What We Loved and Hated About The Magicians Season Three
Season four of The Magicians returns to SyFy on January 23rd, so we thought it was the perfect time to go through the ups and downs of season three, which is available now on Netflix.
The Mary Sue’s Kaila Hale-Stern and Princess Weekes have just returned from a long journey of binge-watching the most recent season. Here’s what we loved and, well, what we took to just about as well as Alice on Julia’s magic.
Silence Is Golden:
The best episode of the season is surely “Six Short Stories About Magic,” in a daring non-linear format that shows the same events from six different characters’ perspectives. By the time we arrive at Harriet (Marlee Matlin)’s story, the episode has built up considerable tension and raised the dramatic stakes. Then we get an extraordinary silent sequence, told entirely in sign language and subtitles.
I’ve never seen anything quite like it, and on a show about magical powers with storylines that have involved gods and monsters, this was its most gripping moment to date. It was also incredible to watch the masterful Matlin, an Academy Award-winning actress for 1987’s Children of a Lesser God, reveal Harriet’s truths as a deaf character whose deafness does not play into her plot but is simply another element of her characterization. We got to witness what unfolded while immersed in her perspective, and it’s not an experience I’m going to forget.
Penny, Penny, Penny:
Princess goes into this further, but the charming Arjun Gupta really got to stand out this season as Penny, especially in the episode “Be the Penny.” The risks that The Magicians took this season with offbeat and boundary-breaking episodes really paid off. As has been the case in previous seasons, episodes like Penny’s, “Six Short Stories About Magic” and “A Life In the Day” demonstrate that the show is at its best when it focuses on character and character interactions instead of convoluted bigger-picture pieces. There was also great development for previously “supporting” characters like Kady, Fen, and Josh this season, and they became part of the group.
I love that The Magicians found a way to give us yet more Penny by bringing Penny 23 into the mix, thus neatly sidestepping the issue of “our” Penny being stuck in the Underworld and out of action, at least for the time being. I’d watch an episode comprised entirely of Pennys from different timelines interacting with each other. Hey, if we can have multiple Quentins and multiple Joshes, they can make this happen.
Queliot For the Win, or When Shippers’ Dreams Come True
Quentin and Eliot slept together in a threesome with Margo in season one, and there’s always been a charged quality to their friendship. But one of the most fantastic things about The Magicians is that it seems to understand the fluid sexuality of its post-collegiate set, and hooking up with someone of the same sex is treated as perfectly normal and often goes unremarked upon.
That’s unbelievably refreshing, especially when you consider that Jason Ralph’s Quentin Coldwater is the “romantic lead” of the show, even if The Magicians has become a compelling ensemble drama. There aren’t many shows that would depict their male lead as bisexual, and even better, bisexual without any angst about it. Quentin’s other relationships are marked with drama, but his bond with Eliot is unfailing.
That’s why the season three episode “A Life In the Day” feels like an extraordinary culmination of these themes. In the episode, Quentin and Eliot travel back in time and end up spending an entire lifetime together as they try to solve one of the quest’s puzzles. It’s not long before they’re resigned to their fate to remain there, and Quentin kisses Eliot one night, who embraces him in return. While Quentin goes on to have a son with a woman, it’s Eliot who raises the boy with him, and it’s clear that theirs is the true partnership. “We had a family,” they realize upon being restored to their timeline. The montage of their life together is beautiful and heartbreaking.
As Michael Ahr wrote over at Den of Geek, “What show other than The Magicians could get away with showing an entire lifetime of existence catering to a specific ‘ship’ in its fandom while still beautifully serving the overall story?” I honestly can’t think of another show that would have or could have done so, or would have had the courage and confidence to pull it off. And sexual relationship aside, Quentin and Eliot are a wonderful example of a loving and supportive male friendship. More of all of this, please.
I’ve found it hard to care about The Magicians‘ Narnia knock-off for a while. Fillory is a joke that doesn’t get better with the telling, and much of the time there this season felt like the show was dragging its feet. The endless political machinations weren’t really worth it until the second-to-last episode with its cheeky electoral politics.
Margo was the bright spot of Fillory this season as she came increasingly into her own and “got shit done,” to paraphrase Penny. But the endless back and forth with the Fairies, the Fillorians, and the weird segway with the “Floater” people felt tiresome when the plots happening elsewhere were much more intriguing. Sometimes the show seems to want to make Fillory a funny place, and sometimes it wants Fillory to be its Westeros, like the bizarre storyline where Margo’s husband-to-be is murdered at the altar by his creepy little brother. When the best part of your alternate universe is foul-mouthed messenger bunnies, it may be time to move on.
Alice Or Should I Say Willow:
Alice is a complicated character who has gone through a lot, but it felt like this season, she was mostly trapped in echoes of plots from previous shows. Like Buffy‘s Willow, she was a hugely powerful and clever witch who basically became corrupted by magic, and as with Willow’s tiresome magic = drugs arc, there were several Alice is jonesing for magic bits (like paying to suck a vampire’s blood in a shady back alley), her willingness to suffer physically for Julia’s magic, and her overwrought final turn that since she couldn’t handle magic, everyone was better off not having it.
Like any good-person-turned-into-a-bad-creature tale previously told on Buffy or The Vampire Diaries, Alice also struggled with what she did as a niffin, including a moving episode where her father pays for her transgressions, but she was all over the place this season. I know her own struggle with her identity is meant to be part of what’s going on, but it started to feel exhausting and confusing. It wasn’t until we got a glimpse of “old” Alice in the 23 timeline that I realized how much I missed knowing what she stood for.
