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The Magicians: Season 1, Episode 7 - "The Mayakovsky Circumstance"

Kat Smalley

The writers experiment with putting their characters in different roles this week, with interesting, if not exceptional results.

The Magicians

Airtime: Mondays, 8pm
Cast: Jason Ralph, Arjun Gupta, Stella Maeve, Olivia Taylor Dudley, Hale Appleman, Summer Bishil
Subtitle: Season 1, Episode 7 - "The Mayakovsky Circumstance"
Network: Syfy
Air date: 2016-02-29

I sat at my desk for a while, trying to figure out where I stood on "The Mayakovsky Circumstance". Quite often, I find that I get into a groove when reviewing television shows. Once I figure out the baseline for a show -- what the show is capable of doing; what the show is willing to do -- I can figure out how a particular episode compares to the whole.

"The Mayakovsky Circumstance" feels like an outlier, insomuch as it seems narratively strange compared to the other episodes this season. While I'd usually praise a show for at least experimenting with the routine, I'm not sure if I cared enough this time around for it to be effective. None of the usual suspects seemed to be "leading" this episode, and if I had to point at who got to ride in this episode’s protagonist chair, I'd say … Eliot (Hale Appleman) and Margo (Summer Bishil)?

Oddly enough, there isn't much to say to summarize this episode. Julia (Stella Maeve) is shuffled off after making a perfunctory appearance this week. The police have no questions for her after Hannah’s (Amy Pietz) magically induced brain hemorrhage, and she’s brought home to be sternly cared for by her sister, Mackenzie (Jessica Harmon). Mackenzie makes veiled threats about their mother, who’s apparently rich, connected, and malicious enough to make trouble in her daughter’s life. That sword of Damocles ends Julia’s arc this week.

The episode begins in earnest where "Impractical Applications" ended: with the first-year Brakebills' clique. Quentin (Jason Ralph), Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley), Penny (Arjun Gupta), and Kady (Jade Tailor) make their way in involuntary goose-form to Antarctica, where magician by the name of Mayakovsky (Brían O’Byrne) runs a "colloquium" for the talented magicians who passed "the trials". It's unclear whether the first years who failed in last episode's trials were expelled or they simply weren't invited to Mayakovsky's Antarctic colloquium, but since Quentin, Alice, Penny, and Kady all made it, the point's moot on a narrative level.

Rather than being someone pleasant, it quickly turns out that Mayakovsky is a sadistic teacher at worst, and a sarcastic ass at best. In his first challenge for the students, Mayakovsky mutes them and proceeds to demand that they perform a nail-driving spell without speech as a focusing tool.

Meanwhile, Eliot and Margo are packing for a magical festival-cum-orgy in Ibiza, and remember at the last minute that it's customary to come with a tribute to the elder magicians who put on the party (with the insinuation that those who don't come with a "voluntary gift" are listed as persona non grata for the next party). Lacking anything at hand, the two of them decide to experiment with a magical recipe for gin. The spell, unfortunately, is written in Arabic, and neither of them are any good with the language.

A student in the library -- Mike (Jesse Luken) -- overhears their problems and volunteers to help (and volunteers later to sleep with Eliot in the upstairs room of the cottage). Margo's threatened by Mike's arrival interrupting her best friendship-quasi-erotic-rivalry with Eliot, and deputizes the duo’s hanger-on, an endearing young student and orgy enthusiast, Todd (Adam DiMarco), to be her sidekick. The four of them working together end up finishing the magical distiller, but what comes out -- and under Margo’s control -- is a djinn (Lee Majdoub), an Arabic spirit of great power. I won't spoil what happens afterwards; let’s just say, "hijinks ensue".

Back in Antartica, Mayakovsky is proven to be, of course, the kind of drill sergeant personality that covers for a heart of gold. He takes a special interest in each student, encouraging them to continue pushing at the personal limits they'd already weakened in last week’s pre-ornithological ritual. As Quentin and Alice are pushed closer together by Mayakovsky, Penny and Kady are pulled apart. Mayakovsky challenges Penny to take his traveler skill to its furthest, most dangerous limits, and pulls aside Kady to impart some interesting facts she was wasn’t aware of -- and to warn her that Brakebills will eventually find out about her thefts and destroy her. He's sympathetic to Kady, but points out that her path is dragging Penny down into her mess.

