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Qualice or Queliot? The toxic and ideal in The Magicians' biggest ships
There’s a moment in a recent episode of The Magicians when Penny asks someone how they would shelve a book about Alice and Quentin.
“Star-crossed romances?” They ask, “Or well-meaning failures?”
Spoilers throughout for The Magicians.
The Magicians Seasons 1 and 2 largely focus on the intense relationship between Quentin Coldwater and Alice Quinn. Quentin’s interest is almost immediate from the first moment he notices Alice. She’s skittish and a genius. She clearly has something else going on. A magical seal on his hand pushes him into her orbit and they accidentally summon a demon beast from Fillory together. Alice confides in Quentin. He goes along with her plan and helps where he can, sometimes making the hard decisions that she can’t. He’s taken in by her and her intensity and her intelligence (she’s also gorgeous, which probably helps).With her natural talent for magic, her high-necked shirts, glasses, and flouncy skirts, plus the fact that Q has been contending with an unrequited crush on his best friend Julia, Alice is set up to be the romantic interest du jour. As such, the show increasingly presses the two of them together, and as viewers, we start to feel the inevitability of their relationship.
In Episode 6, “Impractical Applications,” we get a classic twist from the depths of the best fanfic tropes as Q and Alice must strip bare, both literally and figuratively, sharing their deepest secrets while standing naked on a roof at Brakebills. An episode later, they’re in the icy tundra of Brakebills South and are so tightly wound that their teacher, Mayakovsky, yells at them to just do it already.
(They do.)But this is The Magicians. Nothing is what it seems to be on the surface.
In a late Season 3 episode, Penny 23 grabs Julia and kisses her without saying anything, and Julia pulls away from him.
“I’m from a different timeline,” Julia says.
“One where romantic comedy behavior gets you arrested!” Marina calls out from behind her.
It's that last line that's important. What Gamble and company have done with Quentin and Alice is lull us into this idea that they are the one true love of this series, only to pull the rug out from under us when we realize that maybe they’re not. Maybe we’ve been fed the worst impulses of media to tell us what a Good Romantic Relationship is, and so it’s what we believed. Quentin and Alice’s relationship, as we follow it, has all the trappings of a toxic romantic movie. Don’t believe me? Let’s look at the evidence:
- Quentin is hesitant and nerdy and not particularly talented. Alice is far, far out of his league.
- They have magic sex and are immediately in Happy Couple Land.
- Quentin has a desperate belief in their love.
- They fall in love without ever having been in like.
- When Alice says no, Quentin grows increasingly persistent.
- When Quentin inadvertently cheats on Alice and they break up, she still sacrifices herself to save his life.
In the second season, Niffin-Alice alternately harangues and mocks Quentin, but he still believes so much in their love that he’s convinced that if he can only save her, they’ll be fine (he does, but it doesn’t fix their lost love, which was my first clue that maybe I was reading this all wrong). By the third and fourth seasons, they’ve drifted apart so much they barely share the screen. In the latest episodes, Q actually rejects Alice for the first time.
Now, let’s talk about Eliot and Quentin. Eliot is the first person Quentin meets at Brakebills. He’s, effectively, his first friend. When Q almost gets kicked out of school for Alice’s spell, it’s Eliot who tries to comfort him and then asks him not to fall back into depression on the outside. Eliot might have a crush, but he doesn’t deliberately act on it (until that wayward threesome with Margo when they are all overwhelmed by the resurgence of feeling). And even then, we find out later that he holds some intense guilt for the encounter.
It’s Quentin who crowns Eliot once they become the High Kings of Fillory in the second season, and he starts by saying:
“So, destiny is — bullshit.”
(It’s Eliot who crowns Alice, and he crowns her The Wise.)
As the seasons go on, Eliot and Quentin’s friendship grows deeper. In the first episode of Season 3, Eliot, trying to find out how he can rid his kingdom of the fairy menace, is sent on an epic quest. The Great Cock of the Darkling Woods (obligatory lol) tells him of the quest and then tells him to remember his friends. He references them all, but then focuses in on one.
“You have a brother of the heart with the floppy hair,” he says to Eliot.
“That would be Quentin.”
“You’re parts of one whole. No one can do this alone.”
Their relationship is already founded in friendship and is now being built on partnership. Then comes Episode 5 in the third season: “A Life in a Day.”It is truly one of those game-changing episodes that shifts a show from being something good to being something great. Quentin is still focused on fixing Alice, on turning her into someone he “recognize[s]” when he and Eliot are tasked with solving a mosaic to create a design that reflects the “beauty of all life” in Fillory.
They end up at a small cottage with a plot outside and hundreds of tiny tiles that need to blend together. Eliot and Quentin live there together for 50 years over the course of the episode. We watch them on their first anniversary of mosaic building, when Quentin hesitantly leans forward and kisses Eliot. And he kisses Eliot, not the other way around. Q makes a choice (albeit an inebriated one), but it wasn’t something that he was pushed into or something that happened and he just rolled with.
We watch Q have a child with a Fillorian woman, and then lose her. We watch Eliot and Quentin raise his son, together. They grow old. Q buries Eliot, and in doing so uncovers a missing tile. And then he solves the mosaic. Because that’s the beauty of all life. One spent together.
Through the magic of time travel they come back, and it’s not until the end of the episode that the weight of their 50 years together comes crashing down on their heads. They sit side by side and they remember.
At the end of the third season, it’s Quentin attempting to sacrifice himself for his friends, and it’s Eliot who stops him from doing so in a way that Quentin couldn’t stop Alice.
We learn in Season 4 that during the end of “Life in a Day” Quentin asked Eliot if they could go for it and be together. They have a proof of concept, he said. They work. Why not try? Eliot, standing in his own memory, in the most traumatic one he doesn’t want to think of, watches himself reject Quentin out of fear. “What the hell is wrong with you?” Eliot berates his memory-double. “And what the hell are you doing? Someone good and true loves you.”
And it’s finally through this memory that he finds a door to the outside, so he can tell his friends he’s still alive inside the body that’s been taken over by the monster. But before walking through, he kisses memory-Quentin and tells him that he’s the reason for Eliot’s courage.“If I ever get out of here, Q, know that when I’m braver it’s ‘cause I learned it from you.”
We’ve watched Quentin grow braver and stronger throughout the seasons, and here we get to see how he’s impacted Eliot’s development.
As viewers, we know now that Quentin’s attempt to save Eliot from the Beast in Season 4 is out of pure love for his friend, with no expectation of being loved in return. He’s already been rejected. He accepted that rejection and doesn’t bring up a possible relationship again.
The difference between Eliot and Quentin and Alice and Quentin is that we see individual and relationship growth with one, and stagnation with the other. One is the ideal, and one is a toxic mess. One becomes a partnership, and one is about individual goals and hopes and desires. That said, The Magicians never fails to surprise, so maybe all this will be moot by next season. But until then, I’m all in on relationships built from friendship and trust. What up, Queliot?