A Final Goodbye to 'The Magicians' With EPs Sera Gamble & John McNamara
[Warning: This interview includes MAJOR spoilers for the series finale of The Magicians, "Fillory and Further." We discuss key details about the final episode. Additionally, you should know it features an alarming amount of talk about David Hasselhoff.]
So that is how it ends... with a new beginning.
The Magicians wrapped its fifth and final season with the destruction of Fillory, the birth of another planet — as well as a baby unicorn hybrid — and all of our heroes poised to make big moves for their futures.
In our final chat with executive producers Sera Gamble and John McNamara, we got some insight into how it all came together, what they wanted for their characters and—because magic is real and really weird—how 30 Rock, David Hasselhoff and multi-award-nominated actress Elizabeth Ashley (Evening Shade) all helped pave the road from Brakebills to New Fillory.
OK, so let's talk about this finale... for an hour that could have simply been a season finale, it's shockingly optimistic compared to your previous finales.
John McNamara: [Laughs]
Sera Gamble: You know what, Damian? We were on the bubble! [Laughs] And also, you would be shocked by how much you can change in [post-production], and we kind of had two plans. We had these discussions very early on about how a couple things did feel too optimistic for a show going into another season with peril. And there were things that were on the chopping block if we were going to return. I'm just really glad that we shot them because they're very appropriate for the finale.
What ended up on the cutting room floor that you can tell me about?
Gamble: No, it would be the opposite. It's like, some of that feeling of closure and optimism that you're feeling, we wrote it into the script and we were like, 'You know, we can cut this a little earlier, we can emphasize different things.' We kind of had a plan. By the time we were finishing the cut, we were aware that the clock had run out on the show and so we went, I guess you can say, we went with the Optimistic Cut, which is this finale cut.
Last time we spoke, you guys said that "things blow up.' And you blew s**t up!
Gamble: Oh yeah.
Was this the first time that you really got to do something that epic?
McNamara: Um, I guess we've never blown up an entire planetoid before, so yeah. I think it's scale-appropriate to the story. We try to think in terms of, 'How do we top ourselves?' or, 'How do we compete with bigger shows or movies, or whatever?' It sort of feels like whatever is appropriate to the moment. Like, I remember when we were doing the episode where they go underneath Fillory to Black Castle, and that was actually a lot of complex rendering, a lot of complex effects. At the time, I was like, 'Wow, this is the biggest thing we've ever done,' and little did I know... [Laughs]
Gamble: Yeah, I remember when the dragon was the biggest thing we'd ever done.
McNamara: Yeah, Julia and The Beast blipping out at the end of Season 1 — whoa! [Laughs]
By the end of the hour, you've checked off a ton of boxes. You gave us the next evolutionary and emotional step forward for every one of these characters.
Gamble: That was the goal! And in a way, it's kind of nice to look at the silver lining of the show ending. We didn't have all of that pressure of "Create the perfect finale that wraps everything up," because The Magicians has never really been about tying things up in a bow. I mean, we frequently say that "That's not how life works." We even say it in this episode. So, I feel really kind of at peace and I feel like it's right for the show. The plot continues... you can clearly see what their next adventure might be, what their next problem might be. But, in the writers' room, as Henry [Alonso Myers]and I were writing the episode, we spent a ton of time talking about "Where was Alice in the pilot? Where was Margo in Episode 2?" and we wanted to say about their growth over the course of the season and who they are now as people.
Right. And you give Olivia Taylor Dudley that amazing moment, where it's all the things Alice has been fighting against within herself that becomes her greatest strength.
Gamble: Yeah, it's true. And some of this is just me, almost as a fan of Lev's [Grossman] books, but we've gotten to do five seasons of fan fiction and I really wanted Alice to be a master magician by the end of the series. I wanted to call her that. And so, she got the sped-up, imperfect version of that promotion, of course, but that's sort of how things go in life.
Now, the Julia and Penny stuff. Again, when you think of where everyone was at the beginning of the show and where they end, we would never have imagined this pairing!
Gamble: Do you know what's funny? I always kind of knew they would be great, that Stella Maeve and Arjun Gupta would be great if somehow their characters found their way to each other. Of course, they didn't until a different version of Penny came on the show, but it's just because we all did a pilot together about seven years ago where they played love interests and I knew that they had really beautiful creative chemistry when they were playing romantic interests. So I wasn't worried about it at all, but I especially was interested in seeing how they have a very simple chemistry, at the end.
I'll just say that these are characters who were especially alone and on the outside when their stories started. So without taking away anything about what makes each of them a whole and individual person, it just made me really happy. I don't know, I guess I may have gone a little soft because to see Julia—who couldn't have been more on the outside of things in Season 1—have a true partner and ally, and to see the same for Penny 23 who has lost everyone in his life once already? That was good enough for me for them.
There was so much great work from Jade, Brittany, Olivia, Stella and Summer heading into the hour. Did you guys realize you that you were creating such a female-powered ending?
