A woman named Eliza warns the Dean that something is happening and shows him a giant dead moth. She gives him a pocket watch, and tells him they need to prepare the kids.
Quentin Coldwater is at a mental facility. In the past, he felt like he didn't belong anywhere and felt useless. He claims that he feels better now and wants to grow up. He's then seen at a party, where he's reading a book called "Fillory and Further." This book describes the tale of the Chatwin siblings, who discover a magical land called Fillory through a grandfather clock. Quentin meets up with his friend Julia and her boyfriend James.
Quentin and Julia go to a Yale alumni interview for grad school. Inside, Quentin sees the same grandfather clock mentioned in the Fillory book. They discover that the alumni is dead. Eliza is there as a paramedic and hands him a package, which turns out to be the sixth Fillory book.
The first page of the book flutters away, leading Quentin to a sunny countryside and a huge building. At the same time, an elevator leads Julia to the same building, which is Brakebills University. They take a preliminary exam. Julia failed this magical aptitude test, and is told her memories will be erased, but not before Julia cuts herself on her arm. Quentin, on the other hand, manages to do real magic with cards and is accepted.
Quentin has dream that he's in Fillory. Jane Chatwin warns him that The Beast is going to find him.
A student named Alice Quinn demonstrates magic in front of the class. Alice is a shy overachiever who no one likes because she comes from family of magicians. Penny, Quentin's roommate, hooks up with another student named Kady.
James is worried about Julia because she's been acting like a ghost. Quentin, Eliot, and Margo go to Julia's birthday party. Julia remembers Brakebills and wants to go back, showing Quentin a spell that works. Quentin tells her that she doesn't have potential. In the bathroom, Julia's shirt is ripped off and she's tied down. Pete comes in and threatens her, causing Julia to shoot electricity from her hands. It was a test to see if she has magic. He takes her to a mysterious building.
Quentin has another dream about Fillory. Jane warns him Brakebills is just a tool, and he has to start questioning. She burns a symbol into his hand. Alice tells him that it's a spell to summon the dead. They try to contact Alice's brother Charlie, who died mysteriously at Brakebills five years ago. Penny can hear voices, and he and Kady go to help them perform the spell. The spell doesn't appear to work, but after they leave a smiley face appears in the mirror.
During a lecture, time starts to slow down at twelve o'clock. A moth man steps out of the mirror and kills the professor. Dean rushes in to fight him, but moth man takes out his eyeballs and makes another smiley face. The moth man spots Quentin, recognizing him.