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The Magicians: Unauthorized Magic

“You’re a kid and your whole life’s ahead of you and you have these notions about what life is and what it could be. But eventually you have to let all that go. So that’s what I’m willing to do, that’s what I’m doing. It’s a part of growing up.”

The Magicians can probably be described as a combination of Harry Potter and Narnia. A coming of age story with a healthy dose of magic, a dangerous school system, a lurking monster with a weird obsession with young boys, and references to a fairytale realm.

And the show checks all of these boxes. We learn that magic is real and there is a fancy grad school to teach it, a creepy moth man is after the main character, and there may or may not be a magical land called Fillory which can be reached through grandfather clocks. The show uses these elements well. Tension is built in the first couple of minutes when we learn that something is after Quentin and friends, but they are nowhere near ready to fight it. The whimsy and beauty of Brakebills is highlighted against the dullness of the muggle end of New York, making Brakebills seem like an exciting place to explore. And the characters seem to have enough wit to give this depressing and dangerous world some humor. All of that seemed fun and all, but it wasn’t what made me want to watch another episode. You can find cool worlds, great tension, and witty characters in almost any TV show these days, but what I found (and still find) exciting about The Magicians is its focus on the mental health of its characters and its questions about what it means to be healthy.

We first meet our main character and hero Quentin Coldwater in a mental health clinic, which he checked himself into due to an overwhelming feeling of a lack of belonging and uselessness. He doesn’t seem to like the typical chosen one. A lot of shows and movies have used the chosen one archetype and given a new spin: anti-hero chosen one (Dr. Strange), nerd to hero chosen one (Disney’s Hercules), orphan chosen one (Harry Potter). Legion’s hero David Haller also may or may not struggle with mental health issues. But, what’s cool about Quentin is that he is always struggling with his mental health and he’s actively trying to cope with it and become a better person.

Quentin checks himself out of the clinic, claiming that he’s better now that he plans to give up his childhood dreams and sell his collection of Fillory books, a children’s fantasy series, on eBay. Julia, his childhood friend, also tries to keep his focus on his future. It becomes clear that Quentin and Julia conflate mental health with a separation between fantasy and reality (it’s a fair assumption, sure, given that they don’t know they’re on a fantasy show).

Things change when they learn that magic is real. They’re given the opportunity to take the Brakebills Entrance Exam at a graduate school for magicians hidden somewhere in upstate New York. Quentin passes the test, manages to demonstrate his magical abilities, and is enrolled in Brakebills. Dean Fogg tells Quentin that he isn’t depressed. He’s been alone and angry. But now that he’s at Brakebills and can practice magic he might be okay. Quentin seems to accept this.

Julia fails. She keeps her memory of magic by cutting her arm (maybe another reference to mental health). The next time we hear about her she sounds more like Quentin pre-Brakebills. She’s not eating, she’s been distant from her boyfriend, and she’s obsessed with magic. When Quentin visits her Julia begs him to help her into Brakebills. They switch roles and Quentin has the option to try to help Julia, or at the very least show a bit of empathy. They both know that magic is real now, not just some childish game. Quentin no longer believes he needs to give it up in order to be sane, but that magic and Brakebills is actually essential to his sanity. But Quentin still decides to deliver Julia her own speech about focusing on other talents and living in reality. And then he leaves. (What a jerk).

Based on the episode, it seems we'll be splitting our time between Quentin and Brakebills and Julia and muggle New York, and it’s cool to be able to spend that time with both characters. It’s like if Hermione had narrated half of Harry Potter. This allows us to see another perspective of things—what would happen if the hero didn’t get to go to the magic school and if they weren’t treated as a hero by others. Julia and Quentin both struggle, for sure, but it’s nice to see their struggles given almost equal time.

By the end of the episode Quentin basically gets everything he’s ever wanted. Magic is real and he has the potential to learn it. He’s told that he isn’t mentally ill, that he never was, and that his feelings of depression should diminish now that he’s in Brakebills. He makes two friends and gains the support of the super smart, meek girl in his class. And, while he may not know it yet, he becomes the chosen one—the main character in all his favorite books, fated to defeat some great evil. Things look pretty great for Quentin... until he’s targeted by the creepy moth man he accidentally helped summon.

Bits and Pieces

— If I’m being honest, I didn’t really warm up to Quentin right away and I tend to side with Julia over him. He came off as insensitive, egocentric, and just generally annoying at the start. But he also did seem like a real, struggling human being. I’ve grown to appreciate Quentin, but for a while I will remain biased in Julia’s favor as they butt heads.

