Welcome to the magic -- and dangers -- of Brakebills
Credit: Carole Segal/Syfy

Welcome to Brakebills University. Welcome to Fillory. Welcome to a world of magic — though it may not be the world you’re expecting.

The Magicians, based on Lev Grossman’s trilogy of acclaimed novels, transforms the confused, mundane life of Quentin Coldwater into one filled with spells and magic that he only dreamed could be real, as so many fans of Harry Potter have before him. But as Quentin soon learns, the realities of life — love, depression, meaning, sex, friendship, and so much more — make the fantasies of a magical life much more complicated than most would expect.

“Unauthorized Magic” and “The Source of Magic” kick off Quentin and his best friend Julia’s quite different forays into this brand new world, and though they take variously different paths, neither is easy as they take hold of entirely new identities as magical folk, especially as a deathly presence in The Beast looms over all of it.

So class is now in session, but a quick word of warning before studying up on the lives of Quentin, Julia, and the others — though I’ve read the books, I’ll largely be sticking to the show as it develops. (This is also a perfect time to recommend reading the books if you haven’t already, not to know what will happen but because they are incredible fantasy stories and meta-commentaries on fantasy in their own right.) I’ll be sure to call out any comparisons/reflections on the show’s relationship to the books, but otherwise it’s time to discover what awaits on the other side of the hedge.

Quentin (Jason Ralph) is lost. He’s depressed. He’s confused about his purpose. Quentin is learning to live like an adult, to give up childish things like his beloved book series Fillory and Further. There isn’t more to life than the world Quentin lives in, and he’s learning, begrudgingly, to accept it, with the help of his best friend Julia by his side.

That is, until Quentin heads to his alumni interview for Yale, only to find a clock that looks suspiciously like the one from Fillory and the alumnus dead in his chair.

The deceased man is whisked away by medical attendants and a knowing British woman, who hands Quentin a packet she believes was intended for him. Inside is the manuscript for a sixth Fillory and Further book, only rumored to exist.

Julia is dismayed by Quentin’s excitement over the book. She wants him to stop running away from real life into his fantasies. Fillory brought them together, and Quentin partially blames Julia’s boyfriend, James, for her abandonment of the thing they loved.

Quentin was ready to, for the most part, abandon some of his resistance to grow up until this sixth book came along. And it leads him far beyond his fantasies into a new reality, as he chases down a page of it lost in the wind. The page leads him along through some shrubbery, entering on one side on the cold nighttime streets of Manhattan into the warm morning sun of Brakebills University in upstate New York.

There, the seemingly apathetic Eliot awaits his arrival, not doing all that much to assure Quentin it isn’t a dream. (“If you were [hallucinating], how would asking me help,” Eliot wisely points out.)

At the same time as Quentin settles in for the Brakebills entrance exam, so too does Julia, who arrived by a magically altered elevator ride. The exam is a bluebook nightmare, with questions changing form and subject at will, but the two forge on ahead, only realizing they are both there when handing their test booklets in.

Quentin receives some good news following the exam and a follow-up test where he, to Dean Fogg’s request, does some god damn magic — he’s been offered admission to Brakebills. Julia, on the other hand, learns that she has not been invited to attend. She refuses to accept that reality, and though a professor will wipe her mind of ever even being there, she ensures she never forgets. After cutting her arm to remember the experience later, she’s dumped back into bed with James, where she wakes up knowing something in her life has changed in a way she doesn’t quite understand yet.

Quentin’s life has changed, too. The dead alum worked for the school (felled not by magic but by Oreos, which Quentin learns are not a magician’s weakness but a diabetic’s), and Dean Fogg invites Quentin to accept this new normal of his life. He asks that Quentin recognize those feelings of depression in his life as an extension of his feeling alone in the world. And he was, to an extent, but hopefully at Brakebills he will be alone no longer in his new life.

NEXT: A beastly interruption

And there’s more to it than Quentin could have anticipated. During his second phase of the exam, Quentin faints at the sight of doing magic and is transported to Fillory in his dreams. There, Jane Chatwin, a character in the Fillory books, warns him to stay on the garden path for fear that the Beast will otherwise kill him.

Quentin awakes to find a new roommate, Penny, his Fillory manuscript missing, and a new set of friends and mentors in Eliot and Margo.

The two introduce Quentin to the basics of Brakebills — the different areas of expertise students are divided into, the rumors surrounding the third-year class (which mysteriously dwindled from 20 to four). Inside the classroom, Quentin takes an interest in Alice, who seems quite adept at magic for a first-year, while Penny, as evidence by his floating sex with her later that day, takes an interest in Katie.

Margo and Eliot break it to Quentin that Alice comes from a magical family, but he has a discussion later with her where she tells him that her parents are “useless, crazy people.” She’s curt, annoyed by how Quentin’s friends treat her, and doesn’t seem to be quite as thrilled to help Quentin acclimate to the world of magic as Eliot and Margo are.

It’s quite a lot to take in, but the shock of the real world helps divert Quentin from the experiences of his new life.

