clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Magicians’ season 4 finale was frustrating and maybe irresponsible. I kinda loved it.

The Syfy series caps off its season perfectly — it just wasn’t the season most of us fans thought we were watching.

Actor Quentin Coldwater in “The Magicians.”
Quentin Coldwater does something amazing.
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 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 April 14 through 20 is “No Better to Be Safe Than Sorry,” the season four finale of Syfy’s The Magicians.

The first time I watched “No Better to Be Safe Than Sorry,” shortly after it aired, I found it to be a frustrating, unconvincing, potentially irresponsible end to a frustrating, unconvincing, potentially irresponsible season of one of my favorite TV shows.

The Magicians, in both book and TV show form, has meant so much to me in the decade since I read Lev Grossman’s 2009 novel, the first installment of the author’s Magicians trilogy. But the fourth season of the show, while often magical (and containing what I would call the series’ best episode), occasionally felt like butter spread thin on toast — too little story for a 13-episode run, with a bunch of episodes that felt a little like the series running in place for no good reason.

And initially, “No Better to Be Safe Than Sorry” fell in line with that assessment. After my first viewing, it felt simultaneously overstuffed and empty, like it was trying to tell two directly opposed stories at once. Yet something kept nagging me about the episode, a sense that I had missed something important. So over the next 36 hours or so, I completely rewatched season four to see if my feelings would change.

In the end, I was still frustrated by a lot of it, and I was still unconvinced by some of it, and I’m still worried about some of the storytelling choices and how they might reverberate with The Magicians’ audience. But the back half of the season especially is as emotionally raw and real as anything that has aired on television in ages, a heartbreaking exploration of the idea that sometimes there aren’t any answers, so you have to make your own.

It was frustrating and unconvincing and potentially irresponsible, yes. But I loved it anyway.

A few notes on Quentin Coldwater and the role of “conduit characters” in big ensemble dramas

The Magicians
Eliot and Margo are great characters — but they’re not conduit characters.

A big barrier to entry for many would-be Magicians fans is the character of Quentin Coldwater. He’s privileged and possessed of magic powers, yet he behaves as if his pain and emotional woundedness are the only things that matter, even when those around him are struggling so much more.

Grossman’s The Magicians is told entirely through Quentin’s point of view, and if you are not an insufferable, emotionally constipated, possibly depressed white guy of means in his early 20s (or have not been one of those at some point in your life), well, it’s easy to wonder why this is the lens Grossman chose to tell his story through.

But in the trilogy’s final two books — 2011’s The Magician King and 2014’s The Magician’s Land — the story’s point of view starts to disperse among its many other characters. First, we see through the eyes of Quentin’s childhood friend, Julia (in The Magician King) and by the end of The Magician’s Land, almost everybody in the ensemble gets a chapter told from their perspective.

The result is an elegant mirror of the way that growing up and becoming a mature adult requires accounting for the thoughts and perspectives of other people, no matter how much you might not want to. The TV series couldn’t shift its perspective in quite the same way the novels did, but it depicted that journey by gradually reducing TV Quentin’s (Jason Ralph) importance to the narrative. He was still central, but he slowly came to realize that he was not the great hero he had previously imagined himself to be. Others in his friend group were more powerful, more intelligent, or just more thoughtful. What Quentin could do was bring people together.

This arc slyly mimicked his storytelling function within the show. Quentin is what I call a “conduit character,” someone who mostly exists to provide the shortest path between any two other characters in the ensemble. (Other examples: Jack on Lost; Piper on Orange Is the New Black.)

If The Magicians wants to do a story featuring Julia (Stella Maeve) and nerd king Josh (Trevor Einhorn), there isn’t really a natural way to force the two of them together. But they both know Quentin well, so he becomes the conduit.

Audiences tend to hate conduit characters. Their centrality often feels baffling, because they’re rarely the most interesting figures on their shows, and on some level, I think, we can feel the contrivance inherent in, “Well, this one guy sticks around because he knows everybody else at least a little bit.” It feels like a storytelling cheat, because deep down, it is.

