As the returns came in on November 8th, the cast and crew of The Magicians were in Canada shooting the second season of SyFy’s radiant high fantasy. They did not expect the election’s outcome, nor that reality would come so dramatically to resemble the fantasy they were creating.
“It was so far-fetched,” says Jason Ralph, who plays Quentin Coldwater, the series’ troubled protagonist. “And then it was too late.”
It’s a sentiment that could apply to any number of storylines in The Magicians, the show about a depressed young man who discovers that magic is real, then discovers that magical forces seek to destroy everything he holds dear, then suffers the destruction of nearly everything he holds dear. But what was good, solid fantasy in Season One becomes chillingly prescient commentary in Season Two. At last season’s end, the jaded and snarky Eliot Waugh (Hale Appleman) learns he is fated to rule the Narnia-esque land of Fillory. Now he and his friends must take the crown—well, crowns; it’s complicated—and the accompanying, unfamiliar burden of power. As Appleman describes Eliot, who as High King must shoulder the greatest burden of them all, “He has no idea how to rule. The responsibility is more than he could ever imagine.”
All fantasy is about reality, but few fantasies feel quite so real as The Magicians. This is largely due to the series’ premise: It takes place more or less on Earth, though some people can do magic, and also there are other dimensions where everyone can do magic, and also there are gods, and unicorns, and talking sloths, and time travel, and vengeful fire demons. The main characters are basically college students pulled right out of any other drama about young people coming to grips with adulthood. They have parties and threesomes, exams and petty rivalries. There’s none of the clashing of kingdoms that defines Game of Thrones, nor the clockwork philosophizing of Westworld, nor the deep nihilism at the core of both those series, which cast humans as fundamentally selfish and cruel. In terms of narrative and tone, The Magicians’s closest relative is probably Harry Potter—indeed, it’s often labeled “Harry Potter for grownups”—though even that comparison feels incomplete.
The Magicians lives heavily in the Muggle world, for one; it rejects Harry Potter’s simplistic moral line-drawing, for another; and whereas Harry and his friends spend the majority of each story under abstract threats that only later grow real, Quentin and his associates suffer constantly and acutely. In other words, it’s a high-concept universe with low-concept delivery: People cast spells, but they also have mostly the same everyday concerns as you or I. This approach allows for an unusually compelling balance of fantasy’s dual roles—to provide an escape from reality while holding a mirror up to it. The reflection is exquisitely clear in the second season’s story of a king taking a throne for which he is wholly unprepared, and from which many of his subjects wish to see him expelled.
“We had no idea how timely Season Two would be,” says Sera Gamble, who created The Magicians with John McNamara, with whom she serves as showrunner. “I don’t think any of us thought this would be the outcome of the presidential election, but it was probably working away at everyone’s unconscious mind. We do have a lot to say about what it means to step up into that kind of responsibility.”
This should come as no surprise to anyone who watched Season One, which deals from the pilot with the unforeseen limitations and ramifications of power. To study magic, Quentin must leave behind his closest friend, Julia (Stella Maeve). When he and his fellow students, Alice (Olivia Taylor Douglas), Penny (Arjun Gupta) and Kady (Jade Tailor) attempt to resurrect Alice’s dead brother, they inadvertently summon the season’s villain, the Beast, who viciously attacks two teachers. Magic cannot save Eliot’s father from brain cancer; it cannot protect him from the manipulation of his lover, an assassin in disguise; Julia’s desperate quest to learn magic from underground “hedge witches” results in unspeakable tragedy. There is no victory in The Magicians without defeat, no joy without sorrow. This is as true in the second season as in the first, though perhaps the joy is a tad more joyful than it was before: in antagonists who betray unexpected charm, in gods who act remarkably un-godlike and even in the simple CGI pleasures of the magic itself, the smoky cloudbursts of energy, the talking animals and wiry tapestries of light.
“I think we may not have entirely embraced the extremes of horror and humor,” McNamara says of Season One. “Tonally, we were able to be bolder [in Season Two]. I certainly felt that I had fewer doubts; I didn’t edit myself in the episodes I wrote or co-wrote. I stopped the voice that said, ‘That’s a dumb idea.’ And nine times out of ten, what I thought was the dumbest idea—everyone else would say, ‘No, that’ll work.’” Pitching one’s dumbest idea was sort of a requirement for their writers’ room, Gamble notes: “We’ve always drawn from an emotional place; that’s the little nugget at the center of everything. From there you can pitch crazy fucking ideas, and people do.”
She and McNamara proceeded to name a litany of such crazy fucking ideas, none of which I can share because they remain embargoed. So instead I will say: This embrace of fluid tonality and narrative flights of fancy means that more than any of its peers, The Magicians is just fun to watch. It’s dark and it’s serious, but its darkness and seriousness are grounded by their opposites; it makes you feel good, then bad about ever feeling good, then good once more. This is a basic duty of fiction, but it seems like one that recent TV fantasy has mostly abdicated. HBO’s parades of calamity are often very moving, yes, but after enough calamity you get acclimatized: You don’t care so much when a given character dies or loses his hand or turns out to be a robot. Surprise, a feeling vital to storytelling in every form, goes away. But to watch The Magicians is to cross a thin sheet of ice over a deep, dark pond under a glittering night sky. We can see this in every Season One storyline, but I think it’s most gut-wrenchingly enacted in Julia Wicker’s, whose devotion to magical study outside Brakebills ends in her brutal rape by an evil god who eviscerates her friends. She copes with the trauma by magically suppressing it, but the charm is short-lived. So, at the apparent cost of Quentin and his friends’ lives, Julia aligns with the Beast to hunt down and destroy her attacker. It’s hard to watch, especially the moment when her memory returns and she must relive the attack. Maeve’s performance is one of the most astonishing on television—subtle, understated, endlessly expressive, almost always on the brink of collapse—and in her hands, Julia embodies the reality at the heart of The Magicians’ fantasy. Unfortunately, this means the road ahead of her in Season Two will not be an easy one.
