Technology and Compensatory Fantasy in The Magicians

By Kenan Behzat Sharpe |

One of the Proverbs of Hell passed on to us from William Blake suggests that foolishness and wisdom are dialectically related: “If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.” While The Magicians, a 2016 TV series airing on Syfy, has publicly proven its consistency with the first part of this formula, it has so far been unable to emerge anywhere close to the proverbial palace of wisdom. The only law of dialectical reversal evinced by this series is the one that shows how dogged faith in one’s own profundity  invariably results in shallowness and banality.

The Magicians is banal insofar as the imagined universe it constructs—appearing at first glance to be a compensatory fantasy for maladjusted twenty-somethings rightfully depressed by an endless horizon of austerity and precarity—actually reproduces the very structures of this bad reality. And yet in its failure to follow through with its generic promise as fantasy (the imagination of an existence radically different from our own), the show gives us crucial insight into the forces in our present that inhabit the ability to dream of, let alone build, a world worth living in.

The Magicians, loosely based on a fantasy series by Lev Grossman which began with a 2009 novel of the same name, is something like Harry Potter for millennials. A world of magical spells, enchanted forests, talking beasts, and wizarding schools coexists with copious drugs and drinking, orgies, sexual awkwardness, painful processes of self-realization, and heavy doses of irony. Like Lena Dunham’s Girls (2012-present) or Broad City (2014-present), The Magicians represents a post-2008 transmutation in the televised Bildungsroman, whereby the high school-to-college transition is replaced a seemingly interminable transition from college to adulthood. One species of this transition is the middle-class college graduates trying to eke out survival, despite bleak economic prospects, by working multiple short-term and precarious jobs. Or, they attempt to wait out the storm in graduate school, a place where the question of ‘real life’ can be indefinitely postponed by an artificially prolonged state of adolescence—the contemporary version of what Kant called the unenlightened state of “self-incurred tutelage.” [1]

Shows like Girls and Broad City represent the cultural imagination of this post-crisis moment. Characters in these series are cut off financially by their parents, go on dates for free dinner, and participate in the ‘sharing economy’ by driving for Uber or leasing their overpriced apartments on Airbnb. While feminized labor and the student debt crisis form the basis for the reality they—and we—live in, like the proverbial water in the fishbowl this reality is seemingly so obvious and ubiquitous that it is hardly commented upon in these shows. They thematize precarity while avoiding  its material foundations. A series like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, for example, makes precarity seem not only necessary but fanciful. The viewer delights in the quirkiness and whimsicality of Kimmy’s life as she does whatever work is needed to hold body and soul together in a neoliberal Manhattan. [2]

The Magicians is even less direct in its engagement with the general cultural climate of precariousness and austerity. However, within the generic conventions of fantasy, it is worth noting how the show preserves a (tenuous) link to our contemporary moment. Rather than presenting a hermetically-sealed reality on the order of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, it follows Harry Potter or The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in maintaining present historical reality as a backdrop from which fantasy offers an escape. In The Magicians this ‘real world’ is easily recognizable as our own—less like the timeless, dull yet quaint English suburbs of the Dursley family on Privet Drive than a modern equivalent of the plague-infested Florence that formed the background to the stories of Boccaccio’s Decameron. The stylized yet grimy streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn where the main characters try, in good millennial fashion, to ‘figure out their lives’ form not only the initial frame tale of The Magicians, but are returned to even after the magical universe of Fillory has been revealed. Rather than sticking exclusively to the misty shades and pastel colors typically used in filmic representations of fantasy worlds, The Magicians combines the fantastic with the gritty aesthetic of the post-college fuck-up.

What is fantasy?

At the start of The Magicians, childhood BFFs Quentin and Julia have recently finished their undergraduate education and are applying to prestigious graduate departments. Their friendship is marked by a mutual love for a Narnia-esque fantasy series called Fillory and Further. While Julia has successfully adapted to the structures of adulthood, Quinten proves unable to put away childish things. He remains obsessed with Fillory. Both characters believe ‘something else’—something magical—must exist, yet Julia has sublimated this desire into the trappings of successful adulthood (she’s set on the Ivy League path) while Quentin is caught in an unhealthy spiral of children’s novels, isolation, and antidepressants that threatens to block his path to Princeton, or wherever.

