Those who know me know I don’t like to get too personal with my writing. It’s one thing to share your opinion, another to expose your heart. However, for this The Magicians recap, I can’t avoid it. As I write this, hours after watching the season finale, tears still prick at the corners of my eyes. I saw something that I can’t explain—or, rather, the explanation isn’t enough. I just have to feel it.
“No Better To Be Safe Than Sorry” isn’t an episode so much as it is two experiences. The first falls along the lines of a traditional season finale. Our heroes are ready to finally take down the evil siblings that have possessed Eliot and Julia, as well as stop Head Librarian Everett from using all the siphoned magic to turn himself into a god. In order to accomplish their goal, they unite hedge witches and magicians from all over the world to perform a group spell. It’s a wonderful moment of community and hints at a better future for the world of magic. At least, until it inevitably falls apart again.
Both Julia and Eliot suffer major injuries from the magical axes that were used to extract the monsters from their bodies. Eliot is treated the old-fashioned way, and clearly has a long road to recovery. But Julia is a different story. Her immortal body repeatedly tries to close the wound, but it keeps reopening because it came from a magical weapon. As Julia is unconscious from the pain, Penny 23 is forced to make a choice: Let The Binder turn her into a full goddess, possibly losing her forever, or make her mortal again. He chooses the latter. It’s the safer choice, but also a selfish one, and she may never forgive him for it.
The final showdown takes place in the Mirror Realm, as Quentin and Josh learned of a seam between universes where the monster twins can be banished forever. Why no one did this before is anybody’s guess, I suppose it’s because only the gods knew about it and didn’t give a shit about telling anyone else. Quentin, Penny, and Alice have just thrown the monster into the mirror containing the seam, and are about to hurl in his twin sister, when in pops Everett. He needs the monster’s essence to become a full-fledged god, and breaks the mirror so they have no choice but to give it to him—since magic can’t be used in the Mirror Realm, without facing dire consequences.
The moment I realized what felt like the climax was taking place halfway through the episode, I was confused and concerned. This meant it wasn’t the end, and something big was coming. It reminded me of last year’s season finale, which ended with the Library taking over magic and giving everyone new identities. But what happened was much different. Quentin quickly tells Penny to get Alice out of there, uses his power of Minor Mending to fix the mirror, and sends the monster through the seam. Time slows to a crawl as we watch Alice scream, cry, and try to tear herself away from Penny, as Quentin is consumed by residual magic...and dies.
This is where the second experience begins. One that I still can’t shake.
We travel back to that cliffhanger moment from “The Side Effect,” the one where the personification of white male entitlement got a dressing down about assuming stories always had to care about his perspective. The moral of the story was that the hero shouldn’t automatically be seen as the center of the story—at the expense of everyone around him. At the end of that episode, Penny had opened the elevator to greet a mysterious figure, as the smiling and peaceful face of death. Little did we know, the person on the other side was Quentin Coldwater. The hero of the story.
Season finales are usually about big conflicts and bigger action. But the rest of “No Better To Be Safe Than Sorry” was small and intimate. It centered around Quentin, brilliantly acted by Jason Ralph, as he comes to terms with his death and everything that entails. He questions whether he truly sacrificed himself for his friends, or had finally found a way to kill himself (he’s long experienced mental health issues, and has attempted suicide). To answer this question, Penny chooses to show, not tell. He brings Quentin to his own memorial service, a silent observer of his friends mourning his passing. They all sit around a fire, but cannot put their grief into words. So instead, they sing. A beautiful and somber rendition of a-ha’s “Take On Me” ensues, as they each place an item into the fire that represents their mutual bond—Quentin’s copy of To Fillory and Further, a deck of playing cards, and more.
Then, my heart stopped, as Eliot stepped into the circle. The look on Quentin’s face, seeing Eliot back to his normal self was, simply put, stunning. Their relationship was complicated, and complex. They experienced an alternate lifetime of love and loss, in arguably the best episode of the series so far, and afterward, Quentin was rejected when he asked for something Eliot wasn’t ready to give. Quentin might have romantically reconciled with Alice right before the end (something I feel was a mistake), but here we can see his heart was still with Eliot. As Eliot sings in his incredible falsetto, he places a peach into the fire, a reminder of everything they had, and all that remains.
Quentin watches them mourn with tears of relief, pain, and love gathering in his eyes. He knows he is loved, as do we. This is where his story ends (the showrunners have confirmed Ralph is leaving the show). In his final moments, Quentin asks Penny to tell him what’s in store for his friends—and we see hints at their storylines next season—receives his Underworld Metrocard, and steps through the door into the next life.
It’s really hard to portray a major character death on film or television—and so often it’s done in a way that’s designed to shock us, making it less about the character and more about the hype. The Magicians has done something I have never experienced on a show before: It gave me a chance to grieve. I wasn’t watching a character get killed off on a show. I was sitting around the fire, throwing my mementos into the flames, and watching the past go up in smoke.
Death is complicated, and we all feel the ramifications differently. For me, mourning takes a long time. I’m usually numb at first—not in denial, just emotionally vacant. I’d like to think it’s because I recognize that death is a part of life, but I think it’s because I’m worried I’ll feel so much pain, I won’t be able to escape it. So instead, I throw it into the seam. But as we know, what is dead may never die. Those feelings never leave you.
It took me months to understand how I felt about my grammy’s death, which happened last year, and in some ways, I still haven’t processed it. But the moment it started to click for me didn’t happen until her funeral, which came a little while after her death. My sisters and I, who were in a band together for about a decade (that’s a whole other story), were asked to sing her favorite song, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” It was a beautiful arrangement, crafted by my older sister, and rehearsing it felt like prep for any other show. But it wasn’t until we got up there and finally sang, sharing in that moment with our loved ones, that it hit me. She was gone, and I was still here.
Speculative fiction has a way of helping us understand ourselves because it allows us to explore complicated, real experiences in a safe space. It wasn’t until I watched Freeform’s The Bold Type that I understood my sexual identity was more complicated than “dudes are pretty cool.” Likewise, watching this scene where characters used magic to express their mourning, singing out the feelings they may never be able to say out loud, broke me. Because I’ve done the same thing. My grief was echoed in their grief, creating a cycle of mourning. Back and forth, over and over. I’m still feeling it, even now. They never leave you.
I’m not sure how everybody else is going to process Quentin’s death, but I know what it meant to me. It gave me a space to understand how I feel, how I grieve, and what happens when we too are left behind.
If you struggle with suicidal thoughts please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255.