Manic Pixie Dream School: Syfy’s “The Magicians” and Mental Health

[2.22.2016 – As the series progresses, I’m more and more happy with how the subject of mental health has been handled. Mea culpa, folks, and a big thanks to The Magicians team for proving me wrong here!]

I really like The Magicians – both Lev Grossman’s novels and Syfy’s TV adaptation – and I’ve been looking to start a regular “Not Thrones” bloggy recap featuring our regular deluge of snark, wit, and questionable Star Trek references, but something’s been holding me back. The show’s first two episodes feature a shitty depiction of mental illness and mental health. It’s the same depiction that’s prevalent throughout pop culture, and it’s simplistic, inaccurate, and a little bit dangerous. I’ve dealt with mental illness personally and in my friends and family, and continuously seeing this same inaccurate story told in the media just adds to the stigma, and that pisses me off. So I’m going to step on a soapbox for a bit here, get this off my chest, and we’ll get into the fun stuff soon. We can talk about the perfection that is Elliot. It’ll be great. Spoilers follow.

When we first meet our protagonist, Quentin Coldwater, he’s undergoing an exit interview from a mental institution. He sits in his hoodie, drawstrings removed for his safety, and is reminded by a counselor that

“On admitting you reported that you couldn’t concentrate, eat, get out of bed. You said the feeling of not belonging anywhere was overwhelming, and that you were the most useless person who ever lived. And now, do you feel better?”

Quentin’s response boils down to “Actually, it was Millennial ennui. I should probably just grow up and grow a pair. Toodles!” No, Quentin. Those symptoms describe something called “depression,” and good on you for getting help for it. The show implies that he was temporarily held involuntarily, but that he was active in his own treatment while there. Condensing those feelings into a “I just need a purpose” speech is annoying in its complete misunderstanding as to how depression and mental illness work, but it’s one character’s understanding and/or denial, so it’s excusable.

Our next foray into the mind of Quentin is through a conversation with his closest friend, Julia, as she tells him to stop running away from life. “I know where you were last weekend,” she says. “At the hospital.” J’ACCUSE, MSSR. COLDWATER. “Life is raw,” Quentin defends.”Everybody medicates.” “No. Life is starting,” says the ever pithy Julia. “You’re good at so much stuff. Pick something.” Then she walks away, leaving him alone on the sidewalk so that he can let the full weight of her bullshit sink in. Here’s a helpful bit of advice: if someone you love has recently been discharged from a mental institution, and isn’t talking to you about it, the best line of conversation isn’t “I know you were in the nuthouse and didn’t tell me. Now suck it up and stop bitching.”

Quentin is obsessed with the fantastical world of Fillory, which is basically Costco-brand Narnia. He has a first-edition copy of the series – which he actually reads. He even does magic tricks! Good news, Q! Magic is real! You can even go to Brakebills, the magic grad school! All you have to do is not choke on the entrance exam. Quentin chokes on the entrance exam. When all seems lost, when no hope glimmers, the Dean steps forward with some helpful advice.

“Quentin, Do you like this place? You got a gut feeling that it’s something special? Do you want to go back to Columbia? That pointless, miasmic march to death you call life? Family that never calls, and friends that don’t really get you, and feeling alone and wrong, until it crushes you. Then quit dicking around and do some GODDAMN MAGIC!”

Quentin does some goddamn magic, and he’s accepted. Hurray! There’s just one small thing.

“Your meds,” says the Dean. “Quentin, you haven’t been depressed. You’ve been alone. And you’re not crazy, you’re angry. And you’re correct. Everyone medicates. Out there. Here, we hope you won’t need to.” And just like that, Quentin gives up his pills. This is where the show pisses me off. The Dean is saying the one thing that everyone who’s ever struggled with mental illness wants to hear. “It’s not you. It’s not your brain. It’s not your body. It’s the world that’s wrong. Now that you know that, you’ll be just fine.”

