To be perfectly honest, I was not looking forward to The Magicians Season 5. The Syfy series has long been one of my favorite shows on television, even moreso when it started leaving Lev Grossman’s phenomenal source material behind and began carving out its own path. But the Season 4 finale, in which the show’s lead character Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph) sacrificed himself to save his friends and thus exited the series, broke my heart. The hero of this story, the character who so deeply drew me into the world of The Magicians and made me fall in love with this brash, bold fantasy series (first in the books, then onscreen), was gone. I don’t mean to be dramatic, but it’s hard to imagine watching one of your favorite TV shows without its leading character.
And yet, I should have known better. Time and time again The Magicians paints itself into a corner, flirts with jumping the shark, and then takes a sharp left turn into “holy shit” territory, never once looking back. All while keeping one foot firmly granted in emotional reality. And impossibly (though not without a bit of clunkiness), Season 5 nicely recovers from Ralph’s exit. This show that has always been about the brutal realities of adulthood—the depression, the grief, the frustration—leans into its long-running themes, as the characters deal with Quentin’s death in various ways. But in possibly the best decision the writers could have made, the story also moves on from Quentin. There are new quests, new mysteries, new baddies. And we quickly understand the hero we lost was never the only hero of this story.
The road to recovery in The Magicians’ fifth season is initially a bit… rough. It’s been one month since Quentin died, and the characters are each dealing with it in their own ways. At the same time, the world is absolutely flush with magic. Julia (Stella Maeve, who now gets top billing) struggles with how to best use her natural gift, especially knowing she only has it because of Quentin’s sacrifice. Oh and she and Penny-23 (Arjun Gupta) are officially a thing now. Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley), meanwhile, is grieving alone at her mother’s house. Understandably, she appears to be taking it the hardest. Shades drawn, sleeping all day, racking her brain for a way to bring him back.
These scenes with Julia, Penny-23, and Alice don’t entirely click. Quentin’s sacrifice is being mourned, to be sure, but it’s almost as if the show isn’t sure how much time should be spent mired in this sadness, and how best to move on. In truth, the show doesn’t really solve the “Quentin problem” until Episode 3, so despite some frustration that may mount in the first couple of episodes as it relates to Julia and Alice’s storylines, the third episode of the season (written by co-showrunner Sera Gamble) provides some really emotional and thoughtful closure—especially as it relates to Eliot.
Speaking of, it should probably come as no surprise that the Eliot (Hale Appleman) and Margo (Summer Bishil) scenes are what really shine in these first few episodes. The iconic duo are officially back to being an onscreen pair, as their characters are stuck in Fillory 300 years into the future, at which time the kingdom is ruled by a Dark King. The fate of Josh (Trevor Einhorn) and Fen (Brittany Curran) is a delicious twist that I wouldn’t dare spoil here, but they are definitely still in the show.
The story backbone of Season 5 appears to be twofold: on Earth, the surge in magic is pointing towards a catastrophic event that may or may not be coming soon. Julia decides it’s now her duty to prevent such a disaster. In Fillory, the magical land is ruled by a Dark King and the time quandary leaves Eliot and Margo in a bind. There’s also a third storyline that may ultimately intersect with these two, and that is Kady (Jade Tailor) trying to unravel a certain mystery on Earth. It’s some great gumshoe stuff and I’m curious to see where it’s headed.
But Quentin’s death looms over all, and it’s the pairing of the grief that the characters are going through with these new quests that makes up the bulk of this season. In some instances it proves awkward, but in others—especially as it relates to Eliot—Quentin’s sacrifice (and thus Ralph’s exit from the series) was not in vain. The show’s writers find compelling ways to make Quentin’s death meaningful, and it results in some fascinating and ultimately forward-thinking character developments. Moreover (and maybe most importantly), The Magicians is still tons of fun. There are weird creatures, off-color jokes, and plenty of fantastical twists and turns.
And that’s The Magicians Season 5’s greatest triumph. That it feels at once like it’s moving on from the loss of its central character, but also still feels like the same show I came to love. There’s certainly a hole, and Ralph’s presence is sorely missed, but the show’s writers wisely don’t try to fill that void with a new dorky character who vaguely resembles Quentin. They lean into what the show already has: complex characters who are just trying their best to live their lives one day at a time, and who fail just as often as they succeed. You know, life.
The Magicians Season 5 premieres on Syfy on Wednesday, January 15th.