[This is a review of The Magicians season 2 premiere. There will be SPOILERS.]
Thanks to the likes of Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games, movie studios have adapted a number of young adult novels to the big screen in recent years. However, as the success of big budget sci-fi and fantasy adaptations has dwindled, there's been a rise of similar properties being turned into television series. Syfy's The Magicians falls into this category, receiving a television adaptation from Lev Grossman's novel of the same name and finding success among audiences.
The Magicians takes inspiration from other beloved children's and young adult series like J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia, but puts a much darker and much more adult spin on a world of magic. In season 1 of The Magicians, Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph) was accepted to Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy and studied to become a magician alongside fellow students Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley), Eliot (Hale Appleman), Margo (Summer Bishil), and Penny (Arjun Gupta). Meanwhile, Quentin's childhood best friend Julia (Stella Maeve) self-taught herself magic after being rejected by Brakebills.
Season 1 left Quentin and his friends in an especially dark place. In the magical land of Fillory, they had just faced off with an incredibly powerful force of evil called The Beast (Charles Mesure), and lost -- Penny's hands were cut off, and it seemed Alice, Eliot, and Margo had been killed. Plus Julia, who was capable of killing The Beast, instead made a deal with the creature for help going after the god Reynard the Fox, betraying her friends and leaving them behind. The season 2 premiere of The Magicians, 'Knight of Crowns' picks up shortly after the events of the previous finale, with Quentin running for help for his friends.
'Knight of Crowns' is a fairly standard season premiere in that it quickly wraps up the cliffhanger of the season 1 finale then goes about setting up the main story and character arcs for season 2. While it seemed all of Quentin's friends, with the exception of Julia, were left for dead in the finale, they're magically all alive when Quentin returns with help. Alice, who was imbued with special powers thanks to a god's sperm (remember: Fillory is weird), was revived and she managed to save the others, though Penny was still left without his hands -- a serious problem for a magician.
The quick reversal of such dire circumstances somewhat undermines the stakes of the previous season since there were no permanent consequences of their failed attack on The Beast. Even Penny is able to reattach his hands thanks to a magical river running through Fillory, though this comes with a catch. Since Penny insults the man who explained how to use the river, the man put a spell on Penny's hands, making it near impossible for him to actually control them. Considering the magic of The Magicians necessitates precise and complicated hand gestures in order to perform spells, this development foretells trouble for Penny and his companions.
Still, this man -- who later refuses to remove the spell he placed on Penny's hands even after Penny apologizes -- and the woman who forced Quentin to pay her for her help before it was even needed are examples of cynical Fillory citizens. Both the man and woman are self-serving, demanding payment (in gold, blood, or work) for their help. As the woman warns Quentin, "Be careful with strangers, we only look whimsical." Indeed, Fillory isn't a magical land filled with inherently good creatures and it's constantly at odds with what Quentin knows of the world from the books he read as a child (as well as what viewers know of magical worlds thanks to series like Harry Potter and Narnia).
In fact, 'Knight of Crowns' subverts audience expectation at every turn as Quentin and his friends travel to obtain their crowns as the kings and queens of Fillory. The test, for instance, that they must pass in order to receive the crowns is much less whimsical than those in fiction and legend. Rather, it's a pop culture quiz -- with questions all from the '90s -- and Eliot aces the test with his own recitation of Patrick Swayze's monologue from the end of Dirty Dancing. They obtain the crowns with little pomp and circumstance from the Fillorian, but Quentin insists on a crowning ceremony. Juxtaposed with the Fillorian characters and traditions, Quentin and his friends embody the whimsy that are typically integral to tales of magic.
Back on Earth, Julia and The Beast find themselves in the ball pit of a public playplace, surrounded by children in order to no doubt make the villain seem all the creepier -- and it's effective. Julia is determined to make her deal with The Beast without any loopholes through which he can squeeze, and they eventually agree to terms that force The Beast to help Julia find and kill Reynard the Fox. However, over the course of 'Knight of Crowns' The Beast figures out that Reynard took more from Julia than she admits at first, deducing the fact that Reynard raped her.
The Beast seemingly forms a kind of fondness for Julia, and he tells her of his own abuse at the hands of Christopher Plover (the author the Fillory books). The Beast -- originally Martin Chatwin, one of the characters included in Plover's books -- dealt with his trauma by severing his shade (a soul of sorts) from himself and offers to help Julia do the same. But, Julia doesn't want to sever her shade and instead refocuses on her task at hand -- finding and killing Reynard.
Julia's storyline, especially her mentality that working with such a despicable villain as The Beast is simply a means to an end, is so far the darkest depth The Magicians has plumbed. Still, it's -- at best -- the secondary plot in the season premiere and doesn't quit give the characters much room to develop their dynamic, nor does it give Julia much time to process what happened to her (it was only revealed to her by Ember in the season 1 finale), much less deal with it beyond her tunnel vision on vengeance. That said, it remains to be seen how this particular arc is explored throughout season 2, and how it will affect Quentin's own quest to destroy The Beast.
All in all, 'Knight of Crowns' wraps up threads leftover from the season 1 finale, while setting up new overarching arcs for season 2. The episode features more and welcome insight into the land of Fillory, which will be a staple in The Magicians now that Eliot is unable to leave. But, with Quentin and his friends (sans Eliot) returning to Brakebills for more information about how to kill The Beast, it's unclear whether Fillory will feel instrumental to the main plot of season 2, or more tangential to the throughline of battling The Beast. Still, The Magicians sets up another season focused on the darker, more cynical side to magic grounded in the whimsy of the show's characters.
The Magicians continues with 'Hotel Spa Potions' Wednesday, February 1st at 9pm on Syfy.