The Magicians' Season Finale Missed the Mark on a Huge Mental Health Issue
Warning: Massive spoilers for the season four finale of The Magicians follow.
So. That just happened.
Over the course of four seasons, SyFy's fantasy drama The Magicians has gotten enormous praise, especially in recent years, for the way it's depicted the kinds of characters we don't usually see on TV, and even more rarely in genre TV. Nowhere was that more apparent than in the show's protagonist. Quentin Coldwater, played by Jason Ralph, appears at first to be your standard-issue Angsty White Dude — but, it turned out, is bisexual and a longtime sufferer of depression who's trodding that all-too-familiar road of one step forward, two steps back.
There's an odd sort of unspoken agreement between TV shows and viewers: shows tell you what to expect, and viewers keep their expectations in line. Because The Magicians was never a Game of Thrones-style tragedy, and because it handled all these issues of sexuality and trauma and mental health so well, it always seemed like this would finally be the show that would, ultimately, give hope to these damaged characters we've grown to love. That was, it seemed, the bargain it struck with viewers: we're the kind of show that won't take that step too far.
Then came the fourth season finale. Seriously, if you haven't watched it yet, this is where you should turn back.
The promise of The Magicians has always been that the world is never what you think it's going to be and it's always going to be a struggle — but that there's light and hope too.
After a season-long quest to free Eliot, his friend-love-life partner in an alternate timeline, from an ancient monster possessing his body, Quentin and his friends succeed, but there's one last obstacle: trapping the Monster (and its sister) in a "seam" between worlds. When the seam is blocked by another enemy, Q uses his magic to mend it, knowing that his spell could have deadly consequences in this "mirror" dimension, and throws the Monster into it — but the magic does fracture and Q is killed (for real — Ralph is not returning next season).
It's what comes next, though, that really drives home how much The Magicians left behind its long-standing ideals and lessons. In the Underworld, Quentin has an "exit interview" where he asks a devastating question: "Did I do something brave to save my friends? Or did I finally find a way to kill myself?" And that's where things go even further sideways.
Q's suicidal ideation has been a part of his character for as long as the show has been on the air. It's real, it's rough, and it's always been depicted honestly, without maudlin falseness or glossing over. The promise of The Magicians has always been that the world is never what you think it's going to be and it's always going to be a struggle — but that there's light and hope too. It was the rare show that seemed to understand what it's like to live with mental illness and to find things worth living for. Until now.
The decision to kill off Quentin was rooted, according to executive producer John McNamara, in the idea that "it's kind of great that at last, the white male lead on a show is no longer safe," as he put it to The Hollywood Reporter. But there's more to it than that. In the same interview, McNamara draws a line between Q's death and finally realizing his life was worthwhile, as in, he had to die to realize that.
"It felt like the major question in his life is, 'Is my life truly worth living? Was it a good thing that I didn't succeed in killing myself at 15 or 18?' He now has that answer: he mattered to these other people, and their lives are never going to be the same for knowing him," he explained. To Vulture, he added, "There's a saying that a psychiatrist once said to me, which is that the subconscious always gets what it wants, and the conscious mind often never knows."
To suggest that a kind, gentle, and, yes, depressed man only realizes his life is worthwhile after he dies, or that his journey had nowhere left to go? It's irresponsible and downright chilling.
It's an unexpected — and dangerous — misstep for a show that's always been so cognizant when dealing with issues of mental health. To suggest that a kind, gentle, and, yes, depressed man only realizes his life is worthwhile after he dies, or that his journey had nowhere left to go? It's irresponsible and downright chilling. There is always a journey left to make, and life is worthwhile while we're still living it. Piling on top of that: Q gets to watch his friends memorialize him around a bonfire and see how much they miss him, which is a popular element of real-life suicidal ideation (i.e. "I bet they'll miss me when I'm gone"). The sequence is exquisitely, realistically filmed and acted — which makes it all the more frightening, or borderline triggering, to real viewers.
To add insult to injury, the death in question is painted as a "white dude hero dies, isn't that innovative?" by many of the creators, but in fact, it falls into a trope that's decidedly not innovative at all: "bury your gays." Quentin is bisexual, having deeply loved both a woman and a man over the course of the show (and even living out a whole life as romantic partners with Eliot in an abandoned timeline), and much of the recent fourth season indicated that he and Eliot still had deep, lingering feelings (as praised in multiple think pieces at the time) — which will now never be explored, and which some now call a classic example of queerbaiting and/or queer tragedy.
The perfect storm of circumstances surrounding Quentin's death has turned what was once a funny, smart, emotional show for the misfits of the world into another show that turns those same misfits into tragedies. And make no mistake, by taking away the possibility of a happy ending — or implying that death is a happy ending — that's just what The Magicians has done. TV doesn't need more aesthetically pleasing tragedies. What it needs is more stories that remind us that the work of mental health is hard and treacherous and sometimes almost impossible, but that every single one of us is more than just a tragedy or "miracle cure" waiting to happen. The Magicians almost was that show — but it's not anymore, and that's a grief even bigger than losing a single character.
Read on to see how fans are reacting to Quentin's shocking demise and the fallout.