The Magicians: The World in the Walls

“The Madness Maker didn't play for the joy of winning, just the fear of losing. The real curse was, he only played when he could win, which cut him off from the surprise, horror, sadness, and wonder of life. Jane saw only one way out for him: ‘Stop playing. Start living.’”

This is The Magicians' first gimmick episode. And it’s amazing.

Gimmick episodes are often (but not always) a ton of fun. They can give the characters a chance to enter a new world and take on a new persona. They can give writers a chance to play with their own narrative. But, I think, the best gimmick episodes are the ones that allow the characters’ to remember all that happened so that it can have affect them afterwards (none of that “it was all a dream” nonsense—although in this case it actually was a dream). And the ones that say something about their characters or about the show’s theme (extra points for both). And “The World in the Walls” manages to do all of this.

The plot of the episode is fairly simple. Quentin is stuck in a dream—nightmare really—where he’s slumming it at a mental ward. Quentin needs to get out of the dream. Quentin wakes up. That’s really it. All the fun stuff comes from finding out how this happened and seeing Quentin find his way out.

Apparently, Julia and Marina are the ones to lock Quentin in the dream. Julia wants to get back at Quentin for what he said during their fight and for not helping her with Brakebills. Marina wants to use the spell to force Dean Fogg into lifting Brakebills’ wards so she can steal back her Brakebills memory. I was on Julia’s side for the first few episodes, but this is really messed up. I’m not sure if she intended to lock him in the mental ward dream specifically, but at the very least she seemed cool with it when she visits Quentin the first time. She knows he struggles with depression, that he’s been in a clinic before, and that he has trouble trusting his own head (in the pilot he was relieved Julia was there to confirm he wasn’t hallucinating Brakebills). And then she messed with it. And, to add to that, she tells him that she’s thriving in Yale and that she’s engaged to James, adding extra salt to the wound given his crush on her. She regrets everything, sure, but it takes a little while. She only starts to feel guilty and tries breaking the spell when she sees how much he’s taking to it and finds out that he might be stuck there forever. It was just all very not okay.

To Quentin’s credit, he actually figures out the whole mystery right away. He spends most of the episode either determined to find a way out of the dream or completely losing himself to it. The former is where all the fun comes in. Quentin realizes he can use Taylor Swift music to alert real Penny to his situation and gets the whole cast to perform a small number to “Shake it Off.” It makes perfect sense (we already know Penny hates Quentin’s affinity for Taylor Swift songs), moves the plot along, and it’s just beautiful. What I most enjoyed was that Quentin isn’t a good singer. Usually in musicals everybody is a great singer, which makes no sense because not everyone is in reality. Like, if I were to suddenly burst into song it wouldn’t look pretty. It would look more like Quentin’s number, but worse because I can’t dance either.

On a sadder note, Quentin also spends a good portion of the episode rendered almost catatonic as the dream world starts to get to him. He sees a lot of his fears come to light: he hurt his dad in a state of delusion, he’s falling behind while Julia thrives at Yale, and the doctors see no hope for his recovery and even decide to lobotomize him. By the end he’s left feeling tired and like he’ll never be anything other than “nothing.” But, when all seems lost, the show’s theme kicks into high gear.

Throughout the show Quentin has had moments where he thinks he’s finally gotten over his mental illness. In the beginning of the first episode, he thinks he’s ready to give up his children’s book collection and start working towards a career so he can begin his life—and that will mean he’s sane. But the whole time he’s reluctant to really let go of them he keeps searching for signs of real magic so he won’t have to. Which works out because it turns out he was right. Then Dean Fogg tells him he isn’t sick, he just needed magic in his life. And Quentin accepts that, probably because he wants to. But he continues to be terrified of his depression coming back throughout his time at Brakebills, without really doing anything to deal with it. But now that he’s trapped in a mental ward that only he can get himself out of he finally has to deal with his fears, his mental illness, and figure out how to exist from here. Now, Quentin learns that the horrible emotions he’s running from are a part of life. And to truly live, he has to embrace them along with the positive ones. And he seems ready to do that, because he finally wants to live.

So we’re left with two characters greatly impacted by the plot of the episode. Julia has to shoulder her guilt over what she did to Quentin and, after making a failed last ditch effort to save him, she’s been cut off from her only source of magic training. Quentin’s will to live has been restored and now he’s determined to put more effort into learning magic (and hopefully figuring out how to stop the beast).

Bits and Pieces

-- All this talk of the importance of embracing all your emotions—even the sucky ones—connects well with magic’s source: pain. It’s almost like magic is trying to help these magicians accept their awful emotions and find a way to use them in a positive, beautiful, and productive way (or a horrible way, if you choose to go The Beast route).

-- The mental ward setting was all very One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Although I say that as someone who has never watched the movie and only skimmed the book.

-- Dream Eliot was a drug addict. It’s kind of depressing how well the role fits him.

-- Dream Alice was driven psychotic (schizophrenic maybe?) by a Star Trek episode.

-- Quentin might be a bit racist based on the role his brain cast Penny in. Or maybe he just did it out of spite. Maybe a bit of both.

Quentin: “I hate these dreams. It’s like your feet are stuck to the floor and you’re paralyzed.” I don’t know why, but I really liked that line.

Alice: “I crash-landed on this planet 9.3 light-years ago. … You're a starship captain, and you came to rescue me. ... But none of this is real. It's– We're trapped in a cage, a menagerie. … And they show us these illusions to make us fall in love and mate. … They collect us from all over the galaxy to feed off our emotions.”

Dream Penny: “Please be knowing that dinner will be served in five minutes, and today, we are to be serving chicken curry, which is, of course, my favorite.”
Real Penny to Quentin: “You racist mother-fucker.”

Quentin: “Except I'm tired, so tired [of] fighting all the time, becoming someone that I actually want to be, and then realizing that I am nothing.”

Dean Fogg: “Quentin, do you really think that the magic that we teach means that you just get to fly above right and wrong? Magic does not solve problems.”
Quentin: “It magnifies them. I know that too. Believe me. I don't need to be taught what magic is or isn't. I need to be taught magic so that I can decide what it is or isn't for me.”
Dean Fogg: “That was almost well-put.”

Four out of Four Taylor Swift musical numbers.

1 comment:

percysowner said...

I agree, what Julia did was horrible and close to unforgivable.