The Magicians: Season 1, Episode 6 - "Impractical Applications"
Falling back into bad habits, this episode is elevated nevertheless by a few shining performances and interesting touches.
The MagiciansAirtime: Mondays, 8pm
Cast: Jason Ralph, Arjun Gupta, Stella Maeve, Olivia Taylor Dudley, Hale Appleman, Summer Bishil
Subtitle: Season 1, Episode 6 - "Impractical Applications
Air date: 2016-02-22
Numbers can give you a blunt approximation of objectivity, but peel away the outer layer, and you’ll find that the difference between a solid seven and a "you got lucky and made a few good moves this time" seven. "Impractical Applications" is an example of the latter.
Like in the previous episode, "Mendings, Major and Minor", this episode has strong central ideas to which the characters' narrative threads remain attached. But despite the positives, I found that the same troubling stink of HBO-ism, stodgy characterization, and incoherent rapid-firing of the source material was hanging over this episode like previous episodes this season.
We find ourselves back with four of the Brakebills' clique. Penny (Arjun Gupta) is being told by Quentin (Jason Ralph) that his vision of the Beast (Charles Mesure) was indeed set in what was ostensibly the fantasy world of Fillory, which is, in the world of The Magicians, the equivalent of C .S. Lewis’s Narnia. Penny responds with a -- rather exhausting -- snideness towards Quentin's revelation. Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley) and Kady (Jade Tailor) are at hand to point out to Penny that Quentin's insight, no matter how irrational, fits all the data at hand. Penny grudgingly accepts the information, but if you were hoping that this episode would reveal more about Fillory, you will be disappointed: the "Fillory narrative" in this episode peters off almost immediately, with Penny saying, "I'll file that under 'wish there was jack shit I could do about it'."
If the viewer is disappointed about that violation of Chekhov’s gun this week, there isn’t much time to dwell on it before we get to the real meat of the Brakebills’ side of the episode. The older students have set up a kidnapping of the first-years in order to put them through a surprise procedure that’s partially a test of worthiness, partially a trust-building exercise, and partially hazing. Hale Appleman and Summer Bishil pull out all the stops to imbue Eliot and Margo with a cattish malevolence that livens up the predictable battery of tests that, tonally, seem more Harry Potter than Twin Peaks. But at the end of the tests, the young magicians are thrust into a unique ritual in which they’re split into pairs and made to bare themselves -- literally and figuratively -- to their partner. Facts are exposed, and while Quentin and Alice bond over their shared sense of brokenness, Penny and Kady are battered by the same ordeal. For the four first-years, their victory comes with the taste of ashes, and episode ends with a question mark and a magical intervention that puts a hold on the fallout from the last ten minutes.
Julia (Stella Maeve) as per usual, plays the B side to the Brakebills' clique. But in "Impractical Applications", her story provides the raw narrative energy that gives the episode its power. I’m pleased to say that this episode provides the scenario I’ve been predicting for five weeks: the dog bites back this week. Rejected by “polite” magical society, betrayed by Quentin, and used by the hedge magicians, Julia finally shows that she’s been paying attention -- and even though her revenge is, let’s say, "premature", I got a visceral pleasure out of seeing her inflicting genuine panic on a certain oily, Faginesque character.
Having made an enemy of the city’s hedge magician community -- by making an enemy of the most powerful of them, Marina (Kacey Rohl) -- Julia's left adrift once again. But after threatening the loser quasi-magicians of the previous episode, she catches the attention of Hannah (Amy Pietz), the remnant of a clan of hedge magicians that was apparently decimated by Marina. Hannah proposes that she and Julia form a new coven of hedge magicians by way of completing a plot against the city's hedge wizards, but the proverbial shit hits the fan when it turns out that Hannah is -- da-da-dum -- Kady’s mother. More shockingly, we find out that Hannah essentially sold Kady to Marina in return for Marina’s assistance after an unspecified catastrophe that Hannah caused. Kady is, obviously, disgusted by her mother wheedling, and Julia’s no happier finding out that her erstwhile partner is a degenerate failure.
Initially, Julia rejects Hannah, but after making a persuasive variation on "two witches are better than one", Julia comes around to working with her. Their plot is … not a success. For Julia, at least, it proves to be a "constructive" failure, and like I said previously, it's the first time we've seen Julia go on the offensive against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune arrayed against her.
