‘The Magicians’ Season 3 Review: A Wickedly Funny and Dark Return

     January 8, 2018

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The Magicians is back, and if you thought the Season 2 finale cliffhanger was going to be wrapped up in a nice bow before moving on to other adventures, you are in for a rude awakening. Magic is gone. Gone from Fillory, gone from Earth, gone from our heroes and villains. After Quentin and his crew straight-up murdered a god in the Season 2 finale, magic was straight-up turned off in this sector of the universe, leaving all of our characters in precarious positions. But rather than fix things right away, The Magicians Season 3 seizes upon this plot development as an opportunity to deepen the characters, raise the stakes, and let the gallows humor fly higher than ever before. The show is different but the same; wildly reconfigured, but still the Magicians we know and love. It’s an evolution, baby, and we’re in for a hell of a ride.

The Magicians Season 3 picks up not too long after Season 2 ended. Quentin (Jason Ralph) and Julia (Stella Maeve) are still working to harness what little magic she has left, setting out to track down someone who might have answers. Margo (Summer Bishil) and Eliot (Hale Appleman) are facing their biggest test thus far as they try to rule Fillory without magic while also having to do the bidding of the Fairy Queen and her cohorts, who lurk undetected in the castle and force Margo and Elliot to perform random tasks—much to their chagrin. Penny (Arjun Gupta) is still slowly dying from cancer while also serving his sentence for the library, but Kady (Jade Taylor) holds out hope for a cure and is working diligently to find one—with time running out. Finally, Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley) is on the run from a creature she deeply upset while she was a niffin, while also trying to find a way to bring magic back.

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Image via Syfy

All of the characters are at low points, and the loss of magic hits everyone equally hard, but in different ways. The show’s writers—led by EPs Sera Gamble and John McNamara—wisely see this as both a character and story opportunity, and lean in to the challenges it poses. Instead of cleanly “fixing” magic at the beginning of the season, the characters are forced to face a world in which magic is no longer available, and thus they’re no longer special. They’re back to their damaged selves, and that results in various existential crises throughout.

The Magicians is a show that’s never shied away from tough subject matter. The first season offered a pretty shocking portrayal of child sex abuse, as well as a cogent chronicle of mental illness and depression in Quentin, while Season 2 dove head first into a post-rape trauma storyline with Julia. While this is a show about magic, it is first and foremost a show about human beings, and through all the spells and potions and magical creatures, The Magicians has always kept one foot planted firmly in reality through its emotional grounding. That continues throughout Season 3, which similarly goes down some dark paths but never comes off as oppressively bleak or saccharine.

The show’s sense of humor is a big reason why it succeeds as well as it does, and it’s what affords the writers the ability to confront such serious subject matter without falling into a pit of despair. The jokes are decidedly on point in Season 3, hitting an undisputable peak in a scene between Eliot and Margo in the premiere episode that’s among the greatest things The Magicians has ever done. I wouldn’t dare spoil it, but it’s a conversation that involves pop culture and it is deliciously entertaining.

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Image via Syfy

Indeed gallows humor abounds, and the ensemble here has grown so comfortable in the skin of these characters that the words now roll right off their tongues. Bishil, who served as the MVP of Season 2 as Margo’s emotional complexity was laid bare alongside her penchant for zingers, continues to shine as her character takes on an even larger role as ruler of Fillory. Eliot, meanwhile, finds himself with new companions while sent on a quest, and Appleman proves once again he can turn from hilarious to heartbreaking on a dime. Ralph is still the delightful heart and soul of the series and gets a twisty opportunity in the first few episodes to change things up, and Maeve’s strength and complexity maintains that Julia might just be the most powerful character in this series.

Alice is still trying to find her way back to humanity when we pick up with the series, and Olivia Taylor Dudley does a swell job riding that fine line between serenity and fury over everything that’s been done to Alice. And while Gupta’s Penny gets put through the wringer in the early episodes, it gives him a fantastic showcase in which to shine, and boy does he. I don’t want to say too much about it, but Episode 4 is a special one. It’s possibly the best episode of the series thus far, and it’s one you’re going to want to experience live.

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Image via Syfy

There is an overall throughline to Season 3 involving various keys the characters must find, and it provides a nice backbone to the season as it progresses. Book readers like myself will find bits and pieces here and there that are familiar from Lev Grossman’s series, but The Magicians the TV series really came into its own in Season 2 and that continues this year. This really is its own thing, and while it maintains the spirit and heart of Grossman’s phenomenal trilogy, we’re on a very different path now than the one Grossman laid out. And given the quality of the TV series, and the fact that it’s gone to such lengths to create characters we adore, that is completely fine.

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