Season 5 of The Magicians is delving into an unavoidable part of growing up: losing a loved one.
Star Jason Ralph exited the show last year following the death of his character, Quentin Coldwater, in the season 4 finale, paving the way for the idiosyncratic Syfy drama’s new cycle (premieres Wednesday at 10 p.m.) to poignantly explore the many non-magical shades of grief — the funny, the sad, the messy — as the survivors adjust to the new status quo. Thankfully, it’s not a complete bummer: Deposed royals Margo (Summer Bishil) and Eliot (Hale Appleman) — who trapped 300 years in Fillory’s future — remain hilariously quotable (“Grow a clit.” “Bitch, I would if I could”), and there’s both an apocalypse and another musical episode looming on the horizon.
“In addition to doing all of the deep emotional spelunking that we like to do on The Magicians, we also are like genre nerds who want to do like a Groundhog Day style episode and have been dying to body swap our characters and we get to do all of that fun stuff this season,” co-showrunner Sera Gamble tells EW. “There’s a lot of high concept, greatest hits, fantasy stuff that we will hit this season.”
In other words, TV’s best fantasy series still has plenty of life after death.
Below, EW chats with Gamble and fellow showrunners John McNamara and Henry Alonso Myers about what’s to come in the season ahead.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Well season 5 is definitely an interesting one because season 4 ended with the death of Quentin. Even though The Magicians quickly evolved into an ensemble show, he was still the character that connected everyone and our entryway into this world. How did you approach writing this season without him?
HENRY ALONSO MYERS: Well, it’s funny. This has nothing to do with Jason who’s a wonderful actor, but breaking this season was very much like breaking every other season. We have a process that we went through, which we were discussing yesterday, and it actually weirdly felt very much the same as every other season because we have a method that we use in the room and we have a way of talking about characters. All of these characters are still present and in some ways Quentin is still present this season. He’s a big subject. He’s a thing that we carry into the season.
JOHN MCNAMARA: Every season there’s an overarching emotional arc, if you will, or even you could call it color or tone. It usually comes down to one or two sentences. In this case, I think it really came down to one word: Grief, and how many forms does grief take. How does it shape you? How does it change you? How does it not change you? Sometimes your life goes on and can feel different, but your objectives as a human being remain the same: To be healthy, to be happy, to love the people around you, to find a purpose. Particularly in the early episodes I think, we definitely deal with grieving head on in a way that to me doesn’t feel like a fantasy show or in no way to me is Quentin disposable, and nor is his death treated in a disposable way. That’s something we all agreed on early on — that was going to be one of the big themes of the season.
SERA GAMBLE: One thing we talk about a lot is that it’s actually really hard to write about grief because it’s so sticky and dark and difficult to be in those waters. It’s the most difficult of human emotions. We talked a lot about other movies and TV shows that we saw that tried to tackle grief head on that were just too difficult for us to watch. But we were all very committed to trying to explore some of this because The Magicians is really about embracing all of the weirdness and the beauty and the pain of being human. That’s why it’s so great to be working on a fantasy show because we had all of these great, fantastic, spectacular tools that are so entertaining and they gave us ways in to talk about grief that, frankly, felt more complete to me than a show that’s about how like you sit on the couch and you order pizza, and you can’t get out of your sweat pants. Because The Magicians is a show that has such a tonal whiplash in every single episode, it’s particularly well suited to talk about all of the highs and lows of losing someone you love.
How did you use the genre tools at your disposal to explore grief this season?
GAMBLE: People know about the stages of grieving and one of them is bargaining where there’s a lot of what psychologists might call magical thinking where you just think, “If I had done something different” or “If there was something I could give to have a little more time with them.” The interesting thing about our show is that our characters are magicians, so they actually have access to maybe some knowledge that can help them try to do some of that. They actually literally march down roads that I think you or I might just daydream and fantasize about in the course of trying to contend with the loss of Quentin and really have very mixed results for them, this season. But that’s why do a story like this on a show about magic.
MCNAMARA: To me what it felt like when I was writing my little sections here and there was everybody was more vulnerable. It felt natural to have characters be more vulnerable and maybe even a little more vocal, more verbal, more articulate about whatever they were going through if it was painful. I’m particularly thinking of the musical episode this year, and there’s one scene in which we use a song that I don’t think would’ve ever occurred to me to use had it not been in the wake of Quentin’s death, even though it has nothing directly to do with his death.
