There’s a bit of a debate online about whether Quentin is The Magicians’ protagonist. He’s entitled, he’s whiny, he’s constantly fucking up and people are destroying themselves to keep him afloat. Coming from the books, and seeing some things amplified for the show, I figure it’s time to parse Q and see what’s going on.
This story isn’t all about Quentin, the show even less so than the books. The story of The Magicians is more of an ensemble piece, and if we’re being completely honest it would be fair to say that Quentin is the weakest link. In the books, his arc is the shortest. That’s actually the point of Quentin. I know a few people who read the novels, or at least the first one, and didn’t click with it because Quentin wasn’t likable enough. Some people have been having a similar reaction to the adapted show, and I think they’re all missing one of the main points of the story1. But yes, Quentin sucks. I’ll break it down a bit.
*Some book spoilers to follow*
Quentin’s a cis, white, heterosexual male from a privileged background. He gets everything he wants. He complains a lot. But that’s his starting point. He is the worst when the books and show begin. He’s entitled, oblivious, and constantly failing upward. He is what’s wrong with the world today. In the books his entire arc is going from being an self-absorbed prick to a reasonable human being.
It’s an epic fantasy where the journey culminates in one character finally understanding Wil Wheaton’s mantra of “don’t be a dick”. Nearly everyone else in the squad has a series’ worth of character growth except for Quentin. From coming to terms with one’s self as an outsider, to coping with unimaginable loss, to fully realizing and internalizing what real power over one’s life means. And yet he simply goes from being a petulant ass to being a moderately well-adjusted and thoughtful person across the span of three novels, or five season (ideally) of a television show. And that’s the point of his character. I understand that in the novel it’s not the most obvious thing, all the more so if the reader hasn’t stuck around for at least the second book. But in the show it should be abundantly clear. They take what were Julia’s flashbacks in book two and bring them in as a parallel contemporary narrative. That’s an entire ongoing storyline that takes time away from Quentin2.
There’s also the fact that in the books he attends Brakebills the magical college, whereas in the show he attends Brakebills the magical graduate school. In the novels he at least has the excuse of youth, but what could have been passed off as blind cis-het-white-male-privilege is now a blindingly obvious set of character flaws. For someone that old to be that immature and that front-and-center in a show, well, it’s there to be noticed. Quentin is a douche and it’s not supposed to be a secret.
The reason he’s the ‘main character’ is that he’s the “volunteer tomato”. He just keeps showing up. And that’s not despite his entitlement, it’s because of it. Every time he’s exposed to magic, every time he learns of the quest, he assumes it’s his to take hold of. He always shows up because he always cuts in line when fate is handing out epic journeys. 39 times Quentin has pulled a Kylo Ren and claimed the coolest thing around as his own because he wants it.And so while the show’s Quentin is a more stunted man-child, his passing of the power (and semen) to Alice is that much larger of a step for him. In the novel Alice’s stepping up to take care of the situation Quentin had gotten everyone into is her finally getting sick of him and his Hamlet-ing. In the show they use the moment as a much needed moment for Quentin to be just a bit less terrible. But can you really have a main character that you’re supposed to hate, and who’s growth is shown through becoming less active in the story? In an ensemble piece such as The Magicians I don’t think so. Much like, well, nearly everyone across the span of the trilogy Quentin is going to have to fade away before he can come back anew.
So who is the main character, if there is one? By the end of the finale it’s pretty clear that Julia deserves that title. As far as the fade away/rebirth structure of each arc, Julia’s fade away was nearly all of book one, which has already been shown in season one as her hedgewitch period. As I mentioned above, the book also ends with Alice taking the reigns, without Ember’s juice, and cleaning up after Quentin. This time around it’s Julia who steps up and ends things with the Beast. But of course, I can’t talk about that without talking about the sources of power.
It’s men. More specifically, it’s men’s semen. But not really. A lot of articles have been complaining that between Julia’s rape and both her and Alice leveling up due to exposure to semen that it steals the power from the women and gives it back to the men, with those two as proxies for “real power”. I was, and still am, uncomfortable with how everything went down, but I don’t think that interpretation is quite right. It’s not mens’ semen, but the semen of gods. It may seem like quibble but it’s actually a rather big distinction. Alice in the books is strong enough to best the Beast on her own. Here she has her power tied to that of Umber. And while her story on its own may look like it’s negating her innate power, in concert with Julia’s narrative it tells a different story.
There is a very long, very entrenched history of gods both raping women as well as bestowing power on them. Look at Leda who was raped by Zeus (as a swan, no less), Rindr raped by Odin, or even Mary who was taken without consent by the Holy Spirit of Christianity. This godhood takes the issue from that of modern power struggles to that of an ancient one. And to portray Julia’s receiving of said “gift” in a visual style that evokes a breaking and entering more than a holy communion is there to show how fucked up this historical tradition is. Leda and the swan has long been a subject of classic art, but at its core it is showing us an act of rape, however mythologized and abstract it may be.When Julia regains her memory it’s a terrible burden to her and the audience. That soft light, moment of beauty and gifts (like Michelangelo’s Leda and the Swan) is shown to be an alluring facade laid over a horrific act. It’s not taking power away from Julia but rather subverting the literary tradition of idealizing forced sex by magical creatures as a gift to the woman. Martin Chatwin, too, falls into this structure. He was raped by a more powerful male figure and in the end it drives him to becoming a master-class magician. But it’s not artful or idealized. It’s brutal and savage.
If there’s any question regarding how strong Julia is, regardless of Reynard’s seed, it becomes clear that she’s in control by the end. On a surface level she’s strong enough to wield the god-killer knife and steals away with the Beast to learn how to kill a god, Reynard. But in context of the story she actually steps up to steal the narrative. In relation to the book we expect Alice to be the champion. Julia replaces her to not only beat the Beast, but to steal where the show is going. It’s her story because she’s literally stolen the show. And that’s not because of her magical ability. The only thing that power is used for is to hold a knife. The idea to push everything they’ve been fighting for aside and take the Beast’s knowledge of how to slaughter gods is whole of her own drive. That’s not Julia the hedgewitch working a spell. That’s Julia the woman stepping up and taking control of her own life.
Notes [ + ]
|1.||↵||I also think that if you limit yourself to books with likable protagonists you’re shutting yourself off from a lot of great stories.|
|2.||↵||In the novels, book 1 covers Quentin in college and a little bit after. Julia isn’t accepted to Brakebills and only returns for one scene in. The second book is split pretty evenly between the group currently, and flashbacks to what Julia was up to during the first novel. The show takes these concurrent narratives and splices them together for the show’s first season.|