'The Magicians' Explores Its Supporting Characters With "The Side Effect"

The Magicians is an ensemble show, with the gang of main characters flitting across interwoven storylines in perpetual battles to save their lives and/or magic. In "The Side Effect," one of my favorite episodes this season, the roles that characters' play gets flipped; the spotlight moves away from the core gang (Quentin, Julia, Margo, Eliot and Alice) and shines on four side characters: Zelda the Librarian, Fillory's own Fen, the warrior-woman Kady, and the kinda dead Penny 40.The premise here is similar to the exploration of less-explored relationships in this season's fourth episode, "Marry, Fuck, Kill," but I'd argue this one pulls it off better, both in terms of pacing, and in tying the implications of the episode to the major arcs of the season. The message of this episode is also a poignant one—that someone's perspective impacts how they see the world, and how an unquestioned point of view can miss key connections or the crux of a situation.Penny 40 provides the meta-commentary for the episode through his effort to teach the dude-bro Derek, his alleged underling in the Underworld branch of the Library. Derek, who is suffering from a "classic case of white male protagonism," has read the Books of the gang and has drawn the wrong conclusions. Penny educates him by taking him through the Books of Zelda, Fen and Kady, who—as Penny eventually explains—will fundamentally change the Library, Fillory, and all of magic itself.Zelda and Kady's stories this episode are intertwined, even though the two never meet. We start with Zelda, the Librarian who had imprisoned the recently-escaped Alice and Santa Claus, and who is now dealing with the ramifications of their escape. As Zelda talks with her colleagues about what to do, we realize that she sees herself as a protector—someone who is dedicated not only to protecting the Library's "flame of eternal knowledge," but also those she cares about. Even though she imprisoned Alice, Zelda cares for her. Zelda also cares about her missing daughter, Harriet, who in a previous season was lost in the mirror realm. Her feelings for both cause her to lie to her colleagues about Alice changing the ending of her Book, and to re-enter the mirror realm in a futile attempt to extract her daughter.Like Alice, however, this episode reveals that Zelda also strives to do what she thinks is right, causing her to make decisions that have horrible, unintended consequences. Her suggestion to put a tracking spell on Deweys used by hedge witches (in an effort to find the escaped Santa Claus), for example, ends up backfiring in horrible ways.We see the impact of Zelda's enchanted Dewey idea through Kady's story. Kady, who is back after a too-long three-episode hiatus, is on her own path, doing what she thinks is right instead of blithely following Quentin or Julia. She starts the episode trying to get rent to pay a cantankerous Baba Yaga. While shopping the black market, however, she finds out that hedge witches are dying because Zelda's Deweys have a lethal interaction with charms most hedge witches use. Kady brings the hedge witches together, warns them about the magicked Deweys and then inspires them to rebel against the Library. One familiar-looking hedge witch is grieving over her boyfriend's death, however, and against Kady's council heads to Modesto, where we saw her last episode blowing up the town's Library branch.And so Zelda's plan, a plan she proposes to steer her colleagues away from hunting down and killing Alice, ends up killing several magicians—Librarian and hedge witch alike. The attack in Modesto also causes the Library to take another step toward becoming a not-so-benevolent dictator by deciding to double down on the Dewey tracking spell. The end of the episode also has Zelda turning to Dean Fogg and a surprised Alice for help, and we'll most likely see them go against the group of hedge witches Kady now leads.The last side character we spend time with this episode is Fen. We find out that she's been having prophetic dreams, and after following the advice of Josh, she notices a cloaked individual lurking in her mind while she sleeps. In her dream, she chases the person to Corian's Land, a dangerous part of Fillory. She gives Margo and Josh an endearingly awkward speech that she's going to find out who this person is and why they're running around her dreams. We don't know yet what this quest will entail, but Penny 40 tells Derek at the end of the episode that her journey will impact all of Fillory.We also learn in the last scene of the episode that Penny 40's role this episode is more than just being a meta-commenter. It turns out that Derek is not a 3-week-dead underling, but a true millennial (in the number of years dead, at least) and Penny's superior. After Penny's speech, Derek decides Penny is ready for a promotion, and we end "The Side Effect" with a promoted Penny ready to "collect secrets taken to the grave" from a to-be-revealed someone in an Underworld elevator. Who is Penny talking to (I really want to know!!!!!!), and how will Kady, Zelda and Fen's stories unfold? The rest of the season will likely turn focus back to the core crew, but we'll have Penny's meta-commentary in the back of our minds, reminding us to consider all the show's characters, and all the complexity and richness they each bring to the world of The Magicians.