TV Reviews

The Magicians: The Satisfyingly Unsatisfying Death of [Spoiler]


Halfway through The Magicians’ recent season finale “No Better to Be Safe Than Sorry,” Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph) looks back at his lifelong friend/former crush Julia (Stella Maeve) and pauses for the briefest of moments. In classic Magicians finale fashion, our group of glorified grad students turned protectors of magic have hatched a plan to defeat the big bad. In this particular case, that means expelling an ancient demon from the body of their friend Eliot (Hale Appleman). Their plan involves splitting into two teams, and in classic season finale fashion the plan is sure to go wrong somewhere.

Julia, however, has to stay back and simply root from a distance. Recently robbed of both her invulnerability and ability to cast magic, she’s now a defenseless human. It’s clearly killing her. She wants so badly to help in any way she can, but she’s being told the best thing she can do is nothing at all. Hanging back is the smart move for her. She agrees, but she doesn’t like it.

As he leads his team away to magical battle, Quentin glances back at Julia. A shared glance is usually all they need to tell how the other is feeling. So, he likely senses how much she is hurting, but time – as you’d expect in a season finale let’s-beat-the-bad-guy scenario – is of the essence. Quentin makes the split-second decision to simply continue on with the plan, fighting his impulse to walk over and even briefly console his best friend.

The fight must go on.

Sadly, this….

…is the last time Julia ever sees Quentin Coldwater alive.

By episode’s end, Quentin sacrifices himself – both saving Eliot and preventing the rise of a potentially tyrannical god in the process. It’s a heroic death, but it’s also a deeply unsatisfying one. Quentin – once the obvious central character of the show, more recently reduced to being a significant part of the ensemble – never gets a proper final scene with either Julia or Eliot, the latter of whom he once married and grew old with in an alternate timeline remembered by them and them alone. (If you haven’t caught on by now, The Magicians is a wonderfully crazy show.)

Moreover, in the episode’s coda we watch Quentin enter into the afterlife – the show’s way of telling us to take this seriously. Other characters have died and come back in some way or another. Reaching the afterlife, however, is something we’ve been told you don’t come back from. Couple that with the “no, he’s really gone” quotes from show’s producers and it all starts to feel very final.

Upon first watch, Quentin’s death registered as creative negligence to me. That would be in keeping with my larger view of season 4 as a real mixed bag, the year when The Magicians’ always admirable ambitions finally outreached its grasp. Now, however, I find his death to be satisfyingly unsatisfying.

Some might never get to that place in the grieving process. As Vox explained, “What social media outcry there has been around ‘No Better to Be Safe Than Sorry’ mostly stems from the episode’s treatment (or lack thereof) of Quentin’s bisexuality, which makes him the latest in a long line of queer TV characters who’ve died seemingly to advance a show’s plot. Much of season four, in which Quentin is intent on rescuing Eliot for reasons even he seems unable to explain to himself, hinges on his romantic past with Eliot.”

Indeed, the show went out of its way earlier in the season to nod to the shippers. In the same episode (“Escape from the Happy Place”) in which Quentin’s tortured long-term relationship with Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley) finally fell apart we saw the show pivot to a potential future for Quentin and Eliot. The former was fully confirmed to be bisexual, and the latter was seen to be open to a relationship together. Just, you know, once they got over the whole “possessed by an ancient evil demon” thing. Details, details.

For a brief moment near the end of the episode, Eliot regains control of his body and delivers a meaningful message which only his former husband and hopefully future boyfriend would understand:

It briefly broke the internet.

The subtext which had so richly fed Magicians’ slash-fiction for years was rapidly becoming text. In the face of chronic under-representation on TV, queer viewers are far too often forced to act like scavengers, picking at every possible angle to find subtext that might not actually be there or certainly won’t ever be fully explored. The Magicians let them feel seen and heard. Queliot was going to happen.

The significance of this did not go unnoticed. As Vox’s Constance Gracy wrote in her impassioned response to the episode, “The Magicians paid off 74 years of queer subtext this week.” Vulture was similarly enthused.

Eliot and Quentin in “Escape from the Happy Place”

To an extent, it appears as if the show’s producer underestimated how much this meant to fans. Considering EP Sera Gamble came to this straight from working 7 years on Supernatural – a hotbed for slash fandom if I’ve ever seen – she should know better. Yet, here we are the end of season 4 with Quentin dead, another gay buried for the dramatic advancement of others, you could argue. At least Julia got to share one last glance with him. Eliot didn’t even get that! They never even share the screen together during the entire finale.

What was the point of walking right up to the line with Quentin and Eliot and then retreating just as quickly? Indeed, in the season’s final third Quentin and Alice actually reunite and agree to give their relationship another try. As someone who actually ships that couple over Queliot, I can’t say I was exactly complaining about this development, but I was certainly confused. Can you major in “Mixed Signals” at Brakebills? Because The Magicians certainly was!

This is not, however, a true “bury your gays” moment, at least not in a traditional sense. Quentin was once the center of the show and remained the sole connective tissue between several members of the ensemble. His departure will have long-lasting ripple effects on everyone, and it also points to a future where the white guy protagonist – with the white girlfriend who’s actually better at him than almost everything – is no longer the assumed face of the show.

Alice, Julia, and Quentin in a season 1 promo

Quentin is the point of view character for the majority of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians novel trilogy which inspired the show. That point of view has now been removed from the series, fulfilling executive producer Sera Gamble’s long-gestating desire to move away from what we’ve been conditioned to expect from hero’s journey narratives.

Part and parcel of that desire was to deny Quentin a fully satisfying end. As Gamble’s Co-EP John McNamara told THR:

“A true story from adulthood that we have not told adequately enough is the story of: how do you deal with a real death? That’s the interesting thing about death in real life – rarely, when someone close to you dies, do you get that kind of movie goodbye hospital scene. That almost never happens. I’ve lost my share of people, and I was not there for any of their deaths, and in most cases I didn’t think they were going to die when they did. That’s part of the pain of it.”

That rings true. The loss I’ve experienced in my life has been similarly anti-climactic, with plenty of final conversations I never knew would be final. Quentin looking back at Julia and then silently moving on, utterly failing to realize he might need to tell her goodbye one last time? That rings more true to me than if he had walked over and given her a moving pep talk. Similarly, Eliot never even getting to see him one last time feels similarly authentic.

To the cynic, it’s simply lazy story construction and screenwriting; to the optimist, it’s a grand note of emotional realism.

I’m still stuck somewhere in-between those two opposite sides of the argument, mostly because I do think the season as a whole was flawed. It’s attempt to trojan horse a second and even third big bad into the season’s final stretch simply leaves them with too many spinning plates at the end, pitting Quentin against a real “oh, this guy again?” villain in his final moments.

However, I can’t stop thinking about that final, unspoken, entirely mundane goodbye between Quentin and Julia. As the twin poles around which all plotlines gravitated in that first season, they deserved a better goobye!

Then again, we don’t all get to die like Jean Valjean with our loved ones at our side and dearly departed ghosts singing us into the afterlife. (Quentin, as a ghost, does get to watch his friends sing around a campfire while mourning him, but they don’t know he’s there.) We don’t get to say goodbye to the people we love the most.

It’s a lesson you learn time and time again as an adult, and if The Magicians is ultimately a metaphorical story about a group of people becoming adults maybe it’s time they learned that lesson. But, damn, it hurts.

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