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Syfy's The Magicians is the most exciting show on TV right now

It's frequently a huge mess, but it keeps doing incredibly interesting things.

Quentin (Jason Ralph) comes to believe he's a patient in a mental hospital on The Magicians.
Quentin (Jason Ralph) comes to believe he's a patient in a mental hospital on The Magicians.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for February 7 through 13, 2016, is "The World in the Walls," the fourth episode of the first season of Syfy's The Magicians.

If you asked me what the best show on TV is, I would never in a million years say The Magicians, Syfy's recent adaptation of Lev Grossman's fantasy novel trilogy that blends psychological realism with a school that teaches magic.

But if you asked me what TV show I'm most excited by, I would say The Magicians almost immediately. This is a big mess of a series that keeps taking huge chances. It's trying to do too much and biting off more than it can chew on a weekly basis. But shows like this usually figure out what they're doing sooner or later (usually late in season one or early in season two), and until then it's just fun to watch the show experiment, sometimes flailing, sometimes flying.

Even better, The Magicians' dedication to making sure every hour stands alone as a single episode is a fun, deft way to adapt its source material. It's an acknowledgement that said source material was only as successful as its characters, and turning the show into a plot-driven thing would probably shortchange it.

And nothing proves that more than the fourth episode, "The World in the Walls."

Why these books make such an odd choice for TV

Brakebills exam on The Magicians
The characters arrive to be tested for entry into the magical academy Brakebills.

The Magicians is in a bit of an odd spot when it comes to turning the books into a TV series. One of the most important characters in the book trilogy largely sits out the first novel, though she makes appearances here and there. Structuring a character's journey like that is all but impossible on a TV show (where contracts are usually signed to make such an important player a series regular). So right away, the show's first season has to find something for her to do.

Add to that the fact that the first book's plot, such as it is, consists of a long wallow in the self-indulgent self pity of main character Quentin (played here by Jason Ralph), coupled with a series of reveals about the existence of magic, then the nature of several magical ideas, which keep the novel's plot (again, such as it is) moving forward. It's a mystery, in other words, cloaked in fantastical garb and presented as a psychologically deft examination of a young man's pain.

TV is not a medium that does terribly well with the withholding of information and building mystery. On the page, the author needs only to not mention something for its reveal to be a surprise. On TV, though, it's really hard to achieve the same effect, because you can't simply keep something offscreen in the way you can keep it off the page — not without more effort. Withholding information can feel like a cheat or, worse, a bore, especially if you build up anticipation in a way that can never match the payoff.

I don't know if The Magicians had this in mind when it essentially loaded every major revelation of the first book into its pilot. That made for an incredibly messy episode of television that seemed to be racing past important plot points and never giving the characters room to breathe. Yes, it allowed the pilot to conclude with a supremely creepy encounter between the characters and an otherworldly beast, but it also made things feel as if they were coming unhinged.

That front-loading had the unexpected benefit, however, of making the three episodes that followed much more grounded, down to earth, and character-focused. It's as if the show slammed on the brakes and started doing all the important stuff the pilot glossed over. Each successive episode has been a little better than the last, and "World in the Walls" was a genuinely enjoyable and intriguing episode of television, one that could almost stand on its own apart from the series.

"The World in the Walls" impresses with its confidence

Julia and Quentin on The Magicians
Julia (Stella Maeve) comes to visit Quentin in the mental hospital.

The most impressive thing about "World in the Walls" is the way it takes a big swing at the sort of storyline that most shows would save for a season three or four. The script (by John McNamara, who co-adapted the novels for TV) situates Quentin in a mental hospital, where he is nearly convinced that his time at a magical academy was entirely in his head.

And it's easy to see why he's almost convinced. The people he met at that academy are all here, but as fellow patients. His father arrives to tell him a horrible story about the time Quentin tried to murder him (confusing him for "the Beast"). Every time he tries to send a signal out to what he thinks is "the real world," it gets sent right back.

Of course, the big danger with indulging this much in the "it was all a dream" trope, especially this early in a show's run, is that the audience knows it's not a dream. If it were a dream, then there would be no show. Without magicians, The Magicians can't really function as a story, can it?

