This story contains mild spoilers for Syfy’s The Magicians.
When the first novel in Lev Grossman’s popular Magicians trilogy was published in 2009, it introduced Quentin Coldwater, a white, whiny, Ivy League–bound Brooklynite. His trajectory as a protagonist sounded familiar: Quentin, who’d always felt like a misfit, found out that he was actually a magician and wound up at Brakebills University, a training ground for posh mages. It was Hogwarts, U.S.A; he was Harry Potter with a sex life. Together with his school friends, Quentin later discovered that Fillory, a Narnia-esque world he loved from childhood books, was real.
When the trilogy was adapted for Syfy, the show could’ve doubled down on treating Quentin like an archetypal hero in the vein of Luke Skywalker or King Arthur. Instead, The Magicians made Quentin a mere entry point into a series of ensemble-driven battles to save the magic of Earth and Fillory. The show became about a group of people honing their collective and individual power. In fusing the nostalgia of fantasy stories and adult themes with self-awareness and whimsy, The Magicians quickly earned praise as one of the best shows on TV you aren’t watching.
With so many people currently seeking out escapism in all its forms, Syfy’s The Magicians is a fantastic binge watch, an all-consuming experience with just enough light to distract from the global pandemic. The series just wrapped its fifth and final season, and the first four seasons are available on Netflix. Even if you can’t leave your house, you can retreat to realms populated by fairies, wannabe-overlord librarians, and a few dragons, via a show that relishes in juvenile sex jokes, musical-theater interludes, and goofy geek-culture references. (For example, when characters world-jump through a British phone box, they describe it, in a nod to Doctor Who, as a “vaguely TARDIS-looking portal.”)
The Magicians is crass and corny; sometimes, it’s horrific. Hands get sliced off. In cutaway glimpses, the show depicts its fictional multiverse as Froot Loop–shaped worlds being devoured by a black hole. Still, it successfully balances the silliness with these mortal stakes because it’s filled with characters complex enough to keep viewers invested in the whole, quirky thing. At a time when many of us are feeling isolated and scared, it’s a gift to watch a group of friends fight to save something as frivolous as magic and as vital as one another.
Quentin isn’t the show’s only protagonist, but the story crucially starts with him. As played by Jason Ralph, he is soulful and earnest. Quentin’s childish wonder makes him an easy target for ridicule but, as his classmate Margo (Summer Bishil) tells him, “that’s because you’re honest about what you love.” Despite a proclivity for being an irritating twerp, Quentin’s the sort of character you root for because his affection for magic and his friends becomes infectious. The pilot forges the viewer’s connection to Quentin and his classmates through tragedy: They accidentally open a door that unleashes The Beast, a storybook monster with a swarm of moths for a face who crumples learned magicians like paper dolls. The students are unprepared to face such great evil, but their actions set off a harrowing chain of events that continues for the rest of the series.
The show takes time to flesh out the ensemble and their respective wounds in ways that allow for powerful emotional payoffs. Quentin is dogged by ennui, by the urge to find secret doors and run away from his life. He recognizes, “I’m in this amazing place. I have literal magic in my life, and I’m still running. I’m still this person that I fucking hate.” But the series also digs into the ghosts that haunt his Brakebills friends. Penny (played by Arjun Gupta), a hothead who barely appears in the books, becomes a world-leaping traveler with a knack for self-sacrifice who surfaces in multiple timelines. In the novels, a gay character named Eliot is rendered as shallow, sad, and one-dimensional, but in the show (as played by Hale Appleman), he becomes a scene-stealer who battles substance abuse and self-loathing. He demonstrates through his brief romantic threads that even magic can be meaningless without the courage to surrender oneself to love.
The women drive the show with their motivations and distinct talents. Alice (Olivia Dudley) twitches with power and is warped by it. Kady (Jade Tailor), a scrappy magician character created for the show, becomes the defender of amateur hedge witches and evolves, through grief, to a mature stoicism. Margo starts out as a snobby party girl on the periphery in Season 1 but evolves as a true leader; with Bishil’s fire, she becomes so much more than the icy manipulator she’s based on in the novels. (She’s also apt to interject expletives like “Voldemont’s clit!” and “Jesus-Helena-Bonham-Christ!” dressing up the show’s prolific profanity.)
Though set in a fantastical world, the series navigates these characters’ lasting traumas with deftness and realism. One form of pain it explores is sexual assault: The series’ approach to the subject, through a story line involving Quentin’s childhood friend Julia (Stella Maeve), is abrupt and cruel. The show has been rightly critiqued for portraying how Julia’s violation at the hands of a god imbues her with power—an antiquated and alarming trope lifted from Grossman’s books. But The Magicians worked to rectify those missteps by spending more than a single season on the fallout. It goes on to show how Julia is fundamentally affected by the attack without letting it become the only thing that defines her.
Elsewhere, minor characters flow beyond the sidelines. In one self-aware scene in a pivotal episode, Penny asserts: “When you file people away as sidekicks, you don’t realize their importance to the story, and this story belongs to a lot more people than you think.” The Magicians insists that even small-seeming characters can become heroes or villains; nothing is static. Watching these friends come together then split into their separate quests over and again feels especially resonant right now, when the most any of us can do is isolate ourselves to protect our neighbors and communities. Our value for the collective has set us on some lonely paths, but like the magicians, we’re in this together.
Quentin, called Q by his friends, embodies this interplay between retreating inward and looking outward. Unlike most of his classmates, Quentin is such an unremarkable magician that his specialty goes undetermined for years. His most notable gift may be his fan-boy obsessiveness for the details of the Fillory books and his affection for the deadly reality of the world as it actually exists. (“The air there,” Quentin notes, “is 0.02 percent opium, which is a pretty unfair trick to get you to love a place.”) His constant reference to kid-book minutiae makes him something of an immature dork, but it also helps him and his friends as they try to survive in Fillory’s strange kingdom. Q doesn’t grow in power, but he develops a knack for understanding the relationship between characters in the Fillory stories and the real-life journeys that he and the other magicians are on.
Q’s passion for those quests is eventually redirected toward his friends. In many ways, Quentin’s great escape is from himself. Syfy’s The Magicians is a love story of a young man learning to look beyond his own darkness and fantasies to devote himself to his friends—who are just as worthy, and some, more worthy adventurers than he is. Sadly, this impulse to evenly rest the show on the shoulders of its deep cast contributed to issues that made the last season frustrating for some of the series’ fans. (News of The Magicians’ cancellation hit in early March.) The death of a major character skewed the show’s balance. With a new gap in this carefully knitted crew, much of the final season oscillated between mourning and apocalypse-hopping, with plot issues threatening to nip at the fabric between The Magicians’ many worlds. But at its close, the series again offered the promise that even after great loss, a bit of magic can be saved. The world itself may be altered forever, but those who are left will start anew.
It’s a story made more powerful now, given current circumstances. At a time when many of us are experiencing our own moments of sadness and anxiety, The Magicians series can be the escape the Fillory books were for Quentin. If both the books and show teach that in some ways, magic consists of the doors we allow ourselves to walk through—whether to Fillory or other worlds—the series created even more doors. By concocting a fantasy realm sweet enough to save and friends dear enough to die for, the show deepened the stories The Magicians could tell about who we become thanks to the journey. Thanks to each other.