POP Archives Deep Thoughts: The Magnus Archives Series & Finale
[Author's Note: There are spoilers for The Magnus Archives, all of it. Also, thank you to the fans behind the Magnus Archives Wiki. It has been an invaluable resource!]
The Magnus Archives was a podcast, a well written, well acted, well directed, well produced podcast that recently concluded with episode 200, "Last Words." It's a fitting and ultimately satisfying conclusion to a show that gave form and shape to fear, subverted expectations and some tropes common to horror, though not all, and made an archives and archivist the focal points of world-changing events. That's not nothing!
If you're not in the know about The Magnus Archives, firstly, why are you here reading this when you should be listening to the show and then returning to read my delightful insights? Secondly, The Magnus Archives is an anthology series, produced by Rusty Quill, where the Head Archivist of the Magnus Institute, Jonathan Sims, records the statements of people who've encountered the supernatural and lived long enough to write it all down. Eventually, a meta-plot unfolds involving manifestations of Fear, avatars and monsters, and an actual eldritch apocalypse. It's also a romantic comedy cleverly wrapped in horror, but I digress.
I've done a couple of articles on The Magnus Archives (TMA) because, in a lot of ways, TMA is the property that made me want to go all in on writing about pop culture depictions of archives and archivists outside of the film clips I'd watch at the annual Society of American Archivists (SAA) conferences. Here was a podcast, a horror anthology audio drama, that featured an archivist as the protagonist. Not only that, but the archivist was young-ish, taking over a department that was a systemic mess of misfiling and misinformation. Furthermore, he was in over his head the whole time, making decisions based on half-truths and lies of omission while under pressure in a leadership role while dealing with imposter syndrome and feelings of inadequacy that hefted the weight of the world on his shoulders.
And that's before you get to the actual supernatural elements of the show.
Yes, there's a lot that the show got wrong about working in an archives, which the writer and voice of the Archivist, Jonathan Sims, has admitted to over the years, and that's fine. Nothing is perfect and I rarely go into a property expecting them to get everything right because that's an impossible standard, but I distinctly remember latching on to the Archivist as a character from the moment I started listening because his professional situation rings so very true to a lot of archivists' stories; even my own.
Being an archivist, depending on the institution, is lonely and grinding work. It's a physically and mentally demanding job where your pain goes unnoticed and unacknowledged for a long time unless you're a particularly squeaky wheel. You're lucky if you have a staff of even one extra person and you're constantly dealing with backlogs of documentation while simultaneously trying to keep up with current user needs while also justifying your existence to the people holding the money purse. On a good day, you're invisible. On a bad day, you're the ultimate evil. Anything in between is the grey area of neutrality people assume you occupy when historians aren't taking credit for your work and you aren't erasing everyone else from history.
The theme that resonated with me the most throughout the series is that of choice, which is both simplistic and grandiose in how TMA weaves the concept into every nook and cranny of the show. Choices matter in TMA, especially when it comes to dealing with the supernatural, but the choices made by the main and even ancillary characters are dependent on the information they receive. A great deal of the series finds the Archivist acting on decisions made by way of the choices others have made in the past that are now effecting him in the present. That information, however, proves to be unreliable at the best of times; deliberately manipulative at the worst. Even the choices considered morally correct prove to be actionably wrong within the narrative, which is a doozy of a philosophical discourse when you start examining events in hindsight.
If, however, you take the supernatural out of the equation, you're looking at the work of most archivists when they enter a position or are promoted within a longstanding archival institution. Your choices are made based on the decisions of other archivists before you, but sometimes (a lot of the time) the information provided is poorly defined, difficult to adapt, and woefully insufficient to meet current user demands. There is a desire to change things when you see the gaps, but you're fighting against a system that can't be bothered with fixing them because "it's always been done that way." Why change what's clearly been working for thirty years despite no one taking the time to examine the actual function of your job and how you fit into the bigger picture?
The connective tissue of choice makes TMA a fascinating work to engage with because it plays with your expectations so wonderfully before turning them on their heads. There's a build up within the third and fourth seasons concerning the Chosen One trope and ideas of destiny, which gets recontextualized in one sentence and changes your perceptions of the last four seasons as well as the Archivist's role in those events. It's beautifully executed, but doesn't stop being relevant after the initial gut punch. Choices matter just as much, if not more so, during the Apocalypse where power is given to a select few, inaction has consequences, and the ultimate horror is a binary system of categorization.
