The Magicians: Season 1, Episode 12 – “Thirty-Nine Graves”

Disjointed and sloppy writing make the first season's ostensible climax feel more like a narrative tug-of-war between two incompatible writers.

A lot of people dislike the phrase “tries too hard”, because it suggests prima facie that that it’s wrong to give one’s all in pursuit of a goal. But to me, the saying means that sometimes people get so fixated on a goal that they begin to forget the goal itself in their pursuit of achieving that goal. Unfortunately, “Thirty-Nine Graves” tried too hard; it was more interested in stockpiling the elements of a fantasy story than it was in using those elements to tell a good story.

I was actually curious enough to go check the writers for this story, and found that it was a collaboration between Leah Fong and Henry Alonso Meyers. For reference, Fong was the writer of my pick of the season, “Remedial Battle Magic”, and Meyers wrote the 45-minute dial tone, “Homecoming”. Addison & Steele, these two aren’t. The awkward welding of their two styles comes off as Fong sketching an anemic recitatif of last week’s episode, and that outline being colored in by a man who can only communicate in clichés of thought and speech, like the Tamarian aliens from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Sadly, the director, Guy Norman Bee, wasn’t up to the task of wrangling the actors into making a silk performance out of the sow’s ear of the script.

It’s a shame, because so much is revealed and done in “Thirty-Nine Graves” that on a narrative level, this episode is the climax of the first season. But even as I write this, I have to keep going back to my reviewer copy of the show. I can’t even remember what happened in an episode I just finished watching.

Kady (Jade Tailor) and Julia (Stella Maeve) make it to the hidden sanctum of the city’s priest to “Our Lady Underground” (Garcelle Beauvais). As they pass from the filthy subterranean space into his home, the magicians find that the priest (Arturo del Puerto) is living in a luxury apartment, and the priest himself is a dapper man, waiting for his god-sent visitors. They give him two of the three ceremonial gifts, and cajole him with a creative interpretation of the third. In return, the priest gives the two women a special prayer to the goddess, warning Julia that calling the power of the gods isn’t a game, and that there are consequences to invoking Our Lady Underground.

Meanwhile, Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley) and Quentin (Jason Ralph) are fighting over her catching him in flagrante delicto with Margo (Summer Bishil) and Eliot (Hale Appleman). As Penny (Arjun Gupta) attempts to detail his plan to take the quintet to the Neitherlands and then to Fillory, the conflict between Alice and Quentin continues to derail his efforts. Taking a break to refocus, the quintet breaks up. Penny goes upstairs to find Alice, and the two of them have an honest discussion before having sex. Possibly out of a sense of spite, Alice is hardly discreet in her passion, and it doesn’t take long for Quentin to overhear what’s going on.

When Julia and Kady return successfully, the members of Free Trader Beowulf have a celebration, culminating in Richard (Mackenzie Astin) and Julia having sex. Despite there being no hint of chemistry between the two characters in previous episodes, and a lingering sense of suspicion and annoyance on the part of Julia towards Richard, apparently a lumpen reference to Dionysus was enough to get her in bed. This reviewer wishes Julia had made a counter-reference to the Maenads. But, moving on —

With the exception of Penny, the members of the Brakebills’ clique magically bottle their emotions and prepare to zap themselves to the Neitherlands. Unfortunately, the Beast’s mercenaries have been staking out a position around the “Earth fountain”, and they ambush the quintet. In the confusion, four members of the clique are able to make a break for it, but Quentin is separated from the group and has to jump back through the fountain to escape. Being without the magic button or traveler powers, Quentin is trapped back on Earth, unable to rejoin his companions. Now down to four, Penny, Alice, Eliot, and Margo retreat to the Neitherlands’ magical library from “Homecoming”. The omnipotent librarian (Mageina Tovah) is waiting for them, already aware of why they’re there and what they need. However, one of the caveats of her assistance is that the emotion bottles the four have been using are strictly forbidden in her library, and she destroys them.

Quentin meets with Dean Fogg (Rick Worthy) to find some answers. Quentin, whose skill as a stage magician is arguably better than his skill as a “cone of cold” magician, manages to dose Fogg with a truth serum before questioning him. I won’t spoil what Fogg says, but he reveals that the Brakebills’ clique — and Julia too — are part of a metaphysical game of strategy and attrition being played against the Beast (Charles Mesure), and the title of the episode, “Thirty-Nine Graves”, is an pointed reference to its cost.

After a brief interlude showing Penny having a discussion with the librarian, we skip back to Quentin coming to Julia’s apartment. Dean Fogg’s coerced answers made Quentin understand that Julia’s life had been tampered with in a very cruel manner, and in a tripartite attempt to mend fences, reveal the truth, and enlist her assistance, Quentin gives her the dirt. Julia surprises Quentin by being at peace with the revelation. She, in turn, reveals that she’s been made something of an avatar of Our Lady Underground’s power, and that the goddess has, perhaps, predicted that Julia and Quentin are due to go to Fillory together. The two of them come up with a plan to find a time, rather than a place, in which a door to Fillory exists.

