WARNING: This article contains SPOILERS for this week’s episode of The Magicians, as well as LOST, Game of Thrones, The Expanse, and even Harry Potter.
After watching the 8th episode of SyFy’s adaptation of Lev Grossman’s urban fantasy novels, The Magicians, I was inspired to write a piece about those key moments that occur every so often over the course of many of my favorite shows. A moment I will be referring to as the “Holy Shit” moment. Immediately, I need to address that my inspiration for this piece might have come from watching The Magicians, but I am in no way saying that tonight’s episode is the most shocking of the series. Not every “Holy Shit” moment fully lives up to its name in the show itself, some are more about the revelation or the information dump that gathers steam as you mull it over in your head. In addition, great shows don’t tend to have a single “Holy Shit” moment, but rather a plethora of them.
I want to start of by directly digging into my impressions of the 8th episode of SyFy’s The Magicians. The episode, titled The Strangled Heart, features a prominent death, an admission of powerlessness, full confirmation of several speculative plot lines, and an emotionally heavy moment from a mostly comic relief character. The “Holy Shit” of The Strangled Heart is largely in considering the ramifications of everything that either went down or was clarified within the space of a single episode. Perhaps most importantly, Fillory is real, though it has been long considered an obvious eventuality in the story, I feel that what took me back a few steps was the blatant lack of subtlety in Eliza’s response to Quentin, “Of course Fillory is real,” she said to the bewildered protagonist, “You’ve known that since you were child. That’s why you’re here”. That revelation was not Eliza’s only role, however. After Elliot’s new boyfriend was captured for trying to kill Quentin, and succeeding in giving Penny a cursed injury, Eliza met face to face with the imprisoned man, who turned out to not be quite as imprisoned as we had thought. It was a trap, Elliot’s boyfriend was just a meat suit for the moth encircled “The Beast” who first entered our nightmares at the end of the series’ first episode. In this encounter we learn that Eliza is, in fact, Jane Chatwin, the central character in the Fillory books that Quentin is obsessed with, which we have now learned have a place in reality. “The Beast” makes short work of Jane, strangling her, before giving her the ol’ Oberyn Martell treatment. We just learned that she is Jane, the key to all of this Fillory craziness, and just like that, she’s dead. “The Beast” easily walks out of his prison, shrugs off an attack by Brakebills’ Dean, before his meatsuit is taken out, tragically, by Elliot, who had fallen in love with a man he now knew was a lie. The episode ends with Quentin talking to the Dean of his school, asking what they can do now. The Dean’s response? In all likelihood, everyone is going to die, horribly.
The Magicians already had a “Holy Shit” moment in its very first episode with the first appearance of “The Beast”, but that was just a tease, this was the real deal. With a bloody trail of despair left in his wake, “The Beast” completely changed the tone of the series. I want to explore this kind of moment in television, and ask myself, if there is more to these moments then the sheer shock value. Why are they so enticing? And in the end, is it good storytelling, or just addict manipulation.
Remember the 4th episode of LOST, Walkabout? Of course you do. How about the 9th episode of Game of Thrones? The 4th episode of The Expanse? All amazing episodes that capitalize on “Holy Shit” moments. But now that some time has passed, do their revelations still hold weight? Was it shock, alone, that made us think those episodes were great? No. In the 4th episode of LOST we were treated to the backstory of the enigmatic John Locke, in which we discovered that his background wasn’t quite as mysterious as we had expected. Instead of Locke being a Black Ops Specialist, or CIA Operative, we found that the man was an office worker, with a jackass boss, and a “romance” with a Phone-Sex Operator. All of these aspects deflated our expectations while making us care about the character himself. But there was a twist to be had. At the end of the episode we found out that Locke’s mediocre life was largely tied to the fact that he was confined to a wheelchair. The man we had seen killing boars and throwing knives on the island, was unable to walk before crashing there. Suddenly the enigma of Locke was replaced with the enigma of Locke’s change. In the 9th episode of Game of Thrones, Stark House patriarch, series protagonist, and all around honorable dude, Ned Stark, went against his honor by taking back his true claim of King Joffrey’s illegitimacy. Why would he turn on his honor? For family. Ned took back his claims in order to protect his children. Unfortunately, the agreed upon leniency was denied, and Joffrey had his guard take Ned Stark’s head. This moment is commonly praised for the shows willingness to sacrifice a character that, until that point, was seen as the central protagonist of the entire series. Game of Thrones Author George RR Martin has said on multiple occasions that he wants his fans to be terrified to flip each page of his books, and it has become a common meme that GRR Martin kills off all of your favorite characters. That is a simplification. The moment served a larger purpose than that. Much like the death of Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the point of Ned’s death was to take away the support system from the Stark children, so that they would be forced to stand on their own 2 feet and become their own men, and women. In the 4th episode of The Expanse, a series of rather shocking events occurred that solidified for our characters that they were on their own, and always in danger. Aboard the strongest Martian ship, sorting out the events that lead them to meet their hosts, and the truth behind the attack that traumatized them, our brave crew began to feel safe and had vindication in sight with a strong new ally. Nope. An attack by a stealth gunship, the same one that took out the Canterbury that our crew called home, ended all illusions of safety. The strongest Martian ship, gone, and they even lost their Doctor and primary source of comic relief. This was not just about shock and awe from the writers, it was about tone and tension.
Though at times it can feel like the “Holy Shit” moments of our favorite shows are nothing but cheap shock value, I feel that, in most cases, the ones we remember, served a greater purpose than just surprising us. With The Magicians, I have hopes that the quick reveal of Jane’s identity, and her quicker demise, will play a larger role in the series than simply making “The Beast” scarier. Like with Harry Potter and Game of Thrones, perhaps they are stripping away the security blankets of our protagonists, and in doing so, forcing them to grow. Only time will tell.
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