Syfy's The Magicians has always operated as a self-aware deconstruction of (and love letter to) genre television. On the surface, it's another show about hot twentysomethings balancing supernatural shenanigans (students at the magical Brakebills Universtiy find their way to the fantasy world of Fillory, chaos ensues) with hookups. But on a closer look, The Magicians is an irreverent, postmodern take on the conventions of fantasy that subverts audience expectations at every turn.
Nowhere in the show is that more apparent than in the relationship between Eliot (Hale Appleman) and Quentin (Jason Ralph), the sassy-but-damaged gay bestie and the de facto cishetero protagonist, respectively. These characters' obvious chemistry would have been ignored on any other show, the clear connection between them left to be fleshed out in fanfiction. But the seeds of Queliot (as the fandom has christened them) were planted in Lev Grossman's trilogy on which the series is based and have only grown in the TV adaptation.
Since their disastrous threesome in season one, it's been obvious that something was there between these characters, and their friendship has in many ways become the emotional center of the show. That something was finally given room to grow in season three's critically acclaimed "A Life in the Day" -- arguably one of the boldest and most important episodes of genre television -- when Eliot and Quentin lived out their lives together as a couple in an alternate timeline, raising a son and discovering "the beauty of all life" as part of a quest to find a magical key (it's a whole thing) before dying as old men. Reader, it cannot be understand how hard I wept.
The implications of their decades-long romance have simmered in the background as more pressing matters (restoring magic to the multiverse after some angry gods turned it off like Con Edison when you don't pay your bill) took precedence back in the show's main timeline, but in Wednesday's episode Queliot fans were finally rewarded for their patience. Eliot, possessed by season four's big bad (known only as the Monster), revisits his darkest memories to find a way to let his friends know he's still alive. Ultimately, we learn that the thing Eliot most regrets is turning Quentin down when he suggested they give their relationship a go IRL once they recovered their memories of the alternate timeline. It's a heartbreaking scene, superbly acted by both Appleman and Ralph. But the episode ends with a glimmer of hope when Eliot is able to let Quentin know he's still alive and waiting to be saved.
Somehow managing to tone down my fangirling, I chatted with Appleman about what impact this development could have on the rest of the season, as well as why queer representation is so important in genre television -- not to mention, who makes his favorite Eliot fan porn?
Were you as shook reading the script for this week's episode "Escape From the Happy Place" as I was watching it?
I definitely was looking forward to dipping back into Eliot's shoes [after playing the Monster all season]. I knew that we hadn't seen the end of him. They wouldn't have written him off completely without any explanation. I suppose this is the beginning of an explanation. I will say I was having a really great time finding my footing playing the Monster up until this episode. I was ready to kind of taste the balance of the two characters.
Obviously, the most exciting part of this episode was that it revisits the relationship between Quentin and Eliot that was established last season. Did you know that this is something that the writers were planning to return to?
Not at all. I know that anything is possible on our show and that the storyline could go in any of many directions. I hoped that they would delve a little bit deeper into what Quentin and Eliot had established throughout their lifetime together in ["A Life in the Day"]. I was surprised at the route they took to revisit that story, particularly in looking back at the moment when they recall their lives together. It would never have occurred to me to do that, so I thought that was kind of a nice reintroduction to the feelings that they had for each other in that moment, that then they each handled in completely different ways.
In contemporary media, it's unexpected that a character who started as the stereotypical cishetero protagonist is ultimately the one who wants to pursue this relationship and the queer character can't do it. What does that say about these characters and this show?
That sexuality is fluid period, full stop. It's refreshing to have a "white male protagonist" who is blurring those lines a little bit in a way that you don't see very much, particularly in genre television, particularly in fantasy television. I have to say, playing Eliot is a complete joy for me. There weren't many queer characters growing up in the fantasy realm. Of course we can make assumptions about Gandalf... What it says about Eliot is that there's some damage that he hasn't dealt with internally about his childhood and his relationship to trauma, and how that trauma is connected to the relationships in his life.
I want for Eliot, as much as anyone else, for him to see a happy relationship, and he's about due for one.