Back in the Neitherlands library, Eliot finds the book of Mike’s (Jesse Luken) life. And in a marvelous example of the idiot plot, Eliot picks just that moment to break down, defacing the book. In the plane ruled by a god-like librarian. The librarian who’s made it clear that her blue-and-orange morality places books higher that human life. Needless to say, the librarian is horrified and expels the quartet, leaving them to face the Beast’s mercenaries again.

Breaking into the basement of Brakebills, Quentin and Julia begin to sort through — graduate projects, I believe? — that are also magical time machines. They find one that will take them back to 1942, to a date right before Jane Chatwin opens a doorway to Fillory, according to the books. As the two narrative threads converge, we skip back to the Brakebills quartet still in the Neitherlands. They run into Josh (Trevor Einhorn), part of the missing Brakebills class from two years ago, and Josh leads them to a safe-house.

Thanks to the temporally dilatory effects of the Neitherlands, Josh’s two week excursion turned into two years on Earth. He reveals the fate of the missing class: Victoria (Hannah Levien), the girl in the Beast’s dungeon, had refined her traveler gifts to the point that she could travel to Fillory with other people. For Spring Break, Victoria took Josh and most of the class to the fantasy world, only to run into the Beast. Victoria was able to help Josh escape, but the rest of the class was slaughtered by the monstrosity. Penny reveals to Josh that Victoria’s being held captive in Fillory, and as Josh gives them directions to the Fillory fountain, Alice devises a plan to use her phosphormancy to sneak them past the mercenaries.

In 1942, Julia and Quentin follow Jane Chatwin to a portal to Fillory; in the Neitherlands, the four magicians and Josh magic and shoot their way past battle-wizards to make it to Fillory too.

As you watch this episode, try and answer these questions: Why didn’t the librarian remember that she had banished Penny the last time he was there (in “Homecoming”)? Why was Kady conveniently absent when Quentin came looking for Julia? If functional time magic is such a rare and herculean task for magicians that Free Trader Beowulf has to hunt down a goddess for help (also mentioned by Richard in “Homecoming”), why does Brakebills have a basement full of functional time machines that were no more than graduate projects by students? If Richard knew there were time machines in the basement and had an alumnus key, why didn’t he just go to Brakebills and transport himself back to a time before he killed his son? How did Quentin know that Dean Fogg had information about the “metaplot” of the series (pertaining to Eliza, Fillory, Julia, the Beast, etc)?

Even granting that the episode’s narrative was disjointed and slipshod, I found the characterization this week was even more off-putting. Not five minutes in, we’re introduced to Our Lady Underground’s priest. An image of Our Lady of Guadalupe gives way to a man who was written as ten pounds of cholo stereotypes in a five pound sack.

The episode only goes downhill from there. I mentioned Julia’s sudden and baffling need to sleep with Richard, but what really got me early in the episode was how asinine and forced Alice’s behavior was. All other things being equal, I would likely be irritated if I caught my boyfriend in bed with two other people. However, if my significant other had just magically purged and reabsorbed the entirety of their emotions in an attempt to defend themselves against a psychotic Nyarlathotep-esque murder-wizard, I might consider that to be extenuating circumstances. At the very least, I’d be willing to hold off on the recriminations until said crawling horror was no longer out to tear out our spines.

That Alice is unable to come to these basic conclusions speaks to a vulgar reduction of her character down to the stereotype of the “hysterical woman”. I don’t know if it’s just me, but the way Our Lady Underground’s priest put his hands on Julia and Kady; Richard’s “seduction” of Julia; and the way Alice’s emotional fit was painted as being the thing that almost derailed the mission to Fillory, put me right off.

And I feel so bad for Hale Appleman, I really do. Eliot was transformed from a brilliant, catlike figure into an imbecile this week. It’s a case of, yes, Eliot, burn the book belonging to the God-Librarian. That’s such a good idea, and yes, Eliot, eat an untested hallucinogen when you’re being hunted by homicidal mercenaries. I can appreciate that Eliot’s a man with untreated depression, but for God’s sake, depression doesn’t make you a moron. Depression doesn’t make you put your loved ones’ lives at stake.

The dialogue was littered with clunky attempts at “cleverness” that only served to make me cringe. “I never thought I’d say it, but thank God for Hitler.” Or, “I used to drink Midori in high school. It’s like melon, crossed with perfume, crossed with ass.” The only main character whose dialogue didn’t come off as clunky this week was Margo’s, and I suspect that’s because Summer Bishil seemed to be playing her with the kind of irritation I felt watching the script and direction demand the other actors turn scenery-chewing into an eating contest.

Let me be blunt. This episode was miserable. It was slightly better than “The Strangled Heart”, but that’s not a very high bar to jump. I was intrigued by the revelations about Jane Chatwin, and the ontological meaninglessness of the main characters’ struggles. I was intrigued by the fact that there seems to be some kind of “divine conspiracy” revolving around Fillory, and that there’s a much deeper metaplot going on beneath the story we’ve gotten so far. But we didn’t get enough of that. We got a hurdy-gurdy episode that tried to shuffle its characters off to Fillory as quickly as possible that it completely missed why we enjoyed those characters’ stories in the first place.

At least I got to see Hale Appleman making out with Jason Ralph. There’s that, at any rate.

RATING 4 / 10