Most of you, I will assume, are familiar with the phrase ‘save the best for last’. In the climax of any series, there is always the following challenge: throughout the series (or book, or movie, etc), you’ve built up this impossible obstacle for the protagonists to overcome. That obstacle could be psychological, tangible, financial, social, political. Maybe the protagonist has gone up against that obstacle several times in the past and come up short each time – but this time is different. Maybe the protagonist has watched others – loved ones and friends – face the same hurdle and get stopped degiad in their tracks, maybe even literally so. Regardless, in most stories with such structures, the protagonist comes up with something special, something that the protagonist either had in them all along or something that they learned during their journey, in order to overcome this situation and its obstacle. In fact, the protagonist’s ability to overcome this obstacle is the very reason that the protagonist’s story was deemed important enough for the storyteller to relay. In this final post on Puella Magi Madoka Magica, we will take a look at how the protagonist, takes down not just the immediate threat that was built since the very episode but also the consequences of dealing with this threat. The stakes are high – just defeating the threat posed by the Walpurgis Night won’t be enough to earn us a happy ending – it’s going to have to be done in a way that the characters themselves consider satisfactory. Of course, that only holds true if you assume that we’re getting a happy ending – and there has been little in this series so far to suggest that that is the direction in which we are heading.
Episode 11: The Only Signpost Remaining
Oh, look. Turns out we weren’t done kicking Homura around. In addition to everything that she’s been through in the previous episode, we now also discover that Homura’s efforts haven’t just been unfruitful, they’ve also actively been harming her own cause. It’s a cruel charge to levy against Homura and her incredibly determination but it is absolutely logical. Having said that, Kyubey doesn’t hold back at all in rubbing the accusation in deep and hard.
Life isn’t exactly sunshine and roses for Madoka either, to be fair. She’s attending Sayaka’s funeral and in painful irony, Sayaka’s corpse has this peaceful smile on her face. Is that smile meant to tell the audience that Sayaka is finally at rest now that she doesn’t have to deal with the emotional burdens that plagued her in her final? Or is it a mean-spirited dig at the remaining girls who knew exactly what state of mind she was in when she died? Heck, why not both? Madoka, showing yet again that inner good-spirited core of hers, asks Kyubey (who plays the role of the dispassionate devil in the analogy I’ve been using throughout these posts) why it did what it did. It’s a touching question to me, honestly – most people in her place would have long since given up trying to really understand the Kyubey’s motives and moved on to hating it instead. I didn’t think that the series was heading in the direction of offering redemption for the Kyubey – I think that would have very much weakened the tension of the story and the impact of the other girls’ deaths – and I don’t think I’m wrong. As it turns out though, Kyubey follows the trope of Blue and Orange morality. Now, bear with me for a moment, because this is a topic that I’m really interested in. The analogy that the Kyubey uses in its explanation to Madoka is that the Kyubey species is to mankind what mankind are to cattle. They are more evolved organisms and thus exist beyond the comprehension of humanity/cattle. I accept this premise; it’s not a difficult concept to grasp. However, the assumption in the premise is that mankind can comprehend the cows’ experiences and more. For example, assuming that the cattle only experience their five senses, mankind is capable of experiencing those five senses but is also capable of much more than that – complex thought, emotion, abstraction, etc. By that same logic then, shouldn’t the Incubator race, that claims to be beyond mankind, also be able to comprehend humanity’s experiences (i.e. emotional pain) and more? I guess my complaint here is that the Incubators’ inability to really understand the source of Madoka’s anguish seems surprising. Having said all that, I’m probably over-thinking it, so let’s just move on.
