Of all The Magicians’ episodes thus far, “The Mayakovsky Circumstance” poses the greatest adaptation challenge.
Based on an extended interlude from the first book set at Brakebills South, a magical boot camp of sorts in Antarctica presided over by the namesake, vodka-stewed professor, “The Mayakovsky Circumstance” begins with a tricky bit of special effects and ends with animal-boning-as-vision-quest. It’s hard to pull off, both practically and as an emotional turning point the audience can take seriously — and that’s before the series takes on the burden of giving its supporting characters something to do while its central foursome is off at the South Pole.
Predictably, it’s these secondary plots that suffer the most. Both Julia and the unified entity that is Margo-and-Eliot reach what should be critical turning points this week: Julia the rock-bottom (thus far) of her search for magic and the introduction of her older sister, Margo-and-Eliot the potential breaking point of their codependent relationship. Neither of them get the investment they need, particularly Julia. Witnessing a grisly (magical) murder and dealing with the trauma is one thing; parsing what’s apparently a complicated, and heretofore unexplored, family dynamic is another. Both are crammed into a mere handful of scenes, and the result feels like wheel-spinning despite what should be rich terrain.
Ditto for Margo and Eliot, whose necessary evolution is folded into an adventure-of-the-week plot line about preparing for magical spring break in Ibiza. It’s fine to play the friends’ pretension for comic relief week after week, but these two still deserve better than to have genuine emotional conflict spun off as a side show complete with a hokey, “careful what you wish for!” message courtesy of an actual genie. Their connection is as deep as it is apparently unhealthy — comments about waxing; never not weird! — and processing the impact of a new significant other on their dynamic should take more than an episode. But once Margo takes off for a solo(-ish; enjoy the vacation, Todd!) trip and accepts that Eliot’s bland new boyfriend Mike is here to stay, that subplot appears pushed aside in favor of some good ol’ possession by none other than The Beast. It’s the opposite of what The Magicians does at its best: magic supplanting the non-supernatural, rather than amplifying it.
Things fare better at Brakebills South, cleverly shot to echo the antiseptic, institutional vibe of the mental institution that’s Quentin’s worst fears. Once the students arrive in goose form, one of several animal transformations that’s blatantly handled the old-fashioned/offscreen way, their new overlord takes away their voices. This forces Penny, Kady, Quentin, and Alice to both do magic and deal with the fallout from last week’s naked confessionals in total silence. Kady gives Penny a chocolate-bar-as-olive-branch, while their less tortured counterparts merely give each other googly eyes from across the hallway.
Unfortunately, Kady and Penny’s make-up takes an immediate turn for the worse when Mayakovsky breaks the news of her mother’s death. Brakebills now knows Kady’s been smuggling magical secrets off campus, and in a development that was probably inevitable given her status as a non-book character, Kady has to make a break for it while Penny continues his studies as a traveler. (Mayakovsky does not approve of his anchor-tat: “Is like telling an eagle to fear heights.”)
Quentin and Alice, meanwhile, finally get over themselves and get with each other, although the sequence in which they do so is more or less incoherent. It comes off like a hasty combination of two sequences from the book, one in which the entire class turns into foxes and the other in which Quentin and Alice race each other to the South Pole in a self-imposed endurance contest. Here, the series implies that the two have sex in Arctic fox form, but shies away from the fairly explicit account in the books — and also does a poor job of explaining why this is happening.
Everything caps off from a tough-love farewell from Mayakovsky, who wishes the newly minted couple the best of luck. Brakebills South is meant to be a crossroads in the students’ development as magicians, when they have magic instilled as a reflex instead of a party trick. In “The Mayakovsky Circumstance,” it’s mostly a means to an end — along with the rest of the episode’s narrative threads. As we head into the season’s back half, hopefully we’ll dispense with the need for devices like it.