McNamara: I wasn't, but the show, in general, one of its themes has always been about female power. Using Margo (Summer Bishil) as an example, you saw how much harder she had to fight for respect, even though she's a king. She automatically was expected to defer to Eliot (Hale Appleman) because that's the patriarchy of Earth and it's even worse on Fillory because it's essentially medieval. What I liked about watching the finale come together was how you can definitely feel the arc of how everybody, male and female and creature, has come into some version of their own power. But, the arc of Margo is especially really clear. And that was well-defined in the books with [the character of] Janet.
The books offered us all the great material to return to, to look at, to examine, and to talk to Lev about. And Lev Grossman is so great about saying, "Aw man, don't do it from the books," you know? "Do something different." That was one of the most refreshing parts of this collaboration and probably something I'll miss the most: having his work to access, having him to access, having him almost constantly nudging us to go like, "Do something different" or, "I didn't feel like I nailed it." He's very tough on himself, as most really good artists are. But there is such clarity, structurally, in the books and I think what we really tried to do was be true to that. And because we have kind of a bigger field to play on, simply because we have more bandwidth than three novels, we were able to make some of those journeys with a little more conflict or add a few more setbacks. And therefore, when characters do finally come into their own or they achieve a moment of victory or a moment of inner peace or whatever, it feels more because we've been with them longer.
I definitely felt that with Kady finally finding a place with the Hedges and Fen (Brittany Curran), really in the last three episodes, coming into her own. The role she plays in New Fillory is just so beautifully realized... we've seen her go from the person who was like, 'I want to make King Eliot happy,' to the woman who literally carries the world in her vagina.
Gamble: [Laughs] Yeah. She finally got to be the mom she wanted to be! You know, I think part of the organic evolution of the story in our show, particularly, is that we became really fascinated by the "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern" of it all. We've said this very explicitly in many episodes of the show, and then talking to you as well, that we question who the "main characters" are in these kinds of stories. That's part of the job of The Magicians, and Fen—she was a character who was basically invented to be a bit of an obstacle to Eliot. She was the high price he would have to pay to get it done in a moment of peril, he had to marry her, even though that wasn't his preference. And so it was a story that was very much about this woman from a sort of backward society and it wasn't frankly about her when the story started. So, I think we're all really gratified and excited that we just asking ourselves those "main character" questions about "the wife," and she has since become a character that the writers love to write for. And of course, Brittany is such a bright light.
Delightful, right?! I feel like this episode gives us what we've wanted for all of them without ending their stories. Eliot, where he ends up and who he ends up with is so sweet. He's still himself, he's still his own Eliot, but there's somebody there for him.
Gamble: I mean, it's funny. I don't know about you, John, but for me, over and over again in making this last season and then making the finale, I just felt so grateful that we have had these five seasons. I mean, it's really rare for a show to get to go five seasons. And when you talk about Margo's evolution or what we've seen, it's like, we knew what Summer could do when we cast her, because we wrote a monologue about the desert before we started filming the pilot, and we just didn't know if we were gonna get to the desert. Yeah, so we always knew.We didn't know she would be so hilarious when we gave her the most vulgar line you can think of. [Laughs] She raised our game with that! But, in terms of her emotional power, we knew that long before the story gave room for us to go there. And we knew that Hale was so incredible and a brilliant singer long before we started doing musical episodes. We just were excited that we got the chance to sort of go there... and now I can't remember what question I was actually answering!
Giving these characters what we've always hoped that they would find without erasing their flaws.
Gamble: Fundamentally, they're still the same weirdos they were when we met them and they're still flawed. They've made even more mistakes, they still have secrets, they're still working their s**t out, you know. They're living their lives. That's what being a grown-up is about. But, when you met them in Episode 1, they were alone, and now they're not. Listen, they're divided by time and space and possibly dimensions and they have no idea how to find each other, but you do know that they give a s**t about finding each other. I think that's why it's optimistic. It's like everybody has their problems, but now they have each other.
Right. And now for you guys, what did you take from set?
McNamara: I think I copped Elizabeth Ashley's autobiography, was one of the books in the library, I took it home with me.
That's incredible and so random!
McNamara: It's a great book! She's a terrific memoirist and has led a very interesting life. I started reading it on the set and then pretty soon, Hale would come over and he'd read a couple pages, and then Stella would be like, "What are you guys reading?" And all of a sudden, we're all reading Elizabeth Ashley's life. [Laughs] The last day I shot was the last day of the musical and the library set was next to out Hotel Nave set, so I took it home. I mean, I love Elizabeth Ashley and the book is great, but I kinda took it home because I wanna remember that moment where we're all just standing around [the video monitors], reading aloud certain things that had happened to Elizabeth Ashley. It felt very random and very Magicians.
Gamble: I mean, I feel like we should see if we can get you Margo's crown, John. Because that's really the crown you should have!
