Hands down, The Magicians just wrapped its best season yet. Somewhere along the way, this show about troubled, quirky magical co-eds and the awkward, amusing, sometimes horrific situations they find themselves in grew into a still quirky but heady exploration of life’s sobering lessons. Underneath its fantastical trappings are tales of heartbreak, rape, intersexism, infant and parent loss, drug addiction, mental illness, slavery, betrayal, and more. Season 3 kicked off with the Magicians, AKA Children of Earth, determined to bring magic back. After failing to enlist Bacchus, still thriving on Earth via Instagram likes, a Questing Beast grants Eliot the Quest of the Seven Keys to unlock the Castle at the End of the World where magic’s source resides, but it’s also a prison full of ancient monsters that cannot be allowed to escape.
Challenges abound for the questers, primarily their separation across Earth, nearing financial collapse without magic; the Library, desperate to protect itself from Neitherlands cannibals; Fillory, suffering under terraforming fairies and peasant riots; and the Underworld, weathering the unexpected influx of souls like a natural disaster. Travel methods range from the Chatwin clock to spontaneous keyholes to dragon gullets and library return slots. Communicating thanks to clever devices like dimension-jumping bunnies carrying a few words at a time (“Eat my ass!”—one emphatic bunny text) and trading Underworld information for Game of Thrones spoilers, the team bounces between key locations and real-life interruptions.
In Fillory, Margo and Elliot use coded fandom references (“I’m Grace Park!”) to slip the Fairy Queen’s grasp, sending Eliot on the Muntjac, a sentient “asshole” ship, along with advisor Tick Pickwick, mapmaker Benedict, Eliot’s Fillorian wife Fen, and their “baby” daughter Fray returned from the fairy realm as a teen spy. On Earth, Quentin, Alice, Kady, and Julia race to save Penny from cancer by hunting down magical batteries cobbled by ex-professors and a mysterious powder hoarded by Breakbills’ new owner Irene McAllistair. Penny dies, leaving his astrally-projected soul caught between planes and his billion-year Library contract. Struggling with her post-niffin dark lust for power, Alice accidentally kills her father to escape a body-snatching lamprey whose family she’d murdered. Julia suffers from sexual-assault trauma while her powers, granted by Reynard’s mother Persephone, grow daily. And Josh? He’s forgotten.
The Quest for the Seven Keys includes a self-writing book and a promise to make the quester worthy along the way. For a group burdened by insecurities, depression, and tragedy, this has understandable appeal, but personal growth also comes via the Fairy Queen’s tough-love tutelage for Margo and a swift boot from the nest by embattled mentors like Dean Fogg, whose longsuffering of white people and Millennials in particular expired with the death of magic. But, as the Head Librarian says, being in the story is not always a good thing.
Here are the Seven Keys and their journeys. Warning: Spoilers all episodes.
The First Key:
While Margo handles the fairies at Castle Whitespire, Eliot’s crew sails to After Island where a priest has been using the Key of Illusions to “protect” his followers from a murderous beast (himself). Thanks to Fray and Fen’s knife expertise, Eliot unmasks his trickery, seizes the key, claims the island, and leaves his new subjects to their justice. The trio eventually use the key to summon a doppelganger of Eliot’s bigot father so they can escape the Neitherland cannibals, and, with Margo’s encouragement, Eliot later sheds his father’s shadow by approving of Fray’s talking bear boyfriend, Bumbledrum (“Thanks Fray’s dad!”).
The Second Key:
Quentin and Julia enlist Dean Fogg in sneaking the Truth Key out of Irene MacAllistair’s home and stumble on a fairy slavery ring, unknowingly left behind when the Fairy Queen escaped to Fillory centuries ago. The key also helps them talk to Penny.
The Third Key:
In the series’ most beautiful episode, “A Life in the Day,” the Chatwin clock transports Eliot and Quentin into Fillory’s past to solve The Mosaic, reportedly revealing the beauty of life and the key Jane Chatwin used to contain her brother Martin, The Beast, until the series premiere. The pair move into a nearby cabin and build a life—they kiss, Quentin has a son with a local girl, the men raise him after she leaves, and the boy starts a family of his own. They work on the mosaic until Eliot dies of old age. While digging a grave, Q discovers the final piece, producing the key just as Jane arrives. Q details this in a letter delivered at Margo’s wedding when she’s forced to marry a fratricidal boy prince for allies. Margo retrieves the key from Jane’s grave and stops Q and Eliot from going through the clock, but Eliot and Quentin suddenly remember their other life, adding a deeply emotional dimension to their dynamic. Jason Ralph and Hale Appleman make every moment of their tale believable, touching, and heartbreaking.