Eliot and Margo are stranded in Fillory 300 years in the future. What can you tease about that setting?
GAMBLE: They look fabulous. They’re drinking cocktails.
MCNAMARA: Yeah, somebody spent a lot of money to remodel Castle Whitespire.
MYERS: We can say it’s the Dark King —
GAMBLE: Yeah, he’s a major element of this event. They’ve done a lot of weird stuff that Margo wouldn’t want them to do. She will come to find out that this Dark King, whoever he may be, has undone a lot of the work she worked so hard to do when she was High King. So she takes it really personally. As we unroll that story and as we get further into it she finds out that a lot of what happened, that caused this King to come to power really started around the time that they left Fillory 300 years ago. I think it’s very emblematic of Margo and Eliot’s relationship. By the way, it was an absolute delight to have the two of them together again and have Eliot be Eliot, and Margo be Margo and have them hang out again and see how all the ways they were the same and all the ways they were different.
It must be great having these two back together since they were separated all last season…
MYERS: The fun of this season also comes from the fact that in that time apart, they both had major changes in their lives. Eliot was possessed by a monster for a significant amount of time and Margo in her kind of angry and vulnerable way ended up finding herself in this unusually positive relationship with John — something that Sera always likes to point out is not something she might have been open to had Eliot been around. Now she finds herself in this weirdly almost like healthy relationship and she doesn’t know how to handle him. Eliot has some feelings about it, and Margo has some feelings about Eliot and that carries us into the season.
The trailer also sets up that we’re dealing with an apocalypse. How did you approach writing an apocalypse story in a way that was different than what we’ve seen before and specific to The Magicians while honoring the tropes we’ve come to expect from stories like this?
GAMBLE: It’s like we have this writer’s room full of fantasy fans and then people like John who say that they’re not fantasy fans but have seen every episode of Star Trek 5,000 times. We are all like, “So if a magical creature showed up in my living room and said there’s going to be an apocalypse and then he said to me, but I can’t tell you about it because you’re a girl. Like what would I do?” That’s really the secret sauce of frequently figuring out how to construct classic fantasy for plot for The Magicians. [Our] characters are [also] fluent in the language of the apocalypse. Frankly, I think that makes our job a little bit easier because speaking as a veteran of multiple television apocali, the stakes are just so goddamn high and the creatures involved are so powerful that sometimes it can be difficult to keep your character development and your relationships front and center. But because our characters are so aware of just what’s actually happening because they have been in life or death situations before, [they know that] if there’s something they want to say to each other, they need to say it now.
MYERS: In the books by Lev Grossman that the show is based on, [there] are several apocalypses in them and we wanted to pull some of that material into the show as well. Although I will say as a no spoiler alert, the way in which we do it is very, very different from the way it happens in the books.
Season 4 also ended with Kady (Jade Tailor) helped bring the hedge witches together to perform some cooperative magic that saved the day. Where does her arc go from there?
GAMBLE: Kady is learning some typical truths about being part of the disenfranchised class because it’s like one step forward, two steps back frequently. There’s an overflow of magic [in the world]. Hedge witches have some knowledge of spells, but they are not very thoroughly trained, so they’re the ones who are getting hurt first and they’re the ones who getting hurt the most. There are promises that the Library made to hedge witches that they maybe had intentions of going back and fulfilling, but the Library is falling to pieces. So the truth of being a leader, the way that Kady is starting to step up into being a leader, is that it’s really, really hard to hold people to their word. She is frequently frustrated this season
What are you guys most excited for people to see this year?
MYERS: I’m going to say the moon stuff and I’m not going to say anything more than that.
MCNAMARA: I will say: Singing magical creature leading to a huge group song and dance number. Probably the most choreographed thing [we’ve] ever done on the show. It’s just so freaking weird. I’ve seen it a hundred times and I still am like, “This is bananas.”
GAMBLE: On the one hand a thing I’m really proud of about in season 5 is that, I think there our richest, deepest conversations between our characters that we’ve had in the life of the series, but it’s a combination of how much story we’ve gotten to tell with them. There are scenes that made me tear up. I mean I’m a cold bitch, but I was tearing up a few times, and they’re saying things that feel very earned and vulnerable and human in a way that I think when I watch TV I want to feel those feelings along with the character. Then on the other hand, we got make a Kraken this season and actually say the words, “Release the Kraken.”
The Magicians premieres Wednesday at 10 p.m. on Syfy.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.