Tuesday, May 21, 2024

The Magicians Review: Season 1, Episode 8, “The Strangled Heart”

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People who try to sell The Magicians as a “sexy Harry Potter” strike me as amusingly tone deaf. I understand the marketing angle — adding sex is just like drizzling hot fudge on top of the ice cream sundae that is magic, right? The thing that this approach fundamentally misunderstands is that while they may have a similar premise — kid goes away to magic school — the two series are trying to tell very different stories. Harry Potter is about wish fulfillment, and The Magicians, if it’s about anything, is about how that ephemeral yearning for a fantasy can turn into soul-crushing bitterness. It’s about the awful realization that you are too small to achieve your dreams, and that even when you do get them, happy endings don’t end and don’t make you happy.


This review will do a high-level recap of the episode as a whole to talk about the major themes, with a separate section devoted to analyzing the impact of the adaptational changes. Here be spoilers for all three books in the series, so ye be warned!

TW for references to drug use and rehab.



This episode follows two main threads: Julia’s stint in rehab, which explores the metaphor of the show’s tagline (“Magic is a drug”), while the Brakebills crew struggles with…love. Contrasted like that, there’s an argument to be made that this show is saying that love can be a destructive force to these characters, which does not bode well for Alice and Quentin’s kiss at the end of this episode. But we’ll get there!

Julia’s story this episode is a literal spin on the show’s tagline: Julia is in rehab for magic. We don’t see her explain what she’s in for, but I’m going to go ahead and headcanon that it’s for Adderall, which ties back to the lie she told James, and to Penny’s drug use in this episode. (How Adderall would shut down the voices in Penny’s head is anyone’s guess.) As drug use goes, Adderall might make a nice real-world parallel to magic — something that is effective when you use it as intended, but that puts you at risk for abuse and dependence. I’m not sure if the show intends that kind of symbolism but I’ll be paying attention to see if it comes up again.

Julia being in rehab at all is surprising in that she’s landed here awfully fast. It’s part of a larger problem the show has had with pacing their first season, as we haven’t really seen enough of Julia for this to feel earned. In just a few episodes, she became so obsessed with magic it destroyed her life! Twice! Burning out on magic makes sense in the context of Kady’s mother gruesome death a few episodes back, and Julia’s sister’s desire to straighten her out before her family comes down on her. But for the audience, it’s hard to invest in Julia’s desire to go clean because it so clearly isn’t going to last.

Surprise, bitch! I bet you totally didn't think you'd seen the last of me.
Surprise, bitch! I bet you totally didn’t think you’d seen the last of me.

This is confirmed by the brief appearance of Marina, apparently here to apologize, which I don’t think we’re supposed to take seriously for a second. It serves to show that there is still unfinished business between the two of them, and to underline that Julia is not done with magic.

Lo and behold, Richard the Chaplain shows up a few minutes later to share a new philosophy of magic. It also gives Julia the opportunity to throw some shade on some old white guys — sorry, dicks.

 “Give a man hope and a nickel...got a nickel.” “Who said that?” “Some dick.”
“Give a man hope and a nickel…got a nickel.” “Who said that?” “Some dick.”

The chaplain posits that magic is a tool leftover from the creation of the universe, and gives Julia a spell that asks for the blessing of Our Lady of the Green in order to float in the air. I found it unspeakably ominous to see Julia experience this spell in light of what we know is coming for her, especially when she describes it as as a spell being cast on her, instead of flowing through her. Clearly, I’m in danger of over-extending the drug metaphor when I wonder if that’s more like asking your doctor for a prescription, or someone lacing your pot with PCP without your knowledge.

Julia’s storyline does not relate back to Brakebills directly, but we do see echoes of her struggles in Dean Fogg. It’s truly heartbreaking to see his attempts to regain the use of his hands, which is a testament to the work the show has done relating how important magic is to these characters. It’s also a striking contrast to Julia’s desperation to get her hands on magic, and to see how they each handle that loss. Dean Fogg has built his career around his magical ability, so I think it’s fair to say that magic is more central to his identity than it is to Julia’s so far. His ties to the magical community (I assume) protect him from losing access to magic entirely, but his injuries stole his ability to practice it himself.

I was almost disappointed to see Dean Fogg successfully cast a spell towards the end of this episode to defeat Mike, as I was hoping they’d use his injuries as an opportunity to talk about ableism and how that relates to magic and other skills. The show has been exploring mental illness from a lot of different angles, but they’ve passed up opportunities to have the same conversations about physical disabilities. I’m hoping this is something they’ll return to a little down the road, as after all, it’s so Earth-centric to assume that you need hands to do magic…

While less thematically compelling, the main action of this episode is driven by the Brakebills crew, all of whom are struggling with their romantic relationships.

I hope to talk more about Alice in future recaps, but suffice to say that I am less than thrilled with what they’ve done with her character so far. On the TV show, Alice as a character seems to have been reduced to Peter Pan collars and ill fitting skirts.

For once everyone looks as uncomfortable as Alice.
For once everyone looks as uncomfortable as Alice.

