What if someone told you that your greatest fantasy wasn’t a fantasy at all?
Part of what made Lev Grossman’s The Magicians so emotionally savvy is its understanding of how people react to stories like Harry Potter or The Chronicles of Narnia: not just with fascination, but with a rabid kind of wishful thinking. Children want to believe they can cross over into other worlds at will, or that they could be suddenly plucked from obscurity and inducted into a culture where magic is real. Just ask any child convinced they’ll get a Hogwarts letter when they turn 11 — or any adult who was just a little disappointed when theirs never arrived.
Syfy’s The Magicians wisely opens by revealing exactly why the emotional stakes might be higher for Quentin Coldwater than the average precocious young adult stranded in an increasingly disappointing life. Quentin is depressed — depressed to the point of feeling alienated from everyone around him, depressed to the point of checking himself into a mental hospital multiple times, and depressed to the point of wondering, “If nothing was ever not gonna be pointless, than why go on?” So we see why he clings onto the idea of magical grad school, and later the magical kingdom of Fillory, with everything he has.
But by the end of last night’s double premiere, we also understand the stakes for Quentin’s childhood best friend and unrequited crush Julia, though her situation is in some ways the exact opposite of Quentin’s. Julia is the together one: she has a long-term boyfriend, a spot at Yale business school in the fall, and at least initially, a healthier mental state. So when she fails Brakebills University’s incomprehensible entrance exam, it’s the first time in Julia’s life when she’s been told her hard work and intelligence aren’t good enough to get her what she wants. And she refuses to take no for an answer.
The inner lives of The Magicians’ secondary characters are, as of now, less well defined. There’s Elliot, who uses hedonism and nonchalance as a defense mechanism; Marina, the frighteningly young top hedge witch in New York; Alice, the prodigy looking for answers in the mysterious death of her older brother; Penny, the brusque mind-reader; and Kate, his girlfriend who Marina is somehow in a position to blackmail for bootleg spells. But they’re the secondary cast: for now, The Magicians is the story of two parallel heroes’ journeys.
Initially, Brakebills is precisely the escape Quentin hoped it would be. The Dean tells him exactly what he’s been wanting to hear — that the problem was never him, but the world that failed to live up to his Fillory-fueled expectations. “You haven’t been depressed, you’ve been alone,” Dean Fogg says. “And you are not crazy. You’re angry. And you are correct: everyone, everyone medicates. Out there. Here, we hope you won’t need to.”
Except Brakebills really can’t fix everything that’s wrong with Quentin. Just look at how he reacts when a summoning gone awry leads to a Beast from another dimension, a faculty death, and his own potential expulsion. That anger, and desperation, come back in full force, and in mere hours Quentin is going at Penny with battle magic and stealing his amulet to ward off a mind-wiping spell. Luckily, his guardian angel — who clearly has something to do with his recurring dreams about Fillory and their repeated warnings about the”garden path” — needs him to stick around and face off against The Beast later on.
Julia, meanwhile, manages to overcome the memory wipe of her own accord. The multiple shifts in their power dynamic over the course of the two-part premiere are fascinating to watch: first, she rightfully accuses Quentin of being “smug,” convinced that Brakebills made the right call in accepting him and turning her out on the street; then, with expulsion hanging over his head, he comes crawling back with a voicemail that admits how much stronger he is (although he deletes it before it can do any damage).
To learn even a basic warming spell, Julia has to face the threat of rape in a disgusting bar bathroom, get locked in a meat freezer, and root around in a recently reanimated dead body. As a reward, she’s inducted into the underground network of magicians scavenging for spells outside the manicured lawns of Brakebills, filled as it is with hardworking but arrogant twenty-somethings. She and Quentin are doubtless headed in the same direction, but they’re getting there via very different paths: him a luxurious clubhouse filled with hard-partying co-eds, and her a warehouse on the industrial outskirts of New York. We’ll see what happens when they eventually reunite.