When Max Gladstone and Julian, Serial Box’s founder, first approached me about developing a serialized magical spy saga, I was thrilled, but had no idea what to expect. I’d created my own historical/paranormal spy thriller series in Sekret and Skandal, true, but Max was a two-time Campbell nominee who had somehow seamlessly blended corporate attorneys, necromancy, high fantasy, and warring deities into an urban magical wonderland. What could I possibly contribute?
Then they sent me the basic premise—just four pages of characters, atmospheric notes, and potential season arcs. Yet those four pages spawned galaxies of delicious, devilish possibility. Each character just begging to be pushed past their limits, each flaw an exposed wire ready to deliver a shock. Much like the opening chapter of a book, that pitch was oozing with potential and that sick feeling in your pit of the stomach that warns you everything is about to get much, much worse.
And so this, Season 1, Episode 01, is kind of like that. Here’s the setup. Here are your friends. Here are their demons. Get ready to watch them suffer.
Max and I decided to split this episode evenly between us. I took the scenes featuring our Russian KGB witches, Tatiana Morozova and Nadezhda Ostrokhina, as they hunt down a poor, confused young Host named Andula. Max took the scenes with Gabriel Pritchard as he tries to recruit a Czech friend to spy for the CIA, until the magical something inside his head thinks better of it. We thought it offered the perfect setup to the mirrored worlds we wanted to introduce in the world of Witch—KGB and CIA, East and West, magic and mundane, and the dangerous ways they could interact.
I loved getting to start with the Russian side, not only because of my previous experience writing in the Soviet voice, but because of the way the Russian characters’ urge, in Witch, to dissemble is so strong. We begin with Tanya and Nadia on a stakeout, using all the tricks you might expect from spies, though the tools they’re using seem out of place . . . then, slowly, it becomes clear that they’re not hunting any old person, but a magically empowered construct. They track the construct and its target down, and when Tanya tells the target, Andula, the truth about what she is, of course Andula doesn’t even believe her. And why should she? It’s in her KaGeBeznik nature to lie.
We only get the first glimpse at the delicate tightrope Tanya has been walking her whole life in this episode: her magical heritage with the Consortium of Ice and her political lineage as an apparatchik in the Soviet machine. But already we can see the rope starting to sway. Whatever magic has blown in to Prague is far stronger than any she’s faced before, and sooner or later, we know she’s going to lose her balance.
Max Gladstone –
Meanwhile, down the street and on the other side of the metaphorical Iron Curtain, Gabe Pritchard is having a really tough day.
While Tanya and Nadya understand and navigate the layers of hidden world in Witch, Gabe’s our outsider. A loyal servant of his country, Gabe wants to develop his assets, win shadow victories for the US of A, and go home. Unfortunately, he’s ended up embroiled in a world he doesn’t understand, and can’t control. In the first episode we see Gabe trying (with varying degrees of success) to keep to the shadow world he knows; he’s all too conscious of the risks of being exposed and cultivated as an asset by another power. That’s one of the reasons we started with Gabe approaching Drahomir—both to show Gabe doing what he wants to do, and show the ways those very same tools can (and will) be used against him.
We went back and forth on the poker game that lays the foundation of Gabe’s pitch to Drahomir. Texas Hold’Em wasn’t always played as widely as it is in 2016; Binion’s World Series of Poker began in 1970, the year our story’s set. There’s a truism in Cold War history that the USSR and USA strategy could be boiled down to “the Russians play chess, and Americans play poker.” (Here’s an early example, from the St. Petersburg Times.) There are many more types of poker than Hold ‘Em, of course, but the river rat joke felt really good. (In one of my first hold ’em games I was just as much of a river rat as Drahomir, and felt just as irrationally excited afterward.) Gabe probably learned the game from an army buddy.
But Gabe’s pitch doesn’t go as smoothly as he’d like, and he finds himself in a bind: to serve his country, he needs to get his “little magic problem” under control as quickly as possible. But to do that, he’ll have to expose his weakness—and become an asset in a game with unknown rules and dangers.