Why The Magicians Is So Much More Than a Random Fantasy Show

Everett Collection / Sci-Fi Channel/Courtesy Everett Collection

When The Magicians came to an end on Wednesday night, it did so in a very meta fashion. The show has always set itself apart from its sci-fi/fantasy kin by embracing a postmodern, quirky, self-referential tone, but the finale takes that to a whole new level by, symbolically, breaking the fourth wall and allowing the characters to act in ways that mirror the actions of devoted fans. It’s a fitting ending to a show that’s meant a lot to so many viewers – me included – even when we’ve disagreed with some of the choices it’s made.

By the end of the final episode, the majority of the central cast have allowed the destruction of their magical land of Fillory, but not before rescuing all the living beings on the planet, then literally creating a new world from scratch. But there’s a catch: as they work to “rebuild” a new Fillory from a world seed, they end up putting parts of themselves into it, too. The result is “not Fillory, but not not Fillory,” as Margo puts it.

It’s not only OK to put a bit of yourself into the stories you love, but it’s also downright heroic.

It’s the world they love but filtered through themselves. In doing this, it feels like The Magicians is honoring (and giving permission to) fans who do exactly this with the stories they love. Where other media properties are obsessed with what is and isn’t canon, The Magicians seems to be embracing the way that fans interact with the stories they love: by watching it, loving it, then adding bits of themselves to it and creating new creative output in the form of art, fan fiction, critical essays, and more. It seems to say it’s not only OK to put a bit of yourself into the stories you love, but it’s also downright heroic.

In many ways, that’s one of the reasons The Magicians has meant so much to me. It’s always been fantasy, but with a twist that takes all the joy and pain and frustration of young adulthood – especially for the millennial generation – and values it instead of dismissing it or making it the butt of the joke. I grew up on Harry Potter and Narnia and all of that, but when it came to characters I could really relate to, those often fell a little short. I always thought of myself as a Hermione: that overachieving, book-smart, slightly nerdy girl. But Hermione is so consistently good and so rarely makes major mistakes – that’s a lot to live up to!

But then came The Magicians, and I felt so seen on a deep level. I understood Alice, with her fierceness and mistrust that anyone could want anything to do with her except for her brain, her intense ambition and yearning to prove what she can do, and her difficulty with letting herself open her heart and be more than just “the smart one.” I understood Julia, the ultimate “gifted” kid who simply can’t process the idea of failure or being left behind and runs herself into the ground trying to prove herself and pursue knowledge. And I understood Quentin, the sweet, shy, fundamentally kind nerd who is always hopeful but nevertheless a little selfish, fearful, and struggling with his own mind turning on him sometimes.

That last one is why the controversial season four finale bothered me so much: it felt like taking away the gentle, beating heart of the show in favor of the sharper edges, and, from my perspective, the final season does show some of the strain of losing that connecting thread and soft heart. And yet, The Magicians‘ legacy is much more than its late-season stumbles.

It’s the show that was basically made for our generation, a generation that grew up on countless fantasy worlds that contrasted sharply with the messy real world we came of age in. Its characters aren’t fresh-faced kids or teens who Understand Their Great Burden. Instead, they’re messy young adults who make a lot of mistakes, who drink and swear and hook up, who literally bottle up their emotions when they get in the way, and who are really just trying their best even though that’s often not quite enough. Like Lev Grossman’s trilogy of books on which the show is (increasingly loosely) based, The Magicians has always seemed to understand that tenuous but powerful relationship between fiction and reality, especially when it comes to the hearts of young people whose lives have been shaped somehow by the stories they grew up on.

It’s a show where the women aren’t relegated to being eye candy or Strong Female stereotypes but three-dimensional rulers, leaders, and even gods.

It’s a show that can uncynically talk about concepts like “the beauty of all life” while also skewering every single fantasy trope (and occasionally doing so in song). It’s a show that understands the pain of leaving childhood behind but also understands that a little bit of the children we once were always lives within us. It’s a show where a love story between two men is revealed to be the thing that has allowed the entire story to happen (in 40 separate timelines, no less). It’s a show where the women aren’t relegated to being eye candy or Strong Female stereotypes but three-dimensional rulers, leaders, and even gods.

Perhaps that’s why it’s so powerful that the show ends with the destruction of the old world and the creation of a world that’s been re-created by people who loved the old one but also recognized its flaws. In ending the show on this note, The Magicians invites us all to take the worlds we love – both fictional and real – and find a new balance between what worked in the old ways and what needs fixing in the new. It belongs to all of us now.

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