Monday, February 1, 2016

REVIEW: 'The Magicians' - Alice Learns the Harsh Truth About Her Brother in 'Consequences of Advanced Spellcasting'

Syfy's The Magicians - Episode 1.03 "Consequences of Advanced Spellcasting"

Quentin and Julia have an unexpected and volatile reunion. Penny is overwhelmed by the power of his own psychic abilities. Alice is determined to find out what happened to her missing brother - at any cost.

At the end of the last episode, the Dean delivered the ominous threat that all the administration at Brakebills could do to stop the threats that are coming for their world was to turn Quentin and his friends into magicians as quickly as possible. It was a strong tease to close out a very lackluster episode. And yet, that urgency isn't really a part of the narrative spine of this episode. In fact, it seems like the school is functioning just like it always has. It's so impersonal - which is the exact opposite of what the show should be doing right now. It should either commit to Quentin and his ragtag group of friends mastering their abilities in order to handle this upcoming fight. Or it should just commit to being a show about a school that teaches its students how to master magic. Right now, the show is trying to be both of those things at the same time. It results in a big and jumbled mess that really doesn't go together all that well.

These first three episodes have been very plot heavy. There has been no room to actively explore who these characters are and what magic means to them. If they are suppose to be the people the audience cares about as these extravagant and supernatural things happen to them, there needs to be a solid foundation to make us care. Right now, every character feels like a collection of plot beats that is slowly moving towards something. The show will spin out whatever explanation it deems necessary in order to explain the actions of its characters. So, that means Quentin learns of Julia joining the Hedge Witches because he and Elliot need to find a missing book for its mate. Plus, Quentin and Alice try to find out what happened to her brother, Charlie, again but without reopening up that dangerous portal. It's a lot of plot contrivances that force characters into action. Moreover, those action beats really don't do a great job of defining the characters. The big confrontation between Quentin, Alice and Charlie is a rushed mess that feels undeveloped and really unearned by the show when it happens. And yet, that moment is being used to define the tension that will be between the two characters moving forward.

That big action beat happens in the end because the show wants things to be tense and exciting throughout every episode. It's a very rushed development. It happens in the exact same episode where Alicia actually learns what happened to Charlie while he was at Brakebills. That's the only reason why she came to this school. It's a very emotional moment too. She and Margo reach out to one of Charlie's old friends who no longer practices magic to learn the story. It's a heartbreaking tale of a woman trying to change herself for a guy that went horribly awry once magic entered the equation. Charlie tried to help but the magic consumed him and eventually just evaporated his entire body. It gives Alice hope that Charlie is still alive and can re-materialize him with the right use of spells. But this episode really should have only focused on Alice getting definitive answers on what happened. Her quest to actually revive him just pops up in the end in order to add a bit of excitement and tension to the hour. She explains to Quentin what she needs to do. But it's not all that compelling. Their friendship is very trivially defined. He doesn't want her to foolishly end up just like her brother. But it's still very anticlimactic when Alice summons Charlie's spirit and he turns out to be nothing more than a bunch of magical energy who wants to kill both Alice and Quentin. Quentin is right to keep her from bringing this evil into the world. But the plotting was all very perfunctory and didn't really add up to a whole lot. It wasn't a great way to end the episode.

All of this is allowed to happen because Quentin and Alice are being reckless and unsupervised with magic. The administrators only work to figure out what area of expertise each magician in the new class falls under. That's it. They just identify those skills. Alice is a light bender while Penny is a psychic and a traveler. Both of those skills will likely come in handy soon. But right now, they just feel like lackluster introductory beats. Nothing of particular note is being done with those skills. Alice is able to get her and Quentin into the party by magnify light. Meanwhile, Penny is just the latest character to be given special importance because he's one of a rare kind. But it's more meaningful that Quentin doesn't have any special skills. He just has his card tricks. So that makes him a pretty weak main protagonist. There is nothing special about him. It makes him a very bland lead. There's no reason why to root for him. In fact, he's quite a dick on multiple occasions throughout this episode.

That is especially apparent when he runs into Julia in the most unexpected of places. She has changed as a result of learning that there is magic in the world. The people around her who care about her have noticed. Part of that is Quentin's fault. He wasn't there to look out for her - just like she has done throughout the years for him. And yet, the show awkwardly tries to suggest a romantic dynamic between the two that has complicated things. That's a horrible suggestion or rationalization for their actions. Plus, Julia's part of the story is much more interesting when she is away from Quentin. She knows just how dangerous this world is. But she is slowly becoming consumed by it. She loves magic just as much as Quentin does. She's actually learning it too. It may be a bit more reckless with potentially dangerous consequences. But it's a lifestyle that makes sense to her right now. Sure, it's causing pain and friction elsewhere in her life. Her boyfriend is so bland and has no defining characteristics. He's worried about her and she gives him a bad story about becoming addicted to drugs. Magic is like a drug of sorts. But she's still using it in order to give her life more purpose. That's going to get destructive very quickly. It makes her a compelling character because she's on this tragic trajectory. It's a solid focus that actually plays well with the character. But it also falls apart whenever she's asked to interact with one of the regular characters from Brakebills.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Consequences of Advanced Spellcasting" was written by Henry Alonso Myers and directed by Scott Smith.
  • The Dean is still blind but his eyes are back in his sockets now. A visual that the show uses a bit too much in this episode. Plus, his hands now have some robotic fixtures to them to help give them a normal shape and feel again.
  • Professor Sutherland didn't seem to be spending a lot of time with Quentin to figure out what type of magic he is an expert at. She threw a lot of suggestions and options at him. None of them worked but it all happened in very quick succession. It was just a little too fast.
  • So how did the Professor and the Dean know exactly where Penny would travel to? Did they have a feeling he was more than just your typical psychic and planted that destination in his head somehow? It needed more of an explanation. But then again, Penny is a character who really needs more importance and focus moving forward.
  • This episode places so much importance on magic specialities. And yet, the audience still doesn't know what Elliot and Margo can do. So it can't really be that important.
  • So until that spirit showed up and attempted to drawn two students, the school was just fine with anyone walking around a place that is a known suicide spot? Also, the show doesn't properly explore how meaningful that is. This program is so intense it has forced multiple people to make that tragic decision.
  • How is Alice going to be a part of the plot if she's no longer going to Brakebills? It's not that interesting of a question. Again because she hasn't been that interesting of a character. She's only been focused on her brother. With that now resolved, who is Alice?