Shaking It Off: The Magicians, “The World in the Walls”

For three episodes, The Magicians has been tearing through plot like it’s running out of time, which is funny, since it’s already been renewed for a second season. “The World in the Walls” slows things down a notch, and also pulls off the rare feat of making a “what if you’re actually just crazy” plot make sense within the story’s larger picture. Also, there’s a lot of Penny and his hatred of fully buttoned shirts, which is great.

Spoilers follow!

Quentin apparently isn’t much of a morning person. The episode opens on him waking up, and it takes him a few long moments to realize that, while the room is the same shape, everything is different, from the contents of the drawers to his stuffed-bunny-hugging roommate. One thing carries over: The Fillory books are stacked on his bedside table.

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Outside his room, everything is exactly what you’d expect from a half-baked mental hospital set, and Quentin is pretty sure that’s just what it is. “It’s a bad collage,” he tells the doctor—the same one from the first episode—when she takes him into her office (the dean’s office) to talk about why he’s there. Eliot, disheveled and desperate for happy pills, is a patient; Penny is on staff and responsible for Quentin getting in trouble; Alice is there, too, with her own version of unreality. It involves throwing herself at Quentin, which is, by that point, the third or fourth clue that we aren’t in Kansas anymore.

But the biggest clue is Julia, who comes to visit, telling Quentin about Yale and her engagement to James. Desperate, Q tries to do a spell for her, but she doesn’t see the tiny fireworks he shoots off. (That would be a fun trick at parties.) On her way out, Julia says, ruefully, “I wanted to see the fireworks.”

He never said they were fireworks.

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Quentin sets about trying to break out of the spell, and he’s actually fairly resourceful about it. At music therapy, not-Penny begs the class not to sing that one song that gets stuck in his head, and Quentin realizes that’s the key to getting real-Penny’s attention: pissing him off. This results in the most convincingly off-key Taylor Swift singalong I can imagine seeing on television, complete with sloppy choreography. And it’s a singalong with a point! Before long, Penny bursts into Quentin’s spell-dream to yell at him, again, for his taste in music. And upon discovering that the version of himself in Quentin’s head is a total stereotype, he pauses, mid-dream, to call Quentin out for it in gloriously Penny fashion.

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The show doesn’t linger on this—Penny tells him to stop singing the damn song; Quentin explains that he did it on purpose, and please, Penny, help; Penny wakes up at Brakebills and realizes something is really very wrong—because the point has been made. Inside Quentin’s head, everyone appears the way Quentin chooses to see them, and everything he sees is colored by his own self-interest, his flaws and biases and desires and terrors. He’s caught in a feedback loop of his worst fears, and by inviting Penny in, he exposes himself, including the ugly side. It’s a smart way to show Quentin’s self-involvement, and having Penny call him out on it is even smarter. Even if you could explain away his snit at Julia last week, there’s no more ducking the fact that Quentin kind of sucks.

Once Penny is involved, the show finally drops all pretense that the spell is reality, and gives us its source: In Brooklyn, Marina and Julia are coming out of some “high-end designer cooperative magic.” Julia, presumably still pissed about their last encounter, thinks it’s just to mess with Quentin, but Marina, deeply unconcerned, doesn’t think he’ll escape their spell. To her, it’s just step one of a longer game—one that involves getting into Brakebills and stealing back the magical memories they took from her when she was expelled. Wait, what?

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There’s so much to unpack in the last twenty minutes of this episode that I wish they could’ve gotten the is-it-real-or-not part out of the way faster; the change of pace was refreshing, but everything has to race back to normal speed for the last act: Penny, Eliot, and Kady find unconscious Quentin and take him to Dean Fogg, who instructs another magician to drop the wards on the school (the entire school!) so they can summon a creepy magical scorpion to help break Quentin out of the dream-trap. When it gets in, so do Marina and Julia, who has a crisis of conscience when Kady tells her Q hasn’t woken up yet.

Everything snaps together just in time: Quentin unwinds the spell from the inside with the help of a story from Fillory, the moral of which is, conveniently, “Stop playing games and live your darn life.” (From the outside, it takes another assist from Penny, who helps even though he presumably would like to clock Quentin). Marina magically whisks Julia out of the dean’s office—only to use her regained magical skills to burn Julia’s hedge-witch stars and drop her, alone, on an empty street in the middle of nowhere.

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All this raises a ton of questions. How long has Marina been planning this? Did she take Julia under her wing because she somehow knew she had a connection at Brakebills? Why didn’t she just use the spell on Kady? Did she not trust that Fogg would drop the wards to save Kady’s life, but would for Quentin’s? How would she know that? What does she have over Kady, anyway? Why is Fillory so useful to Quentin, and why does Jane Chatwin keep helping him? Is there a story from Fillory that will neatly help solve every problem Quentin’s going to have this season?

If there’s a real weakness to the plot, it’s that—like Quentin!—it doesn’t pay enough attention to Julia. A large part of the reason she messes with Quentin’s head is because she’s mad as a bag of cats about how Q treated her last week, but we don’t see any of that; we just see her being manipulated by Marina. (Probably not a coincidence that Kady refers to Marina as a “psycho” while everyone’s trying to rescue Q from his nightmare mental ward.) The show is, for the most part, pulling off a really difficult balancing act: It’s making everything about Quentin while simultaneously asking us to question why it’s about Quentin. Why is it about the neurotic guy who needs to be reminded that we make the webs we’re in? Why is it about the guy who needs rescuing, and not the one who is vital to the rescue, even as he gets insulted in the process? Why isn’t it about the woman who could trap her cruel best friend with her mind?

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The reason continues to be Fillory, though we still don’t really know why. The fictional world is vital to Quentin’s escape, which is made up of equal parts Fillory fable, Brakebills power, and Penny’s particular skillset—two things he clings to, and one he needs, whether he wants to admit it or not.

What we do know is that Quentin, genuinely shaken, has a rare moment of certainty; he tells Fogg, “I don’t need to be taught what magic is or isn’t; I need to be taught magic so I can decide what it is or isn’t—for me.” (Fogg concedes that this is “almost” well put, and ignores how typically self-centered it is.) And we know that Julia has had everything taken away from her again—but there was so much more to take, this time.

Molly Templeton was slightly surprised to find she missed Margo this week, and, like Margo, is excited for next week’s welters games.


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