"Did I do something brave to save my friends? Or did I finally find a way to kill myself?"
The line sums up the duality that has always been at the heart of the character, whom viewers first met in the pilot when he was in a psychiatric ward. Since then, Quentin has continued to struggle with depression — even after discovering his place in the world of magic. After dying a sudden and inarguably heroic death, a disoriented Quentin finds himself in the underworld with the similarly dead Penny 40 (Arjun Gupta), struggling to understand what just happened in a way that will surely mirrors viewers’ feelings.
While Quentin's death is shocking, so, too, is the fact that Ralph — who has been No. 1 on the call sheet since Day 1 — is officially exiting The Magicians. While other characters have died but remained on the series — notably Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley) and Penny — Quentin is truly dead and Ralph will not be returning to The Magicians as a series regular. (As with other shows, the actor has the option to return in a flashback should producers go that route and Ralph want to do so.)
Below, executive producers Sera Gamble, John McNamara and Henry Alonso Myers break down how they arrived at the decision to kill Quentin, their conversations with Ralph about his departure and what The Magicians will look like when it returns for season five.
Gamble: We started talking about it at the end of season three with Jason Ralph. We had a wonderful creative conversation about Quentin’s arc as a character throughout the series, and where the end of that arc might be. John and Henry and I tend to take very seriously ideas that scare us, and this is a creatively scary idea. So we explored it, and we called Lev Grossman [author of The Magicians novels] and we said, "We have this idea, what do you think about killing Quentin?'" It was a very long pause, and then he said he thought it was a really great and intriguing and rich idea, and he started pitching ideas for the other characters based on what would happen. So we realized that we were onto something.
Episode seven of this season, "The Side Effect," explicitly challenges the idea that a fantasy story needs a "white male protagonist." Was that moment part of the buildup to Quentin leaving the show?
Gamble: Yes, that was a huge part of the conversation for us. This is a fantasy show about people who are fans of fantasy, so they know what kind of movie or story they’re in when they’re on an adventure or a quest. That opened some doors for us as writers to really examine the classic arc we would be putting everybody on, and question why it must be so, and ask ourselves what would happen if we did things a little bit differently.
Myers: As the show has gone on, we’ve had a chance to lean into some of our other characters more, and when we do that, we realized the show is just as strong if not stronger when it’s leaning into other perspectives. The experimental nature of the show, and the fact that we've been able to do episodes like "The Side Effect" suggested to us that not only is this something that we would survive, it's something that actually might be a great shot in the arm for us.
McNamara: And from a dramaturgical point of view, it's kind of great that at last, the white male lead on a show is no longer safe.
Characters have died before on the show and stuck around, but Jason Ralph is not returning as a series regular. Why did you, and he, decide on a clean break?
McNamara: It was a very swift meeting of the minds between the four of us. We felt like this character's journey was coming to an end. I could feel it in my bones and Jason felt the same way. Quentin came in with a very specific purpose and a very specific set of life goals and challenges, and in a way, I'm not sure what we would have done with the character had he lived. It felt like the major question in his life is, "Is my life truly worth living? Was it a good thing that I didn't succeed in killing myself at 15 or 18?" He now has that answer: he mattered to these other people, and their lives are never going to be the same for knowing him.
Myers: We've killed major characters before on the show and we've always tried to approach them differently. The first time we did it was with Alice, we knew she was going to be coming back — as in the books. So we took her out of the recaps, we withheld her from the audience for an episode to let this settle with them and wonder if it was real, and then tried to bring her back in a way that was difficult and disturbing. The second time when we killed Penny, we deliberately held in his POV, so the death was not about his death. The death was about him reacting to the fact that his body died, but he was still alive. So we were starting to feel that we risked the audience losing their faith in us if we just brought everyone back. A true story from adulthood that we have not told adequately enough is the story of: how do you deal with a real death? How does a real loss change you? It's something Lev deals with well in one of the later books, where Quentin's father dies and it fundamentally changes his magic. We realized that with Quentin, we could tell that story through all of our other characters.
How did you approach framing Quentin’s death as a potential suicide?
