“The Strangled Heart” suffers from a case of especially poor timing.
Controversy over a recent episode of the CW’s post-apocalyptic teen drama The 100 has engulfed a certain portion of the Internet this week. Vox has a nifty explainer, as Vox is wont to do, of the plot twist and the ensuing fan rage, but here’s the gist: two female characters finally consummated their relationship after a protracted flirtation period, only for one character to immediately die from a stray bullet. It wasn’t just a devastating development for that particular couple — it also fit easily into the ugly, well-established trope of killing, and thereby arguably punishing, queer characters immediately after their seeming happy ending. (Episode writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach, who has been admirably and fascinatingly open to criticism via his Tumblr, has said that the writers were aware of the trope going into the room, but assumed they’d earned enough trust over the course of the show, otherwise lauded for its LGBT representation, to pull off the twist without incurring the audience’s ire.)
And now we have “The Strangled Heart,” in which Eliot’s brief experience with happy coupledom comes to a violent end. Which is unfortunate, because this episode does some important work with deepening a character who could easily wind up a tired caricature if it weren’t for the moments of genuine emotion he’s afforded here. It just happens to do so using a cliché — one more frequently applied to lesbians, though anyone who’s seen Brokeback Mountain know gay men are far from exempt — viewers have every right to be tired of.
Last week, we learned Eliot’s new beau Mike is in the thrall of The Beast. This week, we learn that Mike is an alumnus, which at least explains why we’d never encountered him before at Brakebills, and thus an ideal vessel to slip past the school’s protections. In full possession mode, he attacks Quentin with a cursed knife, but swipes Penny instead. A bummer for Penny, but at least a bummer that punctures his post-Kady angst, which elevates his already insufferable Rebel Without a Cause posturing to open-front-camo-shirt levels.
Even after The Beast drops all pretense and murders Eliza, revealed to be none other than Jane Chatwin herself, in cold blood, it’s never made clear whether “Mike” was a hollow shell whose relationship with Eliot was an extra flourish of cruelty or just an unwitting dupe. Which adds an extra layer of ambiguity to the heart-to-heart he and Eliot have shortly before everything goes to hell. Mike is intimidated by Eliot’s well-honed, constantly exerted sense of taste; Eliot responds with the ultimate gesture of vulnerability: confessing he was born in Indiana to two farmers, and that “becoming ‘me’ was the greatest creative project of my life.” The only other person who knows is Margot, his onetime partner in the Trials — a detail that only underscores Eliot and Margot’s status as a surrogate couple, given that the only other partnerships we’ve seen were Kady/Penny (just broken up) and Quentin/Alice (just got together).
After that, Mike doesn’t just have to die. Once The Beast has killed Jane Chatwin and defeated Dean Fogg, who’s still struggling to recover his magical abilities after the first attack destroyed his hands, it’s up to Eliot to kill him off. The moral of the story, true to an unusually dark episode, is that when a mask starts to fit as comfortably as Eliot’s, it’s never a good idea to remove it.
The Magicians, after all, is the story of young people forging identities by fabricating them out of thin air. Much as they’re able to bend the forces of nature to their will, albeit imperfectly, the series’ protagonists are engaged in the halting, flawed process of faking it until they make it. Eliot is the impossibly cultured aesthete. Quentin is the nerd who escaped into his favorite book series until he practically willed it into existence. And Penny is the sexy lost soul, the telepathic Tim Riggins of Brakebills University. He even hits on an inappropriately older woman!
But like all fantasy, The Magicians is an allegory — and like all allegories, it’s half a step away from being an instructive fable. So when Quentin deduces that the knife The Beast used was actually a “Virgo blade,” a cursed weapon Jane tells him can only be fended off by sacrificing a victim’s most prized possession, Penny’s festering wound instantly becomes yet another lesson in emotional vulnerability. (Between Penny’s disgusting mess of actual vines growing out of his body and the live rabbit Mike/The Beast rips in half to get the Virgo blade, it’s a big week for serious gore on this show.)
Where Eliot learns that opening up leads to pain, however, Penny, and eventually Quentin, get the opposite message, only adding to the issues with Eliot’s subplot. Penny spends all week pretending Kady meant nothing to him; his most precious belonging turns out to be the wrapper from the chocolate bar she gave him as a gesture of kindness at Brakebills South. And while rushing to help his frenemy, Quentin eventually takes his advice to stop acting like a stalker and admit his feelings for Alice were more than just fox pheromones. Speaking of: props to Olivia Taylor Dudley for reading off a line like “I think we need to spend some time apart so we can tell what’s real and what’s fox” with a straight face.
Which leaves only Julia, whose time in rehab leads her straight into a question The Magicians is tackling shockingly early, at least relative to the books: where does God, or gods, fit into a world where magic exists? The chaplain at the rehab she checks herself into, who also happens to be a Brakebills alum, claims that “magic is a set of tools left over from Creation,” tools that don’t necessarily prove destructive if put in the right hands: “The reason you treat magic like a drug is the people who taught it to you act like drug dealers.” So Julia begins experimenting with summoning the divine, a path that doesn’t seem dangerous at all. The chaplain seems nice enough, but as we all know, Julia’s history with potential allies and collaborators is a tragic and bloody one.