Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Search for Magic in A World of Different Costs: The Magicians TV & Book Series

The Search for Magic in a World of Different Costs
The Magicians, is Harry Potter College for the tortured soul. The author of The Magicians, Lev Grossman, was once a tortured grad student. So was I.
            I was so happy when I got into my graduate program. I picked up my whole life in order to go. Once in school I was miserable, but like a bad relationship I couldn’t leave it. There was no way I wasn’t going to like The Magicians book series. It was the rebound I needed from years of academia abuse.
            I loved The Magicians more than grad school, but it was also like a bad relationship. The Magicians was a better bad relationship where I stayed out of love rather than fear. I loved the word-building and the pacing. The course and actions of the main characters broke my heart. So, of course, I had to watch the show.
            Here is the set up: The main character, Quentin, (Q) is accepted into Brakebills. His best friend, Julia, is not accepted into Brakebills. Of course, Q has been in love with Julia forever. He also has the worst case of Entitled Nice Guy Syndrome (ENGS) for her I have ever seen.
            Q is a depressed smart white boy. Mostly because his academic achievements have left him feeling hallow. No one cares how smart he is. No one wants to talk about the things he wants to talk about as deeply as he does.
            The TV show displays this in one well-executed party scene. Q gives up trying to explain to people why the Danish version of a movie is better. He goes to his room and reads his childhood fantasy novels.
            Julia enters the scene where he is hiding. She gives him the friend-zone lecture of how he should try to connect with people. In both the book and the show Julia is not just your typical Jennifer Love-Hewitt coveted love object. Julia is also smart. In fact, she is even smarter and more completive than Quentin.
            However, as a smart girl, Julia doesn’t expect the world to fall at her feet. She realizes being smart is work. Of course, she is still magazine beautiful. She still has a boyfriend, James. He is not an asshole. He’s actually also fairly smart and kind. The Magicians is more trope twisting than it is trope smashing.
             In the book James is destined to go to an Ivy League college along with Julia and Q. In the show he is already at said college with James and Q. They are getting ready to go to Ivy League graduate school now. Because, if you are super smart and want fulfillment in America today- it can’t happen without graduate school.
            It’s not just graduate school that tears Q, James, and Julia apart. It’s magic graduate school. Because we all know graduate school is really magic. It has to be. It keeps us from crap office jobs with no safety. It costs six figures and promises to give us less crappy office jobs with some safety. When we get in we feel our lives are set. It is the only way we can be taught magic, but there is a price. So why do we do it?
             Some might think that the answer is money. Those people haven’t been to graduate school in twenty years. The same millennials and Gen-Xers that fight and claw at each to get into school continue on to non-paying internships. They have loans that last decades. The answer can’t be money. Everyone thinks they are going to beat the student loans and be a giant in their field. But, that isn’t really about money. That’s about wanting a magical life.  
            In The Magicians, Brakebills seems to be the only game in town for a magical life.  Q gets in. Julia doesn’t. Brakebills attempts to erase Julia’s memory. It is a kindness they do for all potential students that fail the admissions process. Because who wants to know the potential of a magical life they can’t have?
            Julia, that’s who. She literally uses pain to remember her Brakebills experience. Her boyfriend James doesn’t even get tested. He doesn’t even get to know about Brakebills. Its existence and the existence of true magic are secret.            
            Why wouldn’t perfectly smart chosen-boyfriend of Julia not even get a chance? Answer: because he’s too perfect. He has no true struggles.
            On the show, one of the most dynamic characters is Brakebill’s student Elliot. He’s gay and comes from a rural town with a pained past. Elliot is brought to three dimensions well by actor Hale Appleman. Elliot claims that Brakebills doesn’t tell you the real secret that magic doesn’t come from talent, but pain. So, where are all the minorities? Just like real grad school most of them aren’t at Brakebills. Brakebills specializes in the pain of over-achieving rather than adversity.
            It isn’t money that Juila or Q are after. It’s magic and an end to pain, the very pain that may give them their ability. Like a lot of depressed/obsessed over-achievers a Magician can easily have money and success. Yet, they end up steering away from it. The characters aren’t motived by the desire for success. They’re motivated by a desire to be the best, to have knowledge, and then adventure.
             They wanted to win, to pass the mysterious test. To be deemed not just good, but elite by other elites. After a life of pain it is the only thing that will fill the hole inside of them. After that adventure will surely follow. Really, why else would anyone go to grad school? But what do you do when you don’t make the cut and you are a stubborn bitch Julia who wants to remember magic is real?
            Julia asks Quentin, her best friend, for help.  Julia can’t very well “go to Yale knowing this place exists.” Q choses to do nothing to help Julia. He says his help wouldn’t do any good anyway. He is only a lowly grad student at the mercy of his school.