During a call to James, Quentin learns that Julia is no longer the girl she once was. She’s become a shell of her former self, obsessed with something that James can’t quite understand, and so he calls upon the former best friend to come to New York for her birthday party.

There, he finds a cold, empty Julia, unfazed by the revelry around her. Outside the bar, she shows Quentin that she’s been practicing magic. She’s been spending all of her time learning what she can of this hidden world, and she wants Quentin to help her return to it.

But he knows he can’t do that. (There may even be some ego in play here — as bad as he may feel for being separated from his best friend, his acceptance to Brakebills implies he’s amazing at something Julia isn’t for once.) Quentin leaves, but Julia, dejected by the night’s affairs, endures an unexpected birthday surprise. The buttons of her shirt begin to pop off until it flies up over her head and ties her arms to the radiator.

A smarmy man from the bar who spoke to Julia earlier comes in, and the implications of the scene seem clear to Julia. He’s there to rape her, but he protests he would never do that (which makes his tact all the stranger and creepier). He was instead testing her, and her escape by magic proves just what he was hoping. As he promises, Brakebills isn’t the only group watching the magically inclined.

While Julia is heading down a path she couldn’t even begin to fathom, Quentin returns to Brakebills for some more daydreaming. He finds himself in another dream with Jane Chatwin, telling him the Beast is coming for him, and she leaves Quentin with a real-world burn on his hand.

Quentin notices the marking on his hand matches one in Alice’s book, and so sets into motion the darkest day Brakebills has seen since… well, whatever happened to the third years.

They head to their classroom for a little midnight spell casting. Alice is prepping a summoning spell to speak to her dead brother Charlie, who died at Brakebills. But no one will tell her how or why. She wants answers, and she assumes Quentin must be involved after seeing the mark.

The spell requires four willing participants, however, and Penny, who just so happens to have telepathy, hears a voice summoning him, along with Katie, to the very classroom Quentin and Alice are in.

They perform the spell, but nothing happens… until they clean up for the night. A pair of eyes and a smile are drawn on the summoning mirror, a telltale sign of what appears during their next day of classes.

As a lecture drones on, time freezes, and a man in a suit whose face is covered in a nasty swarm of bugs enters through the mirror. First, he kills the teacher. Then, he pulls the eyeballs out of Dean Fogg, who rushes in to stop this thing. And then, it goes for Quentin.

The Beast has arrived, and it’s not in the mood for games. Luckily, we don’t have to wait too long to find out the full breadth of its damage.

NEXT: “The Source of Magic”

The fallout of The Beast’s attack comes in fits and starts during “The Source of Magic.” The actual horrors of it all are revealed in flashback, terrible memories relived by Quentin and the others in the wake of the fight.

And it was quite the fight. Quentin, Alice, Penny, and Katie all took The Beast on, Fogg’s pocket watch unfreezing time in the room and allowing them to fend for themselves.

The attack calls into question a serious investigation, however. An inquiry is being made into just how The Beast entered Brakebills — the securities around the school are all personally linked to those in attendance, so someone had to allow that thing entry.

While they all try to skirt whatever punishment may be heading their way, Eliot and Margo take Quentin and Alice to the Physical Kids’ house for a little healing — via alcohol, of course. (And an “Avada Kedavra” joke by Eliot is yet another sign that it’s not butterbeer these magicians-in-training are gulping down.)

The group fractures off, as Quentin spills their secrets to Eliot, and Margo tries to get the same out of Alice. Eliot repays Quentin’s frankness in kind — as Quentin reveals his depression prior to arriving at Brakebills, Eliot offers Quentin a spell to prevent the faculty reading his mind.

He also reveals that he killed a boy when he was 14, a bully who ignited his latent telekinetic abilities. He tells him not for pity or to show him it gets better — Eliot tells him this because he wants Quentin to realize he’s not alone at Brakebills.

Alice could use some of that advice, however, as even despite some wine from Margo to loosen her tongue, she remains relatively closed up. She does at least reveal that she got through to Brakebills by stealing her parents’ alumni keys. She just wanted to go to school, she says, not revealing to Margo a thing about her brother or their spell the night before.

But Alice could use some friends, or at least allies, lest they be caught by the faculty. She approaches Quentin in the school café where he’s reading a Fillory book. Initially, he’s furious with her, but soon he opens up to her with an idea that sounds crazy even to a would-be magician — What if Fillory is real? Telling her about his Jane Chatwin dreams, he posits Fillory isn’t just a fantasy world from a book. It’s a real place.

Alice doesn’t know a thing about Fillory (the last thing this child of magicians wanted was to read fantasy), so he fills her in on the basics. The Chatwins were real — the children were the neighbors of the book’s author, and they just so happened to mysteriously disappear in real life. But even explaining his theory and showing some video evidence to her (with a nice cameo from Magicians author Lev Grossman as an expert commenting on the Chatwin story), all she cares about is getting their stories straight and ensuring they aren’t kicked out.

So while they’re hiding some of the evidence, Penny is taking a different approach — he’s decided to leave Brakebills. As he explains to Katie, he didn’t hear Quentin or Alice’s voice. There’s been another voice inside his head for years, a voice that has been his friend, but that voice betrayed him by leading him to that classroom.

