Crafting an ensemble cast within a limited series can be difficult. Madoka Magica pulls it off flawlessly by rotating focus among its main characters. Madoka is the ostensible protagonist, but she’s largely an observer for the balance of the series, agonizing over her decision while other, more decisive characters act. Mami takes centerstage for episode three, only to lose her head for the trouble. Now, Sayaka takes charge for the next four episodes, and they provide viewers with a sustained trip through the emotional ringer.
The episode opens with Kyubey’s creation of Sayaka’s Soul Gem, a sequence which bluntly stresses the trauma of becoming a Magical Girl. In most anime, it’s a confusing but generally positive experience, demonstrating the protagonist’s “beautiful transformation” from zero to hero. In Madoka it’s an agonizing, truly horrific process that causes Sayaka massive physical pain (while also sowing seeds for her emotional distress). Even without our future knowledge, it seems like a grievous violation of her personhood. A psychic rape, in other words, rather than a transfiguration into heroine.
We’re also invited to draw a parallel to events we’ve just seen. The previous episode climaxed with Hitomi, in thrall to a Witch, assuring Madoka that her suicide would free her from her body and bring her to a new plane of existence. Well, Sayaka’s contract makes literal Hitomi’s grotesque metaphor… making the Witch’s motivation in that episode seem like a cruel parody of the Magical Girl’s predicament.
Nonetheless, Sayaka insists to Madoka that she doesn’t regret what she’s done.1 This strident, overstated self-confidence fits her character perfectly. She’s the most teenage character in the show, in terms of having inconsistent, impulsive emotions that overcome reason and logic. She’s willing to throw away everything for a grand, romantic gesture towards Kyousuke, who doesn’t seem to appreciate it (though, in fairness, he does apologize to Sayaka for his outburst in the previous episode). Sure, he’s happy enough with his little party on the hospital roof, but he acts more thrilled about reuniting with his violin than the adoring gaze of Sayaka.
Sayaka’s emotional turmoil matches a marvelously complex character. She is a brash, rough-housing tomboy who is also thoughtful, introspective and emotional. She enjoys sports and anime but also appreciates classical music.2 She loves and supports her friends while also harboring selfish desires that she can’t articulate, or won’t face. Her strengths complement her weaknesses; it’s fine to be morally certain, when it provides motivation and clarity, but less so when you’re holding yourself and others to a standard they can’t possibly meet.
And Sayaka’s initial adventures show that she hasn’t fully absorbed the lessons of past episodes. In her skirmish with a Familiar (a goofy little plane demon who’s the show’s most adorable villain) she openly imitates Mami’s fighting style; her stylish armor-cloak (a wonderfully elegant design, meshing both her feminine and masculine sides) produces swords in lieu of muskets, which she hurls at the Familiar in volley. She embraces her role as the Fighter for Justice without hesitation or complaint, drawing on Mami’s example – or what she perceives as Mami’s example, having not been witness to her confession to Madoka.
Madoka, meanwhile, is less enthusiastic. She wants to be happy for her friend, but can’t convince herself that Sayaka is doing the right thing. At this point in the series, it’s easy to be frustrated with Madoka, to view her as your typical indecisive anime protagonist who reacts rather than acts. But the more we learn about this world, and the more Magical Girls she meets, the more her indecision seems like a logical response. Patience is a virtue – and a luxury that, as Mami impressed upon them, shouldn’t be wasted.
Sayaka’s recklessness causes Madoka to reach out to Homura, asking for her friendship and protection for Sayaka. Homura, instead, warns Madoka to abandon her oldest friend. “A person becomes naive if they’re too kind,” she insists. “Careless if they’re too bold. And now matter how hard you try to protect others, there’s no gratitude.” Sayaka checks all of these boxes, so Homura sees her downfall as inevitable. Despite her incredible power, Homura insists that there’s no way she can help.
