The Magicians has never been interested in simplistic storytelling. The Syfy series — essentially if Harry Potter and Chronicles of Narnia met self-destructive New York twenty-somethings — is a rollercoaster of plot glut, musical numbers, threesomes, and talking sloths. Just as Buffy the Vampire Slayer used its magical subject matter to play with metaphors about adolescence, The Magicians uses similar tropes to explore the messiness of adult life. And with a very attractive cast of characters who engage in both deep friendships and sexual escapades, the show has set up a playground of complicated relationships for itself.
With Wednesday night’s episode, “Escape From the Happy Place,” The Magicians leveraged its own love of mess to deliver a queer emotional soliloquy. It does so via a story centered on the mind of Eliot (Hale Appleman) — the show’s most visibly queer character — which also confirms, without a doubt, just how not-straight another character really is. It’s a massive moment for the show, and also one that lands as an important marker of how TV’s relationship to fandom and LGBT representation has changed in recent years. And yes: That means the two male leads, Quentin (Jason Ralph) and Eliot, declare their love for each other. And kiss.
“Our interest is in creating complicated, resonant relationships that feel true, including sometimes in the way they elude conventional labeling,” series co-creator Sera Gamble tells Vulture. “Love and sex and romance and friendship get in each others’ lanes all the fucking time. We frankly think it’s dumb to only give real story weight to stuff that basically looks like an old-fashioned heteronormative wedding cake topper.”
Fans are accustomed to being deprived of their deepest desires, but with “Escape From the Happy Place,” The Magicians gave its fandom exactly what many have been pining for: a nod to a long-standing slash fandom, known as Queliot, who have long believed that one of the show’s central relationships isn’t just platonic. This is an episode that delivers natural character development and ostentatious storytelling — and also brings that most beloved slash pairing to life in a momentous way.
In the world of online fandom, pining for same-sex characters to kiss and admit they love each other is practically an institution unto itself. Slash fandom, even before it gained the name from fan-fiction that paired up Kirk and Spock in the 1960s, has been an undercurrent in popular culture for centuries, from Sherlock Holmes to Star Wars. It is practiced, passionate, and wildly prolific, but until recent years, the subculture was relatively content flying under the radar. Before conversations about representation in film and TV hit the mainstream, slashers had little hope that the characters they shipped together would ever actually express their love onscreen. When that hope did start to bubble up, little by little, fans were often ridiculed for it — told, in essence, that it was ridiculous to assume these characters would be anything other than heterosexual, no matter how ardent their devotion to another character of the same sex.
Thank goodness, then, for The Magicians, a show that seems bored by the very concept of heterosexuality.
To understand what makes “Escape From the Happy Place” so special, you first have to understand the landmark Magicians episode that aired last February. Season three’s “A Life in the Day” was the kind of installment that defines a show, the type that viewers refer back to in reverence years after a series has ended its run. In it, two of the show’s central characters — the depressive, earnest Harry Potter proxy Quentin and elegant, sardonic, and out Eliot — are tasked with solving a mosaic puzzle that asks them to demonstrate “the beauty of all life.” The characters think the puzzle is physical, but in fact it’s practical: The quest requires that they show the beauty of life by living it out, fully, at the site of the mosaic.
In one stirring montage, Quentin and Eliot live an entire lifetime together. They work, bicker, raise a child, and grow old side-by-side. They also have sex. Though not the first time the characters hook up, it is notably the first without a woman present. For Quentin — who has mainly dated women — it was crucial confirmation that he skews a little further right on the Kinsey scale than most white dudes who get the Hero’s Journey treatment. For Quentin and Eliot’s dynamic, which had always included a lot of love, “A Life In the Day” layered in new complications while also turning old subtext into text: Quentin and Eliot ultimately return to their youth and their regular timeline, but they retain their memories of their 50 years together. The experience informs their relationship, subtly but not inconsequentially, and never more directly than in “Escape From the Happy Place.”
Though The Magicians fandom has always been small compared to, say, the louder communities that pushed Sherlock fans into mainstream recognition, the fandom is still engaged and mighty in their own way. They care for the characters deeply and can be found everywhere from Archive Of Our Own, to Tumblr, to the mentions under every single one of Gamble’s tweets about the show. Though a variety of ships and desires abound, Queliot could be considered the community’s crown jewel. (“They grew old and raised a child together!” a fan who goes by not-a-princess-but-a-queen wrote on Tumblr after “A Life In the Day” aired. “I’m just. Really not ok. I never expected this.”)
Flash forward to season four of The Magicians, where Eliot’s body has been taken over by a monster who is himself obsessed with Quentin. (Again, this show is a rollercoaster.) “Escape From the Happy Place” follows the real Eliot, trapped deep in the recesses of his own mind. Looking to send a message to his friends that he’s alive, Eliot finds that the only way is to sort through his psyche’s most repressed memories, as one of them may hold the key to his freedom.
According to Mike Moore, who wrote both “Escape From the Happy Place” and “A Life in the Day,” it took the writer’s room two days of hashing out the episode to realize this was the perfect time to circle back to what had happened between Quentin and Eliot at the mosaic back in season three.
“We had the episode more of less fully broken, with the one missing piece of what that final moment, that final memory was,” Moore says. “I believe it was [co-executive producer] David Reed who had the epiphany that maybe that thing we’re looking for was exactly one season ago. There’s always a moment in a writer’s room when you know that an idea works, because everybody — after having been exhausted and depleted from talking all day — suddenly gets this burst of energy. Right as [Reed] said that, it was like we’d all just done vodka Redbull shots.”