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Quentin’s mute refusal of a disenchanted world, and Julia’s (tentative) acceptance of the neo-liberal injunction to ‘lean in’ to feminized precarity, are both called into question when, on the very afternoon of their grad school interviews, both are whisked away from Brooklyn and transported to the Brakebills School of Magical Pedagogy. After completing a series of tests that can only described as wizarding GREs, their results are in: Quentin is accepted as a Brakebills student while Julia is not. She is ejected back into the (now) unbearably pedestrian world of modern-day New York, but not before having her memory of the experience—imperfectly, it turns out—erased.

At this point, the plot is in motion. Quentin starts the semester at Brakebills. (Despite the seeming pun on rocketing tuition prices contained in the name, any information regarding the funding and management of the magical university is conveniently repressed from the narrative). His life at university hits all the appropriate stops for a coming-of-age/fantasy narrative. Finding his social niche, falling in with a merry band of attractive outcasts, meeting his love interest (a far superior magician named Alice), encountering the show’s villains, and discovering he is the one Chosen to defeat the enemy. All of these generic conventions are only half-subverted by The Magicians, which provides the requisite amount of ironic disavowal while still allowing the show to go on. The show repeatedly plays with the fact that while Quentin is the ostensible protagonist of the show, he is far from its hero. Instead, his friends Julia, Alice, and Penny each vie for this role. They are consistently portrayed as greater magicians and as more interesting and complex characters. Quentin, on the other hand, is given only two emotional modes: moping and being a fanboy. Quentin is not only the protagonist of the fantasy narrative, he also stands for the avid consumer of fantasies who finds the strength to continue the mind-deadening routine thanks to bouts of imaginary escape. The viewer of The Magicians, upon whom all this generic wink-winking is not lost, is left wondering why, if Quentin is not really worthy of being the show’s Chosen One, he remains the focus of almost every scene. It seems that only moody white men can have a hero’s journey.

Meanwhile, Quentin and his friends study, hook up, run afoul of the administration, and are initiated into their new magical lives. Our half-hero is no longer haunted by the meaninglessness of life and the unshakable sense that something better must exist—he’s found that ‘something better’ at Brakebills and eventually even discovers that Fillory, the magical land of his favorite children’s book, is real. With the realization that his depression had more to do with a shitty world than an individual pathology, Quentin is able to dispense with his anti-depression meds.

So it is that the show is able both to recognize that the origins of mental illness lie in a bad social totality—as anti-psychiatry theorists and Left psychoanalysts like R.D. Laing and Herbert Marcuse recognized in the 60s—and to displace the solution from the realm of collective action to that of fiction. The world of Brakebills is a compensatory fantasy. It is a place where maladjusted dreamers and nerds like Quentin can overcome the alienation and drudgery of 24/7 capitalism by conveniently side-stepping into a fantastic dimension.

While I am engaged here not with the books upon which The Magicians is based but rather the TV series itself, it is interesting to note some of the comments writer Lev Grossman has made about the connection between fantasy and mental illness. At a recent talk Grossman remarked:

“Fantasy is so much about depression. There is one world that is mundane, dull, devoid of adventure—why would you even get out of bed in the morning? And there’s another world, Hogwarts, Narnia, where everything is exciting and enchanted, and when you go there you are a hero. And that feeling of going from one to another is that feeling when you are suffering from depression and the depression suddenly lifts.” [3]

Depression and the desire to escape it create the conditions under which fantasy as a genre is produced and consumed. The Magicians enacts a form of generic meta-reflection insofar as the protagonist is himself a depressed and world-weary reader of fantasy narratives. Even though Grossman’s—and, by extension, Quentin’s—diagnosis of the world as “mundane, dull, and devoid of adventure” is dehistoricized and vague, it is implicitly collective: it describes the world we all share.

