In just two episodes, Syfy’s The Magicians has effectively set up Quentin Coldwater’s status quo at the magical school of Brakebills. Despite his recognizable and hopelessly nerdy persona, Quentin (Jason Ralph) is a downplayed main character and basically functions as an audience surrogate for us viewers to soak up all the wonder.
It isn’t too difficult to get what The Magicians is trying to accomplish. As we’ve said previously, the show is basically about a boozy Harry Potter gone to college with a higher sex drive. There’s more drama, more magic, and more characters. Thus far, the strength of the show has come from the moments that subvert these expectations to provide us with something we don’t already recognize from the world of wizardry. In the most recent episode it’s been Alice, a character you might initially mistake for a mousy Hermione stand-in.
Actress Olivia Taylor Dudley, who plays Alice, has emerged as a magnetic force in these early episodes, specifically last night’s “Consequences of Advanced Spellcasting.” The real pull of her character lies in Dudley’s performance, which always keeps viewers guessing as to her true intentions. Are her furtive glances and observational passivity part of the awkward attraction between her and Quentin, or an act? At this point, our bet is on Alice being more than another fish out of water. She’s supposedly from a long line of powerful magicians and it is clear from the get-go that there is more to her family lineage than meets the eye. Thankfully, “Advanced Spellcasting” gets to the point fairly quickly in what could have been a prolonged season-long tease. Dudley’s performance remains enigmatic and alluring to the point that you can’t look away from what she’s doing.
Alice and Quentin previously tried to conjure her dead brother via a magical mirror in the first episode, but instead mistakenly invited a six-fingered, moth-ridden otherworldly “Beast” into the classroom, providing the pilot with its best and most gruesome moment.
In Episode 3, Alice continues her search for her brother and the circumstances surrounding his death, only to find that he succumbed to his magical powers while helping a fellow student in need. Charlie’s corporeal being is no more, and he instead exists as a “niffin,” a sort of Obi-Wan Kenobi-like being of pure energy that haunts one of Brakebills’ fountains. This leads to the episode’s climactic showdown where Alice learns that her brother is a bit less benevolent than expected.
This early focus on Alice is a curious choice. It could simply be a way of making room for more Quentin-versus-Julia drama in later episodes. But The Magicians is generally proving to be not as dependent on its protagonist as, say, Harry Potter. By widening its scope to the rest of the Brakebills’ student body, the show can feature a greater number of players in Quentin’s journey. For instance, we find out that psychic Penny is actually a “Traveler,” the rarest and most powerful magical discipline, which can let him travel to other worlds. It could potentially include Quentin’s fictional world of Fillory. While this plot is surprising, Penny’s character doesn’t feel rushed.
While The Magicians is still very much setting up its pieces, it also manages to mostly pay off its early mysteries. Alice is the current breakout, but Quentin still remains a bit of an enigma to both Professor Sunderland and the audience. We’re still curious to find out what secrets and wonders Quentin and the rest of Brakebills have in store for us.