Warning: This contains spoilers for Season 1 and 2 of The Magicians. Never seen the show? Read our spoiler-free review of Season 1 here.
“Apocalypse! Apocalypse! Apocalypse! Isn’t it wonderful?” That’s the sound of The Magicians upping the ante for a surprisingly confident – and confidently surprising – second season. Syfy’s series, based on the trilogy of books by Lev Grossman left the books behind in Season 1, boldly ending with a cliffhanger that essentially killed off every main character in a shocking bloodbath. Season 2 is just as strange, dark, moving and funny, but in a way that clicks unexpectedly into place. The result is something that manages to be oddly smart, enjoyably surreal and never less than entertainingly trashy. If you thought Season 1 was weird, the show’s writers seem to be boasting, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
We pick up immediately after Quentin Coldwater watched The Beast slaughter his friends in the middle of Fillory, after they all charged into the fantasy realm to stop him from ending, well, everything. They were armed with a magic dagger, but one that could only be handled by someone with enough power to wield it – leading Alice to drink the (ahem) juice of whimsically cruel God Ember (who has a soft spot for home baking). Just when we thought she was going to be the one to do the deed, though, up stepped Julia (Stella Maeve), who was also imbued with God powers, after being raped by Reynard, the Trickster God, who deceived her into summoning the Goddess Our Lady Underground, only to wipe out her followers and gobble their body parts.
If you’re already wincing in recollection of those details, The Magicians doesn’t let you forget them – and that’s the brilliance of Syfy’s warped series. It adds something that other fantasy series can easily overlook: consequences. Every single thing that happens directly causes another element of the plot – much like real life, but more extravagant, fantastical, unusual and disturbing. It’s a simple rule that governs the show’s chaos: either the heroes’ plans fail, resulting in great pain and unforeseen sacrifice, or they succeed, resulting in great pain and unforeseen sacrifice.
It’s a recipe that sounds miserable, but The Magicians’ sophomore outing balances its tone just right: it contrives to be hilarious, sweet, melancholic and unsettling, often all at the same time. And given the range of topics and issues they debate, that’s no mean feat: this is a series that tackles everything from assault and grief to sexuality, politics, free will and the merits of tiny cupcakes.
The most obvious narrative pick-ups come courtesy of Quentin and Alice, as their relationship blossomed in the final half of Season 1 – paving the way for inevitable heartbreak. Alice, we discover (in a bait-and-switch that the show gets away with, thanks to its fast pace and likeable cast), still has her God powers, so she uses it to bring herself back to life and restore everyone else. They immediately begin plotting a new way to kill The Beast, which mostly involves them getting tattoos in their backs and using them to house Cacodemons (gigantic smoke monsters). Distract him with those and they can properly take him out. Alice, though, gets carried away in their confrontation, and tries to cast a spell stronger than her – which is saying something – and ends up becoming a niffin, a being consumed by magic and entirely self-serving. Quentin does the only thing he can: he unleashes his Cacodemon and kills her before she can do real damage.
It’s a heartbreaking gut-punch to follow the happy twist of the opening episode, one that leaves Quentin agonising over his loss – and determined to bring her back. Niffin Alice, meanwhile, begins to haunt him, until he agrees to give her 30 minutes control of his body every day to do what she wants. What follows is a season-long quest to find Alice’s “Shade”, essentially her conscience, even though uniting Alice with her soul doesn’t guarantee to bring her back in the same way.
The result is a fantastic showcase for Olivia Taylor Dudley, who finds new depths, and darker sides, to Alice, serving up cruel insults, snarky one-liners and evil plots with glee. It also brings out a hugely redeeming side to Quentin, whose devotion to her is an endearing quality that far outweighs his more annoying status of default Chosen One, given that he’s the ostensible protagonist of the series.
Undoubtedly, the real star of the show is Julia, who comes roaring into focus this season. After the reveal that she was the X factor needed to beat The Beast – with Jane Chatwin looping time 39 times until she tried one final permutation, which saw Julia rejected from Brakebills and forced to teach herself magic – Julia’s importance became clearer than ever, not just as a foil to Quentin, but as an anti-protagonist. Facing The Beast, she declined to kill him with the blade, instead making a deal: she lets him live, if he helps her kill Reynard.
And so the stage is set for a seriously unusual double-act, one that Charles Mesure relishes, once his moth-faced disguise is removed. They journey from forests and other murder scenes fled by Reynard to ball pits in children’s soft-play areas, with him singing showtunes in a plummy British voice. But while there’s fun tension in their cautious alliance, what’s impressive is the way show balances the dark comedy of their plot strand with an overall arc about surviving trauma and recovering from it. Where a lesser show would leave Julia suffering for a couple of episodes, The Magicians explores her arc for a whole season, realising that in reality, people don’t just get over assault in a matter of hours or weeks – it stays with them for life.
