Syfy’s ‘The Magicians,’ based on the book by Lev Grossman, shows viewers they’re never too old for magic.
July 15, 2011, was a warm summer night and at around 2 a.m. we found ourselves running down a street under the glow of bright yellow streetlights. We sped from one patch of light to the next, showing no concern for the headlights and taillights passing beside us. Let the world see us run. We didn’t care. We were burning with excitement, and in that moment nothing seemed better than racing home.
What could inspire this flight? That was the night we saw Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. We had spent the evening in line at our local movie theater, gaping at the elaborate costumes of fellow moviegoers, mystified by the experience in a way we hadn’t been since we were small. Suddenly the garish carpet of the theater and the glowing lights guiding us to our seats seemed grand.
It was the close of a decade of films that shaped our childhoods. It was also the summer before our senior year of high school, and there was something poetic about seeing the end of the story of our favorite characters just as we reached the final year of school (while temporarily forgetting our looming college years). This was a night for celebrating our dreams of magic, the hours spent nestled in with books, turning page after page of each story and wondering which house we would be sorted into…not that we thought it was real.
But we wished it were.
It would be more embarrassing to admit I grew up desperate for a letter accepting me to a school for witches and wizards if it weren’t for the knowledge that I am but one of thousands — no, millions — with the same wish. The internet pulsates with the vital force of a fandom that isn’t finished dreaming. They maintain a steady stream of new fan art, theories and throwbacks. But there’s a catch.
A Hogwarts education starts at age 11 and lasts seven years. The implication: all those millennial Harry Potter fans have aged out of their Hogwarts dreams. Sure, there have been more movies, and no one’s ever too old to be a Harry Potter fan, but reality sets in.
No Harry Potter fan would want to hang out with a bunch of muggle-hating death eaters — that’s just wrong. There’s nothing wrong with being a muggle. The problem is, given the option of being a wizard, no one wants to be a muggle.
The logistical issue with this remains: a generation of fans who are too old for their dream. Hogwarts is a fairly narrow window in the scope of a lifetime, leaving the question: now what?
Does this mean we will never be wizards? That’s a heartbreaking thought.
Enter a new world of magic: Syfy’s The Magicians.
This show, based on the books by Lev Grossman, is a far cry from the story of British schoolchildren riding broomsticks. At the same time, it’s perfectly crafted to fill the void where a Hogwarts letter should have been.
What if magic is more like…a master’s program? Suddenly all these wannabe witches who aged out of J.K. Rowling’s world of wizardry are the perfect age to try their hands at a new kind of magic.
What’s more, our protagonists Quentin and Julia are nerds who learned of magic from their favorite childhood book. After spending their youth dreaming, they found themselves stuck. College graduates without a cause — a predicament so familiar one isn’t sure if they should nod or cringe. For any college grad watching while tallying up their loans (plus interest), this story is just too real.
Quentin and Julia are sucked into a world of chaos at a magic school called Brakebills University, where a mysterious creature, the Beast, is beginning to wreak havoc.
One might speculate on the parallels between these two magical realities. The mysterious possibility that a “normal” person with no real ties to a magical community might be drawn in when they least expect it. The sorting of students into different communities by aptitude (admittedly, the version of sorting in The Magicians, where students are grouped by their magical abilities, is a little more congenial than the idea of Hogwarts sorting students essentially by their personalities. Someone might have guessed the reason so many dark wizards came from Slytherin could’ve been because they were all stuck together in close quarters for seven years. A little more exposure to different personalities might’ve done them some good).
With all these examples in mind, it’s obvious why viewers are initially enchanted by the show. It’s just familiar enough that they can feel an instant connection to it. More importantly, it tells them something they’re desperate to hear: it’s not too late.
Not too late to be a wizard.
More realistically, it’s not too late to get their lives set straight, find their paths and pursue their dreams.
What keeps them around, then? Well, one of the best parts of growing up with Harry Potter was that the series itself seemed to grow alongside its readers. While the looming threat was present throughout the series, the content of each novel grew progressively darker and more serious.
The first novel brought up bullying. Who can forget the scene in the first movie where Ron says of Hermione, “It is no wonder she hasn’t any friends,” just within her earshot, leading to her imperilment when a troll enters the castle later than night. A rather dramatic representation of how bullying can be hurtful, but it certainly does the trick.
The series moves on to tackle more subjects — prejudice, in the treatment of muggles and muggle-born wizards, as well as betrayal and death. Rowling’s characters are not just on a grand quest to defeat a villain, and their development as individuals maps the course that anyone growing up might take. They go from friendships to relationships, from first sports tryouts to first kisses. Ultimately readers even see them send their children off to school in one of the most hotly debated epilogues of the era.
