Sure, we’re excited about what seems to be shaping up as the central plotline of The Magicians‘ third season — the gang (the one-eyed conqueror, the traveler, the warrior, the fool, the god-touched, the lover of tomatoes, the torture artist, and a brother of heart with floppy hair) working together through time and space with the aid of talking bunnies and a magic book with no author to solve The Great Cock’s epic quest.
That’s bound to be awesome, but what we really want to talk about after watching the Season 3 premiere is the best scene of “The Tale Of The Seven Keys” (and arguably the entire series so far): that is, of course, the one where Eliot (Hale Appleman) takes Margo (Summer Bishil) to the forest and uses clever pop-culture code to make her understand that she is an unwitting sleeper agent who’s been delivering all of their plans and secrets to the Fairy Queen occupying their castle via her eyeball-turned-accessory.
“Writing that scene, especially as something that I knew would be subtitled and therefore need to work on two levels, was basically one of the most fun days of my life as a writer so far,” says executive producer Sera Gamble, who penned the episode. “I am thrilled with how it turned out and that the scene that everyone watched is actually very close to how it was written in the first draft.”
Gamble says the concept started as a collaborative effort. “We were spending a day in the writers’ room breaking the story and we were talking about how Eliot and Margo were going to communicate. Somebody pitched the idea — and I wish I remembered who, as I would love to single them out and give them credit — that they would need to speak in Earth references in order to communicate freely without alerting the Fairy Queen to their plans,” she says. “Referencing pop culture was the perfect code for these characters and for the show in general, because author Lev Grossman created this world in his books that was specifically crafted as a fantasy story about people who had already consumed fantasy when they started their adventure in magic. It is a story that can only exist now in the 21st century after Harry Potter and after Narnia. It’s a story that is full of fangirls and fanboys. In turn, the people making the TV show are all big genre fans, and it is something that we all love to talk about and debate. Using those modern references is something that we can take advantage of when writing, which I feel is different than any other fantasy show I have seen. So I think of that scene as a true love letter to Lev.”
Despite pulling examples from the worlds of TV, comics, film, literature, pop music, and history — and reaching as far back as 1892 (Lizzie Borden and the ax murders she was acquitted of) — the code came together pretty easily and quickly.
“We figured out what they needed to say in that scene and then brainstormed references we could use, and then we translated the references back into the characters’ voices for the subtitles that would explain the references for people who did not get them and hopefully add another layer of comedy,” Gamble says. “We referenced Grace Park in the room as our example of an unwitting secret agent. So we started with the Battlestar remake, as many good conversations about favorite genre shows often do. Many of the references just came up during the writing process.”
Gamble says many of the properties mentioned are shared favorites among the producers and writers, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, and Battlestar Galactica, while others are more personal darlings. “I admit I am a fan of Britney [Spears],” she says. “I think she is a brave woman who has come a long way, and I knew I wanted to make a little homage to her.”
Appleman, who shares Gamble’s affection for Fairuza Balk’s over-the-top teenage witch (“Who could forget The Craft? One of my childhood favorites,” he says), appreciated that this “golden moment” connected characters with the show’s fans on a new level. “Because we’re talking about things that they love too, like X-Men and Buffy, the fictional world and the real world collide for everyone who appreciates any of the references that we make in that scene,” he says.
Gamble agrees. “We’ve even got the age-old debate among geeks about which episode of Buffy is the best,” she says. “So it is also a love letter to genre fans.” (Side note: she’d vote “Hush” over “Once More, With Feeling.”)
The conversation is also another chance to drive home one of the most important and enduring themes of the series. “I’ve seen so many shows — that I love, by the way — that are about people who are a lot smarter, stronger, and nobler than I would ever be on a magical quest. What we try to do on The Magicians is tell a story about people who are like ourselves, just regular flawed people who aren’t always going to do the heroic thing, especially this season,” she says. “We infuse them with as many of our flaws and foibles as possible in hopes that these are characters that feel real to the audience.”
There are other reasons Gamble thinks the scene works so well, with one being the subtitles. “A lot of the credit for how funny and successful that scene is has to go to the editor, Mats Abbott, who carefully timed those subtitles in post,” she says. “It would not be as funny as it is if he just slapped on the whole subtitle all at once at the bottom.”
It’s Appleman’s turn to concur. “It really is about the writing and the subtitles,” he says. “They did a really good job with the pacing of the references and the translation. I really appreciate John [McNamara, executive producer] and Sera’s insistence on pushing the envelope comedically that way.”
He and Bishil knew the scene was special when they read it in the script. They usually don’t rehearse together away from the set. “Individually we do our own work, and then we come in prepared and we collaborate on the day and keep as much spontaneity as we possibly can,” he says. But they chose to work together on this scene: “It really depended on timing and working the beats out,” he says.
Gamble believes that the scene wouldn’t have been as strong if it hadn’t been between Margo and Eliot. “One of the things that I love about that scene being between that specific pair is that those two are the cool kids. Who would assume that they could do such a deep dive into genre? And on top of that, I don’t think many people would have assumed that Margo would be the bigger nerd, because she is at first glance the classic mean girl,” Gamble says. “She seems so posh and of a certain world, but it turns out that in the main group of friends she is second only to Quentin in terms of her level of fandom and her love for pop culture. I like it because it is true to life. Many of the biggest fans I know are women.”
“Margo is a nerd,” Bishil says. “You even saw that in Season 1 when she’s talking to Quentin, and they’re at that party and she drugs him. She starts talking about the Fillory books, and it’s like, ‘Wait, you’re into the Fillory books?’ I like it when they wink at the fact that she’s a closet nerd.”
Gamble says it was a subtle way to once again show that the female characters on this show are just as (if not more) smart, powerful, and interesting as the male characters. “She knows way more than Eliot does. She read all the [Game of Thrones and Harry Potter] books; he couldn’t be bothered. He’s a bit lazy, a little ADD, about that just as he is about everything else. He is not the kind of person who is going to do any intense study of anything. It was also an opportunity to illuminate that detail about their friendship,” she says. “One of the true joys of running a show that is privileged enough to go on for a number of seasons is that we get to know our characters so well and so deeply and we know that our audience has been along for the ride. We can be incredibly specific and not lose anyone. That’s just something you can’t really do when you are writing a movie. It’s why I recommend working in and watching TV.”
The Magicians airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on Syfy.
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