back to the day Eliot and Quentin came back from their lifetime in Fillory. As they sit on the steps of the throne room, Memory Quentin and Memory Eliot talk about what happened between them. Memory Quentin asks Memory Eliot why they shouldn’t try to be together, saying “Who gets proof of concept like that?”
Eliot kisses Memory Quentin hard on the mouth and then walks through the door that will allow him to take control of his body for a moment. In the real world, face to face with Quentin, Eliot gets a signal out that he’s still alive. He looks at Quentin and repeats the question Quentin had asked him, following it with, “Peaches and plums, motherf*cker.” When he realizes who he’s looking at, Quentin hesitates, a look of surprise and longing washing over his face.
This deeply emotional and compelling storyline appeared at the same time that Quentin finally officially rebuffed Alice’s advances, telling her he no longer wanted to be together, that he could never see her the same way again.
Then, after all that work, after all the maturation the characters undergo, the series undoes everything, shoehorning in a last-minute declaration of love between Quentin and Alice and killing off Quentin when he uses magic in the Mirror Realm, without ever seeing Eliot again. Quentin then goes to the Underworld branch of the library and meets with Penny 40 while reminiscing over his life and pondering over whether or not he died by suicide. (The treatment of suicide in the episode is problematic and deeply offensive.)
There are probably as many critiques of this ending as there are people who watched it, but I’m going to focus on the main issues that stood out to me.
The series has gone out of its way to confirm Quentin as queer and tease the possibility of a queer love story.
Queer viewers are used to surviving off subtext and tend to be fairly generous in what we’ll accept. Seriously, many a queer considers Thor: Ragnarok to be part of the queer canon when it’s not even implied onscreen that anyone is queer, and have you seen people shipping Carol and Maria in Captain Marvel? Maybe it’s because we’re used to being served scraps that the Bury Your Gays trope feels so pointed. Oh, you’re not happy with the almosts and the could-haves and the alternate timelines of queerness? Well, then we’ll make your characters queer and just murder ‘em right up.
After Season 3, The Magicians could have never acknowledged the relationship between Quentin and Eliot that takes place in another timeline or they could have shrugged and been like, “Must have been the opium in the air!” They’d already done as much with the threesome in Season 1 and all but ignoring Quentin’s queerness in the episodes that follow. The series didn’t have to confirm that Quentin wanted to follow his attraction to Eliot and give being together a try. But, The Magicians did. The series took the time onscreen to show Eliot and Quentin kissing again, to show Eliot declaring his love for Quentin in their own code, and to show Quentin dedicate his time to helping Eliot get free.
Furthermore, how messed up is it that the series spends a significant amount of time dredging up the trauma of Eliot’s queer youth only to make him realize his biggest regret is how he treated Quentin, just for Quentin to be forced back into the closet? An episode that was deeply evocative and affirming of queerness smacks of voyeurism when taken in the context of the finale.
At the last minute, after confirming his queerness, the series forces a relationship between Quentin and Alice.
It’s hard not to see the last ditch shoving of Quentin and Alice together as an attempt to shove Quentin himself back in the closet. Season 4 shows Quentin rejecting and wanting to be apart from Alice, only for him to decide that he loves her and wants to give their relationship another try because? Honestly, I’m not sure what rationale he uses because it MAKES NO SENSE. And, what the hell does he think of imprisoned-in-his-own-body Eliot while making this decision? To judge from the series, not a whole hell of a lot.
It’s totally cool if queer or bisexual characters date people of different genders — that’s not the issue. The issue is that without a moment of hesitation, Quentin whiplashes from his lover who he knows is trapped by the Monster and cannot see, hear, or reach him to his ex-girlfriend who he has distanced himself from due to her selfish behavior.
In the context of his death, I like to call this particularly messed up turn of events “Bury Your Gays and Stomp On Their Graves” because all the work that had been done to show Quentin’s coming to terms with his own sexuality is undone shortly before he dies.
There are other ways to write a character off a series.
A lot of people fall back on bad faith arguments like: What is a show supposed to do when an actor no longer wishes to appear in the series?
The answer, of course, is: ANYTHING ELSE. They could have done literally anything else to write Quentin out of the show and release Jason Ralph from his commitment. The Magicians takes place in a world WHERE MAGIC EXISTS, where characters leave the main story to go on their own adventures, and where average human beings can become gods. There’s no excuse for falling into lazy storytelling and reifying a trope that has been well-documented and mourned for a long time.
In the novels, Quentin gets kicked out of Fillory and decides to use his discipline, minor mendings, to build a new world for himself and Alice. He essentially walks through a door and never comes back. THAT WOULD HAVE WORKED and it wouldn’t do the work of retraumatizing queer audiences.
It comes down to this: To ignore the wider implications of making a character specifically queer, having him return to his prior unhealthy relationship with a woman, and then killing him off is a disservice to queer people everywhere. It is, at once, a declaration of the meaninglessness of the queer experience and an unforgivable reminder of the expendability of queer lives.
Series like The Magicians (and before it, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) trade on their reputations as queer and feminist shows. We watch them for their powerful women and their kickass queer characters and their storylines that affirm the power of survival. And what do they give us in return? They bury their gays.
Does that mean that all LGBTQ+ characters should be immortal? The rational response would be: of course not. Up until today I may have agreed with that argument, but right now I’m feeling a little less generous. It’s 20-f*cking-19 and there is no excuse for Bury Your Gays to pop up in a progressive TV show. Maybe until series and creators who make their money off queer characters and queer fandom take responsibility for how they use the lives and bodies of queer people, maybe until then, all LGBTQ+ characters should be immortal.
I’m pretty damn sick of watching every character who loves like me, who looks like me, who explores the bounds of their sexuality like me, die. I’m sick of watching characters bust down the doors of the closets that held them back only to have their queerness erased or elided through their deaths. I’m sick of watching relationships between men and women blossom onscreen only to see queer relationships torn apart by death.
Queer people deserve happy endings. We deserve them in real life and we deserve to see them onscreen and we deserve them now.
Until that’s the norm, you better damn well consider any queer character you create immortal. Because if you don’t, we queers will f*cking haunt your basic ass.
Header Image Source: SyFy
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