Every week, 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 January 28 through February 3 is “Be the Penny,” the fourth episode of the third season of Syfy’s The Magicians.
If there’s one thing that unites all of my favorite television shows — and I mean favorite shows, the ones I will go to the mat for every time — it’s a sense of playfulness.
My definition of playfulness might differ from yours. I would, for instance, define The Wire — a dead serious show, but one that never tired of finding new angles and perspectives on its stories (or, indeed, finding the humor in any given situation) — as fundamentally playful. The same is true of Mad Men, which has a reputation in some circles as a slog but which I felt like always had as much fun as it possibly could with everything it was doing.
I would define playfulness, then, not as “fun” or “wackiness” or anything like that, but rather as a show’s willingness to constantly pull itself apart at an almost sub-atomic level, to keep twisting and turning core assumptions on their ear, to be willing to try anything in order to tell a great story. Grim though it was, The Leftovers was a playful show; so is the spritely, brightly colored The Good Place.
And so is Syfy’s The Magicians, which is pulling together a third season that might be as big a step up over its second season as the second season already was over the first.
“Be the Penny” takes an established TV trope and completely upends it
The fourth episode of The Magicians’ third season, “Be the Penny,” is a great example of how playful the show can be — even though it follows the death of a major character and contains lots of scenes where other characters grieve their fallen friend, crying over the toll that this fantastical adventure has had on them.
The best example of this sort of episode is probably Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s 2001 hour “The Body,” in which Buffy and her friends mourn the death of Buffy’s mother, Joyce, but if you’ve watched any TV drama worth its salt in the past 20-some years, you’ve seen an episode dedicated to the grieving process, to characters who grapple with mortality as surely as the rest of us do.
The big difference with “Be the Penny” is that it’s told from the point of view of the deceased.
The end of The Magicians’ previous episode featured the death of Penny (Arjun Gupta), the surly magician who had found love with Kady (Jade Tailor) and a grudging friendship with just about everybody else on the show, but especially protagonist Quentin (Jason Ralph). As season two wound to its close, Penny acquired a kind of magical cancer, which ate away at him from the inside, and season three began with his nearest and dearest racing to find a cure while he took a job with the Library, a magical interdimensional space, which could drastically slow the progress of his disease so long as he remained within its walls.
But the Library wasn’t a great place to work, and Penny just wanted to be with Kady, so he returned to our plane, only to have his disease very quickly catch up to where he was in the timeline, leaving him stricken and in bed. Kady and her pal Julia (Stella Maeve) found a magical being who could hopefully treat Penny, but as they looked on, Penny died — only to then pop up in the corner (unseen by them), wide-eyed, staring at his own corpse. End of episode.
Penny, see, is a “traveler” — someone who can astrally project, traveling out of his body and across essentially all of space, should he need to. In the midst of the pain he suffered while the magical being administered his treatment, he left his body behind, perhaps instinctively — but when he returned, he no longer had a body to reenter. So he wasn’t a ghost, not really. In The Magicians’ universe, ghosts are stuck in time loops, while Penny still had autonomy (more or less). He was just stuck in a place where none of his friends could see or hear him, and thus doomed to watch as they mourned his death, then tried to figure out how to free his soul from indentured servitude to the Library. (His body might have died; his contract didn’t.)
“Be the Penny” — the title refers to Penny’s attempts to possess inanimate objects in order to communicate with his friends — thus becomes a typical episode of The Magicians, with four or five plots running at full speed right alongside each other, but with Penny constantly in frame, occasionally commenting on the action.
He’s joined by a fellow traveler, one who was trapped in a similar dilemma in the 1920s and has now watched essentially everything the characters have done since the show began, which makes him something of a stand-in for Magicians fans. And this is just one of the wild plot devices “Be the Penny” cooks up, with others including Penny possessing a golem to try to communicate with his friends and getting into a fight with an actual ghost, in hopes of disrupting the ghost’s routine just enough that he can get it to say his name (thus alerting his friends to his presence).
As a result, the Buffy episode that “Be the Penny” ends up resembling the most is 1999’s “The Zeppo,” in which perpetually undervalued normal dude Xander has his own wild adventure while a typical episode of Buffy unfolds on the sidelines. Except “Be the Penny” goes one step further, by pushing the typical Magicians episode to center stage while simultaneously constructing a meta-narrative about Penny trying to save his own skin. It should have toppled under its own weight. That it didn’t makes it kind of magical.
At its best, The Magicians feels like it might never run out of ideas
Here’s the thing: Without spoiling what’s coming, I can say that future episodes of The Magicians’ third season continue this sort of wild experimentation. There’s an overarching narrative — about restoring the flow of easy magical energy to human beings, after ancient beings cut them off from it at the end of season two — but each and every episode gives the characters a “quest of the week” that plays into that larger narrative while also wildly changing the tone of the show.
“Be the Penny,” for instance, is a very funny meta-commentary on the established rules of the series to this point, but it’s also a genuinely poignant look at being forced to watch how your friends behave at your own funeral. The following episode (airing Wednesday, February 7), meanwhile, plays around with space and time in even more dazzling ways.
Even more impressive, The Magicians pulls off all of this playful experimentation without ever losing sight of its more potent thematic and emotional narrative about becoming an adult, about what it means to realize how badly the world is stacked against you and how little power you have to change that. Season three, in particular, has offered some beautiful commentary on female anger, as Julia, Kady, and the show’s other women have attempted to navigate the messy gender politics of our own world (and said gender politics’ favoritism toward men), but with everything amplified several dozen times by the presence of magical creatures.
Julia is The Magicians’ only human being (that we know of) to still have ready access to magic at her (literal) fingertips, without resorting to reality hacks or magical batteries charged before magic was shut off at the end of season two — but she has that access because of a deeply traumatic sexual assault she suffered in her past, at the hands of a god. The show never does anything so simple as suggest that Julia’s survivor status is why she’s so strong, but it is interested in the ways these questions intersect and boomerang back to each other, in how trauma can both destroy you and give you a better sense of systemic loopholes that allow for such horrors, thus making you better able to combat them.
If I’ve had a criticism of The Magicians in the past, it has been that the series sometimes feels like it’s running at such a frantic pace that it will never figure out how to slow down and really dig into the meaningful ideas that do exist within its universe. But the more season three races along, to the beat of its own drummer, the more I realize that the show’s “quest of the week” storytelling style means it can essentially do whatever it wants, throw as many tones as possible into the blender and have whatever emerges come out deliciously.
That, I think, is what ultimately qualifies The Magicians as “playful”: a strong enough grasp of the idea that any individual installment of a TV series can (and should!) break wildly from what’s been established, to tell a story that can cede to something else in the weeks to come. Down with dour, plodding stories that get stuck in the same style and tone ruts for seasons at a time. Up with shows like The Magicians, where every episode makes you feel like a brand new TV series is unfolding around you.