Hale Appleman on ‘The Magicians’ Groundhog Day episode and facing Eliot’s fears

This interview contains spoilers for The Magicians Season 5, episodes 5 and 6. Proceed past the wards at your own peril.

It’s rare that fans of Syfy’s The Magicians get a double helping of Brakebills pie, but the fifth and sixth episodes of Season 5 aired back-to-back in an apocalypse-stopping double feature that wrecked the moon, released the kraken, and set fan favorite characters Eliot and Margot in a time loop that could only end when (and if) they saved the world. 

Because The Magicians loves to put a hat on a hat (on a hat, sometimes on another, sadder hat), episode 6’s time loops double as an opportunity for the show to explore Eliot’s psychology in a way the show hasn’t attempted before. Actor Hale Appleman spoke to Mashable about Elliot’s trauma, the process of making magical Groundhog Day, and what might come next for the Brakebills in Season 5.

What was your reaction when you read the script for episode 6 and found out that you and Summer got to do a Groundhog Day with whales and a kraken? 

I thought it was one of the best scripts for Magicians that I’d ever read. Our writer Hillary [Benefiel] is so talented and was an excellent person to bring the audience down that rabbit hole. There was such a specificity to her writing in the way that the story unfolded and I think it was also the first time on our show where it was just a single storyline throughout a single episode. It felt more cinematic in that we were following a single throughline. It was incredibly exciting for me.

Beyond the time loops, Episode 6 explored Eliot’s trauma and how it appears to him. It’s right there behind a door that he has to open. Why do you think the first step for Eliot moving past what he’s been through with the monster was represented in that way?

I think Eliot’s a character who doesn’t necessarily face his fears head on. He’s more comfortable burying them in favor of the appearance of having it together. He’s been able to survive that way for a really long time. Sometimes the same patterns in life come back to haunt us and I think that’s in essence what Episodes 5 and 6 represent to Eliot. The door represents facing his fear head on.

“What we haven’t really discussed on the show yet is the aftermath of Eliot’s psychology after being inhabited by an ancient monster.”

The trauma we go through in the first three episodes with the grief of losing Quentin continues throughout the season as an undercurrent for Eliot, but what we haven’t really discussed on the show yet or looked at is the aftermath of Eliot’s psychology after being inhabited by an ancient monster from thousands of years ago, which is bound to have a pretty dramatic effect on one’s psyche! 

So we’re looking at the aftershocks of what Eliot is experiencing in real time. Which is great, because usually we are sifting through Eliot’s psychology as he makes a comment in passing briefly and we get a glimpse into some idea of who he was in his life years and years ago. 

I was very surprised when Eliot opened the door and Charlton popped out. Now Eliot has a little brain-buddy to hang out with this season!

Yeah, a little Jiminy Cricket. A little stand-in therapist.

What’s it like working with Spencer Daniels again? And where’s that secret mind friend relationship going?

Spencer Daniels is a wonderful actor. He is charismatic and dynamic and prepared and we have a great rapport on set. I love working with him. We had a really great time playing with how Charlton would manifest physically in the scenes with Eliot. There was a decision pretty early on to shoot each scene two ways, one with Charlton appearing in the background or in some aspect of the literal geography of the scene and then to shoot another version where he doesn’t exist and Eliot is just essentially talking to himself. 

So we shot all the scenes both ways. Spencer’s really inventive and we had a great time exploring the physicality exploring how they might dance around each other figuratively or literally in any given scene. It really felt lively and collaborative and I can’t say enough good things about working with Spencer, truly. 

You mentioned before that Charlton acts as a Jiminy Cricket. What is it about Charlton that makes him a good conscience-like figure for Eliot?

Well, I think [laughs] Charlton is about as dandy as Eliot, perhaps even more so. There’s something about him that makes him an authentic aesthetic dandy of the past or much earlier generation, perhaps hundred and hundreds of years before Eliot even came into existence. There’s something resonant about the way they relate to each other as these two dandies. 

I think that Charlton having lived inside Eliot’s psyche has a real understanding of the folds of Eliot’s brain and what’s really going on in there and he does his best to try and reflect to Eliot what the healthiest path or line of action is in any situation.

That being said, Charlton is a bit stubborn and from another realm, so he doesn’t have the tools to unpack or relate to Eliot socially and neither does Eliot. They’re figuring each other out in real time and there’s a dance they’re doing with each other which is really fun to explore. We have a great time.

Hale Appleman on 'The Magicians' Groundhog Day episode and facing Eliot's fears

Image: Eric Milner / SYFY

Moving on to Eliot’s real, corporeal friends, at the end of episode 6 he observes to Margot that she’s evolved and he’s worried he’ll drag her down if he leans on her to get to her level. What does Eliot’s final form look like to him? What does he want to be when he gets on Margot’s level?

I think Eliot has historically had a hard time asking for help if he needs it. He doesn’t want to be a burden to anyone, there’s some scar tissue around having basic human needs because maybe in his past he wasn’t seen as equal or allowed to exist fully as himself. So that can change the way you think about asking for help when you’re suffering. I think that ideally Eliot would be able to say “I’m struggling right now, I need your help, can you help me Margot? Here’s what I’m willing to do to save the world, move the needle, stop the harmonic convergence, whatever, and here’s what I need as a friend.” 

But I don’t think that’s his MO and it’s a longer journey to get to that point. 

Baby steps. 

Yeah, he’s much more comfortable giving advice to other people or creating an environment in which everyone can celebrate each other and himself superficially. But he’s just about ready to have a more direct line with the friends that he loves and ask for what he needs. 

He’s actually a giver and taking is hard to do for some people when they give too much. 

He’s a giver and he’s also first in line at the banquet table.

You did mention that Eliot needs to ask what he needs to be a person but also what he needs to save the world. With all of the apocalypses, the theme of this season seems to be that being a hero means never being done. What would it take for Eliot and the rest of the Brakebills to be done with saving the world?

That’s a really good question. I think it would mean them finding a portal to another world somewhere that has an essential peaceful aspect. I don’t know if that exists honestly. I don’t know what that looks like. Conflict is the source of all drama and we love to watch drama on TV. I don’t know if there would be a show if we found a fully peaceful magician’s land. 

Drama, trauma, magic, and whales.

Oh god, the magic whales. That was bizarre. Yeah, that episode, wow. So many lives in that one episode. I had so much fun. 

Before we go, is there any more you want to say about your experience on this episode that I haven’t asked you about?

I’ve never been busier on the show than shooting this season and shooting this episode was the most intense, certainly. It was the most joyous experience this year to really delve into Eliot’s psychology more thoroughly and you might think that I would have been exhausted from shooting this episode, but I was there so consistently every day that it became essentially ritual. 

Later in the season I have the pleasure of playing a couple different characters — no spoilers. From episode 5 through episode 9 or 10 it was kind of a nonstop train for me working on the show. The dynamic shift between playing all these different characters, sometimes two or three in a day is the most fun aspect of working on the show but also the most challenging. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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