Thursday, April 18, 2019

Quentin Coldwater is bisexual. Did anyone tell his writers?

Arjun Gupta and Jason Ralph in "No Better to Be Safe Than Sorry."
How to succeed in queerbaiting without really trying.

When The Magicians showrunners Sera Gamble and John McNamara initially conceived last night’s season four finale, in which the series’ protagonist Quentin Coldwater says a very long, very touching, and very final goodbye, they likely anticipated strong emotions from viewers. Surprise. Tears. Maybe even some anger, in the “five stages of grief” kind of way.

What they almost certainly did not anticipate — because if they had, there is no way they would have written this finale — is the perfect storm of backlash and betrayal that Quentin’s death stirred up among viewers. On Twitter, on Tumblr, on Reddit, wherever you go, you will find some people who were saddened by the finale, but a great many more who were sickened by it. Not eight episodes ago, after all, Quentin’s status as a bisexual man — long a sort of simmering undercurrent on the show — was confirmed. The prospect of a real relationship with the series’ other major queer character, Eliot, was not only on the table, but seemed almost inevitable. And now, just as people were so desperately excited, Quentin is dead.

Put in those terms, it seems kind of absurd that Gamble and McNamara didn’t anticipate this reaction. We are, after all, living in a post-The 100 world. They named a whole convention after Lexa. “Don’t kill the queer characters” is like, showrunner 101. You don’t have to be hyperaware of this stuff to know about it. So you’d think that a show that regularly makes speeches about representation and who gets to be seen as a hero — a show written by people who genuinely seem to care about this problem — would not have run quite so willingly into the twin infernos of queerbaiting and burying its gays.

And if you spend a little more time on Twitter and Tumblr and Reddit, underneath the anger and betrayal, you’ll see another thread: confusion. Why? Why would they do this? Why would they make Quentin bisexual just to kill him eight episodes later? Why would they dangle the idea of a Quentin/Eliot relationship, then never return to it? Why would they set up an entire season centered around Quentin’s quest to save Eliot, only to kill Quentin without ever letting the two of them talk again? What was the point of any of this?

A lot of people have come to the conclusion that we all wrongly assumed that Gamble and McNamara wouldn’t queerbait and wouldn’t bury their gays. But a few people have zeroed in on what I think is the correct answer, which lies in another, subtler faulty assumption.

Gamble and McNamara never saw Quentin as queer at all.

This sounds absurd, I know, because we all saw the episode this season where Quentin, you know, asks out his same-sex friend. I mean, we were there. Nor was “Escape from the Happy Place” an isolated incident; it was the culmination of a long history of Quentin showing really obvious romantic and sexual interest in men. This is not a coded thing. Like, he has sex with men.

But I fundamentally believe that Gamble and McNamara view Quentin as just a very secure, sexually liberated straight man. You know, one of those Millennial men who are so secure in their heterosexuality that they have no problem hugging their male friends, or holding hands with them. Or giving them a blowjob. Or having kids with them, growing old together, and then asking to do it all over again.

Basically, they think of Quentin as a straight man who just happens to be open to the occasional fling with men. And the idea that one of the words people might use to describe such a person is “bisexual” seems not to have occurred to them. So no, they’re not queerbaiting! They’re not burying their gays! To do that, you have to have a queer — or intentionally queercoded — character to begin with.

And once you accept this, it makes both the finale and season four as a whole make so much more sense. So much of the weirdness of this season stems from the fundamental mismatch between the story the showrunners thought they were telling and the story that they were actually putting on the screen. It felt very sudden when Quentin and Alice got together at the end of this season, not because that contradicts Quentin’s queerness — he’s bisexual — but because there was all this narrative momentum behind the Quentin/Eliot relationship, and it seemed to be leading somewhere, and then swerved at the last moment. But if you assume that Quentin isn’t bisexual, but is instead a straight man whose default feeling toward Eliot is actually just deep friendship that sometimes gets, like, sublimated into sexual expression, then all that momentum toward Quentin/Eliot disappears. “Escape from the Happy Place” is not the start of a two-sided romance; it’s a story about Eliot, and how his specific fears let a one-time opportunity slip through his fingers. The season itself is not the story of Quentin’s quest to save Eliot — though obviously he spends a lot of time trying to do that — but of Quentin growing up. Go back through season four and track that thread, and you’ll see that it’s very much in there, in “Marry, Fuck, Kill,” “The Serpent,” “The 4-1-1,” “The Secret Sea” — even in “Escape from the Happy Place.” And of course, that’s why Quentin and Alice reunite at the end: to show the character progression that Quentin has made, since their previous, horribly failed iterations.

Of course, none of this erases the fact that Quentin is, on the screen, canonically, queer, and they killed him. None of this erases the fact that there is a whole other season four largely dedicated to Quentin’s cold-blooded, dead-eyed determination to save Eliot at all costs, and that that season never really comes to any resolution. None of this erases the fact that even though the twist of killing Quentin was supposed to be that he was the “designated white male protagonist,” and we didn’t need him to tell this story, it turns out that a lot of underrepresented people took a lot of meaning out of seeing themselves, in him, in The Magicians. And it certainly doesn’t erase the escalating series of bad decisions made after “Escape from the Happy Place” aired, and it became clear how wildly the viewers’ understanding of the season was diverging from the writers’. (For one thing, someone should have gotten the SyFy media people in line and stopped them from promoting Quentin/Eliot. For another, the actors — who had all shot an alternate ending of the finale in which Quentin survives at the last moment — should have immediately been briefed on the real state of affairs, so that they wouldn’t be giving heartwrenchingly misleading interviews. And frankly, none of this should have been on Hale Appleman — the queer actor who plays Eliot — at all.)

I don’t have a ton of takeaways here for fans. No matter what caused it, this whole thing just kind of sucks. It sucks that they didn't realize Quentin was queer. It sucks that he's dead. I hope this framing of the situation at least provides the resolution that answers can bring.

For writers, I do have a takeaway, the most important one, the one that I try to always remember when I’m writing: It’s not about what you conceive in your mind. It’s about what you put on the page.

And for god’s sake, there are worse things in the world than spoilers.

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