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In Season 4 of The Magicians, nothing is quite as it seems, which isn’t exactly a thematic break for the series that has taken viewers to the mystical land of Fillory and beyond to explore magic, humanity, and meaning. However, in terms of personal development, the scale and scope of Season 4 are greater than any of the previous three. Let’s take, for instance, Eliot’s massive maturation.
In Episode 5, “Escape From the Happy Place,” Eliot finds himself reliving relaxing moments from his time at Brakebills University before an oddly dressed man interrupts his reverie to explain that Eliot is stuck in a “remembrance.” The oddly dressed man, Charlton, shares that he was once possessed by the monster that is currently possessing Eliot.
Eliot and Charlton are cornered in Eliot’s happy place by the monster’s prior hosts, many of which are murderous nasties. Meanwhile, Charlton reveals that if Eliot would like to reach his friends on the outside he’ll have to find the door that is hidden in his most repressed memory.
A surprisingly tender, funny, and painful montage of Eliot’s darkest moments unfolds, during which he watches himself be embarrassed or hurt or behave terribly, but time after time his door does not appear. When he finally finds his most deeply repressed memory, Eliot watches himself speak with Quentin right after they had returned to their timeline following the events of Season 3, Episode 5, “A Life in the Day.” As 50 years of emotions and memories rush back to the two of them sitting in Fillory’s throne room, Quentin asks Eliot if they should try to be together because “Who gets that kind of proof of concept?”
Eliot shuts him down in the memory, suggesting that their lifetime of love was a mistake and wouldn’t have happened if they’d had a choice. The Eliot watching the memory chastises the one in the memory, telling him that he knew this was an important moment, that he knew this could be real, but because of fear, he pushed Quentin away. That Eliot apologizes to Quentin, kneels before him, and kisses him solidly on the mouth. He says, “If I ever get out of here, Q, know that when I’m braver, it’s because I learned it from you.”
At this moment, as he struggles to reach his friend, his lover, his Quentin, Eliot must face his brokenness and unwillingness to be open to love. He must take responsibility for his weakness and cowardice, and bravely push through that pain to reach Quentin in the outside world. He manages to eke out a message, one Quentin recognizes all too well.
It’s devastating growth, the kind no one ever really means when we say we want to grow, but it’s the kind that changes a person, the kind that makes a difference over a lifetime. His acceptance of how he feels about Quentin marks a huge leap of personal development for our favorite hedonist.
SYFY’s The Magicians, based on the series of novels by Lev Grossman, follows a group of magicians as they learn how to control magic and fight against dark forces. There’s a lot of trickery and sex and magic gone awry and a bunch of ineffectual Children of Earth being crowned kings and queens of a foreign magical land. The series is sex-positive, queer, and feminist — and Season 4 only takes these themes further.
Just over half of Season 4’s episodes have been released, and all the characters have found themselves in surprising new situations. (The series has already been renewed for Season 5, praise Umber.) In fact, the titular magicians have each changed so much that they’re no longer all focused on the same goals.
Despite their diffusion across storylines — or maybe because of it — each of the characters has also matured, learning to understand themselves and their role to play in the grander scheme. Overall, Season 4 breaks The Magicians’ own mold in ambitious and feminist ways, allowing characters to develop and evolve unexpectedly.
Just like Eliot on his time-looping journey to self-discovery, the magicians find themselves maturing in ways they had not anticipated.
Margo rules as High King of Fillory and saves Josh’s life when he almost dies from sexually contracted Lycanthropy, resulting in the two dating, which leads to all kinds of frustration and growth. Julia seeks answers regarding her limited godhood while accepting her role in helping the monster alongside Quentin, learning to accept and embrace her deification. Alice struggles with her nature, questioning whether she’s good or evil after she kills child rapist and Fillory books author Christopher Plover; she eventually leaves the group again and uses magic to actually help people in Modesto. Kady joins up with the hedge witches and decides to start a rebellion against the Library. Quentin deals with the death of his father, the possession of Eliot, and Alice returning to his life. Finally proving he can learn from his mistakes, Quentin makes a break from Alice and decides to help the monster build a body without knowing where that might lead, but hoping it will free Eliot.
These are big grown-up problems. We’re no longer talking about who had a threesome with whom or who can’t do spells right or who is afraid of the hedge witch Marina. Each of the magicians is left asking themselves more interesting questions about who they are, how they came to this point, and where they go from here. These are life questions, the ones we all end up asking during turning points in our lives.
And no one experiences a turning point more than Penny, who is now actually two Pennys: Librarian Penny from timeline 40 and Penny 23 from timeline … well, 23. Librarian Penny has relinquished his living life to Penny 23, suggesting he has a crucial role to play in the events that will come to pass, but what does that mean for Librarian Penny in the Underworld?
In Episode 7, “The Side Effect,” Librarian Penny uses three sidekick stories to help train a Library recruit. Together they explore what’s been going on for a Librarian named Zelda, Fillory’s Fen, and Kady. The new recruit reads snippets from each of their lives and scoffs about how unremarkable each of the characters is.
Penny explains to the new recruit that his “cis het frat boy bias” is blinding him from seeing how important each character is and how big a responsibility Librarians carry in sorting, shelving, and determining the value of people’s lives. The recruit responds by telling Penny it’s time for his promotion. Whoopsie! Turns out the white guy he’s lecturing actually outranks him and has been conducting a personnel evaluation. Remarking on how much Penny has grown, he congratulates him and tells him to head to his new work: collecting secrets taken to the grave.
Penny’s growth as a Librarian is remarkable not just for what it means to the series, but for who Penny has become. Up until Season 4, Penny tried to shirk his Librarian duties and find a way back to his timeline, but as he gives up the past in search of a new future, he finally understands. If nobody is a side character, then neither is Penny.
The episode is a perfect summation of the season’s argument thus far: Everyone matters. Every decision matters. Every love matters. Every spell, every kiss, every fight, every tear — it all matters. And when we accept the weight of mattering, we can grow up and see that we’re not all that matters.
In life, there are no side characters. There are simply those of us who choose to accept that we matter and deal with the responsibility that comes with it and those who don’t.