First off: group hug. That was a tough one, and I may still be crying. This season of Syfy’s The Magicians has been a journey full of huge powerful highlights: Margo’s cathartic musical self-actualization, Eliot’s happy place escape, Alice’s slow, careful redemption and reclamation of her humanity, that time Josh was a fish for a whole episode and it was weirdly romantic.
The Magicians has always been a show about growing up—about the hard realization that the world is painful and unfair, even when there’s magic in it. It’s a show about trauma and pain, the reality of loss, and how nothing has an easy, magical answer. Sometimes you’re not the chosen one, and sometimes the important stories are the ones we forget to examine.
Nowhere has that been more true than in the fourth season finale, “No Better to Be Safe Than Sorry,” and in the shocking and truly devastating death of the series’ ostensible lead character: Quentin Coldwater, played with exquisite vulnerability and pathos by Jason Ralph. To lose a main character is always hard, but losing the theoretical lead of a show is massive. However, in hindsight, Quentin’s death is where the season, and perhaps the entire series, has been leading for a long time.
Fans knew a big death was coming, ever since we saw Penny 40 greet an old friend in the underworld in the midseason finale. The odds seemed about even that it might be Penny’s lost love Kady, monster-possessed Eliot or Julia, or perhaps even Alice, who spent most of the season atoning for her myriad crimes in seasons two and three.
I don’t think anyone expected that it would be Quentin who would sacrifice his life to expel the monsters into the seam between the regular universe and the mirror realm. His discipline of minor mending finally saved the day. It was sudden, and the scene of his death was a perfect mix of music, effects, and a heartrending performance by Olivia Taylor Dudley, who channeled every viewer’s horror and grief at seeing Quentin turned to ash before our eyes.
But what was more devastatingly beautiful was what came after, as Penny counseled his old frenemy about whether his life mattered. “Did I die doing something brave to save my friends?” Quentin asked. The answer was a complicated and heartbreaking yes.
This has been a season about grief and loss. We saw Quentin grieve his father and the lost resolution they never had. We saw Julia deal with the loss of her godly powers. Kady moved on from the loss of Penny—or tried to. Eliot revisited his greatest tragedy: the loss of a real chance with Quentin. Alice tried to do good after losing the trust of her friends. Margo grieved for her soulmate and best friend and the pain of living in a world where a woman cannot be strong and beautiful and free. Josh ate those scones off the floor.
Quentin … he grieved the loss of his dreams. This is the loss every adult knows, when the promises our parents and our fiction made to us—that everything would work out, that there would be a better world—proved false. In the previous episode, in a beautiful monologue to a plant, Quentin wondered if it was enough to just love an idea, to have hope, and I think in this episode it proved true.
Quentin did die doing something brave, but that wasn’t the point. That point was that he died for something—for the people he loved, who loved him.
The Magicians is a story about story. All the way back in season one, it was all about subverting the story of the chosen one—that special mediocre man who’s destined to save the world while a much more competent woman supports him with hearts in her eyes. Quentin realized, to his horror and dismay, that he wasn’t meant to be anything special. He wasn’t a hero, and was never supposed to be.
This season’s brilliant episode “The Side Effect” reminded viewers that it’s not always the white male protagonist who has the most important story. The story that’s truly important belongs to all of us together. The world wasn’t just saved by Quentin—or Kady, or Dean Fogg—it was saved by everyone choosing to cooperate together.
Magic comes from pain, but it can do more, it can save and heal and perhaps hurt less when we share that pain together Quentin’s sacrifice didn’t matter just because of what he did, but because of what he meant to the ones left behind.
Genre television is magic, literally. We could never see a scene of perfect grief set to a plaintive magical sing-along of Aha’s “Take on Me” on This is Us. Penny gifted Quentin with the closure of seeing his own funeral, as the people he touched mourned him, including the two loves of his life, Alice and Eliot, who held hands as they said goodbye.
I know this hurts for Queliot and Qualice shippers alike, but what matters is not who got the guy in the end, but that they both loved him, and that altered their lives forever. Penny said it: “The story for them, it’s just starting, but it won’t be the same story—because of you. You didn’t just save their lives; you changed their lives.”
Quentin Coldwater mattered, not because he was chosen, but because he loved and he had faith—because, as Eliot said, he was good and true. Quentin was a different kind of hero, the kind that ceded his spotlight to others, who let the story not be all about him. The producers on the show released a statement to the same effect:
“When we first met Quentin Coldwater, he was in a mental hospital, contending with painful questions of life and death. This season, we saw the rare opportunity to complete his arc, bringing him to a real understanding of the incalculable value of his own life. Quentin, and we, got to see the truth: there is no such thing as a Minor Mending. The smallest action can ripple out in powerful ways we may never fully know.”
And now that story is over. Quentin has moved on to …p eace? We don’t know, and there’s some beauty in that. Although Sera Gamble and Jon MacNamara have been very clear that Quentin is gone, there may be hope we’ll see Jason Ralph again in some form. And hey, the producers on Game of Thrones said the same thing about Jon Snow, and he’s now alice and boning his aunt. There’s always hope in genre, in so many ways.
We won’t know what’s in store until season five airs next year, but while we wait, we have a story that’s complete. A story that mattered.
(image: Eric Milner/Syfy)
Jessica Mason is a writer and lawyer living in Portland, Oregon passionate about corgis, fandom, and awesome girls. Follow her on Twitter at @FangirlingJess.
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