It's significant that you talk about assumptions. In more traditional fantasy, we infer that these characters have these inner lives that we're not aware of. There's a reason that fanfiction exists.But one of the great things The Magicians does is take that subtext and turn it into text. Why is it so vital that The Magicians continues to do that?
The Magicians is both inspired by the fandom and by the tropes that are expected in fantasy genre TV. It's important to keep pushing the needle. I hope that we do it to an extent and keep subverting the viewer's expectation of what might be delivered in any given episode. I think it makes for a ride that people can't necessarily predict. That makes for a fun viewing experience, if nothing else. I certainly think it's important for the genre to continue expanding and these characters' many facets to continue to be explored.
Do you think that on a more mainstream genre show, this relationship would never have even happened?
Yeah. I think that's right. Part of what's great about working on this show is that I was a huge fan of the books and had all of that information going into filming, and I know subtextually that I want to bring elements of the book into the show at various moments.I knew that my relationship with Quentin had to reverberate on multiple cylinders. There is a friendship. There is a romance. There is a soul connection. There is sexual fluidity.It's all there.
How did you feel about the overwhelmingly positive critical response to last season's standout episode "A Life in the Day?"
I'm proud of being a part of that episode. I'm proud that playing a queer character, and as a queer person, I get to shake up the expectations of the genre, even just for one episode, and explore a slice of life, the day to day mundanity of what being with someone actually is. Jason and I got to live out some of those scenes, both that were scripted, and then conversationally, what you see in the episode is a much truncated version of what it was that we shot, but I think the montage is really beautiful.
How do you, as both an actor and as Eliot, let that inform the character once you leave that slice of life?
For the most part, we both know and essentially promised to each other that having lived this experience, these characters could never be the same, could never look at each other in quite the same way, or go back to the life they knew before. It was essential that we retain a thread of the upgrades to your consciousness. We definitely wanted it to sustain throughout the rest of the series.
These characters are constantly fighting to save the world but still have these complicated inner lives and relationships. Is that ultimately what keeps The Magicians compelling?
Yes, and those are always the moments I look forward to playing. I also try to find ways of grounding the most whimsical, outrageous thought moment in character. Summer [Bishil] and I are running around with fairy eggs in a forest for 12 hours, [but] we're also talking about who Eliot and Margo are in this moment, and why that's important. Our showrunners love playing with that balance, so they'll put you on a wild ride, and then they'll hit you over the head with emotional resonance.
When this week's episode ends, what is the place that Eliot is in?
He is biding his time. He's the damsel in distress. I get to play both the damsel and the super villain. He's there waiting patiently, hoping that his friends receive his smoke signals and that he can be rescued. I think he's counting on Quentin to have received the message and concoct a way to extricate him from this mind palace that he's trapped in.
Do you ship Queliot?
Oh always. Yeah. No brainer.
Why do you think that the audience is so clearly invested in this relationship?
Eliot and Quentin have seen a certain level of darkness in their lives. Quentin's depression and Eliot's past before Brakebills was pretty grim, and together they're able to transcend that darkness a little bit, if they don't fall completely into it. I think there's a hope there. There is a hope.
Is Queliot endgame for you?
In my heart, yes. Do I think that that is likely on a show that gives the protagonist so many love interests? Maybe.
Have you ever read any fanfiction about yourself?
I will say there is this one artist who makes all sorts of lovely images of Eliot. And he's miraculous. His handle is @ze_pict, so check it out. It's pretty explicit. NSFW.
Honey, this is Out Magazine, everything is safe for work.
Great, so if you want to see some Eliot porn, there is your angle.
I know you can't give away any spoilers, but what can the audience expect from the rest of the season?
I think they're going to continue to be surprised. There's a bunch of bottle episodes coming up that are really exciting, episode 10 particularly, which is a huge Margo episode and the Monster features in it prominently as well. It's also the musical number episode -- I wonder if I'm allowed to say that -- but that's one to look out for for sure.
What kind of legacy do you hope The Magicians has on genre television?
A legacy of an open door that continues to expand in terms of queer representation on television.
The Magicians airs Wednesdays at 9pm on Syfy.
Editor's Note: Incorrect pronouns were previously used by the subject of this interview to identify someone named in this story. We have updated this piece to reflect their proper pronouns.