I have two words for you this week: CANCER. PUPPY. No matter what comes of The Magicians, even if it should crumble in a blaze of overwrought costuming and makeshift story lines, Cancer Puppy will remain in our hearts and minds forever. Gerald (RIP) was 150 years young and received a minute and a half of screen time. He has been taken from us far too soon.
While it’s difficult to dwell on anything but Cancer Puppy at a moment like this — though we must pause to give a solemn two thumbs up to the casting agent who brought us this wonder — his adorable life and death were but a small part of this week’s onslaught of narrative arcs and Alice Awkwardness. And so onward we march, Cancer Puppy–less.
As usual, there are about four story lines running simultaneously in this week’s episode, so let’s dispense with them in order from least to most interesting.
A week cannot pass by without Brakebills introducing yet another “tradition” or as-yet-unknown factoid, so we’re subject to some sort of career day run overlong, in which magicians practicing out in the world come to choose a mentee whom they will shepherd through the next year, doling out advice and guidance.
And what a missed opportunity. In any sci-fi universe, there are always moments when the creator can color vast sketches of the landscape and the people who populate it, using as much verve and variety as he or she can muster. Think the curious shops of Diagon Alley in Harry Potter or the wildly divergent identities of the clones in Orphan Black. Where there’s room to throw in dashes of unrestricted color, most storytellers would leap at the chance. Imagine what could be done with a cabal of glamorous, worldly witches who dash about the globe solving crimes or exploring mysteries. We already know that any witch can rob an ATM in three seconds flat, so the sky is the limit when it comes to magic careers.
Instead, the story stays firmly grounded. We only get a podiatrist and Alice’s aunt Genji, the owner of a retreat center, who is the field’s most coveted mentor for reasons that must be related to her pattern-mixing ability, because we learn nothing about her. And while I can entirely understand the allure of her Grey Gardens–chic turbans, it remains unclear why Eliot and Margot would want to woo this woman so desperately that Eliot even decides to bake.
The only truly memorable detail that the mentors’ visit provokes is the introduction of welters, a magical game of chess that uses the players’ own bodies as the pieces and requires them to cast spells to dominate various squares of the board. This is no Quidditch, but The Magicians shines when it actually lets the magic run off the rails a bit. Trees and lizards growing out of thin air, swirling storms that turn day into night — these may not be the foundations of magical worlds, but they are the decorative cornices that keep things interesting.
Though he successfully avoided whining for the entirely of the last episode (50 points for Gryffindor!), Quentin has ample reason to now. After he goes home, he discovers that his father has brain cancer and has chosen not to pursue any treatment. It’s sad and upsetting, but it would have made a bigger impact if the show had ever previously indicated that Quentin cared a wit for his parents. Quentin’s consummate whining about the emotional hardship of his childhood led us to think that his parents were monsters — and indeed, in the novels they are cold and distant — but instead, it turns out they simply grew bored of his card tricks.
The relationship and its newfound complications are put to good use when Quentin decides he’ll find a magical way to cure his father. Like a genie can’t grant a wish for more wishes, though, magicians can’t solve the world’s greatest medical problems at the wave of a fingertip. Lesser sci-fi universes avoid dealing with such issues entirely, but The Magicians does well to establish ground rules for this magical world, including the fact that magicians cannot simply cure fatal diseases. Any reader who ever felt dismayed that St. Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies didn’t offer Skele-Gro to the muggles of Harry Potter’s world will be happy to hear that.
This is what brings us Cancer Puppy, a.k.a. Gerald, the 150-year-old puppy that has been magicked into life eternal but still suffers from all the ills and pitfalls of the mortal body. Quentin wants to practice on the little guy. It’s Cancer Puppy’s immediate death at Quentin’s middlingly talented hands that leads him to ask a question that The Magicians should concern itself with more often: “What is the point of any of this, of magic, if we can’t fix real problems?”
Now banned from the Bodega Hedge Witch Gang, Julia is without the resources she needs to further her magical education. So it’s no surprise that she turns to Google for some help finding new spells. (Which leads us to ask: Why would fire need to be invisible? That part is unclear.) But it rankles every ounce of estrogen in my body that when she burns her fingers while summoning said invisible fire, she needs to call a man to come and wrap Band-Aids around her fingers. It seems like Julia, a Columbia graduate who slit her own damn wrist to retain her memories of Brakebills, would be able to handle a first-degree burn on her own.
Oh, and you don’t put Band-Aids on burns. A little loose gauze will do. Shame on you, Julia.
At least Pete the Hedge Fund Witch’s visit leads to the most morally fascinating conundrum yet thrown at us. After realizing that Pete was happy to answer her midnight call and is perhaps wanting something more than Band-Aid friendship bracelets, Julia subtly offers a deal: She’ll screw him if he helps her find a new group of hedge witches.
Yet Julia somehow forgot the most basic rule of sex-for-something-else deals. You get what you want, THEN you proffer up your body. Otherwise you get screwed twice. First, up against the kitchen cabinets in your apartment, and second, you show up at the Hedge Witch Bar only to discover that it’s populated by the J.V. squad.
Thinking he can convince Julia to go another round with him, Pete offers to provide the name of an elite group of magicians who live abroad — if Julia will take him with her, a.k.a. bang him again. Her refusal to do so, and her insistence that she will come clean to James about her magical side hustle, leads to the worst retribution I think I can imagine.
The hedge witches erase Julia from James’s memory, leaving her entirely alone in the world.
Penny has a mentor in the form of gruff, tough, bottle-swilling Stanley, the only other Traveler to emerge from Brakebills in the past 35 years. In their first meeting, Stanley dispenses with one crucial bit of advice: Bind yourself to Earth, and only send your mind out wandering. Stanley lost a leg in a trip to Everest gone awry, and he encourages Penny to get a binding tattoo similar to his, so that he can trust that his body will stay secure even as his mind goes to other worlds.
In his first attempt at astral projection, Penny ventures off to discover who has been calling to him over the past several episodes. He winds up in a dungeon where a young woman is chained to the ceiling, screaming for someone to rescue her. Without his body, Penny is powerless to help — she cannot even see him. He has just enough time to notice that she bears the same tattoo as Stanley, meaning she too is a Traveler, before a butterfly flits in … followed by even more butterflies … followed by the Beast. Yes, the same Beast who Penny, Alice, Quentin, and Kady accidentally invited to Brakebills. The same Beast who ripped out Dean Fogg’s eyes.
Unlike the chained-up girl, whom Penny later discovers is a missing Brakesbill student named Victoria, the Beast can see Penny. He quickly beams himself back to Brakebills, and after his return, he fixates on a single detail: a coat of arms that decorated the wall of Victoria’s dungeon, a coat of arms that only Quentin recognizes. It belongs to Ember, a kindly ram god of Fillory.
“Penny,” Quentin says at the end of the episode, “I think you were in Fillory.”
And this, my friends, is where I think things are about to get verrry interesting.