As a 45-minute information dump, "Homecoming" is apathetic enough to inspire neither admiration nor contempt.
The MagiciansAirtime: Mondays, 8pm
Cast: Jason Ralph, Arjun Gupta, Stella Maeve, Olivia Taylor Dudley, Hale Appleman, Summer Bishil
Subtitle: Season 1, Episode 10 - "Homecoming"
Air date: 2016-03-21
Compared to the execrable episode eight, "The Strangled Heart", and the exceptional episode nine, "The Writing Table", episode ten, "Homecoming", seems to squat squarely between them in terms of quality. There's nothing to really pooh-pooh, but at the same time, there was nothing to really recommend it. It’s very much "extruded TV product", and one has to wonder if that's significantly better than something that’s out–and-out dreck.
The narrative in this episode can be roughly divided into four threads: Penny (Arjun Gupta); Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley) and Quentin (Jason Ralph); Eliot (Hale Appleman) and Margo (Summer Bishil); and Julia (Stella Maeve) and Kady (Jade Tailor).
Penny, having touched the Fillory-enchanted button at the end of "The Writing Room", is transported to the "Neitherlands" instead of to Fillory itself. The Neitherlands, a potentially infinite forest of fountains acting as portals to discrete realities, includes gateways to both Earth and Fillory. Penny, arriving to the waypoint between worlds, is met by Eve (Katie Findlay), who presents herself as a “native” of the realm, and something of a welcoming committee.
However, Eve isn’t all that she seems to be. When Penny reveals he has the button to Fillory, Eve reveals herself as some kind of assassin, and Penny has to go on the run. He ultimately makes it to a Neitherland library, whose sole inhabitant (Mageina Tovah) is supremely unruffled by his sudden arrival. As a near-omniscient curator of a Library of Babel, the librarian offers to help Penny find his way back to the Earth fountain. But straying from the path, so to speak, Penny finds a series of books that detail his life, the lives of the other Brakebills students, and -- curiously -- the Chatwin siblings.
Penny asks for permission to take the "Martin Chatwin" book, and when the librarian denies him the opportunity, she proceeds to make photocopies of selections from the book, reasoning with precognitive annoyance that Penny's the kind of individual who'd try to steal it, and when she's forced to kill him, it'd likely damage some of her other books. She proceeds to ban him Minority Report-style for his future crime, and Penny ends up back in the Neitherlands.
Penny’s narrative thread provides the impetus for Alice and Quentin's. When Penny invades Quentin's dreams to ask for help, Quentin and Alice have to look for another traveler for help. Alice is disgusted by the necessity of things -- the only traveler she knows is elsewhere. Taking a trip to the suburbs of Chicago, Alice leads Quentin to an unassuming house that turns out to be nearly a mansion on the inside. Confronted by a literal Roman orgy, Quentin is led directly to an older gentleman—who turns out to be Alice’s father, Daniel (Tom Amandes). Alice herself goes upstairs to get help from her mother, Stephanie (Judith Hoag).
Alice and Quentin’s story this week was pretty devoid of anything narratively toothsome, so let's boil it down to the bullet-points: Alice’s folks are ‘60s-era pastiches of laissez-faire, "no boundaries" hippy parents, which seems to be a shield for their own selfish neglect of their children; "Joe" (Jonathan Scarfe), the interdimensional "friend"-cum-polyamorous third of Stephanie is the tool Alice suggested to call Penny back from the Neitherlands; "Joe" can only do sex magic as the groundwork for his spells, meaning that the only spell he can give to Alice and Quentin to help them reach out to Penny requires simultaneous orgasms from the two of them. "Hilarity" ensues.
Eliot and Margo's story is nothing more than a brief aside in this episode. Eliot finds himself with an existential crisis involving his drug and alcohol abuse masking his depression, and Margo finds herself in a more acute one, as her "life force" is being drained spukhafte Fernwirkung-style by a loser ex, presumably met during the last two episodes’ vacation. With her life force being used by the erstwhile Pygmalion to create a "Margolem" (Ugh -- it pains me to even type out that godawful pun), Margo has to repossess the constructed being. Eliot, meanwhile, has to deal with the fact that his response to Mike (Jesse Luken) hasn’t been a healthy one, and his relationships with others are suffering for it.
The last narrative thread winds through Julia being introduced to "Free Trader Beowulf", a clique of high-power magicians outside of the Brakebills community. Richard (Mackenzie Astin) and most of the other members have been in communication for a long time, but their two newest members haven’t even met one another. Julia's the first, and it shouldn't be too big a surprise that Kady's the second.
There's still bad blood between the two women, but over the shared loss of Hannah (Amy Pietz) and a bitter dose of humility the two of them have had to drink, there’s an unspoken truce called as they practice to join the other members of Free Trader Beowulf. When the magical residue of unfathomably powerful spells begin to seep out of the guest room Julia’s set aside for the group, however, Richard has to let the two women in on the big secret: they're practicing tying their incomprehensible magic to a power source far bigger than any one magician.
