Margo’s (Summer Bishil) rage could still terrify even a werewolf, Eliot’s (Hale Appleman) still drinking enough to fill a magical reservoir, and Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley) can still create an impossible spell. Julia’s (Stella Maeve) kindness can still save worlds. Penny 23 (Arjun Gupta) is still softer than the original, whereas Kady (Jade Tailor) remains sharp and prickly. But Quentin (Jason Ralph) is still gone.
Last season, The Magicians made a bold choice to kill off Quentin Coldwater, the often-presumed main character of this fantasy journey. But over the past four seasons, The Magicians has worked hard to prove that a white man who gets powers and goes to a magical school or through a portal to a magical world doesn’t have to be the lead of that kind of story.
Still, this move wasn’t without some controversy. Quentin was killed after he and Eliot voiced their romantic relationship, but before they could explore it in the present timeline, creating another brokenhearted queer love story that ended with death. In a world where “bury your gays” is a common TV trope, that understandably hurt for many viewers.
Grief may have changed some viewers’ relationship to the show, but it hasn’t changed The Magicians. The show is still snappy fun in between magical crisis after magical crisis. The Magicians has always been about trauma, grief, and pain, and Season 4 continues that journey in a cathartic and touching way as characters process Quentin’s death. Whether an individual viewer will want to watch will likely depend on how they have come to feel about his death. As Julia says in Season 3, “When things happen they leave a mark. Figuring out how to deal with it takes time.”
For me, his death worked. I wish ultimately had Quentin died later, after he and Eliot had a chance to actually be together. But his death made sense thematically and structurally; though I was surprised, I didn’t feel cheated. The idea that Quentin would die saving his friends had been planted since the story started playing with the idea of what it means to be a Chosen One. The Chosen One is a common fantasy trope—one that The Magicians has been consistently trying to reconfigure and blow up. That he died in the middle of the story instead of the end was shocking—it felt like what Alfred Hitchcock did to horror with Marion’s death in Psycho. But The Magicians’ using pain and trauma to tell its story is exactly what it has always done.
Because The Magicians has never been about happy endings. I’ve written before about how the show explores mental health and how magic can become a physical representation of depression and other mental health issues. On The Magicians, when you get magic, things get worse. And what feels more like depression than getting the exact thing you want and the power to do almost anything yet still feeling empty and powerless?
This season, Julia gets magic again because they lost Quentin, and magic comes from pain. Her newfound magic becomes like survivor’s guilt—yet another trauma for the show to explore. She feels like she needs to find something to do with her magic that will be worth Quentin dying, but of course, nothing ever will be.
I still expect Quentin to be around every corner, or to pop up in more than a memory. Just like grief, Season 5 of The Magicians makes it feel like he could turn up at any moment—in golems, shrouds, and dreams. And, just like grief, it’s painful when he doesn’t.
The first three episodes of the season feel a lot like the immediate pangs of grief. Characters keep trying, trying, trying to make themselves feel better when they just won’t. Margo and Eliot interact with an actual brick wall in Fillory, but they and the other characters also hit a metaphorical one. They must decide to either crash into their grief or let it go and run the other way. When something does go right and a character comes back unharmed, it felt like such a relief I could have laughed. When another decides to remember the truth of Quentin instead of lying or ignoring the pain, it was a revelation.
Because it’s The Magicians, I’m sure the relief will be short lived. These bits of grace are a good reminder that life goes on, and the show must, too.
The Magicians Season 5 premieres January 15th on Syfy.
Rae Nudson is Chicago-based writer and critic whose writing has appeared in Esquire, The Cut, and Hazlitt, among other publications. She is working on a book about how women use makeup to help define their roles in society. You can follow her on Twitter @rclnudson.
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