The series, just renewed for season 5, has thrust its heroes into the magical realm of Fillory, made them kings and queens, introduced gods and goddesses of varying degrees of malevolence and mischief, and traveled between alternate timelines. Their adventures have run the gamut between the charming – a flying boat with a will of its own – and the seriously messed up – season 1’s rape storyline left some critics and fans bristling.
The complication of portraying the repercussions of trauma is one of the aspects of the books that drew executive producer John McNamara and series co-creator Sera Gamble to the story, McNamara told Rotten Tomatoes when we visited The Magicians set in Vancouver recently.
“I think what hit home strongest [with viewers] first was Julia’s being a victim of sexual violence,” he said. “You read that in the book, and it’s incredibly affecting, and incredibility disturbing, and upsetting. But it’s a very different thing to take something from a page and actually have actors on a set, and a character you’ve really come to love through an actress, and have that happen to that character, and then not shy away from the long-term repercussions both physical and physiological. That was the first time I think I realized, Oh OK, the audience is very connected to this in the same way we are connected to this.”
The show has enjoyed only Fresh seasons so far and has also been nominated for the Best Fantasy Television Series Saturn Award for the past three years running, only to lose to Starz’s Outlander in each of those years — but it’s in excellent company alongside HBO monster-hit Game of Thrones.
The uptick in buzz around The Magicians has been measurable and streaming has been good for it — between the fairies, the sass talk, and the sexy time, it is a highly bingeable title.
“It goes in waves,” star Jason Ralph, who plays central character Quentin Coldwater, told Rotten Tomatoes about the popularity of the show. “There will be a month where I get recognized all the time. People are like, ‘Oh my God, Quentin, I just found the show.’
“I was in Brooklyn, and I was walking my dogs through a cross stop, and this car just slams on its breaks and this guy jumps out of the car, his wife jumps out of the car, he’s like, ‘Are you Quentin?’ I was like, ‘Yeah.’ He gave me a big hug, and he’s like, ‘Good spot, honey. Good spot,’ and got back in the car, and drove off. I was like, cool. Maybe he was a Netflixer, I don’t know.”
The show has good word-of-mouth, Ralph continued, saying that its fans hold it very dear.
“It doesn’t feel like necessarily Game of Thrones, where everyone in the world is watching,” he said. “It is a little bit niche in that way, and I think people are more protective of it in that way. It feels like their show, and so the relationship to the fans is unique in that way because it’s more precious to them.”
Season 4 opens with Dean Fogg (Rick Worthy) having wiped the memories of several series leads, including Quentin, Penny (Arjun Gupta), Margo (Summer Bishil), Kady (Jade Tailor), and Josh (Trevor Einhorn), which gives them new identities and no knowledge of magic. Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley) still has her memories, but she’s imprisoned by the Head Librarian (Mageina Tovah) for breaking her deal with the Library. With the help of Dean Fogg, the Library has harnessed magic and is now portioning out its use – an arrangement that no one else is happy about. Meanwhile, Eliot (Hale Appleman) picked up a dark passenger in the season 3 finale: He’s now possessed by a childlike, sociopathic ancient being whose idea of play involves murder as sport.
We got a fix on TV and streaming’s favorite magical millennials during our visit. Here’s what they and McNamara had to say about the characters and season 4.
“At the beginning of the season we pick up where we left off: Alice is in the Library Jail for the first few episodes, and she is locked away, and is miserable. It’s not a good place to be and Alice is the only one of the main cast who doesn’t have a glamour, and she doesn’t know that they do. So, she’s in there with zero information; last she knows she may have killed all of her friends — she’s not sure!
“So, she’s kind of losing her mind in this little jail cell … The only other person I got to work with was my cellmate across the way who we don’t even get to see — we’re just talking through air vents in the ceiling.
“It was some of my favorite scenes, actually as an actor the exercise of working alone in a cell and having a ton of dialogue with someone on a different wall was really fun … The first few episodes is Alice just trying to escape and trying to figure out if her friends are alive. Then the rest of the season — I’ve been calling this season Alice’s redemption tour; she’s going on a journey to gain her friends’ love and trust back, and it’s not necessarily easy for most of them — especially Quentin, who takes the longest and — everyone has their feelings about what she did at the end of last year.
