Content Warning: This review discusses an attempted pregnancy termination, forced violence/possession, and major character death, as depicted on the show.
I’m finally rejoining and catching up with the events of the original books, but that won’t stop me from watching Season 2 of The Magicians! Episode five, “Cheat Day” manages to take several twists and turns in the wake of one of its first major character deaths.
With his hands now intact, thanks to the White Lady’s magic, Penny returns to Brakebills to petition Fogg to help him with a little snag: his newly-grown digits are no longer capable of performing magic. Unable to offer any assistance, Fogg points Penny in the direction of South Antarctica, in hopes that the deranged but brilliant Professor Mayakovsky may have more answers for him.
Meanwhile, Quentin’s return to “life as normal” has taken an aggressively average turn. Employed in the corner office of a nondescript corporation, Quentin discovers that he is not the only magician to have been sent there by Fogg in his appeal to leave the magical world. Making the acquaintance of Emily Greenstreet, the magician who fled Brakebills after her failed beauty spell prompted Alice’s brother Charlie to become an overcharged Niffan, Quentin believes he may have found a genuine friend in his new mundane life. Things complicate themselves when Emily reveals that she still has a fairly severe aversion to practicing magic.
Elsewhere in New York, Julia and Kady try to make sense of the information Marina imparted during her temporary resurrection, and how to use it against Reynard the Fox. After Julia becomes violently sick at the sight of food, she takes a pregnancy test which comes back positive. Julia is afraid that the fetus may be unnatural, but Kady dissuades her from attempting to use magic to fix this; they plan to visit a clinic together.
Back in Fillory, Eliot receives the news that his Fillorian wife, Fen, is pregnant with his child, and not long after, an attempt is made on his life. The man is detained and thrown into the dungeon. As his advisers push for execution, Eliot deliberates on what to do with the assassin, who claims to be a “FU-Fighter” – yep. Ultimately, he is swayed by the prospect of his unborn child into sparing the man’s life.
Mayakovsky agrees to help Penny fix his hands, but only if Penny will assist him in completing his “project”. Bringing Penny to a pile of rope taller than both of them stacked, he instructs Penny to undo all of the knots. When he is done with this task, Mayakovsky gives him a file and requests he turn the wooden dining table into a pile of sawdust.
In smoothing things over, Quentin and Emily decide to have a little “fun”. Their drunken escapades lead them to Emily’s apartment, where under her guidance, Emily and Quentin take turns using magic to impersonate the other’s lost loves. Under the guise of Alice, Quentin and Emily make love together.
At the clinic, as the doctor is about to perform the operation on Julia, she finds she is physically unable to. When the doctor persists in trying, she seems to become possessed. Forced to grab one of the surgical instruments, she plunges it through her own eye. Too drugged up to stop her, Julia calls for Kady’s help, but they are both too late.
As Penny and Mayakovsky take a break to drink, Mayakovsky reveals that he has uncovered readings showing erratic spikes of energy from magic. He worries that magic may soon be at its end. This whole time, Penny has been working on Mayakovsky’s doomsday preparations, releasing pent up magic in order to store it into a magical orb of Mayakovsky’s making. He implores Penny to consider waiting to recover his use of magic, claiming that it might in fact become a blessing should a day come where magic dies.
Fen visits the FU-Fighter in his cell, where he implores her to turn spy against Eliot. It turns out that not only was Fen once a FU-Fighter, but she and this man had a history before her marriage to Eliot.
Leaving Emily behind, Quentin returns back to the doldrums of his new daily life, but not before he spots Alice standing across the street from him – her dress torn and blackened as though bearing the marks of “going Niffan”, her face wan and eyes dark, the very opposite of the illusory Alice that Quentin made love to the previous night. She mouths the words, “help me” to Quentin, but as he moves to go to her, he is nearly struck by a bus. When Quentin regains his footing, Alice is gone.
As I mentioned at the outset, I’m a fan of the books. I enjoy reading them alongside watching the show and seeing how the two intersect and diverge. Take Alice’s death for instance. For reader’s of the books, the death of Alice in episode three, “Divine Elimination”, would have only come as a surprise in terms of its placement in the TV series. While her death is cannon, it comes at the end of Book One, followed by the sequence we saw in “The Flying Forest” (2×04), where Quentin seeks out the White Lady in hopes to bring Alice back to life – sans Penny – and Quentin’s dull adventures in corporate New York per his return from Fillory and self-exile from the world of magic.
That is, until a flying Eliot, Julia, and Janet – to viewers, Margo – bust open his corner office and demand he come back with them to rule.
The Magicians has never pretended to follow the vein of the books, a smart choice in terms of adapting the novels into a TV series in the long run. But it did appear to run fairly parallel to the contents of the first book throughout the duration of Season 1. Right up until the finale, which resulted in The Beast’s escape (in the books), versus the final showdown viewers have only just now witnessed – the ill-fated battle between Alice and Martin Chatwin.
Still, the allure of the TV series is tenfold. The ability to switch between character’s perspectives, as opposed to the very limited view of our problematic protagonist, Quentin, is a fantastic addition. The events of the books overall have been sped up for our viewing, so that by the time the gang discovers Fillory, they are still at school in Brakebills, rather than having graduated.
But above all else, the first season of The Magicians seemed to be hinting at an overarching theme of ‘alternate realities’. Leaving many readers puzzled as to why such errant decisions were made in adapting, like changing “Janet” to “Margo”, or the introduction of Kady as a character in Brakebills. As the show progressed, it began leaving hints that these weren’t misguided or lazy errors, but in fact ‘anomalies’. We understand, as we approach the big “boss fight” with Martin Chatwin at the Well Spring for the finale, that this isn’t the first time Quentin and the gang have attempted this. That Jane Chatwin, Martin’s younger sister and none other than the Watcherwoman herself, has been reversing time with every failed attempt.
With the death of Jane, in “The Strangled Heart” (3×08), we understand that this is the final timeline. It won’t ever reset. And from there, the pretense of alternate realities seems to fall flat on its face.
Or has it?
While we as viewers are no longer privy to how this timeline, alternate to the one from the books, is effecting the events of the story, it is possible that the divergences from the book cannon narrative are still symptoms of Jane’s “tampering”. This could in fact be the reason why Penny accompanies Quentin on what was originally meant to be a soul-wrenching and isolated journey without a satisfying end. Or why Eliot and Margo are already lording over Fillory, rather than only coming to Quentin after months of corporate doldrums to convince him to come along for the ride.
This may even be what is behind Alice’s strange appearance to Quentin in the last moments of “Cheat Day”.
The choice to have ended season one on a fake-out boss fight, only to bring in the cannon battle three episodes into the second season, is still a strange decision, but overall, while many of the series’ adaptational decisions are still not perceived overly favorably, it seems the show still has some cards buried up its sleeves.
So, while Magic may be dying in Fillory, The Magicians still has a touch of it keeping the show alive.