Spoilers below for ‘The Magicians’ season four finale.
All love dies eventually. No matter how hard, how firm, how solid, our love goes the way of dust in the end. And so it is with the season 4 finale of “The Magicians,” a show I’ve been following since Lev Grossman’s trilogy, since since the first episodes on SyFy.
On Twitter earlier this year, show co-creator Sera Gamble posted about how she and John McNamara first got together, bought the rights to the books, and wrote the pilot on spec. To put in the kind of work that takes is an act of love. It cannot be done without love of story, world, and primarily love of character.
That is why it was so sincerely shocking to see series lead Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph) killed in the final episode of season four. It was like a puncture wound. It took all the air out of the room.
“The Magicians” has been running on SyFy for four beautiful seasons, and will be bringing a fifth. With a cast of talented, gorgeous actors, the plotlines keep veering entirely off course only to land in new, unexpected realms of fantasy and storytelling.
“The Magicians” blends elements of campy fantasy genre dramas with a sense of humor and a real fine arts sensibility. The premise is that Brakebills is a magical school for magicians, a Hogwarts for cosmopolitan kids with way too much personal baggage, an overload of attitude, and robust superiority complexes that barely mask the insecurity beneath.
There are multiple dimensions and worlds, each with their own timelines, natural laws, and properties. One of these is Fillory, a mythical land that has only existed in fiction written by Christopher Plover (Charles Shaughnessy), Quentin’s favorite novels, until the Brakebills kids realize it’s actually real.
Plover has been a background figure in the series, despite his Fillory books taking on a driving life in the narrative. When we find him in the season finale shunned, disgraced, in a back room of the interdimensional library of magic, he wants back into the mortal realm. In his defense, he says: “Problem is, no one will ever let you change. People always see you for what you’ve done, never for who you are.” He could very well be talking about Quentin Coldwater, who does not appear, until this bitter end, to be the main character of his own life.
In the books, Quentin, the ultimate Fillory fanboy, is kind of annoying. In the show, too, he began as kind of a lead afterthought somehow, the least colorful and the most uninteresting hero. Finally he is tasked with saving Fillory, the refuge of his heart, play place of all his childhood fantasies.
That you can never go home again isn’t simply a cliche, it’s also the truth. Standing at the edge of everything he ever wanted, Quentin gives this impassioned plea. “You know the worst part of getting exactly what you want? When it’s not good enough. Then what do you do? If this can’t make me happy, then what would? Fillory was supposed to mean something. I was supposed to mean something here. But it’s random, it’s so random that the only way to save my friends is to yell at a f-cking plant. Honestly, fuck Fillory for being so disappointing. Y’know maybe I was better off believing that it was fiction. The idea of Fillory is what saved my life. This promise that people like me, people like me can somehow find an escape. There has got to be some power in that. Shouldn’t loving the idea of Fillory be enough?”
It should. We want it to be. We want love to be enough, love of place, love of home, love of lover, love of love, but it isn’t, and we can’t make it be. We need to be our own escapes, we need to save ourselves.
No one is really out there to fix it all for us, no matter how much they want to, no matter how many plants we yell at. (Seriously, just watch the show.) In the end, the place that saves us is the place in our hearts, where the light shines, where the flowers grow, and where even in sadness we find the joy that is a gift to us from the beginning of time.
It took a few seasons for Quentin to live up to himself. He didn’t even have a magical discipline until two episodes ago (in the trilogy it’s book three). His love interest, the smartest, hottest, angst-iest magician, Alice (Olivia Dudley), has been a phosphoromancer (the magical manipulation of light) since season one, but Quentin has been muddling about without any real idea as to his meaning or purpose. It’s a sick irony that only shortly after he learns what type of magic he’s innately best at, he’s able to use to it to save the day, save magic, save Alice, and destroy himself.
It hurts for a writer to kill off a character he loves. These characters have not been crafted so much as they have been extracted from the hearts and minds of the writers who created them, who drew them out, lovingly, with grace and urging, from the ether of imagination. It must have been agony to write the script where Quentin dies of his own masterful spellwork. As hard as it was for Alice to watch him go, it must have been even more excruciating to pen the lines that released him from the world of the living magicians.
By the time Quentin makes his spectacular exit, with the captivating track “Cruel World” by Active Child and a slow-motion pyrotechnic golden sparks sequence, he and Alice are back in love. Quentin knows his worth, and can harness his ability for the first time. Moreover, we love him, we viewers who have had such trouble wrapping our hearts around Quentin Coldwater as the driver of the story arc. Right when we love him most he is snatched away into the realm of darkness.
“Magic comes from pain,” says Quentin from the afterlife, and he’s not wrong. Magic does come from pain. We all know it, and don’t want to admit it. We want to believe that we can be well-adjusted and super normative and still breed masses of creativity and brilliance, but it doesn’t quite work that way.
I had a writing professor in college, Cassandra Medley, who said, “Go to the place where you’re afraid, and start from there.” In fear, in terror, in the agony of our hearts, we create and reform ourselves, and in so doing, the magic of love is made.