The Magicians Recap: Is Anyone Watching?

Arjun Gupta as Penny, Olivia Taylor Dudley as Alice, Jason Ralph as Quentin, Hale Appleman as Eliot. Photo: Syfy
The Magicians
Episode Title
Impractical Applications
Editor’s Rating

Is anyone out there watching this show?

I know that's a weird question for a recapper to ask, but I'm feeling mighty alone in the Brakebills universe right about now. The initial promise of The Magicians (Harry Potter with cocaine and oral sex!) has never really come into being, and I can't find a single buddy to chat with about Quentin and the Gang. For all the TV reactionism that's spewed onto the internet every week, very little of it gets sent Quentin and Julia's way.

There's nary a cultural conversation circulating about the abundance or lack of sex/violence/misogyny/taboo at the Brakebills grad department. Nobody is complaining that the show has too much rape or too few women. It hasn't incited outrage. This should be a good thing. But The Magicians hasn't inspired any of the monologue-stirring devotion of shows that viewers simply love, either.

Instead, it's limply swinging around the lackluster middle. I mean, some people finally get naked and smear paint all over each other in this episode. But the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue sucked all the originality out of that premise more than a decade ago. So, what's left?

I'm more than a little annoyed by The Magicians' slow drip, mostly due to the fact that I'm a superfan of Lev Grossman's original novels. They truly were Harry Potter with cocaine and oral sex. But they weren't gratuitous — they were cocaine and sex with a purpose. Grossman successfully captured the idea that we never truly loosen our grip on our childhood fantasies, even in the midst of the most glaringly adult moments of our lives. (Like when we're screwing or cheating or failing at our jobs.) Adulthood is another fantasy, he implies, and once we recognize that we can free ourselves from the limitations it imposes. That was Grossman's true accomplishment: He utilized the magic and fantasy genre and subverted it at the same time.

The TV show doesn't subvert anything. And it doesn't seem to give two hoots about what adulthood means. The only thing it shares in common with the early-20-something uncertainty that Grossman sprinkled like yeast into his novels is that it's unclear on who or what it is, exactly. And that makes it all the more comical and cruelly ironic that "Impractical Applications" revolves around the disappointment of discovering that your childhood fantasies have been poorly adapted for adult use.

We return at the precise moment last week's episode ended on, with Quentin freaking out about the fact the Penny has just been to Fillory. Yes, Fillory — the same magical, apparently-not-fictional kingdom that he read about as a child and somewhat creepily never moves past. (It's freaking Narnia, if that reference somehow hasn't yet slammed you over the head.) Quentin convinces Penny that he needs to learn all about Fillory in case his mind ever Travels there again, and just as we're ready to be whisked off through a clock or into a tree hole or into the air via a flying umbrella, the Trials begin.

The Trials are yet another test the first-year students must pass to secure a future spot at Brakebills. If this is a parody of the elaborate hoops kids jump through to get into college these days, I appreciate the idea. But otherwise, it's pretty clear this entire scheme is just more bald-faced Character Development. Now, I get it. I see what's happening here. The foursome are being prepared for some type of adventure and these tests are a way to reassure us that they'll be able to Captain Planet their way out of any forthcoming tribulations with some earth, wind, water, and fire. (Sorry, heart. You were always lame.) But … still.

Quentin, Penny, Alice, and Kady are broken into teams, then told to solve an impossible spell. Penny and Quentin cheat off of Alice to do so, which is apparently exactly what was expected of them, and they pass. Bravo!

Next, they wake up in an enchanted forest where magic doesn't work and are given physical tools to catch various animals. (Actual tools! The horror!) Except, cue the sighs, what they're really meant to do is work together, Laverne & Shirley–style. They swap tools, capture their animals, and pass again. Double bravo!

The third and final task is more serious. It's based on something called "Secrets Magic." To achieve success, the foursome must pair off and bare their souls — and their bods — to one another. Their hands are (lamely) bound with rope; only after verbalizing their truest inner selves will they be freed. Penny's truth is that he's in love with Kady. Kady's is that she has been playing Penny all along. Alice's truth is she's actually way smarter and better at magic than she's been letting on. (Humblebrag alert!) And Quentin's is that he's always running away from something — that even after discovering his innermost desire is possible, that magic is real and he can do it — he still isn't satisfied. In other words, he's suffering from the human condition.

Cue Quentin's earlier astonishment that the real Fillory might not be the Fillory he's read about — "Jesus, that is not totally consistent with the books […] I find that devastating" — which comes full circle in this moment. Nothing can ever compete with the visions he's created in his mind, and his best route would be to quit measuring real life against fantasy. He needs to embrace his adult self. It's a lesson The Magicians could also stand to absorb.

Is it a bummer that the show hasn't been faithful to the plot (or spirit) of the novels? Hell yes. But it would be far better now if it confidently went off in a new direction instead of waffling indeterminately. After the ropes fall off, the Brakesbills gang turn into geese and start flying. It's the only truly riveting moment of the show; it's so delightfully unexpected, even though it happens in the books. Here's hoping The Magicians can transform itself into something unexpected, too.

(Oh right, the hedge-witch thing. So, here's what happens with Julia: She is sent to a coven a few hours away, where she finds another banished hedge witch, who happens to be Kady's mother. The two cook up a plot to steal Marina's spells by transporting her filing cabinets to their new safehouse. This little ploy ends up killing the new witch via some violent exsanguination and further reaffirms the fact that nobody has any use for filing cabinets anymore.)