That aside, let’s talk about what "Impractical Applications" does right. Amy Pietz was an inspired choice to play Hannah. When Hannah begins to break down and get desperate, Pietz was capable of infusing her with the kind of monomaniacal, scrambling behavior that seems ripped from an episode of Intervention. It's very clear that Hannah was meant to be a “magic addict”, and the performance provides a negative foil to Stella Maeve's Julia. Julia walks a dark path that’s consuming her, and Pietz's Hannah is a future that Julia may not be able to avoid (which is actually lampshaded in the episode). There was also a little thing that started at 15:26 that tickled me to no end. The first test presented to the Brakebills first-years is an intensely difficult act of magical decryption. Penny, Quentin, and the third member of their team find themselves unable to make any headway. Penny and the third wheel react with frustration, but Quentin points out the obvious: if every first-year had to be a genius decryption specialist, there wouldn’t be enough magicians to populate a garage, let alone a class of students at a college. It doesn’t even faze Quentin to suggest cheating, since he knows that the “cheating shows you’re smart and flexible enough to stay” trope is one that’s old as dirt. He even invokes Star Trek’s Kobayashi Maru scenario! It’s a pleasure to see that the writers haven’t forgotten what they put into "The World in the Walls": that one of Quentin's greatest strengths is that his otaku-fantasy-nerd habits are actually relevant in a world of magic.
Still, the good is mixed with the bad. Jason Ralph flits in and out of his "stammering nudnik" role. Without anyone to make Penny a straight man or to knock him down a peg, Arjun Gupta's performance continues to be unrestrainedly petulant and unpleasant. His sheer rudeness to Quentin through the episode is baffling at this point. I’ve met people in my life that are just inherently prickly and brusque, but Gupta's Penny acts like Quentin shot his dog or something! There’s a level of personal animus that seems disproportionate, considering that Ralph’s Quentin is as inoffensive as a bowl of pudding, and tries to be mildly pleasant to most of the other characters.
I also took issue with the nudity near the end of the episode. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not bothered by nudity-qua-nudity or the implication of sexuality, but I am bothered by gratuitous titillation that reads as cynical attention-grabbing. When Quentin and Alice, and Kady and Penny get naked and start finger-painting each other, this softcore porn music starts playing, and the camera lovingly focuses on Olivia Taylor Dudley’s flank as she hikes up her skirt and peels down her stockings, followed by a panty shot; then the camera focuses on her breasts. Worse, when people are shifting between facing their partner and facing the camera -- it's Jade Tailor and Olivia Taylor Dudley. My first instinct was, "Okay, so when are we going to get the camera lingering on Jason Ralph's bulge?" My second instinct was, "Okay, so why was any of this necessary in the first place?" The answer is transparent enough to be cringe-worthy. An executive at Syfy or the showrunners are seemingly trying, as they did in the first episode, to turn The Magicians into Syfy’s answer to True Blood. But this ain’t HBO. I think that Olivia Taylor Dudley and Jade Tailor deserve a lot better than being served up as eye-candy. When I talked last time about The Magicians not being a “brave” show, this is, in part, what I meant: queerness is safely isolated away from the protagonist, the female gaze is brushed aside, and women are served up on the altar of the gods "T" and "A".
Finally, I was not pleased with the way plot elements were shoveled into this episode. The final "test" the first-years faced was just an excuse for the writers to "tell, not show". I wanted an organic way for the characters to reveal to each other their innermost selves, not "Hello. I am Alice, and I fear that if I am too brainy, nobody will like me". But thanks to magical contrivances, four characters played psychoanalyst on themselves without the writers having to do any heavy lifting. And while I enjoyed Amy Pietz in this episode, it’s clear that Hannah isn’t coming back. I’ll say this: You cannot introduce an extremely influential character, only to throw them on the narrative trash heap 30 minutes later. It boggled my mind to think that the writers could introduce the mother of an important character; a woman who sold her daughter into magical slavery, and provides a dark foil to the deuteragonist; and then announce that they’re done with her forever. I can’t say for certain if they will -- or can -- bring Hannah back, but it’s a worrying precedent to see a character-driven drama to be burning through characters for the sake of one-episode plot points.
Especially when those characters are the only thing dragging an episode to a higher rating in a critic's eyes.