And yet if depression is a social problem, then its true supersession should only be social. Quentin is the only character who finds salvation (temporarily at least) through his initiation into magic. Alice sees it as a means to finding a family member who mysteriously disappeared. Penny, who is ‘gifted’ with the ability to hear other people’s thoughts, experiences magic as a curse. For Quentin alone is magic a respite from a depressed and depressing society—and so the origins of his depression are, in the end, re-contained within a purely personal pathology. In Capitalist Realism Mark Fisher discusses the high levels of depression endemic to overdeveloped, capitalist societies and argues against individualizing mental health issues:

“[P]athologization already forecloses any possibility of politicization. By privatizing these problems—treating them as if they were caused only by chemical imbalances in the individual’s neurology and/or by their family background—any question of social systemic causation is ruled out.” [4]

Today, both the diagnosis and the cure to contemporary depression are thoroughly privatized and pathologized, which is what gives rise to the pseudo-solution of personal escape: whether through fantasy novels, digital media, or repeated cycles of hedonism and shame.

This use of fantasy as an individualized compensation for depression and ennui in a disenchanted world might help us to account for the current proliferation of fantasy series, from The Magicians and Merlin to Game of Thrones. As critics of SF like Fredric Jameson, Darko Suvin, and Tom Moylan have long pointed out, fantasy as a genre tends to be more ideological than science fiction. To be perhaps overly schematic we can say that the best SF provides a glimpse of the horizon of what is imaginable in a given moment by attempting—and productively failing—to imagine radically different futures to our seemingly stalemated and eternal present. Fantasy, on the other hand, attempts to flesh out alternate worlds in their entirety, and thereby ends up sneaking in a loosely disguised version of what exists back into its blueprints.

Rather than looking into the future, fantasy’s temporal trajectory is typically retrograde—by focusing its gaze backward, fantasy tends toward conservatism, imagining pre-industrial worlds whose clearly demarcated forces of good/evil and atavistic warrior-society ethos provide reactionary counter-weights to our present anomie. Given the seeming insolubility of climate change and the near-total dismantling of social welfare, it is not surprising that we have seen such a growth of escapism into a pseudo-feudal past of royalty, kings, and castles. Whereas a truly historical novel, film, or TV show (if we can even imagine the genre of Walter Scott or Balzac—to name two of the Marxist critical tradition’s favorite historical novelists—being adapted to the HBO and Netflix age) focused on the pre- or early-capitalist past might provide us with a sense of radical difference that would make it possible to see our own present once again as history, the societies of Westeros or Fillory are neither historical in the Lukácsian sense, nor are they science fiction. Rather, they amount to little more than the “cult of the glossy image” lambasted by Jameson as false “historicism” in such films as Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975). [5]

What is magic?

While the impulse to escape an intolerable present is understandable, looking for shelter from student debt and precarity in a universe of enchanted forests and magical animals can only leave you with a hangover. And the high itself was tainted with exactly the things from which the fantasy promised escape.

In The Magicians our degraded world continues to haunt the fantastic one just parallel to it. Unable to expel the bad conscience created by escapism, the magical university turns out to be not so different after all from the neoliberal university whose problems it sought merely to evade and not confront. The skills learned in the former turn out to be just the ones peddled in the latter. Flexibilization, learning to work well in teams, the sublation of work and life (the dream of the 60s which has become the nightmare of employee ‘participation’ and ‘synergy’ in the workplace of the present): this is what characterizes the magical labor done at Brakebills. It’s like working at a militaristic tech giant that offers free mindfulness training.

As Quentin and his friends deal with the menacing evils and challenges that their newly found magical life throws at them, they are forced to re-skill, moonlight, act as team players, develop innovative solutions, and—most of all—be ready and prepared to do anything. [6] They are, in other words, ideal workers for the gig era. However much witnessing acts of magic may keep an earlier dream of non-alienated labor alive—for magic is a transcendence of toil, the transformation of work into play—it also grounds that desire in the dead-end fantasy of what sociologists Boltanski and Chiapello call the “new spirit of capitalism”: the replacement of the hierarchical Fordist workplace with the supposedly more relaxed, horizontal, and participatory (and thus self-policing) workplace of the present. [7]

