There’s a show about magic, foreign lands, and politics, that has repeatedly killed main characters, and it isn’t Game of Thrones. It’s The Magicians, a show that was billed as an edgy Harry Potter, but really has been more of a meta-commentary on “chosen one” fantasy writ larger. But the season 4 finale has left the fandom divided. And even if you aren’t a regular viewer of the show, there are some deeper issues the finale brings up that are worth thinking about.
Taking a narrow view, there were clearly problems in the writing and production of this episode. The editing is a mess, with scenes out of place, or cut short to the detriment of the narrative. Consequences of actions were revealed before the actions were discussed. There’s also the odd issue that, for a show that has previously loved to empower its women, they re-framed the emotional drive of every female lead character to be about romantic feelings for a male character. But those are, while not insignificant, the smaller points of contention. What the bigger issue is, is that the end of season 4 utilized some dangerous and damaging tropes: death by depression and bury your gays. Moving forward, it will help to know a little backstory about Queliot (Quentin and Eliot) and Qualice (Quentin and Alice). If you’d like to stick with me for a little bit of emotional background to set the stage (worth it), click the footnote. Otherwise, we’ll skip ahead.1
Jumping into the current season arc, Eliot’s has been possessed by an ancient god/monster/spirit and Quentin has been becoming increasingly distraught as plan after plan either fails, or is set aside due to it killing both the monster and the monster’s host body. Upping the stakes, there’s a flashback showing that after returning to the present, Quentin asked Eliot if he wanted to be in a relationship, seeing as how they knew for a fact they worked well together. Eliot turns him down, but this ends up being the biggest regret of his life.
All of that is important on two levels. On the first level, it’s all part of significant character work on the show. But it’s also significant when it comes to how badly the writers and show-runners screwed up with the season finale. In the last two episodes the show suddenly plunges Alice and Quentin together as a romantic pairing once again. Not only does this make no sense for where the characters were emotionally at the time, but they also never explicitly acknowledge the romantic arc between Quentin and Eliot again.
And then they have Quentin sacrifice himself to save his friends while Alice watches and screams in slow motion.
Up until the last two episodes of season 4, this moment of lovers torn apart would have belonged to Eliot, not Alice. But perhaps I’m biased, as someone that has “shipped” Eliot and Quentin. What does come across as objectively problematic is that this taps into two painful and dangerous tropes.
The first is death by depression. Portraying mental illness accurately in television pretty rare. The two best example that come to mind are very recent, with Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and borderline personality disorder, and You’re the Worst with depression. Portraying mental illness inaccurately is so common it’s hard to escape. Up until this point, The Magicians had been pretty good about Quentin’s depression. They never shamed him for using meds, and when he tries to use magic to treat himself (through expecting to be made happy just by magic’s existence, all the way to utilizing spells to directly manipulate his emotions) everything has grounded repercussions.
The reason it’s so easy to kill off depressed characters is simple: lazy writing. Okay, there’s a little bit more to it than that. It’s tension. A character with depression creates a level of dramatic tension at all times. It can wax and wane with their moods and bouts, but it will always be there. Killing a depressed character is easy because it will always release that tension. Even “better”, the depression acts as a long term setup so as shocking as the death may be, it’s never truly out of nowhere. The problem with this trope, though, is that it can potentially undermine all the work a character has done to treat themselves and, well, not commit suicide. No matter what the message of the show regarding depression, up until now has been, a suicide or noble suicide (self sacrifice) frames the act of killing one’s self as anywhere between relief and nobility.
