“Quentin did a magic trick. Nobody noticed.”(Lev Grossman, The Magicians)
These are the words Lev Grossman uses to introduce Quentin Coldwater to the audience. While this article will focus mostly on the television version — portrayed marvelously by Jason Ralph — there will be mentions of his book version as he’s just as important.
He is after all, Lev Grossman’s creation.
We wouldn’t have Jason Ralph’s Quentin without Grossman’s Quentin.
This will of course contain spoilers for the first four seasons of The Magicians and a sprinkle of spoilers for The Magicians trilogy. Trigger warning for anxiety, depression, and talk of suicide. I am not sure if I will be able to fully articulate how much Quentin means to me but I will try my best.
Why Can’t it Run on Love?
“What kind of system is that? Why can’t it run on love — or cocaine?”(The Magicians 1×05)
Quentin Makepeace Coldwater is introduced to us in a psych ward suffering from anxiety and depression. He has a father who tries his hardest but doesn’t understand him and a mother who has him convinced that he breaks things. Friends who mean well but talk past each other. And yet throughout everything, he still believes in magic.
Above all else Quentin believes in magic and not just because he knows it’s real, but because he loves it. Early on in the series, we get one of my favorite lines in media which is “why can’t it run on love?” Quentin just learned his dad has cancer and that magic can’t fix it. He is talking to Margo about the idea that magic is supposed to run on pain and just fully rejects it. He rejects the notion that it should run on pain.
At that point — whether or not he realizes it — Quentin hits on one of the most important notions in the world. That love is so much more powerful than pain. Sure, pain is easier to access, but love is stronger.
Both in the television show and the books Quentin’s core is someone who wants love above all else. He might not recognize it, might claim he doesn’t need it but he wants it. He wants to be loved and to be needed.
Quentin is always there when people need him and although he makes mistakes, he owns up to them and picks himself back up. He is so much better than he gives himself credit for. Quentin’s powers aren’t as showy as his friends’ but that doesn’t make them less important. He’s a phenomenal Push player and kind of a terrible singer (but we let that slide because we love Taylor Swift too).
He can be a petty brat but cannot be cruel for long because he always feels guilty about it. He has this idea in his head that he breaks everything he touches, but the fact is, that the opposite is true.
After all, his discipline is Minor Mendings. He doesn’t break things — he puts them back together.
From the moment we meet Quentin, Jason Ralph portrays him with such sincerity and joy that you can’t help but love him. Even his season one self who can be a bit of an asshole at times and hasn’t fully come into his own. Before long it is clear that Quentin is the glue keeping the group together.
He is the heart of the group and the one that connects all of them. Because if not for their connection to Quentin, most of the group would have never talked to each other. He is Penny’s roommate and frenemy, Alice’s first friend, Julia’s oldest friend, Margo’s best friend, and the love of Eliot’s life.
He can be selfish (as seen with Alice in season two) just as much as he can be wonderful (when he comforts Margo in 1×11). He doesn’t always care about the world in general, but he cares about his group of people, even when they hurt him “Giving a shit about someone that you give a shit about doesn’t just evaporate the second that they fuck up.” And all of these parts just flesh out his character all the more.
Plus Jason Ralph’s performance is just that good. I don’t think people would have clung on so tightly to Quentin if it hadn’t been for the care and devotion that Ralph put into every aspect of the role. The serious moments are great, he knows how to tug at your heartstrings like no other, and the comedic moments are brilliant because Ralph’s timing is incredible.
He made us fall in love with Quentin just as Quentin was falling even more in love with magic and with the world around him.
“His sexuality is the one thing he’s not anxious about.”(Jason Ralph, SDCC 2018)
Quentin Coldwater is bisexual — it’s not a suggestion, it is a fact of life. The confirmation of this is one of the few spots in which the show is better than the novels. I love repressed bisexual Quentin Coldwater from the books, but considering queer characters are always kept in minor roles or subtext I wish Lev Grossman would have made the move from subtext to text. I mean, it was right there.
It’s one of the only true flaws I see in the trilogy.
But the show did not do that. Looking back I’m not sure if it was the writers or just Jason Ralph’s performance informing the show, but there’s no other way to see it. Quentin Coldwater is a bisexual man. It’s so great to see bisexual characters make no apologies for being bisexual. It’s not technically confirmed until the threesome at the end of season one (some would argue it’s not confirmed until “A Life in a Day” in season three and sadly, the words bisexual never leave Quentin’s lips), but it’s a fact.
Everything about Quentin just screams bisexual, from the way he dresses to the way he sits. Because as we all know — bisexuals don’t know how to sit in a chair correctly. It’s just not in our DNA.
Jason Ralph is the biggest supporter of this. From his talks about sexuality being a spectrum to the quote above. I can’t even say what a relief it was to have the actor portraying the character come out and say, yes he is bisexual, you’re reading him correctly. Because let me tell you, that doesn’t happen often. And for a character like Quentin, who is anxious about every single thing under the sun? The idea that his sexuality was just a given for him was and still is extremely comforting.
