'The Magicians' Season 4: TV Review

Join us down the rabbit hole.
1/23/2019

Syfy's witty and winding fantasy epic continues to dizzy viewers.

The Magicians is not really a show you can understand scene by scene, but episode by episode. The narrative plays with time and space and realities, and its endless convolutions curlicue like grotesque fingernail tendrils twisting into one another as they reach the ground. I'm enthralled just the same.

The Syfy show began as a simple winking take on Hogwarts-as-grad-school (with a sprinkling of Narnia), and its sweeping mythology, searing humor and emotional resonance eventually magnified the series into a knotty urban millennial fantasy epic. The Brakebills University students eventually sloughed off into the world to become royalty in other dimensions or killer dybbuks or actual goddesses, but remained angsty twentysomethings nonetheless. The third season, its best to date, was innovative and experimental, playing with modes of storytelling and pushing the boundaries of plotline (rapist sailing ships, ritually amputated fairies, Bowie karaoke cursebreaking, etc.). The Magicians is weird, funny and beautiful, and I honestly have no bloody idea what's going on most of the time.

Season four picks up just where the third-season coda leaves off: After our heroes have completed their season-long quest to restore magic to the world, they're immediately thwarted by representatives from the sinister Order of the Librarians — a cryptic group of archivists seeking to control all knowledge across the multiverse — who immediately colonize the flow of magic. (Just stay with me here.) Instead of killing the group, the Library — along with Brakebills' Dean Fogg (Rick Worthy) — places traitorous double agent Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley) into custody and puts a glamour on the rest of them to masks their memories and subsume them in new bodies. (One of whom is named Kimber D'Antoni — which, I mean, just try to get that earworm unstuck from your brain.) Without revealing too many spoilers here, rest assured that one of these "new" mortals discovers that magic exists, and from there, we journey with the group as they recover their identities and battle with the authoritarian Library. Oh, and an insidious monster has possessed the body of Eliot (Hale Appleman), flattening his acerbic personality and creeping us the hell out.

The new season's conceit seemed promising by the end the last finale, a "tear them apart to build them back up again" intra-series reboot, but I didn't anticipate how exhausting dramatic irony can be when combined with The Magicians' Gordian mythos. (The show exists on multiple timelines, so you would need a physical chart to map it all out.) Instead of focusing on the ceaseless mind-warping plot threads, I tend to compartmentalize the series moment to moment: The jokes intended to gently tease its nerdy target audience still obsessed with our childhood fandoms; the scene where the gang untangles the infuriating smartphone logistics of switching bodies; the sparring between lovable virago Margo (Summer Bishil), and, well, anyone else. Her acute bitchiness is reason alone to watch the show.

Despite the itchy identity-recovery plot, season four promises to ramp up the war between Brakebills' rebel-heroes and the tyrannical Library, who are probably the Biggest Bads of the entire series, arrogantly believing they alone can dole out informational access across realms. (They remind me of the seemingly benevolent maesters in Game of Thrones, whose micromanaging stronghold on science and history is a big reason why perpetually medieval Westeros never reached renaissance, enlightenment, revolution or industrialization.) The contemporary political allegory here regarding the flow of information is pretty hard to miss, and I hope the producers explore it more this season, instead of just keeping us cramped up in solitary confinement with redemptive Alice — a literal Alice in Chains — who's about to spend all of eternity shouting through vents with Santa Claus. (No, not a metaphor.)

The writers blast all kinds of arcs in your face, and the fractals come at you with full force. But no matter how many layers of latex pile onto an actor's body so they can become an amphibious beast or a hircine god, the feelings are always real and the stakes are always high. The Magicians demands that its characters sacrifice love for magic, but I would never demand that The Magicians sacrifice energy for coherence.

The joy of The Magicians rests in its clever characterizations updating classical legends, mythological creatures and religious figures to match contemporary archetypes. Their Bacchus is just a needy fuckboi who uses partying to fill an emotional hole. Their hedge witches, once historically considered little more than local healers, are low-level wannabes here — magical hucksters and street hustlers. (I Feel Bad's Zach Cherry shows up in the third episode as a sardonic counterfeiter who helps Jason Ralph's Quentin and the gang pull off a magical heist.) The series acts as both pastiche and critique of high fantasy — from turning its whimsical Narnia-like Fillory into a bureaucratic nightmare to finally calling out the Harry Potter term "squib" (for a magic-less wizard) as "hate speech." Keep us woke, magicians.

Cast: Jason Ralph, Hale Appleman, Stella Maeve, Summer Bishil, Olivia Taylor Dudley, Jade Tailor, Arjun Gupta, Trevor Einhorn, Kacey Rohl, Rick Worthy, Mageina Tovah

Executive producers: Sera Gamble, John McNamara, Henry Alonso Myers, Janice Williams, Michael London, Chris Fisher, Scott Smith, Mike Cahill

Premieres: Wednesday, Jan. 23, 9 p.m. ET (Syfy)