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The Magicians: Season 1, Episode 8 - "The Strangled Heart"

Kat Smalley

An absolute mess of an episode that manages to be simultaneously dull, poorly directed, and insulting.

The Magicians

Airtime: Mondays, 8pm
Cast: ason Ralph, Arjun Gupta, Stella Maeve, Olivia Taylor Dudley, Hale Appleman, Summer Bishil
Subtitle: Season 1, Episode 8 - "The Strangled Heart"
Network: Syfy
Air date: 2016-03-07

Before I write these reviews, I like to sit back for a little while and reflect on what I've just seen on television. That meditation tends to revolve around reviewing my notes and considering whether or not little details are enough to push an episode on the edge to a higher or lower score. This week, my moment of reflection was devoted to just how much I wanted the Beast (Charles Mesure) to kill every one of the characters in The Magicians.

"The Strangled Heart" was a bad episode. So far, it’s been the worst episode of this whole season. It was dull, offensive, and nonsensical, and the dialogue and acting were cringeworthy at best. During the weaker episodes of the season, the show has been carried by the strength of Stella Maeve’s deuteragonist role, but even her side of the episode was poor this week.

Having returned from Brakebills South (short one member), the Brakebills' first-years are dealing with the emotional ramifications of their time with Mayakovsky (Brían O’Byrne). Penny’s (Arjun Gupta) dealing with his loss by putting up barriers and becoming prickly; Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley) and Quentin (Jason Ralph) are playing a “day after” game with one another after having had sex as foxes -- a comment that makes more sense in context, naturally. Quentin, the prototypical nerd, wants to keep having sex with Alice, but she begins to draw away, pointing out that the psychological aftereffects of a magical transformation into rutting dogs are not signs of a genuine affection or the basis of a real relationship.

Meanwhile, Eliot (Hale Appleman) is continuing to go head-over-heels for his new boyfriend, Mike (Jesse Luken). Mike, an alumnus of Brakebills, is a fairly unpolished man, but he charms Eliot regardless. I found that one of the few redeeming things in this heap of an episode was a moment in which Eliot makes a confession to Mike that more clearly shows his vulnerable side. It wasn’t earned by the episode, but it was still charming, and reinforces the fact that Hale Appleman is one of the best actors on this show. Still, despite Mike's "aw shucks" demeanor, massive hints are dropped through the episode that Mike’s batting for team "gouge-your-eyes-out".

On the flip side of the episode, Julia's (Stella Maeve) in rehab. Ostensibly checked in for a drug problem, Julia is using the program to renounce magic and abandon both it and Quentin for good. But magic isn’t quite done with her yet. Marina (Kacey Rohl) comes to pay a visit after the botched hit on her safe house. Marina admits that she has a fondness for Julia, and that’s the only reason she’s extending an olive branch: if Julia leaves her alone, Marina'll do the same. Though, of course, the olive branch is something of a stick too. Marina threatens that if Julia tries another stunt like the one from "Impractical Applications", she'll kill every person Julia's ever loved. Furious and humiliated, Julia begins to seep venom onto the rehab program around her, later expressing contempt for the pastor-counselor (Mackenzie Astin) attempting to do a group session.

Dean Fogg (Rick Worthy) welcomes the first-years to their second semester at Brakebills. Their first assignment is to break into groups and complete a project; Alice and Penny are teamed up, and Quentin weasels his way onto their team by buttering up their third partner, Gretchen (Nesta Cooper). Fogg gets something of a mini-arc this episode, dealing with finally regaining the use of his hands, although stiffness and lingering injury make the full range of hand motions necessary for magic difficult.

However, things go poorly for the team. Alone in the forest while doing their part of the homework, Quentin and Penny are surprise-attacked by Mike, who attempts to assassinate Quentin with a cursed dagger. Penny jumps in front of Quentin and takes the knife to the chest, leaving Quentin free to fire a spell at Mike and scare him away. Penny's rushed to the campus hospital, but even after the bleeding is staunched, it turns out that the curse is continuing to eat his body. Quentin immediately recognizes the effects as something from the Fillory series, which deepens the mystery of the show and calls out for Eliza (Esmé Bianco), whose mysterious connection to Fillory is made clear in this episode.

Julia is clandestinely approached by the counselor, who reveals that he, too, is part of the world of magic. One can almost see Stella Maeve's face going, really? The counselor criticizes her current perception of magic, arguing that treating magic as a drug makes it into a drug. He offers her an alternate path, one that leads towards a shamanic understanding of the world of magic. I won't spoil anything, but Julia’s "experiment" with theological magic ends with a very literal epiphany, and her character arc has taken a radical shift in a new direction.

Eliza offers Quentin a method of saving Penny, and while Quentin and Alice have a kind of catharsis over hunting for the one "ingredient" that will save Penny, Eliza goes off to confront Mike -- or rather, an old enemy whose presence in this episode was less "foreshadowing" than it was "the writers all but spelling out the 'big twist'". The confrontation doesn't go quite as well as Eliza -- or Dean Fogg, or Quentin, or Eliot -- expected.