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This new spirit of capitalism is the final cooptation of the ‘60s demand for greater creativity in everyday life by new discourses of work: the (unrealizable) promise of a world where everyone is a member of the creative class working at a standing desk. [8] We could say that today’s tech worker occupies a structural position in the collective imaginary comparable to that of the scientist in the 1950s. As Jameson argued in an early essay, the “mystique of the scientist”  had nothing to do with the actual work done by scientists, but rather represented a “wish fulfillment that takes as its object a vision of ideal work, or what Herbert Marcuse would call ‘libidinally gratifying’ work.” [9] The scientist was a carrier of these fantasies because his work (the scientist was always male in this imaginary) appeared to the uninitiated as play: he worked erratic hours and in short bursts, often from home, got to play with test-tubes and other fun objects, and was afforded as much leeway for eccentricity as artists and musicians. Today, the same fantasy exists in relation to the tech campuses of Silicon Valley, where techies with their bean bag chairs, on-site gyms, and free organic snacks are presented as the new aristocracy of the working world. And yet the reality of their labor departs radically from its popular fantasy. In exchange for the workplace having been made so attractive, liberatory,  playful, and convenient, the tech worker at Google is expected to self-exploit, staying longer hours and working with total affective investment. The once-utopian demand for the sublation of work and life has been ceded to today’s tech employee insofar as satisfied workers with a ‘stake’ in production help the bottom line.

In terms of Quentin and his friends, central to the identification of the figure of the magician with the techie is the supposed immateriality of the work they both engage in. It is not difficult to see the link between the general fascination with the Cloud (which, with the heavy environmental and social toll of maintaining and storing the incredible amount of data backed up in massive complexes of overheating computers and blasting fans, is actually far from immaterial) and that with magic. The latter is a form of action at a distance that, like the functions performed by certain new apps, seems to the uninitiated to transcend the basic laws of physics.

Magic is certainly a significant trope for our moment, particularly in the realm of advertising, since you can preform transactions walking down the street with your smartphone that would have seemed completely hierophanic 50 or even 15 years ago. (It is also likely not irrelevant to know that Lev Grossman, writer of The Magicians novels, was the lead technology writer for the New York Times.) Whereas in an earlier stage capital was troped (most memorably by Marx himself) as monstrous, vampiric, and uncanny in the way it could suck life from labor, self-reproduce, expand and proliferate endlessly, in our moment of late capitalist digital technologies capitalism depends on tropes of magic, immateriality, clouds, spirit, and immaculate conception. It is presented as clean, its origin point in the “blood and fire” of primitive accumulation (or the ongoing plundering of the periphery) located conveniently off-stage and out of sight, far away from the tidy streets of San Jose, Portland, or Austin.

It is significant that the show is called The Magicians and not The Wizards or The Witches. In the show’s first season the magician is a seemingly neutral figure: clean, technical, male. It has none of the historical and mythological baggage of the witch, a figure associated with autochthonous powers, blood, sacrifice, healing, paganism, pre-Christian matriarchy and, later, male fantasies of a threatening female sexuality. The magician is sanitized from the messy histories of early capitalism, when—as Barbara Ehrenreich, Silvia Federici, and others have shown—the figure of the witch was exploited to enclose the commons, wrest control of women’s bodies, strip them of their longstanding positions of authority in pre-capitalist societies, and claim medicine as a rationalized profession exclusively for men. [10] The magician, in contrast, is a figure without history, a neutral cultural worker manipulating the material world through a series of vaguely defined technical procedures and operations called “magic.”

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When it comes to fantasy, how does magic work exactly? This depends on which series you are discussing. Whether it is Harry Potter; The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe; or The Magicians, the most under-theorized aspect of the fantasy genre is arguably the mechanics and principles that inform magic. The Magicians pokes fun at the necessary impossibility of adequately theorizing magic by taking an overly literal approach: the air in Fillory is described as being pumped through with mild doses of opiates—no wonder Quentin and Julia are obsessed with it! If magic in Harry Potter is primarily linguistic, centered on the memorization and correct pronunciation of various archaic spells, in The Magicians magic is kinesthetic: magicians perform spells through intricate motions of the hands and fingers. In fact, the latter resemble nothing so much as the gestures required by the user of a smart phone as she scrolls, clicks, taps, and swipes. In a form of digital Taylorization, to learn these gestures the novice must break them down into their component parts and reassemble them.

