I don't really have anything to add that the cogent and courageous greywash hasn't put out into the world -- I refer you to their essay On Fannishness, Intersectionality, & a Whole Other Grab-bag of Entitled Millennial Bullshit on Medium [based of initial meta reaction on AO3] to which I am proud and humbled to have contributed to; as well as their thoughtful response to the Physical Kids Podcast episode from last week, responding to the finale alongside guests Lev Grossman (author of the books on which the show is based/consultant to the show) and Olivia Taylor Dudley (who portrays Alice on the show), which covers all the important points raised in our off-DW discussion of the podcast episode -- available on Twitter or on AO3.
I would also direct you to cleolinda's most excellent essay The Magicians S4 Finale Aired Five Days Ago And I'm Still Mad As Hell, which does serious hero's work compiling a -- well -- a fuckton of links about The Magicians and 4x13, and works through both critical and personal responses to the episode with a vigour and determination I can only admire.
That said, there are a few things in particular that I can't quite shake in my own criticism of the show and particularly of 4x13 that I'm going to call out in this post to look at them more clearly. Just in case -- please note that this post contains discussion of depression, mental health, suicidal ideation, and suicide consistent with its presentation in The Magicians and explicitly in response to the presentation of those matters in episode 4x13, "No Better to Be Safe Than Sorry". It also, of course, contains spoilers for The Magicians series to date.
The thoughts I'm wrestling with stem primarily from this exchange from the Hollywood Reporter Interview with Sera Gamble, John McNamara, and Henry Alonso Myers:
Episode seven of this season, "The Side Effect," explicitly challenges the idea that a fantasy story needs a "white male protagonist." Was that moment part of the buildup to Quentin leaving the show?
Gamble: Yes, that was a huge part of the conversation for us. This is a fantasy show about people who are fans of fantasy, so they know what kind of movie or story they’re in when they’re on an adventure or a quest. That opened some doors for us as writers to really examine the classic arc we would be putting everybody on, and question why it must be so, and ask ourselves what would happen if we did things a little bit differently.
Myers: As the show has gone on, we’ve had a chance to lean into some of our other characters more, and when we do that, we realized the show is just as strong if not stronger when it’s leaning into other perspectives. The experimental nature of the show, and the fact that we've been able to do episodes like "The Side Effect" suggested to us that not only is this something that we would survive, it's something that actually might be a great shot in the arm for us.
McNamara: And from a dramaturgical point of view, it's kind of great that at last, the white male lead on a show is no longer safe.
So, here's my breakdown.
1. The white & male privileges of fantasy and sci-fi. I read and watch and write about genre media extensively -- particularly I've been reading fantasy and science fiction since I could read to myself, so something like thirty years. I know from my white male protagonists; further to that, I tend to be particularly watchful for protagonists in media who are not actually white, or male, and the ways Western culture defaults to the conceptualization of genre protagonists as white and male even when they are explicitly written otherwise. Before the late aughties and the trend towards more abstract book covers, it was hilariously common for the cover of a science fiction or fantasy novel to portray the characters in the book as almost uniformly white, with a significant bias towards depicting male characters (even when the character was not white, or the protagonist was non-male in gender).
I've been watching science fiction and fantasy television for nearly as long as I have been reading genre books, and particularly in the nineties and early aughties when I was growing up it was typical if not expected that the lead in a genre show would be white and male. It takes nothing to come up with ten: Stargate SG-1, Stargate: Atlantis, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Highlander, The Sentinel, The X-Files, Twin Peaks, Quantum Leap, Sliders, SeaQuestDSV, Smallville, Farscape, Star Trek: Enterprise, Babylon 5, Angel, The Dead Zone, Roswell (the original), Supernatural.
That's 18, but then again -- that's 18.
Of course there were shows that offered a different lead -- Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Witchblade, Xena: Warrior Princess, Joan of Arcadia, Dead Like Me, Star Trek: Voyager -- and they are important, but they are also exceptions, "brave new voices" in a genre dominated by the White Male Protagonist. (Even then, we're mostly looking at white women leads -- I really can't overstate the significant of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine during the nineties presenting a black man as a ranking officer in the world of Star Trek, the lead of a Star Trek show, who went through a complex, challenging storyline that actively engaged in addressing racism while writing Sisko as a black man, not as a cipher for a white man.)
