When thinking about “Impractical Applications,” this week’s episode of The Magicians, forget for a second that last week basically derailed what was one of the most consistently experimental mainstream shows on television. Forget that this week awkwardly updated the pointless magic Olympics — seen in last week’s episode — in favor of a kind of lazy, upperclassmen hazing ritual called “The Trials.” Forget that this redundant narrative was borderline meaningless and a blatant character development ploy with the obvious moral that, “Oh, hey, you can do only so much on your own and you need to stop being so individualistic sometimes.” Try not to dwell on the fact that Quentin remains a bit of a whiny, nebulous protagonist who, nevertheless, comes to a breaking point at the end of this episode, when he realizes the magical world of Fillory is real (while also letting his innermost secret out to Alice because of the final phase of the Trials). Despite all he’s learned about magic, he still feels unfulfilled. This is all capped off by the Brakebills posse inexplicably turning into geese and flying away at the end of the episode.
Instead of doting on all that, let’s focus on Julia.
Early on, the show positioned Quentin and Julia as mirror opposites. Quentin was the damaged kid fated to realize his full potential via a series of adventures at a mysterious magical university. Julia was Quentin’s popular girl friend — but not girlfriend — rebuffed by said university and set down a dark path to capture the power of magic by shacking up with some shady unofficial magicians called hedge witches. This was fully realized and interesting based on contrast alone.
The show has had a tough time expanding its viewpoint to significantly pull the other main Brakebills students into the mix and make it count. Alice and Penny quickly became essential parts of the series, but do the constantly bitchy Greek chorus of Margo or Eliot really have any sustained point in all this? It may be down to the simple disposable nature of their characters — in which case they’d be seriously wasted details — but find me a scene where Eliot isn’t just sort of complaining about something or rolling his eyes and I’ll shut up now.
Despite the awkward narrative expansion, The Magicians has stayed consistent and important — outside of Quentin — when Julia is scheming. A few episodes ago, Julia was kicked out of the hedge witches for helping the Brakebills kids release Quentin from the spell cast by Marina, and has since relentlessly tried to learn more potentially evil, unsanctioned magic. Sometimes it gets her understated hedge witch cred, other times it gets her boyfriend’s mind erased because Marina catches on to the doubly-illegal magic shit that she’s doing.
It’s this emptiness and unfiltered hunger for more that most obviously equates magic in the show to real life addiction. It’s something that The Magicians has hinted at previously but never really defined. A few episodes back, Quentin found out that all magicians are inherently melancholic, a trait that magic somehow depends on in order to reveal itself to the person capable of such powers. Similarly, Julia’s magic deficiency makes equally dependent on the kind of high that performing small, inconsequential spells gives her. And she wants to go bigger.
When she’s sent to a coven a few hours away, Julia is confronted by another banished hedge witch who happens to be Kady’s mother, Hannah. Seems Kady’s mom’s similar shady business with Marina got her kicked out just like Julia, but being ostracized also has some dire implications on her daughter. It’s great inherent drama, and instead of a Julia-to-Quentin contrast, Kady’s mom is a kind of Julia doppelgänger: desperate to do magic with someone because of the simple thrill. She’s an addict. Substitute “magic” and “spells” anywhere in the episode with names of hard drugs and it makes for a perfect allegory.
But too much of a good thing can go bad very quickly. The new twosome pair up to cast a dangerous and powerful spell in order to get revenge on Marina by stealing the memories that Julia helped her steal from Brakebills. They want their huge fix. But instead, Marina replaces the cabinets of spells the duo manages to steal with blank pages and sets a counter-curse on Hannah causing her to start spewing blood out of her face until she dies. She quite literally overdosed on magic.
The bigger picture of “Impractical Applications” may revolve around the disappointment of discovering that your desires can’t easily be met — a cliched lesson for sure. But transpose that onto the very real addiction and violence that overtakes Julia, and the audience gets a sense of the severe danger that magic can cause from within. Toss in the ominous but fanciful threat of the Beast, who is still at large, and you get a perfect set-up for the remaining episodes of The Magicians.