The Magicians: [SPOILER] talks their 'cathartic' finale death and series exit
Warning: This post contains spoilers from The Magicians season 4 finale. Read at your own risk!
One question has loomed over The Magicians since season 4’s seventh episode: Who is in the Underworld elevator? At the end of episode 7, titled “The Side Effect,” Penny-40 (Arjun Gupta), who was working for “Secrets Taken to the Grave,” greeted someone he knew as they got off the elevator, implying that one of the SYFY fantasy drama’s main characters was going to die in the near future. Well, we finally know it is…
Again, stop reading now if you haven’t watched the finale…
In the season 4 finale, titled “No Better to be Safe Than Sorry,” the Brakebills gang successfully expelled the murderous ancient monsters from Julia (Stella Maeve) and Eliot’s (Hale Appleman) bodies and bottled them up. To permanently rid the world of the monsters, Quentin, Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley), and Penny-23 had to travel to the mirror world and throw them in the Seam, the space between worlds. This is The Magicians, though, so there was obviously another twist waiting for them.
Everett (Brian Markinson), the head librarian and personification of megalomania who wanted to absorb the monsters and become a god, followed them there and tried to destroy the portal to the Seam. Quentin used his newfound discipline to repair the Seam’s entrance, and threw the bottles in; however, that was a sacrificial act because you can’t use magic in the mirror world. So, Quentin heroically perished in a shower of sparks (a literal blaze of glory) and took Everett with him, as Penny dragged a distraught Alice out of there.
When Quentin arrived in the Underworld, he sat down with Penny-40 for his exit interview from life and wondered aloud if what he did was actually brave or if he finally found a way to commit suicide after spending many years in and out of the hospital for depression. To help him answer that question, Penny took Quentin back upstairs and let him watch his friends as they held a memorial bonfire for him and sang a poignant cover of A-ha’s “Take On Me” that dared you not to cry (assuming you hadn’t started already). It was the perfect send-off for a character like Quentin. Seeing his friends celebrate his life helped Quentin realize he did matter and gave him the closure he needed to step through the door and into the afterlife.
Thus, the book has been closed on Quentin’s story, and Ralph has reached the end of his journey on The Magicians, too.
Below, EW chats with Ralph about Quentin’s death, keeping his exit from the series from the entire cast until this past weekend, and what he’ll miss about the show.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So are you actually leaving the show?
JASON RALPH: Yes, this is the closing of Quentin Coldwater’s journey on The Magicians.
How did your exit come about? Was it your decision, the producers’, or a combination?
It’s funny, it all felt kind of natural when we started talking about it before the season started. [The show] starts with this person who is really questioning his worth in the world and if life is even worth living. And the journey of him in the show, and in the books, is him coming to the realization that it is, just maybe not in the way that he always expected. It’s kind of a story about a person who always wanted to be the main character of the story [realizing] that he’s not and finding a way to be okay with that and finding his own place inside of the world, and [learning] there really are no heroes, not in the real world anyway and confronting the disappointing reality of that. That’s naturally where we ended up finding Quentin at the top of the season and engraining those lessons through it.
It’s a beautiful parallel to what we see happen in the books. In both the book and in this final episode, you have Quentin deciding to walk through a doorway of his own creation, to close a chapter, and to move on to a new adventure and leave the old world behind him. I think it’s really gorgeous that we managed to pay tribute to the book in that way.
What was it like going through the season knowing your character was going to die?
I was under a gag order, so I couldn’t talk to anybody about it. I was the only person walking around with this information that I’m going to die at the end of this journey. It certainly informed my choices through the season, and trying to get Quentin to a place that would be cathartic and that we hadn’t left too many loose ends about who he is at its core. There’s a lot of plot stuff, but the journey of this person needed to feel complete. Having the heads up to kind of craft that was really important, and I thank [showrunners John McNamara and Sera Gamble] for that.
Since you were under this gag order, when did your fellow castmates find out you were leaving?
I believe they found out [Monday]. I’ve been wanting to talk to them about this for a year now, and John and Sera wanted to get it all done and have it finished in order to stop any spoilers from getting out. John and Sera just finally let everyone know yesterday. So after my call you with you, I’m going to be contacting everybody else and just saying goodbye.
Wait, so were they aware what the bonfire memorial scene actually was when you guys shot it?
There was a dummy scene at the end of the script that washed all of that away and found a way for Quentin to survive. So, everyone — the crew and [the cast] — was under the impression that’s what was actually going to happen. They were playing it like he died for real. They just didn’t know it was going to be a forever decision.
What was it like to shoot that final sequence from Quentin arriving in the Underworld to the “Take On Me” cover and his final goodbye?
It was really cathartic because on one hand, the journey was important to me and I was so happy that we got to represent it in the way we did, and then as the actor with these people. When I read that campfire scene, it felt to me like, “Oh, this is that scene from Our Town! This is the scene of Emily at her gravesite.” I was like, “Oh my god, I finally get to play Emily.”
Standing there as an observer [and] watching this group of people that I’ve spent four years with and gone through so much with, watching them take up the mantle and move on and move forward, it was like a mom putting her child in the car and then going off to college [laughs]. It was beautiful, and I felt so proud and honored to have been on the journey with them and just totally heartbroken and sad to be ending it.
Quentin wondering whether what he did was brave or an act of suicide was one of the realest and most affecting moments in that sequence. What did you make of that beat?
