Over the last five seasons of its run on Syfy, The Magicians has had a number of standout episodes. They were either musical in nature, or had some crazy bottle-episode premise, or involved a major character’s death. But the third episode of Season 5 is special for a very different reason, and I wanted to speak with the co-showrunner and the episode’s writer, Sera Gamble, about how it all came together.
Over these first few episodes of Season 5, the Magicians characters have been dealing with the fallout of Quentin’s (Jason Ralph) death at the end of Season 4. It has affected the characters in different ways, and we’ve watched as the grieving process is very different for everyone involved. But episode three, “The Mountain of Ghosts,” specifically zeroes in on how Eliot (Hale Appleman) and Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley) have been dealing with Quentin’s death—or not dealing with it, rather. The teaming of Eliot and Alice is a brilliant move, as both deeply loved Quentin but haven’t necessarily spoken about it.
During my discussion with Gamble about her work on the episode, she talked about how the loss of Quentin affected how they approached Season 5, how an actor on the Netflix series YOU (which she also runs) inspired a major plot point this season, Julia’s arc this season, and how they’ve mostly left the Magicians books behind. But first and foremost, we dug deep into the crafting of Episode 3, and how pairing Eliot and Alice allowed both characters to finally tell the truth to one another. Gamble is tremendously insightful in her answers, and it’s clear that five seasons in she and the Magicians team are still finding real and raw ways to challenge themselves and their characters. Which is what makes The Magicians one of the best shows on television.
Quentin was the protagonist of the books, and was the protagonist at the beginning of the show. I know that the show kind of progressed in a way that there were a lot of different heroes, but at the same time, was it kind of daunting breaking and writing a new season without your central protagonist?
SERA GAMBLE: On a technical level, breaking the season did not turn out to be harder without Quentin. We were braced for that. We were prepared to discover a lot of new challenges in the mechanics of making a story work. What we discovered were so many opportunities for characters who previously maybe hadn’t spent a lot of time chatting with one another about their deepest feelings. Suddenly they have something incredible in common, something deep and very urgent for them. Something that’s very front of mind, in Quentin’s death. On that level it turned out to give us lots of possibilities for the direction of the show. I think the most daunting thing, obviously about something like that, is that you should want to do justice to a story like that. It was a big, risky move for the show. So we were taking that very seriously. We love these characters. We love the story. We walked in with a healthy dose of, “Let’s not fuck this up.”
I think the fans reflected that as well, me included. It was kind of hard to come back because Quentin is the reason I fell in love with the books to begin with. It’s kind of hard to imagine the show without him. As I said in my review, I guess I should’ve learned never to doubt you guys at this point. Because you always find a way to spin it around and make something really wonderful.
GAMBLE: I don’t mind the feeling that there’s a lot of scrutiny. We earned the doubt of some people. You make a move like that and people have to decide for themselves.
It’s abundantly clear when the season starts that this was never just Quentin’s story. The show was always digging into the interior lives of all of these characters, and the show is no less compelling without Quentin. That’s not a dig on Jason Ralph or the writing of Quentin, but it’s just strange how well it works without Quentin.
GAMBLE: I think we were burning to talk about the stuff that our characters are going through this season. I think that is abundantly clear enough in Episode 3, because we were really focused on deeply investigating what Eliot was feeling, and also what Alice was feeling. Because this was our opportunity to literally send them up a mountain, have a terrible time together, and then finally talk about their feelings.
This episode feels like the episode where you get significant closure, at least as it pertains to Alice and Eliot. That’s not to say that the grieving process is over, but they’re finally coming clean about their feelings. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the construction of the episode, and deciding to team them up together and really just tell the truth to one another, basically.
GAMBLE: Yeah. I think telling the truth was the headline. The older I get and the more I write, the less I believe in the concept of closure. I think life is just not that neat. It’s messy, and the best you can do is, like you said, tell the truth, and be open to the possibility of moving beyond how you’re feeling at this moment. And be brave enough to see what comes next if you open your mouth and you speak about the thing that is bothering you the most, or scaring you the most, causing you the most pain. I think there’s a lot of bravery that you see in those two characters, by the end. They’re really pushed to that point on that mountain.
I was really excited to write the episode. I was super excited to write the scenes for Eliot, where he talked about being in love. Because there’s an arc that we have seen for Eliot since season one, when you met this character who is the most charming guy at the school. The life of every party, attractive to everyone, open to lots of possibilities in that respect. Then inside, the more we get to know him, the more we see that he is pushing away intimacy, and pushing away truly being known. This season is huge for him that way.
As you say, a character who is always pushing away intimacy, the irony of course is that he and Quentin built an entire life together, which they vaguely remember.
Which was one of my favorite episodes of television in the past decade, “A Life in a Day.” I was just really blown away by that episode.
