Well, that was awkward!
As one might have expected after last week’s episode exploring the spiritual after-effects of chronic child abuse, “Homecoming” is a notably lighthearted episode. It’s also an overcrowded one; without the entire Brakebills crew united by a single quest, everyone’s split up to reach their own epiphany in an awfully rushed fashion. Julia adjusts to her new friend group. Eliot and Margo are reunited but by no means back to normal. Penny is trapped in a bizarre interdimensional border space. And it’s up to Quentin and Alice to get him back with….sex magic?
Maybe it’s because the episode opens with another jab at Quentin’s nerdy tendencies, a running gag The Magicians tends to go at with all the subtlety of The Big Bang Theory (a television show on Syfy, of all places, should know that nerds have more sex symbols at their disposal than just Princess Leia and Daenerys Targaryen!) But I found Quentin and Alice’s attempts at sexual compatibility beyond painful to watch, particularly when their issues were shoehorned into a bizarre plot device about needing to orgasm simultaneously for magic rather than allowed to come up organically. It’s all well and good for Alice to learn that faking orgasms is bad for her own sex life and also feminism. Did she really have to do it for a spell? Isn’t part of the point of this series that magic exists in parallel to the issues of young adulthood, and doesn’t always help or even intersect with them?
Far more effective is the introduction of Alice’s parents. Charlie aside, Alice might be the most thinly sketched of all the main characters so far. Penny may be deliberately mysterious, but he broadcasts it in a way that inadvertently broadcasts his own insecurities and image-consciousness; Alice is simply quiet and determined and a damn good magician. This week, we find out why: she’s the product of one of those self-righteously open households, the kind that tells themselves they’re enlightened for serving goat penis to guests and discussing their sex lives with their children when they’re often just profoundly self-absorbed. (Not that there isn’t a way to be open with one’s own kids! Trampling over their nascent boundaries, however, isn’t it.) Add to that the lingering shadow of Charlie’s death, and her mother’s — sorry, Stephanie’s — refusal to discuss it, and Alice has every right to avoid the ‘burbs of Chicago at all costs.
Just like her sex life, though, Alice’s family issues are confined to a handful of scenes and tied into her quest to rescue Penny from the Neitherlands, a place where portals to other worlds look like fountains and the local authorities look like particularly irritating librarians. Beyond some interesting world building, not much happens on Penny’s unplanned sojourn: some of the Beast’s goons attempt to steal his button, the librarian — whose domain is more “underfunded middle school” than “luxury book palace” — photocopies him a few pages from the “book” of Martin Chatwin (most people who read their own books don’t like the main character, or how it ends), and he gets home thanks to Quentin and Alice’s sex beacon. The Neitherlands may be The Magicians’ first look at a different universe with entirely different ground rules, but it’s mostly a buildup to Fillory developments down the road.
Eliot and Margo, meanwhile, continue to serve as comic relief even as their ironclad connection starts to exhibit some stress fractures. Without a quest to distract him, Eliot’s moved on to the substance abuse stage of coping with Mike’s death, and even the chance to track down Margo’s ex and take him to task for accidentally draining her life force to make a lifelike “Margollum” in her absence only makes things worse. Yet, as befits this episode’s recurring theme, Eliot’s ensuing confession that he feels “broken” still seems unearned, preceded as it is by a minor spat with Margo that only alludes to their lingering issues over her hostility towards Mike. And its impact is instantly negated anyway when Eliot turns out to have opened up to Margo’s doppelganger, not the real thing.
Last but not least, Julia has found her community of super-smart magical outcasts in the form of….a Slack channel, a detail that’s both uncannily accurate (the deep-web forums of the book series would feel a little five years ago) and deeply hilarious to those of us who use it at work every day. Regardless, their first IRL meet-up reveals that Julia’s fellow novice is none other than Kady, and before either of them gets full membership, they have to work out a dozen high-difficulty spells together. Again, awkward.
Once they’ve patched up the whole “you were partially complicit in my mom’s violent death” thing, they find out exactly what Richard’s group of magicians is up to. Turns out it’s merely an amped-up version of Julia’s, and even Quentin’s, fervent quest to fill the holes in their life with magic: they’re summoning a god, in the hopes that unlimited magical energy will cure cancer, or help with mental illness, or bring Richard’s infant son back. And as with Julia’s previous efforts, or any attempts to play god in all of fiction, it’s not headed anywhere good.