It’s hard to get a good sense of what the actress is going for — she hunches over so much and she doesn’t ever seem to speak naturally. I think it’s supposed to come across as socially awkward, but it does a good impression of bad acting. The character has also been written inconsistently — just two episodes ago, Alice’s innermost secret was that she is so good at magic she has to hold herself back. But the show hasn’t shown us a whole lot of evidence to back that up — we hear other characters refer to her as smart, and a hard worker, and a bookworm, but we rarely see her outshine her classmates. When she and Quentin have to break into the Cottage, Alice gives up after the first try, and Quentin is the one to suggest she use her phosphoromancy to burn a hole in the door. When Alice and Quentin confront Charlie the Niffin, it’s Alice’s spell that fails, and Quentin has to save her with the niffin box.

They do a somewhat better job of showing Alice’s aptitude at Brakebills South, when she is the first one to bore a nail through a board, but that’s undercut by the romance subplot, where Mayakovsky suggests that the unresolved sexual tension between them is holding them back as magicians. Basically, Alice is only as smart as the plot demands in a particular moment.

The inconsistency of Alice’s character has a bad effect on her chemistry with Quentin and makes it difficult to see why these two people would even like each other. In this episode, Quentin is ready to jump into a relationship with Alice after their experience at Brakebills South, but she’s more hesitant. She wants to slow down and make sure their feelings are real. When Alice says to Quentin she doesn’t want him to act like he loves her because “I’d know it wasn’t really you” the unspoken yet deafening subtext is that Alice is insecure that Quentin doesn’t have real feelings for her. I can’t even blame her for thinking this, because Quentin doesn’t try to talk to her about it, he just leaves the room.

Alice's finger speaks for all of us. SLOW DOWN, PLEASE!
Alice’s finger speaks for all of us. SLOW DOWN, PLEASE!

It’s not a great start to a relationship, and it’s even less good once Quentin manipulates the study groups so that he ends up working with Alice…and Penny.

Throwing the three of them together so often is a great way to highlight the tension between them, which I hope will have satisfying payoff as we get closer to Fillory. In the meantime, it also sets up Penny to call Quentin out on his Nice Guy behavior.


“You act like a stalker. And then go out of your way to deny that you’re interested.” -Penny


It’s so refreshing to see someone called out for this kind of behavior when it’s so often portrayed as romantic, especially in the Young Adult genre. Quentin’s failure to be honest and own his feelings is one of his least likable traits, so I’m all for turning them into teachable moments.

Penny is maybe not the best person to be lecturing people on emotional honesty though, since this episode shows he’s not handling Kady’s departure all that well himself. He teleports a water bomb on Professor Sunderland’s class (douchey and pretentious — that sounds like Book!Penny!) before trying to seduce her in the creepiest way possible. I’m a little disappointed she didn’t shut his ass down just on general principle. Penny is clearly dealing with his feelings by not dealing with them, and he brushes off Quentin’s probing, only to be probed with Mike’s knife instead.

I’ve saved the best for last, because it’s really Eliot’s plot this week that moves the story forward. The entire episode opens on Eliot nervously making cocktails for his new boyfriend Mike, who doesn’t even appreciate them, so clearly this relationship is doomed from the start.

"I finally found that recipe for magical gin!"
“I finally found that recipe for magical gin!”

It’s painful to watch Eliot open up to Mike, when we know that Mike is a minion of the Beast. When Eliot shares his past with Mike, he explicitly tells us that Margo (MIA this week) is the only one who knows his real story. Despite all his flashy innuendo, you get the sense that it’s rare for Eliot to be dating someone, which has some unfortunate implications that I’ll talk more about in the adaptation analysis section.

The Beast sends Mike a special knife via a white rabbit, that Mike, charmingly, has to kill and behead to get the knife out. I guess they don’t have FedEx in Fillory? Mike attacks Quentin but ends up injuring Penny, and spends the rest of the episode in the dungeon in order to bring tragedy to everyone else.

Eliot obviously takes Mike’s seeming betrayal pretty hard, and you can see the hurt behind his eyes when he goes to confront him and learns that Mike has no memory of their time together, or of Eliot at all. It leaves you feeling pretty uncomfortable about their relationship and what the Beast has done to both of them.

Penny’s wound is the subject of much speculation, especially once it appears to start growing stuff. I feel like there’s a dick joke to be made here around a vine growing out of his stomach but it’s just too weird. Quentin is the one who figures out the weapon is from Fillory, and suggests replicating the cure from the books by burning a doll to represent Penny. It’s totally surreal to be talking seriously about fictional books, and part of me wondered why on earth anyone would even let them try this cure, except that of course they would, because it’s totally ridiculous, and the real cure is obviously to burn either Penny’s drugs or an inexplicable Brakebills South chocolate bar wrapper.

This suggestion comes from Jane Chatwin — or sorry, Eliza, because I guess it was supposed to be subtle that the only blonde English woman on this show was the same character as the only blonde English girl — immediately before she confronts Mike, and through him the Beast, who squeezes her so hard she explodes (off-screen, thankfully).

