The Magicians: Alice’s Story is an entry point back into the Lev Grossman’s world. Except I’m still mad as hell.
This story contains spoilers for The Magicians book series and show.
There is no easier way to say this — The Magicians television series fucked up. But with The Magicians Original Graphic Novel: Alice’s Story, written by Lev Grossman and Lilah Sturges and illustrated by Pius Bak, the story finds a new medium to explore.
The graphic novel inhabits the same world as Grossman’s first installment of the trilogy taking up the perspective of a character who does not garner a ton of focus in the books, but is a major player — Alice.
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Lev Grossman admits that he is not the easiest collaborator, but working with Sturges provided an entry point into his own world, a way of looking at the rooms and halls and forests he created from a new angle. “[Sturges] kept opening new doors, and I’d look in and think ‘Oh, of course — that must have been there all along,’” said Grossman.
Those doors led to colored panels of Alice’s journey through the woods using her parents alumni key to enter the grounds, take us through all the emotional beats of her finding Quentin in bed with Janet and Eliot, and allow us to get inside the head of the niffin, who is not Alice, but possesses all of her memories and faint echoes of emotions.
The graphic novel is, in a word, beautiful. The reimagining of Alice, Janet, Quentin, Eliot, and especially Josh and Penny, are more spot on to those hazy sketches that were in my head when I first picked up the books. There are moments that make it into the book that are skimmed around in the television series that I was pleasantly surprised to see — Q and Alice finding their way into the Physical Kids house and being greeted with Eliot cooking up a meal, the studying into the tower between Penny, Q, and Alice to advance a year in their Brakebills training, Humbledrum in the background of a Fillorian pub, Eliot and Janet being at Brakebills South at the same time as Q, Alice, and Penny.
There are pages from their spell books — want to learn Fourth Form? You’ll learn that it requires precise off-hand thumb placement at 3-gemini, 4-libra, or 4/5 leo and has many exceptions you can read about on page 480.
I devoured the graphic novel in an afternoon, blissfully reveling in the familiar story that still felt different. I won’t sugar coat it, Alice was my least favorite character (in both the books and the television series). Perhaps that is partially due to the fact that she did not get this type of narrative introduction. It’s a bit of justice for a character who gets isolated by Q’s story as we are want to side with him on most occasions.
What turned me over to being pro-Alice by the end, was the narrative she has — spoilers for those who have not read the first book or seen the television series — as a niffin. Devoid of her body, she states in her new form “I am not Alice anymore, but I hold her shape. The shape of her thoughts. The shape of her memories. And something of Alice herself, a stinging nettle of need, at the back of my mind.” This is the locked away some insight to Alice that I needed more of in the books. And I especially needed it in the show.
There is another moment of the THR interview Grossman mentioned that he had one note about Quentin — make him more likable. Sturges succeeds at this in her narrative but admits, “It is a struggle to make Quentin likeable; I want to hate him… but like Alice I keep coming back to him!”
For fans of the television series, the Q you know and love is not readily available on the page. To put it bluntly, he is a bit of a prick. This was one fear I had after going back through the television series and walking away with a newfound deep connection — would these characters on the screen change the way I connected with the books? (They did, in only positive ways). And now I can say I’m looking forward to see how this latest installment to the canon reflects on my reading of Alice.
I would highly recommend it to anyone who is looking for a way back into something that they felt was ripped away from them.
Truth be told, I was not looking for a way back The Magicians.
In fact I’ve never had a problem rediscovering The Magicians. At times I’ve picked up The Magician King (Book 2), randomly opened to a page from The Magicians and started in the middle of things, and as I write this, The Magician’s Land (Book 3) is resting half complete on my nightstand. These copies are consistently scattered about the house, downloaded digitally on my phone, ever present on my Kindle, they are accessible at all times. In fact they are the only complete series to claim such accessibility.
And then, at a very different time in my life, I reconnected with the series in a very real way. Midway through season 4’s live airing on Syfy, I started to notice conversations around the show bubbling in my periphery. Something was happening that was getting everyone a bit more tuned in than usual. Instead of diving in to start season 4 straight away, I went all the way back to start. To MGMT’s “Time to Pretend,” to seeing our little Q retreating Fillory and Further instead of the party.
Things snowballed from there. Sometimes things come into your life at the right moment and you cannot pinpoint why or how it will affect in the way that it does. Looking back I still can’t figure out which stars aligned, maybe Mercury was in retrograde, who knows.
All I know is that something clicked and I felt as if I became joined at the hip with Quentin Coldwater. Not even my favorite character (that space has always and will always go to Margo/Janet and Eliot). There was something about Q in this rewatch – I felt protective of his story, of his emotions, of his inner torment. And while I certainly felt it more deeply Q, it spread to more characters as I moved into later seasons.