The Magicians picks up the task of preparing magic lovers for the trials of their adult lives. Where Harry Potter fans grappled with bullying, fans of The Magicians are asked questions like “Would you leave your best friend behind for a shot at your dreams?” The answers are more complicated, more grown-up. Where Potter fans waited with bated breath to see if Harry would ever kiss Cho Chang — hell, the anxiety we had waiting to see if Ron and Hermione would ever admit they actually like-liked each other was almost too intense at that time — fans of The Magicians are watching characters move through relationships and sexual partners. There’s pretty much no doubt Margo and Eliot have participated in a few drug-fueled orgies. McGonagall would have to think of a more severe punishment than a night in the Dark Forest for those shenanigans.
So the content is more mature in all the predictable ways, but we also see the dark side of a magical world where not everyone is given the chance to learn how to use their powers. There is exploitation, and the lines of good and bad are not always so clear.
Season one hits viewers with a bolt of lightning: dealing with the aftermath of rape. This subject might have been too mature for the Potter years, but the show is for an audience with a different set of problems. It’s a sad reality that by a certain age, most people have seen or experienced the devastating effects that sexual assault can have on a victim.
Julia, who was tricked by a magical creature and subsequently raped, endures the aftermath by physically barricading the thoughts from her own mind with magic. The trauma she experienced was tremendous. She was made to believe her prayers would, quite literally, be answered. Instead, she watched as her friends were slain and she herself was assaulted. Blocking it out allows her to retain her sanity. It’s the only way she can go on.
While this option isn’t available in the real world, it is a common response to repress or deny memories of assault and abuse. When trauma is more than we can cope with, we find ways to avoid doing so. Viewers must grapple with these issues as the episodes unfold and ask themselves how Julia can move on.
In the show, she realizes her assailant made a critical error and, in her lowest moments, she realizes her own power. In one of the most controversial moves of the show, Julia responds to her rape by becoming something of a villain herself. She betrays her friends, essentially rescuing the Beast from them in spite of his own wicked past.
This move has attracted plenty of criticism: Why not show Julia as a hero, overcoming her sorrow and saving the day? That might be more of a Harry Potter response. Audiences must grapple with the possible ways an assault could alter a person’s mentality. There are no easy answers with The Magicians — this magic world does not stray far from reality in terms of psychology.
The move aligned Julia with another character who presents a quandary to viewers: the Beast. In a book for children, he would be a clear-cut bad guy. Think soul-sucking Dementor or Lord Voldemort: evil, manipulative, beyond redemption.
Again, The Magicians doesn’t make it so easy. When it’s revealed that the Beast is Martin — who disappeared into the magical land of Fillory as a young boy after being molested — the situation becomes far more complicated. He’s not just a villain. He’s also a victim himself. In a way, he and Julia are a suitable partnership. They’ve suffered sexual violence, and while this fact isn’t what brings them together, it may become important for their development in later episodes. In fact, this is something Stella Maeve, the actress who portrays Julia, herself has emphasized.
Writing about these issues becomes far more complicated but more necessary. Where a series like Harry Potter might dodge these sorts of issues — we see many characters grapple with their emotional distress, but in the end each can be clearly listed among the good or the evil. (That is, of course, ignoring the question of the Malfoys, who earn a little sympathy toward the end when it becomes apparent their child really is more important to them than serving the Dark Lord — a discussion for another day.)
The Magicians tackles the intricacies of morality with full force. That’s how a world of magic goes from child’s play to mature narrative. Julia isn’t sent away to serve as an example of the cruelty of a villain. She takes center stage. Sure, she isn’t her best self. She is grieving, she has been traumatized, and by all accounts she has an excellent reason to go off the deep end. The questions are how she will recover and whether audiences will see the lesson in her story.
The Harry Potter generation has dealt with the loss of parents, mean relatives, bullying, prejudice, war and death. It has also learned a lot about friendship, courage, crushes and triumph over evil. Oh, and more recently a little bit about fantastic beasts…and where to find them.
As far as life lessons go, The Magicians picks up in just the right spot. It represents the next level of questions with all the melancholy of a generation in love with magic but faced with reality.
The show, and the books on which it is based, stand apart from the famed world of Harry Potter. It has its own voice and vision, but as its viewers transition from childhood to adulthood, through the murky years of self-discovery and revelation, due deference must be given to the series that shaped their minds and hearts to love magic.
It is not that The Magicians is cashing in on a fad. Neither is it ripping off an established story. Its success is the natural continuation of a childhood dream for an audience that will never quite be finished believing in magic.