Television

The Magicians: Season 1, Episode 13 - "Have You Brought Me Little Cakes"

Kat Smalley

There isn't any better way to respond to this episode than with a angry, sustained "no".


The Magicians

Airtime: Mondays, 8pm
Cast: Jason Ralph, Arjun Gupta, Stella Maeve, Olivia Taylor Dudley, Hale Appleman, Summer Bishil
Subtitle: Season 1, Episode 13 - "Have You Brought Me Little Cakes"
Network: Syfy
Air date: 2016-04-11
Amazon

No.

Absolutely, unequivocally, monumentally no.

I was willing to give you the benefit of the doubt, episode, and you set about degrading every part of The Magicians that I’d managed to enjoy up until this point. I beg the reader to understand: I tried to give this episode a fair shake. But I hated the plot. I hated the pacing, the writing, the characterization, the laziness, the exploitation. Everything. This isn’t an episode of a television show; this is the collected sins of art come back to punish us for our hubris. This episode -- this insult to my time -- was so awful that it actually managed to make me dislike the previous good episodes of this season, "Remedial Battle Magic", "The Writing Room", and "The Source of Magic", simply because I knew their plot points led to this abomination.

I usually like to spend time summarizing an episode, but "Have You Brought Me Little Cakes" is such a lazy, awful episode that I'm not even going to waste my time. Instead, I'm going to list -- with spoilers -- the wretchedness of this episode in the form of an indictment, and you can judge from there.

At first, I enjoyed the visual aspect of the show. If the showrunners can do anything right, it’s in hiring a competent CGI team. My first clue that things were going to be bad was when Quentin (Jason Ralph) makes the narrative comment that, "the air [of Fillory] is 0.02 percent opium". That struck me as particularly idiotic, so I did a little math. Consider that the average person takes in 0.5 liters of air with every breath, and breathes about 15 to 20 times a minute. That means that one centiliter of air taken into a Fillorian visitor's lungs is opium by volume, and after about seven minutes, a visitor will have inhaled one liter of opium. I know writers aren't usually mathematicians, but for God’s sake! It's a little thing, I know, but let it be your introduction to the level of quality in "Have You Brought Me Little Cakes".

The narrative style of the episode was radically different than any of the others this season, with Quentin (Jason Ralph) writing in his notebook and acting as narrator in order to break the episode into discreet chapters. But unlike the narrative experiment in "The Mayakovsky Circumstance", this week’s "experiment" was simply mendacious -- the writers were hoping that narrative tricks would distract from the fact that they must have stuffed half a book's worth of plot threads in a single episode.

I've complained about this before, but it's never been so egregious. In span of this episode, we had to deal with: The Fillorian knife, Eliot (Hale Appleman) becoming High King of Fillory, Free Trader Beowulf and Reynard, Martin (Nicholas Croucher) being the Beast (Charles Mesure), and Eliza-Jane (Esmé Bianco) being the Watcherwoman, finding Victoria (Hannah Levien), the conflict with the Beast, and so on. It's blatantly obvious that the showrunners are trying to leave plots hanging for the second season, but here's the absurd thing: instead of compressing hundreds of pages into 45 minutes, they could've spaced this material across multiple episodes; multiple seasons, even! I realized by the 28-minute mark that I barely had any idea of what was going on, and worse, I didn't care enough to pay attention.

The characters seemed to be written by people who had never seen the show before. Jason Ralph's Quentin is simultaneously too dull and too tremulous to be an interesting narrator, and Julia (Stella Maeve) keeps getting shoved aside either for Quentin's soliloquies or to be a mirror for his actions. Anyone who's paid attention would be able to tell you that if Ralph's Quentin and Maeve's Julia have to be together, she's the one who ought to be given the juiciest scenes and the lion's share of attention. Instead, Stella Maeve has to make do with her character being raped or ignored for most of the episode.

Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley) is reduced to being a prop to move the narrative along, and despite Penny's (Arjun Gupta) arc being concluded in this episode, he ends up being a bland also-ran this week: Victoria doesn’t even stick around long enough for Penny to really interact with her. I can usually say that Hale Appleman's Eliot is the factor that can save a mediocre episode, but not even Hale Appleman can salvage this mess. He was given a monologue that’s not only incongruent with Eliot's character, but baffling in its logic: I’m depressed, so being permanently trapped in an alien world and magically bound to a woman I just met is sure to put a spring in my step!

Margo (Summer Bishil) needs to have special attention drawn to her. At her best, Bishil's acting has given Margo a mama hen, take-charge personality that occasionally veers into irritation when she feels people are wasting time. There was no sign of that this week. The writers seemed to confuse "take-charge" with "bitch", and every one of her lines seemed invested with pointless spite and condescension.

You know who really irritated me, though? Ember (Dominic Burgess). All the CGI the show uses, and they have to hire some schlub who looks and sounds like an extra from Manos: The Hands of Fate. I never got the feeling from his performance that Dominic Burgess, bless his heart, had ever been or could ever be "godly". Why couldn't we have had a computer-generated ram-god? All this technology, and the showrunners can’t create an animation of a ram that read "divine being down on his luck"? As it stands, all we get "sexual harasser Mr. Tumnus", and I don't think the show, let alone this episode, can support that kind of laziness.

