This post is the third of five covering the series ‘Puella Magi Madoka Magica’. It contains spoilers for episodes one through six, with some speculation for episodes beyond that.
Coming up with titles for these posts is often a challenge. Every now and then, there will be a title which just jumps out at me and I know it’s a perfect fit right away. Most of the other times, I tell myself to just think of something later and by the time I’m done typing, I’m so tired that I just stuff the first thing I think of in there. This post is sort of neither; I knew right after episode 7 what central idea I wanted to talk about in the post, but at the same time, the title was sort of the first thing that came to mind. The idea behind the fall from grace seems like a natural follow-up to the way we left things last week. The characters had been flying high, and it seemed like internal tensions and inter-character conflicts would be the order of business for the rest of the series. As we will see in a moment, tensions between the characters persist, but the conflict is mostly coming from within the characters themselves. As any fan of drama can tell you, that tends by the most delicious kind – not that I’m salivating at any of the characters misery, or anything.
Before we move on into the episodes themselves though, there was another reason I brought up the topics of titles. For a show titled ‘Puella Magi Madoka Magica‘, it’s only just struck me (9 episodes out of 12 in, no less) that we can’t seen Madoka do anything ‘magical’. Yes, the quest to get her to accept the Kyubey’s contract (and boy, did we find out a lot of its motivations this week) is prominently featured but given that she has neither become a magical girl nor really done much note, I’ll be very interested to see what role she plays in the final act of the series.
Episode 7: Can You Face Your True Feelings?
Episode 7 opens shortly after the shocking conclusion of episode 6; Sayaka is upset that the Kyubey had kept such a big secret from the girls but the Kyubey is unfazed as usual. As shady and slimy as the Kyubey’s business practices are, you can’t really say that it’s done anything wrong. The girls seemed to just reach the conclusion that the only price they would pay for their wishes being granted was having to fight the Witches. I can’t say I was too shocked that there was a hidden price to their contracts; it would actually have been more surprising if there hadn’t been any surprises. Having said that, I don’t think any of the characters would want to be told at this point that this is all their fault for not better understanding what they were and weren’t signing away. Rational though the Kyubey’s reasoning is, I think the moment that the Kyubey jumped from the ‘very-likely-to-be-antagonistic’ category to the ‘definitely an antagonist’ category was when it demonstrated the pain numbing effects on Sayaka. There was a neat bit of foreshadowing tucked away in that exchange – the Kyubey mentions that Sayaka has the option of choosing to not feel pain at all, at the cost of her instincts. This will be relevant by the end of the episode.
Circling back to the Kyubey though, I think one of the things that will make it an effective antagonist in episodes to come (and I’m obviously cheating a little here since I’ve already seen the next two episodes at the time of writing this) is that, for once, it isn’t driven by motives that people can empathize with naturally. Instead, it is driven by motives that, from a certain perspective, make perfect rational sense. If you’re the kind of person who values stone-cold rationality, you will see the appeal of the Kyubey’s point of view here and in the episodes to come – it isn’t acting out of any desire to see the girls come to harm, but rather it is just doing the job assigned to it. Such antagonists aren’t good fits for all stories, but in this particular instance, it keeps the Kyubey’s motivations entirely independent from the girls and their dramatic lives.
The next day, Madoka notices Sayaka’s absence and worries. She meets Homura who is non-chalent about the previous night’s incident, as usual. As I noted in last week’s post, Homura didn’t seem too taken aback by the soul separation revelation; Madoka asks her why she didn’t tell them about it earlier. Homura’s answer is interesting in that it is just barely acceptable. Homura claims that she told other magical girls about it in the past (presumably Mami, but possibly others too) and was not believed. On the surface of it, that sort of makes sense, right? But then when you think about it a little more, it doesn’t quite hold up. Homura’s whole plan has been to prevent people (Madoka, especially) from accepting the Kyubey’s deal. Previously, I assumed that what made this dissuation difficult for Homura was that there was a somewhat limited downside to the deal that the girls made with the Kyubey. For one gigantic, miraculous wish, all the girls would have to put on the line was their lives. It wasn’t that they would definitely die – with sufficient skill, they could convince themselves that they could survive indefinitely. The fact that the guaranteed negative outcome wasn’t assured made Homura’s position less convincing. However, given their reactions to their loss of humanity, it seems that Homura could have dissuaded Sayaka and Madoka from taking the contract by just mentioning that fact.
