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The Magicians paid off 74 years of queer subtext this week

The lineage of the Syfy series’ love story between two men goes back to Brideshead Revisited.

Hale Appleman as Eliot and Jason Ralph as Quentin in The Magicians.
Quentin and Eliot remember spending 50 years together in “A Life in the Day.”
Syfy
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

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 February 19 through 23 is “Escape From the Happy Place,” the fifth episode of The Magicians’ seventh season.

This week on Syfy’s The Magicians, a long-established subtext, a subtext that has arguably been building since 1945, finally became text. I am talking, of course, about Quentin Coldwater declaring his love for Eliot Waugh.

The Magicians has only been airing since 2015, but Quentin-Eliot is a ship with a long legacy. Syfy’s TV show is based on a series of novels by Lev Grossman, and almost every time Grossman talks about his books, he talks about Brideshead Revisited, the barely subtextually queer novel by Evelyn Waugh. “I rely on most of my readers to never have read Brideshead Revisited, so they cannot see how much I am stealing from it,” Grossman told the A.V. Club in 2011.

Grossman knows that Brideshead Revisited is a love story. He named it one of the most romantic books of all time in 2007, swooning over its “dream of love — of both the heterosexual and, more subtly, homosexual varieties — that lasts decades.” In Brideshead Revisited, protagonist Charles Ryder never quite says out loud that he’s in love with his best friend Sebastian Flyte, but the romance between the two is lingering just beneath the surface of the text. It’s not hard to spot. It’s veiled just enough to get by in 1945.

The first Magicians book came out in 2009, but the relationship in Grossman’s books that most clearly echoes Brideshead Revisited, the friendship between mostly straight protagonist Quentin Coldwater and the queer and tellingly named Eliot Waugh, follows Evelyn Waugh’s lead in keeping any potential romantic angles mostly subtextual. Only occasionally does the possibility of sex or romance between Quentin and Eliot emerge into text in The Magicians novels, and when it does, it is nearly always inflected with deep self-loathing.

This week, The Magicians TV show finally made the subtext text. It explicitly signposted Quentin and Eliot’s story as one of romantic love, one where they would kiss and express their love for each other and it wouldn’t be a weird self-destructive one-off. It made the slash canon.

Lev Grossman’s Quentin and Eliot are modeled on Evelyn Waugh’s Charles and Sebastian

When Charles Ryder meets Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited, he experiences Sebastian’s influence as “a spell.” They’re at Oxford together in the ’20s, and quiet everyman Charles is “entranced” by witty aesthete Sebastian. Charles is always talking about Sebastian’s “epicene beauty.” Starting from one afternoon where they lie under the trees together, with Charles “watching the smoke from [Sebastian’s] lips drift up into the branches,” they spend all their time together. They appear, for all intents and purposes, to be infatuated with one another.

Charles eventually transfers his love for Sebastian to the bounds of a safely heterosexual relationship with Sebastian’s sister, Julia, but his feelings for the two are closely linked in his mind.

“You loved him, didn’t you?” Julia asks Charles of Sebastian.

“Oh yes,” Charles replies. “He was the forerunner” — which is to say that Charles’s love for Sebastian was the forerunner of his love for Julia.

Grossman’s Eliot and Quentin parallel Waugh’s Sebastian and Charles closely. Eliot is the first person that Quentin meets in the magical, spell-casting world of Brakebills College, meaning that Quentin, like Charles with Sebastian, essentially experiences Eliot’s influence as a spell. In his first appearance, Eliot, like Waugh’s Sebastian, is standing under a tree, smoking a cigarette. Quentin is immediately struck by Eliot’s “air of effortless self-possession” which makes “Quentin urgently want to be his friend, or maybe just be him period.” (“I nicked some of Eliot’s personality from Sebastian Flyte,” Grossman once said.)

Quentin does not pursue a romantic relationship with Eliot. Instead, he alternately chases two girls, one of whom, like Charles’s alternate love interest, is named Julia. (The other one is named Alice; both Alice and Julia pretty inarguably deserve better than Quentin.) But when Quentin sees Eliot hooking up with another boy, he feels jealous: “If this was what Eliot wanted,” he thinks, “why hadn’t he come to Quentin?” And toward the end of the first Magicians book, Quentin and Eliot fall into bed together in a drunken threesome with Eliot’s best friend Janet.

