Wednesday, March 7, 2018

REVIEW: 'The Magicians' - The Power of Song Unites Everyone on the Quest in 'All That Josh'

Syfy's The Magicians - Episode 3.09 "All That Josh"

Quentin, Kady and Alice try to convince an old friend to return home.

Musical episodes can often feel like a stunt in order to boost press around a show or to show off the musical talents of its cast. They don't always extend naturally from the storytelling. I enjoyed several of the performances in the Grey's Anatomy musical episode but that hour was forced and not all that necessary. Meanwhile, the best example of this - on Buffy the Vampire Slayer - set a high bar for the trope. And yet, this isn't the first time The Magicians has turned musical for an episode. In the first season, there was the moment where Quentin broke into Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off" in order to prove he was living in an alternate reality while still annoying Penny. In the second season, the production costs actually went up with Eliot and Margo staging a musical number from Les Miserables as they marched into battle. It was such a surprising but very effective moment. And now, "All That Josh" is billed as a musical episode of The Magicians. It still mostly operates as an episode of the show first where the narrative needs Quentin to pick up the fifth key easily. There are a number of subplots that don't feature any musical elements until the very end. And yet, this is also a pivotal episode of the season because of how the music brings everyone together. There are so many disparate corners of the show at the moment. There's the quest to restore magic. There's Julia and Fen's investigation of the fairy dust. There's Penny being forced to work in The Underworld Library. There's Alice wanting to retrieve all of her magical knowledge. There's Eliot and Margo facing an uprising in Fillory. It's a lot to handle. And yet, the final performance brings everyone together by connecting them just so they can sing Queen's "Under Pressure" to entertain a demon. It's so whimsical and rewarding. It also highlights the importance of friendship as the protagonist's delve deeper into this magical quest.

Quentin and Kady return to the Brakebills dorm not knowing exactly what happened to Victoria and Harriet while also basically understanding that they are dead because the bridge shattered. They want to confront Alice as well because she was mysteriously at The Library for a mission she is keeping to herself at the moment. And yet, they are forced to keep moving forward by the quest. The mission to retrieve the fifth key seems simpler than any of the previous missions. When the chapter is written in the book, it just presents itself as medieval music. Kady plays the composition on the piano and it immediately transports the trio to another world where everything is fun and carefree all the time. It's a world in which magic exists once more. They don't recognize any of the party goers in the familiar Brakebills dorm - except for Josh and Todd. They tell them that magic has returned and it's best not to think how. It's just worth celebrating. But it becomes clear right away that things are not alright. This is a world where magic is back but only for the spells that do party tricks. It's not the magic that Quentin, Alice and Kady want. Plus, it's clear that the crowd of people will turn against them as one mindless blob as soon as one of them starts to question the nature of their reality. As such, it's clear that they are in a twisted new world. Quentin calls it hell after watching Josh break out into a performance of "Wham Bam." This is strange to everyone. And yet, they know that the quest is still ongoing and this must be their latest mission to embark on.

So, Quentin and Alice need to interrogate Josh on what's really going on here. Kady puts on a performance in order to distract the crowd. It's quite an amusing number as well. It's a song that I didn't immediately recognize. And at first, I was annoyed by the fact that the lip syncing wasn't lining up with the vocals in the production. And then, I realized that that was the point. In this moment, it's clear that Kady doesn't really enjoy performing this at all. She's just using it to be a distraction. She's being fun and flirty in order to give Quentin and Alice the opportunity to talk with Josh. It's a ruse that works for a long time as well. It just starts to grow tedious for Todd after Kady is seductively dancing behind a screen for awhile in the song. The production design of the number is fantastic and so is the costuming. It's great to see just how ridiculously over-the-top the show was willing to go with this moment. And yet, it's also important to get back to the purpose of all of this as well. That reveals a heartbreaking moment with Josh. He's been absent from the last few episodes. And now, it's clear that that was on purpose. The rest of the characters are meant to feel bad because they always completely forget about him despite his desire to be a part of the quest. He wants to help. And yet, everyone abandoned him when they were searching for Kady and they didn't feel to keep him updated on everything that was happening. As such, he became susceptible to the allure of this demon who trapped him in this alternate world where fun is the only thing that can happen. The demon was essentially feeding on Josh's spirit. It's the world he is most comfortable in. He was brought in by the only apparent friend he had left in the world even though it clearly isn't the real Todd.

