Warning: This post contains spoilers from the season 3 finale of The Magicians. Read at your own risk.
The Magicians pulled off several twists in its genuinely surprising season 3 finale.
In “Will You Play With Me?” the titular heroes reached the end of their season-long quest and ventured to Blackspire Castle in order to turn magic back on. But, obviously, more hurdles awaited them inside. First, Eliot (Hale Appleman) stopped Quentin (Jason Ralph) from sacrificing himself and used the god-killing bullet to eliminate the monster that was locked inside the castle (or so he thought). Then Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley) betrayed her friends by attempting to destroy the keys because she decided the world was better off without magic. That forced Julia, who had just ascended to full god status, to sacrifice her new powers in order to recreate the keys that could restore magic.
Quentin and the gang managed to turn magic back on, but their victory was blunted by the arrival of a member of the Library, Dean Fogg (Rick Worthy), and Irene McAllistair (Jaime Ray Newman), who used the siphon to take control of magic. Irene wanted to kill the Brakebills kids, but Fogg struck a deal to save their lives: He forced each of them to drink a potion that magically erased their memories and overrode their personalities with new ones. Thus, as the season ends, Quentin, Julia, Margo (Summer Bishil), Josh (Trevor Einhorn), and Kady (Jade Tailor) are separated and thrown back into the world in new and unfamiliar lives, unaware of who (or what) they actually are (and Alice is imprisoned in the Library for as punishment for breaking her deal).
Alas, they’re not out of danger. It turns out the monster in the castle didn’t die from the bullet, and it’s now free and roaming the world in Eliot’s body. In the closing moments, the monster-as-Eliot approaches a seemingly well-adjusted Quentin and asks to play, which sounds way more threatening and dangerous than fun.
After watching the episode, EW caught up with showrunners Sera Gamble and John McNamara to discuss the season’s many twists, and what to expect from season 4.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The theme of sacrifice was really big in the finale. Why did you decide to focus on that in the finale?
JOHN MCNAMARA: I think that theme is very much in all three of Lev Grossman’s books. It felt like we had reached a point in season 3 where sacrifice is, in a way, unavoidable because the situation is so dire and so enormous and involved a lot of well-meaning but flawed people, as happens in life, and that sacrifice really is one of the key ways in which you make changes to the world in the real world. We always start with, “What would happen in the real world without magic? What if this show was just a drama about college kids? What if these college kids were in an extremely high-stakes situation? Now let’s layer in fantasy as a kind of metaphor for depression, or conflict, or fascism, and then tell the story through that lens.” As Rod Sterling discovered with The Twilight Zone, you can say a lot of serious things about the world but keep it really entertaining if it’s through the lens of fantasy.
With this finale, what did you want to say about the world?
JOHN MCNAMARA: It’s weird. [Laughs]
SERA GAMBLE: Well, we always had in mind that they would heroically succeed in their epic quest this season, but that they would also lose. Part of the point of telling the story about these particular young magicians is that they have just a little bit of power at their fingertips as they try to move through a world that is so much bigger and more powerful than they are. That’s how it feels to be stepping out in the real and adult world. Sometimes it feels like you have just enough strength to make a little bit of change or to do a little something for yourself and the people around you, and sometimes it feels completely f—ing futile. The tension between those two, I think, is actually part of what defines feeling like an adult. That’s something that tends to organically enter into their stories. When they have a victory, especially when that opens up a door into more life, there’s usually a sh—y part to it, and this was finale was no exception.
At what point did you guys come up with the idea that the season would end with their minds/personalities being wiped?
MCNAMARA: Pretty early on we had this idea of magical witness protection. Although I don’t think we were totally sure of where and when and how we’d use it, but I just know it was an idea we all liked. Once we sort of figured out it would be the coda for the season finale, it felt like it was the right plan. Structurally, you get a satisfying, successful ending to the quest, which I, as an audience, would really want, and then you just get all these ripples, tsunamis of complications that result from that. “Be careful what you wish for” is one of the most common themes of fairy tales, and here we are: Be careful what you wish for, magic is back, and you have no idea who you are.
The biggest twist of the finale was that this monster has taken over Eliot’s body. How did you land on Eliot being the one it takes over?