I guess, all things considered, I’m not really sure how to feel about the deals that the Kyubey is offering. On one hand, the girls are clearly distressed by the thought of their souls being irreversibly split from their physical bodies which, after adding in the Kyubey’s sliminess in not telling the girls about it upfront and the general danger of the position, makes the deal seem like a pretty bad one. However, like Homura explains, what the Kyubey is offering is a bona-fide miracle. It’s something that could not be achieved by any other means, something that, presumably, had a flat out zero percent chance of happening with the Kyubey’s interference. That is surely worth something and I suppose it’s left up to the viewer to decide if such an impossibility is worth one’s very soul. I can’t think of something I personally want enough to make such a deal, but life can deal people some genuinely cruel hands and perhaps we ought not judge those who take the offer too harshly.
Speaking of being dealt cruel hands, we then learn Kyoko’s backstory when she explains it to Sayaka both as a warning and as a way of making peace. I’ll admit that I feel a bit desensitized to tragic back-stories these days and I don’t know if that’s just because of how often I see them in different stories. Kyoko’s history is a sad one, certainly, but I don’t feel invested enough in Kyoko to have a particularly strong emotional response and some of the tragic elements of the story seem either a little forced or self-inflicted. One detail that I absolutely loved was the way this story ties in with Kyoko’s connection to food. I picked up on Kyoko’s tendency to always have a snack on hand in previous episodes but I didn’t really have anything to say about it – I just figured it was a design choice, and let it go at that – but it’s a great detail that tells us that she still carries scars from her own troubled past.
I was a little troubled by the way that discussion ended, however. Let’s start by trying to understand where Sayaka’s character probably is, mentally speaking. She’s accepted this deal with Kyubey that has not only isolated her from the world around her emotionally, but also frequently places her in grave danger. In addition, she just recently learned that she is no longer properly human and this is something that is clearly a big deal for her. In return, she’s pretty much saved her crush from the brink of despair and worked a miracle for him. I can sort of understand why Sayaka not only won’t let Kyoko talk her into questioning whether using her wish for someone else was the right thing to do, but also why she can’t. The way I see it, all Sayaka got in return for her sacrifices is Kamijou’s well-being and the moment she lets herself think that that wasn’t worth it, she will probably crumble into a thousand pieces – which is precisely what happens soon after. Yet, even after understanding this, I’m having difficulty gathering much sympathy for Sayaka. Her haughtiness and arrogant morality aren’t endearing qualities and even knowing where she is coming from isn’t enough to compensate. Kyoko’s peace offering, in the form of a stolen apple, is fitting too – it could be an indication that she and Sayaka have committed the same sin, and ties in well with both the church setting that the conversation takes place in, and Kyoko’s father.
Sayaka’s miserable fall into despair continues soon after. Hitomi, the almost entirely forgotten third member of Madoka’s trio, tells Sayaka, in not uncertain terms that she is interested in Kamijou but graciously offers Sayaka a day to make the first move. Sayaka is taken-aback by this news and after the revelations of the previous episode feels her desecrated body is unworthy of Kamijou’s love. She confesses later to Madoka that she momentarily regretted saving Hitomi’s life – and though she doesn’t say it, I wonder if she also regrets wasting her wish on Kamijou too. She’s done irreparable damage to her soul and gotten nothing in return; all the time and effort she spent in getting close to Kamijou won’t materialize into anything either. Although Hitomi only approach Kamijou after the one day she said she would wait, it’s easy to tell that Sayaka has no intention of fighting her for his affection. She has already thrown the towel in.
The episode ends with another heaping of suffering for Sayaka. A Witch, this time, fully grown, appears and Sayaka engages it recklessly before either of the other two girls can back her up. Kyoko notices that Sayaka is being sloppy but the audience can tell that Sayaka’s not focusing on the fight. A part of her has died and she notes, ominously, that the Kyubey was right – she can choose not to feel pain if she wishes. Kyubey referred to physical pain previously, but Sayaka probably includes emotional pain as well. She butchers the Witch, as a disturbed Madoka begs her to stop. This fight was mostly Sayaka venting, but not in a healthy way. She was expressing her frustration and anger at the way things turned out but the anger is directed largely at herself and is perhaps a big part of the reason why she doesn’t move to protect herself much from the Witch’s attacks. I don’t think she’s literally suicidal but I think a part of her believes that she deserves the wounds and injuries as some sort of punishment for her various moral shortcomings. There was an element of self-loathing in her before too, when she chastized herself for only wanting to save Kamijou because he would be in her debt; in this episode she is revolted at herself for having even briefly regretted saving Hitomi. That self-hatred, mixed with a highly volatile and hostile environment, is not going to have a happy ending.
