Continuing to cement its reputation as one of the more off-the-wall genre shows on television, “The Magicians” blew viewers away with a fun episode Monday (Feb. 8) that channeled everything from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” to “Twelve Monkeys” to “Die Hard.” But as fans look back on the installment titled “The World in the Walls,” they’re most likely to remember one surreal image: A possibly insane, off-his-meds Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph) belting out an a capella “Shake it Off” in the series’ first musical scene.
The episode continued a recent pop-culture streak of shows doing one-offs that take the characters completely out of their context for a “what-did-I-just-watch?” adventure. “Agents of SHIELD” did it on a strange planet with their “4722 Hours,” “The Leftovers” did it in the hotel from hell with their season finale, and now “Magicians” similarly uses popular music to heighten the surreal — but instead of Justin Theroux singing Simon & Garfunkel, we get Ralph doing Taylor Swift.
It all begins with Quentin waking up in an insane asylum, the other characters of the show revealed to be babbling patients of the facility. Has all the Brakebills magic viewers witnessed in episodes 1-3 actually been the delusions of a warped mind? Or is the show’s hero under a powerful spell that may leave him trapped forever in his own nightmare?
It’s really saying something when the first three episodes of a show give you levitating sex, a monster with moths for a face and two books copulating — then tops them all in terms of the bizarre. Yet, when Quentin was sent to “Music Therapy” class at the lowest point of his mental fragility, the series used Tay-Tay’s hit song as his path to reawakening.
With a hilariously offensive version of Penny (Arjun Gupta, sounding like Apu from “The Simpsons”) standing nearby, Quentin is begged to not sing that song that always gets inside his head. After a bit of thinking, Quentin realizes what the song is, and then quietly begins belting out “Shake it Off.” Since it is later revealed that it’s all in his head, it’s fun to watch Quentin’s dream go from bleak nightmare to Busby Berkeley-like musical number as his fellow inmates join in.
Below is a scene exclusive to Zap2it that depicts Quentin’s mental distress. Watch as the normally-bookish Alice unveils her sexual side — and actress Olivia Taylor Dudley gets to explore the character through a very different prism:
As it turns out, Taylor Swift is just what the doctor ordered. The song gets stuck in the head of the world-traveling Penny, whose dreaming has intersected with Quentin's. Once he realizes the twisted game that Quentin has been trapped inside, the fellow Brakebills student is able to solicit real-world help.
Watching the actors clearly having fun stretching themselves in twisted new directions, it serves to remind us that sometimes the best thing a show can do is pull the rug out from under its characters' feet. It also reminds us of another truth: There is no problem that a little Taylor Swift can't fix.