I have a lot of feelings about SyFy’s The Magicians. Like, a lot of them. I could wax sentimental about how the television show feels pleasantlyNu-Buffy, or how Margo is literally the baddest bitch to ever walk the earth, but that’s not on the agenda for today.
What I want to talk about now is toxic relationships, and the unique challenges of loving someone when you’re both not right for each other.
Any decently written narrative will have characters that don’t all get along with each other. I’m looking at you anime: the power of friendship doesn’t slay villains in real life like it does in cartoons.
The most majestic of stories, however? They’ll go balls-to-the-wall with it all.
They’ll have relationships that are a mess, toxic, wrong, and beyond broken.
Characters will make mistakes, over, and over, and over again, because they’re humans. And humans are messy, shitty little creatures who can’t learn from their bad behaviors.
They’ll have unfair deaths, because life isn’t fair, and dying sucks ass.
The truly epic stories—the greatest of stories ever—could have talking dragons, lamprey demons, botched mythology, insane pop culture references, day-drinking school Deans, and Baccus as a party-going DJ with bad fashion sense—and still feel fleshed out, real, human, and raw.
I’m not talking about Lev Grossman’s novels, which the entire internet thinks is misogynistic and shitty. (Reddit has some feels on this. I’d like to remind Reddit that I’m a business copywriter, and dramaticism is par for the course. But now I’m going to go read them, so, thank you for setting me straight!).
I’m talking about SyFy’s The Magicians, which is an excellent, epic masterwork of television storytelling.
Because it’s real, really real, even when the characters are doing dorky hand-movements a la the OA to cast all their half-baked spells.
I’ve been along for the ride this entire time, and the most real of all the things that has come out of The Magicians, for me, is how toxic relationships are handled.
They’re not sugarcoated. They’re not glossed over. They’re painful.
Toxic relationships, be they romantic or platonic, are when two people are just not aligned.
When they are bad for each other, when they cause emotional casualties for each other, when they don’t better both people involved.
Toxic relationships are like eating a sour warhead after the sweetness has faded away and your tongue has a chemical burn but you keep sucking on it because you like the pain, or something.
I’m going to finally call a spade a spade here, and throw out the titular toxic relationship into the mix: Qualice.
For people not in the know (why you’re reading this is beyond me), Quentin Coldwater is positioned as the depressed, introverted, fantasy-obsessed, lukewarm male protagonist at the start of the show.
He isn’t brilliant, he’s not particularly charming, he’s not at all talented, and honestly there’s nothing that special about him.
You see where this is already going, right?
Alice Quinn is situated as the insanely brilliant, awkward, beautiful, talented, emotionally stunted female lead at the start of the show.
She’s the brightest star in Season 1. She’s the most adept, the most intriguing, and feels more like the main character than he does, by leaps and bounds.
Inevitably they fall in love, because he needs the Ideal Woman, and she has never been wanted this much before. Surprise, surprise.
But here’s where things start to go from awkward, to ratchet, to batshit.
Life quickly starts throwing zingers at the cast, and Quentin’s illusions of being awesome-sauce are quickly thwarted.
A lot of shit goes down, but here are events of merit to outline the fuckening levels of toxicity that come to be:
- Quentin and Margo and Eliot all have a drunk threesome.
- Alice has revenge sex with Penny because of the above.
- There are two magic sex scenes in there, one as foxes and one for a spell, because Magic and The One True Love Couple, or something.
- Alice sacrifices herself for Quentin.
- Alice turns into an overclocked magic-demon-thing called a Niffin.
- Quentin keeps desperately trying to save Alice against her wishes, who seems to want to keep dying / becoming evil.
- Alice comes back and has to learn to become a human again, and resents it.
- Quentin tries to take care of her or some shit.
- Alice ends up going rogue and betrays the entire cast due to her ‘I know what’s best’ attitude, leading to a fascist institution controlling All Magic, ever.
