Another week, another lesson in the limitations of magic for our protagonist.
All his life, Quentin has thought of magic as a panacea. First, it was through the escapist power of his favorite fantasy series; now, it’s the idea that Brakebills is a cheat code he can use to simply skip over the mundanity, and heartbreak, of real life and get to the good stuff. But just because Brakebills is an actual place and Fillory isn’t — though as of the last moments of “Mendings, Major and Minor,” that, too, is up for debate — doesn’t make Quentin’s central delusion any less of a pipe dream.
That dream gets its first fractures during Brakebills’ Alumni Week, when Quentin has his first look at what he and his classmates will go on to do after graduation: specifically, not much. Quentin is immediately matched up with a magical mentor whose specialty is…feet. (And not even in a kinky way — she’s cashing in on her abilities as a plain ol’ podiatrist!) Eliot and Janet get into a friendly competition over who can win the favor of Alice’s textbook eccentric aunt, but the idea of a “magical Camp David” doesn’t so much inspire as conjure images of business card swaps and buffet table brunches.
And then Quentin’s world really starts to crumble when he learns his father has brain cancer. Once again, The Magicians’ premise allows for a heightened version of a very real struggle: human futility in the face of forces we cannot control. Few things reinforce this idea like the imminent death of a loved one, and one imagines that just about nothing reinforces it like a loved one dying when you theoretically have the ability to do whatever you want.
So when his father informs “Curly Q” that he doesn’t intend to seek treatment — “Sometimes, trying to fix something only makes it worse” — Quentin does exactly what Alice did a few weeks ago and turns to magic to mend the unmendable. But while Alice has learned her lesson enough to return to Brakebills and forgive Quentin for saving her life, Quentin invents the kind of “noble quest” for himself that Eliot’s already warned him doesn’t actually exist. Magic can’t cure cancer, the podiatrist warns him, but Quentin at least wants to try, as much to save his own concept of what magic can do as to rescue his father, with whom he was evidently never all that close anyway.
He fails, of course, and kills Brakebills’ “cancer puppy”/unofficial mascot in the process. But he also gets a significant power bump in the process, because as Margo explains to him, magic comes from pain. It’s a less subtle, time-jumbled version of what happens in the books: Quentin’s father dies suddenly of a heart attack, and his abilities increase without either an emotional epiphany or a breakthrough in their relationship. But while the TV version veers into “follow your dreams” and “tortured genius” clichés, it still leads Quentin to the more fundamental question of magic’s purpose for someone with little interest in hunting river dragons in the fertile question. Dean Fogg’s response makes about as much sense as it needs to: “We can fix some things, so we fix what we can.”
Julia, unfortunately, is too desperate chasing any magic at all to ask herself anything so deep. Her Marina-imposed exile drives her to depths even lower than putting her former best friend in a magical coma: sleeping with Pete, the creepy deputy with an obvious crush on her, to get the location of a magical safe house that turns out to be little more than a handful of functioning alcoholics and a binder. And when she turns down Pete’s offer to go magic-hunting in the Mali Desert, she loses her back-up plan — Marina mind-wipes James, yanking the normal-life safety net out from underneath her former protegé.
That just leaves Penny, whose burgeoning abilities (which he continues to develop, despite the explicit warnings of his Mad Eye Moody Lite mentor) lead him to a member of the missing third year class. She’s trapped by the Beast in a place Quentin quickly figures out is Fillory, instantly reigniting his faith in what magic can do. Which makes “Mendings, Major and Minor” possibly more important for fast-forwarding the plot than having a lasting effect on Quentin’s character, but that’s for next week!