Episode 8: I’m Such A Fool
I’ll maintain my stance that I don’t think that Sayaka is suicidal at this point. However, it’s a little hard for me to justify that stance when we see her refuse to use a Grief Seed on a fast dimming Soul Gem. I’ll admit that for all intents and purposes it looks like Sayaka intends to just go out fighting as many Witches as she can but there is a possibility – and that’s what I’m going with here – that the reason she rejects the Grief Seed is because she sees it as a tainted good, and that accepting it, somehow will put her on the same moral low ground as the immoral Kyoko, or the apathetic Homura. Perhaps she wants to see herself as someone fighting the Witches purely for the sake of defeating evil and defending the innocent, rather than as a mercenary fighting just for the sake of gathering power via the Grief Seeds. We don’t know at this point whether the magical girls’ Soul Gems tend to naturally dim over time, forcing even the most pacifistic of them to gather Grief Seeds to survive.
From this point on, Sayaka’s downward spiral only accelerates. She runs away from home, watches Hitomi and Kamijou’s romance begin and spurns Homura’s offers of help. Sayaka and Homura have never gotten along but even I was surprised (at the time) that Homura was willing to kill Sayaka. Perhaps it was to put Sayaka out of her misery, perhaps it was to spare Madoka the pain of watching her friend turn into a Witch. The final nail in Sayaka’s heart of darkness is when she overhears a couple of Red Pills discuss relationships and a female’s place in the world and gives in entirely to the anger and hopelessness within her. She hasn’t turned into a Witch yet, but the process has certainly begun.
Meanwhile, Kyubey’s quest to turn Madoka into a magical girl continues – Homura appears just as Madoka seems to be changing her stance and kills Kyubey before herself breaking down. It seems that Homura’s own patience and energy aren’t limitless and having to chaperone Madoka all the time to make sure she doesn’t throw herself in jeopardy has taken its toll on Homura too. For a moment, before a second Kyubey (who is so similar in personality to the first that I’m just going to refer to the new one as Kyubey as well) explainst the situation partially, I suspected that Homura and Madoka were old friends, especially when the latter remembers the former for a brief second. I figured there must be some memory wiping going on; perhaps Homura was bullied and wanted to be left alone but then missed being friends with Madoka, who was the only person to ever show her any kindness. Eh, it was plausible.
Instead, it seems like we’re going down the time travel / alternate universe route. I don’t really know how to feel about this, especially since I am of the opinion that time travel is really difficult to get right and often is more trouble than it is worth but I’m keeping an open mind on this one. There is just so much mystery surrounding Homura, and the delayed the explanation is, the more central to the plot I would expect it to be. Speaking of central to the plot, I realized I haven’t talked much about the upcoming Walpurgis Night which is either an extraordinarily powerful class of Witch (requiring at least two magical girls to defeat it) or an event of some sort. I’m fairly sure it’s the former, but sometimes it seems like it’s referred to as an event. The reason I didn’t mention it before, but am doing so now, is because I just assumed it would be some kind of mid-series boss, rather than a final boss, as it is being set up to be. I had expected it to attack and be defeated by the combined forces of the three magical girls, or something. Nevertheless, given its power and the fact that Madoka has yet to transform, I can see Homura’s efforts being in vain and Madoka giving in, just to save Homura from the Witch’s clutches, or if we’re going down a darker road, to avenge Homura’s death.
We return to Sayaka soon after and you know something bad is going to happen when she begins philosophizing about the nature of good and evil. She claims that bad deeds must always balance out the good; the happiness she brought Kamijou is being balanced by the misery she herself is feeling. It’s an interesting idea for sure but certainly a self-defeating one. Why bother doing any good when it will be eventually balanced by the bad? It implies that on the whole, things never get better, that the universe is some kind of karmic zero sum game. It’s a particularly pessimistic thought; unsurprisingly, her Soul Gem finally gives out and she begins her transform into a Witch.
