How ‘The Magicians’ Shakes Up the “Strong Female Character” Trope with Margo’s Powerful Arc

     February 14, 2019

How do you explain a show like Syfy’s The Magicians? Ostensibly it is a “What if?” universe that mashes together Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia populated by genre-savvy Millennial college students. But it’s so much more than that. The Magicians  deals in heavy themes like grief, loss, sexual predators, consent, addiction, sacrifice, the cycle of abuse, and PTSD in ways both surprising and organic. When things happen to characters, those characters are permanently changed. Even in a world where death isn’t permanent, trauma is.

But it’s not all depression and self-loathing. The Magicians is ultimately a story about young people growing up and learning how to navigate in a world that can feel very cold. It’s about friendship and love, and turns what The Olds™ deem ‘hook-up culture’ into an exploration of self. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the character of Margo Hanson (Summer Bishil). Throughout four seasons, Margo has transformed from Mean Girl trope to the steely High King of Fillory (the show’s Narnia stand-in). But it wasn’t until this year that The Magicians really showcased how Margo is far-and-away the most unusual character on television: a woman who knows herself, who sees herself with all her flaws, and likes herself anyway.


Image via Syfy

What a stupidly radical concept.

How does the audience know that Margo likes herself and to hell with anyone who would try to bring her down? The answer is within the first two episodes of Season 4. On the run from several villainous factions, The Magicians opened this year with a majority of the core group suffering from magical amnesia. The spell gave Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph), Julia Wicker (Stella Maeve), Penny Adiyodi (Arjun Gupta), Kady Orloff-Diaz (Jade Tailor), Josh Hoberman (Trevor Einhorn), and Margo new identities. Not just new memories, but new personalities and even new appearances. Whether part of the spell or simply a kindness granted by the spellcaster Dean Henry Fogg (Rick Worthy), each person in magical witness protection ends up with the kind of gauzy life they thought they wanted.

For example, Quentin’s cover meant he didn’t have to deal with the imminent death of his father. His new persona lost their father at an early age, thus negating any emotional trauma that would have manifested from watching someone you have a loving, complicated relationship with wither away in front of you. Josh became an Uber driver. On its face, not a great life. But considering Josh just wants to create mind-altering baked goods and party, such a career gives him plenty of free time. Penny goes from stressed out telepath to a world-famous hippie DJ who is chest-deep in sex at any given moment. Kady goes from a struggling drug addict to the premiere detective in the police force, bringing down bad guys with style. Even Julia, currently cut off from any magical power, gets to live out her dream of going back to Brakebills University and being mentored by Dean Fogg. Each amnesiac character was granted a do-over of sorts. But then there’s Margo.


Image via Syfy

Margo’s alter-ego — known as Janet — is just Margo. One can’t even really argue she’s wealthier or more influential since, as High King of Fillory, she already wields both those hallmarks of power. There is nothing for the spell (or Dean Fogg) to latch onto. That is not to say Margo hasn’t struggled or been through trauma. She’s been dealt her share of bad hands throughout the series. But every awful event, every twist of fate’s knife has forged Margo into the High King she is today. There is nothing Margo wishes was different about herself or her life. She is confident in her abilities, whether she’s planning a party or taking on immortal creatures of infinite power. As she said herself in Season 3:

“There wasn’t a blood test to tell me to be High Queen. I chose it. And I have had to fight for every shred of authority. And no offense, but you can’t understand because it was handed to you. And now I’m supposed to abandon my kingdom? Those fairy bitches wanna come for my crown, well I’ll shove it up their fucking eggholes!”

The force of Margo’s self-awareness was on full display in this current season’s fourth episode “Marry Fuck Kill”, which found her struggling to save her best friend Eliot Waugh (Hale Appleman) from possession by a monster so terrible that even gods fear it. Spoilers for Season 4, Episode 4 begin here. Her fear for Eliot and conviction to rescue him drives her straight into the path of her other friend Josh. Josh suffers from lycanthropy, an STI within this universe, and the time has come to pass on the curse or literally die. Refusing to lose another friend, Margo consents to sex with Josh, which both allows him to live without murdering or raping someone and has the added benefit of giving Margo even more power. She is now a magician, the High King of a mythical world, in possession of a fairy eye, and can transform into a werewolf.

While I believe Margo when she told Josh she couldn’t stand to lose another friend, it is remarkably easy to ascribe multiple motivations to her choice. This is a woman who has fought gods and won. Fought elves and turned them into allies. She might be terrified of the thing inside Eliot, but you can’t be brave if you aren’t scared, and Margo is very, very brave. So what could she possibly have up her fashionable sleeve? Earlier in the same episode, Margo tries to cajole the monster inside Eliot to give up his body for something less human. A body powerful enough to unlock the mysteries of the object torn from the corpse of the god Bacchus. What’s more powerful than a magician?

Margo. Fucking. Hanson.