The plot has thickened substantially on “The Magicians,” as the Feb. 15 episode “Mendings, Major and Minor” centered on Arjun Gupta’s Penny. Confronted by a straight-talking new mentor and determined to harness his newfound “traveling” skills, the abrasive Brakebills student might just be the most powerful magic-wielder of the bunch, which Gupta tells Zap2it is the start of something new for Penny.
“This is the start of a big turn for Penny; this is the start of a new journey for him,” Gupta says of the latest episode. “The idea of a mentor is the last thing Penny wants in the world, but it’s what he needs most. He is confronted with this mentor, which is not only a relationship he has a reluctance towards, but then he says the opposite of what Penny was expecting him to say: ‘Hey, you need to block out this traveler thing; you need to get rid of it.’ While everybody else has been talking about how great it is.”
Despite such warnings, Penny decides to try traveling “with the training wheels on,” essentially transporting his mind in a ghost-like form.
“When he tries astral projecting, he sees just how dangerous traveling can be. He literally goes to another world, and it’s not rainbows — it’s a dungeon and The Beast,” explains the actor.
At the end of the episode, the group is rocked by Quentin’s theory on the location of Penny’s dungeon: Inside a “Fillory & Further” book.
“Penny’s mindset is that he went to a dungeon, but thinks it’s in this world, it was on Earth,” Gupta explains. “[Quentin’s notion] that I can go to other worlds is mind-blowing, exhilarating and terrifying.”
It’s terrifying because of the implication — if The Beast can appear at Brakebills, and also be seen in a children’s book, then it seems like the barriers between reality and fiction are blurring.
“Dungeons and beasts are not part of the children’s books, so it really hints that there’s a dark side of Fillory,” Gupta explains. “What is the dark side? Is it like the Grimm fairy tales? Is that what Fillory really is? We’ll find out soon.”
Viewers of “The Magicians” had a lot of fun recently with the “World in the Walls” episode, which existed primarily inside the mind of Quentin Coldwater — a place where Penny sounded less like himself and more like … Apu from “The Simpsons”?
“To get to play an absurd stereotype — which was used against me as a child in a lot of ways — to call that out and respond to that and send it up as how absurd and wrong and racist it is, that was fun,” Gupta says of the episode, which also gave him the first opportunity of his career to act alongside himself. “It was really fun for me to do.”
Another fun thing for Gupta has been the reaction to Penny — who a fan recently tweeted “is the first Desi superhero in American culture.”
“It’s been interesting, the response I’ve gotten from other South Asians, it’s thrilling in a lot of ways,” he explains. “There has been a dearth of South Asian men presented in powerful ways in culture. But that paradigm is starting to shift; I’ve been honored and humbled and grateful to be a part of that shift.”
“But I don’t think Penny is a superhero at all,” Gupta reasons. “The idea of a superhero to me is it’s good versus evil, and it’s a very black-and-white world they live in. And our characters don’t live in that world at all — there’s no black and white, it’s all spaces of grey.”
Gupta, however, reverses course when he considers a certain Alan Moore graphic novel he recently became infatuated with. “I guess ‘Watchmen’ were superheroes? If so, maybe we’re superheroes in the ‘Watchmen’ way, but not as extreme,” he says. “At least, not yet. I don’t know where [producers] John [McNamara] and Sera [Gamble] will take us.”
But if “The Magicians” are “The Watchmen,” that would seem to mean that Penny is Dr. Manhattan. Both are able to transport between worlds effortlessly — and both seem to be the most powerful member of their respective teams.
“I”m not gonna argue with you about that,” Gupta says of the idea that Penny wields the most power on the show. “Of course, Olivia [Taylor Dudley] will; her character Alice will tell you that’s not right.”
“Oh, and I will add this,” he teases. “Don’t sleep on Eliot’s power.”
He adds: “We’re going to see that we all need each other for certain things. It’s going to be interesting as that plays out. How do we deal with that, as a group? Can Penny become a group with these people, with anybody? And what will be the reason that brings them together?”
Before wrapping things up, there was just one more question begging to be asked: What would Arjun do if he had Penny’s teleportation powers for a day?
“If I could go anywhere on Earth, I would teleport to my grandmother’s place in Kanpur, India and I would have some lunch with her,” he explains. “Then I would go to Cuba. Then I would go to Colombia, to a salsa club, to learn some salsa dancing — I want to go there specifically, because they have the fast footwork. Then, maybe the moon.”
Laughing, he adds: “That sounds like a hell of a day.”