While preparing this article, I read and watched several essays arguing that Mami Tomoe is, in fact, the most important character of the series. This claim overstates things a bit, but I found parts of it persuasive. After all, Mami is very much the idealized Magical Girl, a tough, poised, improbably gorgeous figure out of Sailor Moon or Pretty Cure. Madoka and Sayaka instantly idolize her as someone who (in Madoka’s words) fights witches and looks great doing it. Even Kyubey dubs her a “rare breed” who genuinely believes in her fight “for love and for justice”; in corporate terms, the Face of the Franchise.
Which only makes sense. After all, if you’re Kyubey and your plan operates like a multi-level marketing scheme, wouldn’t you put your most glamorous fighter out front? Mami is everything a Magical Girl should be; she’s precisely the image Kyubey wants to sell potential recruits. Never mind that she, too, is a human being as haunted, flawed and emotionally vulnerable as anyone else; that she’s driven as much by a crippling sense of loneliness as her ideas of justice. Symbols aren’t people; images don’t have feelings. What’s important is what they represent.
And then, well, this episode happens.
Given all the focus on the third act twist, it’s easy to forget how much foreshadowing there is – that some of the first cracks in our Magical World fantasy come from Mami herself. Whether out of mentor’s obligation or guilt for leading Madoka and Sayaka astray, she starts to stress the dangers of being a Magical Girl. She chides the ever-eager Sayaka not to view fighting Witches as a game, but rather a duty with potentially deadly consequences. She also emphasizes the need to make a wish that isn’t impulsive but well-thought-out and won’t have unforeseen consequences. Because unlike them, she didn’t have the luxury of choice.
Up until now, we’ve had little reason to distrust Kyubey. Sure Homura tried to kill him in the first episode, but since Homura’s a menacing figure that doesn’t mean much. Now, however, we see that he offered Mami her “wish” as she lay dying in a gruesome car accident, moments after being orphaned. Mami, unable to think through her fear and pain, wished to save herself and not her parents, burdening her with guilt, loneliness and depression that no amount of magic can cure. The fact that Kyubey exploits this horrifying moment to offer his contract – the classic “offer she can’t refuse” – tells us reams about his motivations and morality.
And if Mami symbolizes all the glamor of Magical Girls, inwardly she embodies all of their shortcomings. As she explains to Madoka moments before her death, she has no family, no real friends, no personal life, nothing to do but fight witches. Madoka has her friends and family, even if her mother Junko is (we learn in this episode) an alcoholic whose career is stymied by corporate sexism. As much as her ordinariness frustrates her, the alternatives (Homura, Mami, even her mom) gradually begin to seem less appealing.
The show has few male characters, most of them jerks or ciphers, so it’s refreshing to meet Madoka’s father Tomohisa. He’s a content househusband who admires and supports Junko, and is on hand to give Madoka advice. He tells Madoka how much he admires Junko for transcending the deck stacked against her. This is at once affirming (that Junko can transcend limitations through hard work) and disappointing (that a woman has to work extra hard to succeed in a man’s world), but it’s the hand she’s dealt. She’s as much victimized by the System as Mami, outwardly thriving but inwardly trapped.
Meanwhile Sayaka has Kyousuke, a musician hospitalized with a serious injury, whom Sayaka pines for and visits daily but can’t bring herself to confess. It doesn’t seem like Sayaka’s feelings are any deeper than a standard crush, at least at first, but as an ordinary teenager they take on a disproportionate importance (something Kyubey exploits, as surely as he does Mami’s near-death). Hers and Madoka’s lives are filled with drama and emotion, but ultimately nothing unmanageable, even for teenaged girls. Meanwhile, all Mami has is fighting witches.
Mami’s last conversation with Madoka is crucial in several ways. First, and most obvious, is how quickly Mami undercuts her image and reveals how desperately lonely and sad she is.1 We’ve received hints of this, of course: why would someone Mami’s age live alone in a well-furnished apartment, or behave with such exaggerated maturity? Because it’s an act performed by a girl forced to grow up impossibly fast. It’s impossible not to feel for Mami as she confides that she spends her evenings crying alone, with only an emotionless alien ferret for company.
It’s also crucial that Mami only confides this to Madoka. Sayaka, whether by accident or Kyubey’s design, is already deep within the Labyrinth when this conversation occurs: the idealist is not to be disillusioned, not yet. Where Madoka witnesses a human, fallible Mami, for Sayaka she never becomes more than a Symbol of justice cut down in her prime. Indeed, Sayaka’s misinterpretation of these events later becomes a crucial factor in her own downfall.
Less sympathetically, Mami seems willing to sacrifice Madoka to the same system that brought her misery, so long as it means she won’t be alone. After all she’s experienced, she still wants to live as a Classic Magic Girl and thinks she can salvage that dream, somehow, by entrapping another. She curtly brushes off Homura’s warnings to leave Madoka alone. And while Homura’s comments remain infuriatingly cryptic, it doesn’t seem like directness would help: Mami indicates that she’d rather fight Homura than lose the chance to gain a friend.
This provides an interesting wrinkle in a character that might have simply been conventionally tragic – a dollop of selfishness to leaven our sympathy. She’s still a victim, ultimately, but not just a victim, anymore than she is merely a selfless heroine. When Homura shows up, again, to prevent Madoka from descending into the labyrinth, Mami binds her with her ribbons, no longer interested in the “transfer student’s” words or even her offer of help. Even as Mami prepares to enlist Madoka in her cause, she insists that she can handle this problem alone, condescendingly telling Homura to be a “good girl” so she can free her later.
Easier said than done. The episode’s witch, a deceptively cute, doll-like creature called Charlotte,2 inhabits a realm of sweets and syringes, a typically bizarre juxtaposition of cutesy and creepy images. Which Charlotte herself embodies. Fighting recklessly, Mami allows herself to be outwitted by Charlotte, who no-sells Tiro Finale and vomits a gruesome worm-creature that decapitates the Magical Girl. This comes after a painfully drawn out sequence of Mami facing her own death, not with dignity or courage, but shock and impotent fear – wearing the same expression as when she contracted with Kyubey in the first place.
Since the Madokaverse isn’t Sailor Moon, Mami is permanently dead, a fact cemented when Charlotte swoops down to devour her headless corpse. Fortunately for Madoka and Sayaka, her demise frees Homura from her bonds; she dispatches the Witch rather cursorily, in a shower of explosions and mysterious teleportations that hint at her powers. She hopes that what the girls have witnessed will dissuade them from considering Kyubey’s offer. For the moment, it works: Madoka is wracked with guilt for not intervening, and even Sayaka is traumatized.
Kyubey, however, needn’t worry. Because Mami’s death quickens the narrative’s tragedy: any hope that this is a typical mahou shoujo is buried with her. What’s left is for the survivors (and viewers) to navigate what being a Magical Girl actually means.