GAMBLE: We know that the actor who plays Eliot is amazing. When you’re fortunate enough to produce a TV show for a few seasons, hopefully you’re learning lessons along the way about things that work. One lesson we learned in season 1 is that if you have a great actor, really think about that. We learned that when we cast Mackenzie Astin to play Richard. We had it in mind that we would kill Richard when Reynard entered the story and we would have to cast Reynard, but very quickly when we started seeing the dailies of Mackenzie, we realized we were never going to be able to top him. It was hard to imagine someone doing more with the role. At the risk of patting ourselves on our backs, we were right. That was really the inspiration. We talked about that in the room, about how it just meant so much more to us when we were watching Reynard on the screen. There was just this little extra wistful feeling of unfairness that came from the fact that he was inside of the body of this character who was so good and was really being violated.
The stakes are so much higher with this monster being inside of Eliot, someone they care so much about. It really changes their whole approach. It’s not as simple of a question as, “How do we kill this f—er if this f—er is in fact killable?” There’s also the equally important question: “How do we save Eliot, if he can still be saved?”
One of the late-season twists was the Penny from our timeline being replaced by a Penny from another timeline. What went into deciding to introduce this new Penny instead of coming up with a way for our Penny to be resurrected?
GAMBLE: We didn’t want to do the same thing we always did. We assumed that the audience would expect us to save Penny. Of all the characters, I have to double-check the statistics here, but I’m pretty sure we’ve had him near death as much or more than anybody else. We’ve saved him from certain doom several times over the last few years. To be completed honest, when we entered the season we were like, “He’s got the super cancer and we’re gonna have to find a way to fix that [in a way] that feels fresh and feels different.” Because we ask these questions in the writers’ room, one of the questions we asked was, “What if we just don’t save him this time?” Of course, first there’s silence and fear and your stomach drops because you can’t kill Penny; Arjun Gupta is a series regular and we like Penny!
MCNAMRA: And Arjun!
GAMBLE: And both are important to the story. But the beautiful thing about working on a show like Magicians is that you can ask that question and very weird answers will start to present themselves, and very soon we started to realize that the best thing we could do for the character of Penny would be to kill him, and that was a way that we could end the season with something that, we like to think, nobody would ever see coming, which is that a completely different Penny is now walking around with our crew. Someone from a different timeline who has, for the past couple of years, been living an utterly different life than the Penny that we knew.
What are you most proud of from this season?
MCNAMARA: The musical episode. It was so goddamn hard.
Okay, apart from the musical, what were you most proud of this season?
GAMBLE: For me, I feel very proud of the musical episode and that John and my working relationship survived another musical episode. As somebody who has worked on fantasy shows before and also has watched a lot of fantasy shows, I think there’s a real danger season on season on season that the stakes just get bigger and bigger and bigger until pretty soon it’s the battle for all of the universe and heaven and Earth. There’s sort of a joke to be made about the inevitability of the apocalypse on fantasy shows. On the one hand, that’s fun. It’s fun to dream bigger and bigger landscapes to put your little characters into, but on the other hand, there’s always a struggle to keep things visceral and to keep them from getting ridiculous. That’s the thing we would fear.
The thing that I was proud of was that everyone works really hard to keep things grounded and personal. It’s not a coincidence that the season opener of season 2 ended with a very intimate, small scene between the Beast and Julia. It wasn’t a coincidence that this season ended with Alice alone with her bacon. We were reminding ourselves and reminding people watching the show that the thing we care about more than any god or monster is just the journey of these human characters, and that we will always feel like these small, intimate stories have equal weight with any giant battle or any dragon. It becomes more and more of a challenge as the season goes on, but we really believe in that as sort of a north star for our storytelling.
Looking ahead, what can you tease about what you have planned for season 4?
MCNAMARA: Most of the cases of the new identities of our characters, their professions, are not what you think they are or what they look like. It looked like one thing, but in about half of the cases, it’s something completely different. We’ve only shown you a sliver of who or what they are, and that sliver is misleading.
Were you intending to mislead the audience from the moment you wrote the finale, or did that came up when you went back into the room for season 4?
MCNAMARA: I’m going to be very totally honest with you: It was my half of the script, and I don’t recall it being outlined in a very detailed way.
GAMBLE: We were like, “They were in new lives. Have fun John!”
MCNAMARA: So I just started to play with it and thinking, “Oh, it looks like this but really it’s that, or he’s doing that but it could be any number of things.” There’s one in particular, I won’t say who or what gender they are, but one of them all by itself has kind of a natural story drive that’s a big left turn, and I hope you don’t see it coming.