Proof of Concept
“50 years who gets proof of concept like that? Peaches and Plums, motherfucker.”(The Magicians 4×05)
If you’ve ever shipped a slash or femslash relationship you know going in that there’s a 60% chance it will remain non-canon — yes even in this day and age. It’s always the best friends have more chemistry than the “official” love interest. The Magicians seemed to be headed that way too. Queliot in the books is truly fantastic but still subtext.
From their very first meeting, Quentin and Eliot’s chemistry is palpable and we know there’s interest in both sides. Hale Appleman and Jason Ralph were the perfect choices for Eliot and Quentin because they fully embraced the characters and their relationship.
Even when they’re in other relationships they play the characters as hyper-aware of the other person. That’s not even bringing in the coronation in 2×01 “A Knight of Crowns” where it’s very easy to believe those two are in love.
Then comes “A Life in the Day,” an episode that has Quentin and Eliot embark on a quest for the time key. They arrive at the Mosaic in Fillory of the past and realize they have to solve it. But how do you show the beauty of all life? With a life well-lived. They get together and they have a family — they loved each other for 50 years. That’s what got them the time key that allows for Jane Chatwin to put in motion the events of the first season.
I don’t think it was the writers’ intention but Queliot’s love is woven into the fabric of the show. They go back to the present and they still remember their life together. Fans thought that was all we’d get but then a season later they confirmed that Quentin and Eliot are in love with each other.
So what was once subtext became one of the best slow-burn queer relationships I’ve ever seen on television. It would have gone down on history if it weren’t for how they ended. As it stands, Quentin and Eliot’s love is ‘soulmates/friends’ to ‘lovers/would burn the world for you’ excellence.
Peaches and Plums, Motherfucker!
The Idea of Fillory
If you’re reading this then there’s a very big chance that you’re a nerd — sorry to tell you. Television has had fun with nerds over the years, but unless it’s a show about nerds, most of the time nerds are the side characters. Even when nerd things are involved, most of the time they’re made as a funny side of the character.
Quentin Coldwater felt different. Because he wasn’t just a nerd to laugh at or who makes vague references people mostly don’t get. He was a guy who had a deep connection to a piece of media. The idea that a piece of media can save lives is not one that is always fully explored and yet, it’s one that countless people can relate to.
Quentin has clinical depression and anxiety — Fillory saved his life. He keeps going back to it whenever he feels low and in need of an escape. Raise your hand if you’ve felt something like that before.
One of the first things we see of Quentin is him at a party arguing about how “Danish people have a dark soul” and arguing about close-up magic (something he’s quite the expert at). I remember seeing that and thinking: “oh fuck he’s me,” I had no idea at that point how right I’d be. Because as time went on and we saw more of Quentin, I found more and more similarities — good and bad — to him.
Throughout the show, Quentin finds out that the place that saved his life, Fillory, is real and the characters are real people. But the Fillory he finds is “not tonally consistent with the books” and the writer he idolized turns out to be a creepy pedophile who created the very monster that is hunting him and his friends.
I have mixed opinions about season four especially in hindsight, most of the last episodes are terrible, but there is one moment that touched my soul when it was airing. It’s what I consider one of Jason Ralph’s best performances and it’s Quentin yelling at a plant. It’s a speech that makes absolutely no sense in the context of season four and where Quentin is in his journey, but the speech is still poignant.
It’s especially so for those of us who, like Quentin, were saved by escaping to our fictional world of choice. Then we grew up to find that the person who created the very thing that saved us is not who we thought they were.
J.K. Rowling is a transphobe. Harry Potter saved young Maii’s life. These are two sentences that have an equal amount of truth in them. One cannot negate the other. Both Quentin and I are faced with the same question: how do you divorce the media that saved your life from the realities that go with it?
I would not be who I am without Harry Potter because there was a time in my life when Harry James Potter felt like my only friend. In The Magicians 1×09 Quentin sits at Plover’s desk and tells Alice that “this desk saved my life”.
The idea of Fillory is what saved my life! This promise that people like me… can somehow find an escape.
There’s got to be some power in that. Shouldn’t loving the idea of Fillory be enough?(The Magicians 4×12)
It was a question I’d never seen asked before. Shouldn’t loving what it represented at that time and age be enough? It’s moments like these that made so many people see themselves in Quentin Coldwater.
For the Dreamers
“This is a feeling that you had, Quentin, she said. Once, a very long time ago. A rare one.
This is how you felt when you were eight years old, and you opened one of the Fillory books for the first time, and you felt awe and joy and hope and longing all at once. You felt them very strongly, Quentin. You dreamed of Fillory then, with a power and an innocence that not many people ever experience. That’s where all this began for you. You wanted the world to be better than it was.”(Lev Grossman — The Magician’s Land
The Magicians as a show betrayed its viewers and it betrayed the beating heart of the show. But while the show ended up going in a nihilistic direction, the original Quentin had a very different view of it all. It’s the quote referenced at the start of the section.