— We also meet some of Quentin’s new friends and acquaintances. We meet Margo and Eliot, who are very witty and a bit mean. Penny and Kady, who are pretty sarcastic and like to have levitatey sex. Alice, who is super shy, really good at magic, and comes from a long line of magicians (although that didn’t help her learn magic because they’re “useless crazy people”).

— Martin, one of the kids in the Fillory and Further books, seems to be a parallel of Quentin. He has always had a “gloomy nature” which he “combats … through stories of wonder.”

— When Quentin and Julia go to Quentin’s Yale interview, Quentin finds the grandfather clock from the Fillory and Further books and Julia finds a dead man. Quentin will likely spend most of his time in beautiful, colorful Brakebills, while Julia will reside in gloomy, gray New York. It seems that Quentin always ends up on the light, wondrous side of things while Julia is stuck with the dark, often tragic side.

— The Brakebills Entrance Exam makes the SATs look like nothing.

— Important—Quentin has many dreams of Fillory where Jane tells him to stay off “the garden path” or the beast will kill him.

— Brakebills Emphasises: physical kids, illusions, healing, nature, knowledge, psychics.

— The third year class dropped from twenty to four. They might have been killed “or flunked, or got bored, or died sixteen perfectly natural deaths.”

— The fact that Julia would accept magic help from the creepy guy who magically removes her shirt, shoves her across the wall, and freezes her there in order to test her powers shows just how desperate she is to learn.

— RIP Dean Fogg’s eyeballs.

Eliot: “We all signed this waver, hope you read yours. It says spell-work is not unlikely to murder you and if so oh well.”

Quentin: “I really don’t want to be the guy that dies in the first ten minutes of the movie because he’s like you know what let’s take out the Ouija board what could possibly go wrong?”

Kady: “What, psychic?”
Penny: “Oh, god I hate that word.”
Kady: “Okay, mind slut.”

Penny: “Yes, everything you think is so boring I replace it with dubstep.”
Quentin: “What’s dubstep?”

Three out of four Fillory and Further books.


  1. Welcome to the site, Ariel! And I'm so pleased that you're going to be reviewing The Magicians for us!

    I was definitely hooked by this pilot episode, and you're right -- I was on Julia's side. Quentin kind of comes off as a jerk here. But it's an intriguing introduction to this world and to Brakebills. I'm not quite sure why I like The Magicians when I don't care much for Harry Potter, but I do. Is that heresy?

  2. Yeah, a bunch of us are pretty sure Quentin is deliberately a kind of anti-Harry. A lot of this show seems intended to disembowel the happier side of Harry Potter.

  3. Jeff, that's a really interesting idea. I can definitely see some truth to it! Billie, I'm totally with you on liking The Magicians without being super into Harry Potter. I'm the black sheep in my family because they all love Harry Potter (we even have a cat named Dobbie) and I'm the only one who hasn't read the books. But after watching the first episode of The Magicians I just really wanted to know more about the characters and see how they handle the mental health aspects--I never really got that with Harry Potter(though I'll always like Hermione!). It probably also helped that I was never really forced by my family into watching it.

  4. I'm so glad that you guys are covering this! I love the Magicians and I can't wait to see your take on it. Quentin is a jerk right now and I'm on Julia's side. It's one heck of a ride.

  5. I think Quentin is written that way on purpose, as in that’s how he is in the books.

  6. One idea developed in the books (not sure if it's stated outright in the show as I've only seen a few episodes) is that normal well-adjusted people don't need magic. Quentin and Julia (and the whole Balkwills crew) are intellectually gifted socially awkward misfits who don't function well in the mundane world. And one thing I've liked about the show from what I've seen of it is that it has stuck to that conception of the characters. I remember feeling that the episode I saw was oddly edited, though, with a lot of cutting back and forth between different characters in very short scenes. At first, I thought I was watching a "last week in the Magicians" roundup rather than an actual episode.

  7. I LOVE this show!! So glad Doux Reviews has taken it on! Welcome Ariel!

  8. One of the best shows on television. I was hooked from the first five minutes. I understand Quinten. I'm smart academically but have some of the same social & mental problems as he does. I love this type of character being represented. I was not as fond of the rest, especially Margo and Elliot whose characters seemed unfathomable to me. Now, I love them, especially Margo whose every line of dialogue is amazing. I credit Sara Gamble. Her lovely writing style has left a big hole in Supernatural, which has never been filled.


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