Episode 11 of The Magicians, “Remedial Battle Magic” makes a convoluted mess out of the preparations for Fillory, and doesn’t do itself any favors with its invented material. The episode is confusing as hell for book readers and newbies alike, as the show trades character development and worldbuilding for cheap shocking! moments.
This review is going to be light on the recap and heavy on the analysis, including book spoilers.
Really, extra strong warning for book spoilers even in the recap section.
Trigger warnings for references to suicide and rape.
Magicians vs Gods
The main purpose of this episode is to up the threat of the Beast: he knows about us, he’s coming for us, he is psychologically torturing Penny to get him to kill himself. This episode is all about preparing to go to Fillory.
This doesn’t really tie back to Julia’s storyline at all — we seem to be missing a villain in her world — and honestly, Julia’s plot this week is pretty weak. Richard sends Kady and Julia to work their way up the supernatural tree, starting with a vampire, and leading to a lamia, who takes the form of Kady’s mother to either torture them or give them peace. It’s not really clear which, and…it’s not really how lamias work, either.
But Julia and Kady hold hands, which gave me ALL THE FEELS. Exploring a close and meaningful friendship between these two women is all I wanted, and I hope the show continues to show us more of them in the next couple episodes.
And while truly, a strong friendship would be enough for me, how awesome would it be for this show to give us a pair of badass bisexual magicians?
TOO AWESOME FOR WORDS IS THE ANSWER.
The other important thing we learn in this episode is that Julia is “god touched” which is apparently why the floaty spell Richard gave her a few episodes ago actually worked. Richard is convinced that Julia’s presence is going to help them track down a god — this despite the fact that both the vampire and the lamia think the gods are dead.
Maybe they’re not dead. Maybe they just packed off to Everworld. Maybe there’s an Olympus Motel 6 in Fillory and some pyra-freaking-mids.
Julia also has a dream in which Our Lady Underground (OLU) appears to her. First Julia’s hands fill with milk, and then with silver coins, before OLU appears and gives her a map to man in Dumbo who will apparently help them if Julia brings him three gifts.
I’m thrilled they cast an actual black woman to play the black Madonna character but I think our foreknowledge from the books would advise CAUTION. The continued use of the depressing blue filter and the lack of another villain means we’re looking around every corner for the catch. We know it’s coming, we just don’t know what it’s going to be, and I think it’s very likely that this appearance of OLU, and the map she provides, are going to turn out to be a trick.
This despite the complete lack of references to a trickster.
Conceal, Don’t Feel
The Brakebills, meanwhile, are debriefing after Penny’s sojourn in the Neitherlands. I’m glad that Margo at least finds Alice and Quentin’s sex spell as hilarious as I do, but there’s very little else in this scene that is especially funny. Quentin is reading the pages on Martin Chatwin that Penny brought back from the Library, which say that Martin was looking for a special knife capable of killing a god — hey, there’s something book fans should recognize! The Brakebills crew seems to officially think Plover is the Beast, and that’s who Martin wanted to kill. It is both reasonable for them to think that, and will be absolutely mindblowing when they find out the truth.
What comes next is essentially a fakeout. We see that the Beast has attacked the “PA” aka Practical Applications class — another thing that only book fans would recognize! — killing pretty much everyone but OH WAIT it’s only a spell. This “dream sequence” trope came across as especially tacky given that it was these scenes SyFy showed in the promo for this episode.
The “Probability Spell” essentially lets them play out different scenarios to see what would happen. I guess this is one way to substitute for Jane’s time traveling watch, but who the hell wrote this spell? How does it work? How does the spell account for the approximately eight billion variables at play? How would you even do quality control on something like this?
These are the questions to be asking, people. Magical QA!
So the Brakebills group decides to learn battle magic so that they can go to Fillory and attack the Beast head on. I get that their reasoning is that going to Fillory has the highest chance of success but…people don’t usually make decisions that way, where they choose to dive headfirst into certain danger. It’s as true in the real world as it is in fantasy: people are reluctant to disrupt the status quo, even when being proactive is the best way to mitigate risk. (Which of course, us armchair analysts get to judge them for. I’m lookin at you, Fudge.) They tend to rely on their instincts or something equally emotional to make things come out in their favor, even when the math doesn’t bear them out. I’m totally thrown off by the fact that the Brakebills crew actually listens to logic.
Most importantly, their quest to learn battle magic leads them to Kady, who apparently has been meditating/learning battle magic for at least ten years. The shows does a really bad job explaining why the hell battle magic is so difficult, I think to increase the surprise factor of the spell the group later performs to remove their emotions so they can do battle magic. Even for book readers, the idea that battle magic is that hard is confusing, and the way they present the “Vulcan emotions” spell as an aide implies that the reason for that is your emotions. But I think it’s something that goes over the head of non-book readers, because the show has likewise not done a good job explaining that casting while emotional is dangerous because it can turn you into a niffin.
The Vulcan spell itself is pretty awesome, and it’s fun to watch our characters interact with each other without emotion. (Magical QA: what happens if they drink each other’s bottles of emotions?)
There’s a couple levels of foreshadowing here too: first with Margo, Eliot, and Quentin, who want to continue using the spell both to master battle magic and as a relief from their emotions, and then with Alice, who deliberately chooses not to unburden herself, even though it’s difficult.
All of this is leading towards the confrontation between Quentin, Margo, and Eliot, and as soon as Margo showed up to help the drunken Kings upstairs I started chanting no. No, no, Alice and Quentin have barely gotten together, surely they aren’t going to blow up their relationship this early.
