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THE MAGICIANS “The World In The Walls” Nails Its Extended Metaphors

By on February 9, 2016

Pictured: Jason Ralph as Quentin -- Photo by: Carole Segal/Syfy

This week’s The Magicians went to its darkest place yet: the literal manifestation of Quentin’s greatest fears. A.K.A. what would’ve happened if the wardrobe wasn’t real.

It’s not just a somber turn for the series, but an unnerving one. That has a lot to do with what it forces us as viewers to confront: the death of our young dreams and what happens to those of us that don’t reach them.

Our understanding of realities, of adulthood, are fragile. What we think we know–what we think is right–is based on a mutually agreed upon illusion. It’s a contract we sign when we go from child to adult, where we stop playing pretend and “grow up.” Magic is for children… and the mentally ill, apparently. That’s why we protect them. We take away their power to make decisions for themselves because no sane person believes in what they can’t see. And if you can’t face reality, if you can’t agree to live in it like everyone else, what purpose do you have?

“The World in the Walls” walks the line of mental illness portrayal in its effort to explore one of the show’s most prominent and affecting themes. While at times its treatment feels outdated, the focused ambiguity (or extended metaphor) of the episode illustrates the writers’ keen sense of the world their characters play in and a fondness for the liberties of the genre.

This week sees Quentin trapped in a mental hospital… again. What we’re first made to believe is that everything Quentin did, knew and learned at Brakebills is a lie. He never left the institution we saw him in at the beginning of the series. Meanwhile, Julia went on to Yale and soon plans to be engaged. What we find out about halfway through is that Quentin is not out of his mind at all. In fact he’s trapped inside of it via a spell cast at the hands of Julia and Marina.

While Julia’s goal may be a little payback for what Quentin said last week, Marina’s is much more sinister. Thrown out of Brakebills three months before graduation, the hedgewitch plans to use Fogg’s effort to bring Quentin back from the darkness as a distraction. While they are kept busy trying to save him, Marina snatches her extracted memories, allowing her to once again realize her true magical power. Marina succeeds while Quentin learns quite a bit about himself. Julia, on the other hand, gets the short end of the stick. After confessing to mentally trapping Quentin to the Brakebills crew, she is zapped out of the university by Marina before its protection spells go back up. As payment for her semi-loyalty, Marina strips Julia of her power and throws her out of her magical circle.

The episode’s clever continuity (particularly in its ode to Taylor Swift and Quentin’s personal struggles with depression) shone within the alternate universe. It also served to illustrate the show’s flexibility within the genre. It can move its characters from setting to setting while still using the same palette to tell its story. We’re offered “institutionalized” versions of nearly every one of our main characters, concoctions of Quentin’s mind. They are clearly mutations, but even at their most abstract, they still retain some tiny part of their original character’s DNA. It’s fun to see how he alters them to fit the needs of his world, particularly when one of them comes crashing into it.

“The World in the Walls” was a solid episode not just for Quentin or Julia, but also for Penny. This week we get to see him embrace his powers while also embracing that bromance we knew was bound to happen. Opposites attract, don’t you know? It’s nice for once to see Penny and Quentin working together by choice. They don’t make a half bad team. Good cop, bad cop ya dig? And though Penny is still at times reluctant to deal with the situation, it clearly stems more from fear of the unknown than total hatred for his roommate. We are after all dealing with someone’s life, not just an annoying T-Swift song.

Quentin’s mind made us privy to a certain family member during the episode. Turning Quentin’s father into the “beast” was an interesting way to surface one of our main character’s emotional subtext. Quentin has some daddy issues obviously, though what’s not clear is whether they’re entirely negative. If Quentin’s father was a threat, why would he have painted him as the victim of his delusions? Perhaps it was a premonition or metaphorical guilt materializing? Either way, it’ll be interesting to delve into that connection next week.