“Alice still stands by it — or at least I do, maybe Alice doesn’t, but Olivia does! Because in her mind she’s just a very practical, smart woman, and she concluded at the end of the last season that magic is hurting and killing everyone she loves, so let’s get rid of it! But what happens is one person can’t make the decision for everybody; as we know, it doesn’t work out well. So, she tried to save everybody and it backfired, so this year she’s kind of sitting back, and I’m trying to take her back to a little bit more of season 1 Alice — quietly thinking, plotting, and planning instead of just acting, because even she knows she’s smart and has the power now. So, this year was really fun for me in making her a little bit softer than she’s been the last two seasons. Niffin Alice really rubbed off on her, a lot, so now she’s trying to get rid of that edge and just be with her friends, and she falls in love with magic again this year which was one of my favorite things about this season.”
“That sort of ‘Avengers assemble’ vibe is very true, I think, to this group. It took a while to figure out what everyone’s strengths were, and what everyone’s purpose was in the group, and those lanes have now been defined, and so the way we make decisions is quicker. We don’t have to sit down and figure everything out. It’s like when a problem arises, we know that Quentin is going to be the idiot, and Penny is going to travel us, and Margo is going to beat the shit out of someone.
“I think Quentin’s always considered himself sort of a leader. I notice that there’s that internal conflict, where he feels not good enough, and maybe not. I think he wants to be the person meant to be the leader, and is at odds with the fact that sometimes that’s not true, or when the opportunity to be the leader presents itself, that he’s maybe not up for it. That, I think, has been his conflict through all of this. I don’t know that that goes away. I think he would definitely want to be, and sometimes he was, and sometimes he’s not. Like all of us, right? That’s what’s so lovely about the characters and about the world: no one is one thing, and we do fail all the time, and we want to be things that we’re not, and the grass is always greener.”
“She grapples with [her loss of powers] in season 4 … The way the writers described it to me was like a weird purgatory. So I think she’s kind of just trying to figure that out throughout the season: What am I doing? What is this meaning? Is this a message, and what is my purpose?
“This is the most fun I have in a long time. It’s awesome. I got to hang out with Hale which is really cool … I’ve never had really any dialogue with Margo, and this is the first season I’ve had any dialogue with Eliot — it’s not really Eliot, it’s monster Eliot, so it’s kind of wild.”
“I was unique in the situation where my character, my glamour character was completely different from Penny. He’s DJ Hansel. He’s the dude that went to India for two weeks and came back enlightened. And like wants to share and wants everybody to know how enlightened he is. Like always wears clothes from Thailand even though he went there once. Like that kind of person who’s very ungrounded. Very like loose and free. Very free in his body which is different from Penny. So actually it was really fun. It was incredibly exciting.
“I have to shout out Tarun Keram who was also with me. Because it’s not just myself playing Hansel, Tarun was there playing him as well, because there are definitely shots of the scene where it’s not me at all. It’s like a different person. So basically the point of view of what like anyone outside of us in the world of The Magicians would see, wouldn’t look like me, Penny, at all. It was a different human. So that was really cool and it was fun to work with him and he was amazing. It’s an awkward situation for him because it’s my character but also I wanted him, he wants to put in his own input. And he was really lovely and we just had a blast doing it, yeah.”
“I loved this season, for so many reasons. From a character standpoint, Kady had a huge trajectory this year, being that she was really influenced by this glamour character, this alternate persona, and also because I think in the previous seasons, we’ve always seen her attached to someone, whether that was Penny or Julia or her mother, there was always someone that she was worried about, or someone that she was living life vicariously through.
“So it was really beautiful to be able to discover who Kady was as an individual, without a relationship or without a man, who is she? We really got to play with that and see how she grew and watched her really take on her own inner strength and who she is and her power.
“The glamour character is Sam Cunningham, who is a cop. I think there’s a similar strength that both Sam and Kady have. An innate strength, yet Sam is incredibly determined and very independent, and strong as an individual, but she also just has very strong convictions about what is right and wrong, and I think Kady is similar in that, but I think she questioned it, because, for example, she’d do the wrong thing to help the right person — like helping her mom, but stealing things to do that.”