So going into The Magicians, having read the first book, I was very prepared to Deal With Quentin Coldwater, who I found utterly trying as a point of view character. And it was difficult -- I skipped a lot of scenes in season one, because I just did not have time for that bullshit. (More specifically, I really struggled with the construction of Julia's arc as an addiction narrative that ends in violent rape.)
As the show developed, I was surprised to find that I gradually became more sympathetic towards Quentin; the clinching moment for me was in episode 1x11, "Remedial Battle Magic", where Alice is saying that the Physical Kids (PKs) shouldn't use the emotional bottles, and instead should try to learn battle magic like she is; to which Quentin replies, "Do you even hear yourself sometimes? I am trying. This is me trying." (paraphrased)
That was the first moment where I actually recognized my own experience in Quentin's characterization. That is -- precisely what being inside depression, being flattened by physical ailments feels like, to me. I am fucking trying. And that -- is when I started paying attention to him as a character, and not just as the White Guy Who Is Our Entry To This World.
I get it. I do. Thoroughly and with a lot of audience experience. Quentin is our protagonist. He is white, and he is male, and he's the lead and the initial fulcrum for the involvement of the other characters in the story. Jane Chatwin and Henry Fogg underscore this in-universe when it's revealed that Quentin's Timeline Zero interaction with Martin Chatwin as the Beast changed things for the first time after Jane's countless efforts to otherwise defeat her brother. Or, alternatively stated, this White Man(boy) did something that a White Woman and Black Man could not do that would ultimately save the world.
But that moment, that "I'm trying" statement, frustrated and unheard and with the weight of depression behind it, was the moment that I stopped thinking of Quentin as That White Guy and began thinking about him as a person with depression. Which meant, too, that I stopped thinking of Quentin as a walking trope, and started thinking about him as a person.
And I think that is what I was meant to do, by the show.
In the same episode, 1x11, "Remedial Battle Magic", Quentin drunkenly and with poor judgment falls into bed with Margo and Eliot. Much like Eliot's sexuality is presented on-screen without a coming out scene, so too does Quentin's; it is a fact, an aspect of Quentin's identity. So we can call it bisexuality or sexual fluidity or, if I'm really straining here, "heteroflexible"; but none of those phrases make him any less queer.
For McNamara to say: And from a dramaturgical point of view, it's kind of great that at last, the white male lead on a show is no longer safe; and for Gamble and Myers to affirm the interviewer's question: Episode seven of this season, "The Side Effect," explicitly challenges the idea that a fantasy story needs a "white male protagonist." Was that moment part of the buildup to Quentin leaving the show? generates a contextual fucking problem.
They stopped writing a White Male Lead in season one. They started writing a man who is queer, has depression, and is white.
So, two things -- first, it's reductive if not outright disingenuous to, as EPs and writers, describe the character they've spent four years developing as only white, and only male. If that is what Quentin remained at the end of Season One, if that's all he was by the end of the series, I can't imagine I would be that bothered by his death; to be honest I doubt I would be watching it at all.
Furthermore, it does a remarkable disservice to Jason Ralph's portrayal of Quentin, a portrayal the EPs routinely hawk and highlight as one of the best parts of the show. Ralph not only brought Quentin to life, he took the very qualities I found so irritating in the book and created a performance that showed emotional vulnerability, personal growth, and compassion. He portrayed Quentin as he was written -- a man who is queer, has depression, and is white. To characterize his performance as simply an iteration of hegemonic demographics is -- let's just go with disrespectful.
Second, as people who appear to be white, McNamara, Gamble, and Myers are simultaneously non-specific about their intentions with 4x13 while framing their choices as progressive. Myers says: we realized the show is just as strong if not stronger when it’s leaning into other perspectives, eg non-white male perspectives and that Quentin's death was informed by 4x07 "The Side Effect" which: suggested to us that not only is this something that we would survive, it's something that actually might be a great shot in the arm for us; Gamble says the showrunners: ask ourselves what would happen if we did things a little bit differently; and McNamara says, of course: it's kind of great that at last, the white male lead on a show is no longer safe.
There's an element of privilege, and of white privilege in particular, that creates a defensiveness in those that bear these privileges who struggle or outright deny the possession of such privilege. One of the ways white privilege specifically iterates defensiveness is by attacking others who bear the same privilege, to perhaps show that no, no, I don't have white privilege, see, look at me calling out all these white people over here. It's a defence mechanism that makes the privileged person feel better about themselves while defusing the threat of realizing their own privilege. For white people, for these evidently white people, to frame the death of a white character as a progressive story choice because of that character's whiteness speaks more to the white privilege these folks bear than progressive storytelling.
