Over its first four episodes The Magicians has continued to try new things. Sometimes it works out and meshes well with lead character Quentin Coldwater’s awkward journey into the magical university called Brakebills, and other times the show seems to try to juggle lots of different narrative threads enough to seriously undersell some of them. The cast of characters like Penny, Alice, Eliot, and Margo seem to swirl around Quentin like the unwieldy deck of cards that he magically controlled almost by accident in the pilot episode. So far that variety has been an advantage, but just like that brief introduction to magic, the house of cards came tumbling down in an unpleasant way in last night’s episode, “Mendings, Major and Minor.” Like Dean Fogg, who’s still on the mend from the Beast’s attack, The Magicians can recover. But halfway through the first season it’s now a question of how long it will take.
Lots of undercurrents that have been running through the first four episodes came to the fore in “Mendings, Major and Minor,” albeit in a fairly awkward way. The limitations and very nature of magic has been hinted at since the beginning of the series, and we got a short window into how melancholy almost seems like a prerequisite for being a magician. It all comes back to being emo. Perhaps that plus something a bit more sinister is what befell the still-missing third-year class. But, like everything else in this episode, the interesting stuff is glossed over rather quickly to seemingly try to pack as many other story beats the editors could fit in the episode’s hour-long runtime.
We’ve got Julia still reeling from being banished from the hedge witches, Alice returning to Brakebills after Quentin basically re-killed her brother, Penny exploring how to harness the potential omnipotence of being a traveler (which, to be honest, has emerged as among the best parts of the series), Margo and Eliot trying to win over Brakebills alumni to be their magical mentors, and Quentin finding out his father has brain cancer. It’s all a lot to take in.
The rushed foibles of “Mendings, Major and Minor” may be a product of last week’s best episode of the series yet, “The World in the Walls,” one that had the patience to let the fractured themes at the heart of Brakebills focus on the students helping Quentin escape his own mind. Where that was literally and figuratively cerebral, this episode is regrettably superficial on nearly all counts, sprinting from character to character to make sure the episode catches up with each of them in uninteresting ways.
Nowhere is this more clumsily dealt with than the scene where the Brakebills students suddenly find themselves playing in a sort of half-assed Triwizard Tournament. Non-book-readers could find themselves blinking and missing how the show suddenly found itself in a magician battle royale that takes up about three minutes of screen time and makes absolutely no sense. Scenes like this one are too abrupt and have absolutely zero narrative weight. For the audience to be emotionally invested, they at least need to know what is going on and what’s at stake. “Mendings, Major and Minor” makes the mistake of having too many things happen while emphasizing the unexplained consequences of those actions.
And yet The Magicians remains full of tender character moments in its inelegant chaos. It’s refreshing to see the bustling relationships between students and teachers blossom. “I’m fucking with you, Quentin,” Dean Fogg jokes to our lead character early on with a bent of self-deprecating humor. Another great moment is Penny realizing he shouldn’t be the anarchic asshole any longer.
But then there’s Quentin and his father, who was previously introduced in Q’s hallucination last week. There’s an obvious disconnect between the pair — the unexplained absence of the mother is a huge red flag — but they’re able to trust each other because of the narrative chaos of the episode itself. “What is the point of all this if you can’t fix real problems?” Quentin asks of his powers, almost as if he’s about to give up. It’s this adolescent sense of giving in instead of giving up that leads to the episode’s best moment: Quentin assembling his father’s model plane in front of him using magic.
The Magicians still has time to make itself right. Like the model plane in Quentin’s father’s dining room, the show is scattered and in pieces. Now it’s up to Quentin, whose own narrative needs to progress into something other than the awkward fish-out-of-water, to put the pieces together again.