What do you get if you take Harry Potter and turn Hogwarts into a graduate program? And then add a mysterious Narnia clone (Both the books and the universe) force the harried grad students to deal with it? What about all the folks that can’t pass muster to get into an elite grad school? Throw all those things in together and you get SyFy’s take on Lev Grossman’s The Magicians. There will be spoilers.
The Magicians came hot on the heels of SyFy’s wonderful adaptation of The Expanse. I wasn’t initially terribly interested; I tend towards being a scifi guy, not a fantasy guy, but fantasy isn’t really out of my realm of interest. I just prefer spaceships to magic, y’know? Anyways, I waffled for a bit on watching it until I decided to continue pursuing my policy of rewarding SyFy for making things that actually belong on the channel.
I wasn’t really sure what to make of The Magicians initially. To be honest, I’m still not sure what to make of it. SyFy’s tagline for it was “Magic is a drug,” which I thought would be an interesting, if not necessarily cheering idea for a story to tackle. And for a while, The Magicians does, indeed, seem to follow that path. The protagonist, Quentin Coldwater, is a troubled nerd, all grown up but obsessed with the children’s books Fillory and Further. (The aforementioned Narnia clone.) Julia, Quentin’s childhood friend, shares a love for the Fillory books but has “grown up” and moved on.
Through a series of disturbing events, Quentin and Julia, theoretically scheduled to take entrance exams for Yale, wind up in a strange school, taking a stranger set of exams that they are totally unprepared for. Quentin passes, if barely, and finds himself entered into the grad school version of Hogwarts, Brakebills University; Julia, on the other hand, fails miserably and has her mind wiped. At least in theory; the mind wipe doesn’t take, and Julia, awakened to the fact that magic exists and she’s been missing it all her life– that her life is fundamentally incomplete without it– sets off trying to find magic without the help of Brakebills’ teachers. For the first half of the show, we get two parallel arcs, one following Julia and her ordeal learning magic from hedge witches, and one following Quentin, learning magic in the pristine environment of Brakebills University.
Too bad hedge witches and wizards are terribly untrusting, manipulative folks, and too bad that Brakebills has caught the eye of a demon only known as The Beast. The Beast is a six fingered man, his face perpetually shrouded in a cluster of moths, and he’s come to rule Fillory since the books were written decades ago. He’s also not terribly fond of the idea that people may come and go from Fillory as they please, and he’s taken to locking down any possible entrances to Fillory one by one, usually in whatever bloody means he deems necessary, and for whatever reason, Quentin seems to be a threat to the Beast’s plans.
Like I said earlier, I was never quite sure what to make of The Magicians. At first it was a just an adult, sexified version of Harry Potter; then it was an adult, sexified version of Harry Potter dealing with the existence of a real life Narnia. Then it became its own thing, and even though it was grim, adult, and sexified, I was actually really enjoying it. It’s well-written and well-produced, and like a lot of good works, it takes its inspirations and runs with them. It has a fantastic, if off color sense of humor, and I have to admit that I’ve laughed out loud at more than one ribald event– at one point, Eliot, a student a year ahead of Quentin, admits to having lost a magical tome, volume one of two. To find it, they get the volume 2, trap it in a cardboard box, and use its attempts to get out to lead them to the missing volume. As it turns out, some hedge witches have stolen it, and once Quentin and Eliot find it, the second volume breaks free of the box, flies to the first, and the books immediately begin humping. It’s ribald, crude, but was hilariously unexpected.
At least, it was at that point; by the end of the season, I was over the show’s use of sex. Everything in this show is about sex, and I’m about to get into spoilery territory here, so stop reading if you’re concerned about spoilers.
The students at Brakebills tend to be as superficial and vain as the students of Hogwarts were not. Recreation outside of class seems to be mostly sex, drugs, and alcohol, and maybe the fact that I’m a goody two shoes and a seminary has colored me, but very few of them seem like the kind of people who should have magic at their command. The gentleman who wrote Fillory and Further was a child-molester who made kiddy porn of at least one of the children who adventured in Fillory, scarring him for life. Some of the Brakebills students from previous years have vacationed in Fillory, apparently having sex with everything possible there, including a talking horse. One of the creator-deities of Fillory gives Quentin a jar of god-semen to drink when they’re in need of magical aptitude to fight The Beast. Experiments with emotion controlling magic lead to a threesome that happens to not involve Quentin’s girlfriend, shattering that relationship apart. A trickster god rapes another character. Sex and sexual deviancy just absolutely pervade the show.
It’s a show full of unhappy people doing unhappy things, and somehow, in spit of that, it manages to be compelling in a way that a lot of things are not. It’s definitely a work that is subversive, taking the tropes and settings of beloved tales and twisting them in uncomfortable ways. It’s strangely not mean-spirited, but it’s somehow off. The closest thing I can think of is the whole discussion of the so-called Problem of Susan from Narnia: the complaint that Susan is essentially damned for taking an interest in boys and fashion and forgetting Narnia.
The complaint is, of course, missing the point. Everyone knows Narnia is Christian allegory (Well… not really. Aslan isn’t a symbol of Jesus, he’s supposed to be Jesus, but that’s a rabbit trail.) and the issue with Susan was never that she liked boys: the issue is that she forgot Aslan and dismissed Narnia as a fairy tale. The “problem,” as it were, isn’t the boys; the problem is that she’d forgotten the truth of it all. But to secular readers, or readers who don’t pay attention well enough, it seems awfully mean to exclude Susan for what appears to be an interest in boys and adult life.
In fact, large swathes of The Magicians, particularly where it relates to Fillory, have this vibe of Narnia seen through the lens of someone with no faith. The faithless perspective does not allow for an Aslan or a Jesus, a loving God who would sacrifice himself, but it allows for a horny satyr god. It does not allow for wonder, but sees instead a dark underbelly to things that should be pleasant and lifegiving. It doesn’t allow for heroes who fight because its right, but it allows for reluctant protagonists who fight because they’ll die otherwise.
And I can’t help but see The Magicians as that sort of wrong-headed look at Narnia. Everything is off. It’s maybe not intentionally sour, but it’s taken the quintessentially superversive work and made it base. Someone on Facebook described it as “a penis scrawled on the pages of Narnia” and that might not be a terribly inaccurate description. It’s a very artful depiction of a penis, but it’s still a penis.