Leave it up to Syfy’s The Magicians to introduce a powerful witch who shares spells using panda listicles.
Academy Award-winning actress Marlee Matlin made her magical debut on Wednesday’s episode of The Magicians as Harriet, a Hedge Witch who runs FuzzBeat, a less-than-opaque parody of BuzzFeed. The site is a front for spell-sharing, hiding tips and tricks behind clickbait articles. Harriet’s main role is to help Kady and Penny in their quest to find magic that would kill trickster god Reynard the Fox once and for all, but she’s got questionable methods. She curses a librarian to open a secret room for Penny, but the librarian chooses to kill himself instead. Ouch.
“She’s very good at keeping secrets, and doesn’t reveal her hand very readily, and that fits in perfectly to this show,” Matlin told io9.
Matlin said she found out about the role from her producing partner, a major fan of the show (she didn’t really know much about it then, but says she’s hooked now). Harriet wasn’t intended for a deaf actress, but her partner suggested her for the role, which the producers immediately embraced. Not only did it give the character a chance to see the world in a different way, Matlin said, but her sign language was a perfect fit for The Magicians’ magic, called “finger tutting,” where magicians use complex hand signals to cast spells.
“Being so good with my face and hands, it would lead naturally to this, to be able to do sort of ‘tutting,’ as they call it, because my hands move naturally that way,” Matlin said.
The Magicians has been praised for its largely diverse cast, including by Matlin herself. Up until now, people with disabilities weren’t really included in that diversity. In fact, a lot of shows and movies ignore those with disabilities, even when trying to advocate for more diverse casting, and those that do often cast actors without those disabilities in the roles, like Artie in Glee. GLAAD reported that in the 2016-17 TV season, about 1.7 percent of characters on TV had a disability. It’s a small number, but surprisingly, it was more than doubled from the previous year.
It’s really a shame, since the 2010 US Census showed that almost one in five people in the country live with a disability. Given the tumultuous political climate, including Donald Trump’s administration removing the government’s Americans with Disabilities Act website (with no planned replacement), it’s more important than ever for shows and films to properly and correctly represent people with disabilities. For example, Speechless, whose lead actor has cerebral palsy, or Switched at Birth, which Matlin co-stars on.
“I just appreciate the fact that the producers were open minded enough to consider creating a great example of what a diverse cast can look like and how successful it can be,” Matlin said.
Harriet left on a rather ambiguous note, clearing out FuzzBeat’s offices and leaving Kady a greeting card that points her in the right direction for some nasty spells. Matlin did confirm that we’ll see Harriet again, and pretty soon. There sure as hell better be more pandas.