This post is the second of five covering the series ‘Puella Magi Madoka Magica’. It contains spoilers for episodes one through three, with some speculation for episodes beyond that.
One aspect of this series that continues to intrigue me is the Faustian deals that the contracts turn out to be. There is something very human about wanting something so badly that you’d consider taking a deal that is not in your favor, not only in known ways, but possibly also in unknown ways. It’s easy enough to empathize with; I’m sure we’ve all had things that we wanted badly enough to consider taking disproportionately risky gambles on. However, in both fiction and real life, it’s rare to see though gambles not come back to haunt the gambler. In the case of the contract that the girls make with Kyubey, I can see the allure. The contract is fixed in terms of what Kyubey’s demands are – it demands your life, regardless of what you want in return for surrendering that life. In fact, it’s not even really asking for your life directly; a sufficiently skilled fighter might be able to maintain a respectable life expectancy as long as they don’t get cocky or slip up. So, in exchange for simply risking your life, the girls can have anything their heart desires – it doesn’t seem like that bad a deal on the surface of it.
This is why you always read the fine print, it’s why you should always avoid deals where you don’t know exactly what you are and aren’t signing up for. We’ll look at it in further detail in a minute, but for the moment it’s looking like the girls are in a situation that they won’t be able to extract themselves from any time soon.
Episode 4: Both Miracles and Magic Exist
We open episode 4 with Sayaka paying a visit to the hospital to see Kamijou. She seems a little more aware of the fact that her intentions behind wanting to have him healed aren’t entirely selfless. She doesn’t just want him to recover, she wants him to know that she worked the miracle that healed him. She thinks this makes her a horrible person but I don’t know if that’s fair. The most morally ‘pure’ route would be to just heal him out of the goodness of her heart but honestly, I don’t think it’s moral dilemma worth agonizing over. The simplest option would be to heal him and let him know that you had something to do with the magical cure and let him decide how to respond after that. It feels like even that crosses some ethical lines but at least it ends in situation where everyone gains something out of it.
Madoka seems to be taking Mami’s death a lot harder, breaking down over breakfast, but it might just be that Sayaka has a different way of dealing with the loss and prefers to keep up a brave front. However, they do discuss their feelings shortly thereafter and it’s interesting to note that even this early on, both of them feel a sense of isolation and distance from the world around them. The dissonance is partially because they can’t talk to anyone about it but also because it feels like the world is entirely unaffected by Mami’s death and sacrifice. The trauma of Mami’s death is hitting Madoka especially hard but Kyubey rightfully points out that Mami’s altruism in protecting the city was a personal choice rather than an obligation she had to fulfill. Kyubey doesn’t seem to have any real response to Mami’s death at all; there is an air of casual disinterest around it, a sort of ‘Huh, so she died, did she? Interesting. What do you want for lunch?’ kind of vibe. It does point out, and rightfully, I think, that Mami protected the city out of a sense of personal duty rather than out of necessity and that it would be unreasonable to expect other magical girls to risk their lives for such an ideal, setting up Sakura’s appearance later in the episode. Kyubey feels like a recruitment agent or a salesperson – it’s offering the girls a contract but if they’re not interested, it will look other leads to proposition.
Madoka heads to Mami’s abandoned apartment and breaks down again. She meets Homura outside who tells her not to blame herself for Mami’s death, that Mami knew what she was getting into. I’m a little bit on the fence about this one; on one hand, yeah if someone chooses to place themselves in harms way, it isn’t your fault if something bad does happen. Yet, if it is in your power to save such a person, isn’t there some kind of moral duty to try to save them? It’s not so cut and dry in the series since the only way Madoka could have really helped was by becoming a magical girl herself and jeopardizing herself; surely, the moral duty doesn’t extend to putting yourself in harm’s way to help someone who willingly endangered themselves? The other big question is here is how does Homura know so much about Mami? Have they crossed paths before? If Mami was the optimistic, encouraging mentor, Homura is the jaded veteran that is thoroughly sick of her work. Homura departs with a cryptic warning that kindness can get further misery.
Her words prove prophetic; over at the hospital, a frustrated Kamijou lashes out at Sayaka, accusing her of simply pitying him and taunting him. It’s an unfortunate but understandable response from Kamijou who’s lost a lifetime’s worth of hard work and dedication to an accident, but the incident convinces Sayaka to take up the magical girl contract. How has she navigated the morality of the situation? It seems that when she makes her decision, her ulterior motive is not at the top of her mind; it seems that she will go ahead and heal Kamijou because she cares about him. Will this really beget further misery? As I watched this, I wondered if the twist would be that Kamijou makes a full recovery, but in the process forgets Sayaka, or maybe that Kamijou turns out to be an arrogant asshole once he recovers and tells Sayaka that he would never consider a plain looking girl like her. It seems like they didn’t go with either option, and I’m glad – though to be fair, we haven’t really seen Kamijou’s response to his recovery just yet.
