The one-off episode is a hallmark of exceptional TV. It exists to fly far away from a show's narrative arc, creating little worlds in and of themselves. When the strings of a narrative get tangled up, one-offs act as palate cleansers — the sorbet of mid-season TV, if you will — to wash out the taste of heavy-handed cliffhangers or tangential spats or a showrunner's artful but exhausting trail of breadcrumbs.
I'm thinking of "Here's Not Here," the flashback episode in season six of The Walking Dead, which was entirely devoted to discovering when and where Morgan Jones learned his "code" of relative nonviolence. If only for a brief time, the show abandoned Rick, Glenn, Daryl, and the crew to trace the spiritual development of a relatively new character. And it was fabulous.
Or take "The International Assassin," from the second season of The Leftovers, in which Kevin Garvey dies, dreams, and stumbles his way through a surreal parallel universe that he cannot escape, Groundhog Day–style. He's transformed into an international assassin, sees his father's face appear on a hotel TV, and throws a small child down a well. It's freaky and mind-bending and philosophical and really freaking weird.
Or even the infamous "Rafi and Dirty Randy" episode of The League, wherein the duo take off to L.A., avenge a friend's death, and end up making a porno. That was some good stuff.
Tonight, we got a one-off episode of The Magicians. And its turns out The Magicians is compelling and chilling and exciting and even kinda freaky … when it stops trying so damn hard to be The Magicians.
Here's the thing: I'd wager that the majority of fans tuning into the series have read Lev Grossman's trilogy of books. And those fans (including me) have been disappointed with the lumpy parallel track the series has followed. The TV version of The Magicians has all the same two-by-fours holding it in place as the novel did — but it's like the showrunners abandoned the architect's plans after basic construction, and instead, have been adding on alcoves and pillars as pell-mell as they please. The result has been a mix of sad-sack Quentin, whining in various corners of Brakebills's campus, while cardboard cutouts of other characters pop in and out with shortsighted adventures and straight-to-DVD quality quips. Last episode, Margo actually asked, "Where ya goin', kitty cat?" with a straight face.
So in "The World in the Walls," I found myself groaning out loud when Quentin woke up in a psychiatric facility. I was afraid that this was about to turn into a middle-schooler's creative-writing assignment in which the entire thing was — GASP! — a dream. (Inception, you were one a million.) But as time kept passing and the complexities of the scenario increased, it became clear that The Magicians had better things in mind.
After waking up in the hospital (despite falling asleep at a Brakebills party) Quentin keeps encountering friends who, for the briefest of seconds, seem poised to understand him when he explains that they all must be under some sort of spell, but then launch into some unbridled, slightly askew, or downright hallucinating version of themselves. (For Eliot, mussed hair is a clue that he's not himself; for Alice, it's the fact that she jams her tongue down Quentin's throat — and is living inside a Star Trek episode. Penny is the janitor and speaks with an Indian accent.)
Trapped inside that particular "Yellow Wallpaper"-ish nightmare, in which trying to explain your way out of a psychiatric hospital only convinces the key holders that you've really gone over the edge, Quentin's psychiatrist (the same one who we met in the first episode) bears down on him, telling him that Brakebills has been a figment of his imagination. He says that Quentin tried to murder his own father and shows him a video of Quentin ranting and raving in a jail cell. The Beast is a schizophrenic delusion, she claims; there is no such thing as magic and he certainly is not a magician.
Given something to do besides wax poetic about Fillory and mope about his sad, non-magical, rich-white-kid upbringing, Quentin suddenly becomes magnetic. Jason Ralph's acting is, at last, compelling. Anyone who has ever pressed up against the line that divides the sane from the insane will recognize his fear. Is he in control of determining his own reality? As Quentin sways between believing in the solidity of his own memories and buckling under the overwhelming evidence of his own insanity, it's easy to see how truth is merely a matter of perspective.
It's Julia's visit, roughly a quarter of the way through the episode, that sends Quentin on a desperate quest to find his way out of the spell he believes he's trapped within. Julia claims she can't see the "magic" he is purporting to do, but then slips, mentioning to the fireworks that shot out of his hands only seconds ago. In a moment, Julia's face coyly twists and flits between concern and a hint of satisfaction at his plight. It becomes clear to Quentin that he's somehow trapped inside his own brain, and the only way out is to lure Penny, with his mind-reading powers, in.
Hence the "Shake It Off" music-therapy-class singalong that was so toe-tappingly sprightly and enjoyable that it restored my faith in this show's potential and reinforced my belief that Swift is a musical monster hellbent on creating the most disturbingly catchy songs of all time so that she might torture each of us with her uncanny melodic and lyrical gifts. Penny, as you might remember from the last episode, is particularly disenchanted with Quentin's inability to close his mind, especially when he's singing in his brain that the players gonna play play play play play and the haters gonna hate hate hate hate hate … okay, you get the point. Lured in, as we all are, by Tay-Tay, Penny sets off to find Quentin's body in the real world, setting off a chain of events that eventually leads Dean Fogg and the use of an X-Files–esque metal bug that crawls down Quentin's mouth to break the spell.
Yes, the whole thing has been a spell. Were that the entirety of the episode, I wouldn't be singing its praises so highly. In fact, I'd be explaining to my editor why there's just no way I can get through an entire season of this crap. [Ed. note: Phew.] But the conflict this dreamworld sets up, along with the show's sheer ability to stick with it for so long in only its fourth episode, finally raises the stakes of what magic really is and does. First the first time, The Magicians seems as dark and utterly screwed as the world Lev Grossman created — even though this entire story line was created out of whole cloth.
Marina, the lead hedge witch, was kicked out of Brakebills in her final year and engineered this entire situation. She enlisted an enraged Julia to her put Quentin under the spell, so that the Dean would need to lower the school's enchantments while he called upon a power to help him rescue Quentin. Marina is then able to break into the Dean's office and retrieve what appears to be a box full of the power she accumulated as a student there. Sadly, it does not appear to have a better pair of earrings in it.
And now The Magicians is no longer about the divergent paths of two smartypants who desperately want to master Hand Jive–like spellcasting. Instead, it's about the intoxicating power of achievement and the dark lengths people go to to feel mastery over their peers. It's about the implicit competition twenty-somethings enter into, hoping to ride the waves of early success in a society that prizes "30 Under 30" lists more than it does kindness or compassion. It has become, in essence, a hokey horror show about Millennials.
(There's also a bit of a side-plot in which Jane Chatwin shows up and tells Quentin a riddle about a dude with grills called the Magic Maker — note: that is not his porn name — who likes to play games and then recommends that Quentin dig into the Fillory books to get himself out of the hospital. This material will be, I'm sure, crucial in the next episodes, but for the life of me I couldn't make myself care about it.)
Our two main characters are finally in the wilderness. Julia has been tossed from the Witch Bodega and exiled from the hedge community for bailing on Marina in the midst of their spell. Quentin wants to know what magic exists beyond Spellcasting 101. They're enemies, and they're best friends, and they're so into each other it's maddening. Come on, The Magicians. Don't disappoint us after this.