            Q’s Entitled Nice Guy Syndrome (ENGS) rears its ugly head in such a brilliant and insidious way. It shows the ripple affects of privilege. Julia’s main vagina-block to magic isn’t Q’s ENGS. It’s Brakebills not accepting her.
            Currently in the show the battle-of-the-sexes is playing out like this: Julia challenges Q for not helping her. Q calls her inferior for not getting into the school. Alas, he gets to feel justified because in his eyes she is acting inferior. His Brakebills (Ivy League) friends tell him so.  She is stealing books from his school, after all. She is hanging out with hedge witches (self-taught DYIers.)  She is making very questionable decisions chasing magic.
            The hedge witches are all ages, races, and levels of ability. Brakebills is mostly white. There are no older students, and one student with a disability. She was only a minor character in the book. I’m not holding my breath that she will show up in the show.
            But, the hedge witches are no pagan love-circle. They are like any group after power that they are denied. Not always good. Not really safe. The most ruthless have risen to the top. 
            In order to be find magic Julia has to do some questionably ethical things. She’s locked in a room, get sexually harassed, and deals with manipulative girls that pretend to be her friend. That’s no paid-for magic school. In fact, that sounds exactly like a bad office job. So, naturally, Q’s calling Julia inferior, and admitting he was indeed angry he didn’t get sex, pushes her over the edge.
             Julia is made to feel responsible for all of her choices. Yet, Q is protected by Brakebills from real-life consequences of his actions. Currently on SyFy, Julia isn’t the only one suffering. Q is still suffering. People do suffer in grad school. People die, but, this seems par for the course at Brakebills. Q does care, but his biggest fear is that he will be kicked out of Brakebills and end up cut-off like Julia.
             So, what happens if you get kicked out? In episode four we learn some of the backstory of Marina, “top-bitch in New York,” and head of the hedge witches. Episode four is a thoughtful departure from the book. Julia decides to make a decision to use magic to actively hurt Q after his abandonment. She makes Q think all of his Brakebills experience was a hallucination and that he is in a mental hospital. Julia does this spell trope spell under the direction and influence of Marina.
            Yep, they get their mental hospital magic-is-fake episode out of the way by number four. It is brilliantly trope twisting and written by the Grossman himself. What the TV show has done with the deepening of the character of Penny, played by the talented Arjun Gupta, has helped the fullness of the story greatly. Also, OMG Taylor Swift musical number! How can you not love it? Side-baring that, let’s look at who engineered the spell, ex-Brakebills student Marina.
            Marina is an angry girl, kicked out of Brakebills three months before graduation. The Brakebills faculty erased Marina’s memories and knowledge of magic. She had to build them back up from nothing.  We don’t yet know what Marina did to be kicked out and her memories taken.
            It may be worse than sleeping with a professor and indirectly getting another student killed. Another student did this and she was given a cushy do-nothing job with a huge salary. It may be worse than what Q did, which was accidentally calling up a murderous beast, which crippled the dean and killed faculty, but the difference was he did the best thing you can do in grad school. He didn’t get caught. Or maybe the Brakebills staff just really wants Q in there school because they know something we don’t.
            Chances are that whatever Marina’s offenses were they didn’t serve the greater cause of the University of Brakebills.  Like most grad schools, Brakebills true goal that isn’t in its mission statement. One of the strongest things about the show is we are aloud to see what others in power may be thinking outside of Q and Julia. We get to really see how Q and Julia are cogs in a plan.
            Brakebills has plenty more to worry about than its individual students and cast-offs. It is literally saving the multiverse from a beast. The dean is fighting the good fight. He has paid the ultimate price in fantasy fiction. He has become physically disabled.
            He’s played by the understated, commanding, Rick Worthy. He instantly became my favorite character, when he said no one really has control over anything.  Because if it’s one thing people with magic, disability, and pain know- it’s that you don’t have control over anything, but you have to keep working your grand plan to save the multiverse, right? Even if that means making your school elite.
            In fact, you probably have to put diversity and fairness on the back burner for the larger cause. You have to work to keep magic away from dangerous people. But, when you deny people the right to knowledge and magic aren’t you just making more dangerous people? When an institution denies people of abilities its knowledge several things will begin to happen: People will turn against each other. People will find other ways to get that knowledge. Over time, if the institution gets too myopically focused it will crumble.
            Most grads schools don’t want to save the world. Most are either worried about their bottom line or staying elite. While schools are battling that beast and students with in it look for their larger purpose you have to wonder where the magic is. It turns out it is on SyFy, and we should all watch The Magicians to see who gets it.   


No comments:

Post a Comment