“It’s such a hard character to play,” Maeve says, “because I, as Stella, am so different from Julia.” Pondering how Julia persists in the fight against literal gods, she pointed to her forearm. “I have this tattoo that says ‘Carry on’ in my mother’s handwriting, and I just think that as human beings we must. What’s the alternative—death? You gotta keep fighting the fight. She has to keep going. She’s a fighter, she’s a survivor.” Indeed, her story fits elegantly into a broader trend, discussed earlier this month in the New York Times, of rape revenge narratives that transform victims into heroines, “luring audiences” into unflinching studies of the psychological effects of rape. Gamble and McNamara are proud to add to the conversation.
“We inherited a complicated story from Lev [Grossman, from whose books the series is adapted], both with Martin Chatwin [the Beast] and Julia,” Gamble says. “He’s interested in grounding these events that happened, in mythology and fairy tales, in the complexities of real human psychology. So we felt that was our job—we didn’t have to make her an unblemished hero, and we shouldn’t make her just a victim who cries in the corner, but we shouldn’t shave off the edges of the experience, either. She wasn’t making 100% choices before and she’s not making them now. She’s doing the best she can in a really difficult situation.”
“Her storyline isn’t the fun, flighty side of magic,” Maeve says, taking the sentiment even further. “It’s the person we all know and are, and it’s dealing with this—something that happens to millions of men, women and children. I think it’s important to be able to be able to talk about these things in an open forum, to make anyone who has experienced this feel safe, and feel like art is a forum where they can connect and reach out.”
Appleman speaks in similar terms of the social signaling performed by Eliot, who fled a traumatic youth for the comforts and escapes of magical study.
“Eliot is a queer character in a fantasy series,” he says. “You don’t see that very often, and when you do, it’s a sidekick, it’s the bad guy, it’s the sidepiece, the comic relief. While I am tasked with carrying some of the humor of the show, I think that as the series progresses we get to see Eliot as a multi-dimensional character leading his own story—powerful, enigmatic and as queer as he wants to be.”
That’s not to say he’s some shining moral beacon, free of flaws; nobody in The Magicians is. But its commitment to diverse, un-sanitized characterization contributes to the show’s overwhelming optimism. It’s not just that magic is real in this world; it’s real for everyone. The stories of our childhoods were true. What was lost can be rediscovered, what was stolen can be reclaimed.
And it can be lost again. In describing the elements of realism underpinning The Magicians’ distinct take on fantasy, Appleman notes that the series is, above all, a coming-of-age story.
“These are adults entering the world and having to deal with the real-life ramifications of a real loss of innocence,” he says.
What’s so wrenching about that innocence lost is that, particularly for Quentin, it follows so quickly on the heels of innocence regained. He begins the series as a mental patient. He gradually, hesitantly learns that he’s a magician, that the world of his favorite fairytales is real, and that none of this will protect him from the pain he’s always known. This truth threatens to overwhelm him in Season Two.
“So much of Quentin’s frustration with the real world is how complicated it is,” Ralph says. “How everything is gray. What attracts him to Fillory is that the rules of that universe are clear. There are heroes and villains. Most of his life he’s tried to prescribe that philosophy to the world around him and has sought relationships that filled those roles. And now he keeps meeting people that are gray. The universes and the worlds that he thought wouldn’t be, that would rescue him from the gray, are even grayer than the one he came from. All of these people and things are teaching him the same lesson: There are no answers and there are no heroes.”
So, yes, in The Magicians as in life, there is no optimism without pessimism, no hope without cynicism. The cast lived this duality on November 8th, as we are all living it now.
“It was the strangest night of my life,” Ralph says. “We were all checking our phones, trying to do this lovely scene and no one could think about it.”
Appleman took in news with Gupta, who materializes during our interview to greet him with an enormous hug. “I was working up until the moment right before we saw our fate,” Appleman says. “I came over to Arjun’s place and watched the results come in. It was shocking. I didn’t think it was possible.” Then, with the measured circumspection you like to see in a leader—or, at least, someone who plays a leader—he strikes a hopeful chord. “I think the silver lining in all of this is that I’ve seen more of my peers in my generation become active, become vocal for causes that they believe in,” he adds. “My women friends, my friends of color, everyone is speaking out. My sincerest hope is that we keep it up, and that this is the beginning of a cultural movement that has been necessary in our country for some time—one that we can firmly stand behind and not look back.”
Fantasy gets real, indeed.
Season Two of The Magicians premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on SyFy.
Seth Simons is
Paste’s assistant comedy editor.