This post contains discussion of mental illness.
I was totally unprepared for this episode, because literally none of this happens in the books. The only thing that I even vaguely recognized was Quentin calling Penny a “raging dick,” because there’s a part in The Magicians that mentions all the cool kids at Brakebills say “raging” a lot. That’s a super weird detail to remember, but that’s my brain for you. The rest is new territory!
“The World in the Walls” is very clever filler. Filler is not a bad thing. It just means that it has little relation to the main plot. Episodes like this can have character development and some details that would have otherwise gotten swept under the bigger arc.
We don’t find out what happened to Alice, who had packed up and left Brakebills at the end of the last episode. There are no further encounters with the Beast, or meaningful information about Fillory. There’s some pretty significant movement in Julia’s story, but not until the very end.
Quentin wakes up in a place that looks a lot like Brakebills, sans all magic. He’s been admitted to a psychiatric hospital under a court order. He can’t do magic, because magic doesn’t exist. Brakebills was an elaborate illusion that Quentin built to avoid dealing with his mental illness.
Alice and Eliot are also inpatients at this hospital, with some pretty strong delusions of their own. Penny is there too, an orderly, but he’s acting uncharacteristically subservient and speaking in an Indian accent. Dean Fogg appears as another doctor, and the infirmary worker who healed Quentin’s arm is a nurse. Julia comes to visit, too. She’s having a wonderful semester at Yale, and she and James are engaged. It’s easy to imagine how Quentin, trapped in his own head, would have made use of all these people in his hallucinations.
Lots of shows have the “was it all just a dream?” episode, but “The World in the Walls” begs one particular comparison. I’m talking about Buffy the Vampire Slayer and “Normal Again.” Buffy is attacked by a demon whose poison causes extreme hallucinations. She imagines she’s in an asylum. Her doctor and her parents are telling her that the last six years of her vampire-slaying life have all been in her imagination. She’s been in the asylum the whole time.
Sounds like what Quentin’s going through, right? The thing that makes “Normal Again” great, that I think is missing from “The World in the Walls,” is the sneaking feeling that the asylum might actually be reality. The ambiguous ending caused plenty of Buffy fans to speculate that the entire series is just one long dream. There’s also the emotional drama: Buffy’s life was pretty grim at that point in the series. The asylum reality, and the possibility of not having to fight anymore, looked very appealing.
The thing is, Quentin has lived with a mental illness, and he’s even spent time in institutions like Ellsworth Downs. Why is he so convinced that Brakebills is reality? Doesn’t it make sense that he would experience some doubt about his own perceptions? I didn’t feel his uncertainty. Quentin wants to be a magician, and he’s sure that he’s trapped in a spell.
Then there’s the episode’s portrayal of mental illness itself. In some cases it’s played for laughs—nymphomaniac Alice is funny because we know she’s not like that in real life. Quentin himself veers between being pathetic and violent. It’s all overblown, caricature-like. I don’t have a mental illness, so I’m not the best person to speak to this, but I know it doesn’t always look like that.
Now, this is actually plot-justifiable, since Quentin isn’t in a real hospital. A spell puts him in his own worst nightmare. Quentin’s worked pretty hard to distance himself from mental illness of any kind. It scares him, so it makes some sense that his nightmare version would be over-the-top. I don’t think everyone in the audience necessarily gets that, though. It really plays into the already-present cultural idea of mental illness. I had hoped this show would give us a more nuanced look at a person living with depression, but it seems like we’re moving backwards with this one.
Okay, end representation rant, back to the plot. During Julia’s visit Quentin manages to make some small magical fireworks. She reveals that she can see them, and to Quentin’s view her sympathetic face is replaced by a cruel, laughing one. After Julia leaves, Quentin sees a plaque with the name of the hospital, Ellsworth Downs. Jane Chatwin shows up in his bedroom that night to tell him that the answer to his current predicament is in the Fillory books.
After his roommate shreds his Fillory books (just to keep things from being too easy, I guess) Quentin thinks that psychic Penny could be the key to escaping the spell. He co-opts a group musical therapy session to sing “Shake It Off” with the other patients, debunking my previous theory about what T-Swift song is always in Quentin’s head. I think this scene was meant to be silly and joyful, but I spent most of it cringing in second-hand embarrassment. Maybe I just hate fun, but it felt like trying too hard on the show’s part.
This has the desired affect of psychically annoying the real Penny enough that he invades Quentin’s dream. Quentin begs for help, Penny tosses him against a wall a few times for making dream-Penny a walking stereotype, and then wakes up.