In this way, the particular form magic takes in The Magicians represents a turn away from magic as inherited ability, initiation into arcane lore, the proper use of tools (wands) or recipes (spells), or the product of arduous study (to mention some of the current and most common cultural representations of magic) into something approaching the Digital Humanities, a STEM-ification of the human sciences. As Allington, Brouillette, and Golumbia argue in a recent article in LARB, the heavy-handed promotion of the Digital Humanities by administrators and talking heads is of a piece with the “corporatist restructuring of the humanities” and of the university itself. [11]  The Digital Humanities exemplify:

“…the promotion of project-based learning and lab-based research over reading and writing, the rebranding of insecure campus employment as an empowering ‘alt-ac’ career choice, and the redefinition of technical expertise as a form (indeed, the superior form) of humanist knowledge.”

Digital Humanities takes the humanities, stirs in some charts, simulations, and searchable archives, and makes it seem magical. As useful as its individual techniques can be, Digital Humanities allows people who barely know how to program to present themselves as technological wizards, making those who refuse such technical panaceas appear stodgy and retrograde. Unlike the analogue humanities of dusty, old books valorized in a film like the Dead Poets Society (beset, it must be said, with its own gender, class, and race-based exclusions), the Digital Humanities of The Magicians represents the latest stage in the slow creeping of commodity logic into the hoary halls of the university, where students are customers and technical know-how reigns supreme.

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Alongside immaterial labor, smartphones, and Digital Humanities, magic is also presented as data and information. When Quentin’s best friend Julia is forced to leave Brakebills she is tortured by the unfilled promesse du bonheur that the magical university represents. While Quinten experiences individualized liberation on campus, Julia feels she has been expelled from paradise. This pushes her to seek out magical community on the fringes of society. Unable to repress her sense that ‘there must be something more,’ she falls in with a community of ‘hedge witches,’ magical drop-outs and renegades who have to be satisfied with more ad hoc and DIY forms of magic. Led by their charismatic and authoritarian leader Marina, some of the hedges (as they are called) perform an elaborate heist in which they steal reams of invisible spells from a magical filing cabinet in the ersatz Ivy League Brakebills. Unlike the academic piracy of the website or of Aaron Swatz—the “Julian Assange for the academic crowd” [12] who killed himself after being investigated for posting thousands of articles from JSTOR for free online—Marina doesn’t share this information with her comrades but downloads it exclusively into her own mind.

Julia and the other hedge witches, however, continue to hunger for information, needing spells the way a junkie needs a fix, or a tech addict needs their iPhone. In this way, magic is also presented as a drug in the show. However, there is something unseemly about about the hacker/junkie aesthetic of the hedge witches. They live in abandoned buildings, sport tattoos, dress in black, and steal. (In one of the show’s only references to the issue of money, Julia and a friend use a spell to remove stacks of bills from an ATM. Meanwhile, the Brakebills kids seem to have no need for the stuff.) When he comes to see Julia, Quentin—only days before too depressed by a magic-less world to get out of bed—begins putting on airs. He and his school friend Elliot look down upon the now déclassé Julia. Those who do magic outside of the institution are delusional and deserve nothing but derision. The viewer is clearly meant to identify with the clean-cut Brakebills set who, benefiting from the prestige of their school, are the blue bloods of the magical world—Julia, she was told, just doesn’t ‘have it.’ (It is the Brakebills grads who will snatch up the few remaining opportunities for tenure-track employment in magical pedagogy.)