Luckily Dean Fogg appears as the Beast breaks out of his prison, and I guess fear — and adrenaline — triggers the reappearance of his magical ability. But even though he gets a good hit in, it’s not enough, and Eliot (tragically) has to kill his boyfriend. RIP Mike. I hope we learn more about how the Beast possessed you.

The episode closes with Alice anxiously awaiting Quentin at the Cottage, where they fall into each other’s arms. The concern they show for one another in this scene is one of the few times their relationship feels real.



By far the biggest change from the books is Jane Chatwin’s bloody death at the hands of the Beast.

As far as I’m concerned, I won’t believe that Jane is really dead until we see the body, but I want to talk through what the implications might be.

The show has implied that Jane is working closely with Dean Fogg to get Quentin — and maybe his friends? — ready to fight the Beast. Between Penny’s gift and all the messages from Fillory, this group is probably capable of figuring out enough to get to Fillory on their own. Jane isn’t necessary for that, though it’s hard to see right now what their motivation is going to be to go there in the first place. Fillory sounds awful so far.  

Jane’s power as the Watcher Woman, capable of rewinding time to tweak the circumstances of the battle against the Beast, is likewise probably not mission critical, although in my opinion we’d lose some of the horror of that story without it. Jane also shows up again in Magician’s Land, book 3, in sort of a fun cameo.

The real problem with killing her character now is that they lose the opportunity to use her more in the future. Jane is a character who could be used for a lot of exposition, not to mention create more carryover between the worlds of Brakebills and Fillory.  

I can't think of any other characters who were killed off in total missed opportunities for exposition...
I can’t think of any other characters who were killed off in total missed opportunities for exposition…

A great example of this kind of exposition is the knife that injured Penny. The spell is also an example of the quality of changes in this adaptation, and I call it out to talk about their spellwork. It might not be recognized as medical science, but there is a poetic symmetry to the idea that this curse requires a person to sacrifice the object most precious to them in place of their heart. Most of the spells we learn about have this quality, which makes it really jarring to see a spell that doesn’t. (Please someone explain to me the symbolism between sharing your innermost self and turning into a goose.) The depiction of magic on this show is generally well-done, and we see a lot of complex finger movements that callback to the emphasis on those muscles in the books.

Mike’s character — and the entire story that follows him — is a wholesale invention of the show, and one that I think works well as a storytelling device. It brings Eliot to the center of the main story, and creates a lot of opportunities for his character growth. Eliot is magnificent this episode, from crafting the perfect dinner for his new lover, making himself vulnerable to him, and of course the betrayal he feels when it turns out Mike, apparently possessed by the Beast, doesn’t remember anything of their time together. Nothing about this story is presented in a less than respectful way or implies that Eliot’s sexuality is problematic.

However, the fact that Eliot is gay and it’s his love interest they chose to do this with has some unfortunate implications. Giving quality storylines to queer characters is an important part of representation, and I don’t want to imply that this is a bad story by any means. Creating love interests that turn out to be evil is a time honored trope and it works as well here as it does anywhere. But we’re seeing something of a trend with shows that purport to have progressive gay characters, while their love interests aren’t treated as seriously as their straight counterparts, and often come and go very quickly.

Here, the problem isn’t with Mike and Eliot’s romance itself, but with the fact that Eliot was the one that was available to get a Secretly Evil Love Interest. Most of the other characters on this show are already coupled up — even Penny, whose serious love interest is also a complete invention. (Margo is the only other major character at Brakebills who is unspoken for, and she’s completely absent from this episode — as is Kady, and the fact that it’s the female characters who get sidelined is also telling.) I’m tired of seeing the love interests of queer characters be the ones who are invented to fulfill side plots. I’m tired of seeing queer characters killed off to advance the plot of other characters. I’m tired of giving out door prizes for “not offensive.” It’s time to raise the bar.

I’m not suggesting that anything we’ve seen so far with Eliot is inherently problematic, or intentional for that matter, but I do think this story a symptom of the fact that they aren’t giving his love interests the same kind of attention they are giving to the other couples on this show. I’m also willing to trust the writers to do better with this with in the future. Eliot is becoming one of my favorite characters and I’m betting he’ll get a lot more screen time next season.

Chaplain Richard is a new invention of the show, but his philosophy does seem to tie back to Julia’s second magical education in France, so I’m going to assume that’s where this is going for now. The two characters have a weird dynamic that strikes me as somewhat sexual — and man am I anxious to be proved wrong.

The real problem with this change — assuming this is leading to the Free Traders — is that it doesn’t show us how smart Julia is! I know Julia accuses Quentin of having magic handed to him, but on the show Julia herself has very conveniently run into an awful lot of people willing to teach her magic. In the books, Julia is all on her own, and when she’s finally offered the clue towards the magical Free Traders, it’s a hellishly complicated multi-step process. (The morse code smoke signals is where you would have lost me, for the record.) It’s a disservice to Julia’s considerable intelligence, which taken together with other abbreviations to her story, Alice’s flatness, and the sidelining of other major female characters…well, it’s not a great pattern.

It’s also just a shame. Julia is awesome.

Julia is awesome

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