Fear in a Handful of Syllables: The Magnus Archives

In this series, we’ll be spotlighting some of the best and brightest of contemporary podcast audio drama. Horror fans are blessed with an abundance of riches, but for me, there was only one place to start: The Magnus Archives.

Brainchild of writer Jonathan Sims and creative director Alexander J. Newall, The Magnus Archives is a sweeping horror tale told across five seasons, the fifth of which wraps up in early 2021. Featuring a diverse cast ranging from Sims’ mum to… well… (you’ll know it when you hear it), the show connects spine-chilling and intimate horror with modern social lenses, a wickedly dry sense of humor, vast ambition, and an enormous, passionately engaged fanbase. But it’s the structure of the show that resonates most with me. 

You see, it’s a magic trick. 

Or it’s staged like one. Specifically, the foundational three act structure of a magic trick, as described in Christopher Priest’s The Prestige:

Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called “The Pledge.” The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird, a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course… it probably isn’t. The second act is called “The Turn.” The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret… but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call “The Prestige.”

Viewed through this lens, we gain not only an understanding of the show but also intriguing hints about its future and how that future will connect to its past. Let’s walk through each stage of the trick in loose but occasionally spoilery terms. Those who aren’t familiar with the show are strongly encouraged to start at the beginning, as self-paced realization is one of TMA’s hallmarks.

Now, as the man says, statement begins…

The Promise: Season 1

We start with The Magnus Archives on its best behavior, slowly placing cards on the table, talking in a low, reassuring voice so you can’t hear the doors lock behind you. The series follows Jonathan Sims, a newly promoted senior archivist at The Magnus Institute. (Yes, the protagonist was named similarly to the author, and the nomenclature will be confusing at first.) The Magnus Institute is the foremost paranormal research body in Europe, archiving decades of eyewitness testimony from people who’ve seen unusual things. 

What they do not have is a filing system.

So newly-minted Head Archivist Jon, frustrated with struggling over the Institute’s constant IT problems, picks a statement at random and reads it aloud into a tape recorder. His idea is simple: re-record everything, eventually, in a more accessible format with a unified style, to make filing and accessing them easier. Plus, Jon’s new in his role–shy, awkward, and a little derogatory about the job. Recording statements is a good a method as any for getting his arms around his new responsibilities, and the recording help him reframe and engage with the statements, better suiting them to his needs. Not to mention reassuring him that he’s right and the supernatural is a myth, a trick of the light and mind.

Jon is aided in all this by Tim, Sasha, and Martin, three archival assistants who become vital to the show. Together, the four form the season one core team. Their boss, Elias Bouchard, is the imperious head of the Institute played with cheerful, insightful venom by Ben Meredith. The orbits these characters describe are the human backbone of the show’s opening act, providing grounded contrast to the rising supernatural threat they uncover. 

Plus, they’re characters you enjoy spending time with. Tim, played with glorious ebullience by Mike LeBeau, is a puppy in human form. The hyper-competent Sasha, played by Lottle Broomhall, is the Egon to Tim’s Ray, while Martin, played by Alexander J. Newall, is basically too pure for this world, which makes him feel like an outsider. Their mutual feelings of isolation are one of the initial attractions between Martin and Jon, and their incredibly gradual, slow burn romance is one of the core beats of the show.

This solid foundation and set-up could have sustained the show for decades. But this is The Magnus Archives, where no one and nothing is safe, least of all narrative expectation or linear time. For the first ten or so episodes this is an absolutely standard, very well produced, ‘weird things in the UK’ show. But then–slowly, surely–a pattern begins to emerge.

Grounded in the very first episode, ‘Anglerfish’, we meet the core motif of the show–a fractal shard of the horror to come. Something impossible is just out of sight. Against their better judgment, Jon and the grumpiest Scooby gang in the world follow. The resulting adventures are a triumphant combination of seemingly unconnected events, a profoundly creepy siege, and an ending which sets the Magnus Institute up as the good guys in a world filled with the bad.

The Turn: Seasons 2 and 3

Nothing is the same after season 1. The stakes are raised and the scope enlarged. Sims’ writing parallels the Archive staff’s own experience, teasing us with context for actions and decisions we, the audience, don’t yet understand. The palpable sense of always being on the back foot, working backwards, only heightens the tension as the true nature of the Institute becomes apparent. The game is forever changed, and difficult decisions loom.

These are the two seasons where TMA feels most accessible. A well-established episodic narrative with liberal dashes of seasonal arcs, here the Archive staff know who they are and what they face, believing they have all the pieces to put their solution into place.

