The Madoka Project: Miracles and Magic Are Real

If Episode 3 of Madoka proved shocking to viewers, Episode 4 is positively dour. This episode is a hard reset of the show that forces us to confront important questions about the show we’re watching. Questions like, “what’s the purpose of being a Magical Girl if you die a gruesome, thankless death?” And, “is it cowardly or smart to not take immediate action?” And, “what’s the difference between a selfless sacrifice and a selfish wish?” And, “who is that redhaired chick hanging out with Kyubey?”

Western culture, whether in traditional Christianity or collectivist political movements, tends to view “selfishness” as a sin, something to be avoided and scorned in favor of The Greater Good. (Exceptions are made for certain celebrities, tech bros and bloviating reality host-turned-politicians.) And thus, media and public discourse tends to form a hard dichotomy between the selfish and selfless. In fact, selfishness is a fungible concept: it can mean anything from hoarding money and resources for yourself to putting your concerns above others, to any effort to assert autonomy opposed to a Greater Good. It’s difficult to see the two as equivalent, but they’re often sheltered under the same umbrella.

Madoka Magica, with its Buddhist-inflected views of karma and sacrifice, views selfishness as a more nebulous concept. While being purely self-involved is a bad thing, being too self-critical or selfless can be equally harmful. Indeed, it’s one of the series’ through lines: not that being selfish is good, exactly, but that it’s not an inherent moral failing, nor is it easily distinguished from selflessness or sacrifice.1 Throughout the show we’ll see the main characters making decisions they believe are for the benefit of others, but really advance their own interests…or what they think is their interest. And characters coded as “selfish” whose motivations are far more ambiguous.

We saw this split personality in Mami already who, as we’re reminded immediately, is actually dead. Lest we doubt this further, Homura helpfully spells it out: Mami had no living family and few friends, so she’ll be forgotten, reported missing if she’s lucky, her body never found. At most, she’ll live on in Madoka’s memory as the flawed but well-intentioned Magical Girl. Which isn’t nothing, but it also suggests that Mami’s fate was ultimately pointless; something Homura seeks to impress upon Madoka, even as she has a violent reaction to Madoka insisting that even Homura’s life matters.

From here, the episode centers on its protagonist’s interior struggle. Madoka is immediately wracked with survivor’s guilt about Mami’s fate – emotions that she can’t share with her family, who wouldn’t understand, even as she suffers a painful breakdown at the breakfast table. Nor her “muggle” friends – she’s forced to communicate telepathically with Sayaka to avoid Hitomi’s probing. She blames herself for Mami’s fate, even though there’s little she realistically could have done to stop it. She also views herself as a coward for not making a contract in time, even as memories of the labyrinth haunt her thoughts.

Many lesser shows would treat Madoka’s equivocation as a character failing. What heroine wouldn’t contract to save her friends? Perhaps she is a coward (a harsh judgment to make of a 14 year old, but when has that stopped fans of any show?). But Madoka Magica thoroughly repudiates it. A sacrifice (and let’s face facts, that’s what becoming a Magical Girl is) must be commensurate with the cost. Madoka might have saved Mami, but at what cost to her? Was a momentary crisis involving someone Madoka barely knew worth the contract? The question doesn’t have an easy answer, and it takes Madoka most of the series to find one.

Sayaka, on the other hand, is more persuadable. It helps that she has an immediate catalyst with Kyousuke, who after his brief, gentle introduction in Episode 3, plays a more prominent (and ambiguous) role in this episode. When Sayaka brings him a classical music CD to cheer him up, the violinist accuses her of “torturing” him and complains that his injury will never improve. His situation can only be improved by a “miracle,” not medicine or determination or even true love. But, Sayaka recognizes, “miracles and magic are real”…even if it’s not so simple as that.

Thus Sayaka becomes an easy mark for Kyubey, who spends the whole episode passive-aggressively baiting both girls (“I’ll go search for girls who have a greater need to make a contract with me,” he huffs at one point). True, she has friends and a stable home life;2 she’s not Mami or Homura. Still, she’s racked by the normal intense emotions a teenager experiences about love, friendship and her place in the world. Along with a strong sense of morality that makes her quicker to judge “the right thing to do.” Sayaka convinces herself she’s being selfless, even though the densest viewer can discern another hope: that Kyousuke will gratefully fall for her.

Later in the episode, Madoka encounters Hitomi having been brainwashed by a Witch, joining a group of similarly afflicted citizens in what looks like a cult suicide. She doesn’t have the opportunity to contract with Kyubey. Rather she manages, through guile and cleverness, to save the lives of Hitomi and the rest…but the Witch pounces upon her. Madoka’s sucked into a typically warped labyrinth that distorts and destroys her body while forcing her to watch footage of Mami’s death, over and over again. Madoka’s dilemma – her guilt, her flagging sense of self-worth, her seeming lack of control over her life – is thus graphically represented.

Until Sayaka saves the day. Styled in knightlike cloak and armor, she plunges full-speed into her Magical Girl role, dispatching the Witch without hesitation and assuring Madoka that she’s made the right decision. Meanwhile, Homura arrives, too late to have stopped Sayaka from contracting. Her warnings have made little impression on Sayaka, who remains hostile, but Madoka’s no longer so sure about her. The audience, too, comes away from this scene ambivalent, if not unnerved.

We’re glad to see Sayaka save Madoka and the Witch’s other victims, of course, but the tone is unsettling rather than heroic. Similarly Kyousuke’s hand – he discovers his “miracle” while obscured in darkness, as eerie music plays on the soundtrack. What happened is something unnatural, not right, even if it seems like a good thing. The ramifications will clearly last more than just that split second. And so we exit with a feeling of unease, wondering about the ramifications of Sayaka’s choice.

And then we meet Kyoko, a snaggle-toothed ginger who’s been tipped off to Mami’s death by Kyubey and isn’t happy that Sayaka’s muscled in on her turf. Bathed in harsh light, she looms over Mitakihara like a predator scouting her kill, munching a pastry as she discusses her plans with Kyubey. In the episode’s final moments, she vows to put Sayaka “out of commission …permanently.” And we realize that Madoka Magica isn’t done destroying our expectations – not even close.