Each character on The Magicians is damaged, haunted by their past in a way that reverberates into the present. This emotional baggage weighs on them and influences their decision-making, often to their detriment or the detriment of others. That's the story that the series' writers have been telling and they stayed true to it in the season 1 finale tonight, which answered some questions and raised many more on the way to an unsatisfying cliffhanger ending.
Let's start with that ending, which will surely have shocked you regardless of whether you're familiar with the books. The Magicians has gradually been straying farther and farther from its source material over the course of its first 12 episodes. The conclusion to the 13th chapter, "Have You Brought Me Little Cakes," will force anybody who has read the books to disabuse themselves of the notion that the TV show is going to use the novels as much more than inspiration.
That's fine in principle, of course; all adaptations are different, and sticking strictly to source material doesn't necessarily make an adapted work better. It's just that fans of the books should go into season 2 of The Magicians with their eyes wide open. Going forward, it might not make much sense to continue chronicling the show's departures from Lev Grossman's novels, so I'll make the most of that here.
Alice and Julia, perhaps the two most important people in Quentin's life, are the characters whose fates have changed the most from the books. Julia's very presence in Fillory along with the Brakebills students completely changes the outcome of the episode; driven by tragedies she can't forget, she is the character whose actions propel the story forward more than anyone else.
Jane Chatwin and the ram-god Ember both detect a shadow over Julia's memory, a patch that hides a terrible trauma from the recent past. Once again, The Magicians' writers led us astray with a red herring (and the finale is full of such reveals). In a flashback that's one of the show's closer resemblances to a scene in the books, we see the sinister undertones of Free Trader Beowulf's search for Our Lady Underground realized in the most awful way.
The gang has been duped by Reynard the Fox, a vicious demon of a god who eats Richard's heart and then inhabits his body before killing everyone but Julia and Kady. Julia sacrifices herself to allow Kady to escape, and Reynard rapes Julia. Broken and helpless, she calls her old frenemy Marina, who puts aside her grudge to grant Julia's wish: a spell that will make her believe that OLU actually granted the group's real wishes.
Julia is a character who has frequently used sex as a tool to get what she wants, which makes the rape all the more harrowing as the worst kind of inversion of that power dynamic. The assault will likely have repercussions well into the future of The Magicians. But here, its immediate effect is to set up a vendetta against Reynard, which drives Julia to the previously unthinkable point of making a deal with the devil — the Beast (a god killer himself, where Ember's twin, Umber, is concerned) — to hunt down the fox with the Leo Blade.
I'm tired of TV shows using rape as a plot device, especially since it provides the most primal of motives here: revenge. Reynard's rape leads Julia to make a rash, self-serving decision rather than merely rid Fillory of the Beast once and for all (although her impulsive act happens to save her friends from further harm). In the books, the incident completely alters the nature of Julia's character in a profound way, and we see the consequences before we learn what caused them. The Magicians' writers will have to do a lot in season 2 to earn this dire turn in the story.
In order to put the Leo Blade to the Beast's throat, Julia has to steal it from Alice during the gang's confrontation with the Beast. The weapon can only be held by a master magician, and Alice and Julia are the only two characters who qualify — which suggests some uncomfortable and disgusting things about the power of semen (Ember's in the case of Alice, and Reynard's in the case of Julia) in the world of The Magicians. Without the dagger, Alice can't fend off the Beast.
It's a sad moment for Alice, who had just had a wonderful one in her reconciliation conversation with Quentin. He comes to the realization that he's not the "chosen one" (another red herring, and I'm glad this turned out to be one) and admits that Alice is a better magician and a better person. Jason Ralph is terrific here in showing remorse, along with hope that Alice is the right person for the job. But I was disappointed to see the show acknowledge Alice's magical skills, then put her through a sexually charged ritual — literally swallowing semen to receive magical power from a god — before giving her very little in the way of empowerment during the final battle.
The Magicians has had trouble juggling its talented ensemble cast before, both in giving its characters enough screen time and in using that screen time wisely. Those issues continued tonight. In the middle of the finale, the show spent part of the Leo Blade storyline on a Fillorian wedding between Eliot and the granddaughter of the blacksmith who forged the weapon. I understand that the writers wanted to set up this relationship as a potential point of conflict in Fillorian politics, and the scenes were a nice way to lend some local color to the episode. But it just felt like another trivial side story when there were much bigger concerns at play.
This is to say nothing of Josh, whom the writers hastily introduced last week as a classmate of Victoria's, the young woman the Beast has locked up. Eliot's busy getting busy with his new bride, so Margo, Josh, Penny and Alice go to rescue Victoria. Penny and Josh then nurse her back to health; she repays Penny by teaching him how to travel with multiple people ... and shortly afterward, she and Josh just peace out back to Earth!
The group that ends up facing the Beast is the original Brakebills gang plus Julia. I actually enjoyed the idea that the physical manifestation of the wellspring of Fillory's magic is the source of the Fillory stories — Christopher Plover's writing room in 1940s England — as well as the source of Martin Chatwin's worst trauma: the child abuse that eventually turned him into the Beast. (We also meet Plover again, who debunks another bit of misdirection to a disgusted Quentin: Martin Chatwin, not Plover, is the Beast.)
The ending leaves our heroes in limbo. Quentin is physically spared while Penny is mourning the loss of his severed hands; Eliot and Margo have been knocked out against some bookshelves; and Alice is lying in a pool of blood that poured out of her nose. Julia and Quentin were friends again, but now she has betrayed him in the worst way, in her quest for revenge against Reynard the Fox. This is very different from the way things play out in the books, but I get it; in particular, it would be tough for the show to tell Alice's story in the same fashion as in the novels.
All that said, I found the ending unsatisfying because it offered essentially no closure to the stories that had been running all season long. Now it's unclear if the Beast is still the big-bad, as he had been until this point, or if the writers plan to shift the focus to Reynard and perhaps even bring in other gods. (Plus, we saw very little of Ember here, and none of Umber.) Kady is presumably somewhere in New York City, and perhaps Julia will enlist her help as well as the Beast's in avenging the murdered members of Free Trader Beowulf.
I spoke with The Magicians' showrunners, Sera Gamble and John McNamara, earlier today (I'll have much more from that conversation later), and they were steadfast in saying that they're leaving the characters' fates up in the air until season 2 — just like pretty much everything else.