Outside of all the metaphor, “The World in the Walls” offered a more explicit and frankly super cool look at the way magic is used and functions within The Magicians universe. Wards are physically visible once revealed by magic. Demons can be contained in physical objects. Practical magic can be cast without “tutting,” as we saw with Marina’s cigarette. Powers can be taken much more easily than they are given, and the characters can literally be the masters of our own illusions.

The tone of the episode was definitely on point this week, too. To be honest, it was upsetting at times to watch Quentin trapped by his own fears, terrifying even. That’s because of what The Magicians has already offered us. It convinced us that something else was out there, and then it ripped the rug out from under us. The one thing that keeps us together is the idea that if we don’t indulge we can’t be surprised, or worse, disappointed. “The World in the Walls” disappointed Quentin, putting all of us into emotional disarray.

The best part of the episode is its big reveal. Julia’s magic is behind Quentin’s life-like nightmare. It makes sense, considering what Quentin said and did to Julia last episode. I found it odd that in their argument Julia failed to get angry. Just… hurt at Quentin’s hypocrisy. Looks like she was waiting to deliver the perfect clap-back. Julia isn’t just forcing Quentin to live his nightmare. She’s forcing him to live her reality.

THE MAGICIANS -- "The World in the Walls" Episode 104 -- Pictured: (l-r) Stella Maeve as Julia, Jason Ralph as Quentin -- (Photo by: Carole Segal/Syfy)

THE MAGICIANS — “The World in the Walls” Episode 104 — Pictured: (l-r) Stella Maeve as Julia, Jason Ralph as Quentin — (Photo by: Carole Segal/Syfy)

It’s clear Julia has a certain darkness (and undying drive) about her, but it’s not obvious how deep it goes. We may just find out now that Marina’s kicked her out of the crew. And as for Quentin, it was kinda nice to see people coming together to help him. I’m all about team-ups, and the different personalities these kids bring to the table equates to some good jokes, great chemistry, and decent drama.

Bringing it back to Julia and Quentin for one final moment, I’d like to address their friendship as it both lies at the very foundation of this series and is yet another well-executed metaphor. I was taught from a very early age that you’ll never be happy yourself if you can’t learn how to be happy for someone else. The concept behind the saying isn’t as literal as the turn of phrase. Instead, it acts as a reminder that our happiness can’t be dependent on what others have and whether or not we, too, have it. Personal contentment can only be achieved when we’ve learned to let go of envy and value our ourselves independently of others. 

After Quentin’s tantrum last week and hurt at Julia’s engagement this week, as well as Julia’s revenge tonight, it’s clear that neither of these characters really understand this concept. It’s sad, but an honest part of what sometimes happens to us as we grow up.  With that said, I hope they find their way back to each other. They are an interesting yin and yang, with powers I’m sure would be much stronger if they were working together.

While we are only four episodes in I find it hard to say that I’m not completely enamored with the show. It has known from the get go who its characters are and where it plans to send them. It isn’t afraid to dabble in some of the most whimsical aspects of the genre while keeping a strong foundation in more practical universe construction. It’s funny, it’s emotional, and it’s engaging from start to finish. There are few shows that come along and grab both my attention and enthusiasm so quickly. I have said it before and I’ll say it again: Syfy has really nailed it with this one.

Magical Musings

  • Thanks for making Quentin less mean this episode, writers. I like to like my main characters.
  • Jason Ralph sort of killed it this episode. Seriously, 10/10 performance.
  • Alice’s short cameo was literally out of this world. That’s definitely NOT how I imagined her AU self.
  • Can we talk about Quentin’s re-imagining of Penny? Like… what were you thinking Quentin? Also, double points for Penny calling him out on that.
  • Where. Was. Margo??? Please don’t make me beg for her, TV gods.
  • Is it possible to get some flashbacks of Quentin and Julia actually being friends? Because what I’ve seen from four episodes, I’m not sure I’d call them anything more than acquaintances out of social convenience.

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