Quentin Coldwater - a brilliant, but depressed college student from Brooklyn, NY - learns that magic is real when he is offered admission at Brakebills University, an exclusive graduate school for Magicians. Once ensconced in school, he quickly discovers, first hand, the darker and terrifying side of magic.
In New York City, a door to a forest somewhere opens, and Henry Fogg steps through. He sit on a bench in a small park when a woman approaches and tells Fogg that "it" is already happening, placing a dead moth on his paper. Fogg, covering the moth, states that "they" weren't even at Brakebills yet, but the woman insists he hurries their recruitment. Fogg remarks that her ability to think that they have control over anything never ceases to amaze him, but the woman states that she has to try. The woman then gives Fogg a pocket watch for emergencies before asking if he was watching one person in particular, to which Fogg agreed before revealing his situation.
At the Midtown Mental Health Clinic, Quentin Coldwater is in Doctor Jennifer London's office waiting to be released. Coldwater performs a coin trick, making a quarter disappear, impressing Doctor London, who states that he must be a hit at parties. Doctor London then asked why Coldwater thought he was ready to be released, reading his admittance report he submitted, showing signs of clinical depression. Coldwater states he's feeling better, attributing his depression to having had been unable to accept the reality of adulthood, but London recommends further treatment. However, Coldwater states that they can't hold him since he has never threatened to hurt himself or anybody else, and is released shortly afterward.
At Columbia University, Coldwater is at a graduation party, where he watches a girl in rainbow shorts dance. Across the room, Julia Wicker is with her boyfriend, James, and their friends when she noticed Coldwater, beckoning him to join her. Instead, Coldwater motions he needs a refill and sneaks off to his bedroom, full of magic and sleight-of-hand memorabilia, where he begins reading the first book in the Fillory and Further series, The World in the Walls.
Wicker then appears in the door, questioning why Coldwater didn't talk to the girl in the shorts, as she was clearly into fantasy. After scolding him for reading "obscure fantasy", Wicker lays beside Coldwater as he states he was reading the books one final time before selling them on eBay. Wicker then asked him where he was, as she had called him over the weekend, though Coldwater states he fled to his dad's in New Jersey due to being anxious about his Yale interview. Wicker stated she wasn't judging and kisses his cheek as James walks in, jokingly questioning why his girlfriend his friend were in bed together before throwing himself on top of them and is quickly joined by other people from the party until the bed breaks under their weight.
The next day, Coldwater and Wicker arrive in a small neighborhood in Turtle Bay for the former's alumni interview for Yale, reasoning that Yale is only lesser Ivy-league and would accept anyone with consciousness, though Wicker jokingly stated that for Coldwater's philosophy major, conscious would be a detriment. After getting no answer at the door, the two enter the building to find the interviewer dead and call the paramedics. One of the paramedics, a woman named Eliza, gave Coldwater a package left by the departed before he and Wicker left. Opening the package, Coldwater discovers it's a manuscript for the sixth book of the Fillory and Further series, which was only rumored to exist. Julia, irritated, said that Coldwater was supposed to be giving up on Fillory, as it was only for children. Following their argument, Wicker went to meet with James while Coldwater continued reading the manuscript.
As he walked down the street, a page from Coldwater's manuscript was caught by a breeze, causing him to chase after it. Simultaneously, Wicker arrives at a building and pushes the elevator button for the third floor, though the elevator instead descended to the basement. As Coldwater followed the flying page down a dark alley and into a thick brush, Wicker's elevator opened to a brightly lit hallway as Coldwater pushed through the brush into a sunny pasture, overlooked by a school building in the distance. Wicker follows a sign directing her to an Exam down the hallway, while Quentin walks up to the entrance of the school. Eliot Waugh, waiting for Coldwater at the school's steps, states that Quentin is late before leading him to the Exam. Waugh reveals that they are in Upstate New York and that that Coldwater has been offered a preliminary exam for entry into the school's graduate program. Coldwater asks Waugh if he was hallucinating, but Waugh simply questions how asking him would help?
As the two arrive, Fogg calls them out for being late. Once everyone is seated, Fogg introduces himself as the Dean of Brakebills and states that all questions must be held for later, as at the moment their only concern should be passing the exam. As the test begins, the booklets are shown to have questions that constantly change; however, Coldwater quickly grasps the idea and begins his answers. At the end of the exam, Coldwater handed in his booklet to receive a card directing him to his next location when he spots Julia in line and the two embrace, briefly sharing their story of how they got there before Fogg rushed them along.
