In its third season, The Magicians, Syfy’s beloved adaptation of Lev Grossman’s novels of the same name, was on fire.
The main cast of magicians, from quirky Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph) to mysterious newbie goddess Julia Wicker (Stella Maeve), was tighter than ever. Every episode offered some kind of experimentation with the show’s formula — a character study about a recently deceased protagonist; a meditation on the meaning of life through a queer pairing of two main characters — all within the greater scope of a quest for seven keys. The object of this quest was simple enough: find the keys to save magic. This allowed the writers to improvise heavily in the individual episodes, creating a truly classic season of television.
Season four, which wraps Wednesday on Syfy, has been a significant downgrade. There are still pleasures, like Summer Bishil’s performance as bad girl-turned-High King of a magical kingdom Margo. But the overall plot has sagged, both too thin to fill the entire season and too convoluted to get invested in. Ostensibly, our gang of heroes are saving their friend Eliot (Hale Appleman) from the dark god that’s currently possessing him. But that dark god, whom Appleman has been playing throughout this season, also has a plot of his own — one that only became clear in the last few episodes.
That’s a general theme, though: The end of this season has been much stronger than everything that came before it. Around episode 11, the show finally reunited most of its cast in purpose and location, which was a huge boon. Because The Magicians is at its most magical when it relies on the strength of its cast.
The first sign of trouble cropped up during the season three finale, in which the magicians’ former Dean, Henry Fogg (Rick Worthy), put a protection spell on them that also erased their memories and obscured their identities. All of a sudden, the characters we knew and loved had whole new names and personalities — and worst of all, they weren’t together. To the writers’ credit, they clearly realized what a terrible idea this was, and reversed the memory spell by the end of episode two.
Unfortunately, that didn’t reunite the whole cast immediately. Group frenemy Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley), who worked with the enemy agency known simply as the Library to stop the magicians in season three, spent the first part of the season locked in captivity. Even after her escape, the others wouldn’t trust her to let them join in. Margo has mostly been occupied with royal affairs, separating her from the others based in Manhattan. And the dark god in Eliot’s body has come and gone from the action repeatedly, while we’ve only gotten a couple of flashes of the real Eliot.
There’s value in experimenting with a show even when it’s on a high — hell, season three did exactly that, to great effect. But there’s a difference between using a couple of unusual episode formats and entirely removing what works best about your series. Of course the last few episodes of the season have been better once the cast was reunited. When you remove the chemistry between the actors, the magic of The Magicians disappears. When you bring it back, suddenly, magic!
It’s expected that Wednesday’s finale will include some kind of drastic cliffhanger headed into season five. Season two’s cliffhanger saw magic disappear, while as previously mentioned, season three’s separated the cast. My hope is a simple one: that season four’s cliffhanger neither disables the characters nor separates them. The keys quest was great because it gave everyone something to do; every single magician was necessary for getting magic back. If the show can pull something similar off — while keeping them with magic, because separating them from it again would be boring — I’ll have far higher hopes for next season than I did for this one.
Kevin O'Keeffe is a writer, host, and RuPaul's Drag Race herstorian living in Los Angeles.