Gamble: We wanted him to explicitly ask that question [of whether he killed himself], because suicidal thoughts have been a part of his journey for the whole series, and a huge part of his backstory. John and I wrote this script together and he wrote the first draft of that scene, and I was really moved by it when I read it, and it felt very much in line with our philosophy in making the show, which is that we really want to talk about hard things that have difficult answers. I watched the scene where he dies, and to me there's no question that he's being heroic, and he's being selfless in that moment, and he has done the math really fast and he's done what he needs to do to save his friends. But because this has been such a painful and constant part of Quentin's life, it made sense that he would ask about it. It gave us an opportunity to close the circle that was opened in the pilot when he's facing the psychiatrist and trying to deal with his own mental health.
The bleakest interpretation of Quentin’s death is that this guy has struggled for years with depression and suicidal thoughts, and finally kills himself. Were you concerned about that as a message?
McNamara: No, I wasn't, because I think one of the great things about what Lev has created with Quentin is that he's a character of intense inner contradictions, and there has to be a little less fear of death than the person who's not heroic. So is that a death wish? Is that thinking life is not important to you? The answer is unknowable. I believe, as one of the writers of that script, that he did not consciously kill himself, and I think the scene by the fire with Penny answers that. But it's complicated, and there has to be a little bit of ambiguity. I welcome people questioning, and I welcome people wondering, and I welcome people hopefully reaching the conclusion that he did far more good in his life than bad, and he did far more good by sacrificing himself than not, and that to me is the ultimate takeaway. To me, it was a heroic act.
After fighting all season to save Eliot, Quentin never actually gets to see him again. Given how central that relationship has been to the season, did you consider having them reunite before Quentin died?
Gamble: I think we knew he would die to save Eliot. So much of Quentin's arc and drive this season is just "Eliot must be saved," and so there is no math going into that final episode where they get to hang out. Quentin is rushing to complete the mission, and has been doing this all season for Eliot, and certainly as we were writing this final run of episodes, and really all season long, that urgency helped drive the scripts. In a human way it's such a bummer, it is a tragedy, but as stories go, it made a lot of sense to us to go out this way.
McNamara: That's the interesting thing about death in real life — rarely, when someone close to you dies, do you get that kind of movie goodbye hospital scene. That almost never happens. I've lost my share of people, and I was not there for any of their deaths, and in most cases didn't think they were going to die when they died. That’s part of the pain of it, and I think had we given Quentin and Eliot a final scene, it would have had a kind of artificiality to it for me, and it would have lessened the impact that it is going to have on Eliot going forward. Eliot is going to be hugely changed by this, emotionally and psychologically, and in a way, "Queliot" is never going to die as long as Eliot is alive.
You mentioned that Quentin’s story is over, but have you discussed Jason returning to the show in any capacity, whether in flashbacks or otherwise?
Gamble: It's not that Quentin's story is done on The Magicians. It is that Jason Ralph is no longer a series regular on the show, and Quentin Coldwater is dead on the show, and the story moving forward is about the aftermath of that. Certainly on The Magicians, people can be very sad and can also be singing power anthems from the '80s, and having sex that will turn them into a werewolf, and making deals with fairies with no eyebrows, and be traveling inter-dimensionally, so it's not a bummer. But the emotions will run incredibly deep. Jason has left the show, and Quentin is dead, and a lot of season five is about what happens next, just as when somebody dies in our lives, the next season of our life is about what happens. I would underscore what John was just saying, which is for those of us who have experienced death…my story with my dad didn't end when he died. If anything, there have been about 500 chapters since then. I have always felt like TV and movies are a place where you can explore the most difficult and contradictory and painful of human emotions, and you can do it in a way that you can metabolize and that can even have fun and entertainment within it.
You’re in the early stages of writing season five. What does that look like without Quentin?
McNamara: It's interesting because not every character had the depth of relationship with Quentin that Julia, Eliot and Alice had. So it's interesting to really be realistic about it. There’s a bit of a clue to that in one of the final scenes of the finale where Margo and Eliot are in Fillory and she has this line about, "I'm gonna find my man for some hot grief-banging," and then realizes she's being horribly insensitive to Eliot. I don't think Margo in season one would have had that moment of self-awareness. That's how much she's changed. And I also think Eliot is not going to lash out at her, where previously he might have. They've both matured a lot. It's common knowledge that I have a strange idea of fun, but it's going to be strangely fun to track everybody missing Quentin in different ways for different reasons.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.