The Fourth Key:
Quentin sails the Muntjac to The Abyss where he finds draconologist Poppy (Felecia Day) on a life raft with the key. She happily hands it over, omitting that it creates a double of the holder’s worst self who torments them until they commit suicide or pass on the key. Quentin’s is predictably terrible. Benedict prevents Poppy from using the key to escape, but instantly drowns himself and a dragon swallows him, transporting him and key to the Underworld, which takes three episodes to resolve.
Arjun Gupta amusingly but accurately makes terminal loner Penny’s efforts to befriend others feel like the poor dear is toddling on training wheels of humanity as he works with another disembodied traveler to learn jumping into objects and must genuinely empathize with Benedict to get the key, delivering it to the Library dropbox. Q and Poppy break a grief-stricken Kady out of an institution so she can convince witch Harriet (Marlee Matlin) to help search the Library for batteries and enlist Victoria, the season 1 traveler Penny rescued from the Beast, to build a Mirror Bridge to the dropbox via her blood. During the escapade, Penny finds a future version of Alice as Cassandra writing their life stories, and Quentin catches current Alice seemingly making a deal with the Librarians.
The fantastic “Six Stories about Magic” ends by capturing your rapt attention with a 10-minute ASL vignette revealing Harriet is the Head Librarian’s daughter. She unsuccessfully appeals to her mother to aid the Magicians and helps them escape through the Mirror Bridge with the key. After the episode melts your heart with Harriet and the Head Librarian’s tentative love and Victoria’s literal blood sacrifice dripping away to hold open the door, the silence is broken by villain Librarian Gavin shattering the mirror behind Victoria and Harriet, trapping the two women for eternity. He also catches up to Penny and shackles him to a book cart, which Penny breaks free from with Hades’ intervention that may prove to be a trap in itself.
The Fifth Key:
Kady’s musical background unlocks a pocket party universe, powered by a German dream demon, where Josh is trapped. The party culminates in an emotional, cross-dimensional, collaborative performance of Queen’s “Under Pressure,” winning the unity key by bringing Josh back into the fold. Meanwhile in Fillory, Eliot and Margo are overthrown by peasants, and on the way to their execution via Infinite Waterfall (Tick, excitedly: “You are free… to choose the manner of your execution! *gasping smile*”), Tick craftily reveals he was never a fan and leaves to seize the throne. The Muntjac, however, saved earlier from pirates by Margo, flies them to freedom as the music soars.
The Sixth Key:
Learning her magic was Reynard’s, Julia temporarily passes it to Alice whose body rejects it. At last Julia claims the spark by performing good deeds, focusing on freeing Irene’s captive fairies who are shackled by magic-dampening kill-switch collars. Even more gruesome, the McAllistair’s magical powder? Fairy cremains. Julia convinces Fen, still reeling from learning that her real baby died at birth, and the Fairy Queen to save them, not knowing the collar is sealed by fairy deal and breaking it would dishonor all fairy deals by proxy. Shaken by seeing her people so cowed, the Queen sacrifices her credibility to free them and slaughters all but Irene. She then reveals that the sixth key sustains the fairy realm, telling Margo to come back with a crown if she wants it. Carrying off the imperious Queen with alacrity until this episode, Candis Cayne absolutely nails the tragedy and guilt of their discovery, empathy for the fairy who made the original deal, and the desperation of breaking their defining code.
The Seventh Key:
Julia and Josh are contacted by Timeline 23’s Josh and Marina (gutted by Reynard in our timeline), sole survivors of The Beast, except their Beast is a shadeless Quentin. Julia retrieves Beast-busting spell from Eliot and Margo’s murdered ghosts, but Evil!Hot!Quentin is too powerful. Instead, Julia loans him her shade, driving him to suicide. Julia and Josh return with the key and that timeline’s Marina, and Penny. Originally thrust into the High King position by blood test, Eliot insists on running alone against Tick for king, but thanks to her validation of talking animals like Bumbledrum and Abigail the Sloth, Margo, who has grown into every inch of her queenly role through the season, wins by write-in and exchanges land for the fairies’ key and a magical eye.
