Like all abstract art, fantasy’s power lies in its allegory. Which is a very pompous way of saying that the reason why we tell stories about things that can’t and don’t happen in real life is because sometimes these stories capture our conflicts and emotions better than real life. “The World in the Walls” is the best episode yet at capturing The Magicians’ appeal as a meta-fantasy, because it illustrates fantasy’s effectiveness on two different levels: in the story itself, and in Fillory’s increasing prominence as a story-within-a-story.
“The World in the Walls” also happens to be The Magicians’ most structurally interesting episode yet, and the one that makes a better case for the show as a work separate from the books than any aired before its season two renewal. While a dream episode, even if said dream is of supernatural origin, isn’t exactly novel in a post-Sopranos world, the pivot from Brakebills’ saturated wonderscape to the bleak, institutional hospital is still an abrupt one — and we stay there for virtually the entire episode, as Quentin undergoes the necessary vision quest on his modified hero’s journey.
For the first few minutes of the episode, it’s possible that Quentin’s new home is just a flashback; after all, this is exactly where we met him in the pilot, and we know he’s spent time there at least once before. But soon it’s obvious that Quentin is either trapped inside or actually living his worst nightmare, and because this turn of events is entirely new, even book readers don’t know for sure: Brakebills isn’t real, but an extended psychotic break. Eliot and Alice are his fellow patients, Penny is an orderly, and Julia is still on the outside, living a perfectly functional life at Yale with her new fiancé James.
That last details clues us, and eventually Quentin, in on what’s really going on. This “dream” is actually a spell inflicted by real-life Julia (with Marina’s help and encouragement, of course), which means that this whole episode is another battle in the psychological struggle between our two heroes that has become The Magicians’ defining arc. Last episode, Quentin rubbed his momentary victory in Julia’s face, dismissing her hard-earned magic as a “party trick” and framing his admission to Brakebills as a just reward for years spent in the friend zone. This time, Julia responds in the meanest yet most understandable way possible: by using his newly revealed anxieties against him and putting Quentin right back in his place.
Thanks to magic, she’s able to do this almost literally. It’s an illustration of what’s essentially The Magicians’ central theme, one that Quentin and Dean Fogg make explicit in their conversation at episode’s end: magic doesn’t fix problems, it amplifies them. The divide between Quentin and Julia is a natural one in adult friendships — just look at the shifting power dynamics in Elena Ferrante’s vaunted chronicle of one — playing out via supernatural means. All of us have resented a friend for their success, or felt good about our own for the wrong reasons; not all of us have acted this out by putting our friends in a magical coma.
The second dimension of The Magicians’ tribute to the power of fantasy comes into play with exactly how Quentin busts out of his mind-prison. First, he deploys Penny’s mating call, the hit single “Shake It Off” by one Taylor Swift (and gets a nice dressing down for his racist, curry-loving dream version of the character); then, Dean Fogg’s bug-demon breaks him halfway out (while taking down the Brakebills shields, allowing Julia and Marina to break in and retrieve Marina’s lost memories of the school — the whole point, it turns out, of this whole nightmare in the first place). Finally, he uses his knowledge of Fillory, the same thing that helped Quentin through his first couple stays in the psych ward.
Fillory has faded into the background since the pilot, but “The World in the Walls” reminds us of its significance, not so much to the plot as to Quentin’s psychology. It’s the lens through which he renders his problems legible, something that’s necessary for someone with so little self-knowledge. In this case, Jane Chatwin points him — or rather, he points himself — to the Madness Maker, a magician who takes his curse out on the world by driving his victims insane with riddles and games. Jane’s solution to his curse, and to Quentin’s, is to simply refuse to play: games are a petty distraction, a way to experience life without genuine risk or reward. That’s more or less what she’s been telling him about Brakebills this whole time, but Quentin finally internalizes it. And then he wakes up.
Julia, unfortunately, isn’t so lucky. Her moral redemption, in which she comes clean to Dean Fogg, turns out to be her magical undoing. A newly re-upped Marina, whose expulsion from Brakebills remains mysterious but not surprising, decides to do unto Julia exactly what she did unto Quentin, thereby accidentally playing the role of karma: she casts Julia out of her own, lesser magical Eden, putting her out in the cold for daring to deviate from the plan. In the long run, it looks like she’s being set up as a secondary Big Bad, to be taken down right before The Beast; in the short run, Julia just had her heart broken for the second time.