Even then, Julia’s strand of the plot dovetails elegantly with the rest of the season, as she finds a way to have an abortion. The resulting operation leaves her without her Shade too, and, not unlike Alice, she becomes a ruthless force of vengeance. By the time she does confront Reynard – thanks to the help, and subsequent death, of his son, a Republican politician with no awareness of his magical ability to control others – Our Lady Underground actually appears for real, only to call for mercy and (that precious commodity in this season) empathy.
Julia’s story, and icy presence, is balanced by the ongoing steeliness of Margo. Summer Bishil is a delight as the straight-talking, sarcastic best friend of Elliot (Hale Appleman), but the show gives her a chance to become so much more than the fun, sassy sidekick. Crowned as High Queen of Fillory, she and Elliot both find themselves having to take things seriously, after a lifetime of partying with no regrets. Margo has always been the member of the ensemble able to get on with things no matter what, and that no-nonsense quality makes her a necessary, and sometimes terrible, ruler. The Beast has drained the Wellspring to stay alive, leaving Fillory running low on magic? No problem, just call in the Faeries to fix it. So what if they needed a royal baby sacrifice to make it happen?
The baby, of course, belongs to Elliot and his wife, the daughter of blade-forger from Season 1 – and Appleman’s High King relishes the chance to sink his teeth into something more than the sardonic socialite that charmed the first time around. He’s still petty enough to care about losing his reputation as Brakebills’ Party King, not least because it means he can escape the duties of being an actual king of a failing kingdom. His growing paranoia and depression bring a surprising note of poignancy to the whole season – and yet he still has the same knack for humour, as he finds an unexpected romance in the form of a rival king, and drops constant pop culture references. One glorious sequence sees him prepare for a sword fight to the death with an army-rousing performance of One Day More from Les Mis, a moment that somehow fits perfectly into this bizarre tapestry of mental health issues, fantastical action and earnest love of musical theatre.
And what of Penny? As a traveller, Arjun Gupta’s member of the main quintet has literally failed to fit in with the show’s narrative, jumping between subplots as and when required. But he, too, gets a strong dose of consequences for his actions, as he tries to restore his injured hands, after The Beast cut them off last season. He promptly finds a magic river and jumps in, only to refuse to pay the river’s keeper – an insult that leads to a curse being placed on his hands. They backfire throughout the season, never letting us (or him) forget the cost of his self-centred rudeness, and it’s that battle with controlling his own limbs that makes for a compelling arc. He reunites with Kady, even helping the gang to access some restricted library books so they can work out how to kill a god.
The library, strangely, ends up as his new home – in order to get that restricted access, he has to sign a life’s contract to work for the library. Even then, though, he finds a useful way to help his friends, breaking into the poison room, which, naturally, turns out to be literally poison.
Those kind of quirks are everywhere in The Magicians, and they have a wonderful way of steering the plot in amusingly unusual directions – to the point where even episodes that might seem like padding feel fresh and exciting. One almost standalone chapter features an actual prison heist, with Penny floating, Mission: Impossible-like, through a vault. Another sees The Beast curse Fillory’s throne room, so everyone apart from Penny winds up turned into a psychopath determined to wipe out the others and take control. It’s a treat just to see the show flexing its muscles and seeing what it can do next, resulting in a constant flow of imagination and infectious enthusiasm – not bad going for a show that’s darker, and weirder, than most.
Season 2 manages to conjure up a villain scarier than a dude with moths for a face – shout out to Reynard – turn its romantic lead into a monster to save the day, and still find room for a God (Ember) with a penchant for taking a poo in the Wellspring. It climaxes with the revelation that Ember’s brother, Umber, is still alive, after he faked his own death just to escape his brother. Quentin, on Earth, finds the God in hiding and tricks him into transporting back to Fillory, prompting a fight that leaves them both dead (Ember, because Quentin stabs him with a sword). But death has a consequence, as always, and that consequence turns out to be the ending of all magic as punishment.
And so The Magicians keeps its surprises going all the way to the final scene, as The Dean teaches a school full of students the theory of magic in the hope of one day turning it into practice. Julia, meanwhile, shows Quentin that she can still produce a spark from her hands, suggesting that there may yet be some hope to come. Even that, though, isn’t guaranteed to last, as Penny discovers in the library that the last 20 pages of the books detailing the lives of everyone are all blank, suggesting a new form of darkness is about to come knocking on Fillory’s door. With Season 3 already commissioned, once again, the apocalypse looks to be upon us. And, judging by the strength of Season 2, it promises to be wonderful.
The Magicians: Season 1 to 3 are available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.
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