At the safe house, Julia and Marina are breathing heavily and talking about how great they feel. They just did the spell that put Quentin in this dream-state. Julia seems to regard it as a harmless prank, but Maria tells her there’s a possibility Quentin won’t wake up. Kady’s there, looking uncomfortable. Marina harasses her a little before telling her to go back to Brakebills.
In the hospital, Quentin is putting the torn pages of his Fillory books back together. He finds the name of the hospital, Ellsworth Downs. Ellsworth is a character in Fillory, a magician who is cursed so he can only do “game magic,” whatever that is. There seems to be chessboards involved. Quentin can’t find the page that explains how Jane Chatwin broke the curse.
Quentin also gets a visit from his father, who we haven’t seen before. He’s sporting a scar above one eye. The doctor tells Quentin that he tried to kill his dad with a knife, and was brought in screaming about The Beast. This is one of the only times we see a crack in Quentin’s surety that Brakebills is real. He’s so disturbed by the idea that he could have hurt his dad, it forces him to re-examine his version of reality. It doesn’t really make the viewer question what’s real, though, since we already know Julia and Marina are responsible.
At Brakebills, Penny goes to the Physical Kids’ cottage to look for Quentin. Eliot is unconcerned, they had a big party and he assumes Quentin is sleeping it off somewhere. Then Kady shows up and leads them to where Q is passed out in a closet. Someone gets Dean Fogg, and he determines that Quentin is under a spell called the Scarlatti Web, and the only thing that can break it is summoning a spirit from the underworld. Fogg has to take down the wards around Brakebills to let it in.
This is exactly what Marina has been waiting for. She and Julia were waiting in the woods, and when the wards come down, they have access to the Brakebills campus. Julia thought they were playing a joke on Quentin, but this was Marina’s plan all along. Marina was expelled from Brakebills a few months shy of graduation, and she wants to go get her memories back.
Fogg and another faculty member summon the spirit, which inhabits a mechanical scorpion that crawls down Quentin’s throat Matrix-style. Quentin still needs help getting out of the dream world, so Penny uses his traveller skills to go in and help him. Quentin is strapped to a chair and about to be lobotomized by his dad, who is covered in blood, just in case anyone still thought this was the real world.
Penny convinces Quentin that nothing is real, but then everything goes black and Penny gets bumped back to real life. Quentin is still asleep. Marina has gone looking for her memories (interesting parallel that Quentin’s nightmare involves being lobotomized, while Marina is trying to reverse her own magical lobotomy), which she finds in a box. Julia is on lookout duty, but Kady finds her and convinces her to come clean before Quentin dies.
Julia goes to the cottage and confesses everything to Fogg. He says there’s nothing more they can do at this point. Julia feels terrible. Eliot calls her a “hedgebitch,” proving that he’s always going to have the best lines even if he’s barely in the episode.
Back in Quentin’s mind, he’s in a case of light with Jane Chatwin. Ellsworth Downs and his chessboard appear. Jane, more helpful than usual, reminds Quentin that Ellsworth’s real curse was that he was so afraid of losing he only played when he could win. Sounds like a good metaphor for how Quentin’s been living his life up until this point. He sweeps the pieces off the chessboard, which breaks the spell.
At the cottage, Quentin coughs up the bug spirit. Eliot fusses over him, which is cute. Quentin thanks Penny for not being too morally corrupt to let him die. Elsewhere, Marina magically pulls Julia off the Brakebills campus before the wards go back up.
Later, Fogg lectures Quentiin about keeping Julia’s failed memory wipe a secret. He also tells reminds him that magic doesn’t solve problems. Kind of rich coming from the guy who told Quentin that it was going to solve his depression. Wasn’t Quentin supposed to be on probation after that whole Beast-summoning fiasco? Have we just forgotten about that, or is he too special to be expelled, a là Harry Potter?
At the safe house, Marina has reclaimed her memories of Brakebills. She uses her powers to burn the star tattoos on Julia’s arm, which I’m assuming makes her no longer eligible to enter the safe house or similar establishments. Marina has decided to kick Julia out of the Hedge Witches for endangering her mission. She banishes Julia from the safe house, and Julia finds herself standing in the middle of the street.
I really hope some nice things happen to Julia soon. I was rereading some of her chapters in The Magician King last night and her life isn’t all bleak after Quentin goes to Brakebills. I would also like to humbly submit my headcanon that Margo wasn’t in this episode because she went to find Alice and convince her to come back to the cottage. In my head, they are off somewhere drinking wine and girl-bonding. Looking forward to having them both next time.