The Magicians: Season 1, Episode 4 - "The World in the Walls"
A well-crafted episode that ties together the loose threads that have made up this season so far.
The MagiciansAirtime: Mondays, 8pm
Cast: Jason Ralph, Arjun Gupta, Stella Maeve, Olivia Taylor Dudley, Hale Appleman, Summer Bishil
Subtitle: Season 1, Episode 4 - "The World in the Walls"
Air date: 2016-02-08
An episode like this makes me want to grab the shoulders of the people behind The Magicians and shake them. Last week’s episode, "Consequences of Advanced Spellcasting", had reverted to the same wooden acting and disjointed storytelling that plagued the pilot. And yet, there’s a vital nucleus of creative potential in the series that the showrunners have been grabbing -- and then letting slip through their fingers. This week's episode, “The World in the Walls", is an example of when The Magicians’ stars come into alignment: we get a episode that makes an excellent chop suey out of the narrative odds-and-ends left"over from the first three episodes this season.
The format of this episode is an ontological mystery: Quentin (Jason Ralph) finds himself in a psychiatric hospital, and the individuals there (played by his classmates and professors in a very Wizard of Oz fashion) are aware of his claims of being a magician, and attempt to convince him that those claims are the result of a psychotic break. It’s funny that I referenced Star Trek: The Next Generation in my last review, since The Next Generation did something almost exactly like this in the 1993 episode, "Frame of Mind". Still, despite the fact that it doesn't have a particularly original ploy, I appreciated that this episode was both well-crafted and managed to subvert my expectations in a way that didn’t reek of cynical "what-a-twist-ism".
Quentin’s therapist (Tembi Locke) informs him that the world of magic is a delusion, and his immediate reaction is one of the best parts of the episode: he gets exasperated and begins to lampshade how many tropes he can observe in play. While Quentin does eventually get worn down by the psychological torture, he never actually accepts that his magical life is the product of a delusion, continually knocking at the "walls" of his prison’s logic to find any method of escaping. It’s an exceptional example of that writing workshop dictum, "show, don’t tell", insofar as it paints us a picture of Quentin's character without having to spell it out or resorting to tricks like affected stammering. Quentin's a man who has been so disconnected from reality that he feels more comfortable in illusion and fantasy than in his own life. The episode suggests that the only reason he’s able to put up any defense at all against his "situation" is because trying to escape from an enforced normalcy has been his method of living even before he learned about magic.
I don't think it's a spoiler to say that Quentin’s predicament really is a deception. Let’s be fair -- there are shows that would be brave enough to change their entire format in the fourth episode, but The Magicians isn’t one of them. It's impossible to watch this episode without the meta-awareness that Quentin has a character shield the size of Nevada. About halfway through the episode, we're shunted back into reality to deal with the fallout of Quentin’s forced imprisonment in an illusion. Penny (Arjun Gupta), who’s recently been revealed as a natural traveler to all places real and metaphysical, is inadvertently sucked into Quentin's mind and conscripted to get help from Dean Fogg (Rick Worthy) and other members of the Brakebills' faculty. But there’s another layer to this episode, and when it’s revealed to the audience, it makes for a sudden and absolutely jarring shift. The inferior method of handling a twist is to throw it into an episode as a crutch for a lack of narrative quality. I was impressed by "The World in the Walls" because a betrayal and a manipulation are revealed in such a way that they become the logical conclusion to plot points quietly introduced and lined up in the previous episodes instead of merely a twist confined to this week’s offering.
That plays into why this episode is good: the narrative was tight, well-constructed, and focuses on two character arcs instead of meandering around a half-dozen. Also -- and you may need to brace yourself for this one -- I enjoyed Penny this week. So far, Penny’s been something of an afterthought. He’s written as one thing, and Arjun Gupta's been portraying him as something else, leaving Penny to come off as unpleasantly petty to the audience. In the ordinary setting of The Magicians, that attitude comes off as annoying and unbelievable, but in the madhouse disorder of Quentin’s subconscious, Penny’s abrasive personality actually makes him a really good straight man. He's the Bert here to Quentin’s illusion's Ernie. I’d love to see more of this in future episodes, since it seems like the best way to play on Arjun Gupta’s performance of Penny. I’m not going to hold my breath, though, since the kind of comic interlude that Penny had to deal with (a song-and-dance number set to Taylor Swift! Interacting with a racist illusion-parody of himself!) isn’t likely to appear again anytime soon. However, while the mental hospital gave us a good performance from Arjun Gupta, I wasn’t too thrilled by the performances of Olivia Taylor Dudley and Hale Appleman in the same scenario. Quentin has to deal with illusory representations of his classmates, and Alice and Eliot, performed by Dudley and Appleman respectively, are just tedious stereotypes that suffer from the lazy conflation of "wacky" with "mentally ill". Hale Appleman gets the chance to perform the “real” Eliot with his usual catlike restraint later in the episode, but the only Alice we get this week is illusory, and after "Consequences of Advanced Spellcasting", I was hoping for Dudley to have the opportunity to work her acting skills in a less off-putting fashion.
Julia (Stella Maeve) plays the deuteragonist again in this episode. She continues to be really good. There’s something almost morbid about the way this setting keeps knocking Julia lower and lower, but no matter how much shit gets piled on her shoulders, one can’t help but keep watching. On a meta level, one can say that something’s going to happen to push Julia from the position of pawn to that of player simply from the fact that so much of the show’s creative energy has been poured into her arc. But on a personal level, Stella Maeve’s been investing her with this dark intensity that simply has to come roaring out in the future. The only question is what it’s going to look like. Pagan death-goddess? Supervillain?
Either way, "The World in the Walls" was a fine episode, and if this review ever makes it to the desk of the showrunners, I’d want them to come away knowing that this and episode two are the groundwork on which they need to be building their show.