Wednesday, January 31, 2018

REVIEW: 'The Magicians' - Penny Desperately Wants to Be Seen After Getting Trapped in the Astral Plane in 'Be the Penny'

Syfy's The Magicians - Episode 3.04 "Be the Penny"

As Eliot is hunted, Quentin and Julia discover a powerful secret tied to the history of Brakebills.

"Be the Penny" is such a delightful episode. Yes, it has some very serious stakes and stories to it as well. It's an hour that features a drug overdose and two instances of homophobia. But it's mostly defined by Penny being stuck on the astral plane unable to communicate with the rest of the characters who believe him to be dead. He is trying absolutely everything to be noticed. He bounces around the various worlds to give updates on what's going on with everyone. Some know that he is dead and some don't. It's fascinating to see everyone react to such tragic news. Quentin bursts into inappropriate laughter. Margo laments never actually getting to sleep with him. Alice is building connections to him even though she never knew that much about him. Penny is witnessing all of this. But it's ultimately the one group of characters who don't know that he's died that lead to the actual reveal that he is still spiritually with the group. Penny tries everything for an hour to be noticed. As soon as he stops trying, that's when someone finally picks up the key and sees him. It's a formula that could grow annoying and one-note after awhile. And yet, the show finds a unique way to keep it delightful throughout this hour while ensuring that the story has stakes as everyone has to decide what to do with Penny's body. That's an action that will continue to have consequences in the future as well.

The audience wasn't subjected to the same uncertainty as the characters were in regards to Penny's death either. That was very smart on the show's part. Most dramas would have the audience sweat over Penny's fate for the entire week before revealing that he was still alive but stuck on the astral plane. But The Magicians gave the audience that uplifting note to end the previous episode. It showed that Penny died. Then, it immediately confirmed that he was still present with these characters in a new complication that the narrative would have to deal with. That was very considerate of the show that proves that this creative team doesn't want to just be teasing the audience with the uncertainty and trauma of these characters. Big, serious things still happen. But it's all told with the reassurance that the creative team knows exactly what they are doing. They set up this tease that Penny's story wasn't done quite yet. In turn, that produces the most effective and amusing episode of the season so far. The show turns the focus almost completely onto Penny and his struggle this week. Yes, there is still forward momentum on the main quest for the seven keys. The show is still sticking to the schedule of discovering a key every other week. Penny's issues don't take away from that aspect of the season. In fact, it's an amusing complication where he desperately needs that key in order to be seen.

Of course, all of this comes with the big proclamation that Penny didn't report back to The Library as soon as he died. He signed a contract to work for them for a billion years upon his death. His soul didn't show up in the underworld. So, The Library sends an enforcer in order to figure out the trauma that happened to Penny in the moments before he died. It seemed like a painful death with a demon cutting the super tumor out of him. Penny needed to astral project in order to deal with the suffering. That's the only reason he finds himself in this predicament. But it also forces an awkward conversation on Earth. The Library needs him to honor their contract. They believe his spirit is still tied to his body lingering for unfinished business like a ghost. They need to summon a creature that will consume his body and ensure that Penny honors his commitments. As such, Kady feels the need to burn the body in order to save Penny from that servitude. She does this not knowing that Penny is right there screaming at her to just wait. She's really struggling in the aftermath. She's the person who needs to see and hear from Penny the most. But right now, she can't. She's grieving and realizing that she never knew Penny as intimately as she could because that's how he always liked it. She's ready to abuse drugs again in order to make this pain go away. She only survives because the mysterious entities guiding Julia on her magical journey warn her in time. Kady then finds new agency through this threat from The Library. But it mostly signals that time is running out for Penny to be noticed.

And in the end, Penny fails over and over again. He finds a kindred spirit to talk to in Hyman Cooper. He's an amusing though perverted addition here. He offers up a bit of meta commentary about the show itself. From his perspective, he's been watching right alongside the audience investing in the characters and shipping certain pairings. He can talk about how much he wants Quentin and Julia to get together because he sees Quentin as the hero he can easily identify with because he's a conservative mind from the 1920s. But all of this is so frustrating for Penny because it comes with the confirmation that he could be stuck in this world for the rest of eternity. It would be his trap to be present in his friends' lives but never able to interact with them. He needs to send a message out because he's desperate for this not to be the end. Everyone else is grieving his loss in their own unique way. Meanwhile, he's trying to be noticed. He's seeing everything that his friends have been up to. He sees Quentin sending messenger rabbits to Fillory. He sees Margo being a badass queen coming up with a strategy to kill the Fairy Queen. He sees Elliot, Fen and Fray trapped in The Neitherlands trying to find another magical door to enter through. And then, Penny is trying to become inanimate objects in order to get a message out. It leads to a hilarious sequence where Hyman is yelling at him to "be the penny." Again, it's so absolutely meta. And yet, it works completely because the show commits to it fully and enjoys the joke just as much.

