I got my heart’s desire, and there my troubles began.
A pessimistic start to the first book in The Magicians series by Lev Grossman, you might say. We want things, claims the narrative, and we will continue to want them even as we learn that they will destroy us. Showcase’s TV adaptation mirrors that desire a little less adeptly than one might hope, but the series does seem to set up for an explosive narrative.
Quentin Coldwater is not a charismatic hero, and yet it is in his hands that author Lev Grossman and showrunner Sarah Campbell leave the story. We get hints of Quentin’s internal struggles: the pilot’s second scene reveals that he’s been admitted to a psychiatric hospital, and that it isn’t his first time there. We also get the sense that it won’t be his last. Quentin doesn’t seem to fit neatly into the life he lives, and with his graduation from Columbia looming ahead of him, he articulates a desire for more. More what? We’re not very sure, even by the end of the second episode.
The first real sense of self that Quentin displays is around his best friend Julia. Where he’s reticent, Julia is commanding. She takes up space, and she’s completely unapologetic about it. Stella Maeve inhabits Julia naturally, giving her a gravity that Jason Ralph doesn’t quite manage for Quentin. Wide eyes and surprise do not a compelling character make.
Both characters shared a love for the Fillory and Further book series when they were younger—Quentin reminds Julia that she’d been the one to pull him into a lifelong obsession with the Chatwin siblings’ story. As they begin to grow apart, it’s Quentin who clings to the series, reading them over and over again. His fascination with magic and Fillory seems to be answered by his entrance into Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy.
The Fillory connection forms the basis for Quentin and Julia’s friendship, and the pilot watches that shared interest fade. Brakebills’ acceptance of Quentin and rejection of Julia splits them apart, and though it’s still too early to tell who’s on the “right” side—or if that dichotomy even exists in the magical world—it’s clear that the two friends are now on very different paths.
Quentin’s journey mostly takes place inside Brakebills, a school that feels very much like a stereotypical Ivy League-esque university. Here, we’re told, Quentin is special and Quentin is gifted, but the enchantment falls flat. He is at once supremely disinterested in the work required of him, and desperate to stay at Brakebills, because it’s the first place in which he’s felt like he belongs. It’s hard to understand what draws older students Eliot and Margo to him, and his interactions with fellow first-year Alice are awkward and stilted. We know that this ragtag team will face adventures together, but I found it difficult to see how they connect to each other, and if friendship was even on the table.
With Julia, the lines are much clearer. Her ambition and magical abilities catch the attention of a rogue group of magicians, but she doesn’t lose herself in the process. She sets her boundaries, despite wanting magic almost as desperately as Quentin. It’s her plotline that intrigues me most, as she sets out to gain knowledge that is being denied to her, for reasons that are (at the moment) arbitrary and inexplicable. Her motivation mirrors mine for watching the series in the first place, and echoes a question that all kinds of women have asked for centuries: why not me?
It’s Julia who stands to gain the most in The Magicians, and while the series seems to want to focus on Quentin’s strange potential, I find myself hoping for less of Brakebills and more of magic in the human world, and the complications and complexities it brings.