That's the huge theme of "All That Josh." The main characters are coming to realize just how selfish and destructive their actions as of late have been to the worlds around them. Eliot and Margo are forced to wonder if they have actually been good rulers of Fillory. Right now, they are sentenced to death because the country rises against them. Even Tick turns on them as the rightful rulers of Fillory. That's shocking because he has been so loyal to them for so long. And yet, it also makes sense. He was the one running things before Eliot and Margo showed up to take over the crowns. He has aided them at every possible moment because he's loyal. But now, he thinks he would do such a better job ruling. He leaves Eliot and Margo resigned to their fates as they are about to plummet down an infinite waterfall of pain and misery. Meanwhile, Julia needs to help Sky after learning that the dust Irene gave her from a magical creature was actually grounded down fairies. She is optimistic that fairies in this world are different from the ones in Fillory. Fen's past with the magical creatures and blaming them for the death of her daughter fuels her reluctance to help. And yet, Julia is successful in showing Sky that she has magic. Of course, that moment comes at a cost. Julia does some good in the hopes of ending slavery. But then, Irene's charm essentially kills Sky. It's a destructive moment that proves that Julia's powers are still quite unknown to her. She doesn't know what she can still do. She can safe Sky's life. She gets an upgrade here. But she doesn't know how to wield it or how this power is actually changing her.

All of this is going on and makes the lives of every character complicated. They all have to sum that up pretty well and distinctly once the fifth key allows them to hear everyone associated with the quest. That's a convenient way for communication that makes it seem likely that everyone will remain in the loop about everything moving forward. But it's a form of communication that opens up here in order for them to prove that they are stronger and more united together than apart. Yes, it's corny and manipulative. And yet, that's the precise quality that defines so many musicals. As such, it's perfect for this episode. Plus, there's indication later on that it won't be like this every time someone touches this specific key. But right now, it's just important that Quentin gathers everyone together for a rousing rendition of "Under Pressure." It's such a powerful showcase for the entire ensemble that brings everyone together nicely and in surprising ways. Kady is the one who takes lead vocals with a solid assist from Eliot. It's so fantastic to see the show time things out so that Eliot screaming as he plunges to his death happens at the same time as when he's required to scream in the song. That's wonderful. It's great that Penny is brought in for the quiet, spoken word segment as he is reluctant to do this but must help his friends out of their current jams. And it's amusing to see Julia jump in with Fen and Sky being completely confused as to what's going on with her. It's this magical, musical moment that breaks the illusion. It was all just a test. The demon is happy to let the protagonists go after they present a united front. They had fun while still learning their lesson and growing. Of course, it also teases that someone is behind-the-scenes pushing the events of this quest. That's intriguing with the characters being left in the dark because the demon is too full to answer any of their questions. But it's one step closer to success and restoring magic to the worlds. 

Some more thoughts:
  • "All That Josh" was written by John McNamara, Jay Gard & Alex Raiman and directed by James L. Conway.
  • The show also notes in the end that it's partly Josh's fault as well for why he wasn't kept in the loop about everything happening in the quest. Yes, he did send multiple texts to several people. But he wallowed on the party scene and fell for the demon's trick. Plus, when Julia shows up, she wonders why he never responded to her message. So, it's clear she would have been open to him about what's going on.
  • In the big moment where everyone can hear each other, it's clear that Fen has been left out for some reason. It's just important for those eight individuals to be on this quest to restore magic. It's a quest that does include Josh. And yet, Fen has been just as important as Josh. Her concerns are just as valid. She's just as fun to watch here through her reactions to being left out. It's just a little strange given the message of this hour.
  • Margo notes that the only true minute of peace and happiness in her and Eliot's rule of Fillory was the time between Eliot's marriage to Idri and his new husband being turned into a rat. Everything else has been completely chaotic. They appear to have no allies left in this world. Even the boat seems to turn against them here. And yet, she doesn't. She forges ahead and disobeys Tick's orders. And then, she flies Eliot and Margo to safety.
  • Of course, one has to question if that truly is the boat flying. Can boats fly in Fillory? It would certainly make the journeys more efficient. But it also seems like magic would be necessary for that. So perhaps, the mysterious being pulling the strings behind the quest allowed that rescue to happen in order to keep Eliot and Margo alive long enough to remain useful. Or perhaps I'm overthinking things and the ship was loyal to Margo based on what she has previously done for her.
  • Poppy is no where to be found this week. She was thrilled about the prospect of the quest and wanted to be a part of it. But she too is noticeably absent when all of the characters of importance are brought together. And yet, she's bound to return at some point. It's just important here that she doesn't return to the Brakebills dorm with Quentin and Kady. She escaped before them and had to do something else apparently.