Welp, I was wrong.
To add insult to injury, Margo gets Alice’s lines in these scenes.
“You really believe in magic, don’t you?”
Even within this single episode, I don’t understand why they would choose to make Julia “god touched” or, in common fantasy literary parlance, “The Chosen One.” Now we find out that Richard didn’t expect the first spell he gave Julia to work. He was testing her, which means that the spiel he gave her on his new philosophy of magic was bullshit. I’m starting to hate Richard the Chaplain.
Chosen One narratives in fantasy are more common than dragons. I pretty much always hate them, because they are usually a device used to explain why a seemingly normal dude otherwise inexplicably gets to do something he isn’t qualified for. Doing it well requires something extra — something like the self-fulfilling prophecy that binds Harry and Voldemort together, or thousands of years of powerful, magical lineage distilled into unique power, a la Jon Snow.
I think it’s fair to say that one of the things Grossman was doing with The Magicians was subverting several of these traditional fantasy tropes, mostly with Quentin, but Julia too to an extent. It’s hard to say whether or not “The Chosen One” is one of those tropes he was trying to subvert — certainly in later books he goes all-in on Quentin’s heroism, but in the first book, Quentin is very much not the hero. Penny is the one with the teleportation powers. Alice is the best at magic. I think you could even argue that Quentin’s contribution to defeating the Beast is pretty minimal.
So why is he even there? Jane Chatwin. Her confrontation with him in Fillory while he is healing from his wounds suggests that she has been preparing him for the confrontation with the Beast for a very long time, before he even entered Brakebills. We see this on the show too, in Jane’s opening conversation with Dean Fogg.
But why choose Quentin, rather than any of his more talented friends? It’s never explained in the text, and it’s equally likely that Quentin’s love for Fillory is what makes him special. However, my headcanon is that Jane chose Quentin after he accidentally let the Beast into the classroom in his second(ish) year at Brakebills. That event made him a target of the Beast, and so Jane’s appearance at Quentin’s interview in Brooklyn is actually Time Traveling Jane, who has now retroactively decided to prepare Quentin to be her champion. Quentin may have been lowercase chosen to face the Beast, but he was not destined for it from the get-go. For sure, it’s a convoluted needle to thread, between Time Travel shenanigans and destiny, but given Quentin’s relative mediocrity, it’s the only thing that makes sense to me.
Julia’s “chosen-ness” within the books is equally questionable. It’s true that OLU appears to Julia in a dream prior to her ascendance, as she does in this episode, but again, I don’t think this is a sign that it was always Julia’s destiny to become a goddess. This is a controversial topic, but in my opinion, Julia’s ascendance is not a happy ending, and it was not a reward for her harrowing journey. Becoming a goddess was the only way to salvage what was left of Julia after everything she went through. It was a gift, yes, but not one that she was chosen for due to any unique quality or talent.
By calling Julia “god touched” the show is suggesting that becoming a goddess is Julia’s eventual destiny, and given that her humanity is destroyed after she is raped by a god, that has some really troubling implications. Is being raped part of Julia’s destiny? Are they setting up her rape as a fair trade for divinity?
We’re heading into the penultimate chapter of this season, and unless I’m missing something, there’s been no sign of Reynard the Fox. It’s hard to imagine that the show could shoehorn him in now in an organic way.
So…what does this mean for Julia?
At this point I’m kind of hoping that the show will take a pass on Julia’s rape, and find some other way to take away her humanity. Despite the fact that I think The Magician King performs better than average on the “rape as a plot device” scale, the elements I outlined above show why it’s still problematic. We maybe have enough stories about rape right now. It’s not that you can’t ever tell stories about rape, but you definitely need to handle them sensitively, and at this point I’m not sure I trust the show to do it well. They haven’t consistently been good with their handling of other sensitive issues like depression, suicide, and their treatment of women in general.
This threesome had to happen, I guess, but the context of how it plays out on the show is very different from the books, and kind of makes me dislike Quentin a lot more. In the books, Quentin and Alice have been a couple for years, and are living together post-graduation in an endless, aimless, self-medicated bender — or at least Quentin is. Alice is doing her own research and putting up with his crap.
I can’t possibly excuse Quentin’s behavior in the books, but I can at least understand that their relationship was crumbling and that Quentin’s cheating was a symptom of that. On the show however, Quentin and Alice have barely gotten together, and they are still in the full bloom of their love. We see this when Alice, coming off the Vulcan spell, practically word-vomits how much she loves Quentin. Given that everything we’ve seen up until now indicates he returns her love in equal measure, it makes it even shittier that he cheats on her now.
The seeding of the cheating is pretty poor — Margo has barely been around lately, and there’s been no hint of any feelings between her and Quentin. (While in the books, Janet’s perpetual desire to sleep with everyone is explicitly called out.) The show implies it’s a symptom of the Vulcan spell, which makes me pretty uncomfortable.
The show has had really mixed results when it comes to its handling of depression. As a person who struggles with it myself, there are times when I hear echoes of my own experiences. Quentin’s statement tonight “This is what trying looks like,” really resonated with me. But in the context of him cheating on Alice, I felt like the show was trying to lessen Quentin’s responsibility in the whole affair. And he already does a terrible job of taking responsibility for his mistakes, he doesn’t need any more excuses.
Still, at the end of the day, we’re definitely left with a powderkeg to carry with us into Fillory, which is probably the most important takeaway.