I’m now current on the TV show version of The Magicians, which puts me done with episode 4, waiting on 5. Full disclosure: I have not read the books, so I’m going into this blind. And occasionally cheesy special effects aside, I have really enjoyed what I’ve seen so far. (Take a moment please for us to contemplate how awesome Penny is. There we go.) After I mentioned growing concern about Julia on Twitter, the inimitable E Catherine Tobler spoiled me for the books with my permission and Jesus fucking Christ on rye toast I hope that’s not where the TV series is going. There are not enough tables in the world for me to flip.
But this is about the TV show, so I’m going to focus on that and leave that particular alarm about the future aside even if it makes my feelings of doom exponentially worse..
To me it seems that, Quentin and Julia are set up as opposing main characters, a study in contrasts. They begin as extremely close friends who survived high school together via nerdy fandom; Julia is ready to move on and Quentin isn’t. They bicker, they argue, Julia tries to push Quentin to do something with his life when he’s barely hanging on, but they are still obviously friends. She also tells him that she loves him in an obviously platonic way, while he mumbles jealously about her boyfriend. It’s a messy, close, complicated friendship.
Then Quentin gets to go to the super elite Brakebills for his magic education. Julia doesn’t pass the initial test and has to figure things out on her own, grubbing in the street. They both have the same desperation for learning magic; they both at multiple points express that they cannot go back to normal life, that they need this in order to survive.
Quentin gets leeway for his fuckups; he screws up profoundly but hasn’t yet been cast from the Brakebills. He’s making friends. He’s learning things. Julia’s fuckups are no less profound but given no mercy. The group she falls in with out of desperation to learn magic is one in which she gets manipulated and used. And what she does learn gets belittled and scoffed at by Quentin and his friends. In episode 4, Julia is forced to confront the terrible thing she was partially (and I say only partially because she was out to hurt him, she just didn’t intend for it to be that bad) tricked into doing to Quentin and makes right on it, but is then thrown out of her group while Quentin reaffirms his place in his.
So far, so good. Study in contrasts.
Julia obviously does have some talent with magic. She begs Quentin to help her, asking him to bring her to the attention of the school administrators because she wants another chance at the test. He refuses, dismissing what she’s learned on her own as a single trick (even though he’s not exactly hot shit himself) and telling her that she doesn’t always get to win. He also mentions, I think importantly, that he’s upset Julia never wanted to be in a relationship with him, something she reacts to with shock since it seems she didn’t quite realize he had designs on her.
Jealousy and complicated character interactions make for interesting stories. It makes the characters extremely human. But the question that now plagues me is where this is going. Because the story that is told to us with these building blocks says a hell of a lot.
Is the narrative going to affirm that Quentin was right to take a petty revenge on Julia by refusing to help her because he was hurt by her not returning his feelings, say by making her into a villain and thus proving she was a Bad Girl all along ? Is she going to go into a downward spiral that he can later feel all kinds of manpain about when he realizes maybe he should have been the better man, but too bad, so sad for Julia? Is Julia going to destroy herself in her quest for magic while Quentin, who wants the magic just as desperately, gets to have his cake and eat it too? Will Julia sacrifice herself for Quentin and in so doing help him fulfill his own narrative? Will Julia get beaten down into realizing that her quest for magical power, so similar to Quentin’s, is somehow Bad and she deserves to have her memories removed and be sentenced to an ordinary life? Will she be subjected to sexual violence that male characters almost never fear, because everyone knows that’s the worst thing that can happen to a woman?
Or are they going to reconcile and cooperate and teach each other? Are they going to stop hurting each other and remember that they are friends? Is Julia going to have a happy ending as reward for her stubborn refusal to give up, for the obstacles she overcomes, the lessons she learns? Is she going to come into her powers and find the knowledge she craves, becoming a better person through this difficult journey? Is Quentin eventually going to suffer for turning his back on a friend? Will Quentin sacrifice himself for Julia so she can be redeemed? Will Julia redeem herself and gain the respect of those around her after she’s fought for it hard enough?
Each possibility (and countless more I haven’t written out) make statements via how the characters are punished or rewarded, whether we like it or not. I wouldn’t be nearly so worried if both characters were male, because there’s push and pull and stories that go in all directions with this kind of setup (minus the frustrated romance angle). But this becomes more fraught because Julia is a woman, and Quentin is her friend with whom she was completely uninterested in having a romantic relationship. Considering the genre history of women being sacrificed on the altar of manpain, of women being narratively punished–often with sexual violence–for showing the same ambition as a men, of women time and again only finding their stories in being selfless so the men can be selfish, do you understand why I’m having a bad feeling about this?
I think I’m taking this a little more personally as well, because I like Julia as a character. She’s flawed and human and has her own story. She makes mistakes and grapples with problems. And she’s ambitious, stubborn, unwilling to give up when she’s told time and again she should, when she’s dismissed repeatedly (almost always by male characters, note) because the urge to learn burns so fiercely in her. For that alone, I identify with Julia and her struggles, and even with her more cringe-inducing mistakes. She’s fighting in her own flawed way to be the person she knows she is despite the withering scorn of someone who is supposed to be her friend. She’s fighting tooth and claw for the destiny she knows must be hers–and this struggle isn’t a zero-sum game. Her learning magic doesn’t take anything from Quentin, just as him learning doesn’t take anything from her. The world is wide enough for Julia and Quentin, and yet. And yet.
Knowing now what happens to her in the books, this is scaring the hell out of me. Stories are rarely kind to ambitious women, and it is a chilling, constant reminder that neither is society at large.