The Magicians’ Sera Gamble on What She Learned from Supernatural and What’s Next!

Once you’re part of the SPNFamily, you’re always part of the SPNFamily – so my recent trip to Comic Con included lots of catching up with some of the people who have shaped the show in important ways. Sera Gamble started as a writer on Supernatural, working closely with Eric Kripke, and later took over as showrunner when Eric left after Season 5. I first met Sera when I was writing Fandom At The Crossroads and Fangasm Supernatural Fangirls – in fact, she was one of the very first people to grant us an interview, and her insights were instrumental in encouraging us to keep writing. There’s an amusing scene in Fangasm (okay, there are LOTS of amusing scenes in Fangasm, whatever…) – anyway, there’s an amusing scene in Fangasm where Kathy and I arrive at the WB booth at Comic Con to interview Eric Kripke and find that he’s brought Sera with him.

Eric: Oh! These are the two who sent me the porn!

Sera: (cocks eyebrow)

It’s a long story, but let’s just say that was an interesting interview.

Sera is now writer and showrunner on The Magicians, which just began filming its third season on SyFy. For those who aren’t familiar, The Magicians is based on the books of the same name by Lev Grossman, and airs on SyFy in the US. The magical Brakebills University in the series is a mash up of “Hogwarts and Harry Potter for adults” and Narnia with a little Supernatural mixed in, darker and more adult oriented than the first two and more consistently magical than the last. The main characters include Quentin, who discovers that the books he has always loved are in fact not fantasy or fiction after all; Julia, his childhood friend who isn’t allowed into the magical world and whose life is marked by significant trauma; Alice, who is overcome by too much magic in Season 2 with dire consequences; Eliot, the reluctant king and Margo, the queen trying to find her way and her identity. The cast also includes Penny, the traveler, a villainous character known as The Beast, and the Dean of Brakebills, played by Rick Worthy (known to Supernatural fans as the Alpha Vamp).

The series tackles themes of self and identity, good and evil, responsibility and freedom, and doesn’t like to stay in the black and white. Its shades of gray nuances make for some interesting characters and keep the plot unpredictable, which makes the show interesting. The Magicians also doesn’t shy away from violence, or the consequences of that violence, or from sexuality, with quite a bit of leeway from SyFy.

As Season 2 came to a close, magic had gone from the realm of Fillory and Alice has been consumed by too much magic and become a Niffin. In the press room at Comic Con, the cast seemed excited about filming the new season and were all thoughtful about what Season 3 will bring to The Magicians.

Showrunners and writers Sera Gamble and John McNamara were first to our table to chat. It was, quite frankly, awesome to see her again. Sera sat down at our table with a big smile.

Sera: Ah, the Supernatural contingent are here, awesome!

Me: You know we’ve got your back, always.

Then we had A LOT of questions about The Magicians! Sera characterized The Magicians as a show that’s not as interested in the epic battles as it is in the relationships between Quentin Coldwater and his friends. I asked if there were things that Sera had learned on Supernatural that she’d taken with her to The Magicians, or things she’d learned NOT to do. For instance, telling the small intimate stories instead of the heaven and hell battles.

Sera: I actually learned that on Supernatural. I was there for the first seven seasons, and Eric Kripke was always really confident about that – as soon as we figured out that the show was really about the relationship between these two brothers, we knew that had to be the heart of the episodes. And also a part of the major arc each season. I’m really grateful that I learned that – it has to be about your characters, the relationship between them and the way they fuck each other up. If you have that, it can be about heaven or earth.

Me: You took that understanding and situated it in a universe that goes to different places, but keeps that intimacy.

Sera: Yes. It’s funny, even when I was in the room with Eric back in the day, it was so much about this inherent bond that is family, and that blood is thicker than anything. And I was always the one in the room going, let’s do a really dysfunctional story, I mean, sometimes your family lets you down.

Everyone at the table: nodding

Sera: I was always the one talking about the outsiders, the ones that didn’t have a bond like that, and I think that was in the DNA of the books that Lev [Grossman] wrote, so that appealed to me. It’s basically a breakfast club of all the black sheep, none of them have good relationships with their family, none of them have that family of origin bond, so they’re making their family now.

In other words, Family Don’t End With Blood!