GAMBLE: Thank you.
This episode I feel really addresses the whole Quentin-Eliot relationship, in a really meaningful and emotional way. I was curious, was that kind of a goal of yours going into this season, to really address that head on?
GAMBLE: Yeah, we always saw that as something that would continue. This relationship was a discovery along the way. What the books gave us was a one-night stand that was a threesome between Eliot and Margo and Quentin. I think it was strongly implied that Eliot had slept with Margo a few times before, and that was on the table for their beautiful friendship (laughs). Then there’s Quentin who’s the guy who lands at college and a lot of worlds open up to him, literally and figuratively. But it was the discovery in the writers room that that relationship could go deeper, in an intimate and very romantic way, that was thrilling. It’s like an unexpected joy when the characters are talking to you, and when we’re figuring out what would be in character for them. To realize that Quentin would actually have a lot less baggage about that than Eliot does.
We wanted to investigate that. I think a lot of writers in the room started to talk personally about experiences they had, or were around for in people they love’s lives, where a possibility was there, you say no, thinking maybe you can come around later, and then later might never come. That’s the very fragile, upsetting truth of being a human being, is we think we have all this time and that’s not always true. That’s what’s pushing Eliot to the next place.
Was it kind of freeing to write that scene with Eliot and Alice, where he finally just admits that, “Yes, I was in love with Quentin.” And Alice, tells him, “I think Quintin was also in love with you.”
GAMBLE: Yeah, I loved writing that, because I feel a protectiveness over the characters when people reduce them to labels. I feel a protectiveness because I think Eliot, in all of his facets, is so rich and deep and complex. Of course, I understand people relating to characters because they have aspects in common. I also understand the excitement of feeling like there is representation on the show, and I honor and respect that. But also, a show like Magicians is really about how having magic frees our characters in a certain way to stop worrying so much about fitting neatly into every little slot that our uncreative society is demanding them to squeeze into.
Eliot is so many things. Quentin was so many unexpected things. They get to be that on this show, and I felt like I didn’t want to reduce Alice to a sometimes ex-girlfriend, sometimes girlfriend position. And didn’t want to reduce what had happened to Eliot in any way. Didn’t want to shave off any edge of what Eliot is. The way to get there was to have them have an honest conversation, where Alice surprises him by saying, “I understood how complicated Quentin was, and I know he loved me and he loved you. Both things are true.”
I really appreciated that it didn’t evolve into a fight, it didn’t evolve into jealousy. How wonderful to be able to share love with this person who’s now gone, and have someone who knows exactly what you’re going through.
GAMBLE: I wish that life were as simple as movies, where two completely unencumbered people who are very firmly all the way on one end or the other of the Kinsey scale meet. Then hijinks ensue. Maybe your mom doesn’t like the guy or something, and then finally they get to be together. In life we meet people when they’re attached, we meet people when they don’t even know that we could be a possibility for that. The human heart has a lot of… I say tentacles because I write monsters (laughs). Yeah, the human heart has a lot of beautiful tentacles, and I think I wanted to respect that. We all wanted to respect that Quentin’s heart was big, for so many of the characters on the show. And that Alice’s heart was big enough to embrace him, even knowing that he wasn’t going to slot nicely into a little category for her.
Did you guys speak with Jason at the end of last season about how the story might progress with Quentin? Or were those conversations mostly relegated to the season four arc?
GAMBLE: No. I don’t remember us having a conversation about that, but that was probably mostly because we were deep in the weeds of figuring out the end of season four. I think, understandably, the focus of our conversations with him was about what was happening to his character, up to and including the finale. Among ourselves in season four, when we realized we’re going to [kill Quentin], I think really early on I had this vision of Alice trying to bring Quentin back from the dead and ending up with child. I even think we were in some part of either making or publicizing season one of the show YOU, and I suddenly had this light bulb looking at Luca Padovan that, “Oh my God, I really think that this special young actor could play an incredible young Quentin.” That was something we all were talking about in passing in season four, because Julia knew Quentin at that age, but Alice didn’t. It’s this weird thing, when we’re trying to use creatures and monsters and magic as metaphors, to talk about the way that we share memories when someone has passed on. In general the stickiness of grief, and just the very weird passages you traverse in trying to make it through the day.
I did want to ask you about Julia, because she’s now carving her own path, and really kind of taking on a quest of her own. I was wondering if you could kind of talk about figuring out what is Julia’s arc now without Quentin?
GAMBLE: Yeah. Hugely, she lost the best friend of her lifetime, and has regained an ability to do magic because she went through something profound, and it cracked something open inside of her. There’s a lot of great emotion that Stella [Maeve] just knocks out of the park with that. I would say, and it’s very Magicians of us if I may say, a questing creature shows up and refuses to give her the quest. And it’s very Julia of her, that she’s just like, “Fuck you, I’m going to figure it out anyway.”