This is evidenced by vague phrases like "leaning in to other perspectives" and "a great shot in the arm" for the show. The Magicians was already an ensemble show, an ensemble of characters that are women, that are people of color. From the first episode, Quentin's storyline is immediately paralleled by Julia's storyline -- which was a progressive choice, because it took the focus solely off Quentin and made equal Julia's storyline too. It's troubling to think that the showrunners didn't believe that their ensemble show could truly be an ensemble until Quentin was killed off. It's problematic to learn from their interviews that they didn't believe they could prioritize other characters' storylines in the ensemble without killing off Quentin. It's disappointing in extremis to realize that the showrunners never considered that the Quentin they were writing had a place in that ensemble as a man who was depressed and queer who was also white.
Are we, as an audience, supposed to take away from this that we can't have stories about non-white, non-male characters unless the White Male character is dead? Are we supposed to only engage with characters via their demographic identities without deeper characteristics or experiences? Are we really supposed to believe that there can't be stories where white people and brown people and people of color and women and men and people of various genders coexist in fiction?
What the fuck kind of progressive storytelling is that?
2. The idea that "the white male lead on a show is no longer safe." My struggle here is twofold. One - how the showrunners perceive identity; and two - applying the value of "safe" to a suicidal depressive.
So, one. I have no doubt that in previous interviews the EPs and writers and others involved in the production of The Magicians have described Quentin in various ways beyond being a white male. But the nature of this interview, and its context alongside the season four finale, demand interrogation.
How do we construct identity? What induces us, as individuals, to lay claim to a particular facet of our personality or life? I, for example, identify as queer -- but it's not the first thing I tell people. My line is that being queer is one of the less interesting things about me. I am more likely to frame my identity through disability, because doing so makes the difference between accessibility and lack thereof in real-world situations. I disclose disability as part of my identity because it has framed nearly every other aspect of my life, from the work I do to the food I eat to the people I choose to spend time with. I am Hard of Hearing, neuro-atypical, and manage major depressive disorder.
I call myself a philosopher, because I earned a degree in the academic subject and continue to teach and publish in the discipline. I identify as someone who passes for white, who benefits more often than not from white privilege. I struggle to articulate myself as a person who doesn't feel gendered, who is perceived unambiguously as female and performs niche femininity in my sartorial choices.
These are all aspects of my identity, of how I perceive myself, how I convey my identity to others, how I build community and solidarity. What I often say in an introduction or short bio is that I am a disabled academic who is queer and loves dogs. Any random could -- and probably does -- look at me and think, oh, that's a straight white woman with a hearing aids.
Quentin is a person who is male, one who manages major depression, is queer, and is white; he's an academic and bibliophile. He deals with suicidal ideation. He is a lower-case magician.
Okay. How many of those aspects of Quentin are considered by the showrunners to be part of Quentin's identity; how many considered merely characterization?
This is the crux of it -- how people, including characters, identify themselves matter. Being queer isn't just characterization. It defines Quentin -- regardless of whether he comes out, or says, "Hi I'm Quentin, a Bisexual" to the next person he meets. Having depression, struggling with suicidal ideation also defines Quentin, so much so that it's our introduction to him in 1x01, the basis for a malicious nightmare in 1x04 "The World in the Walls", manifested on screen in 3x06 "Do You Like Teeth?". and articulated even in death in 4x13.
So -- what is the disconnect here, on the part of the showrunners. In creating the character, writing his story, bringing him to life through Jason Ralph, at what point do the identities the show wrote for Quentin cease being identities, and only become characterization?
I keep circling back to the white privilege of Gamble, McNamara, and Myers, who in seeing Quentin's identity so narrowly as a White Man are declaiming their own white privilege by killing off one of their own.
And, two. The phrase "no longer safe" fucking concerns me. Quentin was never safe to begin with. Quentin wasn't safe in 1x01, when he checked himself into an in-patient mental health clinic. Quentin has never been safe, and it is insincere and unscrupulous of the EPs to claim otherwise.
The closest The Magicians could have gotten to actually, textually killing off a White Male Protagonist would be Todd or Hyman -- because neither of them has been given identities other than their race and gender within the story. It doesn't work, of course, because they are both recurring characters, played for laughs.