What about you, Sera, did you take anything?
Gamble: I asked our producing director, Chris Fisher, to grab me a couple of little things. So he has reserved for me Stoppard's timeline machine...
McNamara: Oh, cool!
Gamble: Yeah! And some of Lipson's lenses.
McNamara: Those would go well in your house.
Gamble: Yeah, it would, it would. It's gonna be right at home in the cabinet of curiosities that I live in. [Laughs]
McNamara: I would definitely have tried to get some of Dean Fogg's suits, except Rick Worthy and I are not remotely the same size. [Laughs]
Those suits were sick!
McNamara: I have to take plenty amount of credit for always pushing for just more, better, more. Magali Guidasci, our costume designer, is a genius. I mean, the ties alone! The way she tied his ties. To this day, there would be Magali and Rick on one side and me on the other, having violent disagreements about the shoes Magali would pick for Dean Fogg, which I always found to be horrendous.
Gamble: I love them though. [Laughs]
McNamara: In the pilot, I was just appalled. He's in this gorgeous, gorgeous peak-lapel suit and this great tie... and he's wearing green suede shoes!
Gamble: It's f**king cool, though!
McNamara: Everyone said to me, "It's fine, grandpa. Not everyone wants to look like they went to Oxford, you know."
Gamble: I mean, they're correct. [Laughs]
McNamara: No, I know. It's like, listen, I have an extremely narrow, almost specific sense of my own fashion and it's really traditional. And this show has been an incredible wake-up call for me to see how things can look completely unlike something I would ever wear and look amazing. I think about Arjun from Day 1, with those vests and those scarves. I was just like, 'I mean, I think it looks cool but what the f**k do I know?' Now, it's like this iconic look.
So Magali really, deserves a tremendous amount of credit. All the designers on this show were incredible. And I think we've talked about this before, I had cold night-sweats for a good six months, dreading about going to Fillory full-blast because I just had no idea what the clothes would look like. And Lev, oh Lev was just like, "I don't know. I don't really see clothes when I write."
Oh my god, everyone could have ended up looking like a Renaissance Faire.
McNamara: Exactly, oh my god! I had these terrible, almost waking nightmares of just bad tights and Robin Hood hats. Thankfully, Magali is brilliantly.
Now, what about the cast and you guys? How do you celebrate together when everyone is in isolation?
Gamble: John is the last person that's not my husband that I hugged. Because the last time I was in like a true meeting was when we did playback for our last episode a couple weeks ago. And afterwards, we had a little champagne, we had a cake with our post-production team and John and I—we were already social distancing—but we hugged. You're the last one.
McNamara: Wow, wow.
Gamble: So, we're gonna have to do it virtually. And even though our room is wrapped, we still got together and had a cocktail party a few days ago online. John wore a tuxedo! It was very fancy.
McNamara: Well, it was after 6. Come on...
What are you, a farmer?
McNamara: Still one of the greatest lines ever said by Alec Baldwin! I have watched that [30 Rock] clip like a thousand times, and what I love about it is his utter, contemptuous incredulousness. He's not kidding. He utterly does not understand Liz Lemon at all. [Laughs]
Gamble: Yeah, it sounds exactly like you. [Laughs]
McNamara: Well, Sera and I have been calling each other "Jack" and "Lemon" for a few decades now. Oh yeah, totally. We love it. I mean, I think last night, we were texting in Lemon and Jack voices.
Perfect. So, do you guys have plans to work together again?
Gamble: Yeah. Of course. I'm gonna bug him for the rest of his life.We are actually working on a little bit of development together, now. We have been working on it for a bit, so we can't say what it is yet, but my plan is just to continually hit him up and then come live in his swanky garage and write pilots with him.
McNamara: And watch David Hasselhoff.
Why, does he live close by?
McNamara: [Laughs] No, no. The day we finished writing the pilot, and just to torture the crap out of Sera, I made her watch David Hasselhoff in Jekyll & Hyde, the Broadway musical, which is epic.
Oh my god. Is that even available online?
McNamara: Oh, my friend, I own the DVD! We got rid of 90 percent of my DVDs, I downloaded them to a library in a school because everything's online now, but that is one of the 20 DVDs that made the cut to be saved. And here's the thing: In no way does it disappoint whatever expectations you have, however low they are. It just exceeds them.
Gamble: I can't believe this conversation. [Laughs]
I know right? We're so far off-track.
McNamara: What I love is, I mean, look I don't mean to discourage anyone, but it's just awful. And you replace a guy like [original lead] Robert Cuccioli, who's an incredibly well-trained singer with an operatic range, you replace him with David Hasselhoff and that's what you make the DVD out of! That performance?! [Laughs]
Gamble: It's been our tradition for years now that we finish a season and he plays that for me.
I feel like once this runs, there will be an uptick in demand for it, so don't be surprised if all the fans come looking for it.
McNamara: F**k yeah!