Rape Culture

It is Julia’s plot—as she scrounges, slums, and scrapes by while Quentin lives in luxury, drinking classy cocktails and reading in the leafy quad of Brakebills’s luxurious campus—that preserves the link between the otherwise isolated and self-contained magical world and ours. The magic Julia has access to is “unauthorized.” Like the neighborhoods she now frequents, it is grimy and seedy. Continuing the heavy-handed drug metaphor, Julia is reduced to turning tricks to gain access to spells after she is kicked out of the hedge witch collective. She trades sex with the “finance bro” Pete, a smartly dressed misogynist hedge witch/hedge fund manager, in exchange for magical information and spells. [13] Whereas Quentin has the privilege of a full-ride at Brakebills, Julia is forced to ‘lean in’ for access to magic. In one of the show’s few nods to the specific conditions of work under contemporary capitalism, Julia is reduced to increasingly feminized and vulnerable forms of employment.

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Later, Julia falls in with a seemingly more wholesome group looking to connect with older gods and perform healing spells. In a begrudging recognition of the pagan, pre-Christian, matriarchal origins of magic and witchcraft that had been repressed in the main plot, the show allows Julia to forge a connection with an ancient mother-goddess. Julia and her new coven aim to implore this brown-skinned goddess to help them heal their ailments and right their wrongs. However, the show does not tolerate this alternative trajectory for very long. In the last episode of Season 1, when it appears this mother-goddess will finally arrive on the scene, it turns out that the whole thing was an elaborate bait-and-switch by a male god. In a graphic and gratuitous scene, this serial rapist/trickster figure murders the coven and rapes Julia.

The internet exploded with rage at the insensitivity with which The Magicians handled this scene. In its treatment of women characters, it seems the TV series does not depart far from the books. In an article written for Salon, Sady Doyle asks, reasonably, “Why does the Magicians trilogy keep raping and killing off its best characters?” This article provides viewers of the show with a sense of what, predictably, they are in for in future seasons. Lev Grossman sees his own work as being in dialogue with the generic mutations in fantasy and graphic novels that began with books like A Song of Ice and Fire and Watchmen in the 1990s. These brought a new grittiness and moral ambiguity to the genre by including a level of swearing, violence, and brutality that was not thinkable in the imagined worlds, for example, of J.R.R. Tolkien. In The Magicians as in Game of Thrones, this new ‘realism’ has been most typically played out on women’s bodies: rape is used as a way to stimulate ratings and controversy.

Another part of this post-90s transformation in fantasy and graphic novels has been a ‘meta’ turn, whereby new contributions to the genre attempt to subvert inherited and hackneyed conventions. In the case of The Magicians, this convention was that of the Hero’s Journey. We are repeatedly reminded that Quentin is not the typical fantasy hero. He is not a Chosen One. There is no serious pathos to his past nor a prophecy for his future. What’s more, he is not particularly talented—especially compared to Alice or Julia.  And yet as the focus of the show’s narrative he continues to occupy the structural position of the Hero. This is the “one irritating fantasy cliché that the Magicians trilogy doesn’t avoid,” Doyle writes. The ideologeme of the Hero’s Journey is obnoxious but not altogether surprising. What is truly exasperating is “the absence of a female lead who can make it through even one entire installment of the trilogy without being killed, raped or otherwise horrifically traumatized to fuel that guy’s arc.” [14]

Much of this tendency came to a head in the Season 1 finale “Have You Brought Me Little Cakes,” an episode that seemed hellbent on brutalizing every single femme and queer character on the show. The writers of the show did this in a blasé and oblivious manner that matches that of the character Quentin, who cluelessly attempts to respond to the brutality never directed at him. While Quentin and his friends are in Fillory attempting to kill the mysterious villain known as “the Beast,” Elliot—the rightful king of the magical realm, it turns out, much to Quentin’s chagrin—acquiesces to being married off to a nameless and voiceless blacksmith’s daughter in exchange for a magical knife the crew needs. At one fell swoop, a plebeian woman is reduced to a token of commodity exchange while the show’s only gay character is forced into a heterosexual marriage. They are forced to consummate the union. Nobody bats an eye.

