Syfy's The Magicians shouldn't work. It's an adaptation of an acclaimed series of fantasy novels (by Lev Grossman) that makes major changes to the books' underpinnings. It's a young adult ensemble drama, at a time when young adult ensemble dramas often struggle to take off. And it wears its influences — Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia, most pointedly — so fully on its sleeve that it would be easy to miss the ways it deconstructs those ideas.
But The Magicians is sneakier than that. Not everything about it succeeds, but over the course of its first season, I was impressed more often than I was groaning in disappointment. The show simultaneously celebrates its source material and questions some of the books' stranger choices, and its portrayal of magic as an all-purpose metaphor — for mental illness, for addiction, for privilege — is surprisingly powerful.
Mostly, though, I loved how The Magicians wasn't afraid to be episodic, with each episode telling its own tiny story about 20-somethings dealing with a world of magic and danger in equal measure.
So in the wake of a season finale that tossed every element of the show to the wind (and made several major changes to the books), I wanted to talk to Sera Gamble, who both co-developed The Magicians for television and ran the show along with John McNamara. Gamble and I discussed some of the finale's biggest (and potentially most controversial) choices, how she writes an episode of the show, and what's ahead in season two, which should debut in the winter.
There are major spoilers throughout our interview, though it will get more spoiler-y as you go and I've clearly marked spoilers as they arise.
The following conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for length and clarity.
On constructing The Magicians: "It makes your life better. It also makes it more complicated."
You suggest in episode 12 that there have been many different versions of this same story, so the books can stand completely independent of the series if that's what fans prefer. How do you approach finding ways to adapt something that lots of people deeply loved without earning their ire? Because you have to change things for TV.
We embraced that as our reality very early. I think it's okay that maybe 100 percent of book fans won't agree with [everything we do]. Some people would rather we stick very, very closely to the plots as they are laid out in the chronological order they're laid out in the book.
Our No. 1 priority was to capture the spirit of the Magicians books, and to capture the essence of these characters that we loved. We were very practical about the fact that television is such a different medium than the written word.
In our opinion, you can't really make a TV show that's just a deep dive into one character's head and call it an ensemble, modern, grounded, urban fantasy show. We always knew we were going to have to take a lot of liberties with the story in order to protect the underlying truths of the story.
One thing I love about this show is how episodic it is; every new episode does something completely different from the last one. How did you decide what a Magicians episode is?
We just have an embarrassment of riches. It organically started to happen that way. [For instance,] we knew from the books that Alice's brother, whose death was a bit of a mystery to her, was turned into a niffin [a being of pure magical energy] by a spell gone wrong. An episode bloomed around that story.
I don't know that we sat down and said, "Okay, this is what the structure of a Magicians episode is," because I never quite know what the episode is going to be when we start working on it. This is how it worked out.
How much in the way of post-production and visual effects work does The Magicians employ compared to other shows you've worked on?
I've worked on some pretty VFX-heavy shows!
Compared to the other show that John and I produce, Aquarius, the post-production lead time is far, far longer for Magicians. The most current example is the finale, which aired on Monday [April 11], and the last visual effect got dropped in [Wednesday, April 6].
We filmed it in December! We knew that one was going to have some complicated effects. We try to stagger the episodes that are desperately VFX-heavy. It doesn't always work out that way, but the basic operating procedure for a show like this is you have to give yourself many weeks to complete any episode.
In both TV and book form, The Magicians uses magic to symbolize everything from mental illness to addiction to white male privilege. What were some of the magical metaphors you found most potent?
It's a very durable metaphor, and you can use it in a lot of ways. At the end of the day, at least on our show, there's nothing inherently good or evil about magic. It's a tool, so in each person's hands it manifests in a different way. For one person it's a handy if inconsistent helper, and then in another person's hands it's heroin.
The first, strongest place that John and I started from in writing the project was thinking about the place that art had in our own lives. Quentin [the series' main character, played by Jason Ralph] is someone who feels really lost in the world when we meet him, like somebody who hasn't found his place.
When he finds out that magic is real and it's something he could strive to master, it focuses his life and gives it meaning in a way that's very similar from the stories so many people I work with have told me about finding their art form. It makes your life better. It also makes it more complicated, and it definitely doesn't solve your life.
It might give you some sort of guiding principles for your life, but it's not like when you pick up the violin and you're meant to be a violinist, suddenly interpersonal relationships always work, and you and your dad get along. But you turn to the violin in that very personal, intense way.
That was my first way into the project. From there, there were many, many happy accidents. From there, we take it case by case and character by character what kind of story we get to tell using magic as a metaphor.
On building season one: "Lev's books deconstruct the mythology of the Chosen One"
Spoilers for season one follow.
