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Television

The Magicians: Season 1, Episode 11 - "Remedial Battle Magic"

Kat Smalley

A few missteps aren't enough to deny "Remedial Battle Magic" its crown as a clever, well-directed gem of an episode.


The Magicians

Airtime: Mondays, 8pm
Cast: Jason Ralph, Arjun Gupta, Stella Maeve, Olivia Taylor Dudley, Hale Appleman, Summer Bishil
Subtitle: Season 1, Episode 11 - "Remedial Battle Magic"
Network: Syfy
Air date: 2016-03-28
Amazon

I always wonder, when I indulge in these urban fantasy stories: who makes sure the magical society doesn't bleed into the mundane world? In an age of the DEA and forensic accounting, how can you get away with magicking cocaine out of water? Who makes sure that someone doesn’t get a smartphone recording of a rakshasa demon eating someone’s heart in a subway station? The question isn't crucial to understanding "Remedial Battle Magic", but a great deal of a great deal of this week's episode deals with the osmosis of the magical world into the mundane one, and I think it's a topic that bears considering when watching.

I won’t spoil the first part of the Brakebills' narrative this week, since it’s unique enough to be worth the surprise. I will say, though, that I appreciated the way that the characters used magic for something legitimately fantastical. It's a difficult thing to explicate, but I feel that too often in urban fantasy, magic becomes a stand-in for something mundane. Magical lightning becomes a substitute for a gun; a healing incantation becomes a substitute for a trip to Cedars-Sinai; a portal etched on a wall becomes a substitute for a boarding ticket. Urban fantasy is fun because it can play with the idea of magic becoming a banal thing for magicians, but it’s still fantasy, and it’s a praiseworthy (and perhaps vital) thing for magic to occasionally do something that can affect the way a narrative works.

Continuing where we left off from last week, Richard (Mackenzie Astin) and the other members of Free Trader Beowulf explain to Julia (Stella Maeve) and Kady (Jade Tailor) that they're in pursuit of one of the long-departed true gods (we see images of Athena, Vishnu, and, what Julia ultimately focuses on, a Black Madonna). Free Trader Beowulf has been attempting for some time to work their way up the hierarchy of magical entities in order to find a creature old enough to remember the gods, and Julia is a bit put out when Richard reveals to her that all his "feel-good behavior" in the previous episodes was partially a manipulation of somebody with the fleetingly rare ability to commune with gods: the tutelary goddess from "The Strangled Heart" was apparently too small a deity to power the spells necessary for Free Trader Beowulf’s plans, but she made for an excellent test.

The Beast (Charles Mesure) has realized that the Brakebills' clique is in possession of the magical button. While we've seen that the Beast is paranoid about people having a way into Fillory, someone keeping an artifact so close to him has triggered what can only be described as a psychotic rage. Travelers all over the world, Penny (Arjun Gupta) included, are being targeted by a concentrated psychic assault by the trans-dimensional horror. Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley) and the audience find out that "Joe" (Jonathan Scarfe) has killed himself, and this sets the stage for Stanley (M.C. Gainey) -- Penny's salty traveler mentor -- also suffering an ignominious, if vaguely hilarious, departure from the show.

Quentin (Jason Ralph), Eliot (Hale Appleman), Margo (Summer Bishil), and Alice all begin to practice "battle magic" in preparation for an assault on Fillory. But when their attempts fail, they turn to Penny, who’s begun a regimen of hard drugs and liquor in an attempt to drown out the Beast’s psychic tinnitus. Knowing that Kady has skill with battle magic, they pester Penny into magically finding his estranged ex. While the four go make an awkward visit to Julia’s apartment to see Kady (Julia, coincidentally, has stepped out for the hour), Penny continues to snort cocaine until his heart gives out.

Professor Sunderland (Anne Dudek) comes to see her protégé in what's quickly becoming Penny's assigned place in the Brakebills' clinic. They have a come-to-Jesus moment over their shared history with drug abuse, and Prof. Sunderland offers Penny a temporary -- and medieval-looking -- ward against psychic intrusion, and he goes to find the other four members of Team Magic Missile. Together, they begin Kady's dangerous and slapdash hedge magic suggestion of literally bottling their emotions in order to attain the clarity of mind necessary to do battle magic. I'll admit, I was amused to see all five of the actors playing emotionless little Spocks; they were obviously having so much fun trying not to corpse on camera that the joy of the scene was palpable for me in the audience.

Meanwhile, Free Trader Beowulf has sent Julia and Kady (Julia as the face, and Kady as the muscle, I imagined) to shake down an old vampire (Colin Cunningham) living in the city. The vampire doesn't know how to contact gods, but he does point the duo in the direction of "the Lamia", played by Amy Pietz, although not in the way you might imagine. I was pleased to see Amy Pietz again, though. She plays a very good part as an aggressively desperate screw-up, no matter what kind it is.

The Lamia's living in squalor when the two women find her, and even though she plays it cool and seems more banal than monstrous, Julia and Kady have come armed to the teeth, and there are hints that the child-eating monster of antiquity is in all things a predator. Still, the Lamia was apparently a priestess of one of the old goddesses. But when Julia and Kady inquire about the goddess, the Lamia laughs them off, telling them that the gods are dead. Richard's furious and prickly about the failure of the "Lamia plan" to pan out, but he and the other members of Free Trader Beowulf begin to contemplate their next move.