“Dean Fogg has been doing a lot of self-medication. He’s a very complicated man — I have had my homework cut out for me, every script that I get … Fogg, he is now a businessman really; he is in the business and politicking of magic. He has a very uncomfortable alliance with The Order, doesn’t make him happy at all. At the end of season 3, as he does the ultimate chess move and blips in with Irene McAllister and Gavin and they siphon off the magic then blip out, I got quite a few, ‘What the f—s?!’ Or, ‘What the Foggs?!’ — whatever you wanna use. What the Fogg!
“That night, and online and emails, couple phone calls, people were like, “Whoa! Man, I didn’t see that coming! So, you’re truly a bad guy then aren’t you?” He isn’t a bad guy, just he’s found himself in a position where he has to be in business with The Order. They have tremendous amount of power, as you guys know, and he doesn’t like having to report to them but he has to.”
“I’m the king … At the beginning of the season, the atmosphere is so saturated with opium that it’s like, things are going awry, and we’ve heard that Ember is back, our god, so we’re just trying to find Ember … so she’s just trying to figure out what’s making the kingdom go awry.”
“Josh has become Isaac, the Uber Driver, or ride-share driver, whatever legal can let us use. And he is a five-star driver, always has waters, will definitely give you gum, mints … That is the biggest thing that I have going for me. The funny part about it is, he drives a Prius and wears a suit. So he really commits to it. And that’s sort of where, he’s ready for any sort of exciting adventure in his life.”
“I’ve always been really shy, and socially awkward, so acting was always my safe place, and I’d always wanted a character like Margo, but, you know, the industry wasn’t changing as fast as I would’ve liked to. When I was still pursuing work, there were a lot of stereotypes I was going up against, it was a lot of the same role, and I’d always been desperate to play somebody like Margo. I didn’t know if I could do it, because I’m painfully shy, but you know, Sera and John cast me as Margo, and it’s really changed my life. It’s just opened up so much more opportunities and has allowed me to be seen in a way that has kind of emancipated a lot of the stereotypes I had to carry with me. I didn’t even know how that had affected my psychology until I had to crawl out of that for Margo, just so that she could live. I had to break free of these unhealthy narratives that were limiting me and making me feel bad, and Margo really did that for me. It’s been a really strange journey.”
“The monster is sort of kind of like the dark shadow of your inner child, who’s been abandoned and has essentially no one to turn to. He’s alone in this world, but for one singular special relationship, and for thousands of years he’s been locked in this dungeon castle in which there’s been one human life to take care of him, and when they pass, a new one comes through and takes care of him.
“I always think of Let The Right One In, if you know that movie, where there’s one person of significance who can kind of bear the brunt of all the needs that this being might need. And in the case of this monster, he’s tacked to the bottom of this castle and held there because he’s a danger to everything around him, but he doesn’t necessarily even know that.
“So he’s kind of this innocent, but he has this hit list, this revenge mission this season.”
“Germany didn’t happen overnight in the 1920’s and ’30s. France didn’t fall under fascist rule overnight. It’s always a series of very small choices, and what I kind of like about this season is, it doesn’t start with armed guards storming in and taking over the library — that’s, I think, a child’s version of fascism. What you’re seeing is people with Library, who I think are at heart pretty good people, but they’re perceiving the fact that they don’t have control as the problem. Rather than the problem is, there’s always going to be chaos, and it’s how you deal with chaos.
“They want to eliminate chaos, so they have really good intentions in a way. And I’m not saying that Nazis had good intentions or Stalin had good intentions, but I do believe that it happens in incremental stages, and it’s a very slow roll this season. But a movie that I kind of insisted that everybody watch as a kind of inspiration is a French film from the 1960s called, Army of Shadows. Wonderful movie, it’s all about the French Resistance, and what I liked about the movie analogously was because the director and writer had really been the French Resistance and had gone through all that first hand and had survived.
“He told the story of how as a ‘good guy’ in the Resistance, I mean some terrible choices of who to kill, who to turn in, who to punish, and sometimes you’re wrong and you have to live with that. And so we wanted to keep the morality — not ambiguous because obviously there is right and wrong, but that the actions you take sometimes to fight something that is evil, sometimes you do something to fight something evil, and then you have to ask yourself, ‘Well, why am I not evil?’ That’s an interesting theme that runs throughout the entire season. The Library is definitely a growing fascist … virus.”
The Magicians season 4 premieres Wednesday, January 23 at 9 p.m. on Syfy.