How The Magicians Is Redefining the Role of Fantasy Hero

TV Features The Magicians
How The Magicians Is Redefining the Role of Fantasy Hero

Four seasons into Syfy’s The Magicians, the series gets self-reflective with an existential conundrum: Who in the actual world is it about anymore, anyway? It’s rare to hear honest questions raised out of curiosity, rather than winking, nudging attempts by showrunners to course-correct narratives long gone off the rails. Rarer still is the context it’s raised in.

Fantasy stories, on page or screen, tend to orbit a single character designated as “hero”—the hero, the hero standing above other heroes—by default. In Harry Potter, the clearest antecedent of The Magicians’ model, the hero, of course, is Harry himself. In The Lord of the Rings series, it’s Frodo; in The Hobbit, it’s Bilbo. It’s Ned Stark in Game of Thrones, and then Robb Stark, until—like father, like son—he loses his head. (Currently the title is shared between Daenerys and Jon, which likely means one of them will end up nogginless before the show ends.)

But what The Magicians presupposes about fantasy heroes, with one good, long gaze into its own interior, is: Who are the heroes?

Nothing’s so simply answered in The Magicians. It’s valid to identify Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph) as a hero, but this week’s episode, “The Side Effect,” reminds the audience he isn’t the only one, and that The Magicians isn’t even about him. Yes, Season Four puts special emphasis on his dual griefs: His father finally loses his long battle with cancer, and his best friend, Eliot (Hale Appleman), has been body snatched by an enigmatic, indisputably psychotic entity with a grudge against the gods. As far as Quentin knows, Eliot’s actually dead, his body a marionette controlled by its host—though that’s revealed to be a big fat lie in the final shot of last month’s “Marry Fuck Kill.”

But Quentin isn’t the star of the show. He’s one participant among a sea of participants, and if you can’t accept that, you’re likely suffering a case of white male protagonism, a nifty diagnosis coined by Penny (Arjun Gupta) in the opening scene of “The Side Effect.” Penny’s risen in the ranks of the Library’s Underworld branch since dying in Season Three; he’s meeting with freshman librarian Derek (Chris Brochu) to talk sidekicks. Derek has an unflattering habit of dismissing people’s contributions to stories when they’re not at the center. Penny means to sort him out.

Derek’s most recent mistake is filing one woman’s life under “Disappointing Prodigies”; she mastered the flute at seven but turned out a mediocre poet. As Penny points out, she also helped yank her brother out of his “self-destructive spiral,” after which he grew up to be an esteemed philanthropist. Derek’s response to the revelation is flip: “OK, so is there a section for sisters of generous men?”

Penny’s hotheadedness is long tempered by time’s passage. He smiles with bemusement, like he’s talking to a basketful of kittens, and switches to familiar subjects: Quentin and Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley), filed under “Star-Crossed Romances” or “Well-Meaning Failures.” But Penny wants to hear about the others. “Side Characters in Epic Quests,” says Derek. “I’m a side character,” Penny muses, before pointing out Derek’s prejudice: He considers Quentin the hero by default because Quentin looks like him, and assumes who matters as a consequence—meaning only Quentin, and perhaps Alice, matter, which tells viewers all they need to know about Derek. (Sort of. Wait until the episode ends.)

Except that everyone is key to how The Magicians’ functions as contemporary fantasy story about how trauma changes people. Frankly, Quentin is one of its least relevant characters at present, as far as moving the plot forward. Arguably, he hasn’t served as the plot’s primary driver since Season Two. Ensemble is critical to the show, and it always has been. Without the ensemble, Quentin achieves nothing. In fact, he’d almost certainly be dead, which, for all Hermione’s and Ron’s importance to the Harry Potter series, can’t be said for Harry.

Quentin needs his friends. The Magicians needs them more. In “The Side Effect” they’re especially crucial to the maintenance of the series’ overarching narrative, focused on the Library’s magic rationing for Season Four, and to the individual arcs of the primary cast. “Well, shit,” says Margo (Summer Bishil), High Queen of Fillory, surrendering to news that Fillory’s talking animals have been struck dumb and can’t clue her in on her birthright. Fen (Brittany Curran) to the rescue! She’s having prophetic and disturbing dreams that might be the solution to Margo’s problem. And after a brief absence from the last few episodes, a warm welcome back to Kady (Jade Tailor), not simply on the lam following the Dewey coin heist in “The Bad News Bear,” but solving old case files off the desk of her post-Season Three finale detective persona.

Kady, unlike Fen, actively fears relegation to the “sidekick” role. But she isn’t a sidekick. None of them are, and “The Side Effect” proves it. Kady’s fomenting a hedge mage insurrection against the Library’s authoritarianism. Fen’s determined to figure out why the animals have stopped talking. Even Zelda (Mageina Tovah), de facto antagonist but with moral wrinkles that make her more complicated than one-word categorization, is working to safeguard Alice from the Library. They’re positioned at center stage. Alice and Quinn scarcely show their faces in “The Side Effect,” ceding the floor to their supposed subordinates in fantasy character hierarchy.

The Magicians has never bowed to defaults. One of its best recommendations, from the start, has been its devotion to inclusion. But “The Side Effect” makes the strongest statement to date about the importance not only of inclusion, but appreciation. Without its diverse cast of characters, the series wouldn’t be the same. More significantly, neither would the story itself.

Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009 (and music since 2018). You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.

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