The whole universe tends to work in peaks and troughs, doesn’t it? Ebb and flow, wax and wane. Last week’s episode, “The Strangled Heart”, was wretched enough to be the worst episode of the season in my eyes. But this week’s episode, “The Writing Room”, may just be the best. Peaks and troughs.
Building on one of Eliza’s (Esmé Bianco) oblique suggestions, Quentin (Jason Ralph) and Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley) realize that the only way to deal with the Beast (Charles Mesure) is to find some clue in the final book of the Fillory series, which had been gifted to Quentin at the beginning of the series and promptly lost. Alice suggests a tracking spell, which, helpfully, leads them straight to Penny (Arjun Gupta), who reveals after being confronted that he had stolen the manuscript and read it — then promptly trashed it.
As Jane Chatwin was the one to write the final book, Penny’s involuntarily roped into becoming the repository of Chatwin’s collected wisdom for Quentin and Alice. He reveals a particular detail that Quentin recognizes from the previous Fillory books, and Quentin pieces together that a button-cum-magical portal is the key to having some method of confronting the Beast. The button, Quentin concludes, must still be at the manor house of Christopher Plover (Charles Shaughnessy), the author of the Fillory series. Penny, however, decides to be an ass, and teleports away before Quentin and Alice can ask him to take them to England.
Eliot (Hale Appleman) overhears their dilemma when the two of them head into the common room, and offers them a magical shortcut to England, on the condition that they take him along. The insinuation is that Eliot is broken by Mike’s (Jesse Luken) death at his hands, and as usual, his response to depression is to bury it under the façade of aimless hedonism.
Julia (Stella Maeve) is given her first step on the “road to redemption” by her chaplain, the theological wizard Richard (Mackenzie Astin). Being talented in telepathic magic, Julia’s tasked with going in the mind of a woman suffering from locked-in syndrome, Kiera (Yaani King). Kiera proves to be savvier and more intellectually ferocious than Julia planned, but the two women quickly form a respect for one another, and Kiera entrusts Julia with the final steps of a magic spell she’d been working on before and after her incapacitation. Julia’s shocked when she realizes that Kiera’s spell is complex and potent enough to put the magicians of the “formal society” to shame.
In England, Eliot, Alice, and Quentin are going on a guided tour of the museum that Christopher Plover’s house has become. There’s an amusing little vignette of Quentin nerding out about being in the house of the Christopher Plover, but of course, when Penny teleports in, the quartet is browbeaten into getting down to business. Finding that they can’t escape the guided tour, they decide to wait until after hours to break into the house in order to hunt for the button.
What they do find, however, is that there are dark things — both supernatural and mundane — haunting the Plover Manor. I’m going to take the unusual step here of leaving most of the Brakebills clique’s story this episode un-summarized, because I genuinely believe that the surprise and horror of what goes on after they break in is so well-crafted that saying anything would spoil it. Suffice it to say that it’s very good.
With Julia, once business is done, she and Kiera start chatting about Brakebills and theories of magic and their vulnerabilities. It’s a very tender scene, and I have to give credit to Stella Maeve and Yaani King for being able to sell that Julia and Kiera are unique friends: not the kind of friendship that comes from knowing someone for years, but the kind that comes when two people are trapped in a bad situation together and can only find comfort in sharing with one another. Kiera reveals that she doesn’t think much of the social divisions in magical society. and suggests to Julia that she ought to have an idea to follow; that magic ought to facilitate something true to her. But, while Julia’s reveling in finally having someone who understands her, Kiera’s at a different stage in her life.
Let me give you something of a spoiler warning for what I want to say next.
Kiera can’t endure the suffering of her condition any longer. It’s unclear how Richard and Kiera were in communication, but it’s clear that the two of them had made an arrangement to euthanize Kiera, and that Julia would be their go-between. After Kiera makes her request and Julia is shunted back to reality, Julia furiously confronts Richard, who makes a case for her redemption being a path that requires one to go through sacrifice and hardship to walk it. Ultimately, though, Julia makes her decision and has to live with it.
One of the most interesting things about “The Writing Room” was that Quentin and Julia formed a parallel to each other. Both narrative threads dealt with the idea of “going inside”; finding something that exists underneath the surface. Both Quentin and Julia had to confront the bleak truth that the universe deals innocent people unbearable injustice, and there’s nothing that can fix that injustice.
Underneath that surface, where Quentin finds the darkness that festers in that injustice, Julia finds a light that never goes out. I’ve said it before that the best episodes of The Magicians have been ones that are relatively isolated from the larger “magical world” plot of the series, cut out the extraneous sub-plots, and can use Quentin and Julia to examine two sides of the same idea. “The Writing Room” proved to be an almost perfect instantiation of those ideals.