When the Brakebills' quintet finishes practicing battle magic, they have to consume their emotions in one painful gulp, leading to a wicked magical hangover as those emotions come storming back faster than the students can deal with them. Margo, drunk on her emotions, finally confronts Eliot with her fear that he’s slowly killing himself; Quentin snaps at Alice about her seeming indifference to the skills of the people around her.

Julia steals away to the bathroom and makes an impromptu prayer before a Catholic statuette of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. While there's no immediate effect, Julia's act sets the stage for the "endgame" of both narrative threads of the episode. Falling asleep without realizing it, Julia finds herself in the presence of a goddess (Garcelle Beauvais) who gives her -- and her alone -- a few tacit clues about how to find her. Penny starts to open up to Alice while Quentin, Eliot, and Margo continue to practice with the help of the emotion bottles. The bottles take a toll on the three of them, dredging up horrible emotions they wanted to keep buried forever. Caught up in a storm of despair about themselves and the looming threat in front of them, and all sorts of other stirred emotions, they go upstairs, and --

The episode ends with Eliot, Margo, and Quentin having banged. Considering the frenemy pansexual vibe between Bishil's Margo and Appleman's Eliot, that doesn't surprise me, and I've been saying since episode two that Hale Appleman and Jason Ralph have a much more intriguing on-screen chemistry than Jason Ralph and Olivia Taylor Dudley. It was an interesting surprise for my jaded tastes, especially since I figured Eliot and Margo as being power tops and Quentin as being a total bitch bottom. What a triad.

I can't overstate how much I enjoyed this episode. They kept the narrative threads to the magic two: the Brakebills clique and Julia, and I appreciated that the director kept the action going from the first scene instead of bogging the audience down in exposition. There was also a cleverness to it that permeated the whole thing: tying the Lamia to the Proto-Indo-Europeans instead of simply to ancient Greece; repeatedly referencing the Black Madonna images as a foreshadowing for the syncretic black goddess who appears in Julia’s theophany; Margo's lucid cutting of the Gordian Knot by suggesting they just bring sub-machine guns to Fillory; the symbols of the goddess's appearance being the wonderfully symbolic showers of milk (motherhood!) and gold coins (a reversal of the Danaë myth!); the visual pun of "bottling up emotions" and the constant parallel of physical drug abuse to the spiritual drug abuse of the "emotion jars" and vampirism. I'm gushing at this point. Suffice it to say, I really appreciated the writers and director’s work this week.

For the most part, I loved the actors' performances too. It's a pleasure to see Stella Maeve allowed to be calculating and razor-sharp again, and Jade Tailor's "irascible punk" performance plays well opposite that. While Arjun Gupta is still Arjun Gupta, someone in the writers' room seems to have finally gotten the memo that "Penny needs to get along with the people offering him a hand, or he will die". They essentially put those words in Professor Sunderland's mouth, much to my delight.

While they're minor characters on the show, I'd legitimately buy that the members of Free Trader Beowulf are friends in reality; their performances are casual and low-key enough around each other to sell it completely. Hale Appleman was free to play the lonely, charmingly venomous mean boy he does so well, and I'm finding that I'm very, very fond of Summer Bishil too. Let's hope there’s more of her in the next season. Really, with the exception of M.C. Gainey's Stanley, there wasn’t a performance in "Remedial Battle Magic" that I disliked.

That being said, there were some ridiculous moments that kept this episode from a higher score in my mind: Margo, as usual, gets saddled with some ridiculous dialogue that crosses over from "alpha bitch" to "penis envy", but she just gets the worst of some bafflingly bad dialogue. Stanley’s "departure" was presented as so hammy ("I gotta plan!") and cheap looking (that's not how shotguns affect the skull) that I actually laughed out loud. Even though I enjoyed the performances, I thought the scenes where the characters had to

swallow their emotions" were affected. What would've been best as a tableau of quiet, self-destructive misery is transformed into this clown show of actors ululating and performing pastiches of grief. I think of all the actors, only Hale Appleman got closest to "depression" -- flitting between sadness, annoyance, and withdrawal -- instead of the weepy nonsense of the other actors.

I’m also a little leery about the idea of "the goddess" being a black woman. Not because she's a black woman, but because I'm afraid that she’s going to be reduced to "the magical minority". We’ve seen before that The Magicians has a weird relationship with actors and characters of color, and while I disagree with the assessment, it isn't hard to interpret Kiera (Yaani King) in "The Writing Room" as a person of color introduced and killed off in the same episode in order to further the story of a white woman. Will Garcelle Beauvais’ "goddess" be allowed to grow as an independent character in the story, or will she be reduced to a prop in a white character’s narrative?

I’ve noted before how The Magicians' writers and directors haven’t been brave, and while this episode got close, it didn’t quite make it. Yes, I enjoyed the scene at the end with Quentin, Eliot, and Margo, but it was definitely framed in a particular way. Quentin’s shown doing the cliché "Oh, I got so drunk, I don’t even remember how I got in this situation" cop-out, and while previous episodes were happy to linger on scenes of two white heterosexuals having sex, the image of the polyamorous triangle between two men and a woman of color is reduced to a few "flashback" seconds at the end of the episode. It's not horrible, but it does speak to a kind of odd conservatism on the part of the writers and directors that seems more conspicuous than if they had never done the scene at all.

Forgive me for going on so long, but if any episode deserved it, "Remedial Battle Magic" is the one. There's only two more to go, but I highly suspect that what we've seen this week may be the defining episode of the first season.

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