High Queen Margot, Eliot and Fenn’s troubles in paradise, Kady struggling with the loss of Penny 40 and the appearance of Penny 23, the entire construction of the Key Quest in season 3. The final episode, as the group comes together, Q decides to leave the group in favor of imprisoning himself to keep the status quo. Magic will return and with it, he presumes, everyone’s happiness.
Quentin struggles to see that a world with him in it is what people want. And in the moment where Eliot foils the plan, Q doesn’t realize that this person loves him and wants him in his life. He is choosing Quentin. And if Q expanded his sights a little bit further he would realize, everyone is.
There are echoes of this “heroic” sacrifice that could be masked as a death sentence throughout the first three seasons. Darkness was never far out of reach, yet it was always kept at bay long enough to see through the next task at hand. Until season 4.
Things got dark, they got complicated, and they got good.
The Magicians isn’t perfect on any medium. There are bits of plot that don’t sit right, characters rub me the wrong way. I want interactions between characters to go just one step forward. I want to spend more time in Fillory, in Brakebills, with the hedge witches, depending on the day. I mean, hell, why aren’t we spending all of our time robbing banks or at least having some ensemble scenes?
What I fell in love with in the books, and subsequently in the television adaptation, was the circumstances. How this group of broken people continuously found a way forward.
Take for instance season 2’s manifestation of the need to bottle your emotions to get through the day. They are not gone and when they come back after being buried for so long, they are intense, flood your senses, and make you deal with things in perhaps the most unhealthy ways. Eliot may try to drown them in alcohol, Margot may become verbally defensive, Quentin may retreat into a corner – they may all end up in bed together. Having magic doesn’t make facing their problems any easier.
Quentin has always been open about his struggles with mental health. The series opens with him voluntarily checking himself out of a hospital and follows up with a touching conversation with his dad about the reason he stopped taking his medication — Fillory. But Fillory can’t fix everything and, as it turns out, is not the magical utopia he dreamed up as a child. It was written down by a pedophile, run by gods who couldn’t get along and liked messing with human, and has a load of other issues.
But still, as Quentin says in his penultimate episode, “The idea of Fillory saved my life. The promise that people like me can somehow find an escape. There has got to be some power in that. Shouldn’t the idea of Fillory be enough?”
It should and in the books, it is. Quentin realizes at the end of The Magician’s Land that he wishes he could talk to the younger Q who believed so deeply in all of Fillory and tell him that nothing was going to turn out like he hoped. But that it was going to be alright anyway.
That message got lost in translation for the television series. Nothing turned out like we hoped. It is not going to be alright anyway.
After the season 4 finale, there was one fleeting minute where I thought I understood some of the choices that were made. But then Jason Ralph announced he was leaving the show. Fillory was not going to be enough. His friendships were not going to be enough. He was defeated. I was defeated. Magic was not going to save this. But it should have.
I retreated to my Brakebills group chat, that over the course of a few days became a flurry of disappointment, anger, and outright confusion. Not much has changed in the following months save for the occasional groaning over gifs passed around, longing for the time to go back to simpler days of waiting for the Monster’s shirt of the week, or more from Margo after her badassery in the desert.
It wasn’t the decision to kill a character (though, justifiably, that is a huge deal and was the spark of this mess) that made me feel a bit of pause about the direction and care of the show. It was the handling of it, the praise that creators wanted and the tone taken in interviews that followed. There’s fallout from a decision on nearly every series from Game of Thrones to How I Met Your Mother.
There is nothing quite like the thrill of a well-execute a narrative flip. One that makes you question the choices made all along, and see the breadcrumbs you missed, the seeds that were planted or at least recognized in retrospect all along. You want to find ways to justify the action, the direction. After all, you are looking at something from a point of view that is vested in what you want to see. And that could change from week to week, season to season. I’m guilty of it. But most of the time I can wrap my head around a creative decision and run with it. And other times, I cannot.
Creators are protective of their stories, soaking in the press highlighting their praiseworthy episodes, but raising their guards when things go awry. The Magicians creative team, I would imagine, had to have some inkling as to what was coming down the line after delivering two highly-praised and lauded episodes in the weeks prior to the finale, one of which changed everything Fire Nation style.
Personally, I loved just about every episode of this season, but the two noteworthy ones are first, season 4, episode 7, “The Side Effect,” which hinged the entire premise on the single line, “the most important characters aren’t who you expect.” It told the stories of those characters we do not spend a ton of time with – Fenn, Kady leading a revolution, Zelda, and, let’s face it, Penny 40. These are the characters who drove the season, nay the series, from the background. And, rightfully so, they finally had their spot in the sun.
