In the AA-style making of amends she embarks upon this episode, Richard’s insistence that magic isn’t really an addiction aside, Julia takes some advice from a fellow magician named Kiera trapped in a vegetative state. Kiera’s made her mind into a fairly comfortable long-term home, and as the two of them chat on a perfectly mid-autumn park bench, she tells Julia — gently, rejected woman to rejected woman — to move on from Brakebills. Which is fitting, because that’s what The Magicians seems to be doing, with “The Writing Room” making a drastic break from the series’ previously established norm.
The episode takes place almost entirely off-campus, when Quentin’s search for the lost Fillory manuscript leads him and Alice straight to Penny. Who leads, in turn, to Christopher Plover’s home in England, where Jane and Martin Chatwin have stashed a key between world in the shape in the button. Which leads, finally, to Eliot, who’s miserable, bored, and just so happens to have a door to his and Margo’s favorite London pub, The Ball and Sack. All four rendezvous for a caper at the Plover house, now operated as a museum/tourist attraction. And to make the whole thing even more Scoobylike, the house turns out to be haunted.
“The Writing Room” feels like a deliberate pivot away from the louche lifestyles of Brakebills’ faux-jaded student body and toward the wilder, scarier terrain of Fillory. It’s a better venue for The Magicians’ theme of adulthood colliding headfirst with childhood fantasy; after all, even when it’s filled with student deaths and petty betrayals, Brakebills still feels exciting, privileged, and above all, regulated. But Fillory? Fillory has no-one pulling the strings, or at least not anyone friendly. And the difference between Fillory on the page and Fillory in real life is starting to look far more drastic than the gap between Brakebills and Hogwarts.
Over the past few weeks, Quentin’s been struggling to reconcile the fantasy world of his childhood with the violent, almost malevolent place he’s seen glimpses of in his time at Brakebills. At Plover’s house, this version of Fillory — the version that gave rise to the Beast — starts to make sense, beginning with its ostensible creator. If Fillory is real, of course, Plover isn’t a stunningly imaginative children’s writer at all, just a glorified stenographer of the stories the Chatwin kids brought back from their travels. But that’s not the half of it.
The ghosts of Plover, his sister Prudence, and even the Chatwins still haunt the Plover home, and through the time slips (or more charmingly, “ghost movies”) their spirits create, the Brakebills crew see the horrors the Chatwins had to endure. Prudence, it turns out, was physically abusive, drugging the children and trapping them in her “quiet place” to keep her brother free of distractions in his work, a process Eliot and Alice, unfortunately, have to witness firsthand. But Penny and Quentin witness something even more horrifying. Fillory, at least in part, was indeed a magical place for the Chatwins to escape to. But Plover was also someone they needed to escape from, particularly Martin. No wonder he was so devastated to be gradually excluded from Fillory’s invitations, and no wonder he was so desperate for Jane to find him a loophole in the form of a magical key.
That key turns out to be in Prudence’s awful Quiet Place, and the group escapes Plover’s house mostly unscathed. (If only they could say the same of that poor tour guide.) The adventure still uncovers some nasty fault lines between our heroes, particularly idealist Alice, who once again doesn’t know when to accept when the dead are beyond help, and a deeply scarred Eliot, who finally lets his aggression out (good!), but directs it at exactly the wrong target (bad!). Intra-group resentments will probably have to wait a while for a proper hashing out, though, because the second they get back to Brakebills, Penny touches the button and is promptly teleported into another dimension.
Julia’s story line, obviously, is much quieter this week. Her conversation with Kiera actually feels productive, largely because Kiera is exactly like her: just swap out MIT for Yale and you’d have an identical story of a smart woman who powered her way through rejection. Sandbergian bon mots about never lettin’ the patriarchy tell you “no” aside, it feels like a genuine breakthrough for a character whose arc thus far has bordered on the sadistic. Even Kiera’s euthanasia of sorts is gentle; she and Julia simply eat ice cream as the borders of Kiera’s mind-park slowly fade to black. It’s a neat inverse, as it was intended to be, of Quentin’s awful time in a mental institution of his mind’s own making (which also comes up in Quentin’s subplot, when he explains his depression and history of hospitalization to Alice). “The Writing Room” feels like a turning point for The Magicians, away from an obsessive focus on Brakebills — or in Julia’s case, rejection from Brakebills — and toward something bigger.