Magic is powerful and amazing, and it can do incredible things, but there are some things even magic can't fix. Previous episodes of The Magicians have impressed this upon us, but none did so more tragically than "The Writing Room" tonight, perhaps the series' best episode yet.
We begin with Julia, who feels despondent at the loss of her lifelong friendship with Quentin, and is coming to grips with her misdeeds — like trapping him inside his own brain with an Inception-esque spell. She's in a good enough place to leave the rehab center, and Richard encourages her to pay her penance by using that same spell for good.
Richard takes Julia to a nursing home to visit a woman named Keira, a brilliant young magician who was rendered catatonic when a difficult spell turned on her. He says Julia can help Keira by projecting herself into Keira's brain. It turns out that during her past year in this state, Keira figured out in her head the solution to the spell, and she needs someone to bring it into the outside world. But what Richard doesn't tell Julia is that Keira also needs someone to kill her after that task is accomplished.
"What if a magician finds a cure tomorrow?" Julia asks Richard, distraught. "What if there really is a hell, and this takes me there?"
"You're already in hell; so is she," Richard replies.
Killing Keira is a terrible thing. But Richard's reasoning is that she's too far gone for any magic to bring her back. Let some good come of this, he figures: Magically extracting Keira's ingenious spell from her broken body and humanely ending her life — in accordance with her wishes, as she explains to Julia — is the right move, even if it's the hardest one.
Quentin and his classmates experience something just as traumatizing, if not more so, in their search for a way into Fillory. Penny, describing the sixth Fillory book with a fluid memory, explains that it was written not by Christopher Plover but by Jane/Eliza. She wrote that Plover didn't exactly get the story right, and she wanted to clarify some things.
Because Fillory kept leaving Martin behind, he and his siblings desperately sought a way he could get there whenever he wanted, said Jane. They found it in the form of an ordinary-looking button. This news leads Quentin, Alice, Eliot and Penny to Plover's estate in the English countryside, where they search for this key to Fillory themselves.
Everything is not at it seems in this old house, which is now a museum for a giant of children's literature. When Quentin and company break in, they find some clues indicating that Plover's sister Prudence had a death certificate issued for him, in an attempt to absolve him of suspicion in the disappearances of the Chatwin children. Of course, the kids ended up in Fillory — and Penny realizes that Plover was trying to learn traveler magic so he could visit the realm himself.
It's unclear whether Plover successfully transplanted himself into Fillory. But what does become quickly apparent is that his house is haunted. In a series of visions of the past, Penny and Quentin learn the shocking, awful truth behind the Fillory books: 1) Christopher and Prudence Plover routinely drugged the children under their care, including their housekeeper's daughter and Jane Chatwin; 2) they killed both the housekeeper's son and daughter; 3) Christopher Plover sexually abused Martin Chatwin.
The "ghost movies" do eventually lead Quentin to the location of the button. But this terrible trip to England in the days of World War I leaves the gang scarred. A grief-stricken Alice fumbles around for some way to help the ghosts of the dead children. Eliot — having recently been betrayed by his lover — lashes out at Alice with a withering tirade about the egotistical human instinct to want to change the past (which is, of course, not unique to magicians).
The incident rocks Quentin to his core, shattering his entire worldview in a loss-of-innocence moment. He assumes that Plover — the author of the books that kept Quentin going through the crippling depression of his youth — turned out to be the Beast. And what an ironic turn: that such a malevolent creature could originate not in a magical world, but in the human race on Earth.
As a reader of the Magicians novels, I can say this was a very surprising storyline for The Magicians to tackle, mainly because it's inspired by a major development from halfway through the third and final book. That plot turn is a devastating one partly because of the timing, coming long after Quentin has graduated from Brakebills. So while it certainly has an impact here, in The Magicians' ninth episode, its power is perhaps lessened.
The one glimmer of hope in the episode comes right at the beginning, with Julia and Quentin writing to each other for the first time after the breakup of their friendship. They start by apologizing for their respective roles in that breakup, which is an encouraging sign. Quentin and Julia's relationship is another instance on The Magicians of something that magic can't fix — but at least in this case, humans have a shot.