The Magicians did kill off Martin Chatwin, who was both white and male, and conceivably as the villain could be considered on par with our protagonists. But that too doesn't work, because Martin was a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, and more specifically a male survivor of childhood sexual abuse, a highly marginalized subgroup.
So what white male is "safe" on this show? Quentin certainly isn't. Eliot -- white, male, protagonist -- has never been safe, as a queer person, a survivor of emotional abuse, a person who struggles with alcoholism and addition. Josh -- white, male -- is never the lead, but even so, as a Jewish person identifying him as white ignores the racial marginalization Jews experience all over the world, and the low-key allegory of lycanthropy to HIV further removes him from any real safety.
No one on this show has ever been safe. McNamara, in particular, is acting outside of good faith on the part of the show by asserting that any character, much less the characters who are white and male, have ever been safe. That ultimately was part of the intrigue of the show, for me; that terrible shit happened to everyone, not just the brown ones or the female ones or the queer ones. But more importantly, that they all survived the bad shit that happened to them, and carried on, one way or another.
The Magicians has, season after season, presented us with complicated characters who struggle with a myriad of issues both internal and external, and survive them to live another day. The show never needed to tell me outright that these characters, any of them -- no less Quentin -- weren't safe. We already knew that.
For those of us who live with so many of the same issues as the characters -- the showrunners didn't need to tell us that we weren't safe either. We most definitely already knew that too, thanks.
3. Intention vs impact. I've been working my way through Carl Jung's late essays, collected in "The Undiscovered Self"; and these lines from "The Language of Dreams" jumped out at me, so relevant:
One uses a word or a concept, for instance, that in another connection has an entirely different meaning of which one is momentarily unconscious, and this can lead to a ridiculous or even a disastrous misunderstanding. Even a most carefully defined philosophical or mathematical concept, which we are sure does not contain more than we have put into it, is nevertheless more than we assume.
I've lived through a lot of fandoms over the last two decades, and I've seen and experienced many a terrible fucking thing on the part of a show, movie, book, video game, etc. I don't really give my trust to any piece of media -- the last time I did was probably Buffy, and even then I tended more towards the analytical over the visceral.
With 4x13, I really don't expect anything to come of the reactions to the finale. I don't believe the showrunners or the network will ever apologize, even to use an apology as a way to prevent loss of viewership. I definitely don't believe the show will contrive to bring Quentin back for season five, and I don't think Jason Ralph would renew his contract either.
I don't think that, in the scheme of things, emails to the network or tweets to the showrunners or any of the beautiful, thoughtful, crucial essays folks have written will make any real difference -- for one thing The Magicians is still a pretty niche show, with comparatively small Nielsen viewership.
I don't expect, although I would like to hope, that an interview will come out over the hiatus where the showrunners are more circumspect and compassionate and illustrate an understanding of how their finale episode can be interpreted.
I am doubtful that the fandom will make it, at least not in its current iteration -- fandoms have been broken on much less significant canon events than this. (But please prove me wrong on this one.)
So the thing I'm wrestling here is, definitely, about the disconnect between what the showrunners and writers clearly thought they broadcast and the reality of what I and so many others actually interpreted from the broadcast. But it's also about the response of the showrunners to that interpretation.
[A concept] which we are sure does not contain more than we have put into it, Jung states, is nevertheless more than we assume.
This should be so obvious as to be redundant, but in practice almost never is. From the Vulture Interview:
Are you at all worried that someone might read this episode as suggesting that suicide is an act of bravery?
John McNamara: I definitely don’t want to write pro-suicide television. It’s irresponsible, and it’s too simplistic, frankly. Someone being incredibly heroic in the moment, and also having subconscious self-destructive tendencies, makes drama interesting and not cartoonish. For anybody who wants to just really bat around all the layers of what Quentin did, the best way to do that is to not kill yourself. Stay alive and debate that issue.
Quentin is a fictional character, he comes from Lev Grossman and me and Sera and every writer on this show. And as a group, we really make an effort whenever we deal with substance abuse, or sexual assault, or suicide, to put a suicide hotline notice on the episode. Because obviously this could be triggering, and that’s not our intent. Our intent is to really rigorously and realistically explore human behavior, and if the show simplifies human behavior to the point where it’s a cartoon, you’re doing a greater disservice to the world of mental health.
