Why Syfy's The Magicians isn't just about its main character

"This is an inversion of the classic hero's journey."

The Magicians concluded its first season on Syfy earlier this week, leaving viewers with a devious cliffhanger ending that they'll be wondering about until season 2 debuts sometime in 2017. Based on the Magicians trilogy of fantasy novels by Lev Grossman, the 13-episode season took us from a drab New York City to the gorgeous upstate New York campus of Brakebills University, and then into the magical realm of Fillory. All the while, its young heroes dealt with demons both metaphorical and real, from their past and the present.

The first season had its issues, but more often than not, I felt it did a good job of adapting Grossman's books while building a TV series that could stand on its own as an exploration of depression and the ways in which people deal with traumatic experiences. After watching the season finale, I spoke with Sera Gamble and John McNamara, the co-creators and showrunners of The Magicians, about their vision of the story they wanted to tell, and how they brought Grossman's vivid characters to life on TV.

[Ed. note: This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. And of course, spoilers abound for season 1 of The Magicians.]

The Magicians episode 108 Eliza/Quentin 1000

In laying out the storylines of the season, did you have a plan of how much, where and how you were going to deviate from the books — in terms of the individual decisions that you were making throughout the course of writing the season?

John McNamara: Yeah. Yeah, we actually had a pretty strong — from the time we finished writing the pilot, we had a pretty strong sense of the overall arc of season one, and a general sense of the next few seasons. We only had the first two books when we wrote the pilot. The third book came out while we were... was it shooting the pilot, or...

Sera Gamble: Somewhere in there. I remember freaking out about how good it was.

McNamara: Oh yeah, it's my favorite of the three.

Gamble: It's not like we come in with a particular, like, a hit list of things we're going to change from the books for their own sake. It's more that we have a general operating procedure that has to do with bringing the spirit of the books to life as we see them. And if the facts of the story can remain the same, great; if they have to change, great. We just sort of do what we have to do to translate the story for television.

"the story transcended the fantasy genre; it became great Shakespearean drama"

In general, what is your overarching vision of the books and how you wanted to translate them to the small screen?

McNamara: Well, I think the thing that attracted us both was the fact that the most victimized, helpless child in the Fillory stories ends up being the Beast. I found that just fascinating and wholly original. And completely, to me it transcended the fantasy genre; it became great Shakespearean drama. It had all the fun of fantasy — you had all the tropes, and also, Lev being a fan [of fantasy stories] made it all very meta, which was also an added layer of fun.

But in the end, it's really about surviving. There's two ways to survive trauma: You either overcome what that victimizer does to you, or you become your victimizer. And Martin [Chatwin], in a way, is a classic example of someone who became worse than his victimizer. And not to give any spoilers away, but will Julia become her victimizer, or will she overcome that as well? That's kind of a major question we left hanging with the end of season one: What is Julia's fate?

The show got a lot of mileage out of drawing contrasts between Quentin and Julia. And as you start to think about where Julia goes from here, what are you trying to explore, going forward, in her continuing relationship with Quentin? Because that was such a big part of the first season.

Gamble: Well, the last thing that we see in season one is Julia moving forward with a plan that involves a betrayal of Quentin. And the next step for that relationship is really the fallout of Julia's decision.

The Magicians episode 113 - Alice 667

You have the Alice character in the books, who is sort of the martyr. And here in the show, there's a lot of time devoted to her relationship with Quentin, and how it grows and how it gets broken up and kind of reconciled here in the finale. So I'm wondering, why did you maybe shift the focus of that ending from Alice to Julia, in terms of making Julia the focal point of how things turned out? Because these are the two biggest relationships in Quentin's life, but I'm wondering why you chose to focus on Julia versus Alice at the end there.

McNamara: I actually would debate your conclusion. I think the one thing that we did was, we introduced Julia into the finale, because she's not in the Beast finale of the books. But I actually think that [Alice and Julia] receive equal emotional weight in that you really get to the absolute heart of Julia's trauma, but at the exact same time, you get to the absolute heart of Alice's excellence and heroism, in the fact that she is the most talented magician [among them], and that she is teed up, perhaps — no spoilers — to be that martyr. But what I would argue is, because we have 13 hours to explore these characters, we were able to introduce, if nothing else, more plot complexity. Because there's nothing more morally or literarily complex than Lev Grossman, but in terms of plot, he's limited by the length of a book.