Then Alice—a victim  of “Hermione syndrome” [15] in that she is undoubtedly more talented and charismatic than the male lead and yet her plot line is consistently subordinated to his—is volunteered to drink a large jar of semen donated by an ancient, Pan-like god so that she will have enough strength to take on the Beast at their imminent confrontation. Just as the mother-goddess was shown to be an illusion utilized by a serial rapist, the figure of the witch and the pre-capitalist/pre-Christian history she evokes is eclipsed by the most atavistic and retrograde metaphors of male potency and virility as markers of magical ability. It is unclear whether what has motivated Quentin to step back and allow Alice to be their champion against the Beast is his realization that she is the better magician, or rather his fear of being emasculated by having to ‘swallow.’

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The sexist character of this plot device becomes clearer as sexual assault is directly thematized. The Beast’s true identity is finally revealed: he is Martin, the youngest of the three Chatwick children, one of the original explorers of Fillory. As explained in the Fillory and Further series with which Quentin and Julia were obsessed, the Chatwicks first stumbled upon the Narnia-like alternative dimension as they played in their English country home. Just as the magical world of Fillory turned out to be real, so too do the Chatwick children. And the author of the series, Christopher Plover, knew the Chatwicks. It was his repeated molestation and abuse of Martin that led to the latter’s growth into being an all-powerful magician determined to get his revenge on Plover and on a world that failed him. Martin is a victim of rape. However, the writer Plover, who helpfully reveals this tidbit to Quentin and company, is presented as himself a victim of Martin now that he is a contrite old man, having done sufficient penance in Martin’s dungeon. Just as the gods in the show turn out to be con-artists and rapists, its villains are survivors of abuse and its heroes are its perpetrators.

This victim-blaming reaches its crescendo in the final scene of Season 1. As Quentin and friends finally confront and attempt to kill Martin/the Beast (and as Alice is armed with a throat full of semen and a knife bought at the price of her friend Elliot’s sexuality), in an absurd plot twist their erstwhile ally Julia menacingly sabotages the plan. Invested with incredible magical strength thanks to her rapist’s enchanted semen still inside of her, and pumped up with the desire for revenge, she moves to strike a deal with Martin, letting a number of her friends die in the process. Alice, it seems, is killed. Penny (one of the few characters of color) is mutilated. Quentin is left standing. Julia, with the help of Martin, is off to pursue her nefarious revenge plot. One can already imagine what the show’s writers will do with Julia in the next season. However, as Lisa Weidenfeld writes in her critique, “no one should need a redemption arc after going through a sexual assault.” [16]

Whereas a show like Netflix’s Jessica Jones has attempted to present a sympathetic and nuanced portrayal of the trauma that is part of the lives of many survivors of sexual assault, in the ‘new realism’ of Game of Thrones and its imitators rape is instrumentalized. Rather than thematizing sexual violence in its own right, The Magicians uses it is an excuse for a theodicy. Characters are raped to allow the pseudo-philosophical investigation of how magic can be a force simultaneously for both good and evil. Such sloppily constructed narrative reversals, whereby survivors are both traumatized and magically invigorated by the actions of their abusers, establishes a bizarre moral equation: viewers are placed in the absurd position of having to judge whether the havoc wreaked by Julia and Martin in revenge for their abuse is equal or greater than the harm that was done to them. [17]


Its treatment of rape and sexual assault is just one more way that The Magicians, like other contemporary fantasies, attempts to provide an alternative to our precarious, anti-utopian, and patriarchal reality while replicating its logic at every turn. Just as The Magicians reproduces neoliberal forms of labor and a contemporary obsession with the ‘miraculous’ qualities of digital technologies, so it also participates in the logic of rape culture—even while presuming to subvert the traditional hero’s narrative. Magic may be immaterial for Quentin (our neutral cultural worker, our Silicon Valley superstar) but for the women in this series it is far from it. Women and queer people bear the brunt of the pain that magic causes, just as they bear the brunt of the work and violence in the world. In this sense, The Magicians is realistic—perhaps more than it realizes. In an article about his novels in the New York Times, Lev Grossman dismissed popular notions about fantasy as expressing the desire for an escape from the real:

“Fantasy is sometimes dismissed as childish, or escapist, but I take what I am doing very, very seriously. For me fantasy isn’t about escaping from reality, it’s about re-encountering the challenges of the real world, but externalized and transformed.” [18]

In Grossman’s sense, then, The Magicians is clearly not escapist at all. Even in the moments where it most attempts to present an alternative world distant from our own, the worst realities of this world catch up to it. The show is as much realist as it is fantastic—the only problem being that it cannot recognize itself in its own mirror: it is oblivious to its own symptomaticity.

