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The Magicians reclaims Margo's quest as a feminist journey
In fiction and folklore, the purpose of a quest is to strengthen or arm a hero. Usually the quest either culminates in or takes place before a major battle or conflict, and without the quest the hero would not be up to the challenge before them. The hero starts the quest as one person and ends it as a stronger, different person.
In SYFY’s The Magicians, the quest is prominent, and each character who goes on a quest is changed by their experiences. Quentin’s whole journey from the mundane to the magical and resulting discovery of Fillory is a quest. Eliot starts the quest for the Seven Keys only to find himself on a different, interior quest. How Julia teaches herself magic and becomes a goddess is another quest (albeit one with a lot more important and problematic twists than I’m getting into here).
But Season 4 takes the quest to whole new heights when Margo enters the Wandering Desert in search of the Foremost. In and of itself, “All That Hard Glossy Armor” is a deeply powerful and feminist episode, but it’s all the more so when comparing Margo’s quest to her counterpart Janet’s in The Magician’s Land, the final book in the trilogy written by Lev Grossman. The series is a much more feminist, queer, and sex-positive take on the source material — and in it, Margo’s quest is reclaimed as a feminist journey.
In The Magicians novels, Janet — who is Margo, but with a much worse name—is a fairly minor character for much of the trilogy, outside of the infamous threesome with Quentin and Eliot. However, in the final book, bored and without High King Eliot (who is on his own quest), Janet decides to annex the Wandering Desert. Again, because she’s bored, she wants to invade a sovereign territory.
When she reaches the Wandering Desert, Janet dismisses her army and walks the desert alone until she collapses and is rescued by a man sailing on the sand. When she wakes, she discusses annexation with him, but as the leader, aka the Foremost, he ignores her request, so she decides to ingratiate herself with the people. She stays for three months, harvesting parsnips and sleeping with the Foremost.
“I didn’t love him,” she says, “But I liked him a lot, and I loved his world. I wanted to be part of that place. And God knows he was easy on the eyes. Sex with him was amazing. Like going to bed with the desert.”
Just when she becomes smitten with where she is, the Foremost tells her she must undergo the initiation rite or leave. Janet leaves the community with a sack that she must fill with black grains, which are rare compared to the tan grains of their desert sand. If she were successful, the Smelter would appear to her and forge her a weapon similar to those of the people of the Wandering Desert.
The Smelter never appears, but after four days and many ruminations on her life, she returns to the city. They have prepared a celebration for her, and though she has failed, she is relieved that they seem to have accepted her. At his request, she kneels before the Foremost. He pours the sand out in front of her and the whole city, mocking her for her assumptions that she could know their secrets, conquer their people. “You may take this sand back to your High King of Fillory and tell him that I let you live. Tell him that he may send us more whores if he chooses, this one was adequate,” he says.
Well, Janet may not be exactly Margo, but she suffers absolutely no fools. So, she casts Woven Strength, making herself much more powerful than she normally is, and beats the Foremost nearly to death, stealing his weapon, and leaving him in an ice cave. She breaks the spear she takes from him into two and turns it into ice axes that she wields for the rest of the book.
Though she returns and plays a minor role in the final moments of the trilogy, this story is the most we ever learn about Janet in the books. She is defined by her hubris and the sexual humiliation done to her. Sure, she becomes stronger, but the authorial decisions are fundamentally problematic and wholly anti-feminist.
Meanwhile, over on the SYFY series of the same name, Margo’s quest has been re-imagined.
First off, instead of wandering into the desert because she’s bored, Margo gives up the throne to go into the desert and find a way to expel possessions, all to help Eliot.
She runs out of water once in the desert and, out of desperation, licks the sweat off of her destiny lizard. It turns out the lizard has hallucinogenic properties and she starts tripping like whoa. Who appears to Margo but the person who started the quest in the first place? Eliot. (Of course, it’s not really Eliot; he’s still possessed by the Monster and busy elsewhere.) She also notices some beautiful red sand that seems to be following her. Singing the whole way Hallucination Eliot leads her to an encampment where she faints from dehydration.