Episode 147, "Weaver," is an especially toothy rumination on the subject of choice and free will by Annabelle Cane, an avatar of the Web, or the fear of being manipulated, that your choices are not your own. In her statement, Annabelle cites War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, remarking that the book's thesis is "that the tiniest, most insignificant factors can control the destiny of the world." The Web's entire conceit is based in this idea of manipulations big and small to move events along in its favor, though it's nearly impossible to pin down the grand schemes and machinations of the Mother of Puppets. Whether or not they're directly responsible for what a person does or doesn't do is a matter of perspective and entirely dependent on one's confidence in their own sense of free will. The Spider's greatest trick is making you believe it exists at all - a convenient excuse to justify your actions if and when you get caught.
The finale brings all of these ideas to a head when it puts the fate of one world versus a multiverse in the hands of five people, all of them carrying various levels of guilt and responsibility from their previous experiences. None of the options are good, at least one atrocity is guaranteed, but how they rationalize their decisions has value. How do you justify your actions? How do you condemn one world to save another? Can you? Is it morally righteous to destroy the world and billions of people to prevent a cosmic horror from spreading? What level of responsibility do you account for if you let the horrors escape and kick the can down to the next hypothetical group of people who will hypothetically find themselves in the same position? Are you just another iteration of the same cycle repeated ad infinitum?
There are no easy answers to any of these questions, but you have to acknowledge that the choices you make have consequences. Some of them you can predict, others you can't. It's easy to say that's just life in general, but it's such a huge part of working in the archival profession. You cannot predict what will have value outside of your own choices, but your choices on what has value still matter and will effect others in the future. Maybe not on a cosmic level like in TMA, but an historical one in the real world, at the very least.
Obviously, The Magnus Archives isn't perfect, but it's pretty damn close as a completed story. From an archival perspective, it offers so much engagement and discussion despite it's missteps with the ins and outs of working in an archival environment. In many ways, it's by design that the Archivist doesn't know what he's doing, which is absolutely relatable. But, if you're in the profession, and paying attention to those little details, it's easy to nitpick, which I'm not above doing as evidenced by the body of work that is this website. So, here's a short list of archival sins as committed in The Magnus Archives.
Don't say I never do my due diligence.
The archives are located in the basement of the Magnus Institute (MAG 1, Anglerfish)
The Archivist is ill-prepared to deal with the issue of what to do should two statements have the same filing date (MAG 33, The Boatswain's Call)
Sending archives assistants to conduct "follow-ups" to statements that result in trespassing, breaking and entering, etc. (Multiple episodes in Seasons 1 & 2)
There's no searchable database for statements to make follow-up easier, which brings into question why they're digitizing the statements in the first place. (MAG 88, Dig)
The Archivist doesn't have a degree in archives & records management or library sciences. He has an English degree. (MAG 93, Containment)
The Archivist ordering his assistants to staple statements together (MAG162, A Cosy Cabin)
There, that's the list. Let me know if I missed anything.
Fortunately, I can forgive the flaws in depicting the profession because the sum of 200 episodes far exceeds the minute issues. There's so much more I could talk about in TMA that's unrelated to the depiction of archives and archivists and that's what makes it so special, at least to me. I could talk about the religions formed around the Dark and the Desolation and the envious way avatars of those fears are so solid in their convictions. What about the examination of different forms of love as expressed through statements, avatars, and the Fears themselves? Do you have time to discuss the literary meta-narrative of archetypal characters like Breekon and Hope, Mikaele Salesa, and Jurgen Leitner? Can we all agree that Simon Fairchild is a delightful murder grandpa? Isn't it weird and awesome that both Gertrude Robinson and Georgie Barker were motivated to fight because of their cats? Did the Monster Pig have its own domain in the Apocalypse?
See what I mean?
Anyway, if you haven't listened to The Magnus Archives, you've been missing out, but now you have 200 episodes to consume and a completed story to obsess over! Beware of content warnings, but if you'd like a curated list of my favorite episodes, here ya go!