explain yourselves

The Magicians Writers Knew That Shocking Death Would Upset Fans. Here’s Why They Did It Anyway.

Photo: SYFY

**Major spoilers for the season four finale of The Magicians lie ahead.**

The finale of The Magiciansfourth season is eventful. After a full season at the mercy of a god called the Monster who took over Eliot’s body, the show’s intrepid band of magical 20-somethings manage to free Eliot, entrap the Monster and his sister, and banish them to a seam between our universe and another one. In the process, though, the show’s protagonist, Quentin Coldwater, has to sacrifice himself to save his friends.

He dies while defeating the Monster, and the season ends with Quentin being allowed to see his friends for one last time before being escorted into the underworld. He watches them hold a makeshift funeral service for him. It’s a scene that becomes one of The Magicians’ signature musical moments, set to a slow, mournful cover of A-Ha’s “Take On Me.”

Before the premiere of the season finale, Vulture spoke with The Magicians executive producers and showrunners Sera Gamble, John McNamara, and Henry Alonso Myers about how long they’ve been planning this move, how they expect fans will react to Quentin’s death, and what this will mean for season five of the series.

How long have you been planning to kill Quentin?

Sera Gamble: We began the conversation about what we would do this season at the end of season three, and that was a conversation we had with Jason [Ralph, who plays Quentin] — a creative conversation with him that excited all of us. The next person we sat down and chatted with was Lev Grossman [the author of the original Magicians book trilogy], who also was really excited to explore this possibility.

To be totally frank about it, we opened the series with a scene with Quentin in a mental hospital, contending with his own feelings about his life and death and what all of that means. For me, so much of what was intriguing about [Jason] when he auditioned was that he played Quentin in this way that was active in seeking an answer, seeking a deeper human truth inside his own depression. If you have the privilege of getting to tell a story long enough, you want to complete that circle. If we’re gonna do drama and magic and high stakes, we want to do the deep human stuff. And it didn’t get any deeper than this for us.

After his death, Quentin wrestles with the question of whether his decision was about saving his friends, or was really him figuring out a way to kill himself. The funeral scene feels like an answer to that question, but did you mean it to be? Or did you mean for there to still be ambiguity?

John McNamara: I think that exact question will hopefully fuel debate and discussion and possibly be the source of a few academic papers at institutions of higher learning. I think it is ambiguous. Emotionally, Penny provides him with an answer, which is that Quentin was too attached to these people, and they to him, for Quentin to have consciously given up his life. But there’s a saying that a psychiatrist once said to me, which is that the subconscious always gets what it wants, and the conscious mind often never knows.

I think he did a really heroic thing without even thinking about it: save Alice, save Penny, take out the bad guy. But this is not a black-and-white show, and he’s never been a black-and-white character. To me, when I look at people who do heroic things, sometimes I question, like, “That was really heroic, but you clearly aren’t afraid of dying. For whatever reason, you did something that’s so amazing, that I wouldn’t have done, because I’m a fucking coward.”

Are you at all worried that someone might read this episode as suggesting that suicide is an act of bravery?

John McNamara: I definitely don’t want to write pro-suicide television. It’s irresponsible, and it’s too simplistic, frankly. Someone being incredibly heroic in the moment, and also having subconscious self-destructive tendencies, makes drama interesting and not cartoonish. For anybody who wants to just really bat around all the layers of what Quentin did, the best way to do that is to not kill yourself. Stay alive and debate that issue.

Quentin is a fictional character, he comes from Lev Grossman and me and Sera and every writer on this show. And as a group, we really make an effort whenever we deal with substance abuse, or sexual assault, or suicide, to put a suicide hotline notice on the episode. Because obviously this could be triggering, and that’s not our intent. Our intent is to really rigorously and realistically explore human behavior, and if the show simplifies human behavior to the point where it’s a cartoon, you’re doing a greater disservice to the world of mental health.

Anticipating the fandom’s response to this episode, I would imagine some viewers are going to be upset that Quentin and Eliot never have a chance to be together. There’s that amazing mosaic episode with the two of them in season three. We get a recontextualization of that in this season, and there’s a callback to it again in this finale. What’s the thought process around that relationship and killing Quentin without letting that relationship ever really exist?

Henry Alonso Myers: Of course, yes, we talk about that all the time.

So what did those discussions look like?

Sera Gamble: The thing we revealed this season is that there was a moment when Quentin asked if they should explore that relationship, and at that moment in time, Eliot didn’t want to or was not able to say yes to that. For us, a huge part of this season was getting to explore more of the stuff that is going on inside of Eliot. His character was saved because Quentin’s motivation for the whole season has been to save Eliot.

