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The Magicians Review: Season 1, Episode 9, “The Writing Room”

The Magicians continues to make bold choices in their adaptation of Lev Grossman’s series of novels, but they make one major misstep, because hoo boy is it a bad week to be killing queer women. (Queer, disabled, women of color no less! Ouch.) The episode is almost a wholesale invention of the show, and while I’m disappointed that they continue to show a troubling pattern of deprioritizing their queer and female characters, the showrunners go all in playing with the themes of the books. And despite it’s flaws, this “go hard” quality is what makes this such a fascinating adaptation to discuss.

TW for assisted suicide, rape, and pedophilia.

Book spoilers abound!

Fillory and Further

We start the episode at Brakebills, where Quentin and Alice are settling into a relationship together. Luckily I’ve already fallen irrevocably in love with Jason Ralph for his hair flicking TSwift dance moves, so not even his graying boxer shorts can put me off. For once, we actually get to see the friendship between Quentin and Julia, and the TV show does a much better job of conveying their history and commitment to each other. In the books, their entire friendship is tainted by Quentin’s unrequited feelings for Julia, and his constant resentment of her for not wanting to be with him. It’s the classic fallacy of the Friendzone and it’s gross. Good job show for knocking that shit off stat!

Quentin tells Alice about the missing Fillory book, so Alice pulls a Ron Weasley and points out to Quentin that he’s a witch magician and can use magic to find the missing book. Once again, the show delivers an awesome spell to do this, essentially a magical version of Hotter/Colder that leads them to Penny, who finally confesses that yes, he had the book, but he spilled beer on it and threw it away. Does this mean that the manuscript is sitting in a garbage can or magical landfill somewhere? Do magicians recycle? This is going to drive me crazy.

"ARE YOU A WITCH OR NOT?"

“ARE YOU A WITCH OR NOT?”

Penny’s confused memories of Fillory and Further are pretty hilarious in the moment, and are a great way to lead us to the magic button that can transport people to Fillory. It’s a much better introduction than in the books, where Penny just shows up one day to whisk them away with this button. Quentin and Alice of course decide to go look for it, dragging Penny along, and Eliot decides to come with them too. Eliot even has a Plot Convenient portal to England to get them there, which I’m not going to complain about because more scenes with Eliot!

Julia’s Penance

Let’s cut over to Julia to talk about what didn’t work this week. Richard the Chaplain takes Julia to visit one of his patients, a woman named Keira who seems to be completely paralyzed, trapped within her own mind. He has this idea that helping other people will help to soothe Julia’s soul. Which, okay, fine. And while ostensibly she’s there to help Keira work out a spell (the purpose of which is never revealed) she’s really there to help Keira die.

Let that sink in for a minute.

I will say this: the execution of this story was well-crafted. Keira was an absolutely fascinating character, and I would have liked to know more about her story. Here, Julia, here is a model for you, a woman who didn’t have a formal magical education, who found a healthy balance with magic, and wove rainbows into her life. (Nice callback to the books, by the way.) This is a woman who even when she is paralyzed, even when she wants to die, still takes the time to get to know Julia and ask her why magic is important to her, and to give her some well-meaning advice about living her truth.

And this. Oh, this!

“The world never did help a smart girl, why would it? We scare the shit out of the world. If the world goes after you, take it as a compliment.”

“The world never did help a smart girl, why would it? We scare the shit out of the world. If the world goes after you, take it as a compliment.”

And yet despite all this, the entire storyline was problematic as fuck.

First, of course, because they killed another queer character, in a week when we are finally starting to have a national dialogue about handling representation more sensitively. Keira isn’t a major character, so the decision to make her gay has the feeling of the show trying to up their diversity quota. This is another example of The Magicians treating representation like leftovers, and we should demand more from the showrunners. Still, in other circumstances, Keira would have been a fantastic minor character.

But then they killed her.

Beyond the awfulness of killing off a queer character for the second week in a row, I’m horrified that this story is about the effect of Keira’s death on Julia. Outside of the dream world, not once does Julia speak to Keira directly. As Keira sits facing the window, Julia stands behind her to ask Chaplain Richard “She can hear us, right?” And later, when she learns the truth of why Richard brought her here, it’s him that she appeals to, instead of Keira herself. Keira’s death isn’t about her, her situation, her wishes: it’s about how Julia needs to do penance by helping her to die, and I hate that I have to point out why that is wrong.

I also hate the entire idea of Richard suggesting this as Julia’s penance for what she did to Quentin in the first place. Assisted suicide is a hellishly complicated and nuanced topic, and I do believe that under certain circumstances, it can be an act of mercy. Helping Keira to die might be the kindest thing to do, but I don’t see how it lessens Julia’s burden of guilt.

Which brings us to: this storyline really didn’t add anything new. Richard tries to explain to Julia that “magic isn’t black and white.” “[Do] whatever is hardest,” he tells her. Julia went to rehab because practicing magic destroyed her life, and just in this episode she tells Keira she isn’t sure if magic has a place in her life. She doesn’t need any more lessons on the moral ambiguity of magic. And I have to say, while I appreciate the contrast between Julia’s journey and Quentin’s, the unending misery Julia is subjected to is starting to get a little dull.

