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On The Magicians, knowing the system is rigged to crush you is part of becoming an adult

The Syfy show’s terrific second season succeeded thanks to a surprising thematic depth.

The Magicians
Julia and Quentin realize things aren’t going to be so easy.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for April 16 through 22 is “We Have Brought You Little Cakes,” the season two finale of Syfy’s The Magicians.

In nearly every episode of The Magicians’ second season, I found myself thinking the show’s writers would fuck everything up.

Every episode threw so many balls in the air that, about two-thirds of the way through each one, I would inevitably get nervous that the series had bitten off more than it could chew. It would cut, wildly, between dimensions and universes, and its characters were often scattered to the winds.

Indeed, in one memorable hour, several characters wandered the land of the dead while The Magicians cut to some their friends dealing with fairies invading a magical kingdom, or to some of their other friends here on Earth who were trying to figure out how to murder a god. The show went big or it went stratospheric; going home never seemed to have crossed its mind.

And yet, improbably, it all worked. Season two suffered a few missteps and fumbles, but overall it was a confident, enjoyable piece of fantasy TV, as good as anything in the genre. How did the show manage to keep from falling apart? It’s all about power.

The Magicians season two had one strong, central theme

At the end of The Magicians’ first season, its central characters did battle with a highly skilled, highly malevolent being called The Beast. As it turned out, The Beast had once been a young boy, a victim of sexual abuse who attempted to salve his wounds by accruing magical power. It didn’t work, he slowly became embittered, and then his life intersected with those of The Magicians’ characters.

In season one’s final battle, The Beast laid waste to the central group, leaving many of them seemingly on the edge of death. The scene was a brutal example of what happens when it’s demonstrably clear that power is distributed unequally. The characters might have thought they were prepared to take on The Beast, but they weren’t.

The Magicians
Also, there was a musical number.

The whole of season two has explored that question: What happens when you think you have power, but you actually don’t? Indeed, in the season premiere, several characters were crowned as kings and queens of the magical land of Fillory, but ruling proved difficult.

They were the playthings of Ember, a satyr-like god who lives for dramatic chaos and doesn’t care so much about constructing a just society, and they found themselves torn between impulses to return power to Fillory’s people (who are mostly talking animals) and to rule them with an iron fist.

But the idea of power lost and regained resonated with non-Fillory storylines, too. In season one, Julia (Stella Maeve), the show’s female lead, summoned a goddess, only to realize she’d been tricked by the god Reynard, who hitched a ride on her summoning ritual. He raped her, and her ongoing quest in season two to regain her own sense of agency and power, which led her into some dark places both within herself and in the show’s magical worlds, provided the closest thing the season had to a throughline.

When she finally had a chance to kill Reynard in season two’s next-to-last episode, she chose to turn him over to the godly justice system represented by his mother — and only then did Julia truly begin to open up and feel the devastation she’d been keeping at bay for so long.

Meanwhile, Quentin (Jason Ralph), the show’s male lead, spent most of season two trying to work through his grief over the death of his girlfriend, Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley), while haunted by various manifestations of her (this story development proved both artful and a sneaky way to keep Dudley on the payroll). He finally resurrected her in that next-to-last episode — in a sequence that was intercut with Julia’s plotting to kill Reynard, no less — only to realize that she had no particular desire to return to being human.

In these stories and others (because there were seriously seven or eight major storylines this season, and outlining all of them would take all day), The Magicians grappled with the feelings of powerlessness that can stem from grief or trauma. You might, like the boy who became The Beast, cut yourself off from your emotions in relentless pursuit of power, but doing so can suffocate your humanity.

To be alive is to feel like you’re a pawn controlled by powerful, immutable forces, and that will mean suffering. To suffer, then, is to be human, and to try to avoid suffering entirely is to make yourself something less than.

Of course, the system is rigged

All of this brings us to The Magicians’ season finale, in which the characters gather in Fillory to depose Ember and return its power to the people (or talking animals, as it were). Julia and Quentin combine their powers to kill Ember, and victory reigns.

Or it would have, if the system weren’t rigged.

The Magicians
Fairies, led by their queen, arrive to screw everything up.

When the second season of The Magicians began, I compared the series to Buffy the Vampire Slayer in its ability to deftly mix entertaining fantasy TV with weightier themes, via the use of metaphors. But where Buffy’s themes of coming-of-age were closely tied to its adolescent characters, The Magicians characters are twentysomethings — and thus closer to their “finished” forms, even if they’re still growing up.

As such, a lot of The Magicians’ second season centered on how the system is rigged against you, how adulthood is a constant stream of realizations that you can’t possibly hope to stand against the massive, overwhelming weight of history. You have personal agency, sure, but you’re also a cog in several much, much larger machines that don’t particularly care if you live or die. And if you somehow stand out enough to make the system aware of your existence, you’ll surely be ground down.

This is exactly what happens to The Magicians’ characters. Having killed Ember, they attract the attention of even older gods, the primordial beings who gave humanity access to magic power in the first place. The older gods then send a “plumber” into our reality to turn off our access to magic, leaving the characters scattered across multiple planes of existence, all of them stranded without the spells that give them the greatest source of their power.

The Magicians is based on a series of books by Lev Grossman (though season two has mostly come to regard those books as a helpful suggestion manual rather than a sacrosanct original text), and those books contain their own version of this plotline. In Grossman’s telling, it was a grand, apocalyptic event that drove much of the action of the third and final tome. But on TV, life has to go on. The characters have to live with the knowledge that they’re bugs, easily squashed.

So in season three, The Magicians will almost certainly deal with the characters trying to regain magical power. And there’s some hope to be had — the finale ends with Julia revealing to Quentin that she can still produce faint magical sparks, which fizzle like dud sparklers on the Fourth of July. It’s a start, at least.

That’s the other thing about becoming an adult. You can realize that the system will always crush you, but you can also realize that there’s something about yourself that it ultimately can’t reach. Power is never inherent. It’s only lent to anyone, for a little while, from somebody else, and that power can be wrested away. The end of magic marked the end of Grossman’s books, but on TV, the end of magic only means the beginning of some exciting new chapter of the self. To make an end is to make a beginning.

The Magicians airs on Syfy. Season three will debut in 2018. Season one is on Netflix, and season two is on Syfy’s website.

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