It's also just fascinating to see the many ways in which Penny is incapable of getting a message to his friends. Becoming a penny does nothing. He reanimates the Margo clone that is currently laying in Todd's closet only to be unable to say anything but get smacked repeatedly by Quentin. He gets into a fight with a ghost who leads Quentin and Julia to the location of the second key. The ghost refuses to say his name because he doesn't believe "Penny" to be an actual name. But it's all building to a tragedy. He is running out of time. The sun is setting as Julia is on the verge of finding the second key. Kady is preparing to burn Penny's body as Alice wants to deliver it to The Library. Penny is forced to make an impossible choice because no one can hear him and his wishes. And so, he becomes the candle and sets his body on fire in order to give himself some more time. It's not a perfect solution. It just ensures that his connection is severed so that The Library can no longer exploit it. But he still resides in the astral plane. He has no idea how he can ever return to the land of the living again. He may have to face reality that this is going to be his existence for the rest of his life. Alice came back from the impossible. She can relate to his current struggle. But she can't see him. She only understands after he is gone. She believes she's doing the right thing but the situation is more complicated than she is aware of. Meanwhile, Julia finds the key but doesn't want to touch it for too long. It's magical quality is in revealing the truth to people. That could be a powerful quality for the characters this season. It forces them to see things as they actually are. It makes Penny visible. Just as he's resigned to this horrible life with no one wanting to touch the key, that's when Eliot runs into the Brakebills dorm with an incredible tale to tell. It's only after that he picks up the key to see what everyone is talking about and notices Penny in the corner of the room. It's absolutely a hilarious punchline to this overall story. It's so effective because of how minor it is played as. It's wonderful to see just how simple this can be while knowing that it will only grow more complicated in the future.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Be the Penny" was written by David Reed and directed by Shannon Kohli.
  • The second key resides in the house of Irene McAllistair. She was the member of the Brakebills board who needed Dean Fogg to present a reason to keep the magical school functioning. And now, Fogg is let in on Quentin and Julia's quest. But they don't tell Irene what's actually going on. They still want to maintain a level of secrecy regarding this quest. But that makes it more difficult but not impossible to take this key from her. Though she's bound to discover it's missing eventually, right?
  • In more curious details about Irene, her house appears to have magic stored within. She claims that her family has had enchantments on this structure for generations. But they are slowly fading the longer the world exists without magic. That's why she wants it back so much. And yet, it's also revealed to the audience that these enchantments are actually fairies. That's an ominous note considering how lethal they have been in Fillory lately.
  • The show has a lot of fun in laying out the rules of who can see Penny and who can't. Other beings trapped in the astral plane can. That's how Hyman can see him. Ghosts can see him while still interacting with the world. But it's also interesting to note that Penny still can't see fairies. He sees that something magical and beyond his understanding is working as these enchantments for Irene. But he doesn't know the full truth.
  • The season is also now detailing how each of the seven keys have a different magical trait. The second one allows the truth to be seen and felt. The first one that Eliot has casts illusions of whatever the holder fears the most. That's a traumatizing power for this key. It means Eliot's father suddenly appears in The Neitherlands. And yet, Eliot still uses that to his advantage against cannibals also stuck between worlds.
  • Alice's dad did, in fact, die last week. She returns to Brakebills here because she doesn't want to spend any more time with her mother who judges her for his death. However, she doesn't see much purpose at Brakebills and the quest to restore magic. She craves and misses magic too. But she also sees the number of problems and the ways magicians mistreated it as well. As such, she wants nothing to do with it now but keeps finding herself a part of this mission.
  • This is the second week in a row that has offered an update on Quentin's father. Last week it was just a lie in order to keep Julia from worrying about what Quentin was up to with Alice. This week Quentin actually shares that his father's cancer is in remission because it was magical and thus stopped growing after magic disappeared.