With the start of the fifth season of The Magicians underway, it seems like a good time to look back on the fourth and seismic season of the Syfy series. A lot of stuff happened, as the show is want to do, but this time, it seems, those events are irrevocable. Irreparable amidst a story of damaged people only ever repairing things they damaged.
(Very clearly, we will be diving into spoiler territory, so if you haven’t watched the fourth season but fully intend to, then move along. Maybe titillate yourself with a new game release wherein you befriend a six-armed otter in a personality pageant to decide who creates the new universe?)
Very obviously, the big thing is that Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph), the ostensible protagonist of the entire series, died. And not in an “I wonder how he’ll escape Hell” kind of died but “well there goes that guy” sort of perished. For all the loopholes and sideloading the narrative relies on, the final destination Quentin arrives at is one of the few ironclad spots in the lore.
And according to both Ralph and then-showrunner Sera Gamble, it is permanent. Ralph described it as a “forever decision” while Gamble says “season five is about what happens next.” There’s no backtracking from this, and I hope there never will be.
Few shows endure consequences from their stories. The prevalence of comic book shows and movies and universes has also proliferated the idea that coming back from the dead is just, like, a thing you can do. (To be fair, it’s just a general trope of television and film that if you don’t see a body, they aren’t really dead, but comics have made a carnival of it.) To see such a popular one do so of its own volition due to the natural arc of its characters is damn refreshing at this point.
Much of the fourth season seemed aimed at this statement, too. There was a whole episode, for example, dedicated to exploring the notion that not being the hero of one story doesn’t mean you are not the hero of another. “The Side Effect” frames the stories of all the other characters within Underworld Penny telling an impetuous new hire about how callously and ignorantly cataloging people in the Library is a disservice to everyone involved. (It also nicely and pointedly addresses the White Male Lead problem in Western media.)
It’s disappointing, then, that the culmination of all of this is that Quentin suffers the tropiest of tropes: the Heroic Sacrifice. His aim all along has been to save Eliot (Hale Appleman) no matter what, but having him undergo one of the most defining clichés of traditional heroes makes him, well, a well-defined cliché of a hero. What are we supposed to take away from that save for the fact that this is Quentin’s story?
Which, at least, resolves one of his doubts that he never mattered to begin with. Trading in such monumental sacrifice certainly solidifies his status within the show. Number one on the call sheet, number one in the story, it seems, ostensibly betraying the thesis of “The Side Effect,” perhaps the best episode of the whole series.
However, keeping his eventual terminus in mind while looking back, it does put a lot of the season in perspective. All of the water-treading and time-biding now becomes purposeful arc-building. It frames his death from the view of the rest of the cast as a side character giving emotional weight to their own heroic journeys rather than the end of a different one.
And it works to a certain extent. It sets up the propulsive yet dour leap into season five with gallons of raw, emotional jet fuel. By detaching our viewpoint from Quentin—where it’s been since the pilot—and working with that simple conceit for the better part of the fourth season, we’re both shocked by his death and prepared to explore what that means for the world that follows it.
There’s also something beautiful about Quentin’s discipline being revealed as Minor Mending when so much of his adult life has been about attempting to fix major and majorly broken things. It gives a peek into a different world where season four would have been about how capability does not necessarily dictate impact. (Though, arguably, the first season kind of touched on that with Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley).)
Part of that, though, is touched upon here. One of the broken things is Quentin himself, coming through in one simple but grand question: did he sacrifice himself to save everyone or did he simply find a way to finally kill himself? It’s a huge and gripping question, complex and certainly without a clean answer. But the way the show handles it is a bit…clumsy. It comes out of and goes back into nowhere, though that is kind of the trademark of the show for hugely personal issues.
To wit, the fleeting romance between Quentin and Eliot. This is something that surely would have meant more and come up much more often with either character than it did. That is until it comes screeching in from the skies like a skyward apex predator that only hunts writers that employ (cowardly) subtext. It’s indicative of the show’s strangely cynical and utilitarian approach to storytelling; build a stockpile of character developments you can save up until you need them so they never seem fully unearned.
But even with that and all the other faults of the show (e.g., perennial deus ex machina-ing both problems and solutions) and the season (see: the completely nonsensical romance between Margo (Summer Bishil) and Josh (Trevor Einhorn)), Quentin’s death is one that simply works. It’s messy with all these frayed, lingering edges, imposing wholly unanswerable questions to those that live on. Ralph gave this nagging, insufferable, selfish, incompetent white man a bleeding heart, one that kept ticking and feeling even after it pumped all it had to give.
Here’s hoping The Magicians can give such meaning to all its characters.