You'll notice that McNamara does not answer the question directly -- he says "Because obviously this could be triggering, and that’s not our intent."
It just -- is irrelevant whether the intention of the showrunners was to depict Quentin's death as suicide or not. Intention is always irrelevant when it comes to art -- once you put it out there, it's out there, for the audience to make of it what they will. Committing to putting up the Suicide Prevention Hotline actually does more to affirm the interpretation of his death as suicide that anything else.
By engaging with the ambiguity of his death in-text, by having Quentin's grave secret be the question of whether he succeeded in suiciding or not, the show punts answering to the viewers. Quentin could have died, and never have asked his grave secret question, and -- while I would still be over here side-eyeing the ending and considering it passive suicide regardless -- Quentin's death could have been read simply as his death, begging a wide variety of interpretations with none of them being definitive.
Introducing the grave question, introducing Quentin's own uncertainty about his death as a suicide, was a choice. It was a choice whose intention was to "really rigorously and realistically explore human behavior".
And [from Gamble in THR]: "We wanted him to explicitly ask that question [of whether he killed himself], because suicidal thoughts have been a part of his journey for the whole series, and a huge part of his backstory...But because this has been such a painful and constant part of Quentin's life, it made sense that he would ask about it. It gave us an opportunity to close the circle that was opened in the pilot when he's facing the psychiatrist and trying to deal with his own mental health."
But intention =/= impact. What the showrunners and writers put together, what they see in 4x13 (eg "I watched the scene where he dies, and to me there's no question that he's being heroic, and he's being selfless in that moment, and he has done the math really fast and he's done what he needs to do to save his friends", from Gamble, also THR) ultimately does not matter once it's broadcast to the audience. What the audience sees determines the impact of the show. What the audience interprets becomes the impact of the show.
If a creator has to tell me how I should interpret their work, then they have failed their work. If a creator has to assure me that a death isn't suicide, they have failed, as Jung says, to recognize that their work is "nevertheless more than we assume."
I maintain that, if the showrunners were serious in their efforts to engage with Quentin's suicidal ideation, they should have invited one of the many suicide prevention organizations to consult with them. (I'm relatively confident that a suicide prevention organization would have watched the episode and said, "but you're showing characteristics of a suicide.")
The infuriating this about this, really, is that in these two interviews you have the showrunners and writers being asked questions about Quentin's death being interpreted as a suicide; and then answering not about the potential interpretations of the audience but their own meta-textual beliefs about the Quentin's death. McNamara says: "obviously this could be triggering, and that’s not our intent."
The fact of it being triggery has absolutely fuck-all to do with the intention of it being not-triggery. Fuck. All. The actual impact to the audience, the potential trigger of suicide, the ambiguity of Quentin's death -- intention means nothing.
McNamara says in THR: "I believe, as one of the writers of that script, that he did not consciously kill himself, and I think the scene by the fire with Penny answers that. But it's complicated, and there has to be a little bit of ambiguity."
There really doesn't. And deliberately maintaining that ambiguity, of whether's Quentin's death was a suicide, while simultaneously -- by the same person! -- saying "obviously this could be triggering, and that's not our intent" is so casually merciless I find myself deeply confused about what show, exactly, I've been watching all along.
This was emphatically not ameliorated by the responses of the showrunners [Gamble] and writers [Myers], which were clearly coordinated and blandly supportive without actually acknowledging why their fanbase has reacted so negatively. (I will note not exclusively negatively, particularly by professional media outlets recapping the finale.)
At the end of the day, it reads like the showrunners and writers knowingly broadcast Quentin's death and purposefully left it ambiguous whether he suicided within the text of the show; while stating outside the context of the show that they did not believe it was suicide, as though doing so would convey their intention, overlaying any potential triggery impact to the show's audience. But intention =/= impact. And there is always more to the concept one puts out into the world than intended.
I haven't come to any firm conclusions about my continued interest in The Magicians. I would like to continue to write fiction, engage with fandom. I am very fond of all the characters on the show, and I want to know what happens to them in the forthcoming season.
At the same time, I wonder if I'm watching the show the creators think they are producing; and I am not thrilled at the idea of continuing to support the creators after the season finale. I'm not certain I want to watch a program that can be so tone-deaf and reckless with its stories, its characters, and especially its audience.
But I definitely have eight months to think about it.