Margo wakes in a tent and learns that the desert is alive and filled with demon spirits (the red sand) that attack the women of the community any time they get even a little emotional; only the leader, the Foremost, can dispel the possessions with his ice axes. Despite noting the convenience of men being the only ones who can survive possession and all the hyper-compliant women around, Margo focuses on her mission. She strategically seduces the Foremost, as she’s done to men throughout her life.
The next morning, she asks to borrow his axes and he tells her she’ll have to build her own weapon, sending her on a familiar fool’s errand: to gather the black grains of sand and return to the encampment to have them forged into a weapon. He warns her that if she gets emotional, she will be possessed, that she will have no man to protect her. Margo shrugs off his warning and walks back into the desert.
While searching for the black grains of sand, sticking her hands into the desert over and over, Margo goes through the dark night of the soul. She reflects on her relationship to her father and how he turned from best dad in the world into another sexist jerk once Margo became a woman he couldn’t control. She bemoans the restrictions of a society that only wants women to be smart or pretty or strong. And, finally, as she loses her sh*t, she mourns her inadequacy in helping Eliot.
Hallucination Eliot warns her to calm down, but she’s already angry. “I am angry every second, every second my eyes are open because I know who I am, not who I pretend to be,” she says before throwing the sand she’s collected onto the ground and screaming with all her might.
As she’d been warned, a demon comes up out of the sand, but what appears before her is a woman’s form. The demon-woman helps Margo and explains what’s been happening in the desert.
Margo returns to the encampment with a sack full of black grains. The Foremost and an older, white woman slash collaborator laugh at Margo. The Foremost says, “I can’t believe your kingdom exiled you. You’re strong, smart, and a very adequate whore.”
In response, Margo delivers what might be the greatest insult to find its way to TV, calling the Foremost and his whole crew “pussy-phobic chuckle dicks.” She explains what happened to her in the desert and that she now understands that the demons help women who are in distress, whether by possessing a man or in any other way they can be of service.
Not only does she deliver the ass-kicking the Foremost has been asking for, but she also frees the demons stuck in vials, possesses all the men, explains to the women what’s happening, and seizes her new ice axes. In one fell swoop, she frees not only herself, but the demons and the oppressed women of the Wandering Desert.
Clearly, the narrative differs greatly between the two versions. Janet is a despot looking for something to do; Margo is a desperate person on a quest to save her best friend. Janet is a straight, white colonizer who tries to conquer a leader who is described as having a big nose and brown skin; Margo is a queer woman of color who frees the many diverse women being oppressed by a white dude (who Margo calls Trump, which is just delicious) and his minions. Janet falls in love with the desert and cares for the Foremost; Margo uses her sexuality to manipulate him. Janet is a victim who gets her revenge; Margo is a survivor who defies those who would limit her.
Where Janet is sexually humiliated, Margo is the bearer of revolution. She frees the women of an oppressed society by showing them that their emotions are not to be feared, but embraced. And, she does so by embracing her own rage.
Margo is furious. She’s furious at her dad for loving the princess she was, but not the woman she grew up to be. She’s furious at society for narrowly defining what a woman can be. She furious at herself for not being true to the powerhouse she is.
And, when her rage is not punished, but rewarded, The Magicians series asserts the importance and power of feminine anger. It would have been easy to leave Margo’s quest out entirely, to see what Grossman wrote for what it is: a weird, sexist, sex-negative, humiliation of a side character. Instead, Gamble and Co. chose to reclaim her quest, to make it not just a moment that defines Margo, but a moment that defines the series as a feminist narrative.
Just after everything’s been revealed to the people of the Wandering Desert, Margo’s power is made apparent. With a look of determination comingled with fury, a dirty and tired Margo stands before the people, two red sand demons swirling above her head, her black ice axes in each hand. She is a picture of the self-realized, self-possessed woman. She is Margo and in her own words she’s “a king, not a goddamn princess.”