The last ten minutes of the show are unique. The stories of the "Antarctic team" and the "Ibiza team" begin to intermingle: Alice and Quentin go through a shamanic ritual of sex, transformation, and survival, and Eliot turns down the trip to Ibiza in order to spend time with Mike in the city. But Mike reveals to the audience that he’s more than he appears, and Eliot may soon be wishing he had taken the trip with Margo and Todd.

I find that a useful barometer for judging the quality of a The Magicians episode is whether I was okay with Arjun Gupta's Penny. It's a sign, in my mind, that the director has enough insight into the necessities of the scene that they can wrangle the actors into place, so to speak. By that heuristic, I wasn't disappointed by "The Mayakovsky Circumstance". O'Byrne's Mayakovsky was such a scenery-chewer (not in a negative way, granted) that the actors portraying the Brakebills first-years had to give a quieter, more subdued performance in turn.

Mild quibbles aside, I found that I enjoyed the "bottled" quality of this week’s episode. It gave the actors inside the bottle a chance to be confined and vulnerable with one another without having to deal with the narrative threads of the previous episodes. There was no Beast, Brakebills, or hedge magicians to wrestle into the plot. It was just the characters, their trickster mentor, and the endless expanse of the Antarctic.

But I still think that Margo and Eliot’s arc dominated this episode. Since it replaced Julia's arc, it has to be judged accordingly. My judgment: I didn’t much care for Eliot and Margo's part of the episode. It felt -- what's the best way to describe it -- like a comedy of errors. The entire premise of it revolved around mistaking the Arabic words for "gin" and "genie".

If I can put on my pedagogical hat for a minute: in Arabic, the words only sound similar when one is talking about genies in the plural. One genie is "jinnī", which sounds almost exactly like "genie". Now let me say that if I were a student at a university that regularly suffers incursions from horrors from beyond reality, I’d err on assuming that I actually heard "jinnī" instead of "gin". It just strikes me as something ridiculously contrived. There was a level of forced wackiness that culminated in an obscene visual pun that made me roll my eyes. Eliot and Margo are funny characters, but their comedy is in the vein of Statler and Waldorf: vicious and heckling. I find the two of them to be at their best when we can see a hint of sourness and anger underneath the affected hedonism they wear.

Along those same lines, this experimental episode really drove home that The Magicians needs Julia to function. The show has visually impressive moments, but I'm not going to see that "magic is dangerous and a corrupting power" when the characters are conjuring genies and mind-controlling fireflies. The image of this vibrant woman being consumed by obsession and power provides the serious counterpoint to the unicorn stuff with which the Brakebills' clique gets involved. Without her, it seems, The Magicians starts to get bogged down in goofiness. Consider this: Julia's arc is the only one that takes place regularly in a city. She is, quite literally, the only urban in the show’s urban fantasy.

It's interesting to juxtapose Quentin and Alice’s sexual encounter and Eliot and Mike's. While I’m not sure yet that I buy "Quentin + Alice" as a believable couple, I can at least see an organic (if narratively bare-bones) buildup to it over seven episodes. Yet, the new gay couple started eye-fucking one another the moment they meet. I went back to 13:29 to double check. It was less than 20 minutes on my clock before Eliot and Mike end up in bed together. While I will concede that there's a hint that Mike may have engineered the whole thing for some malicious purpose, that doesn’t exactly make it better.

There have been three romantic interludes on The Magicians so far: Alice and Quentin, Penny and Kady, and Eliot and Mike. The romantic encounters that involved a person of color or a gay man were immediate hook-ups that later turned out to be methods of duping the person of color and gay man. I could probably also make grist out of the fact that the one time a woman initiated sex (Julia in "Mendings, Major and Minor"), it was a shocking and calculated act of self-prostitution.

It doesn't rise to the level of shocking queerphobia or racism, like the works of Seth MacFarlane or Adam Sandler, but it does strike me as a pattern about which the writers are oblivious. Still, I think we all ought to keep these "oversights" in mind.

I know that I’ll want to have ammunition ready, just in case I have to avenge Eliot next week.


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