It’s been quite a winter for Sera Gamble, the co-creator of both Syfy’s The Magicians and the breakout hit series You, a dark romantic thriller that began on Lifetime and has since erupted on Netflix. In a conversation ahead of this week’s Magicians premiere, Gamble spoke to Vulture about the challenges of season four — which begins with all the major characters having forgotten who they are after being enchanted — as well her reaction to You becoming such a pop-culture sensation. The show’s protagonist, Joe, is presented in the central role as a romantic hero, but, in truth, he’s a violent stalker and murderer. After the show landed on Netflix this December, a wave of outspoken fans have posted on social media about how much they love Joe even though he’s a monster. Gamble also shared her thoughts about those fans, why it’s important that Joe is an unreliable narrator, and whether she feels it’s her job to push a particular kind of message in her shows.
I saw that The Magicians was renewed for a fifth season. Congratulations!
Thank you. We’re very excited and grateful.
I assume this means that you’re going to be moving even farther out of the territory of the original trilogy, right?
In a way, we’ve been taking side roads for a while now. There’s so much material in those three books that, because we haven’t really been cutting through them linearly, we definitely still want to loop back and pick up. But yeah, a lot of stuff in the show is pure invention on the part of the writers.
The books put Quentin at the center story-wise, but also emotionally. In your show, he’s not the only one. Did that happen organically after you cast everyone, or was that always the aim?
We always knew the show would lean heavily on the whole ensemble, but it became so clear when we were making the first season that the secret purpose of the show is to question the idea that there’s a hero in those stories. That starts in Lev Grossman’s books, because he created this protagonist who’s an unlikely sort of hero. He’s a guy who dresses up to go to Comic-Con. He suddenly finds himself in the middle of an epic fantasy, and as we were road testing the idea that he would swoop in and save the day, stuff started coming up pretty quickly in season one, like the fact that his girlfriend is a better magician than he is, or the fact that Penny has a much rarer discipline. What Penny can do and how isolating Penny’s powers are sounds to me more like the conventional superhero story, if you will.
We just leaned into it, because Quentin isn’t a window into this story because he’s the best. He’s just the guy we followed into the story. We treat each of them as the star of their own movie.
In season four, none of the characters remember who they are. How hard it is to essentially be starting from the beginning again? Was that frustrating? Was that a fun thought experiment?
Well, it was engineered to be frustrating. It’s our favorite thing to do: We blow everything up at the end of the season, everybody gets a scared look on their face, like, “What are we going to do next?” and we push forward on the faith that if we don’t know where it’s going next, then the audience doesn’t necessarily know. We revel in the fact that we feel very stuck and frustrated and that, we hope, will yield some good story.
Was there any character who was particularly frustrating in this new situation? It would be so much easier if they could use their powers.
It felt like that with all of them. As the first episode evolved, it became more and more entertaining to us that we had accidentally created a new TV show about a cop that discovers that magic is real, which is how the episode ended up leaning so heavily on Sam Cunningham, formerly Kady. It was a way into the procedural cop magic show that I’ve been berating the writers room not to write for four seasons. Suddenly, we were there. It was really fun.
Has the room always wanted to write a procedural cop magic show? Why is that something that you tried to avoid?
No, no. I just personally have this high level of sensitivity to stories that turn into procedural magic investigations, because I worked on a great procedural magical show for seven seasons. It’s still going and it’s fantastic, but I had worked on about 150 episodes of that show. In a weird way, Supernatural has become one of the guiding lights of The Magicians because if something smelled too much like an episode of Supernatural, I’m always the first one to say, “Let’s turn it in another direction.” I’m just trying to be cognizant of the fact that that show already exists and they’re doing a great job, and there wouldn’t be much point in doing it again.
That’s interesting, because one of the things in The Magicians that I can feel from Supernatural, which I love, is its episode-level storytelling.
Thank you. I think we’re fans of episodes that feel very complete on their own, which is not the same as close-ended. There’s an episodic structure there, as opposed to feeling like they’re just chapters in a book and a ton happens in one and then not much in another. We’re all more fond of the storytelling where every episode feels like its own little bespoke universe.
I’m always pleased when it feels like an episode has an identity.
Us too. I will say that it does help with the creativity in the room, that people can come in and go, “In this one, let’s be in Penny’s point of view,” or “This is the one where” — and this is a bit of a spoiler — “the character who has sexually transmitted lycanthropy has an episode.” In season four, that became more self-conscious than ever, because the storytelling has gone to this realm of us questioning who the protagonist really is and why.
