How Mental Health Shapes the Storytelling on Syfy’s The Magicians

TV Features The Magicians
How Mental Health Shapes the Storytelling on Syfy’s The Magicians

When actor Brittany Curran got the first few scripts for Season Three of The Magicians, she tried something she had never done before to help her understand her character, Fen.

“I actually called up my therapist in L.A., and we did a Skype session like it was a therapy session, except instead we talked about Fen,” Curran said. In the world of The Magicians, Fen is a woman in the Narnia-like fantasy land of Fillory who marries the High King Eliot (Hale Appleman) and becomes pregnant with his child. In Season Two, fairies took Fen’s newborn baby as part of a deal gone wrong to help save Eliot’s life. Curran discussed Fen with her therapist to understand why her character acts out in Season Three. “Fen goes through a lot of trauma, so her mental health issues and her depression and her, ultimately, psychosis is coming from horribly traumatic events,” Curran said. “Talking to my therapist not from an acting point of view, but from a human point of view—which is what it should always be—brought to light so much for me.”

The Magicians tells the story of Quentin (Jason Ralph) getting into to Brakebills, a school for learning magic. While they learn intricate spells, Quentin and his friends and frenemies Eliot, Margo (Summer Bishil), Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley), Penny (Arjun Gupta), Josh (Trevor Einhorn), Kady (Jade Tailor), and Julia (Stella Maeve) discover other magical worlds and complicated magical problems that they never knew existed—like baby-stealing fairies. Within zany storylines and a fast-moving plot, The Magicians is grounded in the mental health issues experienced differently by each of the main characters. Mental illness is apparent in everything on the show, from the lighting to the costumes to the characters’ choices.

In the beginning of the third season of The Magicians, magic is gone. Because Quentin helped kill the gods of Fillory, a magical plumber turned off the supply of magic to everyone, everywhere. This mirrors what depression can feel like—that magic is entirely gone from the world.

“What’s really beautiful about this season is, because there is no magic, you’re really seeing the heart and the truth of who these people are,” Tailor said. “So you’re really getting to delve into the character and delve into the psychology of these characters.”

Certain characters handle the lack of magic better than others, and the way they deal with it can mirror the way they confront their mental health issues (or fail to). Josh, the comic relief who this season explores what it may mean to be more serious, turns to drugs.

“Well, first and foremost, he deals with it with weed—he gets high,” Einhorn said. “That’s how he deals with everything. Whether he’s sad, he’ll get high. Whether he’s happy, he’ll get high.”

At the end of Season Two, Quentin’s friend and sometimes girlfriend, Alice, becomes human again after being transformed into a niffin, a creature that embodies pure magic. When she turns back into a human, she is hit with the depression and ennui that comes with that. She sits on the floor, looking in a mirror, trying to reconcile her two selves. She is washed in cool, blue light that matches her sadness. She is off-center in the frame, not quite fitting into her new life. The framing and lighting of the shot reinforce her emotional journey. This season, for Alice, not having magic feels like withdrawal.

“It’s the best high you can have, being pure magic,” Dudley said. “I feel like Alice has the most quarter-life crisis out of everyone in the group because she died and came back and has to be a 20-year-old, and she’s the only one who was born into magic, so she’s had it her whole life. It’s all she’s ever known.”

That The Magicians takes places in a magical world provides a stark backdrop for the mundanity of dealing with mental health issues. But sci-fi and fantasy can be a good way to explore mental health because the genres can make what’s in someone’s head visible.

“Fantasy, monsters, fairy tales—they’re a way for us to externalize the darkness that’s happening inside of ourselves,” said Sera Gamble, The Magicians’ showrunner and co-executive producer. “That’s what monsters are. Monsters are an externalization of how we feel inside and how we treat each other.”

The Magicians tells stories about mental health better than most, but it doesn’t need monsters to do that. It tells these stories well by paying attention to people and their emotional journeys.

“We just try to stay very honest and true to the emotional stakes of the story,” Gamble said. “Then the story that unfolds often tends to line up with the psychological truth of what something like that might look like in the real world. But we’re not trying to be experts.”

Focusing on emotional stakes sounds simple, but when it comes to storylines like addiction or sexual assault, both of which occur on The Magicians, emotions can be incredibly complex.

“One example of something that was a little bit of unknown waters for me was how to tell Julia’s story moving forward this season,” Gamble said.

Julia and Quentin have been friends since before they learned magic was real. But when Quentin got into Brakebills in Season One, Julia didn’t. She instead was sent home with her memory wiped clean. While Quentin went to classes to learn magic, Julia began a long, hard process of becoming what is known as a hedge witch, a magician who learns magic outside the system. Eventually, Julia got involved with a group of people searching for a benevolent god known as Our Lady Underground. But when they summoned her, instead of the kind god they were searching for, they were met with Reynard (Mackenzie Astin), a trickster god, who raped Julia and murdered her friends.

“Sera has made a point of it in this season—and she told me throughout this series—the rape with Reynard will never be forgotten,” Maeve said. Rape and sexual assault have become fairly common on television. What’s less common is telling stories of the lasting effects a trauma like sexual assault can have on a character.

“I haven’t seen as many stories that take place several months later when you’re over that first hump,” Gamble said. “Even in stories of how you deal with trauma, you usually see the acute phase, and Julia is a character that we’re invested in for the long run.”

For Gamble, that means that this season Julia begins to move on from wanting revenge against Reynard to reclaiming parts of her personality, without ever forgetting the trauma that changed her life.

“It’s not uncommon to be assaulted. It’s not uncommon to have post-traumatic stress disorder. And the people that I know and love who have gone through that, I’ve seen them go on to live complete and full lives,” Gamble said.

By focusing on the emotional effects of trauma, The Magicians incorporates mental health experiences of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder naturally into its storylines. But it’s not just trauma that leads to mental illness, and The Magicians reflects that, too.

Quentin has been depressive his whole life and has been hospitalized for depression in the past. In Season One, Julia and another hedge witch put a spell on him that keeps him trapped in a hospital in his head, as if he were stuck in a dream. Quentin begins to question his reality and wonder if he made up Brakebills as part of his mental illness. He breaks the spell eventually, with the help of Penny, a magician who can travel to different worlds and into others’ minds.

Eliot, Quentin’s closest friend and high king of Fillory, also deals with addiction and depression. When he’s in Fillory trying to rule a kingdom, he doesn’t have any of the substances he normally uses to survive.

“Part of the reason why it stressed him out so much is he was going through withdrawal,” Appleman said. “He doesn’t have the same substances he depended on in order to function. So he’s having these nervous breakdowns in Fillory while he’s trying to rule a kingdom because he can’t use the same crutches he’s always depended on.”

A big theme on The Magicians is that you can’t magic depression away. (They tried it. In Season One, several characters literally bottle their emotions. When the emotions come back, it’s an almost unbearable flood.) By including mental illness in these characters’ stories, it not only adds emotional truth to the show, it provides drama and conflict. And hopefully it lets people know that mental illness is a regular part of life—even in other worlds, and even when there’s magic.

“We are in a moment where we’re all struggling to connect with each other,” Gupta said. “I’m not saying our show is going to make the difference in the world with that. But we speak to it, and we show it, and that’s huge.”

Season Three of The Magicians premieres Wednesday, Jan. 10 at 9 p.m. on Syfy.

Rae Nudson is Chicago-based writer and critic whose writing has appeared in Esquire, Bright Wall/Dark Room, and Real Life, among other publications. You can follow her on Twitter @rclnudson.

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