One of the things I’m really the most grateful for, period, full stop in getting to make this show for five seasons is that Julia was sexually assaulted at the end of season one, and we have gotten to tell such a full and rich story of how, over time, people’s relationship to their own trauma changes and evolves, and integrates. I feel like you see so much healing and so much integration with Julia this season. It will always be present that she went through that horror, but she’s in a relationship now, and she’s making life decisions with a man. We brought her there slowly and carefully, in order to tell a full story of a survivor. That’s not just the story of, “Will you get revenge or justice?” That’s the story about, then how do you live your life, learn to love, become sexual again? Thank God we have all these monsters to kill. We get to tell these freaking stories, right?
Exactly. Then I’m so glad to see Margo and Eliot back together.
GAMBLE: Yeah, what a relief, right?
Was it fun to write them again, throwing their quips and pop culture references at each other?
GAMBLE: They’re glorious together. They were fun to write together on a page, even in the pilot. It’s a testament to the once-in-a-lifetime chemistry between Summer and Hale. They inspire us to just write really fun stuff for them. Margo grew up a lot because she lost Eliot last season. It’s an interesting thing again, in a certain way it goes back to what we’re saying about Eliot’s arc in this season. That so many circumstances are conspiring to invite him to put down his bad coping mechanisms, and his fear of connecting. That’s a mountain for him, that’s the real mountain for him to climb the season. You’ll see more of what happens with him and the Dark King coming up. He is somebody who represents making a lot of choices that are probably similar to what Eliot might want to make. Margo, in a certain way, is more of a role model I think, for Eliot this season. They used to just enable each other, skip class, fuck a bunch of cute people, get into trouble. She really is a boss now and has stopped, and isn’t going to slow down for anyone. That includes Eliot and I think that’s for Eliot’s benefit.
I was obsessed with the books. It’s one of the most satisfying, emotionally and narratively, trilogies I’ve ever read. I love the idea that the show has carved out a place of its own, and I was curious, with Quintin gone, is there still stuff from the books that you guys are eager to dig into or is that left behind? And what can you tease about crafting the Dark King and what he means for this season?
GAMBLE: Yeah, we really have built out a lot of world that wasn’t technically in the book that just was developed by the book. The Dark King and what’s happening with Fillory is part of that. It sort of follows the rules of the book, but it’s our own invention. But you will notice as the season goes on, we have a heist coming up later in the season, that will be something we hadn’t done in the books yet. There are characters that we haven’t touched from the third book that we bring in this season. Those books are like an entire candy store with all the flavors. Every now and again we pick something up and it’s like, wait a minute, I think this is in the first book and we just never did it. In certain ways, we’re definitely like a different timeline now. If we’re the 40th timeline and the book is, I don’t know, timeline Q or something? We still overlap.
I really love the show’s relationship to the books. Both things can exist at the same time and they’re both wonderful.
GAMBLE: Well we’re basically writing Lev Grossman fan fiction.
And it’s great!
GAMBLE: People always ask me, what do you think of fan fiction? I think that’s a leading question, because somehow people expect genre TV writers to in some way be disdainful of fan fiction, but I think we’re all doing the same thing. We’re just inspired by somebody’s world and we want to walk around in it. Get our hands dirty and tell personal stories using the tools that they invented.
It is the world of The Magicians and I liked the idea that, obviously Alice has magic. She’s going to try to bring Quentin back. Are you leaving the door open for Jason to return at any point in the future, or are you moving on as if he’s gone for good?
GAMBLE: Well he left the show, but TV shows are weird things. I don’t think there’s anything that you could put in this article that sound like I was just teasing people one way or the other, but the truth is just that this season we were so focused on telling you this story that we set up, of Quentin dying and all of the other characters losing him, and all of the ways that that affects the next magical problem that they have to solve. We haven’t projected too far beyond that. I hunker down and prepare for immediate cancellation pretty much every Monday of my life. I don’t like to tempt the gods too much, but we’re alive still.
I’ve talked to you guys for a few other seasons and you’ve said kind of the same thing. Where you just take it one season at a time, and it feels like you guys leave everything out on the floor. So far that’s worked well, so I say keep going. It just feels like the show could keep going for another five years.
GAMBLE: Oh, thank you. That is, what you’re saying, it’s exactly our philosophy. It’s like, never presume. It’s the progression of season five, but it’s also our philosophy in the writers’ room. Never ever, ever assume you have more time. Don’t rush, but if you have something that you’re burning to say, say it now. That means that we get these lovely cluttered piles that we call seasons of television. If we have an idea, it’s in there. We kind of like the feeling of being stuck and having to go back and reinvent.
The Magicians airs on Thursdays on Syfy. Click here to read my extended chat with Hale Appleman.