The Magicians is in a very peculiar place. In its fifth season, the Syfy show is pretty much out of material to adapt from the novels. This is something season 4 spent most of its time preparing for, with a big bad — a monster that possessed Eliot (Hale Appleman), perhaps the most charming member of the cast — that was an invention of the series. But it’s also now a show in mourning, and it’s going to take a while to get that out of its system.
Below are spoilers for the fourth season finale but not for the new season.
The last season of The Magicians was a bit of a mess overall, but it concluded with an absolute stunner: the death of starring character Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph). For a show that plays as fast and loose with mortality as The Magicians, Quentin’s death felt significant and weighty, like it really meant it this time. (And, according to the show’s producers, it does.)
To drive this home, season 5 spends a significant amount of time grieving Quentin. In the first three episodes sent to critics in advance, the show’s cast is dealing with the ramifications of his death and its immediate fallout, a world where there is too much magic. Alice (Olivia Dudley) has sunk into a deep depression and does something drastic to cope. Eliot and Margo (Summer Bishil) return to the land of Fillory to discover that, somehow, they have warped 300 years into a future where their friends Josh (Trevor Einhorn) and Fen (Brittany Curran) have been deposed and killed by a “dark king” who now rules the magical land. Penny (Arjun Gupta) finds himself with a job offer; the surplus of magic has led to several more people with his rare talent of teleporting across worlds, and Dean Fogg (Rick Worthy) of Brakebills University needs someone to train them.
The show is taking its time right now, but I’m not terribly inclined to give it trouble for that. Even if its new season is a bit slower than I would like at the moment, it’s still the rare adaptation that’s better than its source material. The reason for this is simple: The Magicians never really bothered with straight adaptation. The books were often just suggestions, with scenes pulled out of context and repurposed and ideas remixed until they became something weirder and new.
But the series did all of this while remaining true to the spirit of the novels. The Magicians trilogy of books was, among other things, about a white male protagonist who believed he was the center of the story and painfully learning that he was not. The Magicians show is furthering this goal, painting the world around him in vibrant, gleefully vulgar shades, allowing each of its characters to have their day in the sun.
This is perhaps why I will watch The Magicians until the sun goes out: it is better than any show, outside of the Real Housewives canon, at building out spectacularly messy characters with enough chaotic energy to blot out the sun and still have the audience care about them. Watching a season of The Magicians is like watching a series of barely controlled yet wholly sympathetic nuclear meltdowns that might end the world but are also incredibly moving. Every character needs therapy, and the ones that are in it should probably go more. I love them all deeply.
Despite its dour start, The Magicians is a joy to watch moment to moment, and the canvas feels wide open in a way it hasn’t since the show’s stellar third season. It might take a little while to kick into gear, but The Magicians has always been a show that knows how to make a wait worthwhile. That’s how magic works, right? Lots of painstaking and careful preparation, all for a beautiful disaster we never see coming.