What’s the deal with Fillory? It’s a question that should have been on the mind of anyone keeping up with Syfy’s The Magicians before last night’s episode, “The Strangled Heart.” In fact, even after the events of last night’s episode you could still legitimately ask the question and we’d still be in the same uninformed position. The even more magical world described in Quentin Coldwater’s prized children’s book series has been hinted at heavily and briefly visited by various characters whether it’s in a dream or an astral projection. But mostly, the audience has been left to their own devices to make sense of it outside of the barrage of exposition dumps. Regardless of Fillory, “The Strangled Heart” continued with the show’s ability to continue on an unwieldy narrative path while still being interesting, this time because there might be an actual villain to complicate the magical conflict.
It’d be unfair to say the Beast’s classroom attack in the last scene of the first episode is the series’ best. We still have five episodes to go and there’s plenty of Brakebills shenanigans for the handful of main characters to get themselves into, but the scene’s impact and pure WTF levels of carnage offered the series an early jolt that it hasn’t quite been able to recreate.
So when Eliot’s new beau, Brakebills alumnus Mike, was introduced last episode looking like a White Walker it seemed like we’d get to see the real return of the show’s only actual bad guy.
The Magicians has gotten by so far pitting the students against each another in weirdly derivative magician games, centering itself on Quentin’s once-bashful courtship with Alice, and Julia’s increasing magic addiction. It hasn’t really pulled off how to sustain a proper sense of good-versus-evil tension, even when it throws curveballs like when Marina and Julia used their hedge witch powers to break into the school. The Beast came and went, and we were supposed to feel a sense of dread. Even when we caught a glimpse of him in a previous episode — when Penny uses his powers as a traveler to momentarily visit Fillory — it was just a fleeting and indirect threat. It just seemed like life for the hard-partying magicians went on as normal even when they ended up turning into geese and foxes for an abrupt visit to Brakebills South.
But the anger began to gel here, sparked by a wonderfully disgusting scene in which the possessed Mike gets up from bed with a sleeping Eliot to find a rabbit outside the door. A snap of the neck, a lot of rabbit blood, and one black magic-tinged knife later and we finally have the narrative wheels turning.
It was fulfilling for Quentin, as he used his Fillory voodoo know-how to fix Penny after he was stabbed with Mike/The Beast’s cursed Virgo blade. It gave us more answers when Eliza was revealed to be Jane Chatwin, one of the original Fillory kids, who ended up meeting a bloody demise. And it also provided some depth for Eliot, the least interesting and most annoying character in the show up to that point. It turns out Eliot is a reformed farm boy whose transatlantic dandy persona was merely a ruse: to mask his backwards country bumpkin upbringing.
“Becoming me was the greatest creative project of my life,” Eliot tells Mike, a confession even more tragic when coupled with Eliot’s confrontation with Mike in the Brakebills dungeon. Mike insists that he blacked out when he attacked Penny. Eliot asks Mike if he was blacked out when they first met, causing Mike to look away in shame and Eliot’s heart to break before our eyes.
But the best part about The Magicians finally offering up some worthy conflict is the anarchy of it all. The seemingly powerful Brakebills magicians couldn’t stop this moth demon from just waltzing through a mirror into their classroom and crippling Dean Fogg, and they surely won’t be able to stop The Beast from gaining access to different similar gateways through Fillory. The people who are supposed to have all the answers and all the power don’t have any. Anything could happen within its narrative now, and that’s a good place to be for a show as haphazard The Magicians.