The Castle at the End of the World
Before setting out with the keys, Julia and Kady confront former-demigod-now-pizza-deliveryman Reynard, and by extension their demons, to learn what is in the Castle. Julia begins hearing prayers, allowing her to heal Dean Fogg’s eyes, and attracts an invitation to join the godly realm. They all bust Alice, increasingly fearful of her dark side, on a side deal with the Library to siphon and control magic. Quentin visits his father, in remission from magical cancer, to let him know of their decision to restore magic, and reveals he named his son after him. He then uses a bit of magic gifted from Julia to contact the Castle’s guardian in secret and offers to replace her as guardian in exchange for her help.
Their journey opens with a beautiful, stark animation like that of the Deathly Hallows, illustrating how Calypso and Prometheus built the prison to contain primordial monsters and captured a knight to guard it, providing the Quest for his daughter, Ora, to free him. But in turn, she’s guarded it ever since. When they arrive, only one monster remains in the form of a needy child asking, “Will you play with me?” Eliot, driven to save Quentin from his vow, shoots it, but it possesses Ora.
Things only get worse from there. To protect her people indefinitely, the Fairy Queen allows Irene and Gavin to kill her to power their next jump. Alice melts the keys in a last-ditch attempt to prevent magic’s return. Julia sacrifices her powers to re-forge them, but as the wellspring bubbles to life, Irene, Gavin, and, in a mind-blowing twist, Dean Fogg appear, place the siphon, and wipe the Magicians’ identities. The season ends with Fen substituting as Fillory’s King, Dean Fogg begging the Library for more magic to power Breakbills, Alice and Real Penny beholden to the Library, and the rest living “normal” lives until Quentin walks into Eliot who asks, “Will you play with me?”
Season 3 Wrap Up
Throughout the quest, our heroes journey out of young adulthood’s emo navel-gazing and learn to accept the weight of another’s life in their hands, that family is not blood but love and loyalty, and that authority figures have their own conflicting agendas. Sure, The Magicians is about fantasy and magic, but Season 3 makes its real magic from interpersonal dynamics and perfectly cast main and side characters. From Abigail the Sloth and her lover/translator Rafe (Sergio Osuna) whispering knowingly to Bacchus (Ryan McDonald) laughing off Quentin’s deicide of Ember because “I don’t know that guy,” Season 3’s minor characters make memorable marks. Despite appearing to play along with the quest, Dean Fogg (Rick Worthy) and Tick Pickwick (Rizwan Manji) deliver gleeful blows of betrayal, while the Fairy Queen reveals herself a surprisingly true ally. Even Fen (Brittany Curran), who started the season delusionally rocking a tree stump, finds strength through her grief and grounding in her knife-maker’s daughter origins while reminding Eliot that she, too, is on this journey and isn’t just a prize to be returned with his lost crown.
If previous seasons perhaps lingered on one character or another, Season 3 found its balance in allowing each character in turn to come to the forefront, especially the women. Summer Bishil took Margo from party girl to regal queen. Stella Maeve brought a steady earnestness and patience as Julia grew into and out of her goddess identity, Our Lady of the Tree. Olivia Taylor Dudley savored buttoned-up Alice’s addictive turn to the twitchy, sadistic dark side with just enough self-awareness to fear her own capabilities. And Jade Tailor flexed Kady’s range from entertainer to clinical depression to desperation, finally making Penny understand that she can’t be fine without him. Not enough can be said about how fully the main cast inhabits their roles, how the writers trust their audience with layers of foreshadowing and callbacks, and how many times I Shazamed the music this season. (My downloads: Theory of a Deadman’s take on “Wicked Game,” SHELLS “Jagwar,” and Phoria “Evolve”)
But, after the highest of penultimate-episode highs, you might find the finale unsettling and perhaps even unsatisfying, leaving what are now the best Magicians (and a goddess) on Earth without magic again, their deeds forgotten, the “bad” guys triumphant, and the group’s emotional center, Eliot, possessed. That said, Season 3 is 100% worth its 13 hours despite punting viewers over the Infinite Waterfall it its final moments, as it is historically wont to do. Given how long fans have already endured a magic-less world, I hope Season 4 sees magic and memories restored within a few episodes so the Magicians can rejoin forces once more and save their worlds for good.