Here’s the key to understanding and eventually appreciating the Syfy show The Magicians, which with its most recent episode, “The Mayakovsky Circumstance,” pulled off something that not many TV shows can pull off. Ready for it? Here goes: just go with it. It’s as simple as that.
Looking back on the previous six episodes of the magical college drama from the viewpoint of the seventh you could ask yourself, “How did we get here?” “Why is this happening?” “Can you succinctly explain to me the dramatic arc of particular characters without making leaps in logic or narrative reasoning?” It gives up wanting to find its own identity in favor of stressing the search for identity itself.
The Magicians succeeds by breaking free and taking huge dramatic liberties from its source material by just trying new things regardless if they make sense. It was true with the bottle episode called “The World in the Walls,” and with last night’s episode it now seems it’s true for the entire series. This is partly because the series has had a difficult time juggling its many plots, and as if by some magic spell, the people who make the show constantly just decide to get on with things already. The Magicians has successfully become a fascinating show by seeming not to give a shit. And it’s great.
It’s a phenomenon that Vox critic Todd VanDerWerff sort of outlined in a February 14 post called “Syfy’s The Magicians is the most exciting show on TV right now,” saying:
“This is a big mess of a series that keeps taking huge chances. It’s trying to do too much and biting off more than it can chew on a weekly basis. But shows like this usually figure out what they’re doing sooner or later (usually late in season one or early in season two), and until then it’s just fun to watch the show experiment, sometimes flailing, sometimes flying.”
It just so happens that flying and flailing are two prominent themes in “The Mayakovsky Circumstance,” which, for some reason, has four of our main Brakebills students turning into geese and soaring to Antarctica to learn from a grumpy, all-powerful Russian professor named Mayakovsky at the conveniently named “Brakebills South.”
Did anything that led up to this moment make the audience think this is where the show would go? Nope, but who cares? Before we can ask why, Quentin, Alice, Penny, and Kady are decked out in spiffy white sweaters and cooped up with other random students to run through a series of tests, again. Before we can plead with the show to explain itself, Mayakovsky, who is like a vodka-swilling Yoda-esque Svengali, implores them to complete a series of allegedly impossible spells as a way to give up their fears and let go. At the end of the episode Quentin admits, “You really are a great teacher,” but nothing Mayakovsky does outside of mind games and verbal abuse shows us why he’s such a great teacher. The Magicians doesn’t care because, well, he’s just a great teacher. Why else would they say so!
The Brakebills South adventure does more relationship building than anything else, showing a more confident Quentin (who stills remains a fairly boring protagonist) finally taking things to the next level with Alice via a semi-weird sex vision quest where they both turn into foxes. It also builds Penny more, finally letting him embrace his status as an omniscient traveler and forgiving Kady for using him. It’s all about the magical coupling.
With Julia still trying to figure out her own magic abuse and Margo and Eliot still sidelined in subplots despite being tangentially related to the potential re-emergence of the Beast, The Magicians still doesn’t quite know what it’s doing. But even with all of its mess, it still works.