The following story contains spoilers for The Magicians Season 4 and Season 5 Episode 1.
The impact of a fictional character death doesn’t just play out on screen. Fans who make an investment in a TV show can find themselves grieving the loss of a favorite character in a way they never expected—through emotions that mirror how we mourn in real life. A recent Popular Science article notes that professional counselors consider this legitimate grief, and marketing studies found that people “not only form relationships with their favorite characters, but with the real-life humans they watched the series alongside or went to all the movies with.” This takes on new meaning in an age where people can find a home for whatever their fandom is in an instant online. It gives viewers a place to remember, reflect, and question the deaths of fallen heroes, for better or worse.
Just as series-altering narrative decisions don’t happen in a vacuum, neither does the fan reaction. The creative team behind The Magicians felt these aftershocks following the gutting season 4 finale which brought a controversial end to series’ protagonist Quentin Coldwater.
When we sat down with the creative team behind the show—including Sera Gamble, John McNamara, Henry Alonso Myers, David Reed, and Mike Moore—to preview season 5 in their Los Angeles office, roughly two thirds of the 90 minute interview was spent re-examining the decision to kill off Quentin and its ramifications. Much of the conversation focused on the intense reactions that ran the gamut from the expected praise and criticism in the press, to shocked and disappointed fans, and in some instances online vitriol from egg-avatared trolls.
“You really saw people going through their own grief,” says showrunner Henry Alonso Meyers. “In a weird way, people have a lot of personal connections to the show and to the characters on TV. People put themselves in the character. So you can’t, to paraphrase stories from our earlier seasons, you really can’t tell people how to grieve.”
At a base level, a character death of this magnitude was going to be the most controversial decision yet for a show that prides itself on subversive storytelling. To the longtime fans of Lev Grossman’s Magicians books who stayed for the TV adaptation, losing Quentin meant losing the central piece of a fantasy story they spent the last decade following across mediums. As the show’s worldbuilding led to new characters and a larger and beloved ensemble, it reached a point where separating the show from its initial protagonist didn’t seem as crazy as it might have been a few seasons ago.
Major character deaths on television may be commonplace now, but the story of Quentin’s death took on a life of its own once the script was finalized. The creative team played the decision close to the vest. Only Jason Ralph, who plays Quentin, knew his character’s true fate; they shot a decoy scene in which Quentin lives to quell any suspicion on set, meaning Ralph’s castmates found out that he was leaving the show in real time right along with the fans. The decision was made early in the production of season four, by all accounts a mutual agreement between the creative team and Ralph. It left the burden on the writers to write off number one on the call sheet with a satisfying story arc while setting up The Magicians for life after Quentin.
“Every year there has been something that we’ve done that would make us scared [or] uncomfortable,” Meyers says. “Whenever we were talking about emotions, we were trying to do something that was difficult or driving right into the problem, not trying to drive around it. That meant that I felt we were doing good work. It was work that was challenging and was worth it, and I was proud of. So I feel like that was always the sort of north star of The Magicians, that feeling.”
In breaking the story arc, the creative team felt they were at a natural point where they could bring Quentin’s story full circle. Quentin received his hero’s sendoff, but a lingering question about his mental health clouded the intentions of the final scene with one sobering line: “Did I do something brave to save my friends or did I finally find a way to kill myself?” In context, and confirmed by the creative team, it’s clear Quentin is able to pass on because he was indeed heroic and found meaning in his relationship with his friends—though it was an intentional ambiguity designed to show how we never truly know how the inner works of the mind influence our actions. Ralph deconstructed the meaning of the scene in an interview with EW after the finale:
“We opened the show with Quentin having that same question, and in his last moment, he’s still grappling with it, and it requires an outside eye to show him what he did and the impact that he did have and that his life did have meaning, not only to other people but to and for himself.”
Even after Quentin’s heartfelt campfire sendoff, many fans argued there was still more story to tell. Quentin’s budding romantic relationship with Eliot, teased in season 3 and confirmed in season 4, is a loose thread that will never be tied. Sects of Magicians fandom who invested in that relationship mourned what could have been an exciting development for queer/bisexual storytelling—instead, many argued, it was more of the same, citing a Vox report which found that LGBTQ characters are disproportionately affected when it comes to TV deaths (with the caveat that representation for the community on TV continues to rise since the research was conducted in 2016). Eliot is left to carry his burden of regret—for shying away from the romance—through season 5. The producers said that though shippers of this romance won’t see a happily ever after, at least not on screen, Quentin’s presence and influence will be felt in Eliot’s story going forward.
The writers gathered to break the first batch of stories for season 5 as the final episodes of season 4 were airing. The awareness of the reaction to the finale and the work that needed to be done to move the show forward became intertwined as they plotted the new season.
“You can’t help but kind of pack that in your head and in your heart when you’re working on something that’s creative and is an outlet for your emotionally,” says producer Mike Moore. “There’s some of that in the way that we chose to have the characters to deal with their grief.”
He continues: “We were kind of digging through it ourselves. It was very clear in this room that the place where people would have the most in common emotionally with anyone else to deal with what was happening on the show was the show.”
Ralph won’t be returning to the show, at least not in season five, the producers confirmed. That finality looms large as the season premiere is consumed by the fallout of Quentin’s tragic sacrifice, which restored magic but created a host of other problems for his crestfallen friends.
“His death, in the same way that a death in real life brings a family together who hasn’t seen each other for awhile, or anything like that,” says writer David Reed. “It really centers the show, especially in the beginning. Because all of our characters were feeling the same thing in completely different ways. But that singular touchstone, they’ve really grounded it all up.”
Each character is searching for a different outlet for their grief. In the season 5 premiere, Julia confides her sorrow to Penny-23: “I only have magic because I lost Q. I just have to find something to do with it that’s worth that.” To fill the void left by Quentin, Julia throws herself into a quest, a hero’s journey to stop an oncoming apocalypse. Eliot, naturally, uses booze to bury his pain. Having his closest friend, Margo, back by his side is the comfort he needs right now until he’s ready to open up about his complicated relationship with Q.
Alice is bed-stricken, clearly in a dark place after losing someone who held a special place in her heart. She waves off Julia’s idea of seance because it’s wild magic and dangerous, but later reconsiders after her mother offers a bit of advice over a cigarette—no one gets to tell her how to grieve and she may need to do something crazy to get through it.
“Having lost people I really love, there are times when the pain is unbearable and it’s literally cry in a corner time,” says series co-creator Sera Gamble. “We tried to make it reflect some of our experiences of grief, which is that it’s not one blanket thing.”