I've noticed that the writers of The Magicians seem to have these moments of panic, where they worry that they aren’t adapting well enough to Lev Grossman's books. So instead of slowly working up to discrete plot elements from the book series, they start grabbing entire chapters from the book and compressing them into one episode’s worth of space. We were treated to the Neitherlands, Alice’s parents, Free Trader Beowulf and their meddling with the transcendent, and the "Margolem" (ugh). Any one of those things could have taken up a full episode, and I felt cheated when we got four mutilated episodes jammed into one. We’ve seen this before: "Consequences of Advanced Spellcasting" comes to mind. Bluntly, the writers cannot juggle anything past two plot threads. I don’t think that's a knock against them as much as a simple fact of time: not even Stanley Kubrick could fit four episodes worth of story in 43 minutes.
Alice and Quentin’s thread was -- what do I call it? A sex farce? I was reminded of the old British genre of sex comedies (Confessions of a Window Cleaner and such), but in order to be a sex farce, a work has to be first, sexy; and second, funny. The Alice and Quentin story falls flat on its face at both hurdles. Zero for two, The Magicians, zero for two. Continuing the series' proud pretensions to HBO-hood, we begin the A+Q narrative in Quentin’s sex dream, which is a stupid and exploitative display of both Stella Maeve and Olivia Taylor Dudley.
The "orgy" that Alice and Quentin go to is hobbled by the limitations of cable television, leading to a Roman orgy in which the most shocking things to be seen are fully-dressed people making out on couches and men who are -- horror of horrors -- led around on chains (somebody call standards and practices!). The section of episode is set up to be humorous, but the humor was reliant on worn-out clichés that are so stale that they've crossed over from "boring" into "cringingly desperate": Hee-hee, hippies don’t shave their pubic hair!, and aren’t women's orgasms weird, you guys?
Arjun Gupta was also dismissible this week. He rarely interacted with the other main actors, and Penny's time spent with the residents of the Neitherlands was mostly done from a position of weakness, meaning that Gupta didn't have much opportunity to do anything but be on the defensive this week. Charitably, I can say that the Penny thread this week was inoffensive at worst. I liked the way the Neitherlands was presented, and I liked Mageina Tovah's omniscient librarian. But Penny was acting as the "bewildered everyman" on the audience’s behalf, and it’s clear that the writers were just using as an audience surrogate to explain plot details dumped in from the book.
If Penny's narrative thread was insubstantial, Eliot and Margo’s thread didn’t even reach that storied height. There was no action, no threat, no climax, and no resolution. It just seemed like Summer Bishil and Hale Appleman were contractually obligated to appear X times this season, and the writers had to shove them in somewhere. We can only presume to guess where Margo’s ex came from, since there was no clarification of who this stranger is when he suddenly appears in the episode. And despite the fact that he’s creepy and desperate enough to build a sex-slave doppelganger of a woman who wants nothing to do with him by stealing her life-force, he just kind of rolls over and lets Margo take the golem.
Yes, Eliot’s chastised for letting his vices override his better judgment, but it’s merely a tiff between best friends, not a real "come to Jesus" moment. Their story just peters out with a fizz. What's really surprising is how little I enjoyed what Hale Appleman was given this week. Summer Bishil plays a charming alpha bitch, but for someone who’s supposed to be critically strung out on drugs and alcohol, subconsciously screaming for help, Eliot is just playing a clichéd "goofy" addict. Both Eliot’s situation and Margo’s disapproval make it clear that this is a serious situation, but the dialogue plays it for laughs (See 7:05 for a cringeworthy example of what I mean). Hale Appleman manages to pull it back from oblivion with his well-acted monologue near the end, but it’s a case of too little, too late.
I think the story this week that had the most "meat" was Julia and Kady's, which is kind of pathetic, given how flimsy it ended up being. I enjoyed the scene where the Free Trader Beowulf members showed up at Julia’s house. I believed the acting between Stella Maeve and Jade Tailor; they performed it as though Julia and Kady weren’t besties, but willing to meet each other halfway. That struck me as utterly appropriate, considering the history between the two characters.
While the Julia and Kady story was a charming vignette, it suffered from being a holding pattern. Yet again, it felt as though a great deal of plot was dumped in the laps of the audience, and we were told, "This has to be known for future episodes!" Nothing about Julia and Kady;s story was relevant in "Homecoming". Maybe the information given to us will be interesting in a future episode, but it did absolutely nothing for the episode I just watched.
Because "Homecoming" was basically four episodes cut up and glued together, I did something a little different while giving it a numerical score. Instead of considering the episode as a whole, I graded each narrative thread and then averaged the whole thing out: Alice and Quentin's was a 4, Penny's was a 6 (simply because I was intrigued by the presentation of the Neitherlands), Eliot and Margo's was a 5, and Julia and Kady's was a 6.
Altogether, "Homecoming" was a 5. I guess it’s appropriate that they named the episode after a school function, if only because “Homecoming” felt more like a study guide for an exam than a TV episode.