If The Magicians wasn’t already renewed for season 2, fans might think almost everyone was dead.
Well, that’s what you’d assume from a room full of people bleeding out on the floor. Despite the fact that Quentin has broken the time loop — 40th time’s a charm! — and made it to Martin Chatwin, The Magicians left us with no happy endings. In fact, we didn’t get an ending at all, just a cliffhanger with our reliable narrator trailing off. What began as a rekindled partnership between old buddies Quentin and Julia took us through the twists and turns of Julia’s rape, Elliot’s self-actualization, Penny’s rescue mission, Quentin’s realization, and Alice’s knowledge. But ultimately we’re left with a weaker Quentin and a stronger Julia, one who surprises everyone by making a deal with the devil — well, The Beast, but same diff — to save herself from having the trickster god’s baby (or so we think). Here, The Magicians’ EPs Sera Gamble and John McNamara break down season 1’s dark finale.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you begin to attack this final episode? Did your whiteboard look like Carrie Mathison’s board on Homeland?
JOHN MCNAMARA: We have corkboards. And cards and you can move the cards around. Whiteboards are for suckers. You can quote me on that. We always knew even when we were writing the pilot that we would end on a cliffhanger, of The Beast triumphant, and everyone…
SERA GAMBLE: …F—ed.
When did you decide to structure the episode with Quentin writing his own Fillory novel? Were there any rejected approaches?
GAMBLE: There was a moment where the idea was floating around that Ember would narrate the episode. But at the end of the day the idea that has the real resonance for the show is that Quentin, this character that you met because he’s a super fan of these books that have been narrating his life from a very young age, found himself in that fantasy world. So, of course he would sit down and write the book of his own story.
Throughout the season, the dialogue stays fairly tongue in cheek, even more so than in Lev Grossman’s books. Why’s it so important to keep this tone?
MCNAMARA: I think it might be a little more me than Sera, because I’m not a huge fantasy fan. And if I was going to end up in Fillory, I’d be like Penny or Margo. I’d be like, “Give me a f—ing break.” I’d write myself out. “Can I get a f—ing burrito? ‘You know these shoes were not cobbled for a quest.’ What the f—?” I always thought it would be interesting if you took 2016 characters and put them in Narnia. Because they wouldn’t just be full of wonder, they’d be full of annoyances.
Did including the line from Julia — about all of them being kings and queens — as a throwaway bit, rather than a full-on discussion, wink at this?
GAMBLE: It’s totally taken for granted in stories like The Chronicles of Narnia that people would come from Earth to this magical land and almost automatically get crowned King and Queen even if they literally are eight years old. We did find a place in the finale to poke a little bit of fun at the system. When they’re testing our characters to see if any of them is the High King, Quentin is sort of like: “A random god set this up, so he wasn’t really interested in letting us know why the rules are the way that they are.”
Julia’s big moment at the end where she makes a deal with Martin Chatwin was shocking, given that the rest of the crew lay dying on the floor. How has she changed since the beginning of the season?
GAMBLE: Julia and Quentin both had some hard won maturity by the time they hooked back up again in episode 12. All along they’ve had this festering issue between them, and they outgrew it. I think that’s something that happens when you’re in your early twenties. What ends up happening by the very end of the episode not withstanding, we thought that was a compelling part of the story.
Relative to all of the dark storylines, Julia’s has stood out. And it hit its darkest with the rape scene. In the books, the rapist is an actual animal god, but you humanized him. Why?
GAMBLE: When we were in the creative process of designing that creature, I always went back to asking: What is the version that doesn’t let any of us off the hook? Because if we’re going to tell this story with Julia, then we want to identify with her as closely as we can. We want to understand why this is terrifying and why this is a violation. We want this as formidable a bad guy as possible, and, for me, keeping him somewhat human-feeling helped with that.
With all of the darkness, did you have to be very conscious of adding positive things in?
GAMBLE: No, I don’t think it was really hard actually. Magic as a vehicle for telling a story provides all of these things. As we define it on the show and as it was defined in Lev’s book, it’s neither good nor evil, it’s more of a very powerful, unpredictable tool. In one person’s hands it’s delightful and hilarious, and in the next person’s hands it’s harrowing and awful. So for every very dark, dramatic pitch in the writer’s room, there is someone going like, “What if they thought they were making gin but they summoned a genie?”
Quentin’s realization that Alice may be the hero of the story really changed the narrative. What’s next for her?
GAMBLE: Alice is uncomfortable with her own power. As time went on, it became clear that she was the most brilliant student in her class and maybe one of the most brilliant magicians in any room. This is not something that she just embraces. She’s not like, “I’m a badass, I’m going to put on a T-shirt, I totally own it.” We talk about it in the room how not every super smart girl is like, “I’m the smartest person in the room and let me just speak.”
MCNAMARA: You know how you should feel about Alice? Frightened. Deeply frightened. However bad you think it is, later on you’re going to wish it was that good.
Entering niffin territory already?
MCNAMARA: We’re taking our own route.
Do you already have season 2 mapped out in your brains?
GAMBLE: It’s like, we know that in season 1 we were going to go from Baja to San Francisco. But we still have to draw a map to figure out what roads we are taking.
MCNAMARA: And buy the cocaine.
GAMBLE: And the snacks for the trip. And then you know, you hit a dead end unexpectedly, and you have to find another way around. It’s like that every season.
MCNAMARA: And his girlfriend’s dead, he throws her in the trunk. S— happens. It’s horrible.