Television

The Magicians: Season 1, Episode 3 - "Consequences of Advanced Spellcasting"

Kat Smalley

Stella Maeve's performance is the bright spot in an episode that suffers from the same issues as the pilot.


The Magicians

Airtime: Mondays, 8pm
Cast: Jason Ralph, Arjun Gupta, Stella Maeve, Olivia Taylor Dudley, Hale Appleman, Summer Bishil
Subtitle: Season 1, Episode 3 - "Consequences of Advanced Spellcasting"
Network: SyFy
Air date: 2016-02-01
Amazon

I'll say this right off the bat, since she's going to show up a lot in this review: the only thing that saves this episode from itself is the presence of Stella Maeve.

I had high hopes that the competence of the previous episode, "The Source of Magic", would translate to a strong first season for The Magicians, but "Consequences of Advanced Spellcasting" seems to be taking us back to the awkwardness and lopsided narrative of the pilot.

"Consequences of Advanced Spellcasting" is, like the previous episodes this season, made to be a parallel between Quentin Coldwater's (Jason Ralph) climb up the ladder of formal magic, and Julia Wicker's (Stella Maeve) descent into the underworld of hedge magic. The distinction between hedge and "formal" magic, for the sake of clarity, is largely in the power source. Hedge magicians in this setting derive their magic from ritual and artifacts, whereas the Brakebills' community derives theirs from inborn ability.

There's a lot going on in this episode, and it's easiest to divide it into four narrative threads: "Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley) is desperate to talk to her dead brother", "Quentin's integrating himself into the magical world", "Julia’s life is imploding", and "Penny (Arjun Gupta) has to be included in this episode somehow". In the framework of this episode, Brakebills has begun the process of sorting its newest students, assigning them to particular houses based on their special magical aptitude and the sub-specialty within in that tradition. Alice is labeled as a "phosphormancer" -- a controller of light -- and is shuffled off to the "physical" house, the demesne of Margo (Summer Bishil) and Eliot, played by the infinitely charming Hale Appleman. Quentin is also assigned to the physical house, if only because it's most convenient place to put him after his magical proficiency can't be determined. Considering that Quentin's been built up so far as a chosen one, it's not all that surprising a development. Penny, on the other hand, is initially labeled as a psychic, and sent to a more paisley-and-patchouli environment than the "party hard" physical house. His arc in this particular episode revolves around being assigned to the wrong house, and the consequences of that. I'd say more, but Penny's storyline this week is so sparse that even describing it is a spoiler. Suffice it to say that Penny's "special snowflake" factor is being lampshaded by the writers to -- I suppose -- make him a foil to Quentin. Alice, standoffish as always, is determined to conjure up the spirit of her magically vanquished brother, Charlie (Ben Esler), despite her previous attempt conjuring up Brakebills' version of Satan in the pilot episode.

If it weren't for the presence of Stella Maeve, Hale Appleman, and Rick Worthy, I'd have rated the whole thing a lot lower. The narratives that made up this episode were muddled and the acting was off-putting, to be generous. We find ourselves with the same awkward dialogue and performances that made the pilot so grating. I'll give you an example of what I mean. At an early point in "Consequences of Advanced Spellcasting", Alice and Quentin discuss being sorted into the physical house, and Jason Ralph performs the scene with the kind of put-upon nebbishness, complete with affected stuttering, that makes me want to throw something at the screen. After the two of them figure out a way to get into the physical house (a test of magic for the new students), Quentin barges his way inside, chest puffed out, and yells, "Phosphormancy, bitches!"

The dialogue itself is annoying, but it's just the most blatant example of the tonal dissonance that infects the performances of most of The Magicians' actors. Olivia Taylor Dudley's Alice returns to the most banal tsundere tropes after being painted as a complex mix of social anxiety and potential autism in "The Source of Magic"; Jason Ralph's Quentin continues to be depicted as some kind of sanctimonious master-arbiter of the "rules of magic", capable of lording it over Julia’s head, despite the fact that he’s been in the magical world for less than half a year; and Arjun Gupta -- Arjun Gupta. I hate to harp on Mr. Gupta, but his portrayal of Penny continues to be one of the worst parts of this show. Penny is a viscerally unpleasant character, and every time he appears, the audience is treated to a character so preening and snide as to become unbelievable. I think that the problem with Penny is that the character is written as a school bully -- similar to the character in the novel, from what I understand -- but Gupta's playing him as a gangster. The petty viciousness and rebellions of a school bully don't support the Hobbesian gravity of a gangster though, and playing a serious figure like a gangster doesn't mesh with the childish lashing-out that Penny seems to demand. We’re left with a character who embodies the worst traits of both performances without the sympathetic qualities of either.

I mentioned earlier that the narrative threads that make up this episode are muddled. In attempting to touch every element the show’s set up so far, the writers ended up creating an episode spread too thinly to actually address anything. We have the skeletons for four complete episodes packed into 43 minutes. The worst example of this is in Penny’s arc: Penny’s entire contribution to this episode consisted of a few minutes. While I dislike Arjun Gupta's portrayal of Penny, if the writers of The Magicians are dedicated to making him a primary character, spending no more than five minutes on him is a horrible way to flesh him out. Moreover, it struck me that the writers were aware, maybe, that they had created four disconnected and unequal stories, and came up with token scenes to say to the audience, "See! We didn’t forget that Penny and Quentin don’t like each other! We included four seconds in this episode to prove it!" This isn’t limited to Penny and Quentin’s arcs -- there’s also the cringe-worthy scene mentioned earlier that briefly intertwines Quentin and Julia's stories before petering out with hardly an acknowledgement that the two were supposed to be best friends for at least a decade.

Speaking of Julia, what's most amusing is that despite her being the sort-of deuteragonist of the series, her story is far more interesting than any of the Brakebills clique’s plots. Maeve's Julia is the master of the thousand-yard stare, and her interaction (even if tangential) with Eliot is a charming scene between two complex characters: the flippant, classist mignon whose hedonism is simultaneously a method of defending his sanity and a mask to obfuscate his calculating mind, set against the dark, self-mortifying witch willing to toss her mundane life in the crucible for the sake of magical expediency. In many ways, both Eliot and Julia represent fascinating and predatory characters, and despite them being the b-side of Quentin’s plot, one almost wishes that the Syfy writers would take a more revisionist stance on Lev Grossman’s work and toss Quentin to the side in favor of "The Julia and Eliot Show".

I feel in some ways that this review is beating a dead horse; these are essentially the same criticisms I had of the pilot episode. I try to remind myself that it took two wretched seasons for Star Trek: The Next Generation to become a television masterpiece, but it isn’t the 1980s anymore, and unless future writers and directors for The Magicians can understand why the actors are giving awkward performances and the episodes are becoming too overwrought to function, they're going to keep tripping over these same problems all the way to cancellation.

Kat Smalley is a graduate of Florida State University. Most of her nonfiction work is dedicated to cultural and philosophical analyses of sci-fi programs and video games. Her fiction has been published in Lambda Award-nominated Gay City Anthology vol. 5: Ghosts in Gaslight, Monsters in Steam.

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