This review contains spoilers.
Now this is the episode that really feels like the beginning of a series.
“The Source of Magic” is quite a bit better than its predecessor, “Unauthorized Magic”. One suspects that the writers for the first episode felt that they had to condense 15 chapters of world-building into a single episode, and it suffered from a kind of stitched-togetherness that didn’t inspire viewer interest. But “The Source of Magic” was an intriguing look into the world of urban magic translated over from Lev Grossman’s book series. If anything, this second episode seemed — apologetic? — about the weaknesses of “Unauthorized Magic”. My three big issues with the first episode were addressed tidily here: the farcical sex-n’-violence angle was toned down, the episode had an internal continuity that I could follow, and the actors acted like believable human beings.
This week’s episode begins in the aftermath of the Beast’s (Anthony Marble) rampage through Brakebills College. The Beast, a pan-dimensional magical horror, was apparently summoned to Brakebills by the coterie of Quentin (Jason Ralph), Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley), Penny (Arjun Gupta), and Kady (Jade Tailor) as a side effect of their attempts to discover more about Quentin’s mysterious connection to the mystical otherworld of Fillory. Dean Fogg (Rick Worthy), the highest-placed magician at the school, attempted to fight the Beast, and was defeated — then mutilated — in a matter of seconds. There was a cliffhanger as to whether the Beast had killed Dean Fogg, but magical health care being what it is, we see him alive and kicking at the end of the episode. As an aside, I was pleased to see that: Rick Worthy’s the best actor in this whole series so far.
The college traces the incident back to the four students’ failed summoning, and the threat of expulsion hangs over their head because of it. A special investigator, Eliza (Esmé Bianco), is called in to analyze and respond to the situation at hand. But rather than wipe Quentin’s memory and expel him, Eliza tacitly acknowledges that she’s been following Quentin around and that his “dreams” of Fillory mark him as somebody of great interest to the magical world. I won’t spoil Eliza’s decision, or the conclusion of Quentin’s arc this week, but suffice it to say that Eliza makes a decision motivated less by kindness and more by desperation and pragmatism.
Meanwhile, Julia (Stella Maeve) is going through a plot that, with the exception of some intertwining at the end of the episode, is completely parallel to Quentin’s. Heading off with Pete (David Call), Julia ends up at an abandoned warehouse in which Pete’s associates are assembled. They reveal themselves to be “hedge magicians” — magicians who don’t rely on inborn power to fuel magic, but instead turn to ritual and mystical ingredients to do their work. Rather than the low-talent hedge wizards of other works of fantasy, though, Pete’s faction (including a surprise member who shows up later in the episode) seems to be made up of powerful and conniving players who are more than capable of manipulating the “true magicians” in the Brakebills clique. There’s yet to be any real explanation as to why the hedge magicians have to keep their activities a secret, but Pete has to put Julia to a test — no spoilers here — to determine if she’s tenacious enough to assert her magical worth in a world dominated by those who won the genetic lottery. It’s a clever riff on the classic conflict between natural talent and hard work.
This episode never gets around to explaining why Margo (Summer Bishil) and Eliot (Hale Appleman) were so interested in Quentin in the first episode, but there’s a certain insinuation that Eliot gravitated to Quentin just because he thought Quentin was attractive. It’s not a very complex reason, but it plays well into Eliot’s interesting characterization in “The Source of Magic”: that Eliot finds it easier to be a harmless devotee of rootless hedonism than a serious magician, because he’s a sensitive soul who carries the guilt of seeing his magic hurt other people. And while the relationship between Eliot and Quentin still carries the original sin of the first episode, I can believe now that there’s something natural in their friendship. Eliot can see his own sensitivity and hurt reflected in the shrinking violet that is Quentin.
Along those same lines, I had been baffled by the fact that the first episode seemed to throw characters into relationships with no more complex a reason than “the plot demanded it”. But “The Source of Magic” acknowledged that. Beyond showing how friendships often grow out of selfish and trivial reasons (such as in the Quentin-Eliot relationship), the episode deftly satirizes the idea of “the bonds of friendship”. Called in to explain why their magical residue was found at the site of the Beast’s summoning, the four students have to individually testify about their actions. Quentin seems to think that their “friendship” will negate the prisoner’s dilemma into which they’ve been dropped, but Alice, Penny, and Kady essentially take advantage of Quentin’s goodwill to pin the whole thing on him. Their justifications are very reasonable reactions to Quentin’s naiveté: they all respond with a variation on “We’ve only known each other for a handful of weeks. We aren’t friends. I have no idea who you are.” I loved it.
When it came to the acting, I was pleased to see that the actors were a lot more “organic” than they were in the premiere. Jason Ralph’s Quentin evolved past the “angsty heap of Jell-o” behavior of the first episode to show irritation, legitimate misery, and believable human reactions. I was also happy to see so much screen time dedicated to Julia. Stella Maeve and Hale Appleman are my favorite of the “student-level” actors, for lack of a better descriptor, and it’s nothing less than a pleasure to watch Stella Maeve depicting Julia’s tenacity in pushing her way into the magical world as simultaneously admirable and deranged. I’m still trying to figure out Olivia Taylor Dudley’s Alice, though. Her behavior in the first episode was straight tsundere: black-and-white switching between being a prickly ass and a reclusive, self-conscious waif. But in “The Source of Magic”, Alice is depicted as willing to be with other people, but profoundly ignorant of social customs and irritated when people can’t instantly understand her viewpoint. Rather than “ass”, I really, I see her as autistic, and I’m not sure if I’m supposed to? Still, two episodes do not a sample make, and I’d need to see more of Dudley’s Alice to make a personal judgment. I guess you can consider it a mark in The Magicians‘ favor that I want to keep watching it to see if Alice is supposed to be autistic or not.
The last person of interest is Penny, and I he’s still a negative mark on the show’s record. I’m sure that Arjun Gupta’s a very good actor, but his performance as Penny is odd. Penny is supposed to be a street tough, but every time Penny shows up, all I can see is “Arjun Gupta playing a street tough”. I admit that the problems might come from Gupta’s script or direction being poor, but when I think of someone raised on the streets of a big city, I think of someone who has to project a façade of swaggering invulnerability; someone who has to be suspicious and calculating at all times in order to stay safe; and someone who’s learned to be dispassionately egotistical in the pursuit of what they want. The best gangster actors know how to blend violence, joviality, and swagger into a sense of authority, but I feel like Arjun Gupta is missing that je ne sais quoi in his performance. Penny’s antagonism with Quentin has come off so far as petty cattiness rather than a real power struggle between two men.
That aside, I enjoyed “The Source of Magic”. This episode wasn’t trying to be Syfy’s answer to True Blood, and if the show continues offering its own unique urban fantasy story, it doesn’t need to be.