The Kyubey gives Madoka and alt-history lesson; turns out that there have been magical girls since time immemorial. Leaving aside, the somewhat problematic implication that seemingly every notable woman in history was a magical girl (implying that the girls had to be magic powered in order to be historically relevant, while the guys were just that awesome even without magic), it seems that Madoka’s predecessors include Cleopatra and Joan of Arc. I wonder if there was a Saber shoutout snuck into some of the images, hmm. Madoka is aghast at how many people the Incubators have strung along over the millennia though the Kyubey counters that in return, those very women have advanced human society to where it is today. Kyubey seems to be in a talkative mood – it goes on to espouse its philosophy about how the magical girls’ wishes represented an impossible outcome and thus “only bad could result from such a wish”. As I understand it, the idea is that going against the natural order of things is somehow ‘bad’ and that the universe must exert an equal amount of ‘bad’ in order to correct it. If my understanding of this scene is correct, then I don’t see how it makes sense at all. It assumes that the universe has a ‘natural order’ beyond what is scientifically possible. Furthermore, the use of ‘bad’ is morally subjective – I would be all on board if the Kyubey had just said that there would be a counter-action (you could throw in some pseudo-science about how every action has an equal and opposite reaction) but attributing every counter-action as ‘bad’ seems illogical. Again, I don’t want to nitpick, but this explanation bit just didn’t quite land for me.
We jump to Madoka’s teacher and mother having a drink and somberly discussing the impact of Sayaka’s death on the girls in the class and then, on Madoka in particular. I’m not quite sure what the purpose of this scene is, exactly. It’s not a bad scene, per se, but the parents and teachers have been out of focus for so long that it just seems pointless to bring them back into focus now. In addition, Madoka and the rest of the girls haven’t just known about Sayaka’s death for a while now, they were right there when it happened. Depending on how harsh you want to be on them, you could even argue that the girls were responsible for her death. So, why exactly do we need to hear the adults’ thoughts on the matter? Perhaps, we’ll find out soon enough.
Elsewhere, Madoka turns to literally the last friend she has left; Homura. She asks if Homura can handle the Walpurgis Night alone. Homura says she can but Madoka isn’t buying it. Homura knows where she’s heading; Madoka wants Homura’s tacit approval to make a contract with the Kyubey. Homura resists as long as she can but eventually breaks down and reveals her own story to a baffled Madoka. Homura mentions that it was her desire to save Madoka that began this entire course of events and now that she mentions it, it was Homura’s insistence on saving Madoka that resulted in the stakes getting raised this high. I don’t want to think it but…isn’t this all actually Homura’s fault? Regardless, there is something very cathartic about this scene. It’s a touching scene as well, no doubt, but the primary emotion I felt when I watched it wasn’t really heart-warmed fuzziness as much as it was relief. I think the tension between Madoka and Homura has been the driving force throughout the series; it’s tension that has gradually lessened as Madoka and Homura reach a better mutual understanding (really, as Madoka and the audience learn more about Homura and her motives). Watching this final barrier break meant that all the characters are now ‘caught up’ with what the audience knows and there’s something relieving about that, I think. Maybe I’m just not in a very heart-warmable mood right now, who know?
Walpurgis Night – the storm, to everyone else – approaches. I should have been nicer to Homura because she pulls out all stops in a really nicely done scene in which she hurls everything, kitchen sink included, at the Super-Witch. This is it for her; now that she’s finally been told that she’s only making things worse for everyone by going back in time, she knows that either she wins this fight or all her suffering is for nothing. Yet, the fight isn’t going well and Walpurgis Night is able to brush off all of Homura’s explosives and begins to retaliate as well. Madoka comes to a conclusion and in a touching scene, bids farewell to her mother who sees her leave the evacuation shelter.
