The Magicians is a weird show, but last night’s Season 2 finale really hammered home the fact that the series is one of the best weird shows on TV. The Syfy series is based on a trilogy of books by author Lev Grossman that revolve around a twentysomething named Quentin Coldwater, who discovers that not only is magic real, but there’s an entire school where magic-inclined folks practice. That’s only half the story, as Quentin later on discovers that the fantasy book series he was obsessed with as a kid—Fillory and Further—is also based on a true story, as he and his friends find themselves transported to the real Fillory where chaos, tragedy, and adventures ensue.
In its first season, The Magicians showed a willingness to remix events from the books in interesting ways, and that seemed to benefit the characters nicely. There was a strong narrative backbone throughout that first season which involved the hunt for a Big Bad, and the show ended on a pretty killer cliffhanger. But in Season 2, The Magicians really flourished into the series it was meant to be: a Buffy the Vampire Slayer-esque dark comedy/fantasy that draws serious parallels to real-life issues. Indeed, the show has tackled sexual assault, trauma survival, death, sexuality, and plenty of other topics with a tact and complexity you wouldn’t necessarily expect from a show that involves a fairy kingdom and hedonistic gods.
Season 2 doubled down on this, especially with regards to Stella Maeve’s Julia. Maeve was really the MVP of Season 1, as we saw Julia—kept outside the official world of magic and forced to learn magic “on the streets”—maligned, hopeful, and then summoning a trickster god who murdered her friends, raped her, and left her pregnant. Julia’s arc in Season 2 was really one of trauma survival, as she dealt with the repercussions of her assault and how that affected her emotional and psychological state.
Showrunners Sera Gamble and John McNamara took the character to unexpected places this season, again “remixing” Grossman’s source material to really make the show’s version of Julia her own character. And while her Season 2 arc didn’t exactly go where we expected, it was certainly fulfilling and emotional from an audience perspective. Julia’s in a very different place at the end of the season, and those who’ve read the books can probably guess what that twist in the finale was hinting towards regarding her evolution.
And while Maeve turned in tremendous work in Season 2 as well, this season’s MVP has to be Summer Bishil for her downright fierce portrayal of Margo. In the first season, Margo was fairly simplistic, played merely as “the bitchy one.” But in Season 2, as Margo took the throne in Fillory alongside BFF Elliot (Hale Appleman), we saw shades of the character we never knew existed. We saw a real dimensionality to the character this season that was a welcome change of pace, and Bishil knocked it out of the park while remaining true to Margo’s fiery spirit. Indeed, you may think there are only so many ways a human being can say the word “bitches,” but Bishil is here to prove you wrong.
One of the things The Magicians really embraced in Season 2 was its sense of humor. There’s a wickedness to the comedy that didn’t quite find the right balance in Season 1, but really soared in this second season. The infusion of pop culture references seemed much more organic and natural, and the delivery—especially from Bishil and Appleman—was downright hilarious at times.
As a massive fan of the books, it took me some time to accept the series as something altogether different (so this is what Game of Thrones readers feel like), and while I enjoyed Season 1 quite a bit, I think the show really came into its own in Season 2. Even in contrast to other genre TV series on right now, The Magicians has emerged as one of the very best. After watching the full second season play out, I’d go so far as to put it on my “must-watch” list alongside shows like The Leftovers and The Americans.
The Magicians is silly and dirty and strange to be sure, but what makes the series special is its intense interest in telling real stories, no matter how uncomfortable. Some other shows may have picked up the Julia storyline in Season 2 and opted to move on and tell a new story, but the Magicians writers understand that a trauma like being sexually assaulted is something you never really “get over,” and it embraces that dramatic complexity to add shading to its story. That’s admirable, especially for a fantasy show on Syfy, and it’s one of the many reasons more people really should be watching The Magicians. Bring on Season 3.