The first season of The Magicians has proved a relatively loose adaptation of Lev Grossman's novels, making small changes like a character's name and larger ones like moving entire storylines forward from later books in the trilogy. But in tonight's episode, we started to see some of the cracks in the foundation of the TV series' story — cracks that arise as a result of the ways it has strayed from the books.
The Magicians' biggest departure from the novels was a sensible one: Julia's story is told through a series of flashbacks in the second book, and the show goes back and forth between her life in New York City and Quentin's at Brakebills. And Free Trader Beowulf, the online group of magicians that Julia joins, is based in Manhattan as opposed to Provence. (That may be for budgetary reasons more than story — bringing in a southeastern France setting would likely present a lot of logistical challenges for the production of the show.)
The show does a good job portraying Free Trader Beowulf's search for a god as a wild goose chase, with Julia and Kady tracking down leads all over New York City as they attempt to make contact with the goddess who appeared in a dream to Julia. In particular, the seedy environments and creepy figures that Julia and Kady interact with suggest sinister undertones to their quest, even though Julia's vision was positively angelic.
"You can't unring a bell, so be certain when you call," Our Lady Underground's bridge troll of a servant warns Julia, a minute or two after grabbing her by the throat to try and suss out her true intentions. Julia's still fumbling in the darkness, searching for a purpose in life that the quest for magical power has failed to provide thus far.
Remember, Richard and all the other Free Trader Beowulfers have big, selfish plans for their god-augmented magic, like going back in time or curing cancer. Julia, on the other hand, is going along with their quest because they're her friends and because she, as a "god-touched" magician, is in a unique position to help them.
When she sleeps with Richard later, the moment falls flat, feeling like a situation where two characters have sex just because they're in close proximity to each other. (A similar scene in the books works much better because the medium allows for Grossman to give us Julia's inner monologue.)
Meanwhile, Quentin's drunk threesome with Eliot and Margo has blown up his relationship with Alice, and rightfully so. When she sleeps with Penny, Quentin takes it even harder. Here's another good example of The Magicians' writers being unafraid to portray Quentin in a negative light. His righteous indignation at Alice actively deciding to have sex with Penny, as opposed to his sheepish rationalization for the threesome, makes his slut-shaming look even worse.
The emotion-bottle magic relieves the tension in the Physical Kids cottage so Alice, Eliot, Margo, Penny and Quentin can take the button to the Neitherlands as they head for Fillory. But Eve and the other guardians in the Beast's employ manage to toss Quentin back into the fountain, sending him back to Earth as Penny leads the other three Brakebills students to the library he visited earlier. (There's a great line that winks at the audience here — the Margo character is named Janet in the books, and the librarian refers to her as Janet. When Margo corrects her, she replies with a cryptic "this time.")
Quentin heads to Dean Fogg's office looking for some answers, and gets him talking by dosing his tea with truth serum. Dean Fogg confirms what the audience has known for some time: Eliza was actually Jane Chatwin, and that she has repeatedly restarted a "time loop" in an attempt to find a way to defeat the Beast. In fact, this is the 40th such loop, and the previous 39 have ended with Quentin dying (hence the episode's title, "Thirty-Nine Graves"). And Dean Fogg points out that this is the last go-round — Jane is dead, and thus would not be able to restart the loop ever again.
In both the books and the TV show, Jane is the one pulling the strings of time in her epic battle against the Beast. But one of the defining facets of the novels is that Quentin isn't an archetypal "chosen one"; he's a depressed young man who's thrust into the world of magic, rather than someone who's destined to save Fillory. In fact, Jane tells Quentin in the books that she's thrown plenty of other magicians into this meat grinder (as well as many previous Quentins).
The last thing Quentin asks Dean Fogg is to reveal what Jane changed in the current timeline, and it turns out that having Brakebills reject Julia was it. So Quentin goes to Julia for help, which leads to a wonderful scene in which they reconcile. At this point, Julia's far more well-adjusted than she or Quentin ever were before, and it's all thanks to Our Lady Underground. The Free Trader Beowulf crew successfully summoned her, and she granted their wishes.
"Had I been here living it up, I would've never felt the need to figure out what magic is actually for," Julia tells Quentin at Brakebills, when he expresses frustration over Jane's decision to keep Julia out of the school. And as Richard points out post-coitus, Julia has a dogged determination to figure things out. Our Lady Underground, it seems, has provided the clarity that Julia has been looking for.
This is confusing in a way, making the ominous atmosphere of Free Trader Beowulf's quest seem like a red herring. There's no narrative payoff for the menacing warnings delivered by characters such as the lamia who took the form of Kady's mother, or the Hispanic gentleman in this episode. We'll have to see if that comes in the season finale next week. But if things stay the way they are, this would represent another massive change from the books. (No further spoilers there!)
After Quentin and Julia reunite, they put their heads together to figure out a way to join Quentin's crew. These scenes feel too much like plot machinations designed to get all of the main student-age magicians into Fillory, just in time for what we expect will be their face-off with the Beast. The show also somewhat awkwardly introduces Josh Hoberman, who is part of the gang from the start in the books. It turns out that Victoria, the traveler whom Penny saw imprisoned by the Beast, is a classmate of Josh's.
The Beast is the reason most of those upperclassmen disappeared; he apparently killed everyone but Victoria and Josh. As the newly augmented group — Alice, Eliot, Josh, Margo and Penny — heads toward the Fillory fountain, Eliot's acid trip almost results in disaster. It's one more sign of the depth of his depression, and of his addictions to mind-altering substances. Both Margo and Penny have to kill Neitherlands enforcers, which is a terrible thing to do, but will likely help prepare them for the battle with the Beast.