Syfy, Sera Gamble & John McNamara Address the End of ‘The Magicians’
If magic comes from pain, then a lot of folks are gonna be pulling hankies out of a hat today because it has just announced that The Magicians will be ending with its current fifth season, concluding with the April 1 episode.
“The Magicians has been a part of our Syfy family for five fantastic seasons. As we near the end of this journey, we want to thank John McNamara, Sera Gamble, Henry Alonso Myers, Lev Grossman, and our entire brilliant cast, crew, writers and directors for their beautiful creation. But most of all, we thank the fans for their tremendous support and passion. Because of you, magic will be in our hearts forever,” the network said in a statement.
This is not the first time Magicians devotees have been dealt a crushing blow. Season 4 ended with the unexpected and emotionally triggering death of series regular Jason Ralph‘s Quentin Coldwater, a character who served as a surrogate for viewers dealing with matters of mental health, fluid sexuality and fitting in. Much of this season has dealt with the grief of that loss, as the other characters — who all offer reflections of the audience — seek to make sense of his death and move on.
Thankfully, and this will likely be cold comfort for fans, the season finale was written to work as a series finale and as such, may offer a sense of closure to several storylines.
Ahead of the news breaking today, TV Insider spoke exclusively with executive producers Sera Gamble and John McNamara about The Magicians‘ fate, why it doesn’t make sense to move it to another platform, and how they hope the show’s vibrant (and fearlessly vocal) fandom will carry on the lessons we’ve learned during our time at Brakebills University. #peachesandplumsmotherf***ers
Well this is devastating. But I understand that all good things need to come to an end. What is your plan here? How did this all play out?
John McNamara: It played out kind of the way it’s played out almost every season. With the exception of Season 4 into Season 5, we never knew whether or not we’re going to get picked up. It was always a discussion—never really about the creative—about the financials and you always know, with any show, that there’s this kind of fine line between what it brings in and what it costs.
Sera Gamble: And as the creators of the show, we understand that. We had the sense going into this season that Syfy, in particular as our first platform, was kind of hitting the point of “The cup is full and there’s no more room.”
McNamara: It’s not going to necessarily expand in terms of revenue, it’s not necessarily going to contract in terms of revenue, but it is going to cost more.
With that in mind, did you craft a season, if this was the end, that fits how you would end it?
McNamara: Yes. I would say Sera can probably speak to that more succinctly and directly than I can because she and [exec producer and co-showrunner] Henry Alonso Myers wrote the season finale. We all obviously pitched in at the story level, but my big contribution was writing the insane musical episode that comes right before the season finale.
Gamble: It’s pretty good. [Laughs]
McNamara: In a way, it was my exercise in major denial.
So you were aware of this ending by then?
McNamara: Yeah, we were aware that it was definitely not going to go forward on Syfy at that point and that we were then going to want at least try to make a run at other platforms.
I know NBC Universal was also part of that search. But nothing worked out?
McNamara: None of them seemed in the end like a perfect financial or creative fit. And so we reluctantly just decided, “Well at least we have this season finale that was crafted to also be a series finale.” It was kind of always going to pull double duty.
How was it for you guys doing this with the cast not being entirely aware?
Gamble: Everyone is pretty savvy about how the business works. All the writers, the actors, our whole team. And so coming into this season, everyone was pretty level headed and aware that we had hit a certain point in the lifespan of this kind of show. And people were really emotional about it, but in many ways, that was because we’ve created a family over the last several years that really wanted to do right by the show. So aside from the musical that came out of John’s moment of denial, we tried not to indulge in any denial about it. We wanted to make sure it was a really satisfying conclusion. And so when Henry and I wrote the finale, there really wasn’t a difference in approach to writing it because I honestly never counted on there being another season.
What can you tell us about the end?
Gamble: We really spent a lot of time and care in talking not just about how to complete the arc of Season 5, but also asking a lot of questions like, “Where was Julia (Stella Maeve) in episode 1? Where was she in episode 2?” and what do we want to say about that? Where she is in this episode? And so where you see the characters, especially in the final episode, I feel it really says what we wanted to say about their journey into adulthood. Was there more gas in the tank? I mean, I think the show itself sort of speaks to the endless capacity to create with all our partners. The world that [author] Lev Grossman created in his books is so rich, I think there’s like a thousand shows inside of those books. And I only became more convinced when we kind of ran out of plot [from the novels], we have done most of the stories of those three books.