Her advice is cold and blunt, as Homura often is, and shaped by experiences we don’t yet know about. Every time Madoka, or anyone tries to pull back the curtain on Homura, she dismisses their inquiries with a curt “that’s my business” (dramatic hair flip optional). There’s a calculation to her coldness that’s slowly coming into focus, something more than a frigid personality. Better to remain self-reliant than form connections that could hurt you later.
It’s not that Homura is necessarily wrong, in the long run, given what we learn later. But in this context, her fatalism is about as helpful as some edgelord telling you that we’ll all die eventually, so what does anything matter? The words ring hollow, as if Homura’s trying to convince herself as much as Madoka. And Homura, as we witness more and more, rarely follows her own advice.
For her part, Madoka rejects Homura’s pessimism rather than Sayaka. She offers to accompany Sayaka on her first Witch hunt, which her friend eagerly accepts, thinking that Madoka will help keep her focused and careful. A cynic could view Madoka as naïve, but this seems more a display of strength: no amount of Homurian dread can prevent her from standing by Sayaka. Even she won’t contract, she can still help; if she’s not a Magical Girl, she’s a friend.
Kyoko, who makes her proper debut in this episode, provides a livelier spin on Homura’s fatalism. She makes a fleeting appearance early in the episode, clearly being egged on to fight Sayaka by Kyubey, who ought to forfeit anyone’s trust by this point. Kyubey offhandedly describes Homura as an “anomaly,” something Kyoko views as a challenge rather than a warning. For Kyoko embodies Homura’s views that a Magical Girl should abandon any idealism; she’s a hedonist, a loner and a Social Darwinist. She’s also a tough, remorseless fighter who resorts to underhanded tactics and psychological gamesmanship to gain the upper hand.
In her first confrontation with Sayaka, Kyoko spells out her worldview, brandishing an oversized spear (which she can distend into a chain weapon) in one hand and a taiyaki pastry in the other. She likens the Magical Girl-Witch dynamic to the food chain: “Witches eat weak humans. And in turn, we eat those witches. It’s the basic rule of this world.” She’s willing to sacrifice humans to Familiars, in order to promote them to Witches so she can harvest their Grief Seeds.3 As in her introduction she’s marked as a predator, something her red coloring, sharp fangs and mane-like hair emphasize, along with extreme close-ups of her snacking as she taunts Sayaka.
It’s all very utilitarian and callous, the exact opposite of Mami’s approach to witch-hunting. Anyone who believes in a cause bigger than themselves is a sucker, most of all a goody-good like Sayaka; better to look out for Number One. It doesn’t help that this philosophy comes from a feral antagonist, whose snarky tone and menacing theme tune further emphasize her violent edge. She’s like Homura without the cool reserve, restraint or attachment to Madoka. In other words, the Magical Girl Id.
Naturally, Kyoko’s speech rubs Sayaka the wrong way. After a heated exchange of words (capped off when Sayaka blames Kyoko for Mami’s death, pushing the redhead’s exact wrong button)4 the two come to blows. Far from a sparring match, it’s a duel to the death, which the animation catches in twilight shadow and Kyoko’s brutal, impossibly swift attacks.5 Sayaka is clearly outmatched but uses bolstered healing powers and stubbornness to hold her own – for awhile, anyway. Kyubey, who incited this confrontation, pleads helplessness when Madoka insists he intervenes. But there might be a way for her to stop it… And we see how a solipsistic worldview like Kyoko’s serves Kyubey’s interests… whatever they are.
No matter… as the episode climaxes, Homura shows up to save the day, again. The contradiction between her earlier cynicism and her constant looking out for Madoka and Sayaka remains as much a mystery as her powers (although we get another hint as the water droplets from a burst pipe hang eerily suspended in midair, a detail first-time viewers might miss), or why Kyubey is so eager for Madoka specifically to contract. The pieces are coming together, but don’t yet fit. For now, the intensity remains enough to keep us riveted.