Fillory and Further: The Alternate Universe of ‘The Magicians’

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The Magicians, a fantasy trilogy written by Lev Grossman, has recently reached the end of its second season as a television adaptation on SyFy. Following in the footsteps of the first season, which aired last year, The Magicians has become much darker in tone and continues to present a controversy amongst fans of the series concerning whether or not the television series is an adaptation.

Before the start of the second season, I was still unsure how I felt about the first season of the show. To put it simply, a love-hate relationship existed. Keeping in mind the fluid nature of adaptations, I analyzed the success of the first season of The Magicians, coming to the conclusion that despite the numerous changes that took place in the first season of the show, there were so many things that were done well that I couldn’t fault the adaptation. Almost every change made sense with the change in medium from novel to television series that I found myself falling in love with the series and anticipating the start of the second season.

This feature contains spoilers from this point on.

magicians season two analysis observations
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The Magicians Season Two: A Quick Recap

Following in the footsteps of the first season, the second second of The Magicians follows Quentin, Alice, Eliot, Margo, Julia and Penny, along with a host of new characters and creatures, including the Beast (Martin Chatwin), Reynard (the Trickster God), and the twin gods of Fillory, Ember and Umber. Picking up immediately from the season one finale, we learn about what happened in the initial battle against the dangerous and deadly Beast.

At first, we are lead to believe that the battle against the Beast will be another season-long fight against good and evil. Things change quickly, however, as we learn the dark truth behind Julia’s past and watch as she teams up with the enemy to take down the god that has brought about nothing but pain, Reynard.

For a while, the Beast becomes a main character in the show and teams up with Julia to catch Reynard the Fox, while the Brakebills gang begins to search for the elusive Beast so that they can eliminate the evil that has befouled Fillory and magic, for far too long.

As the second season unfolds, it becomes clear that a number of familiar scenes will remain in place, including Fillory and Brakebills University. However, a number of new settings and characters are introduced as the plot of The Magicians branches away from the events as they unfold in Grossman’s series of novels.

Drastic Changes Lead to Alternate Universes

From the very first episode, it’s clear that the second season of The Magicians took liberties with the idea of adaptation. Although the first season was a little lacking in the character department as one character, Josh, was almost entirely absent, while a few new characters were added, the second season takes the meaning of character to an entirely different level and it’s not a good thing.

While the addition of new characters provides the series with more tension and enhances its appeal as a television show, there’s a breaking point for creative liberties where adaptations are concerned. With the introduction of the Beast as an actual character that appears in the world outside of Fillory, The Magicians slowly starts its descent into an alternate universe or a world that is loosely based on Grossman’s original fantasy trilogy.

As if it wasn’t bad enough that the Beast doesn’t die during the battle in Fillory (he does eventually die, and at the hands of Alice – at least that is true to the original, thank god), he enters the human world thanks to Julia (as if there weren’t enough reasons to hate her character already). In a slowly downward spiral, The Magicians begins to transform as events are altered beyond recognition and understanding, as the Beast teams up with Julia to take down Reynard, a trickster god that managed to fool Julia and her group of friends (Free Trader Beowulf) into believing that they were summoning the benevolent and kind goddess, Our Lady Underground. Despite being accurate to the original in this regard, the events that concern the Beast outside of Fillory are incredibly inaccurate and downright frustrating for the viewer that has read the novels.

Although Julia’s rather depressing story is the focal point of the second book in the series, The Magician King, the television adaptation takes a number of liberties concerning the hunt for Reynard that is the focal point of season two. While Julia gives up her humanity (or her shade as it is called in the adaptation) in order to save Asmodeus (Kady) during their initial encounter with Reynard, a number of things happen in this season that imply the creation of an alternate universe rather than a retelling of events as they occur in The Magicians trilogy.

In a twist that marks a vast difference between the novels and the television show, we learn that Julia is pregnant as a result of Reynard’s actions (along with the fact that he already has a child). It is eventually revealed that Reynard has appeared for years whenever magicians perform the ritual to summon Our Lady Underground, while the goddess remains hidden and unresponsive. Bloodthirsty, Reynard often rapes and kills those who partake in the ceremony and refuse to cooperate with his advances upon them. While these details are incredibly accurate, Julia’s pregnancy, which influences the majority of the events that move the season forward, was an unexpected twist that threw the entire television series into an alternate reality, as it differs drastically from the events that take place in Grossman’s original trilogy.