Meanwhile, Homura is on the brink of despair – Soul Gem almost entirely corrupt – and is herself on the brink of turning into a Witch when Madoka, finally, steps in and assures her everything’s going to be alright. I’m a little surprised that Homura’s last drops of hope don’t instantly evaporate when she sees the Kyubey by Madoka’s side – Madoka is about to make a contract, the very thing that Homura has been hell-bent on trying to avoid all this time. Yet, there is something in Madoka’s manner that has changed. The shy, tentative girl from the past 11 episodes is gone and there is a selfassuredness emanating from her that wasn’t there before. Perhaps it’s the confidence in Madoka’s tone that makes Homura pause but the episode ends before we can see Madoka execute her plan. Before we move on to the final episode, let me just say how glad I am that Madoka’s finally become the protagonist of this story? I’ve been commenting/complaining about how she’s been mostly playing the role of passive observer throughout the series and now that she’s ready to actually take action, I’m excited to see what exactly she has in store. I also want to make the case for Homura being the ‘real’ protagonist of the series – not that we need to get caught up in labels and titles – but when I realized that the entire state of affairs in the series was the result of Homura’s actions and given that her actions have driven the story more than Madoka’s, it felt like Homura much better fit the mold of protagonist than Madoka. Having said that, it seems as though Homura’s role in this story is finally at an end; she’s fought the good fight and it’s time to let the titular character take charge
Episode 12: My Best Friend
The finale continues right where the last episode left off – Madoka comforts Homura, who is dispirited that she could not save Madoka from her fate but Madoka reassures her that everything will be fine. The calming message is undercut, however, by Madoka’s repeated apologies. Homura doesn’t seem entirely convinced by Madoka’s confidence but at this stage, there’s little that she can do. You get the impression that Homura really, really wants to believe that Madoka has it under control – which could very well be a nice little reference to the last episode when Madoka wanted to believe that Homura was telling her the truth about being able to handle the Walpurgis Night alone.
Kyubey reiterates the power that Madoka holds, being the focal point of several universes. The key point is that Madoka’s position allows Kyubey to grant her any conceivable wish. It’s hard to overstate how big a game changer this is – what we’ve been led to believe so far is that the greater the miracle that the girls wish for, the worse the consequences. As such, Madoka’s ability to make any wish, no matter how grand, does not necessarily solve the crux of the problem; Madoka needs to address both the problem immediately before her (the Walpurgis Night) and the problems that that solution could cause (her eventual transformation into an incredibly powerful Witch). She takes a deep breath and makes her wish – the moment the whole series has been building up to. What wish could a person make to get the better in an exchange with a figurative Devil?
Madoka’s wish is a smart one, I think. It eliminates the problem at its source, or at least, close enough to its source. She’s not only asking for no more Witches from now on – which would probably also have solved the problem – but for there to have been no Witches ever which is paradoxical in a way that I’m not sure I totally understand myself. It’s a bold strategy Cotton, let’s see if it pays off for her.
Madoka’s wish is accepted and the laws of the universe begin to re-write themselves. In a way, I figure that the universe itself is being re-created as a result of her wish; after all, given the number of changes that will result from her wish, it seems implausible that the resulting universe can simply be considered a heavily modified version of its earlier iteration. After all, how many parts of a car do you have to change before it becomes a ‘new’ car? Apparently, the universe’s laws take a while to sort themselves out because there is an immediate backlash to Madoka’s altruism – a massive Witch-like being forms out of the hatred and animosity that Madoka had just removed from the dying magical girls but this new entity itself cannot exist if Madoka’s wish were to hold true. The fact that that doesn’t really make sense is sort of the point, the way I understand it, Madoka has wished for a miracle, a way to alter the inevitable and this is what has resulted.
Homura struggles to see this as a victory for either herself or Madoka. Yes, the Witches are gone but so is Madoka. Not only will she exist in a fairly alarming state between life and death, all memories of her having existed as a person will have vanished. Homura, who’s primary motivation in all this was keeping Madoka safe and alive, is saddened by this outcome but Madoka, seemingly ascended to god-hood, once again reassures that everything is fine. Homura just can’t see how that could be – Madoka will be left in the cold, lonely desolation of that strangely colourful dimension while all her friends and family forget that she ever existed. Madoka, ever the optimist, acknowledges that while her friends won’t be able to see her or hear her or in any way know that she exists, at least she’ll know that they’re alright. I’m on Homura’s side on this one – it sounds like a dodgy deal, at best, though given what Madoka achieved, it seems a small enough sacrifice in the grand scheme of things. Madoka, unimpressed by the way the universe itself was rearranged to accommodate her wish, asks for a real miracle (because universe rearranging is no big deal, really). In all seriousness, I think she wants a miracle born not of an Incubator’s interference but the old fashioned kind of miracle born out of hope and love and all that fuzzy human stuff. She gives Homura her hair ribbon to remember her by. Their final farewell is a touching one, as Madoka acknowledges all the suffering Homura went through on her behalf while Homura herself would gladly have kept Madoka company in the rainbow dimension had the latter asked, but perhaps that option wasn’t really open and there’s really only so many miracles anyone ought to be asking for at any given point in time.