After receiving her card, Wicker meets with Professor Van Der Weghe, who explains that the exam was to express any nascent magical abilities she may have. As Wicker expressed how a part of her always knew there was more to herself, Van der Weghe interrupts and states that though she may have had magic at one point in her life, that wasn't the case anymore. Heartbroken, Julia asserts that she can't go home now that she knows about Brakebills and magic, and Van der Weghe explains that he was going to take her memory, providing her an alibi for the time she was gone. As he prepared to remove her memory, Julia uses her ring to cut her arm while the professor's back is turned.
In another room, Quentin meets with the school board, and Dean Fogg asks him to showcase his magic with a deck of cards. Coldwater then performs a card trick, causing some members to laugh, when Fogg insists that he meant real magic. Frustrated, Coldwater attempts another card trick when Fogg approaches, asking if he would rather return to the city and the life he hated. Coldwater, upset, says no, and Fogg furiously persists that Quentin do actual magic when suddenly the deck of cards erupts around him and dances through the air. Coldwater, surprised, realized he's controlling the cards and directs them to form a castle on the desk nearby. Overwhelmed, Coldwater faints.
In his dream, Coldwater sees a large tree with a clock in its trunk. As he prepares to touch it, he meets Jane Chatwin from the Fillory and Further series, who explains to him that time magic is a difficult thing to master. Chatwin continues, warning Coldwater that even time won't stop The Beast from coming, as he wanted Coldwater and knows he is at Brakebills. Suddenly, Coldwater is swarmed by a cloud of moths and wakes up in a dormitory room at Brakebills. Looking at the nightstand beside him, he finds the deck of cards with the school's crest, relieved to find it wasn't just a dream.
In New York City, Julia wakes up with James in their apartment, confused and uncertain until she notices the scar on her arm, realizing her experience wasn't just a dream. She begins searching the web for references to Brakebills.
In the Clock Tower, Coldwater meets with Dean Fogg in his office, who explains that magic is real. When Coldwater asked how they found him, Fogg explained that the school uses enchanted globes to find potential students, and explained that Julia didn't pass her test. He then apologized for Coldwater's recruitment, not having intended for Bob, the alumni interviewer, to die. When Coldwater asks if the paramedic was from Brakebills as well, Fogg states she's a freelance scout. Moving on, Fogg emphasizes that Brakebills teaches the tools of magic; what students and graduates do with it is up to them. Coldwater accepts but is alarmed when Fogg asks for his medication. Fogg explained that Coldwater was never truly depressed or crazy; he was lonely and angry at the world, but Brakebills was a chance to leave that behind.
Returning to his room, Coldwater finds he's been given a new roommate named Penny, whom he sat beside during the preliminary exam. Noticing that his manuscript was missing, Coldwater accuses Penny of taking it, though Penny denied interest in such a juvenile book. At that moment, Eliot arrived along with his friend, Margo Hanson, and the two give Coldwater a tour around the school, explaining how student housing works. When Coldwater notices two particular students, Waugh states they the remains of the missing third-year class, once twenty and now down to four, and that nobody knows really what happened to the rest.
In Practical Applications, the first-year students are introduced to spellcasting. The professor asks another student, Alice Quinn, to demonstrate a spell. In the back of the class, Kady Orloff-Diaz dismissed Quinn's performance but Penny jokingly states that a Master Magician is at work. Quinn quietly performs a series of motions, transforming a glass marble into a horse figurine, before quickly returning to her seat. When Diaz looks to Penny, wondering, he reads her mind, and after class the two have sex in her dorm, with Diaz causing them to levitate off the bed.
Later that day, Quentin, Eliot, and Margo are sitting as Alice walks by. Hanson remarks on her as an example of the shy over-achiever, but when Coldwater reveals her demonstration in class, Hanson states she comes from a family of magicians and has the advantage on everyone. Hanson then mockingly invites Quinn to join them and make friends for once, but the latter walks away. That night, Coldwater finds Quinn in the cafe, studying a book with an eye on the cover. Coldwater apologizes for his friends' behavior before complimenting Quinn's magical ability; however, when Quentin states he's scared of getting kicked out and asks for help, Alice explains that despite her reputation, she has no special advantage because of her family, and taught herself magic.
A few days later, Coldwater is on the phone with James, who's explaining that Julia has not been acting normally for weeks, barely eating or talking. James then reminds Quentin that Julia's birthday was coming up, and Quentin accepts as Eliot and Margo arrive, insisting they join due to Coldwater not knowing how to get back to Brakebills. At the party, the three arrive, but Eliot and Margo quickly excuse themselves to the bar. Julia, distracted, orders a drink when a man wishes her a happy birthday, which she ignores. When she noticed Coldwater, the two talk outside, where she tells him to ask Brakebills to test her again, revealing the scar on her arm, stating that part of her wouldn't let her forget about her experience. Coldwater, however, insists that they were right in her decision, despite Wicker showcasing a spell she found on the internet. Instead, he suggests she find something else to do in life, stating that it's okay if she couldn't do magic, as she was talented enough to do anything else she wanted.