- Quentin has some insane quest that has him live an entire lifetime with Eliot, in order to solve some weird puzzle.
- They hook up, also there’s a girl who sells peaches, Quentin is a dad, they grow old and die and that solves the quest.
- That was kind of a pocket universe so it didn’t quite-quite happen, but it actually did-did, and Quentin has some Not Quite Straight Feels about it all.
- Eliot also has Some Feels, we have now found, and color me actually surprised that he nutsacks out about it.
- Qualice is over, but Alice still Has The Feels, while Quentin does Not Have The Feels.
- There’s a lot of other shit going on, 4 seasons, y’all!
- It’s very Buffy, very meta, and very The Chronicles Of Narnia on crack cocaine.
Now, as I’ve not read Lev Grossman’s apparently Gross books (see above edit), I didn’t have the extra context of how amazing Alice is and how utterly shite Quentin is.
I’m going off of what I can see on the screen. And what I see on the screen is a toxic relationship between two people who loved each other for the weirdest, wrongest reasons.
In the latest episode, episode 11 of season 4, Quentin has to time-travel back into his own body to find something out, and this means past-Q swaps consciousnesses with present-Q.
He’s landed himself smack-dab in an almost-sex-situation with past Alice, and boy is it ever apparent how mismatched their contemporary ‘star crossed lovers’ situation truly is.
Present-Q skips on a sexual situation, and is told by past-Alice that he’s “the best thing that’s ever happened to her”.
As she’s smarter than basically everyone on the cast ever, she realizes something is going on, and decries how much she loves him. That in the past [the present, for her], what they have is good.
But I’m painfully aware that what they had was never good. Not in a trillion years.
Season 1 Quentin is a douchebag. Point blank. And I couldn’t see, for all my disliking her as a character, that he had been the one to fuck it all up.
He’s horrible to his best friend, he’s terrible to everyone, he’s obsessed with magic, he thinks he’s special, and he’s not.
Alice represents perfection to him, because not only is she the hottest, smartest girl ever, but she’s also the best Magician, and loves him the most despite him being her only real relationship with a bloke, ever.
Alice and Q relate to each other awkwardly, like pubertorial teenagers navigating their first relationship, banging all the time, and not establishing a friendship before they get to boning.
As a 31 year old woman, I am well aware that you do have to be friends with your partner, or honestly it just doesn’t work out. At all.
While this episode was playing, I kept going back to Alice’s ratchet behavior throughout the past 2 seasons.
How she could absolutely not help herself where ‘fixing everything’ was concerned, and thought her own hot-take on Magic Being The Worst For Everybody trumped the autonomy of everyone else.
I realized that I had been sitting here, shitting on Alice the entire time, when she really was just a monster of someone else’s making.
That her declaration of love, for an extremely unspecial, way-under-her-league dude, the relentless yeeting herself to death for him, the agonizing interactions with her narcissistic parents, all resulted in a woman ill-prepared for love and mismatched with the first guy who put her on a pedestal.
This newest episode showed me how desperately she was clinging to a thing from the past, even when it had run its course, and Quentin had grown by leaps and bounds.
Essentially, she had shown him selfless love, became toxic because of the power of her knowledge, and more or less crapped on every good situation available throughout the span of two whole seasons.
What, exactly, did Quentin Coldwater offer her? Undying resolve to save her, over and over again?
She didn’t want to really be saved. That point was hammered home to us relentlessly, like a Magic addict not quite hitting rock bottom.
Quentin made that judgement call, for her, and by making the judgement call, fated Alice to a ‘shitty annoying love interest trope’ that we see all too often in television.
But here’s where it gets interesting, and here’s where SyFy’s The Magicians plays its best hand. The best hand I’ve ever seen in outlining how toxic relationships do not ever work.
Present-Alice, in the now-now, is kissing past-Q, and she still pines for when they were ‘good’. Present-Q shows up back in his own body, and puts a kabosh to it.
