As great as the first two seasons of The Magicians were (and they really were fantastic), nothing quite prepared us for the wonder of Season 3. In using the fantasy genre to subvert real-life issues and managing to have a blast along the way, the show is routinely the one that we're most excited to watch week after week.
Ahead of tonight's season finale (the show will thankfully be returning for a fourth season), SYFY WIRE talked with the show's creators (and executive producers) Sera Gamble and John McNamara about all of Season 3's many high points, as well as what we might be able to expect from tonight's Season 3 closer.
WARNING: From this point on, there will be SPOILERS for The Magicians Season 3, as well as Seasons 1 and 2. If you haven't seen any of it, proceed no further. If you're all caught up, well, let's see some magic.
This season finds almost all of the magicians not being able to do magic. Even though it's still packed with fantasy, that's a big aspect that's not there this season. Was that a hard decision to make, to go out on that limb?
Sera Gamble: No. It's hard for our characters, but it provides really meaningful elements to the story. It's challenging in a good way. We don't want to repeat ourselves, we don't want the show to get boring, and we need new challenges for our characters to be trying to overcome. Having them walk into a situation that ordinarily they would have taken care of with a spell, and then taking the spell away... it was good for them to have to figure out another way to get through their problems.
John McNamara: We've always tried to say magic is not the solution, it's often the problem. But then you take it away and it becomes "we didn't know how good we had it" until it's gone. But out of that, organically, came our need for the Muntjac, because in a prior time they could have turned into geese and flown somewhere, or we had a portal, or any number of things. Just geographically getting around Fillory was harder. So it was very interesting to create a sentient magical creature boat, that seemed somewhat diva-ish at first, and then turns out to not only to be one of our compatriots and heroes, but can also fly.
Speaking of the Muntjac— one of the things the show does so well is deal with real-life issues in a fantastical way, such as earlier in the season when the Muntjac herself is facing sexual assault, and also in the election episode with the line, "I'm so happy you're dating a bear." How do you think of moments like that? Does the fantasy element come first, or does real-life come first?
SG: In the case of the "I'm so happy you're dating a bear," I'm told that that was a joke that [series writer] Henry Alonso Myers pitched, which was a serious plot point. The fact that talking animals have inner lives and relationships in Fillory turns out to be a very important detail. The question on the table for the writers was "What does Margo do that's so significant that she becomes a write-in candidate that wins and becomes High King of Fillory?" The answer is, she's the only one who's listened to the concerns of the talking animals.
So then it just became what is the most fun and colorful version of that story, which David Reed provided in writing that part of the script, which then we all read and all pitch little jokes and punch up — Henry is often the guy who hits those — so in that case that's what it was.
In the case of the consent of the boat story, again, as soon as we were on a boat, we were like, let's see some f***ing pirates in this story, you don't want to miss an opportunity to do pirates. In this case the boat is sentient, the boat has a personality, the boat is a character, and that started a very human discussion about it. We really just kind of follow our nose with stories like these, and think about what would make sense for the characters. It was a Margo story, again, so this was the kind of story that made sense for her in testing and growing her leadership.
Margo's certainly one of our favorite characters, and now she's High King. She also has, probably, the best lines in every episode. Is there a Margo line that you are particularly proud of, or is there a favorite, if you had to choose?
SG: There are too many.
JM: It's really so hard to pick. I think one line, that line that got cut in episode 2, that I think was just cut for time?
SG: I can't remember.
JM: There's a line about, she's just exasperated with all the weirdness and she says to Elliot, "I'd sell a tit for one day of normal."
SG: I'm very fond of the "F*** Tinderbitch" line. Summer [Bishil] is easy to write for. That's part of it. Many of our actors are very, very easy to write for, and I don't think that she has cornered the market on funny one-liners by any means. I just think there's something about those lines coming out of her mouth that makes it extra-pleasurable, and we have yet to find a line too crazy for Summer to deliver. It's become kind of like a personal challenge, we're gonna give her one that'll stump her, but it hasn't happened yet. She's just a master at those.
In this season every character has been given great chances to shine, even characters like Josh, and Fen as well. We saw her outside of Fillory, something we never thought the show would do.
JM: Me neither!
Were those moments based on knowing what you had with the specific actors, or were they planned no matter what?
SG: We keep noodling on ideas at the beginning of the season — pretty early I wasI just had a mental image of Fen in the middle of Park Square, and so I threw it out there. Obviously in our creative process we all share our weird ideas, and as a group we work to expand them, and some of them grow into full-fledged stories.
But it was just very tempting low-hanging fruit with Fen, that she has married this foreigner and has never been to his land. So we were looking for an excuse to do that. It's changed her character, that she's sort of now a slight hybrid of a Fillorian and a Child of Earth. It turns out she absorbs culture very, very quickly. Not always accurately, but quickly. We've been joking about whether she would spread the idea of emojis around Fillory.