While the fact that Witches are magical girls is unsurprising (we’ve all watched Bleach right?) I think what got me for a moment was the realization that all the Witches we’ve seen were magical girls. I don’t know if that’s actually the case, but it’s big, if true. Then again, we’ve seen girls like Mami who didn’t turn into Witches upon death so perhaps only the girls that give in to despair turn into Witches. Regardless, someone is going to have the unplesant task of putting Sayaka down and out of her misery and it looks like Kyoko is perfectly placed for it. Once again, I’m not really sure how to feel about Sayaka and her journey. On one hand, each step of the journey made sense and I can’t fault the progression but the same time, I feel like it happened too fast and I didn’t really understand how the fall into such deep despair happened so quickly. It’s like one second everything is fine and then the next, everything has gone to shit and Sayaka is effectively dead. Somewhere after Sayaka became a magical girl, I lost my connection to her story and circumstances and even now that she’s dead, I can’t feel much for her. It probably doesn’t help that I never really liked her.
Episode 9: I’ll Never Allow That
Kyoko is having difficulty accepting Sayaka’s transformation – it’s not clear if she knows that Witches are just extremely depressed magical girls yet. She attempts to kill Witch-Sayaka but is overwhelmed – presumably the Witch’s strength derives from severity of the magical girl’s emotional issues. Homura bails her out but they run into the person they both least wanted to see – Madoka. It’s weird but I had a much stronger reaction to Madoka’s heartbroken expression after she sees Sayaka’s lifeless body than I did to Sayaka’s death.
We get a whole bunch of background on the Kyubey species, which, it turns out, are an alien race that can harness the power of emotions. They successfully identified teenage girls as being particularly emotionally volatile (having clearly never witnessed modern gaming culture) and used the system of Magical girls and Witches to harness this energy. They themselves are incapable of having emotions, which explains a lot, and so are forced to rely on human beings. I’ve been wrong about the Kyubey all along; it’s not that it’s immoral, it’s just that it doesn’t understand morality at all – which results in it acting in immoral ways. Funny how that works, sometimes. Madoka is having a hard time understanding any of this; she feels taken advantage of and used though the Kyubey points out that most of mankind’s progress over the ages has been the result of the Kyubey’s interference. It’s a simple enough point but it made me think of how the whole series approaches these miracles that are magically created and the chaos and suffering that seems to accompany them. The characters’ views tend to be ‘thanks for the once in a lifetime miracle, but don’t expect too much from me’, with the exception of Homura who seems to know better. The series, in punishing these characters, seems to be saying that don’t ask for the benefits if you aren’t willing to pay the price – the characters’ inability to really understand the price of what they bought then leads me to think that basically no one should be making these deals with the Kyubey because it seems that people are incapable of understanding the cost until they experience it first hand. Apart from that, I can’t say I’m particularly shocked by the Kyubey’s explanation but I did think the emotions as energy thing was a little silly.
Meanwhile, Sayaka’s spiral of misery is so strong however, that it continues to suck everyone into it even after she’s dead. Kyubey, in an action both brilliant and twisted, implies to the surviving girls (or just let’s them think) that it might be possible to save Sayaka after all. Kyoko comes up with a plan to dangle Madoka before Sayaka and hope that Sayaka still survives deep within the Witch. The plan is to use the memories and friendship to appeal to the Sayaka trapped deep within to fight her way out – or something like that. This is so clearly not that kind of show that I didn’t bother paying attention to a proposition doomed to failure from the get-go. Sayaka is unreachable and Kyoko dies protecting Madoka but taking Sayaka down with her. Madoka passes out as Homura rescues her from the collapsing maze; it seems that if anyone has any right to be on the bring of despair and defeat it’s either of these two.
We know from episode 8 that Homura is not the ice-queen that she likes to portray herself as. She’s watched countless magical girls fall prey to the Kyubey’s promises and it seems that few, if any, of her attempts to stop the Kyubey have succeeded. It occurs to me that perhaps one of the reasons Homura fights so hard to keep Madoka from becoming a Magical girl is because of what could happen if someone with Madoka’s alleged power turned into a Witch. For a brief moment, I wondered if, through some time travel fuckery, Madoka was the Walpurgis Night. I didn’t really figure out whether or not it was possible but I think that would be a little disappointing; the one thing that is keeping Madoka interesting at this point is how emotionally resilient she is. She’s seem three peers die before her eyes – in fact, two of them killed each other, sort of, but she’s still hanging in there, for now anyway. I wouldn’t want to see her give in to that same kind of despair unless there’s a seriously awesome narrative payoff involved. Her ability to watch all the suffering and misery around her but not let any of it into her heart marks her out from the rest of the cast (maybe Homura excepted, maybe not) and I’m confident that that will have an impact, as we head to the series’ conclusion.