I’m trying to think of exactly what to say that is at once completely honest, while not also throwing fuel on people’s passions. You know, we’re really committed to exploring true, messy human relationships. We didn’t want to shy away from all the twists and turns that Quentin and Eliot’s relationship has had over the season. We just really wanted to go there. We’re excited to continue to explore what all of that means for Eliot. It’s a tricky one for writers to talk about, because we believe really deeply in these stories, and don’t want to sound like we’re holding court in some politicized way.

Henry Alonso Myers: We don’t want to tell fans how to feel, and we don’t want to say anyone is right or wrong for having strong feelings about any element of this. We sympathize with everybody.

You sympathize with everybody, but you do still kill the character.

Henry Alonso Myers: Every choice you make on a television show, you are making someone elated and you are breaking someone’s heart. I feel like we take that very seriously. This is a tough one! I feel like the thing we talk about in the room a lot is that Eliot’s journey is not over and we believe there are important emotional things that Eliot has yet to go through, and that [Quentin’s death] will inform.

John McNamara: And there is an interesting clue to that in the structure of season four. When Eliot is absent from Margo’s day-to-day life, it opens her up to other emotional entanglements, namely Josh. If the Monster had not taken over Eliot, Margo would not be open to Josh. They’re a really good couple, and they’re good to each other. There’s a long way to go in terms of their relationship. Analogously, I think Eliot is now the most open he’s ever been to newer and deeper emotional experience, in part because of Quentin’s death.

So the trade-off is that Eliot still has emotional growth coming, but Quentin’s story is done. I imagine that was what some of the conversation with Lev Grossman would’ve been about, like, “We took your main character and we killed him.” How did that conversation go?

John McNamara: Shockingly well. He’s remarkably supportive.

Henry Alonso Myers: As a person who loves the books, I took his support as a great comfort that we were going in an interesting direction, that we were setting the show on a different path.

John McNamara: From the very beginning experience of optioning Lev’s books and writing the pilot, we would sometimes submit a section apologizing, saying, “We didn’t really have a scene in the book that would get the characters where they needed to be so we invented this new scene,” expecting him to be upset. But he’d say “I love this, do more of this.” It gave us the courage to do things that were outside the book, or barely inferred in the book, or not in the book at all.

I’ll never forget the first time I sent him a draft of the Les Miz musical number [a scene from season two where the characters sing “One Day More”], and he just wrote back to me, “I trust you. I think.” But then when he saw it, he called me and said, “I don’t know why it works, but it works, and I can’t get the goddamn song out of my head.”

I’m still thinking about the way Quentin’s death connects with earlier things in this season, like the episode where Penny is given a test to make sure he doesn’t have a bias toward privileged white male protagonist stories.

John McNamara: That was definitely constructed to be a way that the audience could say later, “Oh, they were playing fair with me.”

Henry Alonso Myers: One of the fun things about being on an ensemble show is that as the seasons go on, you can explore all the fantastic actors who you haven’t always been able to put front and center. I feel like shows like Buffy also went through this similar transformation, where you realize you have all these other stories that are perhaps just as essential, and perhaps sometimes even more so, to the narrative of the whole show. Sera and David Reed had written an episode in season three where we explored a bunch of different perspectives, and I think that was a blueprint for one of the things we wanted to do in season four, to really dig into other people’s points of view. The goal is to show that we have so many interesting ways to tell stories, and they’re all legit, and they all tell the story just as well if not better. Sometimes, in ways, that surprise you.

In some ways it mirrors Lev Grossman’s books. The first book is very much from Quentin’s point of view. The second introduces Julia’s point of view, which totally flips how you see Quentin’s point of view. In the third book, you get Eliot’s point of view, and the character who on our show is Margo’s point of view, and you realize that the more he got into the other perspectives, the more interesting the story got. That was the feeling we’d been getting about the show.

Sera Gamble: That’s always been part of the DNA of the show. It’s always been a show that’s very knowing; the characters are fantasy fans. They live in a world where they’ve all seen Harry Potter, or are at least a little bit embarrassed if they haven’t read them all. Part of the gift of the books, that we got to take into the TV show, is that we got to question why these tropes are the same in so many stories. Why is the man saving the princess from the dragon? What would happen if we told stories that lined up more closely with our own life experiences? The show has only gotten more committed to that as we’ve gone along.

As the relationship has deepened and complicated between these characters, the show opens up in a new way. Something that really solidified for me when we were making this finale is that there’s no Love Olympics in real life. It’s not like a certain kind of love is valuable and another kind is not. It was really important for us to have this moment where Quentin asks how his friends are doing. I can’t find it in my heart to be down on his relationship with Julia just because it was always platonic. I would never question Margo’s complete devotion to Eliot. But she had room in her life, for a number of tragic reasons, to open her heart up to Josh in a different way. I don’t think one negates the other. That’s where the storytelling led us when we opened things up beyond that classic template.

