The Magicians Has Some Problems

[TW: Rape and child sexual abuse are discussed in this post.]

I feel like when you have a show like The Magicians, where so much is done well and a few things are done absolutely terribly, it can be helpful to list out the positives and the negatives of the show.

So let’s do that.

Positives:

  • Really intelligent exploration of tropes that are common to portal and hidden world fantasy stories.
  • A protagonist who actually realizes he’s not the most important person in the story.
  • A pretty sensitive portrayal of depression and mental illness.
  • Lots of humor that hits the mark well (this one is subjective, obviously).
  • Massive amounts of sex positivity and a strong understanding that consent in sex is always necessary but not always sufficient to make the sex okay.
  • Story arcs for the majority of the cast that make sense and lead to earned character growth.
  • Plot twists that mostly come as pleasant surprises.

Negatives:

  • The show’s cast is super white; only one major character and one supporting character are people of color, and the few one-off characters that happen to be Black tend to die at the end of their stories.
  • Only one gay character in the main cast (or maybe bisexual, but he definitely prefers men), and his character arc is especially cruel to him.
  • The final episode of the season reveals that the deuteragonist was raped by an evil god, so she betrays everyone else to join forces with the evil magician (who is also a victim of sexual abuse) and get her revenge.

So yeah.  There are a lot of things to like about The Magicians and a few really big things to hate about it.

The Magicians Poster

Yeah, the show isn’t shy about the fact that a large part of it is about sex. (Image credit: IMDb)

I really love the way this series examines portal fantasy; the main character Quentin is a huge nerd about the “Fillory” books, which are obviously based heavily on CS Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, and he has constant moments of fan joy as he gradually comes to learn that Fillory is a real place that exists in another magical dimension.  What’s whimsical about children passing through portals to fantastical worlds becomes markedly sillier when it’s happening to a twenty-something in graduate school (the detail that Quentin and his friends are in grad school continues to tickle me because it subtly nods to the fact that this is supposed to be a story interrogating the rules of its world instead of blithely accepting them).  Perhaps the most delightful turn comes towards the season’s end when Quentin discovers that he and his friends are stuck in a time loop that’s played out thirty-nine times before (always ending in their violent deaths), and his love of Fillory isn’t a signal that he has some important role to play in the conflict with the Beast (the evil magician) so much as just his stubborn insistence on inserting himself into a story that’s not his.  It’s a nice twist on the Chosen Hero trope.

Also enjoyable is the show’s approach to sexuality.  The characters in this series have sex a lot, which is obviously built partly on audience titillation, but also a necessary fact that this show is built on exploring different ways sexuality can play out.  One of the major points of conflict late in the first season stems from several of the main characters having a threesome in the wake of a magical hangover; this leads to some emotional fallout, but it’s built around the problem of betrayed trust rather than out of a sense of disgust with the act itself.  A couple of other characters hook up as part of that fallout, and instead of leading to an awkward love triangle, this one night stand is processed and set aside in favor of maintaining the friendship that the characters have been cultivating.

The one area where things go heavily off the rails is with the show’s depictions of rape and sexual abuse.  One of the major plot points about the villain is the revelation that he was the victim of sexual abuse as a child (this follows a bait-and-switch where the audience is first led to believe that it was his abuser who was the villain).  This plot point isn’t handled very delicately, and it carries with it significantly unfortunate implications that it’s the trauma sustained from his abuse that leads the villain to turn evil.  There’s some hand waving after the reveal that tries to suggest there was something wrong with this guy before he was abused, but this detail is poorly delivered, and overshadowed by the sheer weight the show gives to being a survivor of sexual abuse.

That weight comes from the way the plot line for Quentin’s best friend Julia plays out.  Julia’s arc is built on a journey of self discovery that starts after she’s denied entrance to the magic school Brakebills at the same time as Quentin.  She falls in with a group of magic users called hedge witches who are self educated outside the college; the hedge witches’ leader, a former student of Brakebills who was expelled named Marina, manipulates Julia in order to reclaim her lost magical abilities and then discards Julia, cutting her off from the meager magical resources the hedge witches have access to.  Julia goes to rehab for her “magic addiction” where she meets a counselor named Richard who is a graduate of Brakebills.  He invites her to join his small coven, and together they try to contact a god to provide the magical energy they need to fix the problems plaguing the other members of the coven.  Julia, whom Richard believes is god-touched, succeeds in petitioning a god for help, but it turns out to be an evil one.  This evil god murders the rest of the coven, possesses Richard’s body, and then rapes Julia before disappearing.  Julia’s so traumatized that she begs Marina to help her by erasing her memory of the event.  Marina patches the memory over with a positive version that ended with the rest of the coven being helped by the god and then going off to do other missions, but it’s an imperfect patch and some further meddling by one of the gods of Fillory rips the patch away, leaving Julia in a fragile state just before the final confrontation with the Beast.  In the end, Julia chooses to cut a deal with the Beast to get revenge on her rapist while allowing him to brutalize everyone else.

So what we get at the end of this first season of The Magicians is a moment where one character, because of sexual trauma, betrays everyone to align herself with the story’s villain, who is also heavily implied to be evil because of his own sexual trauma.  It’s a really gross depiction of sexual abuse survivors all around.  I’ve not read the novels on which this television series is based, but I’ve heard that this plot point is pulled directly from those, and I have to say that it reflects very poorly on the show’s writers that they didn’t see this plot point coming and try to find a less problematic motivation for Julia to betray the rest of the cast.  It leaves a really bad aftertaste to a series that is mostly a lot of fun, and it betrays an insensitivity to the people who have experienced real life versions of the trauma depicted on the show.

I don’t know if I’ll want to continue with this story in the future; it drops the ball so hard at the end that I’m really put off by it, and I can’t honestly recommend it to anyone without first making the problematic elements abundantly clear.  Yeah, it spoils some plot points, but that’s a far sight better than throwing a retrograde treatment of sexual abuse survivors in the audience’s face without warning.

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