This would be alright if the Dean was wrong, if we saw Quentin go off his medication and return to it, or if we saw any sort of complication from Quentin’s refusal of treatment for his illness. It’d even be acceptable if some magical med student came by with a Harry Potter style “Depressio Exumai” spell. That’s not what happens, though. What happens is that Quentin gives up his meds days after being hospitalized, and he’s fine, because Brakebills is a manic pixie dream school. Like Natalie Portman in Garden State, like Ramona Flowers in Scott Pilgrim, like Zooey Deschanel in, well, everything, Brakebills in the first two episodes pulls Quentin out of his slump. Forget treatment, Quentin, you’ve got a purpose now!

I saw these things in the pilot, and I hoped for the best. I hoped we’d see Quentin learning to deal with the magical world and his own mental disorder. Instead, the audience learns that the cure for depression is to get into the right grad school.

So, that’s said. Other than this horrible misstep, I dig the show. Next up, my REAL review of the first few episodes.

6 thoughts on “Manic Pixie Dream School: Syfy’s “The Magicians” and Mental Health

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  2. Depression is a normal human brain plus stress from one’s environment. (See the article “‘Depression Gene’ Linked to Response to Stress” on WebMD.) Medication is useless at curing depression, since it neither changes one’s genes, nor one’s environment. As for having a purpose, it’s true that this also won’t cure depression, but it might lead to changing one’s environment to be more nurturing/healthy, thus eliminating the cause of the depression (stress). And it is entirely likely that moving to a school where one feels like they belong and where one is respected and taken care of (a healthy environment) is all that is needed to cure depression. So this story is totally reasonable and well within the scientifically accurate understanding of mental illness.

    • A genetic disposition towards depression doesn’t mean that depression can’t be treated medicinally, in fact, the exact opposite is true. After all, genetically influenced conditions like high blood pressure or asthma can and should be treated medicinally. While it’s true that depressive symptoms can be influenced by external stressors, depression as a psychiatric state (i.e. major or clinical depression) is at its heart a psychiatric condition and a medicinal response can and should be a part of treatment.

  3. That’s a deadly myth. Drugs always mess up the body. Always. At best, when used for very specific and scientifically clear reasons, (repressing the immune system when someone has an organ transplant, for example), are a lesser of two evils. But with depression, which is a psychological symptom/effect that reflects a lack of hope (of a better future), we know from a century or more of research that it is simply a reaction (the freeze or flight response) to some kind of physical stress to the body (either a deficiency of the basic needs of high quality food, water, air, warmth, light, information or a lack of freedom to express the body’s excess matter and/or energy) plus the genes for expressing such a reaction. (Rocks don’t get depressed, for example, no matter how you treat them, because they don’t have the genes that would allow them to do so! 🙂 So, obviously, no drugs are going to cure the problem. “Anti-depressant” drugs are just a way to make money for the drug industry. It’s a scam that’s been perpetuated by those who have been trained to trust corporate PR types, to the detriment of us all. Ignoring the biology of mammal’s basic needs, and instead looking for magic pills that can net someone a huge profit, is one of the biggest maladies human society ever came up with. To stop having a negative reaction to something in one’s environment (be it depression, aka, freeze/flight, or aggression, aka, fight) we have to remove any threat or harm from the situation and provide the good stuff (the physiological needs) so that the body (and it’s brain) can function healthfully. With a biology as complex as a homo sapien’s it’s not necessarily super easy to figure out what the deficiency and/or toxicity is, especially since it’s usually many different problems combined, but looking for the problem and finding ways to ameliorate it is the only option for any kind of effective, logical, rational solution. This is why The Magicians is such a good example of treating depression effectively, as it shows exactly what the problem was, an environment that didn’t allow for him to express himself fully and honestly. Once he was invited to become a part of a healthy environment that did allow him to fully express his true, weird, self, he found hope, thus curing his depression. (At least until he thought he was going to get expelled again!) Though in reality, most humans are also at least suffering from major nutritional deficiencies and toxicities, which can easily be the sole cause of depression, even if one is in a super healthy and supportive environment otherwise. (This is also a result of profiteering, anti-science PR, in the form of mass market “food” that is seriously crappy, at best.)

    • As someone who does use medication as one of many tools to regulate my mental illness, I’m going to have to disagree. I think we have two vastly different perspectives on this, and aren’t likely to come to a point of agreement – except, of course, that The Magicians is shaping up to be a great show.

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