Tonight's episode of The Magicians introduces one of the books' most intriguing characters when the Brakebills students fly to Antarctica, but does itself a disservice by letting its focus stray from that frozen continent.
"The Mayakovsky Circumstance" brings the first-years to Brakebills South, a magic school in Antarctica that's run by a Russian teacher named Professor Mayakovsky. Guest star Brian F. O'Byrne went a bit too heavy on the Russian accent for my taste, but I thought he excelled at conveying Mayakovsky's most important character trait: You have to believe from the start that the guy is unpredictable and eccentric, and that he's going to put his students through hell in order to test their abilities.
That includes tossing them into the frigid outdoors, slapping them across the face, and asking, "Why don't you two just fuck?" Not exactly professorial behavior, right?
"I hate all of you because you don't know anything," he says upon meeting the Brakebills kids and presenting them with a spell they think they know how to perform. Legrand's Hammer Charm, it turns out, is much tougher to pull off when you're forbidden from speaking the incantation.
The students fumble through that charm and through learning how to control the minds of insects, with Mayakovsky taunting and insulting them all the while. And in an extreme step that is sure to have repercussions down the line, the professor cuts out Penny's anchor tattoo because he wants the traveler to learn how to control his power.
But Mayakovsky isn't all bluster. He's surprisingly gentle and even caring in breaking the news to Kady that her mother, Hannah, is dead. He even advises her to flee rather than be disciplined for what she did at Brakebills — the administrators won't care that Marina forced her to do it, he notes.
It's not clear until the end of the episode why Mayakovsky seems to play matchmaker for Quentin and Alice, who finally get together after turning into foxes to stay warm in the Antarctic chill. (I was wondering how The Magicians was going to pull off that scene from the first book, and the show did not disappoint.) Quentin and Alice leave Brakebills South as a couple, and on their way out, Mayakovsky — his voice dripping with self-pity — tells them that if they stay together, they'll be proving him wrong. He's a man on an icy island, and he's profoundly lonely.
The business at Brakebills South was a lot of ground to cover — so much so that I wish The Magicians had done "The Mayakovsky Circumstance" as a bottle episode, and had spent the whole episode in Antarctica. That's not just because Brakebills South is a vital stage in the students' education, but also because little of consequence happens in the rest of the episode.
The B-plot back at Brakebills is a distraction that doesn't get interesting until everyone realizes they're summoning a djinn rather than brewing gin. And even then, it barely advances the plot; it's not a great use of time just to get to the reveal that Eliot appears to be sleeping with someone who has a connection to the Beast. Back in New York, Julia is still (understandably) shaken by Hannah's death, but she chafes when her sister insists on taking care of her. Sure, we learn a thing or two about Julia's messed-up family life, but these sequences hardly seem worth the screen time, either.
When you have an ensemble cast like The Magicians does, it's often difficult to figure out how to give everyone something interesting to do in each episode. But when you take a detour with a few members of the group, sometimes it's worth it to keep the focus on them instead of coming up with filler for the others.