Then things start to get really weird. Hitomi, Sayaka and Madoka’s friend, has been marked by a Witch and out of concern, Madoka follows along, stopping her from committing suicide with this really strange, spontaneously formed death cult. The Witch responsible attacks Madoka. I really like the bizarre art style of the Witches’ dimension, it’s got this evil circus, Alice-in-Wonderland vibe to it while still being aesthetically sound. Of course, Sayaka comes to the rescue, and defeats the witch with ease. The episode ends with Homura disapprovingly confronting Sayaka and a newcomer – Kyouko intending to challenge Sayaka for Mami’s turf. Honestly, I’m not too sure if I want to see a fight between the magical girls, given that they are in a shitty deal together. It would make sense for them to fight it out – the motivations are clear and make sense – but from an audience point of view, it would feel futile.
Episode 5: There’s No Way I’d Regret This
You know with a title like that, you just know that there is going to be regret shortly down the road. The episode opens with a flashback to Sayaka making her contract, and there is something ominous about the way that it’s shown – the music, the darkened visuals, all of it says that it’s not the moment of triumph that the context would indicate that it is. Kyubey’s poker face unblinkingly staring as Sayaka seals her fate was particularly telling – it had the look of a salesman that knows he’s gotten with selling a shitty product and is covered by a no refund/no return policy. Madoka continues to express concern for her friend’s well-being, worrying that Sayaka will end up sharing Mami’s fate, but Sayaka is riding high – this is perhaps the worst time to make the case that she should not have signed the contract. Suddenly, for the first time in the series, Sayaka no longer feels helpless, quite the opposite. She is riding the high of having healed her crush – in an almost literal sense, having brought him back to life – and of now having the power to defend herself against the unseen monstrous witches. Madoka naturally has no luck convincing Sayaka that the trade-off might have been ill-conceived. Just to repeat the Lord of the Rings analogy from last week, this is the difference between Sayaka and Madoka. Sayaka is human enough to be corruptible – and that’s not me judging the character’s decisions, but just acknowledging the second you have a desire, Kyubey instantly has leverage over you because it the power to fulfill that desire. In that regard, Madoka is unnatural – because she has a stable, happy life, there is nothing that she wants that could justify such a huge sacrifice on her part and so she remains outside the Kyubey’s grasp. Yet, as she sees another friend fight on the front lines, will her only desire – to protect her friends – lead to her eventually caving in? The series title does sort of imply that Madoka will become a magical girl eventually.
The whole celebration that Sayaka throws for Kamijou is really sweet and it seems that Sayaka has taken the morally higher path by not placing Kamijou in her debt. He apologizes for being rude to her previously and it seems their relationship is restored but it doesn’t seem like it’s going any further than that. Still, to Sayaka that’s a win of its own and things are looking good. Let the butchery begin.
We flip back to Kyouko who is scouting around for Sayaka, looking for an opportunity to rain on the newbie’s parade. Kyubey implies that Homura did not form a contract the normal way; the mystery around Homura continues. Speaking of Homura, Madoka asks her to look out for Sayaka but Homura isn’t having any of it, and I’m inclined to side with her on it. If Sayaka chooses to place herself in danger despite being warned over and over again, it’s really not Homura’s fault or honestly, Homura’s problem. Toss in the fact that Homura and Sayaka have a fairly tense relationship, and there’s really no reason for Homura to get involved in Sayaka’s mess, other than out of regard for Madoka. It’s not like Madoka and Homura are friends either though, so Madoka really has no basis to ask Homura this favor, though I can’t fault her for giving it a shot.
With the Homura option extinguished, Madoka decides to do the next best thing – she accompanies Sayaka herself. We get a look into the rookie’s mind before her second mission (I’m counting rescuing Madoka as the first) – and she’s pretty nervous and understandably so. She’s barely been trained and moreover, she’s seen her mentor decapitated in front of her. Madoka is backup in a very real sense though; while she hasn’t been trained either, she do know that she has an unusual amount of talent, and in the worst case, can make a contract on the spot to bail Sayaka out if need be. It seems to me – though it hasn’t been explicitly stated – that whatever benefit Kyubey gains from contracting with the girls, it would gain much more from Madoka than from Sayaka and so its in the Kyubey’s interest to place Sayaka in harm’s way, just to entice Madoka to sign up. Perhaps that’s why Kyubey does little to discourage Kyouko, who promptly shows up to ruin the new girls’ day, just as they are about to take a Familiar, (a baby Witch?).
Kyouko quickly gets on Sayaka’s bad side by demonstrating that she is the exact opposite of Mami – rather than help, she is happy to let the monsters rampage around until they yield a good harvest when killed. Sayaka finds this abominable and a confrontation follows. Sayaka is hopeless outmatched but equally determined not to give up. I mentioned that it feels futile for the magical girls to fight each other, when they’re technically on the same side, a sentiment mirrored by Madoka. Luckily, Homura intervenes before Madoka is forced to bail Sayaka out. Once again though, Kyubey is pretty sly in how it presents Madoka signing up as the first and only path to resolving any problems.
