If you haven’t seen The Magicians Season 3 Episode 4, “Be the Penny,” turn back now. Spoilers for this episode follow below.
The Magicians is a TV show that has never shied away from taking chances, but the fourth episode of Season 3 took ambition to new heights, as the series capitalized on a character’s death to take the story in exciting new directions. At the end of Episode 3, Penny (Arjun Gupta) finally succumbed to his “super cancer.” However, Penny being a traveler and whatnot, he had astral projected himself out of his body while a demon was trying to eat the cancer out of him and save his life. So Penny’s body died, but his consciousness remained in this astral plane.
Instead of simply “fixing” this issue within the first few minutes of the next episode, “Be the Penny” marked one of the most thrilling episodes The Magicians has ever done, as it was told entirely from Penny’s point of view while he projected himself around to all the various characters. They couldn’t see or speak to him, but he could comment on what they were doing, serving as an outside observer of sorts who offered color commentary throughout the episode.
Given how great this episode was, I recently got the chance to speak with The Magicians executive producers and showrunners Sera Gamble and John McNamara as well as writer David Reed, who penned the episode, about “Be the Penny.” They revealed how the idea to kill Penny initially came about, how they hit upon this notion of having him die while projecting, and how this crazy idea had a massive ripple effect on the rest of the season. The trio also discussed the potential endgame of The Magicians (or lack thereof) and how they tackle the story now that they’ve run through a lot of the book material. Additionally, Gamble got candid about how they finally get to use the word “fuck” on Syfy this season, and how that decision came about.
It’s an insightful interview first and foremost, but these three talented writers/producers also personify what makes The Magicians so great—they’re smart but also wickedly funny (I made the mistake of mentioning “balls” in the interview), which I think comes across in some of their answers. Check out the full interview below.
So first off, you killed Penny. How did you guys come to that decision?
JOHN MCNAMARA: I think David Reed should take the lead on that because it was definitely his idea. Reed sort of shocked the room a little bit when he pitched it.
DAVID REED: I have a reputation now for being a little bloodthirsty I think, which you know is only partially deserved (laughs). I remember at the beginning of the season we were talking about what to do with Penny. We wanted to take the situation we left him in at the end of Season 2 very seriously and not just fix him right away, which I think we were all kind of scared of. The idea that on a lot of shows about magic you’d just use magic to fix him. We’d go on some slightly difficult quest, and then by the end of Episode 2 or so he’d just be better. When we started talking about how we’d go about fixing him, we were sitting there and it just wasn’t feeling right. It just felt like with all the inventiveness we try to put into the show, just having a demon come and suck out and then eat his cancer—while funny and gross, which I think made it fit with the tone of the show very well—it just didn’t feel satisfying. It didn’t feel like that was worth all the time that we put into setting up this story.
So it really was me and I think Henry Alonso Myers and Mike Moore, two of the other writers, kind of pounding our heads against the board and me saying, ‘Well what if we didn’t? What if he was just dead?’ And within the course of I think about two minutes we were like, ‘Okay what’s unique about Penny? He’s a traveler, he can astral project, what if that was part of the cure? If the thing they tried to do required him to be out of his body, what if his body died but he was stuck? And then instantly we saw the future, we saw the possibilities that would spring from that. There is a beautiful moment sometimes in the writers room when we realize that the story you just came up with gives you more story instead of closing off story, and that’s what this was to me. It suddenly was like, ‘Oh here’s a story for Penny that can go with the rest of the season.’ It doesn’t have to be you spend the first three episodes of the season trying to fix him, then you fix him, then we’d go back to sort of the same stories we’ve already told with Penny like his relationship with Kady and all the obstacles that come with that. I mean this is the biggest obstacle you could possibly have, he’s half dead.
You guys have found a really great groove with the series where it maintains the spirit of the books, but it also stands very much as its own thing. How do you navigate making major deviations like this one that will no doubt have major reverberations throughout the rest of the series?
MCNAMARA: David Reed is especially diligent about this—I know that I’m not diligent about this, I’m not sure if Sera and Henry are—and that is he re-reads all three books in between seasons to find and cull beats that we may have overlooked or missed or things that can become plot or story. But this is an example, for me anyway, of you just kind of have to follow your instincts at a certain point. Start with the idea that a book and television show are always gonna be very different in terms of structure, and just think about the actual experience. When you’re reading, you set your own pace, and when you’re watching something that’s been filmed the pace has been set for you. Even though you can nowadays pause and do whatever, it really is existing at 24 frames per second, and it’s moving in a way that has a more urgent quality to it. And frankly nowadays it’s really hard to get people’s attention and keep people’s attention. No matter how good something is, it’s really the most wonderful time to be in television because there’s so much of it, and it’s a terrible time to be in television because there’s so much of it. Both are true, and both require you as storytellers to keep pushing the limits, and that’s why I thought what David and his fellow lunatics came up with was really great storytelling.