Katie tries to stop him from leaving, and while he’s set on going, she convinces him to stay around for one last romp. The two head to the Physical Kids’ house to steal a few items and just so happen to run into Quentin and Alice. With them all round up in one spot, the Brakebills administrator investigating the attack appears before them, having been alerted to Quentin and Alice’s attempt to hide the evidence.

They’re all brought in for questioning — Quentin is nervous, Alice is cool and collected, Katie couldn’t care less, and Penny… well Penny offers to reveal everything so long as he and Katie go free.

Alice is also let free, while Quentin is brought in as the main culprit. A specialist is coming to ascertain the truth, and Quentin assumes his life is over. In his rage, he starts fighting publicly with Penny, using the battle magic Katie employed against The Beast.

The two are sent to the infirmary for healing before Quentin (who steals the pendant Penny used to protect himself during their battle) meets with the specialist, Eliza.

Eliza just so happens to be the paramedic there on the day of the alumni interview, and who also met with Dean Fogg in the pilot’s first episode warning him of the troubles to come. It’s a lucky turn of events for Quentin, as Eliza happens to want to give him one more shot.

NEXT: Juila’s trial by ice.

She’s quite frank about all of it — she tells him destiny doesn’t exist, that he’s not remarkable — except for one subject: Fillory. She implies the world Quentin holds so dear is real without outright saying it, but she elaborates no further.

Instead, she’s there to remind him of why he is at Brakebills. She knows he’s dreamed of Fillory, just as she has, but he is not a born hero. All she knows is The Beast has come for him and he has to either face it or not. She’s lost people and warns Quentin he will too if he does not learn quickly.

Eliza’s going to give him that chance, suggesting the school just put him on probation. She doesn’t want him crawling back to the garden path, either. And with that bit of confusing advice, she leaves him to whatever fate, or perhaps the lack of it, has in store for him.

Out of the classroom and into the freezer

While Quentin is contending with possible expulsion, Julia is finding out just what that creepy guy from the bar had in mind for her.

Pete introduces Julia to his group of off-the-map witches and wizards who hang out at what appears to be an abandoned facility. Pete shows Julia and another newcomer, Marina, their digs, taking them on a tour that leads to the storage freezer.

There, Pete locks the two of them in, tasking them with finding a way out before they freeze to death. Julia jumps at the opportunity while Marina is reticent to play along. But the two are forced into action when a dead body in the room animates back to life and begins chasing them around the freezer.

Julia evades her undead attacker until it skewers itself on a metal bar. Marina only continues to freak out even further as Julia tries to maintain sanity. Their test only becomes stranger as Pete speaks through the body, reminding them to look everywhere.

Inside the corpse’s body bag, they find a spell for temporary warmth, which the two put together while coming to understand each other a little better. Julia explains Brakebills to Marina, steps up to the task of the spell by cutting flesh from the body, and eventually finding a way to escape.

That method doesn’t require magic, however, as the pair use scissors as a screwdriver to open the door. (Julia is without cell service in this freezer, missing a call from Quentin in which he reveals he expects to be expelled and asks if she can help him remember magic when he’s back in the real world. But he opts not to leave the message on her phone.) Julia exits the freezer angry at Pete for forcing them to escape like that, but that was his intent. He, and Marina, wanted her to see that not every solution in life calls for magic.

Yes, Marina was a plant all along, she’s the “top bitch in New York,” a hedge witch who isn’t asking Julia to trust her, but to let her educate Julia. She has connections to places like Brakebills, as she proves when she stages a meeting with Katie that night. She clearly holds some blackmail over Katie, and whatever it is, it’s big enough to have her steal things for her from the school. (Katie was, however, unable to procure the Penny’s pendant, which Quentin now has.)

Though Julia comes away from the experience initially frustrated, the mere mention of Brakebills is enough to convince her to stick around, to learn the ways of hedgewitchery while rising through the ranks, and her first hedgewitch level tattoo is just the start.

(I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention one point about the books versus the show here. Julia’s story isn’t actually explored in such detail until the second book. The choice to have the stories play out concurrently seems, at the start, like a smart one, but let me know in the comments what you think of The Magician’s King coming into play so early.)

Whether Julia will play a part in the coming battle remains a mystery, but there is little doubt a battle is on its way. Eliza, visiting Dean Fogg in the infirmary, expresses her concerns about the current situations. Without eyes or usable hands, Fogg can only lay there, bemoaning the lack of time in this fight. Eliza did not expect The Beast so soon, and Fogg warns her that she has to solve her own problem. He wants her to find a way back (to Fillory, one assumes), and kill it.

Were it that simple, though. For now, “all we can do is make them magicians,” Fogg laments, even if that might not be enough.

What did you think of the first two episodes? If you’ve read the books, what did you think about how Brakebills and the characters were adapted? Let me know your thoughts — but keep it spoiler-free — in the comments or on Twitter @jmdornbush.

Episode Recaps

The Magicians

Based on Lev Grossman’s book trilogy, this fantasy Syfy series follows the adventures of students at Brakebills University, a graduate school specializing in magic.

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