Monday, July 6, 2020

Story Wonk: The Magicians S1E3

The Magicians S1E3: Consequences of Advanced Spellcasting

First Aired 2/1/16

Directed by

   Scott Smith

Writing Credits

Created for TV by

   Sera Gamble

   John McNamara

Written for TV by

   Henry Alonso Myers

Story Editor

   David Reed

Based on The Magicians by

   Lev Grossman

Narrative Drive:

This episode is all about the stakes. It drives home the message that the world of magic is dangerous. Just having the talent for magic can kill you … or even worse. In some ways you begin to wonder if learning magic is even worth it. Just casting a spell can corrupt a person into a monster, overpower a person into a monster, kill a person accidentally, or just change you into someone else. This isn’t a Harry Potter version of magic. With each revelation we are left to wonder which of these many characters will end up as monsters or dead or changed. The suspense starts subtly but it will last throughout the entire series.

Another driving force that lasts through the entire series is the conflict between the Brakebills magicians and the hedge witches. This conflict provides tension in a myriad of ways in different episodes. We are encouraged to pick a side in this dispute, but which side? Both sides make eloquent arguments. The back and forth tug provides the tension.

This episode provides foreshadowing for a number of upcoming episodes. We learn what a Niffin is. Margo’s enigmatic personality begins to come more in focus. We see Penny struggle with hearing too much of what is in other people’s minds. We learn that Quentin knows all the words to some Taylor Swift songs.

Writer Take Away:

  • Stakes: You just can’t have tension or narrative drive without stakes. For the stakes to feel real, they must be shown. Thus Charlie foreshadows his sister’s fate.
  • Conflict: To provide grinding tension throughout the story provide two groups whose approach to the issue at hand is equally valid. The reader will feel obligated to side with one or the other side. However, the two sides provide a push-pull sensation as the advantages of each side come clear. No one need “win” this conflict. The point isn’t who is right, it is that the two sides can’t agree.
  • Series: Not the type of series that results in a number of seasons or novels in the same setting but the plot structure series. This is the type of structure J. K. Rowling uses to create her stories. She has several subplots going throughout each novel and she keeps track of which ones appear in each chapter. The result is that it keeps the reader asking what will happen to a number of characters. In this episode we see the series about Niffins, Emily Mainstream, and Travelers. When these issues come up again it creates excitement for the reader. For a comprehensive course on series see Stuart Horwitz’s three books on the subject.

Character Arcs:

This episode provides a lot of the foundation for the rest of the season. It exemplifies each of the characters strong points and their flaws.

Quentin: Quentin was the hardest for me to figure out. Initially his flaw was his unwillingness to grow up and take adult responsibility. It was also his inability to fit in with society. He didn’t grow out of those flaws as much as coming to Brakebills negated them. 

So now what is the flaw that he needs to overcome? In this episode he runs into Julia with the hedge witches. He admits he didn’t tell anyone at Brakebills about her nor will he. He tells her it is revenge for the way she treated him. She did seem to tease him sexually and to pester him about taking on adult attitudes. So perhaps Quentin does have a vengeful streak. But it also seems that Quentin is almost afraid that Julia will somehow work her way into Brakebills. Since coming to Brakebills himself he has been accepted and made friends. Is he worried that if Julia comes to Brakebills his friends will be so struck by her they will abandon him? Or perhaps he just enjoys

feeling special in a way Julia is not “special.” Either way, he is hoarding magic from his former best friend. 

Quentin’s flaw, then is selfishness. He wants magic for himself. He needs to feel special, or more special than Julia.

Julia: Still acting as the foil for Quentin, Julia’s trajectory is the opposite of his. Where he is making friends, she is ignoring her friends. Where Quentin has a budding romance with Alice, Julia alienates her lover. Julia is sinking into the pit of obsession. No wonder she uses addiction as her excuse with her boyfriend. You do have to admire her determination though. She has pursued magic at all cost, but her strength of will has slid over a cliff into obsession.


 "Use magic in anger, and you will harm yourself much more quickly than you will harm your adversary. There are certain spells... if you lose control of them, they will change you. Consume you. Transform you into something not human. a Niffin, a spirit of raw, uncontrolled magical energy.”—Henry Fogg

Alice’s strength is her magical ability. She outstrips everyone with her ability. Her weakness is her overconfidence. Even unexperienced Quentin can see that what she plans will result in another death—likely her own.  Alice is unwilling to see not because love of her brother blinds her, but because her over confidence in her abilities blinds her. In some ways she is the opposite of Julia. Julia was also overconfident until she was rejected by Brakebills. That rejection broke her mind and set up the obsession to have magic no matter the cost.

Alice also shows us that she has a trust issue. Despite Margo’s best efforts Alice will not trust her or become friends with her.


“Hedge witches. Amateurs. Magical D-leaguers. Sad and desperate people. Once one of 'em offered to blow me for a spell. It was barely worth it.”—Eliot Waugh

So far Eliot has seemed the most organized and mature of the students. Eliot finally provides us with a believable character flaw. He is an Ivy League Snob. He also gives us a hint of something else. He is in search of the missing book because without it there will be an investigation of the cottage party culture. Eliot seems very fearful of the end of the Physical Kids Parties. Why? Is he afraid of going back to being a regular student rather than the host of the most incredible parties on campus. Is that what props up his ego?