Another problem here is that by undermining its own reality this early in the game, The Magicians just might make us stop caring about it entirely. There's a reason that TV shows used to follow the pilot with six episodes that more or less repeated the pilot's formula, back when broadcast TV was the only game in town. Before you can really start messing with your template, you first have to let your audience know what the template is.

And The Magicians doesn't have anything even like a template yet. Its first episode was that super messy pilot. Its second episode focused on the characters trying to avoid disciplinary actions for something they did in the pilot. Its third was a sort of "case of the week" episode where two characters tried to dig into a magical mystery. And its fourth sent Quentin to that mental hospital, where the show may as well not have had a format at all.

But "World in the Walls" works, and works very well. And the reason is simple: It reimagines the "it was all a dream!" trope as a puzzle to be solved, and it gives us a reason to give a damn about Quentin.

Up until this point, Quentin has been a character the show assumed we would care about because he was the protagonist. Here and there, it gave him flashes of warmth and insight, and its willingness to let him be very callous with a friend who was rejected from magicland was impressive. It wasn't afraid to let him be a jerk, but there was the risk that being a jerk would be the most interesting thing about him. "The World in the Walls" finds a way around this problem.

How The Magicians is (and mostly isn't) like Game of Thrones

Julia does magic
Game of Thrones, after all, doesn't have people doing magic with elaborate finger movements.

When I talked to Sera Gamble (the other co-adapter of the series) around the time of the show's debut and asked her why the pilot seemed to gloss over so many moments from the book, she said that one of the things she and McNamara realized fairly early on in their process was that the books themselves didn't offer a readily adaptable episode template.

Think about it this way. Something like Game of Thrones, also adapted from a book, functions well as a TV show because every 75 to 100 pages there's a natural stopping point or cliffhanger. It may not seem like that when reading those books, but if you look at what gets adapted into which episodes of the show, you'll start to see the underlying, TV-style architecture of the books. This makes sense. Author George R.R. Martin had a history in TV, and many of his best works prior to those books were short stories. He's a natural at working in more contained formats.

The Magicians is episodic in nature, too, but Lev Grossman's books aren't episodic in a way that's as easily expressed via a TV season's format. The characters will go on a lengthy adventure to Antarctica, say, or go in search of the truth about one's long-lost brother, and while all of these vignettes are interesting, they'd function more like an anthology show onscreen, with wildly different tones, protagonists, and even genres.

Thus, when Gamble told me that she and McNamara had found a way to adapt the books, but not in a conventional manner where point A is always followed by point B, I didn't necessarily understand what she meant. But "World in the Walls" convinced me their approach could work. Gamble and McNamara didn't just skip over all of that interesting stuff from the book in the rushed pilot; they moved it to elsewhere in the story.

Simply put, one of the reasons Quentin makes such a compelling protagonist on the page is because while he might be a jerk, he's also really smart, finding interesting ways to get around magical conundrums. And since we're hanging out inside his head, we get to see both how he uses that intelligence and how he wastes it all too often. But that sort of dynamic is hard to depict onscreen, where his solutions to magical problems might seem mundane, since we're not in his head, watching him figure things out.

"World in the Walls," then, works because it gives Quentin a huge problem to solve, and one that contains several smaller problems nested within it. First, he needs to figure out if what he thinks is fake really is fake. Then he has to figure out a way to break free of it before it consumes him. His solution (which I dare not spoil) involves a long series of cat-and-mouse games with people who might know the truth and, finally, a musical number centered on a Taylor Swift song. It's great.

The Magicians has not yet crossed the boundary to become a great TV show (whatever that means), but I do love the way it's playing around with its source material and with the problems inherent in bringing a book to TV. The most important thing "World in the Walls" gave me, then, wasn't a fun story or smart character twists or anything like that. No, it was faith to keep watching, faith that all involved might figure this out.

And for a young TV show, that might be the most important thing of all.

The Magicians airs Mondays at 9 pm Eastern on Syfy. Previous episodes are available at Syfy's website, or for digital download.