But on a show with an ensemble as far-flung (in terms of being spread across multiple magical realms) as The Magicians, a conduit character is necessary to knit things together. It is not for nothing that Quentin’s magical discipline — long masked from him and the audience — was revealed earlier in season four to be “minor mending,” a.k.a. fixing small and broken things. He does that frequently within the show’s structural fabric.

So you can imagine my surprise when I watched the season finale — and really, turn back now if you haven’t seen it, because I’m about to spoil a pretty major twist — and the episode killed off Quentin, explicitly, on-screen, even sending him to the afterlife so that we might not be tempted to think he’s coming back. The Magicians wasn’t just killing its protagonist. It was killing its center, which from a storytelling perspective is even more terrifying.

So let’s talk about what happens in the finale — and how it raises some big issues it never quite deals with

The Magicians
Quentin and Penny look on as their friends mourn the former.

If you rewatch season four keeping in mind that Quentin is going to die, a lot of its flaws snap into place. The actual plot of the season — involving the characters trying to save both the world and their friend Eliot (Hale Appleman) from a monster that has taken over Eliot’s body — runs itself ragged by going in circles. By the time The Magicians introduces the idea that maybe what the monster wants is to resurrect its sister, and yeah, that’s been the plan all along, you can see just a little flopsweat from the show having to sustain this plot for a full 13 episodes.

But where season four excels is in building an emotional arc about the characters slowly confronting some of their own inner demons in an attempt to grow toward maturity. This element is most explicit in the season’s 10th episode, a literal journey through the wilderness for the catty and quip-ready Margo (Summer Bishil) as she attempts to find her life’s purpose. (It’s also a musical!) But at some point, every single member of the show’s large cast finds themselves confronting a very real manifestation of their worst fears about themselves.

For Quentin, those worst fears are two in number: that he never mattered (i.e., that he was never the protagonist of this story after all) and that he is simply marking time before he dies by suicide. Season four externalizes both of these fears, which is both why I keep calling it “potentially irresponsible” and why I find it so thrilling.

Let’s start with Quentin’s first fear: that he’s not the protagonist. The season’s best episode (and, I would argue, the series’ best episode), “The Side Effect,” takes the form of several small stories about some of The Magicians’ extreme supporting players, revealing just what they’ve been up to in the midst of the season’s main quests. It also plays around with the idea of “white male protagonism” — the idea that we’re conditioned to believe white men belong at the center of almost all stories, because that’s where so much of pop culture tends to put them.

“The Side Effect” isn’t preachy about this, because it’s too busy focusing on its tiny romps with The Magicians’ supporting players. But it comes up in the first scene, then hangs over the rest of the episode: What does it mean for a story to be “about” someone? What does that do to them? What does that do to you, if you’re not them?

And then at the end, we learn that somebody will be headed to the afterlife by season’s end, though not who it will be. (The show uses this raw plot idea to build at least some tension throughout the season’s final half.) Thus does “The Side Effect” become the key to unlocking the rest of the season: The Magicians is Quentin’s story not because he was a hero, but because he brought other people together. And it’s his story because after he brought them together, he died. His worst fear is both realized and subverted at once, in a way that he can take at least some pride in as his spirit watches his friends mourn.

It’s Quentin’s other darkest fear — suicidal ideation — that The Magicians is clumsier about. Telling stories about a character having thoughts of suicide is tricky, simply because it’s so easy to trigger such thoughts in others. Journalists have deliberate guidelines we can consult to hopefully temper this problem, but storytelling will always face a tougher challenge, because it can’t rely on the distancing effect of carefully chosen terms.

Quentin doesn’t die by suicide. He dies saving his friends and the world, because in the split second of time he has to act before everything goes wrong, he realizes that the only way to save the day will also lead to his death. But The Magicians doesn’t ignore that maybe the reason Quentin was so ready to sacrifice himself was that he harbored dark thoughts of self-destruction. The show understands that neither he nor we can ever know if he would have made the same choices if he hadn’t ever considered taking his own life. (It reminded me of a similar plotline on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, although that show buried Buffy’s depression very deeply in its subtext, where The Magicians made Quentin’s depression very much the text.)

