The Magicians and Intimacy from a Distance

Reading Like a Writer with Allison Wyss

I’m not reading as much as I did pre-isolation. It’s harder to focus, and with a kid at home, there is very little time. But I can manage a bit of TV—which is just as good for finding writing techniques and strategies. I promise.

The Magicians is a TV show about grad school for magic. (I’m talking specifically about the TV show right now, for reasons stated above.) It’s got a lot of sexy people casting spells, sorting their confused lives, saving the world. Some of them are friends at the start; some are the opposite. But throughout the series, these new magicians build strong relationships with each other.

I’m interested in how the show builds intimacy between these characters. The requirements of a spell might put them into an odd situation, but once there, that situation becomes another sort of magic because of the way connections are forged between characters, even between the ones who don’t get along. 

An obvious example is a spell that requires nakedness and secrets (Season 1, Episode 6). No one is surprised when it transforms the relationships of the people involved. Other spells require particular hand motions, or shapes, words, ingredients—all of which can create intimacy and vulnerability when people perform or use or consume them in unison.

These moments of intimacy don’t always last, and they’re not always positive, but they always push relationships in some direction or another. It’s a great study in how intimacy doesn’t always look the same or create the same reactions. This is important because intimacy can work much like conflict in stories. It reveals character and makes things happen. 

In a later episode (Season 3, Episode 9), the stakes are higher. Magic has been turned off, and the seven friends/frenemies are on a quest to bring it back. Though their overriding goal is the same, the characters have been dispersed to far-apart locations—even distinct worlds—and vastly different situations. Penny is dead, and Kady is grieving. Elliot and Margo have been sentenced to death and seem on the verge of execution. Julia is gaining power that she doesn’t understand. Quentin and Alice are barely speaking to each other. And Josh has been pretty much forgotten by everyone else. 

They are not together physically. They are not united metaphorically. They’re not even friends.

But the next step of the quest requires the team to collaborate. The rules of magic are strange, right? They do it through song. To restore magic, the seven characters sing “Under Pressure” together, even though they are geographically and metaphysically far flung. 

And we get two kinds of magic—the kind that takes them a step further on their specific quest and the kind that builds intimacy.

The camera cuts the scenes together so the song is continuous, even as different characters are shown singing different lines. It never splits the screen but reminds us of their separate locations. Still, their voices unite.

The scene creates intimacy even from a distance because they are all inside of the same song. They are guided by the same notes, the same lyrics, the same memory of Bowie and Queen. Isn’t it interesting even to call it a scene? They’re in different settings! But it is.

Even more magical, when the viewer knows the song, perhaps anticipates the next line, hums along, or even imagines the original singers moving in ways similar to the TV show’s characters, the viewer steps into the space created by it. The feeling of connection and unity that the characters are creating can include the person who watches the scene from their couch.

I’ve long studied the various ways writers create symbolic intimacy between characters. Sometimes people in the same room are cast into shapes or forms that connect them. They stand in a circle or the same candlelight splashes each face. They eat the same food or make the same gesture. Sometimes they ride together in a car—the car’s body is their shared one, so they move at the same speed and according to the same will.

And I’ve always wondered about how the symbolism becomes magic. It seemed at first as if the writer was forcing intimacy upon them, even faking it. I worried that the reader would see connections that the writer hadn’t done the work to build. 

Then I realized that the situations themselves do the work. Characters necessarily feel the proximity of their bodies to other bodies. They connect through vulnerability, through sensing their bodies in communion with other bodies.

This works in real life, too. When my kid was younger, I did not crave a powerful connection with the other mothers at library circle time. But when we sang and clapped and shared our babies’ names, I couldn’t help feeling it.

And so the writing lesson here is also about life. (This got earnest fast—sorry!) There are ways to create intimacy without physical proximity. Songs, of course. And dance and nakedness and eating the same food can all be done from far away. Technology helps, but this is true even without it.

Think also of the way that the camera cuts fool us in the “Under Pressure” scene. The merging of voices, even with separate views, lets us know the characters are far apart and also helps us to know they are together. 

If nothing else, it’s a strong argument for gallery view in zoom meetings, for putting your own face with the others on the screen, for circling the whole group with your mouse as the leader drones on. I mean, of course, it’s exhausting. But there’s at least a little bit of magic to be wrung from it.