But the world is so real that I’m not going to lie, we could go off and tell lots of stories about these characters. But to put some kind of punctuation at the end of the sentence of this particular show and the journey we’ve been going on with our audience for the last five seasons, we feel pretty good about the season finale. I feel like it is very much in keeping with the spirit of the show.
Have you talked to Lev about doing a book based on these versions of his characters?
McNamara: I would never be so bold. You’re much bolder than I am, Damian! [Laughs] I would never have the balls. And Lev is the nicest person in the world and would probably greet that suggestion with politeness. You never know. Creatively, Lev is always surprising. Which was one of the delights of working with him for the last six years…his reactions are never what I fear. They’re usually more like, “Oh wow!” He wants us to be weirder. He wanted us to move further in our own direction. He tends to really get excited when we come up with stuff that has the DNA of the books but is its own thing. I’ll never forget the first time I sent him the script for I think it was in the second season, the “One Day More” number. And he just wrote me back with “I trust you, I really, really trust you.” And that was it, that all he said!
I co-wrote that episode with Elle Lipson and Joseph Mireles and we literally constructed that sequence so that it actually could be entirely surgically amputated from the episode and you wouldn’t miss any plot because I was so convinced it was going to be a disaster. But Lev was the first person, other than Sarah and Henry to see the cut in rough form and say, “Oh my God, I love this.” So again I never can guess his response, so the answer to your question is I don’t know. [Laughs]
My hope is that we’ll do a ton of stuff with Lev in the future. Because — and I don’t like to use the word “genius” because it gets thrown around and sort of devalued — he really has this genius for world building that to me is totally unique, especially since I’m not a fantasy fan. Everything he does to me is amazing and new.
That’s what I was tweeting about during last week’s episode. It is really like a wellspring of this creativity, so there was no signs of the show running out of steam.
Gamble: No, it isn’t.
McNamara: The show, in terms of its voice, the writing, the acting, the storytelling and then the execution of storytelling, was never a sweat. I feel like we never really broke a sweat. And pretty much anything we wanted to do, the team at the network were like, “OK, try it.” Where the show was always challenging, where I think actually we exercised the most creativity, was with the budget. And I’m not knocking anybody, they gave us a budget. We knew what it was. It increased slightly every year as certain costs went up. And as long as we stayed within that budget, we could do anything we wanted. Literally. I don’t think anyone ever told us, “You can’t do that. That’s too weird. That’s too dark. That’s too funny. That’s too musical.” There was always an incredible amount of creative support, but we always knew we existed in this sort of rarefied realm that was very much dependent on how much we spent and how much we took in.
Between conventions, merchandise and on-air advertising, Syfy was really devoted to promoting the show and supporting you all. That must have felt good.
Gamble: There’s a certain amount of chaos and unknown future that’s a cost I’m more than willing to pay because, at the risk of just reaching for the cliches, this is the dream job. To get to make TV all day? This is the first show I co-created that was on the air. And I got to do it with John, who is one of my dearest, dearest friends and he’s also my mentor. He kind of gets annoyed when I say that…
McNamara: Because I’m 8,000 years old. I’m literally older than Obi-Wan. [Laughs]
Gamble: So am I! But there is this wonderful partnership. And then we found ourselves together with other partners like Henry and Elle and David Reed and Mike Moore and all of the writers and then later everybody else who joined us. And we had found a storytelling world together where we really had room for everybody to talk about what was important to them. And the show for me, in my heart, is so inextricably connected with just telling the truth of what it feels like when the real world hits you. That’s kind of a funny thing to say about a show about magic, but that’s what the show has always been and it has always been flexible enough to reflect that from the perspective of the youngest writer in the room to the oldest writer in the room to any and all of the actors, the directors. All of it just sort of melted into the whole. I have always had this feeling like life doesn’t go in a straight line. It doesn’t really tie up neatly in a bow.
You’re lucky if you get some of what you want. You’re definitely not going to get all of what you want. So it’s really what you make of the time you have. And I’m especially grateful that we made it to Season 5. Our characters have reached this point of maturity and experience where we could tell that story in particular. For me, this one is the most emotionally rich season of them all for that reason.
Do you feel like a lot of that is borne out of losing Quentin (Jason Ralph)?