That makes me think about your other show, You. It’s so caught up in Joe’s perspective, and it’s testing how that perspective shapes the way that we watch the story. The Magicians and You feel very different, and yet there do seem to be these common elements between them.
I’ve been thinking a lot about it, so I’ve been talking about it both places. To make the first season of You, we had to have a really intense conversation about that. I really learned a lot about point of view, being in the writers room for You, and then I would walk across the street to the writers room of The Magicians. When somebody would talk about, “Who is the central person in the story?” I was all ready to go. I had been talking about that for several hours. It seems timely and like a conversation that, just anecdotally, a lot of writers, certainly in television, are having anyway, just over drinks, about diversifying and making sure that every story doesn’t resemble a standard-issue story we’ve watched and enjoyed a thousand times.
Did you see the video of Millie Bobby Brown talking about how much she loves Joe?
I heard about it.
How do you feel about that, and about the response so many people have had where they think of Joe as a romantic lead?
Well, I kind of felt that way when I read the book. It took me a surprisingly long time to realize that Joe was not a reliable narrator, because we were in his head and we were in his point of view. When you read Caroline [Kepnes]’s book, he gets creepy almost immediately. However, it wasn’t until I was a fair amount into the book that I realized that I was automatically forgiving him, and that I wasn’t even really doing it consciously. I was just so interested in him and seduced by the honesty of his inner monologue that I kept finding myself rooting for this couple. When I sat down and thought about that, that is really disturbing.
But how could we not, in some way, root for someone who is presented to us as a perfect romantic hero? A lot of what the show is about, as a lot of what the book was about, is playing with those expectations and revealing that there’s a dark side to that beloved archetype of the male romantic hero who sweeps in to save the day, whether or not you’ve even asked him to.
Does it upset you to think about people watching the show and seeing only the romantic hero side, and disregarding the serial killer side?
We’re not really hiding it. I mean, he’s standing there with his face bloody, holding a hammer, so …
And yet, the responses are there.
But, you know, we’re not the first people to tread into that territory. There’s always been an uneasy fascination in our culture with people who cross lines like that, and you can’t police how each individual person feels about it. All you can really do is investigate. I don’t see it as our jobs to preach to anybody about how they’re supposed to feel. I’m much more interested in working with smart people to take a deeper look at it and ask ourselves the hard questions about why we like what we like, why we forgive what we forgive, and why is violence so intriguing.
I don’t expect you to tell me what’ll happen in the second season, but how much does that affect your thinking about what’s coming? Whether fans of Joe will feel upset or validated?
I don’t think too much about that, personally. Joe is at the center of the story, so in that way, anyone who is Team Joe will be richly rewarded for their time watching, because it’s a show about him. And I can’t say he’s fully reformed. It isn’t like all he’s getting shelter dogs adopted in season two. He’s doing some pretty crazy shit. And the show has never made much of an attempt to condone what he’s doing. The thing we always remember is that he’s not any kind of a professional killer. He doesn’t consider himself a killer at all. He actually just thinks he’s doing what must be done to be a good man, and for that reason, he’s not perfect at it. And these things come back to haunt him.
Going into the second season, are you tempted to further prove the point that he’s a bad person? Or is that always going to be something you want viewers to figure out for themselves?
Well, one thing we have going for us is that there’s another book. The second season diverges a little bit more from Caroline’s novel than season one did, but does still touch on a lot of the great stuff that she wrote. Again, I don’t think our intention has ever been to tell you how to feel about Joe. So no, I don’t think any of us are trying to manipulate the viewers’ minds or trying to change anybody’s mind. Our goal is to continue to do what we’ve been doing, which is to be very, very hard on the story and put Joe in these insane situations and see what he does.
To turn back to The Magicians, I loved the board of hookups and murders that have happened so far on the show.
It’s delightful. I think at that age, I might have been able to create a Beautiful Mind hookup board for everybody I knew, because it got a little crazy there for a couple years in our early 20s. It’s just the addition of magic that makes things so murder-y. They’re making the mistakes of their youth against a backdrop of life-and-death multiverse-spanning magic problems, so more people die than usual.
The hookup/murder board would look a lot more simple on You, right?
Yeah, but the hookup/murder board on You will also expand a little in season two.