‘The Magicians’ Proves Bottle Episodes Can Be Done Right

Last night's episode, "The World in the Walls," showed that less can definitely be more.


“It was all a dream” — Ancient Proverb

Viewers of last night’s fourth episode of The Magicians might have fallen for the show’s sleight of hand and thought everything they’d been watching in this season so far was nonsense, a surreal dreamlike hallucination concocted by main character Quentin Coldwater. But instead of being cooped up in a New York psych ward, doomed to a routine of popping pills while fantasizing about made-up magician crap like Brakebills, the Beast, his attraction to Alice, and his potentially violent relationship with his dad, it turns out Quentin was just under a powerful spell the entire time. Quentin’s former BFF, Julia, and her fellow hedge witch Marina Inception-ed Quentin for shits and giggles, and to wreak havoc on an already vulnerable Brakebills. It was a bottle episode done right, and reaffirmed Syfy’s decision to renew the show for a second season by being the best episode of the series so far.

“The World in the Walls” wasn’t strictly a bottle episode, per se. These televised attempts at saving money by writing a relatively inexpensive and self-contained episode that uses minimal sets, effects, and a limited amount of cast members usually get a bad rap. The original Star Trek series, from which the term was coined, took advantage of this by setting entire episodes on the USS Enterprise. It’s no coincidence, then, that Star Trek gets a shout-out from a crazed, dreamed-up version of Alice this time around.

By their nature, bottle episodes should be cheap, mindless, and easy. And yet, this episode of The Magicians is anything but. In every way it’s — appropriately enough — a magic trick. The narrative deception uses Quentin trying to make his way out of the ice-blue, monochromatic walls of the fictitious Ellsworth Downs Mental Hospital to deepen the themes of the show. It keeps him and the audience guessing. What is real, what is fake, am I dreaming?

Part of what happens in “The World in the Walls” supports what we’ve been saying all along. The Magicians is all about giving yourself up to absurdities that counteract rational, allegedly mature thought. A magical university where good and evil clash using centuries old sorcery? You’ve gotta be crazy to think that; now go take your meds and go to sleep.

“Every time I talk I sound batshit,” Quentin says early on. But at multiple times during the episode he desperately tries to prove that his allegedly crazy new life is real. “The more you believe … the more harm you do” one of the illusional doctors says to Quentin, but he thinks otherwise. “Stop playing, start living!” he shouts towards the end of the episode before forcing himself out of the spell.

And what better way to counteract rational thought than to lead a series of mental patients in an out of tune rendition of Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off”? The episode’s loony but fun musical number is the most joyous example so far of Quentin giving in to his anxieties, but the scene also serves as a callback to alert Penny, the so-called telepathic “Traveler,” that something is wrong.

The episode is perhaps the best example of The Magicians having fun while extending the story with a more focused framework. After last week’s excellent Alice-centric episode, we’re back to the dueling narrative contrast between Quentin and Julia. Who knows what will happen next? Either way, The Magicians is proving that it’s working both inside and out.

Related Tags