So I think what we did was, we split the difference. We made Alice's journey toward heroism be one side of the coin, and the other side of the coin is Julia's turn toward being traumatized. She's trying to do something really good, it turns absolutely horrible, and she is terribly, terribly hurt, injured — literally and emotionally. What is she going to do about that? How will that change her? She's not the same person she was in the pilot, but nor is Alice.

At this point, I assume you don't want to confirm whether anyone in that writing room is alive or dead for season two. I mean, obviously, aside from Quentin and Penny —

McNamara: No, I think you don't want us to do that, if you're a fan.

Gamble: We did our best cliffhang off the most fucked possible moment, so hopefully it'll be just the right amount of enraging — even though we cut to black at that moment. [laughs]

The Magicians - episode 101 screencap 01 1200

But in terms of the Beast, who's set up as the big-bad of the entire season — and you really [...] spend a lot of time exploring the character of Martin and Christopher Plover, and how the Beast came to be throughout the season — was there any concern that by having this confrontation and just having this cliffhanger ending with Julia making a deal, that you wouldn't resolve that confrontation that you had been building up to over the course of the season?

Gamble: I'm trying to wrap my head around your question. You mean, were we worried that we promised we would 100 percent do away with the big-bad we introduced in the pilot? Is that what you're asking?

Yeah, in the sense that he's sort of presented as this villain for the course of this season, and the whole gang is getting to Fillory in order to try to take him out, and now [...] you're bringing him forward and now there's this Reynard character to maybe contend with as well. Again, that narrative payoff for this season-long buildup for the confrontation here.

Gamble: Did we worry about that, John?

McNamara: No.

"just the same way that Dean Fogg is not Dumbledore, the Beast is not Voldemort"

Gamble: I don't think we did, no. I think we feel a responsibility to delivering a finale that goes deeply into the problem of the big-bad, but one of the things I think we're responsible to do when we tell the story of The Magicians — a TV show based on the books that it's based on — is that we have to make sure that our characters are nicely complicated, and that they're human and that they're adult. And they cannot be cut and dry, and simple — and that includes villains. And when we complicate the Beast, and humanize the Beast, we've become responsible to his story as well in a way that might not be as simple as, like, a big gunfight at the end (or the magic version, if you will). So just the same way that Dean Fogg is not Dumbledore, the Beast is not Voldemort. It's not that kind of storytelling. It borrows many elements, and it gives a very knowing wink and a nod to that kind of storytelling, but we are telling a slightly different kind of story. So the threat, for now, remains.

Going back to Alice's storyline, you do have that great emotional moment with her and Quentin — a lot of it is this inversion, where you've had Quentin kind of being built up as, like, the "chosen one," and then he realizes at the end there that he's not it. And then he acknowledges that Alice is a better magician than him, and that's a really great moment. In a way, in the books, it's kind of undercut [by the ending]. But here, you have spent this time with her; there's the episode where you introduce the concept of the niffin with her brother Charlie.

I'm just thinking of the reasons that shows do certain things with characters and settings that sometimes are dependent on — obviously, story's the driving factor, but sometimes they're dependent on things like production concerns and budget. Like, I'm wondering, "Oh, maybe the reason that you guys didn't have the Free Trader Beowulf folks be in the south of France was that it was easier to do that in the New York setting, from a production standpoint or just things like that." So going off of Alice's character, were there any limitations that you felt or constraints in telling the story that you wanted to tell, that weren't just the story that you wanted to tell versus the story that's told in the books?

McNamara: I think we told the story that we wanted to tell in exactly the way that we wanted to tell it. And I think going to France was a luxury, but I don't think it was crucial to the bones of the narrative.

The Magicians episode 110 - Julia/Richard 1000

Gamble: I think the overwhelming feeling writing Alice in the last several episodes has been... The writers were all very excited by it. Because this is an inversion of the classic hero's journey, where you think because Quentin Coldwater is our way into the story, and the character is the ostensible lead, that of course, obviously, he's going to be the "chosen one." And the idea that we're writing toward a very different kind of heroic action on his part, in the finale, it's been... That was exciting. That was a really, really fun scene to write, and something that I guess I had been longing to see in some of these stories, where a character like Alice would often just be there to support and inspire a character like Quentin Coldwater...