Quentin’s Problematic Fave

I never thought that being trapped in a haunted house by the ghost of an abusive nanny and her pedophilic brother would be considered the light part of the episode, but I guess that’s one way to keep us on our toes.

Quentin just can’t help himself from correcting the tour guide on their visit to Christopher Pluvver’s manor (okay, so it’s really spelled Plover, but Pluvver is more fun), and even takes an awesomely nerdy selfie in front of his desk. Highlighting just how much Fillory means to Quentin really underlines how betrayed he feels when he learns the truth about Pluvver’s despicable actions.

The descent into the haunted house is tense and spooky, and they do an excellent job blending exposition with the looping creepiness of the ghosts. The four Brakebills students use magic to break into the house at night, where they discover that Pluvver didn’t die of natural causes, and they find spellbooks that indicate he was trying to become a traveler, like Penny. The show pauses for a moment in Pluvver’s study for Quentin to make himself vulnerable to Alice, sharing more about his past and what the Fillory books mean to him before telling her how happy she makes him.

It’s a sweet moment, interrupted by the tour guide who apparently would rather scold them for breaking the rules than call the police for breaking and entering. It was probably just a setup for Eliot to do this:

"I'm a super villain."

“I’m a super villain.”

The ghost of Pluvver’s sister is obsessed with keeping the secret of Pluvver’s awfulness, which is ironic, given that she is at least as terrible a person as he is. What a gene pool. She sews the tour guide’s mouth shut (rough job, man) and plunges the four Brakebills students into the scariest Scooby Doo episode ever.  

Of course, those meddling kids are separated, which is a shame, because I would watch an entire episode of Eliot and Penny being drinking buddies. Eliot and Alice are tied up by Pluvver’s sister in the nursery, where they witness how she is drugging the housekeeper’s children, eventually killing them. Meanwhile, Penny and Quentin see the myth of the Chatwin children’s journey to Fillory come to life, and watch as Jane returns with the magical button, which is pocketed by the housekeeper’s son George, and eventually buried with him.

And of course, Quentin sees that Pluvver was in fact a pedophile, apparently abusing Martin on multiple occasions. This horrifying detail is lifted straight from the books, but by revealing it earlier, the show is laying the groundwork for the tragic backstory of the Beast. To it’s credit, the scene doesn’t show us more than is absolutely necessary, and the camera, positioned behind Martin’s bony shoulder, encourages the viewer to sympathize with his fear. Later, when Eliot asks what Quentin saw, he doesn’t even bother to answer him. A look is enough. We know what happened.

Penny meanwhile is actually captured by Pluvver’s sister and shackled to the wall in “the quiet room.” His imprisonment is a direct visual parallel to the traveler the Beast imprisoned earlier in the show, but of course, unlike the Beast’s prisoner, Penny doesn’t have that tattoo limiting his teleporting abilities, so he hauls ass out of there.

The worst of it isn’t over yet though, because even once the foursome reunites, they still have to get what they came for: the magical button that will transport them to Fillory. Quentin comes up with a clever way to distract Pluvver’s sister, and they dig up George’s corpse to fish the button out of his pocket. I’m amazed Quentin managed it without getting sick, which is what I would have done.

Home safe at Brakebills, Penny throws caution to the wind and tests the button, disappearing right in front of Quentin.

Adaptation and Impact

Julia’s story this week took a turn I wasn’t expecting, and I’m less confident that Richard is leading her towards the Free Traders. Instead of being a safe haven, Richard’s style of magic is turning out to be just as destructive and awful as the rest of the magic that Julia has been exposed to. If this continues, I think it will undercut the betrayal Julia feels when this all goes to hell. Again.

I do worry that the show went a little too far with their hints that Christopher Pluvver is the Beast. Surely everyone caught the moths in his study — mounted on a white canvas, they jumped out of the background like a spotlight, which I’m sure was the point. There’s misdirection, and then there’s misleading.

We’re supposed to see the parallels between Quentin and Martin in their love for Fillory and their desperation to get there. Fillory represents happiness and escape to both of them. It’s understandable that this would give Quentin personal reasons to want to strangle Christopher Pluvver (who he thinks is the Beast), as he says when they return to Brakebills. I can see how it would be a nice bait and switch for Quentin to go to Fillory to bring justice to Pluvver on behalf of Martin, only to discover the true identity of the Beast. I wondered last week what was going motivate Quentin to go to Fillory when everything we learn about it is so terrible, and this may just be it. But if they go this route, I feel like they’ll be undercutting one of the central themes of the book, the tragedy of having your dreams come true only to have them turn into nightmares. The longing that Quentin feels for Fillory is far more desperate than anything so common as revenge, and it’s a feeling that I think a lot of readers relate to.

From The Magicians, Chapter 1,

In Fillory there’s an eclipse every day at noon, and seasons can last for hundreds of years. Bare trees scratch at the sky. Pale green seas lap at narrow white beaches made of broken shells. In Fillory things mattered in a way they didn’t in this world. In Fillory you felt the appropriate emotions when things happened. Happiness was a real, actual, achievable possibility.It came when you called. Or no, it never left you in the first place.

That Fillory is still out there, Quentin. Don’t let the Beast distract you.  

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    Andy is a certified master of Getting Shit Done, and has absolutely no chill.

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