THE MAGICIANS Finale Pays Gratuitous Ode to Its Source Material
If there was an award for the one show adaptation this season that truly attempted to encapsulate everything its source material was even when it’s not entirely on book, it would probably go to The Magicians. Last night’s season one finale — chock-full of eye-popping cliffhangers — will also probably go down as one of the most meta TV episode’s ever.
It’s hard to know where to begin, but I guess it’s most logical to start with the beginning. After weeks of hype, we’re finally offered our first (rather glorious) look at Fillory and its largely beautiful contents. Not only are the visuals stunning, but The Magicians manages to nail that feeling of nostalgia in Julia and Quentin’s reactions. It’s also where they drop quite a few amounts of meta, including Quentin’s constantly adventure commentary and the good old portal to Fillory resembling a “Tardis” jokes. It’s fun in the way that this show has been, is and always should be.
And for a while, as our Brakebills crew — and Julia — roam this world in search of the deadly beast, things are as fantastical (and beautiful) as this show can be. Until it’s not. The rapid perception shift isn’t untrue to the world this show’s writers have built. In fact, it’s the foundation of it. Everything that’s beautiful does not shine and in the back half of this wild ride of an episode things get slightly disturbing. But for as well as this show has balanced its dark with its light, this time around it sometimes feels a little too heavy.
To start, Penny in book fashion loses his hands. If there was anything I was hoping wouldn’t make it from the books, it was that. But the writers played the hand(s) of the books and so it was canon. The next oddish thing that happened was Elliot marrying a woman, but that’s probably a conversation better left for another day. We also get our big ‘Martin as the beast’ reveal. Don’t forget there was the massive amount of presumed cliffhanger-y death which I assume they will magically address come season 2. Then there’s Julia’s plot which was quite frankly the most to take in.
It stuck to the source material when it might have been better to diverge. Here’s the thing: Julia gets to be a hero in a lot of ways because of this moment, but in doing so the show and book punish her for that. And it’s a punishment that’s starting to feel more than a bit invasive and tired. This week hasn’t been good to lady characters, from deaths to overall narrative underdevelopment. Julia, was for the most part, an exception to a lot of what we were seeing on TV, but in a single hour became the exact same thing we’ve been seeing all Spring.
Of course, it will be interesting to watch her go dark as it usually is with characters who are so close to goodness, but did she have to go this way? It’s a thematic development, of course, linking Plover’s treatment of Martin to Julia’s experience. But it’s starting to feel like violence isn’t just a development device anymore. It’s becoming the only way we think we can deeply and profoundly develop characters, especially female ones and especially when that violence is aimed against them. Not all darkness comes from rancid darkness. And not all women become bitter and consumed by rage because and only because they’ve been raped.
None of these gratuitous extensions of the story brought the entire episode down, but some of the decisions to execute them in a universe where we already know the stakes, expect them and thus don’t have to visually see them, were perhaps a slight cause for pause. See, the thing that this show has done well is knowing how much is too much and hovering right above that line. The finale, in all its amped up glory, crossed it in many ways. And mostly what it did was leave us with painfully numbing cliffhangers (which definitely aren’t always a bad thing), but more so a question about how careful and deliberate this show can be with its own genre skills.
Sometimes that wild ride of last night was pure adrenaline-induced excitement, other times it was a head-scratcher at the show’s sudden inability to play with its own nuance. The Magicians is real and gory and scary and beautiful. But it doesn’t have to be gratuitous to be the best at those things. Hopefully, season two will take that into consideration. This series has largely been a wonderful masterful ride and I would rather not have to get off of it.