Instead of focusing on travels and adventures in Fillory to find the golden keys or on Quentin and Julia’s quest to return to Fillory after straying off course and accidentally ending up back on Earth, instead, we are faced with Fillory on the brink of war, a magical bank robbery, an exorcism, and marriage.

magicians season two analysis observations
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As if the focus on Julia in this season wasn’t bad enough, there are a number of other events that serve to create an alternate universe in The Magicians television series.

Inaccuracies in Adaptation

Aside from the differences in major plot points that occur during season two of The Magicians, there were a number of timeline shifts and character changes that pushed the television series into an alternate universe, beginning with Penny.

One of the redeeming qualities of the finale of the first season was the amputation of Penny’s hands in the battle against the Beast. Instead of continuing forward with Penny’s loss of limbs, his hands are reattached (multiple times). Although Penny struggles with the use of his hands and magic throughout the second season in order to make up for the difference, the fact remains that he has hands and is well on the way to recovering his use of them. Furthermore, despite the fact that Penny appears seldomly outside of the first novel in the series, he appears in each and every episode this season. However, despite his presence throughout the season, he does eventually fulfill the role that he has in the novels as a Librarian (although half-heartedly and with differences concerning the role of the library itself).

Along with Penny’s repeated presence throughout the entire second season, Alice’s role changes as well. Although Alice is supposed to die and turn into a niffin during the battle that will decide the Beast’s fate, she disappears for a very long time following her death in the novels. Instead, to make things more interesting and heart-breaking, Quentin is forced to confront niffin Alice after she manages to kill the Beast. Aware that Alice will kill them, Quentin is forced to unleash the demon in his back (which is initially given to him upon graduation from Brakebills in the novels, but instead, is given as a weapon to use against the Beast in the television series) in order to combat the destructive and no longer human, Alice. Although Quentin’s demon manages to stun Alice, it does not defeat her and instead, Alice becomes trapped inside of Quentin’s body.

Despite the fact that Quentin does eventually spend a lot of time researching how he can bring Alice back to her human form, Alice’s presence throughout the second season of the show is completely inaccurate, from her presence inside of Quentin’s body to her eventual release and return to Brakebills.

magicians season two analysis observations
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Hidden Gems & Accuracies

Although a number of shifts take place in season two of The Magicians that suggest that the series is an alternate universe that is loosely based on Grossman’s Magicians trilogy, there are so many good things that really make the series feel like it is an adaptation at heart.

Even though the timeline differs, the events that take place concerning Alice are fairly accurate. Not only is her niffin form a spot-on representation that embodies the harsh, uncaring and blunt personality that is given to niffins in the book, but her personality and actions following her revival are incredibly accurate as they occur toward the end of the final book in the series, The Magician’s Land.

Despite the fact that the destruction of Fillory and the breakdown of magic also occur quite early on in the television series, these events are also fairly well done, especially where magic is concerned. The role of the gods of Fillory is also incredibly accurate. In fact, one of my favorite parts of the season was a four-minute intro that appears at the beginning of the finale in which the destruction of Fillory and magic are directly tied to Ember and Umber.

Furthermore, the tone of the novel and the personalities of many of the characters come across clearly in the television series and fit the novel perfectly. Elements of dark humor and fantasy culture continue to come across in character dialogue that captures the tone of Grossman’s trilogy beautifully and really make the television series feel complete.

For each and every moment that I disliked as I watched the second season of The Magicians, there was a moment that I absolutely loved. As much as I hated the changes that happened during this season when I let go of the idea of The Magicians as an adaptation, I enjoyed the show and found myself looking forward to each episode.

magicians season two analysis observations
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As SyFy has already confirmed a third season, which seems rather promising given the finale, wherein the destruction of Fillory and fate of magic hangs in the balance, I am really looking forward to what next year has in store concerning The Magicians. If anything, the third season seems like a promising return to adaptation that will, at the very least, bring Quentin and Alice together again.

Melissa Ratcliff
Reader, Writer & Translator. Cats, books and video games are my life.