Present-Q had the opportunity to grow. He’s come to terms with being not-quite-straight, and found his place being comfortable with being…normal.
He’s normal. He’s an average, if at times shitty, guy. He has accepted this.
Present-Alice did not grow. She has not accepted her specialness, but has capitalized on the most toxic principles about it. In fact, she’s almost done nothing but grow more neurotic, more infatuated, more self-centered.
And who actually spurred this on, probably by accident but mostly by being a dickhead? Quentin Coldwater.
I’ve been in a toxic relationship. An eleven year one, to be exact, before my current partner who is oceans more healthy for me and we help each other be the best version of ourselves.
I’ve been the Alice who was special, brought to ‘less than’ neuroticism by a milquetoast dude who wanted, very much, to be special.
I’ve been the Quentin who was in love with an idea of what he valued most in the world.
Sometimes, and actually very often, people fall in love with each other at the wrong stages in their lives. They do not yet have the tools to navigate relationships with a healthy maturity.
They envision someone as something, but don’t see the person beyond the idea.
They throw everything away for the sake of another, who really doesn’t deserve it, because their need to Mend clouds their judgement.
If they just love more, love harder, give more, bleed the blood from a stone, things will be okay.
Alice Quinn has not yet moved on from this idea. Quentin Coldwater, has.
He’s become comfortable being uncomfortable. He’s come to the understanding that he’s not quite straight, not at all special, and not even a little bit powerful.
Just as much as Alice can’t be special, on her own, and own her own power in a healthy way, she can’t turn Quentin back into the boy who was obsessed with her.
Where is Alice’s Eliot? Where is Alice’s person who helps her see the beauty in herself? A beauty that doesn’t need to go nuclear?
Where is Alice’s person, who despite being flawed, is willing to be comfortable being uncomfortable?
Where is Alice’s own personal journey of redemption? Where is Alice’s wake-up call? Where is Alice’s mercy for the wrongs she has done?
She still frames herself in how someone else sees her. And that truly is letting some shitty guy, who has since used her pain as a stepping stone to grow into a fully-fledged adult male, keep her down.
Keep her toxic. Keep her clawing at a thing that Was Good when it Was Not, and is Now Not Good, At All.
Before episode 11 of season 4, I really just hated Alice.
Actually, before writing this, I just hated her. I hated that she couldn’t grow up, and she was toxic, and being a selfish child about everything.
But that’s why SyFy’s The Magicians is so well written. Each episode airs, and I realize something new about what had come before.
This toxic relationship has finally been shown from both sides. Quentin’s narrative of growth has been juxtaposed against Alice’s narrative of repeatedly bad decisions.
She has not been given the mercy and grace he has, and the cast of characters still blame her for what she was made into.
I’ve had a romantic relationship like this. I’ve been Alice. I was raised by a narcissist. I’m older, and more comfortable in being uncomfortable. More normal, more willing to meet someone where they are.
I have the vast benefit of knowledge under my belt, a life lived strange and ordinary, weird and wicked, fun and painful, powerful and shitty.
I have had toxic friendships that I’ve stood my ground in, made my needs known, and demanded growth from someone else.
Just like we demand Alice grow, when she doesn’t have the tools yet to do this. Just like we demand Alice ‘get over it’ when she has never had anyone to hold her hand through her bullshit.
Writing this makes me understand Alice better, toxic relationships, and that there are two sides to every story.
That’s what makes SyFy’s The Magicians so fucking good—the audience gets to see both parts of the equation. Not just Quentin’s comfortable uncomfortableness.
In toxic relationships, you have two hurt people who would probably definitely benefit from a third-person perspective and goofy monologues about each others’ feelings.
Real life is hardly so great about hashing-out character motivations. But that’s where the magic of The Magicians comes into play.
It peels back that extra layer of human interactions, and says:
Everyone thinks they are the hero of their own story. But they really, really, really aren’t.
Special thanks to Renato P. dos Santosfor his continued support.