Tracing Quentin Coldwater's Character Arc on 'The Magicians'
With two episodes of the first season left, why is the main character of Syfy's best drama still so frustrating?
There’s only two episodes left in the first season of Syfy’s delightfully bonkers show The Magicians, and unfortunately we still don’t really know who to consider the main character. The ostensible lead is Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph), and his character description is straightforward enough — he’s the shy, introverted type who’s in over his head at a magic university called Brakebills — but the series hasn’t done much to explore his inner life beyond that. The lack of development may leave those who haven’t read the source material a bit perplexed — and slightly annoyed that we can’t get into Quentin’s head, and maybe frustrated that he hasn’t changed much over the course of the first eleven episodes. Anybody still keeping up with the still worthwhile show must hope that will change very soon.
Ralph most certainly isn’t to blame. He really has mastered the character’s awkward charm. If we can’t figure him out, at least he’s endearing. Nowhere is this sweet nerd appeal more prominent than in the scenes where he gets to geek out about his knowledge of Fillory and Further, his beloved series of children’s books that may be the key to unlocking the secret of the show’s main villain, the Beast.
But besides those small glints of nerd charm, Quentin actually comes across as a somewhat unlikeable guy. This kind of angle is usually a good thing. An unlikeable lead makes for a more compelling character because in the back of your mind, you know they’ll eventually win you over in the course of the narrative. It’s how drama fundamentally works, and starting from the complete flipside of where you’d expect supposedly makes that drama resonate even deeper. But from one of the series’ first scenes, in which Quentin willfully ostracizes himself from a loft party just because nobody is talking to him, it’s obvious that he’s his own worst enemy.
You might think he’d break free from those social anxieties through his magical journey, but through the first eleven episodes of the show, Quentin has stayed a generally unlikeable and whiny character. Why is that? It may be because he’s a sort of Nick Carraway-esque presence meant to shepherd us unsuspecting normal folk along with all the magical action and have a minimal amount of constructive things to do on his own. This, most obviously, is a major problem, character-wise. A narrator isn’t always the best lead.
We want him to change, we want him to meet the object of his heart’s desire, Alice Quinn (Olivia Taylor Dudley), and have the trials of their relationships be in service to both the characters’ growth into their powers and the dramatic arc of the show. The case can be made that everyone around Quentin, including Dudley’s initially bottled-up character who has emerged as one of the series’ most fascinating forces, do just that. Quentin remains the same.
It seems whenever major action takes place among the Brakebills students, it always involves the group as a whole getting closer to the show’s major collective plot point of finding out what the Beast is up to and how he’s trying to manipulate Brakebills. It’s lazy to connect The Magicians to Harry Potter, but it’s appropriate, and at least JK Rowling’s inimitable magic tale kept Harry as the narrative nucleus around which everything mattered. Quentin, the ersatz Harry in this case, isn’t the crux of the story. The magical alternate dimension Fillory is. Quentin is simply the one dude who knows everything about Fillory, so he’s just there to answer questions while more dynamic stuff happens. Penny is off learning how to be a traveler, or Julia is dealing with her non-magical powers, or even Eliot and Margo’s sub-sub-plot adventures shade in the ways their characters are changing from shallow brats to demure members of a magical world bigger than they previously knew.
Quentin hasn’t specifically mattered since we got into his psyche in the show’s best episode so far, “The World in the Walls,” as well as a little peek at the at-home strife that led him to becoming an introverted children’s literature fanboy when his fractured relationship with his dad popped up to rear its truthful head in “Mendings, Major and Minor.” Part of the drawbacks here are the show’s inability to show everything in the limited amount of time it has to tell its story. But you’d at least expect the face of the show to get in the game himself and change in a significant way. Instead he becomes more defined via others than himself.
But maybe this is all just missing the point. Maybe this is completely in line with his character. Quentin has always been on the outside looking in. He’s the unsure, perpetually adolescent kid who overthinks everything but still has totally untapped potential. It’s just unfortunate that his real character development has been so gradual and incidental, briefly masked by his ability to perform brief bits of wondrous magical wizardry like his astonishing spells in “The Mayakovsky Circumstance” to temporarily distract you from his character’s shortcomings.
Throughout its first season so far The Magicians has always managed to subvert expectations by doing something completely different. It’s brave, and Quentin’s relative lack of development may just be the best trick the show has ever been able to pull off on antsy viewers waiting for him to fulfill his potential. With the Beast waiting to rear its ugly head in the remaining two episodes (and leading into the announced second season), our aloof main character is poised to literally work his magic in ways we never thought possible.