The first season of Syfy’s The Magicians focused on a group of college students forced to grow up, and grow up quickly, in order to respond to a transdimensional threat. They had to learn magic while navigating the minefield of freshman year — relationships, partying, relatives and more. If you were turned off by characters who sometimes seemed like whiny, petulant children, well, that was kind of the point. Everyone can agree that teenagers are jerks, but college kids aren’t much more likable.
At this point, our heroes have been through a lot. So far in the second season — I’ve seen the first four episodes — it’s clear that the characters are more mature. The challenges they’ve faced have hardened them, but not necessarily to each other: They’re slowly realizing that they need friends in order to survive.
[Note: The following contains spoilers for the season 2 premiere of The Magicians, “Knight of Crowns,” which aired Jan. 25, but none for future episodes.]
The second season of The Magicians picks up almost right where the season 1 finale left off. With both Reynard and the Beast still on the loose, the situation remains FUBAR. We learn that the characters were able to survive the ordeal that concluded the first season only because Alice revives them with her godly powers. (As distasteful as I found that concept, Margo does get a good joke out of it here.)
Thing is, Alice won’t have Ember’s power forever, so she and her friends need to work together to figure out how to hunt down the Beast before he bleeds the Fillory wellspring dry — and eliminates magic everywhere. It’s great to see the early part of the season put Alice front and center as the group’s most talented spellcaster. At the same time, everyone has their part to play in the search for a weapon to fight the Beast; The Magicians does a better job than last season in giving all the members of its ensemble cast something to do.
That includes someone who is decidedly not a friend of the Brakebills students: Julia. Her betrayal completely set The Magicians apart from the books it’s based on, and she continues to drive the story in season 2. In order to achieve her all-consuming goal of killing Reynard, she forms a temporary alliance with the Beast: As long as Reynard is alive, he can’t harm her or anyone she cares about.
The two make a strange pair, not least because they’re both victims of sexual assault. In Martin Chatwin’s case, Christopher Plover’s long-running abuse turned him into the Beast. In Julia’s case, we have yet to see how she will ultimately survive.
“There's two ways to survive trauma: You either overcome what that victimizer does to you, or you become your victimizer,” said John McNamara, co-showrunner of The Magicians, in an interview with me after season 1. “Will Julia become her victimizer, or will she overcome that as well?”
You may expect Julia to be blinded by her mission — and it definitely bumps up against the Brakebills kids’ efforts to destroy the Beast — but like them, she has grown as a person. The Beast suggests a seemingly easy solution to her problems: He offers to remove her “shade,” which will allow her to forget her terrible trauma but will also eliminate part of what makes her human. Julia agrees to try it out, but quickly decides to go back. “I need it,” she says in a panicked but firm voice.
But perhaps the character who has to grow up the most is Eliot. As the High King of Fillory, he is unable to return to Earth like his classmates. Instead of helping the mission to take down the Beast, he has to stay at Castle Whitespire and figure out how to run a country — Fillory’s coffers are running dry, and now that the wellspring’s magic is fading, crops are dying. This leads to some great scenes in which Eliot makes use of the skills he learned growing up, before he knew what magic was.
And as ever, Eliot’s best friend, Margo, helps smack some sense into him when he’s whining about governing. "Since when are you Fillory Clinton?" he asks, after she lays into him and lays out a plan.
It’s thrilling to see everyone come into their own and come to terms with their individual problems. They acknowledge each other as human beings, and display empathy for each other. Even Quentin and Penny, who never got along, eventually reach a detente after a traumatic event in Fillory.
Speaking of Fillory, it’s worth mentioning The Magicians’ production designers, who have crafted a magical realm that feels like a real place. No, it doesn’t operate on the scale of, say, Game of Thrones, but it’s a well-realized world in its own right. And the show’s second season immediately sets Fillory apart from other fantasy settings with a mercurial forest dweller who warns Quentin, “We only look whimsical.”
It all adds up to a world you want to inhabit — well, two worlds — with characters you want to hang out with. (Except for the Beast and Reynard, the latter of whom seems poised to become the show’s main villain.) Like its characters, The Magicians has taken a step forward in its second season, and I’m excited to keep following the adventures of our heroes.