Now we come to the other troubling trope, that of bury your gays. Previously known as dead lesbian syndrome, bury your gays (or BYG) is the act of treating queer characters as inherently more expendable than hetero-normative characters. This trope shows as a real trend when looking at statistics (see here and here). While some people argue that people claim BYG at the death of any queer character, shows actually do kill off underrepresented queers at a much higher rate than cisgender straight counterparts. BYG also comes in a few tried-and-true flavors. Often BYG is done to one half of a couple, often either unconsummated or happening immediately after consummation. This allows the show to have a token queer character with an emotionally heavy tragic backstory, all while not having to actually have the representation of writing a queer relationship, like eating one’s cake and having it too. Kotaku has an article which points out one of the most damaging aspects of the TV and film trope. Not only does it show disproportionate violence against a minority to people actively seeking representation, but it means that even surviving queer characters are often defined by their pain, suffering, and loss. For many viewers (and in the case of Kotaku’s examples, gamers) don’t even realize that they’re being conditioned to connect queer stories with suffering, but that’s what happens with trends as pervasive as this one. Imagine, for people trying to see themselves represented in media, any obvious signifier of queerness, acts as simple as small kisses, holding hands, or even eye contact, can elicit feelings of recognition but also trepidation. For too many characters, coming out queer on screen starts a countdown clock to their death. And this is exactly what The Magicians has told the audience they would never do, and then went ahead with anyway.
The rushed arc of putting Alice and Quentin back together, and then having Alice be the dominant mourner during his death, puts a hero-normative spin on what had been a slow-burn but deep development of Quentin as a bisexual character. For anyone defending Qualice with the point that many bisexuals do end up in mixed-gender partnerships , I would point out that his motivation for the entire season until now had been to save Eliot. The reason no one else could move forward on any plan that would have stopped the monster possessing Eliot was because Quentin kept Eliot’s rescue as the first priority, and placed stopping the monster second. On top of that, while they did have that 50 life together, it is suspiciously absent from any sort of emotional development in the end of the season. There’s a scene in which the only way to gain enough power to trap the monster is for Quentin to think of why he still loves Fillory, despite all the pain it has caused them in recent years. Instead of mentioning the fact that it is the only way he managed to spend a lifetime with the man he is currently in love with, all he comes up with is that he’s still in love with the idea of Fillory, and that turns out to be enough. On top of all that, Quentin’s plan manages to come together, trap the monster, and save Eliot. In fact, Eliot takes control of his body right in front of Quentin. And yet the show doesn’t allow them a moment for a reunion. No embrace. No words. Not even eye contact. It’s a jump-cut in time to a scene where they’re separated. Shortly after, Quentin dies, and he and Eliot are never reunited. Eliot is left as the survivor, and without any emotional closure after realizing the mistake he made when turning Quentin away, is left with an even more tragic backstory rooted in regret.
And that is why the season four finale of The Magicians was infuriating and painful. Yes, there was sloppy editing and lazy writing and a lot of shady behind-the-scenes treatment of the cast. But it’s also the way that The Magicians chose to actively attack so much of the audience it had previously sworn to represent, and represent well. It’s the way that Eliot and Quentin are kept apart to such an extent that it felt punitive. I’m not upset that my preferred ship was undone so much as I’m wounded that they would seemingly punish their characters for personal growth and emotional vulnerability. In a show where accepting the other and moving through pain, be it loss or depression or trauma, has been rewarded, the end of season four feels like a sick and cynical departure. And for once I’m not particularly looking forward to what comes next.
The three main characters at the center of this shake-up are Alice, Eliot, and Quentin. These characters met back in magical graduate school, and have emotionally significant and tumultuous relationships. Quentin and Alice began dating as the sort of couple you expect to see on a show about attractive people who have sex. But then, during a night of magical inebriation, Quentin cheats on her with Eliot (and Margot, another member of their circle). They break up, things move on, and as the series progressed the bond between Alice and Quentin grew more fraught and the bond between Eliot and Quentin grew deeper. Eventually, due to lots and lots of plot and angst and things, Quentin actually gets to a point where he not only stops pining after Alice, but cannot stand to be in the same room as her. There is an honest, and earned, loathing between them as she becomes responsible from removing access to magic, a force that has given him hope throughout his ongoing depression, from the world.
Meanwhile, Eliot takes Quentin under his wing, early on as a pet, but then as time goes by he sees Quentin as more than just a cute entitled white guy. There’s a shared pain in their childhoods (Eliot’s from abuse and bullying, Quentin’s from depression). They bond, they rule as royalty, and eventually get trapped in the past while on a quest for a magic key. While back there, they spend 50 years together, raising a child, sharing a last name, and not being particularly chaste, until they grow old and die. When they return to the present, they are in their young bodies, but still remember their lifetime together (and presumably now have descendants from their son).