Eliot spends the episode cavorting through shameful moments from his backstory. Traumatic school memories, bad haircuts, people’s boyfriends he’d screwed — you get the picture. Then he has an epiphany, and we see a familiar scene as he enters that “final memory” that the show’s writers spent days debating. In it, Quentin and Eliot sit together like they did at the end of “A Life In the Day,” their memories of the life they lived together at the mosaic coming back to them. Only the scene doesn’t end where it did the first time. Instead, we see what came next: Quentin marveling at how well he and Eliot worked as life-long partners, and asking Eliot if he wants to give it a go in their current timeline. “Think about it, we work,” Quentin says. “We know it because we lived it. Who gets proof of concept like that?”
Eliot’s deepest shame is the moment that comes next: He turns Quentin down, questioning Quentin’s sexual interest in men and claiming that when the two of them have a choice outside of the mosaic, they won’t chose each other as romantic partners. Quentin takes it in stride, visibly sad but accepting. Trapped in the present day in his own mind, Eliot watches the memory in disgust, lecturing his past self for crushing all the possibilities that moment held. “Someone good and true loves you,” he says to his memory of himself. “And he went out on a limb. And yeah, it was a little crazy, but you knew — you knew this was a moment that truly mattered, and you just snuffed it out.”
It’s a character moment that speaks both to Eliot’s limitations and his growth, at the same time opening up a whole new world of possibilities for Eliot and Quentin’s relationship as the show moves forward. Even though the episode centers on Eliot, we learn something pretty major about Quentin through these memories: Quentin doesn’t just sleep with Eliot when he’s bored or high; he would actually gladly be in a relationship with him, and it’s Eliot who’s been standing in the way of that. Much as slash fandom has argued for years, the two are perfect foils for each other.
“Quentin’s got a lot of damage of his own, but one beautiful thing about the character is that, every now and again, he sees a possibility and he does the brave thing — he reaches for it. It’s the tiny, beating heart of optimism inside this frequently angsty, depressed guy,” Gamble explains. Or, as she also puts it, the episode is about Eliot facing himself: There’s a “tiny thorn of pessimism and fear inside [Eliot], who’s created this very charming, seductive, game outward persona.”
As the scene continues, present-day Eliot talks to his memory of Quentin, telling him how sorry he is and kissing him. “When I’m afraid I run away,” Eliot says. “If I ever get out of here, Q, know that when I’m braver it’s because I learned it from you.” It’s unclear as of yet whether this indicates that Eliot is ready to try being with Quentin, if or when he escapes the monster holding him hostage. Assuming Quentin saves Eliot from the big bad monster, will Eliot greet him with a big climactic kiss? Or will he shove the feelings down again, waiting for a different opportune moment that may or may not come? Regardless, the show’s ensemble will have to continue to fight to free Eliot this season, and after “Escape From the Happy Place,” it’s clear that one of the driving forces behind that fight will be the very deep love he and Quentin have for each other.
For the Magicians writers, that love doesn’t boil down into something that’s purely romantic or platonic. As Gamble explains it, emotional truth will always come before any hand-wringing over the perceived sexualities of the characters. “We’re not precious about the idea that Quentin would deeply love Alice and deeply love Eliot in ways that are different and nuanced and also on some fundamental level the same,” she says. “I mean, Quentin is actually super boring in that both [Alice and Eliot] are human. There isn’t a single 500-year-old pixie in the mix. For our show, he’s not very sexually adventurous, I gotta say.”
But still, it’s undeniable there is something queer within the way that Eliot and Quentin relate to each other. And for fans, there’s also a larger context at work. Shows like Shadowhunters, The 100, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer preceded The Magicians in featuring major queer characters in their fantastical stories. The genre remains heteronormative enough, though, that this confirmation of an ongoing romantic thread between Quentin and Eliot still feels like a notable moment — not just because it’s a well-crafted story that feels true, but also because it affirms a queer reading of the kind of relationship that’s categorically denied in so many other shows.
Before The Magicians, Gamble spent seven years working on Supernatural, first as a staff writer and eventually as showrunner. Supernatural has long been at the center of some of the most energetic slash fandom of the modern era, so even though Gamble’s philosophy with fandom was to respectfully mind her own business, it was impossible not to have learned a thing or two. “One huge thing that I realized while working on Supernatural is that our culture lacks examples of men who can express love to one another,” she says. “I saw how moving that is for viewers.”
With “A Life In the Day,” The Magicians fulfills fandom daydreams by delivering Quentin and Eliot in a literal domestic fantasy. It is proof of concept, if you will, of all the feelings fans had been funnelling into fanfic and gifsets since season one, not to mention an especially fitting tribute to the idea of fandom itself. (The entire series is, after all, in part about fans of a fantasy book series who discover that everything in those books is real, and that they can be a part of it too.) Then “Escape From the Happy Place” came along, dancing around in all the complications that can arise when the boundaries between friendship, family, sex, and romantic love are blurred. That’s The Magicians’ sweet spot. It also happens to be a slash fandom dream come true.
Gamble believes that, to some degree, the pressure that slash fandoms can put on creators to bring a queer pairing to life stems from “people still being so hungry for diversity of all kinds in the stories they watch.” Luckily, that dovetails nicely with what The Magicians’ writers want to do. “That’s our real goal: to reflect what we actually see and experience, not just some very tidy, simple version of the human heart,” Gamble says. “In real life, relationships are so much weirder and less predictable than they usually are on TV. And the braver you are, the more unexpected your paths. And in this area, Quentin is genuinely brave.”