And speaking of derivative, both Princess and I felt let down by the last episode’s conclusion. Not Eliot’s reveal—that looks like it’ll be fun, and the more Eliot the merrier—but the fact that the memory wipe was basically the finale of The Good Place season two. These episodes aired three months apart, so it’s likely The Magicians had already plotted and filmed their last episode at that point, but it still didn’t feel particularly innovative. Kudos for calling Margo “Janet,” though, in a nod to her name in the books.
Fairy Lives Matter Today* (This is a Blight reference, I’m sorry):
If you’d told me that at the end of the third season, I would be rooting for the Fairy Queen, I would have called you a liar, but in this storyline, the writers of The Magicians really kicked ass at subverting our expectations. For most of the season, the fairies are a thorn in Margo and Eliot’s side, which considering how much we love them, instantly made us want to kick their ass.
However, everything changed in episodes “All That Josh” and “The Art of the Deal,” when we discover that the reason that fairies exist in Fillory is that human Magicians hunted fairies to near extinction because their bones could be ground up into magic dust. The fairies that remain in our world are those few who sacrificed themselves so that the rest could escape death/enslavement. As a result, the fairies of Earth are servants to Magicians, who abuse and kill them. This twist transforms the Fairy Queen from a pure malevolent force to a really powerful character. All that she has done has been the result of trying to ensure the survival of her species and the people she screws over are the very ones who would have continued to enslave her kind.
As she tells Julia: “Short memories are the privilege of the oppressor.”
Be the Penny:
Penny is one of the best improvements from the book’s source material to the show. Not only is Arjun Gupta super gorgeous, but he brings a much-needed comedic commentary to the show. Penny’s “death” episode is one of the great experimental episodes of the show. As an astral projection, he can go around and see the reactions to his death and they are not great. No one cries and no one can pronounce his last name. The only one of the main cast to cry for him his Margo (who is the other major POC on the show so points for that funny subtext), who says she always thought they were going to bang.
Our Lady of the Tree:
Julia’s rape is one of the dark points of The Magicians. While canonical to the books, watching it on screen was especially difficult considering all the sexual assault on television we’d experienced. It was also heartbreaking to see Julia, a character who had worked so hard to find magic, be tricked and harmed in such a way.
The trauma added on when it became clear this season that having Reynard the Fox’s seed (the rape god in question) gave Julia extra power. It was a complicated storyline, but The Magicians did take the time to explore the psychological ramifications of that, and season three really brought it all together in an excellent way.
Despite magic being turned off, Julia still has a spark of it, and that is because Our Lady of the Underground gave Julia Reynard’s spark. At first, Julia rejects it because she does not want her power to come from him. Slowly, it becomes clear that the Spark no longer belongs to Reynard. Throughout the season, Julia grows it through performing acts of penance and goodness until she ascends into a full-on goddess. Even then, Julia gives up that godhood to help turn on magic for everyone showing that Julia is the best and while I wanted her to remain Out Lady of the Tree, I’m glad she used her power to help others. Julia was unquestionably the most powerful character this season.
It was also excellent getting to watch Reynard be torn down and left with nothing. Screw him and his “feminist bookshelf.”
Go Ask Alice:
Unlike Kaila, I actually really enjoyed Alice’s storyline. While I do get the Willow comparisons, I think that Alice gets called out a whole lot more for her bad behavior than Willow really ever did. Alice has experienced a major trauma. She sacrificed herself to save everyone from The Beast and as a result, became a niffin, a spirit of pure magic. As a niffin, she was powerful and amoral, killing for whatever she wanted, including slaughtering an entire family of creatures to see them die pretty. Then Quentin brings her back and Alice is forced to give up all that power and knowledge without her consent because Quentin wants “his Alice” back.
In season three, Alice is dealing with trying to redefine who she is, and being torn between who she was as a niffin and the person she was before all of that. This leads to not only a bunch of mistakes on her part, but I think it comes from a real emotional conflict. That huge change, magic being gone, and the death of her father all happen within a short period of time. For someone like Alice, who has always been a powerful and intelligent Magician, she is dealing with a lot of things she can’t just fix anymore.
Still, she shouldn’t have trusted the Library.
After an episode watching Quintin and Eliot have an entire life together, all of a sudden Felicia Day’s character appears as Poppy Kline. She’s there to have some information about dragons, selfishly give Quintin one of the seven keys that brings about deep, suicidal depression and just be … quirky? It’s Felicia Day so I know that’s a big nerd get, but her character adds very little and is gone quickly. It is very irritating to have a character like Quentin explore their bisexuality and then immediately be given an opposite-sex love interest. While I’m glad the show doesn’t shy away from exploring “Queliot,” it also always seems to yank it out of reach just when it’s getting good.
We critique The Magicians because we thoroughly enjoy it, and so we want to praise when it excels and point out when it wanders from the fairy path. There’s no denying that this is one of the most fun and watchable shows in genre TV, and that it’s aging like a fine wine that would be fast swallowed down by the Physical Kids.
The Magicians succeeds in being fantastical and yet more true to the nature of human beings than a great many properties currently streaming out there. It’s definitely one of the most self-aware and tongue-in-cheek, and every season, the cast and their characters grow stronger. If that’s not magic, we don’t know what is.
What did you think of The Magicians‘ third season? Will you be tuning in for the fourth?
Want more stories like this? Become a subscriber and support the site!
—The Mary Sue has a strict comment policy that forbids, but is not limited to, personal insults toward anyone, hate speech, and trolling.—
Have a tip we should know? [email protected]