Over the course of this season, Quentin slowly realizes he's not the hero of this particular story and comes to terms with that, and that's a mark of his slowly developing maturity. How did you chart the arc of an asshole becoming slightly less of an asshole?
I relate to Quentin's desire to be the hero of the story. Certainly everyone in the writers' room relates to it. When we talk to the actors, they relate to it too.
When you read any story that has magic in it, the main character is the hero, and special, and chosen. How could Quentin have any other kind of dream, considering that he's a super fanboy and has emotionally leaned on a lot of those stories for his entire life?
The thing that's very compelling and nicely complicated about Lev's books is that they deconstruct the mythology of the Chosen One, and the very idea that fate and destiny are a real driving force in these stories. That there would be a wise adviser, or that any of these handy tropes would exist in adult life.
We knew that was the best, most compelling journey to put superfan Quentin on. We highlight that even more succinctly in the finale, where he meets the god of Fillory and is told, "I think you're the Chosen One. Let's go with that."
It's such a great moment for Quentin, because this is his lifelong dream, but when he has some time to think about it, he comes to the conclusion that Ember is wrong, and if Ember had met Alice he'd have charged Alice with this task. So Quentin turns around and does it himself.
That's the point of greatest growth for the character in the season. He sits down with this person he respects and says, "I suspect my role in this story is to support the hero of the story, and I think that's actually supposed to be you."
Julia had her storyline running concurrently with everything else. Did that get tricky, to have her off in what's effectively her own show?
Logistically sometimes it was a little bit tricky, but for the story it was extremely helpful. Her story, out in the darker world, became such an interesting parallel to Quentin's story. They bounce off each other pretty well throughout the season.
We knew we would find several points of intersection between Julia and not only Quentin but other characters like Kady. Quentin and Julia are on separate tracks, but those tracks echo each other so often.
The first episode where I said, "Okay, this show is going to figure itself out sooner or later," was that fourth one, where Quentin's in a mental hospital. Did you have any trepidation about suggesting the fantasy was all in his head so early in the show's run?
When John McNamara and I were coming up with the show, that was one of his early pitches. It was in the series document that we circulated with the spec script, so we always knew it was an episode we wanted to do.
We loved the idea of doing it early, because we're a writers' room full of people who are pretty savvy about this kind of television show. We've been fans of a lot of shows like this, and we wanted to do [this story] before it was expected.
Dropping it in quick, bold fashion was the primary weapon in our arsenal of keeping people in the state you want to be in for an episode when you're doubting reality. We liked the idea of people not being too comfortable yet. There was a little bit of controversy in the bigger conversation of, "Are you sure you want to do that for episode four?" But we loved the idea of doing it early.
You finally got around to adapting the books' Antarctica arc long after I figured you would. What made you hold off on doing that, and how did you fake the South Pole while filming in Vancouver?
Everyone loves the Brakebills South section of the books. We knew we wanted to do that. When we aged up the characters to graduate school [for the TV show], we lost the four-year undergraduate structure of the books, so it freed us up to be able to do it basically whenever it made sense for the course of study we set up for them.
The Antarctica of it all — at least we're not shooting in Los Angeles. [Vancouver] doesn't have palm trees and sunshine every day. We employed an above-average number of visual effects in that episode. There's a lot of snow. There are a lot of fully computer matte paintings of the exteriors, and there was a lot of magic done by our [director of photography] and our designers, who made a lot of subtle changes to our Brakebills sets to reflect the different climate that building would be sitting in.
When you were working on the haunted house episode, I understand the impulse of wanting to somehow depict the awful things Christopher Plover does to Martin Chatwin, because you're operating in a different medium. But how did you blow that out into a full ghost story?
In reading the books, the truth of what happens between Martin Chatwin and Christopher Plover was incredibly compelling to me.
It was exactly the kind of fantasy story I deeply appreciate, where the reason the monster exists is because of something that's very true and difficult about human nature, the darkness that can be inside a person. That's the most interesting thing about the Beast, is the human factor of what created this "monster," right?
We started by asking the question, "How can we tell this story with the weight it deserves?" Then, I really love horror tropes. The Magicians, as a show, is not a horror show per se, but I like to do the occasional episode that leans heavily on dark horror conventions. That seemed like a really good marriage for the story we wanted to tell about Plover.
What took so long to bring Josh into the story? He enters the books way earlier.
We love Josh as a character, and we wanted to bring him in in time for Fillory. We actually knew pretty early on that he was part of the missing class. The great thing was just, in the course of breaking that episode, we started to discover things about him. He was our opportunity to meet the coolest natural magician, who makes pizza tomatoes. I think it's the best possible discipline, actually.
