The problem with serialized television is that sometimes an episode comes along that is so bad… the show can’t ever recover from it. Marvel and DC comics have an entire toolkit to deal with such problems, but TV can’t really do it. Sure an entire season of Dallas was all just a dream, and an entire season of Community was the result of a gas leak… but mostly shows have to simply keep going forward lugging some sort of show-wrecking piece of continuity or characterization behind it.
The Magicians was always a precarious balancing act. It was good, great even, but it was always a paper-thin. The story telling was always about to fall apart, the characterizations devolve, the messiness of the first few episodes come back. The second season made up for a lot of structural problems scattered throughout all the different plotlines by making individual scenes stand out as jubilant. But that can only last for as long as the scenes can surpass all the problems lurking just underneath. The moment those monster rear up from the muck, everything falls apart. Welcome to “The Cock Barrens.”
The season has driven the characters pretty far apart at this point. Alice was turned into a combination of a demon and a ghost made of magic and is effectively dead. Quentin, her ex-boyfriend, has left to attend her funeral. Julia is both attempting to get a magical abortion and looking for a way to banish Reynard the Fox God from Earth. In Fillory, Eliot’s wife is pregnant and she also turned out to be a member of a militant group of terrorists.
So the episode starts off with everyone not particularly in a good place, and then only manages to take those plot lines and shoves them right into that muck that I was talking about earlier.
Julia’s rape by Reynard was the most questionable thing in the book series. And it remained the most questionable thing in the TV show. Making her pregnant from that rape, something which didn’t happen in the books, is just as questionable. However last episode managed to make it work by turning her inability to get an abortion into a miniature horror movie (remember what I said about individual scenes making you overlook the flaws in the narrative?). The episode opens with Julia attempting to find a woman who banished Reynard in 1976.
After being invited into her home, Julia is then knocked out by a bat to the head and wakes up chained to the wall in the woman’s torture basement. Also chained to the wall is a giant man clothed only in a diaper and a black bag over his face. He also poops in a giant litter box. It’s almost audacious in what an utterly terrible choice it is. While everything else in the episode is terrible, this almost reaches a level of absurdity as to be enjoyable for how awful it is. At lest until you consider it is even more abuse heaped on Julia, a character who has been abused and violated since the very first episode. Maybe if Margo was the one down there it would feel different, but with Julia it just seems grotesque.
Quentin gets the closest thing to a good storyline out of anything in this episode (not saying much). He spends the episode hanging out with Alice’s horrible parents, and being haunted by Alice. Nothing actually objectionable happens in the storyline, even the ending where it is revealed Alice is trapped inside the tattoo on his back (yes, I am serious), but the entire storyline is fairly languid, just showing us once more that Alice’s parents manage to be just decent enough to want to save their daughter, but not decent enough to do a good job of it.
And then there is Margo and Eliot. Now, I said Julia was in a grotesque situation, but at least she gets out of it by the episode’s end. Eliot and Margo are going to be stuck with what happens this episode for the entire rest of the series.
Filorian Royal Court is visited by emissaries from Lauria, the country to the north. They demand access to Fillory’s magic and to marry their prince off to “Queen Margo, the virgin.” Now, I don’t know how anyone could confuse Margo for being a virgin, either in Fillory or anywhere else. Initially Margo, obviously, wholly rejects the Lorian’s proposal. But then the prince uses reverse psychology, insinuating she was bad in bed, in order to convince her to sleep with him. That’s right, she got negged and fell for it.
The Magicians has always been prudishly sex-negative. Sex is always partaken under terrible circumstances and if the sex itself isn’t punishment (and it often is), then the participants are normally punished immediately after for indulging. In addition to Julia’s rape there was Alice and Quentin being literally animals when they had sex (foxes), Quentin’s threesome with Margo and Eliot under the combined effects of magic and alcohal resulting in his break up with Alice, Alice having sex with Penny just to spite Quentin, Eliot having to slit his boyfriend’s throat because he was an actual demon, everything involving Eliot’s marriage, Quentin and Emily transforming into each other’s ex-partners to have sad, sad sex… it just goes on and on and on. But through it all, Margo has been sexually empowered and with total agency. Well, up until now when she fell for some obvious and idiotic pick up artist bullshit. So good job The Magicians for continuing to make sex the real enemy.
And finally there is Eliot. Oh how I miss happy, funny, gay Eliot from season one. Eliot has been on the downhill since right around the time he slew his boyfriend and went from functional alcoholic to sloppy, depressed drunk always punishing himself. Every so often there is a reminder of why Eliot used to be a great character, but being stuck in the worst plot in the whole show really isn’t helping. In the first season finale, Eliot was revealed to be the next high king of Fillory. In order to get the God-killing blade, the group had agreed that whichever one of them was the high king would marry the knife maker’s daughter. And, of course, due to marriage being magical in Fillory the participants can’t ever divorce or cheat on each other. And, being that he was deep into self-flagellation at the time, Eliot agreed.
Which was gross in and of itself. TV has a very, very, very long history of marrying gay men to women. And by long I mean going all the way back Jodie on Soap in the ’70s, and including virtually every gay male character up until the ’00s. It was how you included gay characters while keeping gay sexuality out of the show. And the plotline just got even more gross the longer it went on. There were about three or four episodes of jokes about Eliot being unable to rise to the occasion of consummating his marriage. Followed by Eliot putting his mind into a golem in order to travel to Earth and while there using the golem to have sex with a man, at which point his wife walked in, allowing him to have sex with her at the same time as part of a fairly gross threesome (or foursome if you consider Eliot’s mind the golem on Earth to be different from Eliot’s body in Fillory). Naturally she got pregnant.
So pretty much everything involving Eliot and his marriage has just been a pile of terrible ideas. Terrible ideas headed towards a particularly terrible (and obvious) place. So of course “The Cock Barrens” decides to make it even worse. Eliot reveals that his problem isn’t that his wife is a woman, but rather he just doesn’t want to be in a monogamous relationship. Seriously… what the fuck? We’ve had five episodes of erratic and irrational behavior, including an inter-dimensional astral-projection threesome, in order to have sex with this woman (and her singular personality characteristic up until it was revealed she was a terrorist, was that she wanted to fuck Eliot)… only for him to just casually mention he just didn’t want to be stuck having sex with her and only her? What the hell was the point of all that shit leading up to this episode?
It’s generally just gross to stick the only gay character in a heterosexual relationship for (apparently) the entire season. But it is hideously socially irresponsible that the show basically then comes down on the side that gay conversion therapy actually does work, that gay men really do just need to marry the right woman. It isn’t merely that the message of the episode is as disgusting as it is, it’s that the show apparently didn’t even realize what it was saying. It fills me with an unfathomable degree of rage.
So yeah. This episode is going to be stuck like a millstone around the neck of the series forever. They can’t actually undo the alterations it made to Margo and Eliot’s characters, and it heaps even more abuse on Julia. The worst themes, subtexts, and messages all were pushed right to the front of the show, and all in a butchered and idiotic way. Honestly, I think I am done with it. While there are all sorts of good elements to the show, they are so deeply mired in the morass of terrible storytelling, it just isn’t worth it any longer.