After her conversation with Quentin, Wicker is in the bar's restroom when the buttons of her shirt begin falling off, before suddenly being pulled across the room and tied to the radiator. Confused, Wicker watches as the man from the bar opens the door, greeting her. Kneeling beside her, the man asked how it felt to be powerless against him when Wicker suddenly released herself from the radiator, summoning jets of fire from her fingertips. Impressed, the man dispells her flames. Julia accuses him of being a rapist, but the man states that wasn't his intention, as his organization merely wanted to be sure Wicker was a Magician. Wicker, intrigued, asked what exactly was his organization.
In the Brakebills Library, Quentin is studying when he suddenly hears knocking on a door he hadn't noticed before. Opening it, Coldwater steps through into Fillory. There, Jane Chatwin explains that people never truly decide to go to Fillory, it instead decides when it wants them to come, and that it wanted Coldwater there. He notices a symbol on a stone, she thrusts his hand into it...and he wakes up at his desk in the library, the symbol apparently burned into his palm. He remembers it as the sigil he earlier saw in Alice's book.
Quentin, with a bandaged hand, meets Alice and asks her about the symbol; she brushes him off until he shows her the symbol in hand. She says the symbol means "Contact the other side," and he should meet her later. She needs to do a summoning, but first she needs a book that was removed from the library shelves years ago; the Dean has it, and it needs to be stolen. He's reluctant to do anything risky, lest he be kicked out of school; she offers tutoring and course help, whatever he needs, but since he's involved in "this" he needs to be involved for real.
In Penny's dorm room, Kady and Penny are studying, but Penny is too distracted to study. He says he's hearing voices, and he needs to go find them. Kady comes with him.
Quentin and Alice meet in the classroom, collecting materials and reading references for the summoning, and Quentin notices the symbol on his hand is gone, Alice says they are trying to contact her brother Charlie, who died at Brakebills 5 years ago; nobody will tell her how he died, so she wants to find out. That's why she's at Brakebills, for Charlie, not because she loves magic. She realizes they don't have all they need for the ritual, and Penny and Kady walk in. Penny says he thinks they need extra hands; Alice says that's right, they need 4 adepts.
Once the spell is complete they look at the mirror in the corner of the room, expecting a result. Nothing. They clean up and leave. After they leave, the mirror briefly shows a mysterious fog, then a drawn smiley face.
Julia and Pete are in a rundown area in New York. He advises Julia to ask politely, to ask questions, and to be careful. He goes to a locked door, rolls up his sleeve and shows the star tattoed on it to a watcher behind the door. The door opens, and they go in.
In the Brakebills classroom, a professor is lecturing on alloys. At exactly noon, the clock stops. Outside, Dean Fogg sees his watch do the same, and dashes in to the classroom. Inside, everyone is magically paralyzed, all but their eyes. Out of the mirror steps a man, with a cloud of moths obscuring his face, surrounded by moths. He walks slowly around the room, gestures and apparently kills the professor. Dean Fogg walks in and casts magic at the man; they cast magic at each other. The man overpowers Fogg and pulls out his eyes. He walks in front of the frozen Quentin and says "Quentin Coldwater...There you are."
- Jason Ralph as Quentin Coldwater
- Stella Maeve as Julia Wicker
- Olivia Taylor Dudley as Alice Quinn
- Hale Appleman as Eliot Waugh
- Arjun Gupta as Penny
- Summer Bishil as Margo Hanson
- Jade Tailor as Kady Orloff-Diaz
- Rick Worthy as Henry Fogg
- David Call as Pete
- Michael Cassidy as James
- Wayne Pére as Professor Van der Weghe
- Laura Fraser as Female Professor
- Tembi Locke as Dr. Jennifer London
- Esmé Bianco as Eliza
- Rose Liston as Young Jane Chatwin
- Seth Meriwether as Martin Chatwin
- Brian Beckman as Rupert Chatwin
- Anthony Marble as The Beast
- Krystal Tomlin as Physical Kid
- Kim Ormiston as Psychic Girl #1
- Misty Ormiston as Psychic Girl #2
- Alexandra Lucchesi as Rainbow Girl
- Tony Beard as NYC Businessman
- Eric Berris as Bar Patron
- Chase McCleery Bouchie as Healer
- Erika Erica as Party Girl
- Bob Hartnack as Driver
- Julia Holt as Healer
- Starlette Miariaunii as to-be-confirmed
- Gina Montana as Brakebills College Professor, Healer
- James Ourso as Alumni Recruiter
- Brigitte Sharai as Student
- Jane Chatwin's Pocket Watch
- Fillory and Further
- Mirror Bridges