The acting in this episode was superb, and while the actors in the Brakebills’ side of the narrative were (for the most part) great, I couldn’t get enough of Stella Maeve and Yaani King. In their brief time together, Maeve and King played their parts with heart-wrenching pathos. One could tell that Kiera wasn’t ready to die; she savored the memories conjured up by Julia’s magic, and let Julia talk and open herself up and propose saving her from her illness with a bemused pleasure. It was almost as if Kiera was savoring Julia’s ignorance for a moment, indulging in fantasies that were no less illusory than the thoughtform around her.
I caught a hint that Kiera was attracted to Julia, and briefly, it seemed that Kiera wanted to admit it to her. Kiera had to steel her resolve and admit to herself, maybe if we had met sooner, or in another life, and I was moved by Yaani King’s depiction of it. When Julia made her final decision, it was no less heartbreaking than Kiera’s exeunt omnes moment. I really believed that Julia was filled with enough grief and anger and self-excoriation that tears were barely enough to express it. If it had just been the two of them, “The Writing Room” would’ve been a strong contender for an eight.
On the Brakebills’ side of the episode, Olivia Taylor Dudley and Jason Ralph were on the upswing this week. I enjoy seeing Jason Ralph playing Quentin as an excitable nerd, because Ralph’s portrayal of that aspect of Quentin rings as far more believable than the “put-upon wimp” or “bro Quentin” affectations I’ve seen before.
This episode also hammered home that Olivia Taylor Dudley’s Alice is best when she played realizing that her opinions, personality, and morals are just slightly out-of-touch with the magicians around her. When Dudley has to play “an alien” instead of “tsundere girl stereotype”, she can really invest loneliness and discomfort in the role.
Hale Appleman, however, stole the show. Eliot wasn’t made up any differently than last week, but Appleman made him seem twitchy and haggard and gaunt despite that. Eliot’s swings from neurosis to sarcasm to outright fury were seamless and felt like they were organic to the character. With one very glaring exception — which I’ll mention later — really appreciated the layers Hale Appleman brought to his character.
That being said, I had some serious criticisms that kept “The Writing Room” from a higher score. The Brakebills narrative thread begins this week with what I can only describe as an “idiot plot”. Quentin’s been missing for months a manuscript that means more to him than anything he owns, and despite being a student of a magic school, the only time he thinks to do some kind of small-scale tracking spell is when Alice suggests it? Of course, Penny has to be shoehorned into the episode because he not only stole the manuscript, but junked it afterwards? Never mind Eliot and Margo (Summer Bishil) already having a magical doorway set up to exactly where Alice and Quentin need to go. It’s a set of little contrivances that adds up to an idiot plot. I wasn’t supremely offended by it, but for such a good episode, it’s a lazy beginning that relies too much on coincidence to be any sort of entertaining.
Penny continues to be the weakest character in the whole show. I won’t spill too much digital ink reiterating my critiques of Arjun Gupta’s performance, but nearly every time Penny appeared in this episode, I wanted to scream. He deflates Jason Ralph’s better performances. He injects this “Oh hell no” bravado in scenes of horror and inhumanity that call for subtlety, which renders the whole thing bathetic. Maybe this is on the shoulders of the writers too, but the way Penny reacts to Quentin’s very valid observation that the stolen manuscript’s information might be the key to saving their lives is so absurd that it can barely be believed.
I also feel that the episode occasionally drops the ball on dialogue, too. It seemed that Kiera’s entire message to Julia was “You don’t have to be defined by what other people think of you; pursue your own path with confidence and strength.” When Julia returns to reality and is distraught about the prospect of euthanizing Kiera, Richard’s line seems to be what the writers were defining as the theme of Julia’s narrative thread, which is contrary to everything that had been going on between the two women. He says, “What do you think redemption looks like, Julia? Being nice? … you really think that burns the tumors off your soul?” Richard’s line takes a very austere and sanctimonious view of Julia’s past, whereas Kiera, the dominant person in Julia’s story this week, gave her a completely different message. I don’t honestly know what the writers were trying to achieve, but this is the second time Richard’s felt completely superfluous to Julia’s story.
I was also disgusted by Eliot being made to call Alice a “twat” near the end of the episode. Nothing’s “off-limits” in dialogue, but when you have a word that’s a gendered insult on the same level as “cunt” in American English, one has to be responsible about making sure that it’s germane to the plot, particularly if the writer in question isn’t a woman. I didn’t feel like it was here. Being that I’ve knocked the show in the past about its intentional and unconscious sexism, I really have to wonder if the writers were just trying to court “edginess” by choosing an uncensored word closest to “cunt”? Either way, I don’t buy its necessity in the plot, and I really don’t buy that Eliot — slithering, pansexual, classy-as-hell Eliot — would lob the word at a woman.
I’m angry that these little things kept a great episode from being an eight in my mind, but I can at least take comfort in the fact that this is the closest The Magicians has gotten to it. I hope the troughs are rare, and peaks like “The Writing Room” come more frequently from here on out.