Someone asked why we’re drawn to stories of the supernatural, and both Gamble and McNamara said that they actually allow you to tell archetypal stories of what it is to be human. The Magicians is known for not shying away from going to very dark places, including not only death but rape and other violence. Sera was asked why the show makes the choice to show those dark places so clearly.

Sera: Because we want to look at it in detail, we want to examine it. We are all writers who want to look at the shadow side of human nature, and the darkness that happens when you go through really traumatic events

McNamara: I loved the book, but it didn’t really sink its hooks into me until I realized that the entire MacGuffin is really about a child being abused by an adult. And you can’t tell that story halfway, or you’re lying.

McNamara: Violence on television, not being for or against it, except when you show something really violent and it’s portrayed as funny and you don’t show the really horrible after effects of it.

I was in so much agreement with that, I jumped up and told them what a great job they were doing with that – but it’s true!

Sera Gamble and John McNamara in the press room

Next up were Hale Appleman (Eliot) and Summer Bishel (Margo). Both these characters will have to deal with the loss of magic in Season 3, which Hale said would be difficult for Eliot since magic was a part of his identity development.

Hale: To strip that away from him is to ask him who he is without it, so this season will be about him uncovering some deeper truths about his identity.

Summer spoke about Margo’s resilience and said it might not be as soul crushing for her that magic is dead as for other characters, as not as much of her self worth was tied up in magic.

Both Hale and Summer felt that their characters had grown quite a bit, and Season 3 will bring even more growth as Eliot “mans up” and takes on even more responsibility for “the sake of all”.

I dipped into my psychologist persona for my question. Do Hale and Summer see the evolution of their characters as sort of a metaphor for how we all evolve from adolescence to adulthood, learning who we are, learning to take on responsibility, moving from initial reluctance and anxiety to shouldering both more comfortably?

Hale: Yes. And I also think young adulthood, your 20s in particular, can be really treacherous. And no one really tells you that.

Summer: (nodding) Sometimes you’ve gotta fake it til you make it! And that’s what they’re doing, faking being rulers until they make it.

Both actors loved someone’s question about what other musical numbers they might want to tackle in another musical episode, which somehow led to Hale and I oohing and aahing over vintage Lou Reed, which we seem to share a fondness for. Now if ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ or ‘I’m So Free’ ends up on The Magicians, we’ll all know who to blame!

Summer and Hale in the press room

Next up were Stella Maeve (Julia) and Jason Ralph (Quentin). Stella talked about how the new season makes it about so much more than the impact of losing magic on each individual character – even though Julia does have magic, it’s about more than that, it’s global.

Jason teased that if all of the great inventors were actually magicians, then what impact does the loss of magic have on all those inventions? Tesla was one of those people, so what happens when magic goes away, does electricity go away? Do the seasons shift, do the tides stop working?

Jason: It’s bigger than anything they’ve dealt with before.

Jason and Stella’s press room interview

Last but not least, Olivia Taylor Dudley (Alice) stopped by to talk about what it was like to be a Niffin on the show.

Olivia: This is a great opportunity to explore this sweet person I fell in love with, her dark and nastier side….I tried to keep Alice’s soul in their somewhere.

Olivia confessed that she had a lot of fun on set being a Niffin.

Olivia: I tortured the hell out of Jason Ralph. I’d poke him before every take, I’d blow in his ear, or trip his feet, or pinch him…anything to drive him nuts, which was really fun!

In the next season, Alice is really angry, Olivia said. Olivia loves the portrayals of strong women on this show, and she’s not afraid for a woman to be angry. She looks forward to exploring how Alice felt about being a Niffin this season too.

Olivia: They give us such complex stories and characters and kinda let us do the inner workings, they don’t really write it, they let us explore it as actors, which is a really wonderful thing about this show.

Olivia’s comic con press room interview

These actors are definitely thoughtful enough about the show and their characters to make good use of that creative freedom – I’m looking forward to the new season, which started filming in the week before Comic Con!

As we left the press room, the cast stopped to take some photos with some cosplaying fans passing by, which was just the kind of magic that Comic Con is known for.

It was wonderful to chat with Sera again – I miss her writing on Supernatural, and loved all the insights about the show she shared with us in our early interviews with her. Check those out in Fangasm Supernatural Fangirls, and check out The Magicians on SyFy!

–Lynn
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