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‘The Magicians’ Did What ‘The Last of Us’ 80-Minute Long Episode 3 Did In 5 Minutes

"Guess this leg of the quest is you and me."

a life in a day the magicians

Water cooler conversation is at a rare high after The Last of Us Episode 3, “Long Long Time.” I’m particularly thrilled that many fans made the same connection that I did to another love story in another genre series. The way that The Last of Us zoomed through Bill and Frank’s falling in love and growing old together in “Long Long Time” is reminiscent of The Magicians Season 3, Episode 5 “A Life in a Day.” Only the SyFy series did it in about a tenth of the time and with characters we already know. I wish we still got invested and obsessed with network television because they can do this in their sleep.

If you haven’t watched TLOU or the latest episode, but are curious as to what the fuss is about, let me sum it up. The Last of Us Episode 3 took a departure from the show’s main narrative centering on the post-apocalyptic road trip adventures of Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsay). While it utilized a flashback format established by the previous two episodes, this flashback took up about 2/3 of the extended run time. It tells the story of two of Joel’s allies: Bill, played by Nick Offerman, and Frank, played by Murray Bartlett.

The two diametrically opposed survivors meet, build a life together with ups and downs, and after just under two decades together decide to die by suicide. The bittersweet end is punctuated by a note that Bill leaves for Joel about the importance of protecting the people you love–something that I don’t think Joel believes he is good at, especially after losing his own partner in the previous episode.

As far as episodic television goes, “Long Long Time” didn’t work as well for me as it seems to have for almost everyone else. Let me be upfront about that. I don’t think it’s bad. I liked it, but I didn’t love it, and I have difficulty calling something that’s 80 minutes long the “best episode of television.” If what you think is the best episode of television is that long, you might just prefer movies. I have some other minor quibbles that don’t bear mentioning because I don’t want to be too negative about something that clearly resonated with people; I just prefer other standalone or two-hander episodes of television to this one. Please don’t crucify me for being a tiny bit snarky. It’s giving me an opportunity to talk about The Magicians, so I can’t be that mad.

What I do love is that a romantic tale centering two older men is inspiring so much passion from fans of a show based on a video game. You don’t see that every day. And it’s wonderful when a season of television pauses to tell a love story. I also love that. When the show in question is not inherently romantic by nature of the premise or genre? Even better! It’s so important that a tragedy has moments of comedy and a comedy has moments of tragedy. It breaks the tension. It’s human. Good fantasy storytelling should have moments of grounded human drama, and the best horror and science fiction story needs to have romance and heart.

Season 3, Episode 5 of The Magicians is not a standalone episode. But Quentin and Eliot’s storyline in this episode stands alone from the season and the series. As part of a quest, the two friends find themselves transported not only to the magical Narnia-esque realm called Fillory where they spend a lot of their time, but decades if not centuries in the past. They need to find a key, and in order to do they they need to “solve” a tile mosaic by using it to show “the beauty of all life.” Quentin and Eliot spend hours, days, and weeks bickering over an art project. That’s rare and wonderful in and of itself.

On their anniversary, they share a kiss that they choose not to overthink. Years continue to pass. Quentin marries a woman and has a child with her. Some years later his wife dies, and he raises the child with Eliot. They go on to live together for 50 years. When Quentin goes to bury Eliot, who has passed of old age, he finds a hidden mosaic tile that solves the puzzle and delivers the key. The puzzle’s solution is that the beauty of all life is a life shared with someone you love.

Before Quentin himself passes in the past, he arranges for a letter to be sent to their friend Margo at an occasion he knows will happen in Fillory’s future. She then stops Quentin and Eliot from going to Fillory to solve the mosaic in the present, since they solved it in the past. (By some time loop magic, that works fine. Don’t overthink it.) But that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. The two somehow, all at once, remember the life they had together and the love they shared in the alternate timeline. A full season later, we learn that Quentin called those AU memories the “proof of concept” that they work as a couple. My heart!

Both episodes show a same-sex relationship between older adults, something that is on the uptick but unfortunately still a bit sparse in storytelling. (Where are my Grace and Frankie fans at? Have you guys heard about Our Flag Means Death?) Both make use of old-age makeup. There are similar themes of connection, even though one show is about magic grad school and another is about mushroom zombies. Both episodes, oddly enough, feature letters as key plot devices. And both self-contained love stories have ultimately happy endings. Yes, it’s a little weird to call a double suicide a happy ending—but a mushroom zombie apocalypse is not exactly a normal circumstance. Choosing your death could be considered a privilege. As I said before, it’s bittersweet. Both Bill and Quentin in their respective episodes insist, in their own ways, that their story isn’t sad because they have led full lives.

The biggest difference, of course, is that the characters on The Magicians get to stand up and move on to the next episode and the characters on The Last of Us do not. Bill and Frank are for real dead. But “Long Long Time” episode isn’t necessarily a “bury your gays” scenario. It does create the same result as some of those scenarios historically, which is to confine a queer relationship to a single episode in a series, but that’s a quibble for another day and The Magicians is kinda guilty of that too. Also … we don’t need to talk about the rest of The Magicians. Everything worked out fine, right?

That, and The Magicians is a 43-minute long SyFy series and The Last of Us is an HBO series with multiple feature-length episodes. One of the love stories I described is a five-minute montage and the other is an hour-long departure. Both the runtime and the continuity are symptoms of the same issue. Streaming networks have allowed for some incredibly creative work and I love prestige television as much as the next gal. But we’ve got to give it up for regular ol’ long-running network television. It’s efficient. It’s economical. Quentin and Eliot’s mosaic timeline serves the story going forward without overshadowing the ensemble. It stands out without upstaging. Remember how great it was when The Good Place did weird little episodes like “Janet(s)” that were surprising and romantic and not a complete departure from the plot? Have you seen the Skins Season 2 episode “Chris”? It’s lovely!

Shows like The Magicians, Lost, Doctor Who, Merlin, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Walking Dead, Supernatural, etc. knew how to pack an emotional punch without taking up your entire evening. It’s something that television as a medium can do really well. I like The Last of Us fine, I just wish “Long Long Time” hadn’t been so dang, well, long.

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Leah is 50% Southerner, 50% New Englander, and 100% fangirl over everything from Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter to stage lighting and Marvel comics about teenagers. She used to test toys for Hasbro (true story).