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Godhood and powerlessness in The Magicians

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Apr 28, 2019, 2:08 AM EDT (Updated)

The Magicians is a series obsessed with power, meaning, and godhood. Not only do gods walk among the human and mystical beings within the show’s narrative, but godhood endlessly preoccupies the show’s creators and narrative themes. It’s important to note that the series diverges from the novels written by Lev Grossman, so this is truly the realm of SYFY’s series.

“Somebody with a lot of religious faith might disagree with me, but I feel like we can't know if there's a god or gods,” series co-creator, executive producer, and co-showrunner Sera Gamble told FANGRRLS. “It's a thing that we can spend our whole lives trying to figure out and maybe never get satisfying proof either way, and to me, that is a huge thing that defines being a thinking, feeling human. That there are so many things that you want to know that you cannot know.”

Gamble specifically addresses the idea of breaking the mold for the series and constantly challenging viewers to see characters and subjects differently in the interview, but she also positions the show as agnostic, both toward gods in our reality and toward gods in the realities of the series. While Gamble and Co. take a deeply personal approach to their storylines, choosing to meditate as much on character development as on epic plots, they are bold in how they tackle the grand topics of godhood, power, and death.

In this sense, The Magicians sets out to explore the limits of humanity in a limitless world. What does it mean when Josh gets to party with Bacchus — but only if he’s not a buzzkill? What does it mean that Quentin can kill a god — only to have that god’s parent shut off magic? What does it mean when Ember, god of Fillory, posthumously appears to High King Margot to tell her of her destiny — only for her to lose the throne? What does it mean when the gods create the Monster — only to imprison them?

These are but a few of the many, many questions the series raises regarding deities and their relationship to the magicians and other beings around them. And there is no better example of the series’ commitment to exploring the divine and the human than the story of the hedge witch turned goddess Julia Wicker.


Credit: SYFY

Julia and Quentin were childhood friends, but their paths diverge when Quentin is accepted into Brakebills University for Magical Pedagogy and Julia isn’t. Brakebills rejects Julia as part of a time loop experiment, but she will not be deterred in her pursuit of magic. Though she is not supposed to remember Brakebills or magic, and alone and angry and suddenly can think of nothing but what might have been, Julia teaches herself magic alongside other hedge witches.

She joins a coven seeking god-level power from a benevolent goddess named Our Lady Underground in Season 1, but they are devastated when the god who shows up is not Our Lady but her son Reynard the Fox, a trickster god. Reynard murders most of the coven, sparing only Kady (who Julia shields) and Julia, for whom he reserves a fate far, far worse. Julia is mercilessly raped and left completely devastated by the encounter.

Until she gets angry, that is. In Season 2, Julia teams up with the Big Bad, a human-turned-god called the Beast. He, too, is a survivor of sexual assault, and together they plan to kill Reynard, though things don’t work out. Julia is nothing if not determined, and her willingness to compromise about the company she keeps in order to meet her goal is powerful and chilling.

With the help of Kady, Julia eventually has a chance of killing Reynard and chooses not to when Our Lady Underground, aka Persephone, aka Mama Fox, begs for his life. It’s a terrible moment when she is faced with the murderous, rapist god before her and his mother, pleading for Julia not to make a mistake, not to lose her mercy. It is, as the abortion Julia got after Reynard raped her, her choice. Even without her shade to guide her, Julia decides to do what she believes to be right — and the consequences are far-reaching.

When all of magic is turned off during Season 3, Julia discovers she is still capable of using magic and begins her journey to becoming a full-blown goddess. The final act that seals the deal is an act of mercy: She restores the forest of Sentient Trees in Fillory. She does so with a bit of concentration and breathtaking flair, it should be noted.


Credit: SYFY

When she reaches peak goddess and receives the name Our Lady of the Trees, Julia is transported to another realm by the goddess Iris, who intends to teach her how to stop caring about humans and focus on creating her own worlds. Instead, like Prometheus before her, Julia returns to the human world and horcruxes herself to create a means of restarting the well of magic. In the process, she loses her powers.

But, as we discover in Season 4, she doesn’t lose her invulnerability. Though Julia retains some of her deity qualities, she’s not sure what it all means. At the same time, Eliot has been possessed by the Monster who is trying to piece together the parts of a body. The Monster has a faulty memory, god-level powers — if the gods weren’t such utter snobs, the Monster might even be a god — and base desires for destruction, murder, and control. Meanwhile, Julia, while helping Quentin and the Monster, tries to figure out what she is now and what that means for her. (The god Angus tells her she’ll watch all her friends die of old age, so there’s a clue for ya, Julia.)

Both Julia and the Monster lack their full capacity, yet do not become entirely powerless. They end up on the same team and even, sometimes inadvertently, help one another in their pursuit of understanding themselves. The Monster doesn’t know what they are constructing when they start, though they learn they are building a body for their sister; Julia doesn’t know who she is, though she learns she is something akin to a god. (During discovery of her self and her godhood, Julia has to ask Penny 23 to worship her, and the whole thing and how it’s handled is a powerful meditation on consent, though there isn’t space here to go into that further.)

Of course, we aren’t done with the story. Julia’s and all of the magicians’ fates are still to be determined. With Season 4 officially behind us, there are still many hijinks — and all of Season 5, praise Julia — ahead.


Credit: SYFY

So, what does Julia’s (incomplete) story say about a god or gods? Season 1 seems to suggest gods are either indifferent, as is the case with Our Lady Underground, or malevolent, as with Reynard. Season 2 asserts gods as sort of human-ish, fallible, jealous, often sh*tty people, which resonates with the presentation of the Greek and Roman pantheon, to be fair. Season 3 depicts Julia’s deification as a process requiring her to remove herself emotionally from the cares of humanity, which says something about how the series views the gods’ relationship to humanity. Julia thwarts that expectation, though, and in Season 4, we see her grapple with what it means to be a god, or a former god.

With such a varied and transgressive storyline, it’s hard to come to one conclusion about what The Magicians is trying to say with Julia’s godhood. However, there’s something rather cheeky about portraying agnosticism through a god who doesn’t quite believe in herself, who doesn’t quite know what she’s capable of, who seems to be agnostic about her own existence. But what do you expect from a show that reinvents itself as often as the story demands?

In many ways, Julia is just like the viewer, just like all humans. There is so much that she wants to know that she cannot. In this world and in the world of The Magicians, our deep desire to know and our inability to satisfy that desire is what makes us, in Gamble’s words, thinking, feeling humans.

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