THE MAGICIANS: “The Strangled Heart” Unwraps The Emotional Agony of the Brakebills Crew
It was all regrown hands, bulging eyes and stabbed torsos in The Magicians’ “The Strangled Heart” last night.
This show’s universe has always walked the dark fantasy line, but what became abundantly clear this week is that unlike other shows that pretend the world outside of our characters’ has no eyes — and no impact, The Magicians is a place where magic affects everyone in dark –sometimes deadly — ways. Bloody innards, body possession, psychiatric treatment centers, and all.
This week’s episode saw the remaining members of the Brakebills freshman class joining study groups to help them master the work of the rest of the term. After their encounters at Brakebills South, Quentin maneuvers his way into Alice’s study group. It also, unfortunately for them all, happens to be Penny’s study group. Meanwhile, Margot has gone on the magical trip of a lifetime with Tod, leaving Eliot to struggle with his feelings for Mike. But as we saw at the end of last week’s episode, Mike is not at all who he appears. He’s, in fact, “The Beast,” the terrifying magical moth monster that came for Quentin early in the season.
It appears as if he’s come back for him as well, but in a weird twist and life-saving move by Penny, Quentin dodges a magically deadly knife would from The Beast possessed Mike. For Penny, however, that means a near death experience with a magic that causes vines to grow out of your stomach and roll your eyes in the back of your head. That is, unless you can find a sacrifice that the knife’s magic will take in the place of the wounded. As for Mike, he is quickly caught and we are offered a glimpse at just how deeply embedded the world of Fillory is in our own.
Elsewhere, Julia has entered a psychiatric unit at a hospital to help her “beat” her magic addiction but while there runs into a Brakebills alum who opens her up to the idea that her relationship to magic doesn’t have to a power fiend.
Early on in “The Strangled Heart” we learn during some antagonist group study talk that just about everyone can see Quentin’s googly eyes for Alice. Worse for Alice, there are people who know about her and Quentin’s Brakebills South fox encounter. Specifically and painfully, Penny. The awkward tension that ensues between Alice and Quentin throughout the entire episode is exactly the sort of tension that feels organic to the two characters. As a result, their blossoming relationship feels like a more natural development for the two this week than it did last week. They are after all only middling twenty-somethings. Marriage and children may be a bit much for these two awkward, but endearing magicians to think about.
Speaking of endearing magicians, after being stabbed by The Beast/Mike, Penny is sent to the hospital for treatment. To his discomfort, Quentin is there a good chunk of the time. The “magic” inflicted on Penny was physically unnerving to see on screen. Vines began to grow out of his stomach and were probably strangling his internal organs. There was quite a lot this week that could have grossed you out, from ripped bunnies to exploding throats, but that little bit of magic did a serious number on my head.
The creepiness of it all aside, the experience allowed Penny and Quentin’s relationship to move an inch closer into bro-concern, while still managing to steep their interactions in their beloved antagonistic chemistry. Their flippancy and sometimes blunt cruelness with one another would have long grown tired on other characters, but on these two its offering us a decent journey of interpersonal development. For as much as Penny tears Quentin down, he stays by his side. And for as much as Penny represents everything that forced Quentin into a shell of self-hate, Quentin never quite gives up on Penny. Perhaps the greatest thing about Quentin and Penny’s teamship, however, that they are truly honest with one another. Through that unbridled honesty they’ve been allowed to forge a bond that might help keep these two angsty kids alive.
It’s a realization that’s helped along by Fogg, who got fleeting but moving development of his own in “The Strangled Heart.” The dry headmaster of Breakbills this week took off his gloves (literally) and dealt with how his newly “regrown” hands had left him without control of his own magic. Fogg would need physical therapy to get his strength and technique back, something I’m sure was hard for a man of Fogg’s talent and duty–protecting an entire school of kids from a terrifying moth monster–to grapple with. While we were mostly offered his struggle in brief glimpses, his resurgence towards the end of the episode was the perfect payoff for his physical and emotional stumbling.
While Fogg’s development was moving, the episode’s strongest storyline came directly from Eliot. Having had such little (and vague) personal development in the episodes prior, it was nice to see a plot centralize Eliot and his own journey at Breakbills. As we uncover, he is not entirely the Kennedy-esque man of our dreams. In fact, he’s really just an Indiana farm boy who reinvented himself after he was accepted into Brakebills. It might seem tragic if it wasn’t so powerful.
Early in the season, Eliot mentions that magic comes from pain and in him, we see the magic of transformation and idealization. Moving on from a stifling past and building yourself from the ground up isn’t always an erasure of who you are. Sometimes it’s the actual formation process of who we are. To take ownership over our own identities, to not be driven by what other people say about it, is an incredibly courageous thing. And for as shallow as Eliot can come off sometimes, this reveal about his past–and his struggle with letting someone he had to eventually kill get close–made him a significantly more interesting and dimensional character. It made him someone you can get invested in.
In a sense, this episode was far more plot driven than last week’s, but it worked to refocus where the rest of the season plans to take us. Particularly in the “reveal” department. “The Strangled Heart” was full of stakes-raising that was very cleverly, and quietly, alluded to. If you weren’t paying attention you might have missed that yes Eliza was Jane Chatwin, but more importantly, Jane’s encounter–and bloody demise–at the hands of The Beast felt a less like arch nemesis and far more intimate. Yes, like a dangerously rivalrous sibling relationship.
Jane, in Fogg’s words, was responsible for all of this. But how? And why would she so comfortably and willingly face a monster as terrifying as The Beast if she didn’t have to? Unless there was reason to believe she had some sway over it? Not that it really matters too much now as Jane is dead. And our Magicians are going to have to find a way to defeat The Beast on their own… or die trying.