Quentin mostly thinks of the encounter as the time he cheated on Alice with Janet, and he rarely allows himself to approach the thought that he had sex with Eliot that night too. The whole thing is shrouded with Quentin’s self-loathing, because it is, he realizes, “a terrible, really awful, hurtful betrayal” of Alice, whom he loves.

So throughout the rest of the trilogy, Quentin and Eliot continue to be close friends, and sometimes they refer to each other as “family.” But the question of anything else romantic ever happening between them never quite becomes text.

Syfy’s Quentin and Eliot manage to accomplish what their book equivalents could not

Hale Appleman as Eliot and Jason Ralph as Quentin in The Magicians
Quentin crowns Eliot High King of Fillory.
Carole Segal/Syfy

Syfy’s Magicians is a sweeter, less self-hating piece of work than Grossman’s Magicians is. It’s not as trapped within the stultifying confines of Quentin’s head, and over time, Quentin comes to seem like less of a dick than his book counterpart.

So while Quentin and Eliot still have their regrettable drunken threesome at the end of season one, and it’s still framed as a terrible, messy mistake because of what it does to Alice, that’s not quite the ending of Quentin and Eliot’s story in Syfy’s telling.

Instead, Syfy’s The Magicians devoted an entire season three episode to Quentin and Eliot. It aired in 2018, and it’s an odd and lovely formal experiment called “A Life in the Day.” It takes place in an alternate timeline in which Quentin and Eliot leave the rest of the group, get stuck in a remote country cottage, and grow old together.

In a single long montage, we see Quentin initiate a hookup with Eliot, and then Eliot gently decline to talk about it the next morning. We see Quentin pursue a woman and have a child with her, and then mourn when the woman dies. We see Quentin and Eliot raising the child together, living a life together, growing old and dying together. When the two eventually return to the main timeline, young and alive, they retain their memories of their alternate life together.

The episode clearly celebrated Quentin and Eliot’s bond, but it was possible, in season three, to read that bond as almost entirely platonic. Lacking other evidence, the hookup could easily be a one-off, born out of boredom and lack of other options.

Now, in season four, it’s clear that is not the case.

Season four’s A-plot is structured around Quentin and Eliot’s relationship. A monster who is obsessed with Quentin has possessed Eliot’s body and keeps dragging Quentin around with him on his quest to kill various and sundry gods. Quentin believes Eliot is dead and is quietly shell-shocked over it.

Eliot, however, is still alive. He’s trapped in a corner of his own mind — his happy place. And in “Escape From the Happy Place,” he has to push his way out and regain control of his body long enough to tell Quentin that he is still in there somewhere, so that Quentin can find a way to rescue him. But in order to regain control of his body, Eliot has to leave his happy place and dig up his most painful repressed memory. Which, as it turns out, is a moment from “A Life in the Day” that we didn’t get to see before.

It fits in just at the end of “A Life in the Day,” when Quentin and Eliot have finally returned to the main timeline and have just remembered the long life they lived together in the alternate one. We see them sitting together the way we saw them sitting at the end of that episode, stunned and disbelieving.

And then comes the part we didn’t see before. Quentin turns to Eliot and says the thing that Waugh’s Charles never quite said to Sebastian, that Grossman’s Quentin never quite said to Grossman’s Eliot: “I know this sounds dumb, but … us. I don’t know, think about it. We work. We know it because we lived it. Who gets that kind of proof of concept?”

Quentin wants to be with Eliot, as a real thing, romantically. “Why the fuck not?” he says.

And Eliot, sad and afraid, turns him down. “Q, come on,” he says. “I love you, but you have to know that that’s not me. And it’s definitely not you. Not when we have a choice.”

The Eliot of “Escape From the Happy Place,” watching this memory, is disgusted with his past self. “What the hell is wrong with you?” he demands. “Someone good and true loves you, and he went out on a limb. And yeah, it was a little crazy, but you knew. You knew this was a moment that truly mattered, and you just snuffed it out.”

Then he kisses his memory of Quentin, and he reestablishes control of his body just long enough to tell the real Quentin that he is alive.

In the long term, we don’t know how this moment will carry forward over the rest of the season. We don’t know that when the monster is defeated and Eliot comes back, he and Quentin will declare their love for each other and be together forever. We don’t know if they will decide to pursue a romantic relationship at all.

But regardless of what happens next, The Magicians has accomplished something big. At last, it has turned 74 years of subtext into text. It has turned the love that dare not speak its name into the inarguable center of a love story.

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