Syfy’s The Magicians continues to surprise me. The latest season has centered around heartbreak, and the compromises we make for the people we care about. And few have suffered more than Margo.
Margo, played by Summer Bishil, has long been defined by her “hard-arse bitch” nature, but not who she is behind it. The latest episode explored the character’s emotional growth—appropriately through song—and Bishil tells us all about what it was like singing, and screaming, through the tears.
The Magicians went back to the art of the musical with last night’s episode, “All That Hard, Glossy Armour.” Quentin and the gang play a magical Escape Room in an attempt to stop the Monster inhabiting Eliot’s body, as Zelda the Librarian tries to save her daughter from the Mirror World. But the bulk of the episode centres around Margo, who’s gone on a journey to the desert in order to recover two axes that could pull the monstrous spirit out of Eliot.
Fans of the book series will loosely recognise this storyline, as Janet’s (now Margo’s) desert quest from Lev Grossman’s novels as a major part of her emotional journey.
Bishil told io9 she’d been waiting for this storyline to happen since the start of the series — although when she first read the actual script, two weeks before filming, she said she wasn’t prepared for everything it would mean.
“There were just so many elements that were so spot-on for who Margo is, and who Janet was in the books,” Bishil said. “It also hit close to home for me on a personal level — the dialogue, the frustrations Margo is talking about in the tent with [Eliot]...I think most women can relate. It just hit home for me, and I had to process it for a little while.”
The element that Bishil was mentioning, about what women altogether could relate to, is connected to the main conflict and message of the episode. Upon coming across a nomadic tribe in the desert (after ingesting some sweet drugs from her destiny iguana), Margo learns that the tribe’s women are not allowed to express their emotions.
If they so much as get a little upset, let alone scream or shout, a demonic spirit emerges from the sand to possess them - or whoever gets in their way. It’s created a patriarchal structure where men are in complete control and the women are powerless to make their true feelings known. It echoes a general anxiety among women, recently showcased in Captain Marvel, where women are told they have limitations and then informed they can’t really do anything to change them.
Naturally, this really doesn’t go over well for Margo. She’s used to expressing all of her anger and frustration quite openly, and has been rendered helpless in way that goes against every one of her instincts.
Thus, when the male leader of the tribe tells her the only way to get axes of her own is to go out into the desert and fill a large sack with the rarest black grains of sand (a nigh-impossible task), all she can do is agree. But she does it, because she’ll do anything to bring Eliot (Hale Appleman) back — who’s present in the episode, as a representation of her conscience. The two of them share an emotional scene together, in a tent, as Eliot echoes back the thoughts Margo secretly has about herself.
“I just thought about everything that this woman had been through, and how frustrated she was, and the loss of this person in her life,” Bishil said about filming the desert scenes with Appleman, who’s been playing the Monster for most of the season. “I’m so glad that this scene was with Hale. I couldn’t imagine doing that with anyone else.”
It’s out there, in the desert, struggling to hold tight to her emotions, where we see a side of Margo we’ve never gotten before. One whose hard, glossy armour has been removed. Naked, honest, vulnerable. Noting how fucked up the world is, always telling her she can only be one thing—pretty, smart, or strong — but never all three. She’s had to choose, but she never wanted to choose. She wanted it all, because she’s capable of it all.
Bishil noted how much she loved the framing device for that scene, having to talk about something so deep and honest while physically holding back her emotions (kind of like that one scene with Koh the Face Stealer in Avatar: The Last Airbender).
“Even in her darkest time, Margo doesn’t give up. She doesn’t completely crumble, ever, and it’s hard to not want to have that be shown for her, and have it be shown in the small moments,” Bishil said. “But I think it’s a smarter decision because it gives it more power when she does show those emotions.”
That said, when she did finally let go and scream her heart out—prompting the big reveal that the desert spirits were, in fact, there to help her and other women — Bishil said it was a hard experience. It took a lot out of her.
“It was a huge emotional thing. I had to really give over my heart, and offer some of my feelings and my emotions, and really dive in,” she said. “After I had that breakdown scene, I broke down at home. It was really emotional. It took me about two months to shrug off the emotions of that episode.”
Of course, that wasn’t the only way Margo expressed herself. There were also the musical numbers, which helped Margo navigate her internal emotions as she struggled to keep her external ones in check. The Magicians has long used its musical episodes the way traditional musicals do — to explore and explain feelings that cannot be expressed any other way. Here, not only are all her co-stars portraying specific pieces of her psyche, but all the songs are pieces of Margo’s life.
The song she hears every time she has sex, her personal power anthem. And, perhaps most powerful of all, her father’s lullaby. “It’s only fitting she would show vulnerability in softness through her singing,” Bishil said. “I hope I demonstrated that in the final song [”Beautiful Dreamer”], that’s what I trained most vocally for. Because Margo tends to be guttural, in her lower register, and I wanted it to be softer and lighter.”
The episode ends with Margo returning home, alone, singing the lullaby that inspired so much pain, love, and loss. But above all of that, there’s hope. Margo may have started her journey bogged down by limitations, echoing a life where she’s long been defined by what she’s not supposed to do, but she came out the other side knowing exactly who she is, why she is, and what she’s meant to do.
“It’s hard to put your finger on trying to talk about it and handle it, what it was about this episode that had me caring so hard, and validating so many unspoken fears I had,” Bishil said. “I think maybe it’s because it’s this woman finally saying, you know, ‘I’m OK with who I am,’ and that takes a lot of courage. Not everyone is able to do that — and that’s the most courageous thing someone can do is really accept who they are and move forward.”
And she got some sweet axes out of the deal. It was a journey well worth taking. For all of us.