Don’t get me wrong — I’ve been on board with Syfy’s angsty, feisty fantasy series The Magicians since day one. And by “on board” I mean that I was a fan of the novels by Lev Grossman, and was curious enough about the TV adaptation to stick with it. Sometimes against my better judgment. I mean, the basic premise is a thought exercise writ large: “What if the Harry Potter kids found Narnia, but also they’re young adults who bang and do drugs.” SOLD! That’s the kind of pastiche I can get behind. And though the show managed to sporadically reach some moderately magical highs in the first two seasons, it more often than not trudged through a wasteland of problematic plot choices and irritating character development. The whole thing was whiplash-inducing. Which is why the highest compliment I ever expected to pay The Magicians was to rate it as a reasonably entertaining guilty pleasure. Until now.
Because the third season? It’s good. It’s really, actually, I’m-not-fucking-with-you good. It’s like it came back, firing on all cylinders for the first time ever. It knows what it does well — the fun! the funny! the magically weird! — and leans fully into it. And, better yet, it realized what it did really poorly, and just sort of… stopped doing it.
The biggest problem has always been the mindbogglingly aggravating characters — characters I wished would just fall into a plot-hole somewhere and be forgotten most of the time. I was prepared to be irritated by Quentin, who is the central character in the novels and was always written as a self-absorbed, self-destructive mope. The trilogy is, in a lot of ways, his path to… well, “maturity” might be the wrong word. Let’s go with “not being a shithead.” But the show managed to make him more annoying while also de-centralizing him. Which was good, in that it balanced the other more interesting characters against him. But without investing in his perspective, Quentin became unsympathetic. It didn’t help that the show aged all the characters up, either. In the novels, they’re just graduating high school — applying to college but getting into Brakebills instead (think horny Hogwarts). The show made the school a graduate program, which meant that behaviors that might have at least been understandable in an 18-year-old man-child became actively off-putting in someone in their 20s. Everyone became whinier and stunted. It was no longer a metaphor for finding your way to adulthood — it was a cautionary tale of what immaturity looks like on overprivileged young adults.
Which is why it’s so refreshing that the interpersonal drama of the first two seasons has simply sort of melted away. The characters have been through the wringer already, and whereas before their problems were always getting in the way of them dealing with the larger issues at hand (monsters, mayhem, magic, actual GODS) and nobody ever seemed to learn or grow, now they just seem to get on with things without sabotaging themselves or each other. Which is good, because this season? They need to bring magic back. It involves finding a bunch of keys, which are as good a MacGuffin as any to center the plot around. Mostly though, I haven’t once wanted to smack anyone upside the head. It’s a nice change of pace.
The last two episodes have been a showcase in how far the series has come. One episode focused on Penny, who has long been the secret weapon of the show. He’s not as chummy with the core characters. He’s far more pragmatic and is often simply exhausted by their idiocy. He’s also the poster boy for Syfy’s new policy of not censoring the word “fuck” — a word that he applies to every situation with the precision of a scalpel. You see, Penny has died. Well, sort of anyway. He can astral project, which he did just before his body passed away, leaving him stranded on the astral plane as something even more ethereal than a ghost. The entire episode was his struggle to communicate to his friends, while dropping in on them — across dimensions, by the way, because the main characters are scattered to the winds this season. He’s become a literal outsider to the story, able to observe and comment in ways that are funny and meta without outright winking at the audience.
The show also seems to have discovered what to do with Margo, at long last. She was always cocky and sexually adventurous, but her co-dependent relationship with her gay best friend Eliot often bordered on cliché, to the point where it was an active disservice to her character. This season, she’s just straight up running shit, as evidenced in the above clip. She’s the last monarch standing in Fillory, the magical storybook land, keeping shit together while Eliot is off on the key quest. There’s a faerie queen blackmailing her, and she’s being forced to marry for political reasons. She’s also lost an eye. But this is the first time she’s really had to stand on her own in the show, rather than being a supporting character to someone else’s arc. And you know what? It’s a good look for her.
This week’s episode proved that, somewhere along the way, The Magicians learned a new trick: it can be genuinely touching. The relationship between Eliot and Quentin has always been a sort of “friendship plus” deal. There was that threesome they had with Margo, so sex has already been a factor. But more than that, there has been a real emotional undercurrent between the two friends that the show hasn’t always known what to do with — until now. In their quest for the third key, Quentin and Eliot travel through the grandfather clock back to Fillory. Only they arrive in the Fillory of the past. Their mission is to complete a mosaic, finding the perfect arrangement of colored tiles to represent “the beauty of all life.” And time goes by while they attempt it. Decades, in fact. They settle in. They become lovers. Quentin also starts a relationship with a local girl, and has a child with her that they all raise together in a little cabin. And as the years wear on, Quentin and Eliot grow old together. Their boy becomes a man and leaves home. Eventually, Eliot passes away. And when he attempts to dig a grave for his friend, Quentin uncovers a new tile. The mission wasn’t to assemble an image of “the beauty of all life” — it was to experience it. And only in reaching the end of their full and happy life together did they find what they needed to get the key.
In a roundabout timey-wimey plot twist, Margo gets the key in the future and is able to stop Quentin and Eliot from entering the clock, seemingly relegating that entire beautiful episode into some “alternate timeline” plot sink. I was ready to be mad that all of it would be forgotten. But then, in the last scene, Quentin finds the note he wrote to Margo from the past, the one that set her on the path to stopping them — and those memories return. Eliot and Quentin remember the timeline that never was, and their love. Somehow, did it all really happen? Could the descendants of Quentin’s son still be somewhere in Fillory?
Even Julia, whose storyline has always been equal parts impressive, frustrating, and downright problematic, is gelling this season. For two seasons her story was dominated by her personal quest to prove magic was real after being denied entry to Brakebills, culminating in her rape by a minor deity named Reynard. Afterward, the show charted the brutal emotional aftermath — something that The Magicians sometimes, though not always, managed to do quite right by. No one ever blamed Julia. And even when her quest for vengeance would set her at odds against everyone else’s quests, they could empathize while also feeling betrayed. At one point they rob a bank to help her fund a magical abortion, and her right to choose is more than just lip service — it’s a whole arc. For all its big swings, there were bound to be some misses, but it has explored — and continues to explore — aspects of the survivor narrative in ways few other shows really do. This season Julia is the only person with a spark of magic left in her. But she discovers that her spark is a gift granted to her by the Goddess… who took it from Reynard and implanted it in her, without her consent, as a reward for Julia’s mercy toward him. Her strength, her grace, comes directly from her trauma. And, as she says at the end of this week’s episode, she’d give it away if she could.
Whereas the balance often seemed to swing wildly between funny, wacky magical hijinx and serious, often traumatic experiences, the show finally seems to be figuring out to carry it all successfully. There is death and resurrection and addiction, and then there’s talking bunnies and cannibals and characters named “The Great Cock” — and it all feels to be a part of a seamless whole. But the biggest change is that, for the first time, the show isn’t exhausting. It’s confident, and it finally has succeeded in making me care about these characters. I don’t know if The Magicians can hold onto this balance forever, but for right now? It’s not just a guilty pleasure anymore.