The other episode has been written about ad nauseam. So, I’ll just say this — “Escape From the Happy Place” changed everything. Retrospectively, going right back to season 3, episode 5, straight through the finale of season 4. It made every interaction and separation between Quentin and Eliot feel more electric, and every touch of look of the Monster that much more painful. It was exciting, it was fun, it was heart wrenching. I wanted to save Eliot. I wanted more than ever to save Quentin.
Recalling these episodes in reverse order, I’d argue that the beauty of “Escape From the Happy Place” actually begins with the conclusion of episode 4, “Marry Fuck Kill.” The strongest outing for Quentin in the season, in my opinion. After the death of his father, the Monster finds Quentin “dwelling” in his sadness. But he offers somewhat shocking comfort to the saddened Q — a way to find catharsis and move forward. He does and is immediately hit with another blow — Eliot is dead.
As Eliot works through getting out of the Happy Place, we are forced to watch a gutted Quentin, one who can barely look at the Monster, get swallowed yet again by grief and loss. There is barely a time where Quentin gets a moment of air (save for those years spent at the Mosaic).
But the devastation of Q here and elsewhere in the season highlights exactly what executive producers Sera Gamble and John McNamara comment on in their postmortem interview. Gamble begins, “To be totally frank about it, we opened the series with a scene with Quentin in a mental hospital, contending with his own feelings about his life and death and what all of that means. For me, so much of what was intriguing about [Jason] when he auditioned was that he played Quentin in this way that was active in seeking an answer, seeking a deeper human truth inside his own depression. If you have the privilege of getting to tell a story long enough, you want to complete that circle. If we’re gonna do drama and magic and high stakes, we want to do the deep human stuff. And it didn’t get any deeper than this for us.”
Are we to take those years in an alternate reality as enough of a life lived? Q returned from that moment only to be tied to a mast on a ship as he is verbally assaulted by his depression.
Completing the circle does not mean death. Completing the circle could have meant coming out okay. Q walked off the Muntjac and survived. The circle, arguably, might have been closed there. Instead the story took the path that was read as – no matter how hard you try life can just be too hard.
Regarding the ambiguity of his death (whether it was finally a path to suicide versus a heroic sacrifice) McNamara shed some light on the topic saying, “I think that exact question will hopefully fuel debate and discussion and possibly be the source of a few academic papers at institutions of higher learning. I think it is ambiguous. Emotionally, Penny provides him with an answer, which is that Quentin was too attached to these people, and they to him, for Quentin to have consciously given up his life. But there’s a saying that a psychiatrist once said to me, which is that the subconscious always gets what it wants, and the conscious mind often never knows.”
In light of all that good, how could you not feel betrayed, hurt, and played when the overarching statement that was being made boils down to — we, as creators are being brave and bold and we simply don’t care.
Just as the words on the pages of the books and the scripts, their words matter. To quote their own series back to them, “You knew this was a moment that truly mattered and you snuffed it out.”
Quentin was not the only one in pain, or the only person suffering. As we heard from the series itself, he is not the most important character. Eliot has said, “I think something might be broken… I am miserable. My life doesn’t work. Nothing’s ever fixed that.” And in one particularly telling moment between Dean Fogg and Clay Eliot, the weight of being a ruler in Fillory while also trying to straddle living this out of body experience on Earth is pushing El to the brink. Fogg asks him, “What did you think was going to happen when you dove headfirst into another world?” El says, “I thought I would die.”
But eventually he comes around to the fact that even though things are usually worth caring about, sometimes they are. And I whole-heartedly agree. Things are better when you can stick around and find something, someone, to fight for.
Jason Ralph’s departure from the series has more behind the scenes discussions that led to the final decision. Who wanted to leave, who wanted to spice up a story, I’m confident I’ll never have all the answers. Even if I did, it would likely not change the way in which the backend (and secrecy during production) was handled.
So, where does that leave us? Where does an entire fandom turn when this happens? I can only say for certain where that leaves me — with the series that kicked it off and the collection of episodes that made everything alright and whole for those months and years.
Will I watch season 5? Probably. Will I read every graphic novel to follow Alice’s story? Absolutely.
I know I will always have the Fillory that exists in Grossman’s trilogy. I’ll also have all the hours of acclaimed television to turn back to. I’m grateful for this show, this cast, and these novels and graphic novels.
The Magicians Original Graphic Novel: Alice’s Story by Lev Grossman and Lilah Sturges and illustrated by Pius Bak is available now from your local comic book store. Or you can order a copy on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, The Book Depository, or Indiebound. Also, don’t forget to add it to your Goodreads “to read” list!