We'd love to ask about a few key scenes from the season and see how they were developed — the silent sequence from "Six Short Stories About Magic" for instance. How did that come to be?
SG: I wrote that episode with David Reed. First of all, blanket statement — the writers' room all worked together to develop all of these ideas. But early on, episode 8 became an episode that inherited a lot of plot and a lot of story. One of the first questions we asked ourselves was how to do this in an unexpected way, and it was David Reed's idea to organize our story into chapters.
From there, the stories started to develop. Penny's story, the framing mechanism, started to develop, but very quickly we realized that because Harriet [Marlee Matlin] was key to the story, it gave us the opportunity to tell a story in her point of view. That just became the most exciting thing about the episode to us, because it was a completely new challenge. It was a chance to make the story emotional, and also when you have Marlee Matlin, you don't want to waste an opportunity like that. You want to give her interesting and juicy material and deepen it as much as you can in the time that you have. Once we did it, we were like, how long can we do this for, and we realized we can see through her point of view for a whole act, and we wanted to do it.
We'd be remiss if we didn't mention the "Under Pressure" sequence from "All That Josh." Was that also a communal choice, and was that always going to be the song? It fit so perfectly.
JM: I co-wrote that episode with Jay Gard and Alex Raiman, who are new writers to the show, who worked in assistant capacities for a couple years. They're very gifted young writers. That was, for my money, one of the most communal group story-breaks ever, because it was just really hard. The story did not have a lot of substance when I half-ashamedly walked into the room and had some very, very vague ideas. I mean, "vague" is being kind, about a story that somehow involves having to entertain an entity or you will die. That was literally, I don't think I had that much, I had "having to entertain and entity, dot dot dot."
SG: And I was like, what if everyone dies?
JM: I'm a fan of musicals, and Sera is not, so that in a way makes her the perfect partner in crime, because she'll just raise her hand and say, "why are they singing?" That is the only question you should be able to answer clearly, unequivocally, and in a way that is understood by everyone. If you don't know why the characters are singing, it's not gonna work, at all. But, stubbornly, and kind of counter-intuitively, I had a couple different songs just stuck in my head, that I wanted to have those who could sing — the whole cast, to varying degrees, can sing — but two of them were qualified professional singers, Hale Appleman (Elliot) and Jade Tailor (Kady). It was kind of a matter of building the story around two numbers, one was "All I Need is the Boy" which is a variation of a song from Gypsy, which was a famous strip number, and the other was "Under Pressure." It did always feel, even in the early, painful, terrible days of not knowing what the story was, it always felt like that was not only a finale number, but that it was a finale number for the entire cast. The problem was they were all in different locations, they were all pursuing different storylines...
SG: ...one of them was in the underworld...
JM: ...one of them was in the underworld. We kind of backed into it given the story we ended up with, it couldn't just be a whole new TV show with new motivations, we had to follow the arc of where these characters were and what they were doing, and not have this huge pause button variety show extravaganza.
For me, the biggest breakthrough, and it was not my idea and I don't remember whose it was, was to make this pocket world kind of dangerous, in that Josh, who had been missing for a while, was kind of in a way emotionally hiding there because he felt so left out. Once you kind of have that, and these party-going zombies who will inflict damage on anyone who wasn't having fun, it kind of began to sort of make sense. A lot of it was trial and error. The opening number wasn't "Wham Bam," it was another song, but we couldn't afford it. I thought "Wham Bam" was great, but it was not our first choice. By the time we got the script, it was pretty clear that we had good, solid, dramatic, and comedic bones. All I can say is as I was co-writing it — and I would check in with Alex and Jay on what they did, and we would merge it together later — it feels like it made sense. I don't know if it's good, I don't know if it's funny, I just think we worked hard to make it make sense.
The last thing I'll say because I know you wanted an "Under Pressure" focus — that was entirely scripted. That was really carefully worked out, who sang what part, where and when. That was partially based on who could sing the most octaves, it was partially based on where they were in the story, and it was partially based on just trying to make it not just a number, but a number that had an emotional resonance. It was really about saving Josh, and kind of repairing a wound in his past that he was brave enough to share.
It was beautifully staged by the director, James L. Conway, who happened to love musicals, thank God... and the cast was game. They were all nervous, except for Jade Tailor, who was not nervous at all. She was like, "finally!" Everybody came to play, everybody gave their best. They trusted, even when it probably felt uncomfortable on the set to be singing to zombies, and nobody fought back. Everybody said, "I guess you know what you're doing, we don't have a better idea, let's try and make this work." I think it came out okay. I was sort of surprised, myself, that it wasn't a complete disaster.
Each of the previous two seasons have ended with a hint of where the next season would go. Is this something that we can expect from the season 3 finale?
SG: Indeed. We hate to be predictable, but we do jump time a bit forward, and show you a whole new set of problems, basically. We set the table for a very high stakes, and ideally very entertaining Season 4.
The season finale of The Magicians, titled "Will You Play With Me?" will hit your magic screens tonight at 9PM on SYFY.