The Magicians’ metaphorical treatment of mental illness has never had the neat cohesion of some of its other metaphors. Sometimes magic makes things worse; sometimes it makes things so much better. Its effect on your life might depend on the circumstances or just who you are. But where I think The Magicians’ fourth season succeeds as a whole (albeit not quite in the finale by itself) is in asking what the line is between “I don’t care if I live or die” and “I actively don’t want to live.” The former is often the basis of heroism; the latter is often mental illness. And the division between them is never as clear as we might like it to be, for any of us.

The Magicians leaves Quentin unfinished. That’s true to life, but also plays into some troubling tropes.

The Magicians
Penny and Quentin head into the afterlife.
Eike Schroter/SYFY

But what social media outcry there has been around “No Better to Be Safe Than Sorry” mostly stems from the episode’s treatment (or lack thereof) of Quentin’s bisexuality, which makes him the latest in a long line of queer TV characters who’ve died seemingly to advance a show’s plot.

Much of season four, in which Quentin is intent on rescuing Eliot for reasons even he seems unable to explain to himself, hinges on his romantic past with Eliot, covered in the show’s third season and an earlier season four episode (which my colleague Constance Grady wrote about).

But the season also delves into his tumultuous relationship with Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley), the woman he romanced for much of The Magicians’ first season before the two broke up in emotionally devastating fashion. And because Eliot is a monster for most of the season, where Alice is Alice, it’s Alice whom Quentin has a short romantic reconciliation with before he dies. He doesn’t get to talk to Eliot or see Eliot again.

This is not, I don’t think, a version of the “bury your gays” trope in its most irresponsible sense. Eliot will continue to be very alive and very gay, and it’s clear that what character arc he has in season four is about learning to open himself up to another person (meaning he’ll hopefully have a boyfriend soon).

What’s more, The Magicians has always practiced a kind of cynical pansexuality — the show is more than happy to have anybody sleep with anybody so long as it can get the proper mixture of laughs and emotional devastation out of it. And it’s not like Quentin was a character who existed merely to die. He was the show’s central character, and the ripple effect of his death looks to be one of its primary story threads going forward.

Still, the Quentin and Eliot romantic relationship was the one thing the series buried in its subtext in a season full of bold, highlighted text. During my rewatch, it was easier to pull out how Quentin’s quest to save his friend and former lover was driven by both versions of the duo’s relationship, but the show didn’t do much to emphasize the twin sources of his motivation. And though it offered a lovely acknowledgement of Alice and Eliot as Quentin’s exes (when the two held hands at his memorial), it still felt a little like too little, too late.

So maybe I’m cutting The Magicians too much slack, in a way that devastated fans of the Quentin and Eliot pairing would find unforgivable. But “No Better to Be Safe Than Sorry” doesn’t treat Quentin as expendable story fodder. Far from it. Instead, the episode establishes his legacy as a series of questions The Magicians’ other characters will never get to resolve. The grief they feel isn’t because he died, but because they won’t ever know what his life might have been.

That feels truer to me than a lot of other TV deaths, carried out for shock value. But I’ll miss the way Ralph gave one of TV’s most vulnerable, hollowed-out performances. The Magicians’ fourth season depicted Quentin as someone barely keeping his head above water, having to pal around with a monster, powerless as his friends tried in vain to find some other way forward.

And Ralph rose to every single one of those beats, even if it was difficult to watch at times. That’s how the actor eventually transcended complaints about The Magicians having an insufferable white guy at its center. Sure, Quentin was that, but he was also a walking wound who never quite found a way to stitch himself up.

The person I was when I read The Magicians in 2009, who identified so strongly with Quentin Coldwater, has mostly evolved into somebody else. (I’m much more prone to identifying with Julia these days.) But The Magicians, frustrating and unconvincing and potentially irresponsible as it can be, will always have my heart for throwing itself into the center of dark, dangerous ideas and poking at them. I didn’t like the finale at first because it made me feel so sad and angry and helpless, and then I realized that was the point.

The Magicians’ first three seasons are streaming on Netflix. The fourth season is available on Syfy’s streaming platforms. Season five airs in 2020.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.