This post contains spoilers for tonight’s episode of The Magicians, and for the third season to date.
“When you file people away as sidekicks, you don’t realize their importance to the story. And this story belongs to a lot more people than you think,” Penny declares late in “The Side Effect,” the midway point of The Magicians Season Four.
“The Side Effect” is a spiritual sequel — and, at times, a narrative sequel — to “Six Short Stories About Magic,” a wonderful Season Three episode that told a collection of asynchronous tales about a magical heist. The new episode also moves out of order, with Penny (Arjun Gupta) delivering a lecture to what he thinks is a underling, Derek (Chris Brochu), in Penny’s job in the Underworld branch of the magical Library that has dominated the fantasy drama’s current storylines. Penny assumes Derek is a callow frat boy suffering from “a classic case of white male protagonism,” so he offers him a trio of stories about women on the show: Kady (Jade Tailor), who was Penny’s girlfriend before Penny died(*); Zelda (Mageina Tovah), the head librarian and mother of Harriet (Marlee Matlin), who appeared to die during the events of “Six Short Stories About Magic”; and Fen (Brittany Curran), native of the fantasy kingdom of Fillory, where several of the show’s characters have served as rulers.
(*) Because this is a show about magic and other craziness, and because Gupta’s too good to be consigned to occasional appearances in the Underworld, there is another Penny from an alternate timeline hanging out with Kady and friends. It’s complicated, until it isn’t.
As we watch Kady investigate threats against the community of hedge witches (DIY magic types without formal training), Zelda discover evidence that Harriet might still be alive, and Fen go through a series of lucid dreams predicting what will happen next to Fillory’s high king, Margo (Summer Bishil), the episode is largely setting in motion storylines for the season’s second half. But it’s also articulating that thing The Magicians does so well, by examining characters who, on many other shows, would at best be plot devices in service of the hero’s stories.
Loosely adapted from the series of novels by Lev Grossman(*), The Magicians has done for early adulthood what Buffy the Vampire Slayer once did so well for adolescence: using magic and other fantasy devices as metaphors for familiar rites of passage. The series’ main characters — all alums of a kind of R-rated version of Hogwarts — have spent their twenties dealing with recognizable but exaggerated disappointments. Exciting career paths haven’t worked out the way they hoped (Stella Maeve’s Julia briefly got to be a goddess, but now isn’t). Previous generations keep leaving messes for them to clean up, then blaming them for it (the gang brought magic back into the universe, only for the Library to steal control of it from them). You may have a grand plan as you enter the real world — even if it’s a real world where you can cast spells and meet dragons — but adult life is messy in a way that makes the idea of planning feel laughable, in a way the series can capture with both grace and humor.
(*) So loosely that I’ve long since stopped attempting to do any comparing between the two, which had the same starting point before going off in very different directions.
The major theme of “The Side Effect” fits neatly into the larger ideas Magicians likes to explore. It would be easy to keep the story focused entirely on the original core group. (Kady is technically a part of that group, but as she points out here, she’s often treated as an afterthought by the others.) But the show has long operated the way any smart TV series does, bending and deviating from its primary mission and group when exciting new opportunities present themselves. Zelda and Fen were relatively minor figures in earlier seasons, but Tovah and Curran (and others like Trevor Einhorn as magical chef/werewolf Josh Hoberman) were so obviously good that small roles became bigger and bigger ones. The primary group hasn’t been sidelined, but the show feels much deeper and richer for being able to go into every corner of its increasingly complicated and kinky magical universe and find someone whose story feels just as worthy as that of someone like our ostensible main character Quentin (Jason Ralph).
“The Side Effect” is also a terrific example of how often and well The Magicians does distinctive episodes. The show’s ongoing story arcs tend to be a confusing jumble, particularly at the start of each season, when episodes are largely devoted to unringing bells from the end of the previous season. But the creative team smartly keeps track of what the characters are going through in the midst of the various nonsensical quests, and those emotional journeys take center stage every few weeks in hours that are about more than just inching the plot forward.
Earlier this season, we got “Escape From the Happy Place,” where Eliot (Hale Appleman) had to go in search of his most painful memory to temporarily escape the monster that had taken over his body. (As with all things Magicians, it plays less ridiculous than it sounds.) What initially seemed to be about providing the show’s most colorful main character with a more fraught backstory instead proved to be a stealth sequel to a standout episode from last year, where best pals Eliot and Quentin spent a lifetime together trying to solve a puzzle, only to revert to their younger selves at the end. And Eliot’s crucial memory was revealed as his refusal of Quentin’s offer, in the wake of that adventure, to turn their friendship into something romantic. It was both unexpected (Quentin’s always presented as straight, Eliot as sexually fluid) yet completely in character, and it makes me very badly want to get to the inevitable moment where Eliot escapes his present circumstance so he can tell Quentin that he changed his mind.
Of course, knowing how The Magicians works, odds are something very bad will happen to Quentin right before Eliot gets a chance to tell him, because life is always more difficult than we hope it will be. And episodes like that one and “The Side Effect” exaggerate and dramatize that idea beautifully.