McNamara: Mm-hmm. Right.

Gamble: ...And as an audience member who watches a lot of these kinds of stories, who happens to be female — growing up, I would organically maybe relate a little bit to a character like Alice, just because she's the girl in the story. And that character would so often end up just in a bit of a support role, and so I was very excited — and all the writers, male and female, were very excited to tell a story that subverted that expectation a little bit and played with the tropes. And telling the story that way is really at the heart of what Lev did in the books, and it's something we really try to continue to do in the [TV] series.

"The characters who are not Quentin don't all exist just to further Quentin's story"

Nothing about telling the heart of that story is really constrained by budget. We are constrained by time and budget, of course; every day, we make decisions that are practical, as does every TV show — even the super, super, super expensive ones. But if you know what kind of story you want to tell, those limitations, they become occasional aggravations, but you can scale a story up and down if you know what that story is and you're very focused on telling it. There's always a way to tell the story if you know what the story is.

Thinking about Alice and also the overall cast — you've got a really great ensemble cast here — and about ensemble casts in general, they can be a real luxury, but they can also be tough to handle in terms of, you've got only so many episodes and only so many stories you can tell with these characters. Did you ever feel like you weren't able to devote as much time or energy as you wanted to certain characters in the story overall?

Gamble: Well, we still have time! We're still telling the story. In reading the books, I was often curious about what was happening with these characters when they weren't on the page. Because the structure of the novels primarily follows Quentin. And as you know, there are times when it cuts away and goes to other characters, but the deep dive is certainly into Quentin Coldwater. And you meet and encounter a character like Eliot, or Margo — whose name is Janet in the books — and they are seen entirely through Quentin's eyes, really, most of the time. And the luxury and the really cool thing about making this TV show is, that doesn't have to be the case — and it isn't the case on this show.

The Magicians episode 110 - Penny 443

The characters who are not Quentin don't all exist just to further Quentin's story, and we get to unravel them, wind them up, run them down, crash them, bring them up and in general, explore them quite deeply. And we have a lot of plans to do so. A lot of what happened in season one was to lay the groundwork for stories we have in mind for these characters as they mature into the adults that they are becoming.

This is something that I noticed right from the start — and you mentioned wanting to really do a good job telling Alice's story because you don't necessarily see a lot of that kind of character on TV — something I noticed is the very ethnically diverse casting of the show. It's something that I really appreciated, because as someone who has read the books, I feel like in most cases, ethnicity wasn't specified there, so I kind of just assumed that, "Oh, sure, these are probably all white characters." So I'm wondering if that was a conscious decision on your part in casting these roles.

McNamara: Whenever Sera and I do a show — and this includes Aquarius — unless there's a plot-specific or period-specific reason that someone could never be [a nonwhite] ethnicity, we always tell our casting directors and our partners, "We cast every role colorblind." [Ed. note: McNamara and Gamble are also executive producers on NBC's Aquarius.]

Gamble: Yeah, they know that we strongly encourage them to [do this], and they're great about this — our casting directors are really, really great about knowing a diverse pool of actors and having them ready to spring on us. And they know that we always strongly encourage them to bring in people who [are] just the best possible actors, and we really want to see actors of all ethnicities.

"we really want to see actors of all ethnicities"

Seeing a perfect example is, I've been reading interviews that Hale Appleman [who plays Eliot] and Arjun Gupta [who plays Penny] have been giving lately, and they've been mentioning that they read for each other's role first. Like, we had no expectation of the particular ethnicity for any of the main characters, really. And we saw all kinds of actors. It was only after we cast Arjun as Penny that we even started to have a little discussion about him — about what the backstory might be, and really, what the last name of his character might be. [laughs] Because it's a little bit different from the books.

But something I enjoy about the show The Magicians is that we get to make a show about magic that reflects the world as we see it, as much as possible. And that would just sort of naturally include diversity. I think it would be really weird and puzzling if it didn't.