This article contains spoilers for The Magicians up through episode 8 of season 2.
A commonly criticized aspect of The Magicians book series is that Julia loses her shade, commonly understood as more or less her soul or her connection to humanity, due to Reynard the trickster fox god raping her. However, the television version of The Magicians diverged from this plot point, keeping Julia’s shade intact until the most recent episode, when she lost it while undergoing an abortion. While the portrayal of abortion on television has certainly come a long way, coupling Julia’s abortion with literally losing her connection to her humanity is deeply troubling, especially for a show that already has occasionally treated women and survivors of sexual violence as second rate.
There is some nuance here — in the books, Julia does not lose her shade because of the rape itself, but rather unwittingly as part of a deal to save another character (in the show Kady serves this function), and she does exercise what limited autonomy she can in that moment, which should not be discounted. That said, it’s still concerning to have a character essentially lose her soul due to rape, given that we see so many real-world narratives along the same lines, with sexual assault survivors often referred to as “broken” or “damaged.”
So I, along with many other viewers, was glad to see that on the show, Julia’s shade remained intact at the end of last season. I was curious to see whether it would go eventually. I was heartened that the showrunners seemed to be aware of this criticism of the book series, and sought to find a creative way to stay true to the books while avoiding a problematic implication about sexual violence, and perhaps make their already-graphic rape scene less emotionally fraught. Or, at the very least, they understood that the pacing of the Season 1 finale episodes required some of the plot points to shift.
Beyond that, this shift gave us an interesting moment when Martin Chatwin momentarily lowered Julia’s shade to tempt her into asking him to remove it permanently, like he did to his own. But Julia recognized that she needed her feelings, even if they were overwhelmingly painful at the time, because they connected her to her humanity. That was a great moment for Julia as a character and a survivor of sexual violence — she was coming to terms with her pain in a more constructive way than when she first had Marina take away her memories, or when she left her friends dead and dying in Fillory to team up with Martin. Moreover, resisting the temptation to become like him when she was still so hurt reassured us that Julia would do what was necessary to take Martin down when the time came.
However, during Episode 8, “Word is Bond“, we see what Kady meant when she said there were “complications.” Julia is no longer pregnant with Reynard’s offspring, but she lost her shade in the process. I’m relieved for Julia that she was able to get her (magical) abortion. No one should be pregnant if they don’t want to be, least of all someone who has been raped by a god. But if there are troubling narratives about losing one’s soul due to rape, the narratives about women who seek out or undergo abortions are abysmal. On television, characters who have (or even think about) abortions often die, in stark contrast to the safe reality of the procedure. When we have a real life Commander in Chief who has previously suggested that those who have abortions should be subject to, “some kind of punishment,” watching characters lose their connection to humanity as narrative punishment hits too close to home.
So far, losing her shade has not meant what Julia’s best bitches and frenemies expected. She is fearless, perhaps dangerously so, coming out from the protections of the wards at Brakebills, where Reynard immediately found and threatened her. It’s unclear if he would have done more than threaten her without Quentin’s fast escape since we know he likes to “play with his food.” Julia’s new attitude toward her safety is reminiscent of how some survivors of sexual violence behave, whether because they no longer value their life, or because they have seen such terrible things that more common fears no longer affect them. She reminds me of early Season 1 Julia, marching up to Brakebills and hedge witches and anyone else like she was the smartest person in the room, and not caring what anyone else thought. To some this makes her a badass. To others, a liability.
Much like Martin Chatwin, Julia still wants vengeance. Without her shade, she is calculating and selfish. Julia tells the Lorian magician that her loyalty will always lie with herself, right before she puts in motion the death of an entire forest, the last of their kind. This plays right into one of the prime charge levied against those who access abortions: they are selfish. This ignores the reality that the majority of people who get abortions already have a child and get abortions for reasons like not having the time or money to care for another.
The idea that a combination of sexual violence and abortion has turned Julia into the new Beast, as some are claiming, is so disappointing. While they may have taken the long way around and sidestepped one problematic trope, the showrunners have still given us two survivors of sexual violence without shades. The only other survivor we’ve met so far made no mention of her shade one way or another, but she did hold Julia hostage and was planning to force her to give birth.
Is the only option for survivors of sexual violence in the world of The Magicians to become violent, selfish, and evil? I hope the rest of the season proves this characterization wrong.