Except for its final twist, “Remedial Battle Magic” is almost entirely a transitional episode, one that shows more than a few signs of artificial obstacles to delay the main characters’ inevitable trip to Fillory and thereby prolong the season. That’s a big “except,” though.
We’ll start with Julia, who continues to stay sequestered from the Brakebills crew — though, judging by their close call with Kady, not for much longer. Apparently, Julia wasn’t drafted into Richard’s crew for just her talent, or even her good looks; she’s “god-touched,” in possession of some inherent quality that makes it easier for her to commune with the divine and vice versa. She and Kady spend much of the episode on a wild goose chase anyway, hunting down magical creatures far lower on the totem pole in the hopes of working their way up. One skeezy vampire and positively creepy shapeshifting mind-reader later, they’re right back where they started.
So Julia opts to go the old fashioned route: prayer. It’s worked for her before (though not for anyone else), but she knew that before she and Kady began knocking on doors. The dream sequence where the goddess she’s chasing directs her to a literal troll under a bridge is pretty, but it also could have happened much earlier. Julia essentially spends her half of the episode chasing a single piece of information.
That’s not dissimilar from what Quentin, Penny, Alice, Eliot, and Margo put themselves through. The Beast is getting more aggressive with his tactics, and a terrifying “probability spell” lets them know that unless they go to Fillory, and soon, Brakebills is fated for an all-out massacre within the week. Before they go, however, the gang insist on arming themselves with “battle magic,” hence the episode’s title.
Once again, the training montages are a little too obvious a plot device, particularly since they’re accompanied by a spell that takes the whole magic-as-metaphor thing to an extreme. In order to get rid of the inhibitions that prevent a normal non-sociopath from attempting to hurt someone else via magic, the crew has to literally bottle up their feelings — cue Quentin’s Star Trek reference. Alice proposes learning to blow up wine bottles without the magical crutch, leading Quentin to resent her because he knows, or at least thinks, he can’t do it. As a source of tension between the happy couple, it’s exactly as forced as it sounds.
More interesting is the agony Penny and his fellow Travelers endure at the hands of The Beast, who takes advantage of his direct through line into their heads by turning up the volume, and loud. Like the bottled feelings, and the emotional hangovers that result once they’re reabsorbed, the metaphor here is crystal-clear, particularly after Travelers begin to put an end to the pain by killing themselves, starting with Sex Alien Joe. Penny copes with his suicidal thoughts, as many do, via substance abuse, until the stress-induced heart attack lands him in the infirmary.
Even though, thanks to that twist, we know where this pairing is going, desperation and resolve bring Penny and Alice together in one of The Magicians’ more interesting combinations of characters. They’re by far the most gifted magicians of the group, and even though Penny has no problem expressing his anger while Alice keeps hers repressed, they share a certain kind of motivation and trauma that the others, with the possible exception of Eliot, lack.
Before any of that can sink in, though, Quentin has a drunken threesome with Eliot and Margo, which is a real thing that happened. I’ll be obnoxious and say that this event feels far more organic than the books, where it comes after a months-long period of postgrad disillusionment and ennui. Here, it’s sudden, and while the tension between Eliot and Margo is obvious and long-brewing, Quentin hasn’t gone through anything nearly as drastic as either killing his significant other or losing his best friend to inspire a judgement call that terrible. This is something that happened so Alice could find out and the fallout would ensue, and lo and behold, that’s exactly what happens.
Luckily, we only have two episodes left in the season, meaning the climactic battle with the Beast is coming up and the action will feel more urgent and less forced. Until then, though, pour one out for the imminent end of Quentalice.