Yet, say goodbye they do and we see how matters stand in this new universe. Surprisingly, Madoka’s grand wish didn’t walk back all the events of the series. Sayaka remains dead since the only way Madoka could restore her would be by returning everything to the way it was – Kamijou would be back in hospital, and in some sense, Sayaka’s suffering and death would have been for nothing. Of course, had Madoka restored everything back to the way it was, Sayaka would also have been alive and would not be in a state where she had suffered (since it would be a different version of herself that would have been through all that). Sayaka agrees with Madoka’s decision and seems grateful to her for it, and after hearing Kamijou one last time, she leaves with Madoka.
Madoka’s universal re-writes also change the way that the magical girl system works; instead of turning into Witches upon running out of juice in their soul gems (wonder why they even need those now), they simply disappear. It’s not really clear who the three girls (Homura, Mami and Kyouko) were fighting since Sayaka would never have turned into a Witch, but at least they are safe from turning into Witches themselves. Homura does remember something about Madoka but the other two, unsurprisingly, do not. Later on, Homura runs into Madoka’s parents, who sadly don’t remember their daughter much at all. Their infant son, who I have never mentioned or took any notice of until now, does remember her and mentions her frequently. His parents have chalked it up to an imaginary friend and are surprised when Homura knows a Madoka too. The line in the picture above almost had me tearing me. She was a really good kid, right till the very end.
The final scene of the series explains my question from before. It seems that Homura and Kyubey, no longer having any reason for mutual dislike, are now quite close but also allied in their fight against beasts born out of human emotions. These replacements for the Witches remain the means through which the Incubators collect energy. As such, it is still possible for the magical girls to exhaust their Soul Gems and die, but when this happens they just disappear instead of turning into Witches. Homura is dedicated to the fight, dedicated to making Madoka’s sacrifice mean something.
And so ends the series. There are a lot of thoughts to capture since I didn’t want to interrupt the flow of the plot just add in some comments. That is not because there is any shortage of comments, however, and I think a good place to begin is with the minutiae.
The minutiae I’m referring to are the short, but intimate, scenes in the last couple of episodes. These are tender moments that serve a number of functions, the most important of them being contrast. Typically, the emotional vulnerability of these scenes (think for example, the scene where Madoka asks Homura to prevent all this from happening in the previous episode, or their farewell in this episode) provides a contrast against the harshness of their situation. It is a little like a hope spot, the beauty hidden among the ashes and I think it’s meant to remind the audience that even though the situation isn’t looking good for the protagonists, all is not lost just yet. These scenes also show us a side of Homura that we are still not all that familiar with. Homura has been cold and distant throughout the series, but we never thought her to be evil or cruel. Watching the walls that Homura built around herself crumble was both sad and satisfying; sad because of what we learned about her and the circumstances that made her lower those walls but satisfying because those walls were the final barriers keeping Homura and Madoka from understanding each other (or really, Madoka from understanding Homura).
The big moment in the episode, action aside, was when Madoka comes to help Homura out. This was the moment when Madoka completed her character arc; she went from being the helpless, passive by-stander who was always being bailed out by Homura, to finally being able to return the favour in a big way. It was really satisfying to see and while I do wish it hadn’t all happened quite so fast, I can see why that would have been difficult to pull off.
As for the ending itself, I think that it struck the right balance, despite how many different requirements it was expected to fulfill. It was a resolution to the key conflicts in the series – that between the magical girls, the Kyubeys and the Witches – in a way that was satisfying (since the Madoka was able to secure an improvement in the magical girls’ lot in life) while at the same time not without significant sacrifice (regardless of how you spin it, Madoka is more or less dead). The ending also gave characters like Sayaka some closure and the scene with Homura and Madoka’s parents was just beautiful. The one thing I loved about the final scene was how the series didn’t try to make Madoka’s actions out to be this magic bullet that rescued everyone and turned the world into some Utopian paradise, but rather just altered the existing balance of power to be a little more favourable to the humans.
Anyway, this post is long enough as it is. Next week, I’ll take a look at the third Madoka movie and do a review of the whole thing. See you!