The Magicians: Season 1, Episode 5 - "Mending, Major and Minor"
An understated episode that reveals a great deal of darkness in its characters without becoming overwrought in the process.
The MagiciansAirtime: Mondays, 8pm
Cast: Jason Ralph, Arjun Gupta, Stella Maeve, Olivia Taylor Dudley, Hale Appleman, Summer Bishil
Subtitle: Season 1, Episode 5 - "Mending, Major and Minor"
Air date: 2016-02-15
This was a good episode. It was an enjoyable watch, and I'm left wanting to see what comes next. By all accounts, that’s a success. So why is it that I haven’t been able to give any The Magicians episodes more than a seven out of ten?
When I finished watching "Mendings, Major and Minor", my immediate impression was that I could better understand why I've had such a hard time giving this show's episodes anything higher than a seven. But let's talk about the episode itself first.
This week, the students of Brakebills find themselves turned into show ponies. Established magicians from all over the world have been called to observe the students of the magical university perform, and ultimately choose their favorites in order to mentor them. Quentin (Jason Ralph), however, and most of the other main Brakebills characters, find themselves in unique situations that aren’t amenable to the dog-and-pony show going on. Quentin finds out his semi-estranged father (Spencer Garrett) has brain cancer, and that the older man has refused treatment for the illness.
Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley), who had left the school in the previous episode, is visited by Dean Fogg (Rick Worthy) to convince her to come back to school -- an idea favored by Alice’s aunt Genji (Denise Crosby). Penny (Arjun Gupta), having a rare and dangerous talent, is simply assigned a mentor -- the salty Stanley (M.C. Gainey) -- an older magician who has the same ability to "travel". Meanwhile, Eliot (Hale Appleman) and his best frenemy Margo (Summer Bishil) have their eyes set on Alice, the both of them worming their way into her good graces to apprentice with Genji, who seems to be the magical world’s answer to Anna Wintour in terms of both influence and temperament. Cupcakes are made. People are shown up. Bitches are told.
Julia (Stella Maeve) is still reeling from her sudden excommunication from the world of hedge magic. But as we've come to expect, she refuses to accept defeat. At first, she attempts to use magic scrounged off the Internet, but when that fails, she turns to the only magician with whom she still has any sway: Pete (David Call). Pete’s the kind of man led around by the wrong head, and Julia picks up on that, manipulating him through sordid encounters into going against his better judgment and giving her access to the resources of the city’s magical underground.
Julia, however, is far more talented than the scrubs in the other hedge magic safe-houses, and when she starts making demands of Pete that cross the line of his and the other hedge magicians’ comfort, she faces a backlash that destroys her last anchor to the mundane life. Julia ends this episode knocked down again, but this time, the feeling that she’s a dark and implacable figure ready to destroy for what she wants comes through loud and clear.
Quentin goes through the episode consumed by the idea of using magic to cure his father's cancer, but -- in a clever reference to medical science -- he's told that because cancer is still part of a person’s body, and thus part of their "magical ontological makeup", for lack of a better phrase, magic can’t do much to help him. Not that the pooh-poohing of his teachers is going to stop him. Alice begins a process of healing after Quentin banished the magically degenerated ghost of her brother, and while Olivia Taylor Dudley plays a relatively small part in this episode, it’s nice to see her being given a quieter and more introspective role.
It's also nice to see that the antagonism between Alice and Quentin has sort of burnt itself out into the embers of a weird tentative friendship between the two. Penny’s narrative, wound through this episode, leads to the conclusion when it turns out that his newly discovered ability to astrally project sends him to the source of one of the voices in his head: a dungeon in which a woman, "Victoria" (Hannah Levien), is being tortured by the Beast (Charles Mesure). As the Brakebills squad discovers, the dungeon might be in a more unexpected place than Penny could have ever predicted.