Now, when we get to the "Reynard issue", let me say this first. I don't know who ought to be ashamed most, the writers or the director, but somebody ought to be considering how they practice their art. Julia was raped. I'm not going to waggle my finger about the idea of rape in fiction, because I know it can be handled with the sensitivity and gravitas that its victims and the atrocity of the act deserve. A Streetcar Named Desire, The Accused, and even the recent TV show Jessica Jones are good examples of how rape can be invoked in an adult manner.

Julia's abuse in "Have You Brought Me Little Cakes" is both vile and gratuitous. I understand that Julia was raped by Reynard in the books -- and we can have separate issues with Lev Grossman for that -- but a visual medium is not a literary one, and the showrunners have proven before (and even in this episode!) that they're willing to change crucial source material if the episode demands it. If it were necessary that Julia be raped, why was it necessary for the camera to focus to voyeuristically on the act itself? When the young Martin Chatwin was being sexually assaulted, we saw the reaction of Quentin instead of the act itself; the same could've been done with Kady (Jade Tailor). Worse, the aestheticization of Julia's rape and the insinuation that the assault was a "gift" sickened me. That the showrunners had the temerity to put an advert for RAINN at the end of the episode infuriated and sickened me.

Sickened, but not surprised. The Magicians has taken far too many exploitative liberties with its female actors in the past, which we’ll talk about in a moment.

Now. To Reynard himself. Why was he in this episode? What was the contrived reason for this season’s diabolus ex machina? There was no hint of his involvement previously, and we had no reason to suspect that something like him might happen in the show. All of Free Trader Beowulf's work led to Our Lady Underground (Garcelle Beauvais); the Lamia (Amy Pietz) affirmed that Our Lady Underground existed; and the now-ostensible priest of Reynard (Arturo del Puerto), if this episode is accurate, warned Julia about Reynard, but why would a priest of Reynard warn the deity’s chosen victim about Reynard? Why was the show so desperate to introduce a "big baddie" in the last episode of the season, and out of nowhere, even? Were the writers so desperate to get rid of Garcelle Beauvais that they had to symbolically write her out of the show in favor of a rapist?

Poor Garcelle Beauvais! Poor Yaani King! It seems like the moment that a black woman gets any lines in this universe, she gets the Grim Reaper coming after her.

At its worst, The Magicians indulges in two things that aren’t good, but aren’t necessarily the "kiss of death" for a TV show, either: "HBO-ization" and a lack of bravery. This episode turns those bad habits into sins. I say HBO, because I watched this episode and wondered for a minute if I was watching Game of Thrones. The desperation in aping the HBO series is palpable and pathetic, and ignores why there's rape, extraordinary violence, and degradation on Game of Thrones in the first place. Instead, "Have You Brought Me Little Cakes" tries to be "mature and edgy" by gormlessly playing with mature concepts, and ends up seeming childish because of it.

Lack of confidence in one's own unique vision is a part of cowardice (let’s call it what it was this week), but there are more specific examples at which to look. Julia's continually pushed from man to man, and no matter how powerful she becomes, the show's never confident enough to let her be on her own. In this episode alone, she has to be paired up with Quentin. She's raped by a male deity. Even when that rape gives her "tremendous power" -- still a revolting concept -- and she has a god-killing knife, she apprentices herself to a man.

Alice isn't immune from this cowardly treatment of women either. A friend who's read the book series has kept me updated on plot developments, and it baffles me how little TV-Alice has done relative to her book counterpart. She's the most powerful member of the Brakebills group and meant to kill the Beast! But instead of turning into a dragon and biting people’s heads off, she’s stuck being safely "chickified"; she’ll provide backup for Quentin or Penny, or whichever male character is "the leader" this week, but never have to worry her pretty little head about actually being an independent, proactive character. There was something vile about the idea of making Alice drink semen in order to make her a fulfilled character, and it strikes me as an echo of what Julia narratively endured: on the TV show, a woman can only become powerful when she’s been sexually subordinated in some way.

To safely distance the show from shots of two men kissing, we get that narrative thread in which Ember gives his semen to the Brakebills' team was an inherently idiotic joke (Get it? ‘Cuz a man has to drink cum, and that’s icky? Har-har-har.). To safely neuter the pansexual fluidity of one of its most interesting characters, the show marries him off in a matter of minutes to a woman and demands he never sleep with anyone but her. God forbid we respect the possibility that our whitebread male protagonist has a fluid sexuality, or that a man who’s already pansexual be allowed to stay that way, right?

You know, I wasn’t asking a lot of The Magicians. I was okay with some of their weaker episodes. And I’m okay with "popcorn shows" just being intellectual junk food capable of giving audiences 45 minutes of decent stories and good actors. But "Have You Brought Me Little Cakes" was so disrespectful -- of its actors, the series' stories, of women, queer people, and my time -- that I don't know where to go from here. I don’t have faith that the showrunners can create a quality season two, and if you didn't want to watch it after this episode?

I wouldn't hold it against you.

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