Gamble: Oh yeah.
McNamara: I think in a way, losing Quentin, for almost every fan of the show and for almost everybody who works in the show, has a kind of an echo to the show now ending. And I don’t want to get too dark or too philosophical, but I will. It’s just each of those things—the death of a character, the end of a show—reminds us we’re all going to die. Subconsciously it’s just this little reminder inside of like, “Man, that went fast.” It was really fun, but it’s over. And to quote one of my favorite Stephen Sondheim lyrics, everything beautiful dies. And that’s a f**king bummer. But if you reject that, then you reject what life is.
You mention the fans. Given how some responded to the death of Quentin last year, does that add more pressure as you end this now? Because this is a show that has been so important to so many people.
Gamble: Well, what you’re talking about when you say that the end of last season was very emotional for the fans, it was emotional for us making it. And also, it was a little bit divisive and people had strong opinions about it. That to me is a crucial sign of a true fandom. So speaking as someone who has been at Comic-Con pretty much every year for about the last 15 years and has worked on more than one “fandom” show, that is the beauty of fandom. Everybody has an opinion, so at all points during the making of this show, I’ve been appreciative that we have people who watch and give a s**t and have an opinion.
“A Life in the Day” The Magicians
It was the most beautiful, breathtaking, and heartbreaking episode I’ve ever seen in any show. It was truly groundbreaking pic.twitter.com/oILNOA9NB2
— Jack Jack (@IPunchedCupid) March 2, 2020
Queen Margo from The Magicians is my fave @MagiciansSYFY always making a witch laugh 😂😂
— Gia (@_honeygee_) March 1, 2020
Other shows should want fans that passionate.
Gamble: Absolutely. And I’m gratified that so many people that like the show have trusted the contract we have with the audience because we will always do our best to tell the deepest, most personal, most honest story that we can. And yeah, as the show is ending, I do feel so much gratitude for the fans. But I also think about how this kind of news always bummed me out when I like a show [that ends]. It’s rough, so all we can do as the people making the show is to make sure—to the best of abilities—that we’re putting everything we have into the last run of episodes. And they look amazing. Our visual effects team really went insane. I can’t say too much more about it, but the season finale with the capital F, looks so incredible. Some stuff does blow up. But also, we wanted to give really juicy meaty moments to our actors.
Oh, this cast.
Gamble: Right?! When this show started, when we did the pilot for the show, we had like six series regulars and for most of them, it was the first time their name had ever been on the back of the director’s chair on a set. They had never had their own chair before! They were, in many cases, new to the series-regular gig of television. And so we have grown up together. They started out great actors, but now they can kill anything we give them. So I’m hoping that people will get to see some of the stuff they really want to see from their favorite characters before the end.
Can you give me any idea of what that is? What does the finale look like?
Gamble: What can we say? Josh makes the best sandwich he’s ever made. I’m giving you like the least spoilery thing I could think of! [Laughs]. But I think some of it you can probably extrapolate from what you’ve been seeing all season. I’ll just say, for example, Eliot (Hale Appelman), it’s been a season of so much growth for Eliot. And it’s clear that he’s arcing towards truly being able to step into a different place in his life, if he chooses to. So we’ll pose some decisions for him to make by the end of the season that will feel, I think, hard-earned. And then, I don’t know, is there anything else we can actually say about the finale, John? Right now?
McNamara: I’m just watching it in my head right now going, “No, no…not that.” I don’t want to be too withholding, so I’ll tell you one thing about the musical, which airs right before the finale: It’s a musical heist episode.
Gamble: Heists are fun and musicals are fun. So we combined them!
McNamara: I co-wrote it with Elle Lipson and I’ve got to say, it was a bitch to plot. It was so awful plotting it. At one point, I literally had to make an intricate architectural diagram of the place where the heist takes place and we then made little cardboard cut outs of each character and where they were and what they were singing and why they were singing and when they were singing. And at one point I thought, “I have lost my mind.” I can’t believe I’m 57 years old and this is what I do all day.
But I think it came out okay. We just watched the playback of it last week and at the end of it, Sera—who is very nice about letting me do these, but I wouldn’t say that she’s in the front row cheering “Yay, another musical!”—goes, “That was the most bonkers musical we’ve ever done.”
Gamble: And I’m not kidding. It was absolutely insane.
