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.