Near the end of The Magician’s Land, Julia takes Quentin to the Drowned Garden. This is the same place where TV Quentin yells at the plant. Both speeches are poignant and they both made me cry. They’re both equally valid because at one point you do want to scream “Fuck Fillory for being so disappointing”.
You feel like channeling Obi-Wan Kenobi and screaming about how it was supposed to be different this time. Then we blame ourselves for falling for the same traps we always do. I know that even now more than a year later, I still blame myself for being trusting. For thinking that things were going to work out. But it’s not our fault. It’s not my fault. There’s nothing wrong with being a dreamer. That’s what Quentin was and what we should all aspire to.
“Years later you went to Fillory, and the Fillory you found was a much more difficult, complicated place than you expected. The Fillory you dreamed of as a little boy wasn’t real, but in some ways it was better and purer than the real one. That hopeful little boy you once were was a tremendous dreamer. He was clever, too, but if you ever had a special gift, it was that.”(Lev Grossman, The Magicians Land)
Lev Grossman tells it pretty clearly. Quentin Coldwater’s best attribute is that he is a dreamer. He wants the world to be better than it was. We mentioned it above but at his core, he believes in love. Even when the world has beaten him down he knows what it is that matters.
Quentin Coldwater is the audience’s avatar in a way very few characters are. He’s an anxious nerd who finds out his beloved world is a real place. Then has to deal with the fact that it’s not what he thought it was. He goes on large nerd rants and is allowed to love the things he loves. He makes no apologies for being a nerd and he’s conceited about it at times, but it works quite beautifully.
Because he gets to save the day thanks to the very same thing that saved him.
That was death, this is being alive, I will never confuse them again.
A major component of Quentin Coldwater was the fact that he suffered from depression and anxiety. The show didn’t always treat it with respect and neither did its writers — but Jason Ralph did and so did the fans.
For all their arguments Quentin’s mental health was intrinsically tied to his characterization. We meet him in a psych ward and it’s mentioned multiple times how he’s fought suicidal thoughts and had made attempts at his own life. In season one, he is trapped in his worst fear and it’s of course — a mental hospital.
But the most poignant moment when it comes to it comes in episode 3×06: Do You Like Teeth.
Quentin and the rest are on a quest to find seven keys and restore magic — and this is a leg of the quest he embarks alone. In it, he is faced with the abyss key (also known as the depression key). Which is a key that manifests your depression in human form.
For the first time in the show Quentin gets to face his depression — and he wins.
“I have come up against you before asshole, maybe a little more subtly but you and I both know that I’ve got a black belt. So come at me.”(The Magicians 3×06)
It is an extremely poignant moment, in an extremely poignant episode where Jason Ralph gives it his all. It’s an incredible moment for anyone that suffers from anxiety and/or depression. The idea of being able to yell back against the voice in your head, the one that insidiously tells us that we’re not good enough, that our friends hate us, that laughs at our pain. We could yell and say “No — you can’t beat me, not this time.”
It is a cathartic moment for Quentin.
Sadly I wish I could write this without mentioning it, but if we’re talking about Quentin’s depression it’s a must. The end of season four was the single cruelest moment I’ve witnessed in all my years of watching television. And I’ve been actively consuming media since I was around 8-years-old (I am now 30). It personally sent me and many others through depressive spirals in 2019.
I’ve seen many shows and gone through many character deaths and the fandom reaction was unlike anything I’ve seen in all my years.
I do not want to focus much on it as the scene itself was full of suicidal ideation and triggering content. But I needed to mention it because it is something that happened. But I choose not to focus on it. Because Quentin Coldwater deserved better.
We reject your homophobic suicide fantasy and insert our reality. Quentin Coldwater is not dead. He is alive in all of our hearts.
Because Quentin does not belong to the writers of the show whose cruelty was felt in such a powerful way.
No — Quentin Coldwater belongs to Lev Grossman, who wrote him in his image, deeply loved him, and gave him a happy hopeful ending. He belongs to Jason Ralph, who protected, respected, and was devoted to the character he was portraying.
Most of all, he belongs to us.
He belongs to every person who picked up the show or read the book. Everyone that saw even the tiniest bit of themselves in the high-strung super-nerd. He belongs to everyone who struggles with thoughts of depression and anxiety and just like Quentin did, fights back against the voice in our head and reminds it that we’ve gone up against it before — and we won.
He’s every person who ever felt the need to escape to a fictional world because life seemed to be too hard. It’s all of us who found comfort in a piece of media and return to it when we’re feeling down. He’s every person who excitedly wants to talk about something that brings them true joy.
Quentin is ours.
Quentin Coldwater is alive — his heart and soul is in each of us, it’s in every fic and every fanart. In every piece of fan media and every person who saw themselves in him. He’s alive in Lev Grossman’s gorgeous trilogy and every note of Jason Ralph’s iconic performance.
Because Quentin Coldwater deserves a happy ending and so do we.