McNamara: So getting back to the finale, because the musical episode is later in the season, it actually sets the spike for a lot of what you’re going to see in the finale, emotionally. Every song in the musical episode comes out of some kind of emotional inner turmoil and really drives the plot and the characters forward. So they’re not just numbers that you could easily drop or cut. They’re all integrated into the story. And looking at the finale, the last time I watched the musical’s cut, I’m was like, “Wow, that really feels like we were moving toward this with intent.” We’re moving towards epiphanies, if you will, and climaxes. There’s just some incredible kind of character surprises and growth right up till I think the very last scene, it’s pretty surprising.
Gamble: And I will say that the finale’s table read felt like maybe the last table read. We all knew it could very well be the last table read and, man, it was really beautiful. Everybody acted their asses off. They were all there in their hoodies with their dogs walking around the production office and that sort of thing. And it’s something I thought about when I watched the very last scene of the episode. Several of our characters are talking—I can’t say anything besides that—and there’s a beautiful, bittersweet mix of emotions and there’s a lot of looking forward to what their next thing is going to be. I think that’s how we feel about it. We’re really, really sad to end this show that we love so much. But I, for one, am just such a huge fan of everybody we’ve worked with that I can’t wait to see what they do next.
McNamara: What I think we’ve all experienced, either as writer-producers or as fans or both, is that there’s nothing they can’t do. Every single one of them is like an athlete that can play any position.
I know you explored other options and didn’t find a proper home for the show to move to, but what if the fans launch a campaign that actually takes traction?
McNamara: Obviously, neither Sera nor myself will be like, “Boo, no, forget it!” I kind of feel the DNA of this show has always been a kind of happy surprise that resulted from a kind of a happy accident. You probably know the story, Damian, of how we came to even be aware of the books being available. I was doing Trumbo, the movie with [producer] Michael London and I wanted Michael to meet Sera because I always wanted Michael to get into television. I told him the great thing about TV when it works is that it’s like you’re in a family for however long the show runs. Anyway, he met Sera, he really liked her and didn’t like any of our ideas. [Laughs] She leaves and then he pulls out the book The Magicians and said, “Oh my God, I forgot to mention this. It was in development at another studio and the rights just became available and I have a really good relationship with Lev Grossman.” I had no… I couldn’t have had less interest. Zero, like none. I think I literally rolled my eyes.
And then I called Sera and she started screaming. “I love those books!” “There’s more than one book!” “They’re amazing, we have to do this!” It was literally because Michael and Sera were so excited that I was like, “OK, fine.” And the story that is sort of a bit of a fable but it happens to be true is that Michael and Sera and I each wrote not huge but not small checks to option the books with our own money. And then we wrote the pilot on spec.
McNamara: So there’s a part of me that didn’t really know that this thing was starting when it started. I thought it was just like another fun, weird thing to do with Sera and Michael. I don’t know what the future is going to be. So that’s a long answer to your question about what if the fans get traction. We never operated from a place of thinking we know what’s going to happen next. We just don’t. We kind of have to accept, again, the idea that television can be kind of analogous to life: It can be really unfair but it can also be incredibly surprising. So we just like wait and see what happens.
You realize people may seriously question the fact that it’s ending on April Fools’ Day.
Gamble: Yeah, that would be cruel, don’t you think?
McNamara: If this was all an elaborate April Fools’ joke, we’d be the biggest assholes that every lived.
I don’t want to speak for the fans, but as a confirmed Fillorian, I have to say that this is one of those “Don’t be sad it’s over, be happy it happened” shows. You guys should be so proud of how these stories and characters touched so many lives. You gave people a show to connect with, new actors to love, something that we’ll be able to keep with us going forward.
Gamble: Thank you. We have five seasons we’re really proud of, full of performances that we hope more people continue to discover and see. Those are still there. People will always be able to find them and the characters will be with them.
Yeah, it’s written in their books.
Gamble: Yeah. And I hope that the fandom keeps that same spirit. It’s a community that exists now where people have found each other. The TV show was just a bridge for like-minded people to find each one another and, by the way, be incredibly creative. Our fandom, I’m constantly bragging about how artistic our fans are with the cosplay and the fan-fiction and how Lev’s world and the world of the show unleashes creativity in people. So I hope it continues to do that. I hope that they keep that alive.
The Magicians, Wednesdays, 10/9c, Syfy