On the finale: "The trainer has told us all the bear's going to want to do is sleep"
Spoilers for the season finale follow.
What was stuff from the book you could possibly incorporate in future seasons but just couldn't fit into this season?
We wrote the talking bear into the finale. They stop by a pub, and we wrote Humbledrum [the bear] into that scene, to be having a drinking game with Eliot.
We were prepared to do all of the 3D VFX animation required to bring the bear to talking life. We shot the finale in December, and we had booked the bear. Then our line producer called me and said, "So bears hibernate in the winter. The bear won't be doing any acting. We'd have to move the scene from night to day, and even then, the trainer has told us all the bear's going to want to do is sleep."
So the animal in that scene is an English bulldog. His real name is Angus, and he is the mascot of The Magicians' production office. He belongs to one of the people who works in the office. We knew that he was extremely telegenic, and that he could take direction, so we rewrote that scene knowing that we'll bring a bear in later when it's more seasonally appropriate.
That is the greatest production problem story I've ever heard.
I know. "The bear's asleep. I'm sorry."
You changed quite a bit of the story from the books by the time you hit the finale. How did you go about constructing a story that touched on the books' climactic moments while still charting its own path?
We promised the Beast in the finale. He's [Chekhov's] gun from act one, you know? He's been the Big Bad of the season. Our characters have been gearing up to face him pretty much all season. That was the tentpole that we knew we had from day one of breaking this season in the writers' room.
The cliffhanger came about because, also on day one, we decided to play Julia's story simultaneously with Quentin's story, so this is the change that wrought. We have the books as a template for ourselves, and we have these great beats in the books. This is how we remixed them.
Julia's story ends in a horrifying act of sexual violence, when she's raped by a god. It can be very, very hard to put sexual violence onscreen without it becoming exploitative. How did you navigate that particular problem?
I agree that sometimes violence and violence against women can feel exploitative, especially if the point of it doesn't have much to do with the woman who's the victim of the violence. Julia is the center of her story. Inherent in her story are a lot of very difficult, brutal truths about being a young, smart woman on her own in a dangerous world.
I'm very interested in telling that story honestly, and in not shying away from the kind of things that happen with tragic frequency to young women in the world. When Julia was cut off from a support system like Brakebills, when she realized she was going to go it alone, she entered into a world that's incredibly dangerous. I don't know that that's necessarily avoidable for women in the larger, real world.
That's a story we were very compelled to tell, and to tell as truthfully and specifically as we could, using these fantasy elements as a way to help illuminate stuff that's real.
Pivoting off that, I'm wondering about the link between the two moments of gods bestowing power upon young women via semen, both unintentionally but in very different ways. Was that just a quick visual shorthand to set up the Julia twist at the end, or is there a deeper symbolic idea there that will be played out going forward?
Yep, there's more going on than just providing a shorthand for the moment Julia touches the knife. Ideas of power — where it comes from, how you get it, how tricky it is to wield and how it can transform — you run deep in the story. There's more to come.
The idea of using this originally came from the books, from details of how Reynard's assault affected Julia's magical ability. But it dovetails nicely with the deeply weird, often squicky relationship between the gods and humans. Even with Ember, there's a certain tone-deafness to his "gift" — it's emblematic of how the gods miss a lot of nuance when it comes to humans, largely because they don't give a shit.
That goes to an important idea that runs through our show: These beings have so much power, we need them so badly, and with few exceptions they really don't give much of a fuck about anything but themselves. This is not a sustainable dynamic once the lid is off. And the lid's coming off.
Looking ahead to season two: "There's a wealth of shitty stuff coming for them in a good way"
What themes and ideas are you looking at for season two?
We are looking at the questions of adult life. If season one was a lot of coming of age for our characters in terms of them stepping into adult life, they are in it in new ways in season two.
In Fillory and on Earth, they have to start to ask themselves questions about how much responsibility they really want or can assume in their lives. Some of the safety of childhood and early adulthood is now gone.
On our show, we hope always to use these stories to tell real stories about what it feels like to be the age of the characters, so there's a wealth of shitty stuff coming for them in a good way. Your early 20s are really, really hard in a lot of ways, and more so when you're a magician.
Major spoilers follow. Only read the following question if you have read the books the series is based on.
Changing the showdown with the Beast means Alice will be around in future seasons, presumably. Are you already thinking about how that affects things?
There's a lot about [the Beast's] story from the books that we still plan to do. Alice's death is a really meaningful part of the book, and we have been talking a lot in the writers' room about how to hit that journey, certainly, and especially for Quentin, as deeply as we possibly can. We also love Alice and love Olivia Taylor Dudley, so we're working it out now, actually.
The first season of The Magicians is available for digital download.