Four episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
If fans of Syfy’s The Magicians remember, season 1 doesn’t end particularly well for the tragically unprepared heroes at the center of the show’s clever, meta-filled twist on the fantasy genre. Most of the main cast is either badly injured or straight-up dead, and season 2’s first magic trick is that it resets the story in a very sophomore season of television kind of way without losing a single drop of its abundant creativity and addictive momentum.
In fact, from the four episodes sent for review, it’s clear that showrunners Sera Gamble and John McNamara are gleefully excited about (mostly) ditching the study halls and college antics of Brakebills behind, along with those pesky Harry Potter comparisons, for a season engulfed in the wonderfully weird land of Fillory. The setting change introduces new shadings to the show’s already fascinating characters, while also fuelling some lightning-fast advancements to the plot that should easily win over anyone who was left in the cold by season 1’s sometimes slow-paced, education-focused stories.
Betrayed by best friend Julia (Stella Maeve), Quentin (Jason Ralph), Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley), Eliot (Hale Appleman), Margo (Summer Bishil), and Penny (Arjun Gupta) are left scattered after a disastrous encounter with The Beast, who it turns out is actually Martin Chatwin (Charles Mesure), the eldest of the Chatwin kids from Quentin’s favorite book series Fillory and Further. Without delving into spoilers, season 2 of The Magicians quickly sets itself up much like last year, with two main story threads. In one, the Brakebills gang are now adventuring through Fillory to find a dangerous spell that just might have the oomph to take down The Beast once and for all.
Simultaneously, Julia is back on Earth hedge witch-ing her way through trying to take down a Big Bad of her own, the evil god she summoned last season known as Reynard, currently residing in the body of her new friend Richard (Mackenzie Astin). The diametric plots are far more cleverly intertwined this time around, mainly because Julia’s obsession no longer resides solely in gaining power to be on the level of a Brakebills graduate, but in preventing the continued slaughter of hedge witches across the country at the hands of Reynard. She needs The Beast to take him down, and – of course – Quentin and the gang aren’t going to sit around and twiddle their thumbs while she runs her little god-killing errand.
The moment all of this comes to a head is The Magicians in its purest, most delightfully trenchant form. The writers pack a satisfying amount of juicy content into the first four episodes, and some worry sets in concerning where the hell the rest of the season will go, but it fades fast at the hands of a cast that already justifies a heavy fan following on Tumblr after just one season. Ralph is still the nerdy, I-can’t-believe-this-is-happening heart of the show, and his meta commentary actually feels more at home in Fillory – where he knows the ins and outs of the books, usually barring one crucial detail – than it did in Brakebills.
But, encouragingly, it’s the women of the cast that garner the most attention. Dudley’s astute and closed-off Alice is one part of The Magicians that actually feels like real-world magic. Although her and Quentin are dealing with a cliché break-up after the events of season 1, Dudley is the real straight-man at the center of the cast’s goofy characters and she carries all of the best scenes of the new season with both a dextrous wit and out-of-nowhere poignancy. Her counterpart is party girl Margo, whom Bishil lends appreciable intelligence to in the second season. She quickly becomes the source of quick-fix spells and all-important 90’s pop culture trivia, as well as the mouthpiece for The Magicians‘ best one-liners: “Swallowing does have its privileges,” she deadpans after realizing that Alice’s downing of god Ember’s ejaculate was in fact a life-saving move.
Out of context, much of the show’s adult-laden content sounds hollow and silly, but Gamble and McNamara ground the strangest – and grossest – bits of the show with a magical ruleset that’s fascinating and logical to follow. The magic system makes for visually dynamic battle scenes, and established footnotes of the group’s adventures from as far back as last season come back to bite them in always clever ways. In that sense, The Magicians isn’t only good for pure guilty pleasure jokes about the well-endowment of talking horses, but it’s become a genuinely captivating show that’s telling a complex story with a singular vision, no matter how much its twists and turns have the chance to upset hardcore fans.
That complexity seeps into the show’s central themes as well, particularly in the evolving nature of the friendship dynamics between Quentin, Alice, Penny, Eliot, and Margo – all of whom are growing older without growing much wiser. Quentin’s loner status was a solid bedrock for season 1’s later fantastical plot turns, and season 2 continues the isolation theme with Eliot’s marooning as High King of Fillory. Although he does what he can with a hot Fillorian guard or twelve, he’s stuck in Fillory forever, and Appleman’s at his best in the scenes where he admits that he is woefully under-equipped to be High King of anything, much less an entire world.
They’re all charming (once you get to know them) while being realistically flawed, and The Magicians is in top form when it weaponizes an aspect of the world’s magic as a means to revel in its characters’ shortcomings. A tangent in episode 3 (the absolute best episode so far this season) is the pinnacle of this idea. It’s violent and wacky at times, but also emotionally rich, and it pushes The Magicians‘ zippy second season plot into a story thread I never saw coming. In terms of the show’s abundant and well-executed sleights of hand, this one ranks high, as does the beautifully produced, multilayered, creepy, funny, and solidly acted season it arrives in.
Anyone who found themselves spellbound by The Magicians last year should be prepared: season 2 is even more menacing, hilarious, clever, and now has the added bonus of a breathlessly addictive pace.