Episode 6: This Just Isn’t Right
Following yet another timely intervention from Homura, it’s time to question just what her role in all this is. Each and every time that Madoka is on the verge of drinking out of the poisoned chalice, Homura is there to knock it out of her hands. In fact, Homura’s pursuit of the Kyubey in the first episode could simply have been to keep it away from Madoka. Homura’s interests seem to line exactly against the Kyubey’s – while the latter is determined to get Madoka to become a magical girl at any cost, Homura is equally focused on not letting that happen and after the last near miss, she is not happy with Madoka’s inability to stay out of it, going so far as to threaten Madoka with violence if she doesn’t learn. I don’t think Madoka was manipulative enough to think this, but by going with Sayaka she inadvertently forced Homura to watch out for Sayaka as well. I really do hope we unravel the mystery around Homura by the end of the series though; somehow she seems to be playing the game on a much deeper level than any other character, including the Kyubey. For example, she knew a great deal about Mami and she reveals that she knows a little about Kyouko Sakura too.
Kyubey continues to be sneaky; realizing probably that Homura’s harsh words might have convinced Madoka to stay away from signing the contract for good, Kyubey resorts to using Sayaka to convince her friend to join the fight against Kyouko. Sayaka holds out for now, but she was momentarily tempted. We will see how this plays out. We also learn more about the Soul Gems and their relation to the Grief Seeds but it’s nothing we didn’t already know and nothing compared to the bomb that will be dropped later in the episode.
Elsewhere, Homura tries to talk Kyouko out of killing Sayaka by offering her a deal – in exchange for staying away from Sayaka, Homura will help Kyouko take down what I’m assuming to be a particularly powerful Witch and then handing over control of the town to Kyouko. Kyouko seems to like this deal but Sayaka, for her part, seems determined to run up against her. In all honesty, at this point, I’m losing a little sympathy for Sayaka who doesn’t really seem to appreciate the effort that others are taking to keep her alive and out of trouble. I’m not sure if she’s even aware of the effort being taken on her behalf, so there is that, but despite that, I find her unwillingness to talk or compromise to be a little annoying. As the conversation went on though, I began to wonder if Sayaka herself was getting corrupted by the Kyubey’s power, whether it was infecting her with some sort of negativity. I could be wrong – the negativity could just be the result of the stress that Sayaka is under but all of a sudden it felt like Sayaka, who has on top of the world just last episode, is being boxed in on all sides, and she’s definitely not making things easier for herself.
There’s a twist to the tale however; the series seems to be implying that the solution to this issue isn’t doing what is ‘right’ – i.e. what Sayaka is doing – but rather, finding a workable compromise and reaching an understanding. The language gets a little cryptic for me – “someone has to be in the wrong to balance out her need to be in the right” but my understanding that Madoka’s mother is advocating for an ends-justify-the-means kind of approach. She seems to be saying that it might be the right move to tell a lie or hurt someone – in this case, Sayaka – in order to actually help them in the long run. It’s solid practical advice, but a lot will depend on how Madoka interprets it.
Meanwhile, Kamijou has been released from the hospital and I think it’s a bad sign that Sayaka didn’t know about it. It seems strange for him not to inform someone who’s visited him regularly of his release. Sayaka, for her part, chooses not to press the issue – pulling out from knocking on his door, much to Sakura’s derision. Given their drastically different viewpoints on moral matters, there was never any chance of this meeting ending well, despite Sakura’s promises to Homura earlier. Kyouko goes a little too far though; implying that Sayaka lost her one chance at getting Kamijou eternally bound to her and suggesting that she break his arms and legs again to make him fully dependent on her. It’s a chilling reflection of Sakura’s personality and the mocking tone pushes Sayaka over the edge – round 2 is back on. Kyubey, being as helpful as ever, promptly informs Madoka.
Everyone shows up just as the fight is about to start and we see Madoka’s interpretation of her mother’s advice: she throws Sayaka’s Soul Gem away. It’s not clear what Madoka thought that would do – whether it would simply prevent Sayaka from using her powers or something mild like that – but the result is not what she expected. Sayaka collapses and then we learn that for all intents and purposes, Sayaka is already dead. The magical girl contract forces the girl’s soul out of the body and into the gem – without the gem, the body itself is just a pile of tissue and cells, without any sentience. More is revealed about the Soul Gems; in order to make them more resilient, the soul and body are divorced which allows for better magic control and improved healing times. No one responds to this positively – Madoka is horrified and Sakura is furious. I, for one, don’t understand what the big difference is and I sort of feel like everyone is over-reacting. Yeah, sure it’s a little unusual, but I don’t understand why the characters are acting like some kind of atrocity was committed. At worst, I would say that it’s not something to do without the explicit content of the person, especially when the damage is irreversible but I guess I’m having a hard time seeing the girls’ points when it’s about something as abstract as the ‘soul’ that’s being separated. In any case, Homura retrieves the Soul Gem – once again, she knew all of this – and Sayaka regains consciousness though she is a bit dazed. It seems like the Kyubey bound everyone together by giving them common enemy unintentionally.