It doesn’t last. 

What TMA builds, it then destroys. Seasons of worldbuilding and character development face crucibles–the assumed safety of the Institute laid bare as a polite, insidious lie. There is no level playing field of Good versus Evil here. Sims gives us light-hearted scenes of rebelling against the office dress code, interspersed and contrasted with deep personal realizations. 

The ending of season 3 is a brutal series of punches to the heart, beating out the stark, clear message that nothing is certain, nothing is safe. The world beneath the world the Magnus staff investigate is no passive body of study. Now, it sees them too.

The Turn–the revelation of something ordinary–is that the Institute staff are just that. Ordinary. Touchable. Fragile. Killable. Season 3 finishes with near chaos, and with something much worse waiting in the wings.

The Prestige: Seasons 4 and 5

In the wake of the apocalyptic events of season 3, the Archive changes hands. Multiple times–there’s a lot of staff turnover, some of it less permanent than it first seems. Then there’s a happy ending!

And then there’s season five.

Season five is the moment where TMA lays every card on the table and sets most of them on fire. The slow build across season 4 causes simmering tension between Martin and Jon, leading to moments of legitimate, pure punch-the-air fan joy. The audience is well and truly invested, making these epochal revelations feel viscerally earned. It’s the textbook definition of how you set up and pay off a foundational romance plot in the face of Armageddon.

The third act of TMA is one long Prestige. Season four’s ‘back to normal’ plot is revealed as a plan within a plan to radicalize, separate, and isolate multiple key staffers. Season four’s ending is, in a different show, THE ending. But here it’s just a door into something richer, stranger, and even more ambitious. This is the way the world ends. Chaotic. Abstract. Fragile. Human. No wonder Martin is having the time of his life.

As the series’ narrative motifs shift away from Quatermass and The X-Files towards The Dark Tower and beyond, its heart remains stalwart as everything else changes yet again. Such a transition is a worthy magic trick by itself, but combined with the brilliant character writing, it feels like the very best in constantly ratcheting drama. The survivors pick their way across a world irrevocably changed even as Sims plays the Magnus Institute baseline notes of world-within-world, that nothing has changed so much as finally been fully revealed. This is Armageddon on the personal and worldwide level, miniature disasters and major catastrophes, leading to the stacked and sustained horror and tension that is TMA’s hallmark.

And here, at last, are where two elements of the series come to the fore for good. Jon and Martin are finally a couple – one so adorable there are barely words. While Sims and Newall are best known for their writing and creative direction skills, season five is where their performances really blossom. Sims’ Jon has come a massive way over the course of the show, and in season five he is by turns alien, feral, crumpled, and besotted. Jon’s choices have turned him into something new, and we see through his eyes as he explores both the new world and his powers to reshape it. The price of these choices is both unknown and one Jon has decided is worth paying.

Meanwhile Martin–perhaps the most dependable person remaining on Earth–wrestles with the realization he has a great deal of unrequited anger to deal with, and he may in fact have a taste for revenge. Martin the Boy Victim has become Martin the Boyfriend, highlighted by several instances of discovering and enforcing both boundaries and emotional needs. This is especially welcoming when contrasted with the heavy gaslighting and manipulation themes wielded by the season four antagonist, Peter Lukas (Alasdair Stuart–yes, me). Jon and Martin redefine themselves in relation to both their new reality and each other, taking center stage as the season’s dramatic engine. Which, given they just encountered the Apocalypse, is quite an achievement.

The worldbuilding also steps up dramatically in season five, with the world literally transformed into hostile topography. Jon, Martin, and the rest have come an impossibly long way and season five sees them retrace their steps through the consequences of their choices. Every Power, every encounter they survived by the skin of their teeth and put behind them, returns to have a not-so-polite word. Jon’s seemingly innocent recording habit is both millstone and fix now, as his statements map the world out of abstraction. 

Pledge. Turn. Prestige. Mystery of the week, story arcs, and A Very British Armageddon. The Magnus Archives continually surprises, pushing the barriers of expectation and audio storytelling. And I’ve barely scratched the surface. The show’s portrayal of ace and aro characters and its exploration of characters’ identity and sexuality alone are worthy of further examination. 

Season five of The Magnus Archives returned from its Act II hiatus in January 2021, with the show’s 200th–and final–episode set to air March 25, 2021. Make yourself a soothing beverage, grab a notebook, and fire up the first episode. You’ll need both. Because your statement is about to begin.

The Magnus Archives is available on your favorite podcast app.

This post was written for Nightfire in partnership with Pseudopod.

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