How do I even begin to talk about how awful "The Strangled Heart" was? The dialogue seemed like a bizarre attempt to ape the "quippiness" of Joss Whedon, the actors were so poorly directed that they seemed like aliens who got all their ideas of human interaction by watching the '80s worst teen dramas, and more than once, I detected the stink of casual sexism hanging around like a fart in the air. The kiss of death was that the episode was tedious and plodding on top of everything else.

Let me talk about the sexism first. Near the beginning of the episode, Penny makes an error in teleportation that causes his mentor, Prof. Sunderland (Anne Dudek), to privately chastise him in her office. Penny responds by invading her personal space and crudely propositioning her. I imagine that if I were to poll female college professors, the reaction of 99 out of 100 would be a mixture of fear, disgust, and professional outrage out of being reduced to a convenient sex-toy in the eyes of a student. But not Professor Sunderland! Oh no. She starts getting moony-eyed and quivery for Penny, a character who has the sex appeal of a box of turnips. The scene is utterly irrelevant to the episode's narrative and reveals that apparently, the writers of The Magicians are under the impression that every woman who teaches at the college level is just waiting to be sexually harassed by her students.

Penny is later ordered by his female clinician to stay in bed after his stabbing, and he not only rebuffs her, but does so with the phrase, "I was stabbed, woman". To a medical professional! Worse, around 19:20, Quentin actually uses the phrase "panty-whisperer" in relation to Penny’s alleged "skills with the ladies". But those are also examples of the horrendous dialogue and direction, and we’ll come back to that.

I think the most offensive sexism of the episode was Julia's entire narrative this week. A friend of mine is a devotee of Lev Grossman's book series, and he's been keeping me up to speed on how the show compares with the books. Apparently, Julia's character arc is entirely self-determined in the books. She empowers herself with hedge magic, becomes prominent in the world of unofficial magic, and voluntarily turns to the gods in order to break past the limitations of hedgecraft. She is a predatory, determined figure who makes herself powerful on her own terms.

While Stella Maeve has given us a praiseworthy performance, the writers seem determined to squash TV-Julia every time she shows some agency. TV-Julia is essentially the shadow of Quentin. TV-Julia has to prostitute herself to Pete (David Call), a male character who doesn’t exist in the books. TV-Julia is led to divine magic by a male character who doesn’t exist in the books. You notice a pattern? It shocks me how happily the writers punish Julia for being a determined woman -- and really, there’s no excuse for it. Lev Grossman himself is listed as a creative advisor for the show.

Circling around, let’s talk about the dialogue. "I was stabbed, woman", "They are nerds", "You're fungible!", "You act like you're this panty-whisperer". My personal favorite: "When I was four years old, with no instruction or help from anyone, I taught myself magic". I could go on and on, but almost every scene of "The Strangled Heart" was loaded down with quips. Not actual human dialogue. Quips.

"Quippy" shows, like Gilmore Girls or the TV oeuvre of Joss Whedon, carry their share of detractors, but what saves those shows is that there’s usually a level of cleverness behind the quips; compare "You’re fungible!" with the existential meditations of Jubal Early (Richard Brooks) in Firefly’s "Objects in Space". More to the point, the characters in these shows are usually well-written and complex enough to show that the characters have a rapport genuine enough to survive the endless quips shared between them.

Poor Hale Appleman. He had to carry the whole episode himself. That isn’t an exaggeration, either. As I mentioned previously, Eliot's monologue to Mike wasn't earned by the show, but it was sweet and heartfelt, and I honestly believed the vulnerability that Appleman invested in the role.

Sadly, all of the other main actors fell into the same traps that have poisoned previous episodes. Jason Ralph's Quentin is nebbish to an exasperating degree until he becomes a bro ("panty-whisperer"? really?). Olivia Taylor Dudley’s Alice is this inexplicable parody of tsundere girls. One almost expects her to blush and look away from Quentin sometimes, saying, "It … it’s not like I like you or anything, you baka!" Finally, Arjun Gupta's Penny. Penny takes such undeserved, sneering liberties with his friends and professors that I wish he’d use his abilities to teleport off the show.

I mentioned Dean Fogg’s "mini-thread" running through the episode, but the expected climax of it fizzled out in the last few minutes. As for Julia, her entire part of the episode consisted of her sitting around talking, which is a running theme this week: a few minutes of action was all that broke up the interminable stream of exposition and attempts to pad out the time with some semblance of plot. I can appreciate a show that can give its characters something interesting to say, but with dialogue as campy and irrelevant as what was presented this week, the episode suffers from a double-whammy.

I talked to somebody who watched this episode. She told me that if "The Strangled Heart" had been the first episode of The Magicians that she’d seen, she wouldn't have bothered watching the rest.

I can’t say I disagree with that assessment.


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