It’s been several long months since we were treated to the third season finale of SyFy’s “The Magicians,” and the season four premiere came right on time. The show has a devoted cult following thanks to Instagram-savvy showrunners Sera Gamble and John McNamara—something of a loving mom and dad who want the best for their characters, and the show’s fans.
“The Magicians” tracks a tight-knit group of graduate school friends from Brakebills, an American Hogwarts for super-smart magicians, out into the real world, which turns out to be made up of many interconnected realities and dimensions. Each of these dimensions offers a viable reality, with its own rules and natural properties.
The plotline is basically thus: Those with magical talents are called out of the standard realm of reality to attend a magical school to hone their craft. From there, they learn children’s fantasy novels are actually a true account of happenings in an alternate realm, that ancient myths and legends from cultures around the world are real, that there are not only two realms but infinite ones, that a book detailing the true life story of every individual who has ever or will ever live is carefully catalogued, and that they can’t know who they are until they test the limits of their capability.
While there are plenty of subplots involving interpersonal relationships, the show is all about the meta narrative. The different realms of reality and magic itself are almost their own characters, in that they drive the story often as much as the characters do.
A Splendiforous Use of Imagination Keeps People Hooked
Keeping up this pace of imagination and intrigue through the first three seasons could have been no easy task. So many shows that start strong, as “The Magicians” did, lose focus on the big picture that draws viewers in the first place, and devolve into little side stories that no one really cares about, or split up the main characters into so many divergent plots that it becomes hard to follow. It’s almost as though, at every turn, “The Magicians’s” writers ask themselves, “What is the most imaginative thing that could happen here?” and then blow up the rules of the world, only to reinvent completely new ones in another.
What draws viewers to “The Magicians” is the characters, the captivating contemporary dialogue with an intellectual, overeducated spin, and the sheer inventiveness of the storylines. All of this is what makes “The Magicians” an art project in the form of a television show, something we haven’t seen since “Twin Peaks.”
Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy, on which the series was based, was fun, and worth the read. But rather than adapting the books for television, Gamble and McNamara have used them as seeds, germinating new ideas that both contain and reference the old. “The Magicians” gives the feeling that reality is barely even shallow, and to step into one world, only for a second, is to come tumbling out of another.
Where We Are in Season Four
Season four begins much the same way as the first book, with a secret in an envelope luring a new student to Brakebills. It is an enticing fantasy, an invitation to an exclusive school of secrets, and it’s nice to see the lure of magic again after a season where the joy of magic was subsumed by frustration with it. The season three finale ended with a stunning cliffhanger where each of the five main characters were robbed of their identities and storylines, left to hack out some kind of muggle life.
Ultimate Fillory fan boy Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph) morphs into a bookish English professor; Kady (Jade Tailor) the street-wise witch becomes a hard-as-nails primetime detective; high achieving, master hedge witch Julia (Stella Maeve) is now an architect; stoner Josh (Trevor Einhorn) is now a chauffeur; space-and-time traveler Penny (Arjun Gupta) is now an internationally renowned DJ; Margot (Summer Bishil), now Janet (which was the name Grossman gave her in the novels) is a high-end fashion editor who takes no prisoners.
Only Elliot (Hale Appleman), the dashing, last-of-the-famous-international-playboys type who becomes a monster, and Alice (Olivia Dudley), the best witch of her generation who is locked in librarian prison, retain a real foothold in the magical world.
Although that’s where we left them, it’s not exactly where we pick them up. Cracks in the veneer of their new lives have appeared in the form of a graphic novel that contains the life stories of each of their interconnected alter egos. A glimpse into Gamble’s Instagram shows images from the graphic novel, with the caption “A page from one of my favorite #TheMagicians props ever, the graphic novel [Dean] Fogg [Rick Worthy] used to reset everyone’s identity.”
This show does not stand alone on the screen. Instead, it is part of its own interconnected reality of symbols, images, and comments. And this graphic novel brings up the idea that if an individual’s given identity can be replaced by another, remnants of the former identity remain.
This is a new crew. Each of the old characters has new names, new lives, and no memory of what they used to be. If they manage to break through the veil of contemporary, first world reality, with all it’s stakes and pitfalls, they will find a magical world that is a far cry from the one they left behind. The days of the free-wheeling magic trade are over, and now students and pros alike vie for who gets access to the flows of magical power.
To top it off, a sinister order of librarians is in charge of doling out the magic, and everyone at Brakebills is on rations. Soon we realize they’re not a new crew, but the old crew inside different bodies with different names who don’t even know each other and are on completely divergent paths through life. If you followed all that, you’re definitely ready for the season four journey. If not, Netflix has it all from the beginning, and it’s well worth the ride.
An Exploration of Our Many-Layered Selves
Layers upon layers of reality exist within the framework of “The Magicians.” There is no one real world, just as in the current social framework here in our “real world” there are myriad perspectives vying for relevance and dominance, and we have to come to some kind of consensus about what is actually going on. Each realm has something that resonates for the characters.
When we walk through life, and we have experiences that shape us, we often leave those experiences and move onto others. When we do, and when we encounter new people, we find it is possible to feel these new people don’t really know us, that there are parts of us that can never be known by those who weren’t with us, and even then that those people don’t know the true us from before that time. We feel that we have within us true selves, that cannot be touched, tarnished, destroyed, that are the possession of no one, and have all the potential of the universe.
The most exciting part of this show is the room it leaves for the viewer’s imagination to jump in and take a ride. There was a sequence in the finale where a flying mini clipper ship set sail over a waterfall and down to the underside of a two-sided flat world. The song that plays during this sequence is Shells’s “Jagwar,” and the music enhances the reach of the scene in such a thorough way that I lived inside that Shells EP for weeks.
Walking through New York City with the sounds of Fillory’s dark side in my ears transported me to a realm of insane potentiality. The amount of imagination and joy that seems to go into this show is what makes it such a delight.
Season five was just picked up by SyFy, and Gamble announced on Twitter that the program will welcome a new showrunner. I hope that doesn’t mean that we’ll lose the mastery of the Gamble-McNamara team.
There are plenty of hour-long shows that rely on big cliffhangers, and season or series-long plots, but what makes “The Magicians” stand out is that it doesn’t matter what the cliffhanger is. It doesn’t matter if the mystery is solved. The answer to the season or the series is completely irrelevant.
This is a show about the journey— the one we willingly take, not to get to the end, not to solve all the great mysteries, not to see the good guy triumph or the bad guy get vanquished, but to experience character-driven narrative and storytelling at its finest.