[sighs] Like one of the more honest moments, I think, that we’ve had on the show. I think that’s a real question. We opened the show with Quentin having that same question, and in his last moment, he’s still grappling with it, and it requires an outside eye to show him what he did and the impact that he did have and that his life did have meaning, not only to other people but to and for himself.
Shooting that scene was really, really extremely difficult and emotionally tumultuous. I felt like I was on fire when I was shooting that scene. Bringing this character to an end and speaking words that felt so honest and questions that a lot of have had before, and then getting the luxury of having the realization that I was wrong, that the answer is, no, your life did have meaning and you are important, was really special.
In episode 12, you delivered this powerful monologue about Quentin’s anger toward Fillory. How did you approach that moment?
It was nice because those feelings have been bottled up for so long. We really hadn’t had an opportunity to explore Quentin’s anger at this place, at the idea of this place, and how important it was for him. It was a lifeline for most of his life, and then the reality of what it actually was being so disappointing was a not a thing we got to experience yet but was under the surface of so much of Quentin’s journey is season 3 and season 4. To finally pop the cap on that bottle was really important and really fun to do as an actor. To have an opportunity to take out your frustrations on the thing you feel has ruined your life [laughs], we don’t all get to do that.
Do you think Eliot turning Quentin down after they returned from the “A Life in the Day” timeline, which was revealed in episode 5, played into any of Quentin’s anger toward Fillory?
A little bit. I don’t know if this show has properly explained that part of the story — how these characters are able to remember that time. I know that for Hale and I, and when we discussed it with the showrunners, it wasn’t necessarily something that they remembered every moment of. It was a lifetime of experiences that lived deep inside of them and forever changed the chemistry of who they are and how they inhabit the world and respond to stimulus, but they couldn’t recount stories of it. It was more of an emotional memory. I don’t know if it’s part of the anger. But Quentin asking Eliot that, “Why don’t we give this a shot?” in those moments right after they came out of it, I think the experiences and the memories were fresh enough to be able to voice that conversation. I think the actual memories began to very quickly disappear. I don’t know if it’s something they’re constantly living with.
Were you surprised when the show decided to revisit that moment right after they return to the timeline in episode?
I was surprised that we were returning to it. I thought it was kind of lovely that they chose for that to be the moment that Eliot regrets the most, that it was that defining for him. I think that was something we already knew a little bit — that the experience meant so much to those characters — but it was nice to make that explicit.
When I interviewed you last summer, you said Quentin couldn’t be the agitated person he’d always been after accumulating a lifetime’s worth of experience in “A Life in a Day,” but that he wouldn’t be able to vocalize what had changed. I definitely thought you captured that idea in your performance this season, especially in episode 5. Were you actively trying to convey that shift this season?
Yeah. That frenetic quality of Quentin that we meet him with, I felt was something that needed to fade away a little bit as he accumulated experiences. Then, I sped up that process because of that entire lifetime. How could you be the same after that? I felt that was a clear way of communicating that change. Throughout season 4, you see Quentin’s determination to save Eliot in the face of just impossible odds. I don’t think he could vocalize why, but I think that lifetime is the reason why. If the characters had sat him down and said, “We have to let this go. It’s not going to work. We’re all going to die because of it,” I don’t think he would be able to put to words what he was feeling, but there is a bond that has been created there that is and was unbreakable and one he would not give up, and would die for.
Quentin and Alice also repaired their relationship this season, too. How did you feel about where we left things with them?
I appreciated what they did with it. That has definitely been the most complicated relationship and true to life experience of a back and forth of two people who are in love but are on two very separate journeys, and them trying to manage how they interact with each other and how they can be involved in each other’s lives. In a way, it mirrors their journey in the books — that after anything they’ve been through, they’ll never had what they had in the beginning. It’s something completely different, but they’re bonded and they’re willing to do fight through and figure out how to be together.
The Magicians is an insane show. What’s been the weirdest or most entertaining thing you got to do on the show?
This show is f—ing crazy, and because of it, I got to live in so many different genres and try on so many hats. A lot of physical comedy and dramedy and extremely heightened emotional states and talking to tennis balls and falling through a wormhole.
I guess recently, that was maybe my favorite one — when Trevor Einhorn, who plays Josh, [and I] are falling through the wormhole to land in the golf scene. That was the most absurd fun time, just standing in front of a green screen with giant fans blowing in our faces and just screaming as loud as we could and trying to find the comedy in there. Because of all these experiences and because the show is so weird and it asks the actors to stretch in ways I don’t think a lot of material does, I do feel, after all of that, I’m a stronger actor and performer and artist. I definitely feel like I’m prepared for anything.
Is that what you’ll miss the most about the show?
Yeah, and that we just really never knew what was coming. I’ll miss the community and I’ll miss the crew and I’ll miss Vancouver and I’ll miss the cast, and I’ll miss getting to bring this character to life every day. That was a real privilege to get to spend so much time with one character and put as much detailed work into it as I was allowed to.
What’s next for you?
I just finished shooting a fun little role in the new Charlie Kauffman film. So hopefully doing more that and getting back into theater out here in New York. It’s nice to be home. My dogs are excited that I am here and maybe do some Broadway. We’ll see what happens.
The Magicians was renewed for a fifth season on Syfy.
Based on Lev Grossman’s book trilogy, this fantasy Syfy series follows the adventures of students at Brakebills University, a graduate school specializing in magic.