Photo: SYFY

One thing I know you’ve talked about in the past is the idea that death has to mean something, and that it’s not fair to kill characters and just have them return all the time. And yet, there are many examples of characters on The Magicians who have died and come back in one way or another. Is that something we’ll see in season five with Quentin?

John McNamara: To be totally candid, I think that the answer and proof of the finality will lie in the articles and the press, because we are saying Jason is leaving the show under great circumstances. It was a mutual decision. He will confirm that. He is no longer part of the cast.

So we won’t be seeing another timeline version of Quentin?

John McNamara: There is no other timeline version of him planned, no.

The episode does seem designed to communicate as much as it possibly can that this death is final, that it’s the end of that character.

John McNamara: I think we’d be in danger of glorious hackdom if we had him suddenly pop out of a hole in episode two of season five.

Henry Alonso Myers: We killed Alice, and she came back changed. But we killed Penny, and we tried to offer a different perspective on that, and so that Penny went away. Part of our feeling for season five is that you risk losing the trust of your audience if you never ever kill anyone for real. It’s very important to us to explore the genuine emotions that come out of death. One of the things that this show is really about, one of the fundamental themes of the book, is that the characters discover magic is real, but it doesn’t make them happy. They still have to deal with who they are and where they come from. They are all becoming adults, and this is a fundamental part of adulthood that we didn’t want to shortchange, that we want to explore. It’s important.

You are going to get some blowback the other direction as well, I’d imagine, with people saying it’s unfair that you’ve brought everyone else back but won’t do it for Quentin. It’ll be interesting to watch people try to adjust to that decision.

Sera Gamble: Yeah, it feels incredibly unfair! As it does in life. Very frequently, that’s how we start conversations, especially as we talk about what a character’s arc is going to be for the season. We bring as much learned truth and personal experience as we can to that when we’re in the room. Most of the time when we’re working with these fantastical metaphors, what we’re asking ourselves on the show is, What does this mean about adult life? If the answer is too pat, if it gives you this answer that’s sort of comforting but also removed from your difficult, hard-won experience, then we go back to the drawing board and ask ourselves, What is the more difficult or messy way through?

I won’t put anyone else on the spot, but I will say that when we were talking about killing the character of Quentin, I was talking in the room about people that I had lost in my life. One of my first real experiences with losing someone as an adult was the death of my father, and after he died, I would have dreams where I would be talking to him, and trying to work out how it could possibly be that I would never wake up and call him again, that we would never be in a room together again. The finality of his death was too big for my psyche to hold for a long time. It took a long time to process that.

I’m interested in that, because to me that is one of those crucibles of human experience that is absolutely universal. If we live long enough, we experience loss so profound our souls can’t even hold it. They have to grow to be able to hold it. The cool thing is that we are writers who get to explore that, but it doesn’t feel like medicine. Because we have niffins and dragons. We get to do fantastical worlds, and the metaphors are really entertaining. Sometimes they bring a lot of levity to stuff that feels too dense and foreboding to approach. To us, it’s very, very exciting. We’re looking forward to doing that in season five, which will probably sad and full of grief, but hilarious and entertaining at the same time. Because we get to do that on this show.

How did you pick “Take On Me” as a song for a funeral?

John McNamara: My son is 12; he’s very musical and plays piano. Often we’ll watch YouTube and look for videos, and we stumbled across an acoustic concert version of “Take On Me,” by A-Ha. When we were recording the tracks for the musical episode in season four, I was in the booth with Olivia Taylor Dudley [who plays Alice], and she happened to be humming that version of “Take On Me.” She said she loved it, and often she uses it to get into a really sad space before a scene.

So when we were putting the funeral together, and the best way to reach into people’s emotions, I thought about the tradition of music being an integral part of funeral services because music can reach certain emotions that normal oratory can’t. Plus we’d already established — I’d say over-established — the idea that any magician can do a spell that gives everyone the ability to access the right lyrics and the perfect orchestration of a song in their key, so why not give it a whirl?

The musical side of this show has always been such a distinct part of The Magicians; it makes sense that it might come back in this moment. But it does seem like the first time the show has used a musical number in a really tragic way — usually the music has indicated characters joining together before they manage to overcome something.

Sera Gamble: I would argue that it is positive. Funerals are about as sad as it gets, but how amazing to have something like that, allowing everyone to share the catharsis of their feelings. Not to sound like a Goody Two-shoes, but that moment being pure emotion and pure shared experience — there’s something essentially positive about that. There’s something deeply positive about realizing that you are alive and you have choices. Those are shocking moments. They can be the most crucial moments of our lifetimes. That’s the gift that people give us when they die.

The Magicians Writers Know You’re Upset About That Big Death