One of the joys of The Magicians is its ability to both comment on fantasy tropes and indulge in them. In the wrong hands, this tendency can turn an attempt at meta genre fare into a lazy, cynical mess (see: Pool, Dead). On The Magicians, however, it communicates an obvious love for its source material, not to mention adds to the much-heralded psychological realism of twenty-somethings finding out the magic they’ve heard about their whole lives is real.
The ritualized trial-by-magic, for example, is a coming of age staple. There’s the Triwizard Tournament in Harry Potter, where Harry endures both the formal challenges of the competition itself and the far more harrowing personal experience of watching one of his classmates die; there’s the vision quest endured by would-be knights in Tamora Pierce’s Protector of the Small. Brakebills, we learn in “Impractical Applications,” has something similar, except being Brakebills, it involves hormones and plenty of booze.
So when Eliot and Margo drag the first-years out of their beds clad in getups somewhere between Eyes Wide Shut and Mardi Gras, we don’t have to take them seriously, because the upperclassmen aren’t taking themselves seriously. Throughout the “trials,” a three-part pop quiz designed to thin out the class before they…turn into geese and migrate somewhere, the duo are having a blast and make no effort to hide it. They know exactly what role they’re playing, because they’ve seen countless versions of it over the years, and now that it’s their turn, Eliot and Margo take to it with their characteristic showmanship. Just look at those Alice in Wonderland tea party outfits!
While their overlords dine on finger sandwiches and generally take on the role of magical pledge master, Quentin, Alice, Penny, and Kady take part in a series of tests, each with the kind of moral-of-the-story these things always have. First, there’s an impossible task that forces its participants to cheat (Penny, newly tattooed, astral projects himself to peek at Alice’s paper), eliminating those who don’t have the wherewithal and moral ambiguity to bend the rules. Then, there’s a hunting challenge, in which everyone gets one tool laughably mismatched to their prey. The real test is to see if everyone can collaborate enough to trade tools.
Finally, there’s the wizard-frattiest challenge of all: a naked ritual in which magicians are paired off and forced to reveal their deepest, darkest secrets. But before we go over the results, we have to pivot to Julia’s plot of the week, in which we finally learn what Marina has on Kady. One of Marina’s former comrades in hedge-witching offers to help Julia scavenge for magic; Hannah’s spent a lifetime traveling the world in search of spells Julia burns through in a single afternoon. So Julia, out of desperation and thirst for revenge, decides to go straight to the source and raid Marina’s magical cache.
Except Hannah, we learn, is none other than Kady’s mother — the one she’d told Penny was dead just minutes before. After incurring a few casualties on her search for spells and Marina cleaned up the collateral damage, Hannah essentially sacrificed her daughter’s future in return. Kady’s goth schtick suddenly becomes way more understandable when you realize she’s a twenty-something who’s been forced to take care of her own parent rather than the other way around.
Hannah’s story inches Julia’s arc closer to something The Magicians has been hinting at all season: magic as addiction. It’s no coincidence Julia had no trouble fending James off with her Narcotics Anonymous story, nor that hedge witches conduct their business in rundown “safe houses.” Julia’s futile (thus far) pursuit of magic is costing her everything else in her life, and this week, she witnesses her probable future in the equivalent of a magical overdose. She and Hannah manage to break through Marina’s wards and steal a filing cabinet of spells, only for said cabinet to be cursed. So Julia watches an older, even more desperate version of herself bleed out on the floor, just moments after correctly guessing her younger counterpart can’t look her in the eye because she’s too familiar.
Back at Brakebills, Quentin and Alice’s story moves forward with a moonlight confession of their deepest insecurities. (All female nerds’ hearts go out to Alice, deliberately stifling her brilliance so her peers won’t resent her even more. Lean in, girl!) But it’s Penny and Kady’s story that’s more heartbreaking, since neither has been as fully developed as a character compared to their fellow romantic leads. Penny goes for a moment of true vulnerability, not easy for someone with a carefully cultivated air of brusque detachment, and admits he’s falling in love with Kady; Kady confesses she’s been using him to help smuggle magic out of Brakebills the entire time. And right when everything’s out in the open, both of them transform into birds. That’ll be a fun flight path!