'The Magicians' Boss on Shocking Setting Switch, Marina's "Suspect" Ways and Julia's Future

"It was something we wanted to do early," showrunner Sera Gamble tells THR, "while everyone is still learning the rules of the show."
Courtesy of SyFy

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the fourth episode of The Magicians.]

Just when viewers thought they were settling into the magical world of The Magicians and Brakebills, the writers switched things up in Monday’s horrific, mental institution-based “The World in the Walls.”

In it, Quentin (Jason Ralph) found himself trapped back in the psychiatric hospital audiences first met him in, forcing viewers to question whether the school had all been in the character’s head. As it turned out, it was all an elaborate spell performed by Julia (Stella Maeve) and her mentor Marina (Kacey Rohl), who had her sights set on retaining her memories from the school that cast her out.

Unfortunately for her, Julia had a change of heart by episode’s end when she saw what the spell was doing to Quentin, and came clean to the dean (Rick Worthy). That move not only cast her out of Marina’s circle, but also put her back on her own with all of her newly acquired — and not fully honed — magical skills.

To find out what comes next for Julia, Quentin, Marina and more, THR caught up with showrunner Sera Gamble. Here she discusses that magical Taylor Swift number, staying true to the books’ themes of depression and setting up that mind-messing episode.

This episode had a different tone and setup – what was the intention from the writers’ room?

This was an idea for an episode that [executive producer] John McNamara pitched before the show was even picked up. I think it was in our original series document that we shared with Syfy. We thought this was a really good opportunity to do an episode like this considering that when you meet our main character he’s in an in-patient psychiatric hospital. This is a very classic fantasy trope essentially, where you’re inviting the audience to question which reality is the real reality. We had all the ingredients and it was something we wanted to do early before the audience got too comfortable in the world, while everyone is still learning the rules of the show. We wanted to switch it up.

Was there any debate on keeping that question going beyond this episode?

It would be fun as an experiment to try and stretch it out longer, but this was organically how the story evolved. It was a marriage of the idea of Quentin questioning his reality and questioning whether magic was real. And it also dovetails really nicely with where we were in the storyline with Julia’s education as a hedge witch and increasingly Marina pushing the envelope on the kind of magic they do. And then there’s what’s been going on with Julia’s relationship with Quentin. There’s a lot of anger underneath and a lot of unresolved stuff. This is sort of the episode where she lashes out in a way.

What was it about the Taylor Swift dance that fit perfectly here?

In our case, the reason they worked together is because John was writing the episode. It was a plot point, something that kind of made sense to us. Quentin knows that Penny (Arjun Gupta) can hear this earworm that he had stuck in his head, and because Quentin is smart, he decides to use that to try and help him escape. But it started as a joke that very quickly became serious in the writers' room. That song was stuck in everyone’s head. John, who’s a musical aficionado and had a lot of good reference points, wanted to build it into the episode and was very specific and confident about what the tone of that would be.

Julia went fairly dark in the episode. Does that speak to a potential reason why she didn’t make Brakebills?

It’s possible. Things like your stability as a person sometimes figure in when the school is inviting or not inviting people with a certain level of magical aptitude. Characters will actually pause at that to Julia over the course of this season, where they’ll say, “Maybe your behavior reveals why they didn’t take you.” As to whether or not that’s true, something that’s really frustrating to her is that she has no idea. The rules seem kind of arbitrary or subjective. It’s not like you look at somebody like Kady or Penny and say, “They’re very well-balanced and calm people.” If it feels a little unfair it should; it feels super unfair to Julia.

Will Quentin have a newfound respect for Julia, or be, perhaps, sympathetic?

Both things are true. The story of what happens to this friendship at this point in the show is that both of them cross lines and they both say the kind of things you say in an argument that you can’t later unsay. Maybe they’re true, but they are permanently damaging to a relationship and both of them have kind of gone there. We’ve been trying to tell the story of two human flawed friends and this is the difficult thing that happens as you grow up, where your friendships sometimes fall apart. We wanted to be careful not to let either of them off scot-free. Both of them do things they shouldn’t do and both of them make mistakes. They’ve never been in a situation like this before, this is all really new to them, and they’re probably doing the best they can in the moment, but sometimes they make bad decisions. This is not a good decision on Julia’s part.

Now that Marina also has cast Julia out, where can she go from here?

That’s the question. The interesting thing that happens to Julia in this episode is that she goes along with what Marina is doing to a point, but Marina is willing to put Quentin in a situation that ultimately Julia is not. That proved to Marina that she’s not a hedge witch she wants around, she’s not someone Marina can trust. Julia wants to get magic and she is having the hardest possible time — it’s not being handed to her on any level and every time she thinks she’s found the avenue to become the greatest magician she can be, it gets taken away from her. She’s being stretched to the limits. The next step for her is figuring out where the hell she’s supposed to go next.

Now that Marina has her full memories back, what kind of danger does she pose?

Is she dangerous? I don’t know. I see her as really smart and ambitious and savvy. I don’t think she’s one of those people who will just blow things up for the sake of it. She has long-term plans and she’s very canny. Certainly Marina’s morals are a little bit suspect but in ways she’s a good choice because you know that she carefully assesses every situation. She doesn’t have a safety net of any kind and she doesn’t have the luxury of a huge social circle of peers or mentors. I look at her as this totally self-made woman. It would be reductive and maybe incorrect to look at her as just evil.

With this episode under your belt, how are you looking to deal with depression going forward?

It’s inherent in Quentin’s character, and not just his character, but it is part of several characters in the show. Quentin is someone who has felt tremendously out of place and misunderstood, like he can’t quite find his way in life and that’s been a defining characteristic of his early 20s. It’s why he’s in a mental hospital when we first meet him. We discuss it a lot in the writers' room, about how when each of us is kind of discovering this thing that we were passionate about — for most of us it was writing — it really did give us a certain kind of focus and a lift. It didn’t fix our lives, it didn’t solve all our problems or ultimately cure all of our depression or anxiety or our general discomfort with life, but there is a honeymoon period and Quentin has had that honeymoon period now. As we progress further into the story we start to see what he looks like when he goes back to his set point, when he becomes a Quentin who is used to being able to do magic or the novelty and wonder of that has warn off a little bit. For somebody like that depression comes into play.

The Magicians airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on Syfy.

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Twitter: @amber_dowling