After embarking on adventures and undertaking quests, the turn of a fantasy novel’s final page, or the scroll of an epic film’s ending credits, signals a return to order. The siblings Pevensie leave Narnia for England; Harry, Hermione, and Ron bid Hogwarts farewell for summer break; Percy Jackson stays at Camp Half-Blood to continue his demigod training. Eventually these rhythms must change or else deny their stories drama. Until they do, each ending leads to fresh starts, creating a sense of familiarity couched in the status quo’s embrace.
Then there’s The Magicians, a series with no taste for the status quo. The show, returning to Syfy this month for its fourth season, has flirted with the promise of habituation since the beginning, but there’s a false bottom in its promise, a trapdoor that plunges viewers into a labyrinth of tragedy and trauma.
In The Magicians, characters die. They’re mutilated, they’re violated, gods rape them, evil wizards cripple them; when injury isn’t enough, they’re dealt insult on top of it, whether the shame of failure or good old fashioned grief, and when they do succeed, their victories always feel hollow.
[Ed. note: This post will contain spoilers for the The Magicians season 4.]
A steady diet of Game of Thrones over the last decade has mercifully inured audiences to the sundering of plot armor: They know that even the hero in a fantasy series isn’t safe from harm, much less death. But for Game of Thrones, the democratization of peril is the status quo. The Magicians has rejected the concept of the status quo from its pilot, “Unauthorized Magic,” which ends with the show’s Dumbledore equivalent, Dean Henry Fogg (Rick Worthy), having his hands broken and his eyes plucked from their sockets by The Beast (Charles Mesure). There has never been safety, or familiarity, or comfort in The Magicians, and that’s not changing in season four, either. We’re reminded, in its opening scene, that none of the primary characters know who they are or look like themselves, their unjust reward for bringing magic back in the third season’s finale.
There’s that trapdoor again. Luckily, in season four’s first episode, “A Flock of Lost Birds,” loss of magic is no longer a concern. Identity, on the other hand is. Julia (Stella Maeve), Quentin (Jason Ralph), Penny (Arjun Gupta), Margot (Summer Bishil), Kady (Jade Tailor), and Josh (Trevor Einhorn) have new identities and nary a clue that magic exists, much less that they helped restore its flow, courtesy of Fogg’s fancy spellcraft. Penny spins records as international music sensation DJ Hansel. Josh drives limos. Margot does her best imitation of Miranda Priestly as the editor of a hip fashion magazine. Kady fights crime as an undercover detective, and so naturally she’s the one who deduces that there’s sorcery afoot and assembles the disbanded gang to reclaim their lost memories. Alice is in librarian jail with Santa Claus.
Oh, and Quentin’s off on the sidelines, playing nice with Eliot (Hale Appleman) and the monster that’s possessed him and taken them both on a murder spree. Evil Eliot has a grudge against gods, and against Quentin’s pals for trying to kill him, and against the ice cream man for putting jimmies on his cone instead of sprinkles. (“Oh,” Eliot exclaims after casually slashing the poor sap’s throat with a flick of his finger. “Jimmies are sprinkles!”) Quentin is unwillingly along for the ride, Eliot is reluctant confidant and witness to his wrath.
The Magicians wastes no time settling into an overarching plot rhythm: On finding that there’s more to reality than meets the eye, the leads hustle to resolve their existential dilemma and become themselves again. That’s the good news. The bad news, for them anyhow, is that their existential dilemma is the least of their worries, and in fact could generously be counted as a blessing.
Life in The Magicians’ world sucks. Magicians have magic at their disposal again, but it’s heavily regulated by the Order of the Librarians; in the humble “o” of perennial annoying hanger-on Todd (Adam DiMarco), here leading the disguised and amnesiac Julia to her preliminary graduate program exam at Brakebills University, the new world order is “better than it was,” but nonetheless worse “than the old days.” People have quotas now. They can’t do magic carelessly. It’s a finite resource.
But the halcyon times Todd waxes nostalgic for never existed within the span of The Magicians’ lifetime. Its characters have always paid a high price for the gift of magic. Alice and Penny have both died and come back to life, though that’s a gross oversimplification for how they’ve managed not to stay dead; Julia lost her shade, the part of the soul where emotions and compassion are housed; Eliot and Quentin, in a better, alternate time, lived a life together, falling in love, raising a child, growing old, and quietly passing away.
Maybe not remembering what they’ve endured together is actually for the best: The lives they’ve all been bewitched into look rosier than the lives they’ve left behind, barring that whole “hunted by an angry id-driven monster” thing. If — when — these characters go back to their old lives, they’re going back to lives marked by more pain than anyone should ever experience, and even fewer of wizardry’s theoretical perks. Nothing will be the same for them again. But nothing’s ever been the same for them. “Same” isn’t a word in The Magicians’ vocabulary. Maybe the show has a status quo after all.