I, for myself, always know that we’re on the right track—on this show especially—when we write ourselves into a corner and don’t know how to get out of it. We had no idea how this was gonna kind of arc out over the season, and frankly it doesn’t resolve itself for quite a long time, and when it does it’s deeply satisfying and incredibly unexpected. I know I’m setting myself up for a lot of blowback for that statement (laughs), but I really do believe that. I really do believe that what the room generated not only in Episode 4 but in dealing with its reverberations is really good storytelling.
REED: The other thing I wanted to add about when we decide to deviate is Penny is a character who’s barely in the books really, and his story is quite different from the Penny that’s on the screen. At this point we’ve pretty much used up the story of Penny from the books, and we’ve done that for several of the characters, so now it’s really kind of a wide open playing field for what can come next. It really is Quentin Coldwater that has story yet to come from the books, and a lot of the other characters we kind of have the opportunity to make shit up.
This episode is really exciting both in the story it’s telling and the way the story is being told. How did you guys break this? Because on the one hand if you take Penny out, it is kind of another traditional episode where you’re jumping from story to story, but now you have an outside observer commenting on what’s happening.
SERA GAMBLE: Well that was the intention. I think every maybe three or four episodes we go into the room to start breaking a new episode and we al just sit there staring at the board, realizing that we don’t want to tell the next step of the story for the season in a “normal” TV way (laughs). Because you really get bored of the structure, especially in a show that has the good fortune of being on for a few seasons. I think it’s just important to keep switching things up and using structure you haven’t tried before, and just continuing to promise the audience that when they tune in for an episode of The Magicians, it’s not what they expected. We’ll throw things in that will feel fresh and different, and will find new ways to tell the story. In this case we realized we had a tremendous opportunity with Penny because if we were in Penny’s point of view for the whole episode, then we would only see what he saw, so we would pop in to everybody else’s story at the absolute most exciting part, and then as soon as he got bored he would go somewhere else. So it just was a really fun way to think about the story.
REED: And just from a character perspective, Penny is the absolute best person to do this structure with, because Penny both loves and despises the other characters on the show. He gets very irritated with them, so it’s just funnier and more satisfying to have him be the one to go in and see what Quentin’s up to and sometimes just not care, and being the voice of the audience. I thought that was a really fun opportunity to kind of tease out a little more about what Penny thinks of everybody. He’s basically a viewer of The Magicians for this episode and he sort of hates the show. So we get into the specifics of who reacts in what ways to his death, what he feels about that, the fact that he really wants to just bail on all the stories—he leaves Eliot in the Neitherlands with a bunch of cannibals, and he kind of can’t help but keep going back to check in because even though he will say over and over that he doesn’t give a shit about any of these people, he really does.
The aptly named Hymen was a delightful inclusion. How did you guys hit upon introducing this other “observer” character and did you take any specific inspiration from actual Magicians fans?
REED: Oh, not actual Magicians fans. The way that we came to that was basically needing a person for Penny to talk to. You really are gonna run up against that very quickly in telling this kind of story, like if Penny was completely by himself there are certain segments of the episode that would still work exactly as they are but it’s just very helpful for him to have someone to swap theories with and talk about his feelings with. The specifics of Hymen as a character was what is the best foil for Penny? Who is the person who is similar to Penny in a couple tiny ways but mostly very, very dissimilar and will push his buttons in a similar way to when we pair Penny and Quentin together—something really fun comes from that because they just are at right angles to each other and they don’t see the world the same way. So having Hymen there to help but infuriate Penny along the way, it was a way to give him drama but also a lot of jokes, frankly.
The final joke, the punchline, is incredible too. I literally gasped. So I was kind of curious what you guys can tease about what’s ahead for Penny, and Eliot’s back on Earth now with his family. There are a lot of balls in the air at the end of this episode.
MCNAMARA: There’s even more balls in the air by Episode 12! (laughs)
GAMBLE: So many balls! (laughs)
MCNAMARA: So many balls! They’re in the air, they’re on the ground, they’re on the bookshelf, they’re in the car, they’re in the castle, they’re on the boat. Yeah, just a lot of balls. Don’t ever say “balls” to us without expecting a total run, we’ll beat that horse into the ground.
I can definitely tell that you guys are the writers and showrunners of The Magicians, if that says anything.