Margo: This is her second attempt at befriending Alice and she has failed again. Her strength may be gossip. Her weakness is that gossip doesn’t provide opportunity for deep friendship. She may be smart, beautiful, clever but she is not trust-worthy to Alice. She is able to get men’s attention but she can’t quite make a female friend.

Penny: Fogg forces Penny to say he needs help with learning to control traveling. Penny is unwilling to accept help. That might be quite a flaw in this environment. The flip side, is that he is self sufficient. When he travels to Asia, he isn’t waiting to be rescued, he is finding a way back home. That is a pretty big plus for a magician.

Kade: She is resourceful. She uses battle magic to get into the Physical Kids Cottage. Her flaw is her betrayal of the Physical Kids. She stole a book from the cottage. Somehow hedge witches are controlling her and forcing her to steal for them.

Fogg: He seems to be concerned for all of his students. He isn’t necessarily able to keep them safe as they are being picked off in each episode.

Writer Take Away:

  • Strengths and Flaws: This episode painted each character with a strength and a corresponding flaw. The flaw will be overcome by lessons learned and growth as the story progresses. What are your characters strengths? If you take that strength too far, what does it turn into? Think about Julia. Determination and intelligence are great strengths but taken too far they become obsession. For Quentin he loves magic and has a natural talent for it. But now he is hoarding it away from Julia. How can you show your character’s strengths and flaws? How can different characters bring out the best and worst in your characters?
  • Give everyone a part to play. The books are much more centered around Quentin. The TV series allows for more points of view and so the support characters are getting richer development. That fills the series with even more fascinating plot lines and characters to root for. 


”Being a magician has always been, in part, about accruing power. Power over yourself, the elements. Power over the future, the very world that exists around you But power, as you all know, does not come cheaply. There are reasons we teach this curriculum precisely the way that we do. Skipping around, focusing on all the wrong things, lack of guidance... These are all extremely dangerous. There are certain energies, certain spells, which are far too powerful for one magician alone. If you lose control, it will turn against you. It will kill you. It will consume you. Change you into something else.”—Dean Fogg

“Magic is not something to be dicked around with.”—Dean Fogg


Figuring out the theme of a fantasy story frequently revolves around figuring out what magic represents to the author. In the last episode we were told magic is pain. In this episode Dean Fogg goes out of his way to tell us magic is power and thus it is dangerous. Human beings have an odd relationship with power. We are all obsessed with it to some degree but we also recognize it has negative side effect. It takes a great deal of storytelling to constantly remind us that too much power is undesirable. Therefore power and its corrupting side effects are a common theme in stories.

In the real world this is a little like money. Money also represents power. A little is a good thing but too much has a corrupting influence.


In this episode Quinten learns about the long standing conflict between Hedge-Witches and Classically-Trained Magicians. 

The term hedge witch is an homage to the wise women of old who often lived on the outskirts of villages, beyond the hedge. One side of the hedge was the village and civilization, but on the other lay the unknown and wild. Hedge witchcraft is usually practiced by solitaries, and involves deep study of plants and the natural world. The hedge witch learned her practices from older family members or mentors, and honed her skills through years of practice, trial, and error. Hedge witches typically find magical intent in routine, day to day activities, and living mindfully.

The entire subplot of Hedges vs. Brakebills reminds me of something I am experiencing in reality right this minute. I came to Arizona a few years ago just as the state wide writer’s group collapsed. I am older and the sole financial support for my family. I could not quit and go to the university setting to get an MFA in writing. I have always had to rely on writing groups and websites and books to teach me the craft of writing. So I joined with others to recreate a writing group in the state of AZ. There is a university in my town, so I invited students and teachers from the university to come to meetings or hold workshops. We were snubbed by those connected to the university. 

I get the feeling that hedge witches are writers who write fantasy or other genre works. Did Lev Grossman come across the attitude that only classically trained recipients of an MFA who write literary works should be able to address the human condition in fiction? It feels like that to me.

Women Don’t Need Rescuing

This is a theme that will be resonant throughout the entire story, at least in the TV series. It wasn’t as prominent in the books. The trope for fantasy fiction usually puts men in the driver seat. They do all the interesting things and act as heroes in the end. Women are just love interests or there to be rescued.

The first couple of episodes lulls you into thinking that the show will follow that well worn path. But then Kade jumps in and confronts the Beast with battle magic.

As Sera Gamble said of the Magicians in April, 2019:

“Sometimes being a hero means admitting that your girlfriend’s a better magician than you! In order to move the story as far and as deep as we want to on The Magicians, we have to make it really clear to the audience that we’re not interested in telling the same old fantasy story, and that it’s actually about the people you might expect to be off to the side.”

The Magicians is putting that trope on its head. With each episode in each season the women are becoming the ones to watch as they act heroically when the men back off. Most of the women eventually rescue themselves and that is one of the reasons I really loved the TV series.


  1. I really love the aesthetic of your blog, especially the cathedral background! I haven't seen or read this series, but I really liked how you analyzed all the components for writers. I'm currently reading Save the Cat, which is for screenwriters, but most of it applies to novelists as well.


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