"Mendings, Major and Minor" hit the right targets because it followed the pattern that’s undergirded the better episodes of this season: it started from a central premise and let the characters’ stories radiate out from that plot-nexus. Characters like Penny and Alice had their own issues, but there was a constant sense that they were connected because of the presence of the "mentors" theme in each narrative thread. The only exception to that rule of thumb this week was Julia's story, which was completely separate from the Brakebills clique’s and lacking any sort of crossover whatsoever. But we know from experience that the structure of The Magicians leans on Julia so much for support that her story could be science fiction and set on Mars, and it wouldn’t feel like a digression.
I’ve had criticisms of the way the actors have performed in previous episodes (with the exception of Stella Maeve, Rick Worthy, and Hale Appleman), but when they aren’t asked to act out stock characters, their performances seem far more organic. I can buy Jason Ralph's Quentin as an easily agitated nerd who tries to be a proactively good person despite his psychological issues. I can buy Olivia Taylor Dudley's Alice as a sad and directionless young woman who reacts to strangers with hostility because she’s always been on her own and assumes that people are just using her to get to her family, which isn’t an invalid feeling, considering how despicably Eliot and Margo manipulate her to get at Genji.
Even Penny was inoffensive in this episode, because the writers and director found a way to soften Arjun Gupta's performance in a similar fashion to the previous episode "The World in the Walls". Whereas in the last episode, Penny had to play the grumpy straight man to Quentin’s zany dream-prison, this episode pits him against M.C. Gainey's Stanley. Stanley refuses to allow Penny's "surly gangster" shtick dominate the scene, which is something that Dean Fogg and Quentin haven't been written or directed to do.
So now we turn to the big question from the beginning. Why is this episode a seven? Why haven’t any of the episodes risen above a seven yet? The answer is simply that The Magicians isn’t a brave show. I don’t mean that as a knock -- Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, for instance, is rarely a brave show, and I’ve enjoyed watching it nonetheless. But as with Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, once I’ve watched an episode of The Magicians, I don’t feel like I’m going to be talking about it in a week’s time, let alone in a year or a decade. That’s a shame, because I feel like if the producers of the show were to expand on some its potentiality, it could have episodes that stick in the mind. For a series about people who regularly tear apart the laws of nature and disregard human conventions, there's something oddly safe about The Magicians.
I’ll give you a few examples of what I mean. One, it's clear that Eliot's interested in Quentin. There are hints that the vaguely otaku Quentin is flummoxed -- but intrigued -- by Eliot’s sexual ferocity. At the same time, it doesn’t take a magician to divine that the writers are pushing Quentin and Alice together. It's the safe move, and I wish that the directors and writers had been brave enough to let Jason Ralph embrace the queering of his character as much as his character queers the laws of nature. Let him explore a romance with Eliot! Let him explore romances with Alice and Eliot at the same time!
Two, Julia continues to be the best part of The Magicians despite only being the deuteragonist. Magic, in her narrative arc, teeters as a metaphor, alternating between “drug addiction” and “the consequences of the single-minded pursuit of power” (not unlike the portrayal of Willow’s [Alyson Hannigan] relationship to magic in season six of Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Watching Stella Maeve calculate her way through self-mortification, degradation, and deceit is like watching an addict -- or a frightening Lady Macbeth-type -- at work. It’s the closest this show gets to "brave".
Julia selling her body in this episode genuinely disturbed me, and it’s one of the few times I’ve really bought the show’s premise that magic is dark and scary and comes with costs. That the writers and directors are pushing this real horrifying stuff off to the side in favor of a magic that’s more “sparkles and gewgaws” than “blood and sacrifice” suggests that they understand that they’re only admitting enough unpleasantness to mildly appease the fans of the book series.
What can I say, though? We’ve had two good episodes in a row now, and "Mendings, Major and Minor" was a solid seven. I was left looking forward to the next episode, and if the show continues on its current workmanlike path, it'll be a good bit of popcorn entertainment. I'll still hold out hope it can be brave enough to try for something more challenging, though.