Returning now to the opening proverb from Blake, it must be said that it is not the naïve and stubborn belief in magic that makes Quentin and his friends—or the reader of fantasies, or even the writers of fantasies—foolish: the feeling that there must be something more represents a righteous refusal of the bitter pill of “There Is No Alternative.” This is a necessary foolishness. Rather, their folly is something akin to that of the Bernie Sanders supporters, who are excoriated by the Democratic establishment for refusing to bow their heads to capitalist realism, but whose real shame lies in their not going far enough in their imagination of a better world. Fans of The Magicians are not wrong to believe in free tuition, unalienated labor, the transformation of work into play, a world beyond the white, male hero—but they are incorrect in thinking that we can each simply imagine our way out of this mess. Our individual daydreams will not destroy the world from which magic as an escape and compensatory fantasy was necessary in the first place.

Our fantasies must be collectivized.


Works Cited

[1] Immanuel Kant, “What Is Enlightenment,” 1784.

[2] I am grateful to Madeline Lane-McKinley and Johanna Isaacson for these insights into contemporary comedy. I also greatly benefited from long and stimulating conversations on The Magicians with Kendra Dority and Sophia Magnone. Their sharp readings and helpful suggestions shaped this essay.

[3] Lev Grossman, lecture, 19 May 2016, University of California, Santa Cruz.

[4] Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2009, p. 21.

[5] Jameson, Fredric. Signatures of the Visible. “Historicism in The Shining.” New York: Routledge, 1990, p. 126.

[6] It is noteworthy that there are no adult figures in the show that can be of any real use to Quentin and his friends as they attempt to take on forces far superior to them in strength and power. Grossman has commented on his desire to refrain from including in The Magicians an avuncular teaching figure like Dumbledore, who is always there to guide the protagonist. He did this because, he argues, in reality this figure is all but extinct. Certainly, in a world where even an advanced degree—that old, proverbial ticket to a middle-class income—has not only stopped being a guarantor of material survival but has been transformed into a millstone of debt, our mentors, elders, and advisors have lost the ability to give meaningful advice.

[7] Boltanski, Luc, Eve Chiapello, and Gregory Elliott. The New Spirit of Capitalism. London: Verso, 2005.

[8] For a scathing critique of Richard Florida’s notion of the creative class see Sarah Brouillette’s Literature and the Creative Economy. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014.

[9] Jameson, Fredric. “Metacommentary.” PMLA 86.1, 1971, p. 15.

[10] Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English. Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Healers. New York: The Feminist Press, 1973. Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation. New York: Autonomedia, 2004.

[11] Daniel Allington, Sarah Brouillette, David Golumbia, “Neoliberal Tools (and Archives): A Political History of Digital Humanities,” Los Angeles Review of Books, last modified May 1, 2016,

[12] Simona Chiose,, “Aaron Swartz: A Julian Assange for the academic crowd,” The Globe and Mail, last modified January 21, 2016,

[13] Dana Schwartz, “The Magicians’ Recap 1×05: Cancer Puppy and ‘Quidditch,” Observer, last modified February 16, 2016,×05-cancer-puppy-and-quidditch/

[14] Sadie Doyle, “Why does the Magicians trilogy keep raping and killing off its best characters?”, Salon, last modified August 24, 2014,

[15] Ibid.

[16] Lisa Weidenfeld, “The Magicians leaves itself a whole mess of problems to fix in season 2,” A.V. Club, last modified April 11, 2016,

[17] Thank you to Sophia Magnone for the productive suggestion to contrast Jessica Jones and The Magicians.

[18] Lev Grossman, “Finding My Voice in Fantasy,” Opinionator, last modified August 16, 2016,

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