One common criticism of Madoka Magica I’ve encountered is that it’s tragic to the point of cruelty, remorselessly meting out dreadful fates to characters who don’t really deserve it. (It is a Gen Urobuchi joint, after all; the man’s never been known for cheerfulness.) To some degree, I’m receptive to that criticism. To make a story like this work, the viewer has to be really invested in the characters and the world they inhabit. Fail, and it’s well-drawn misery porn.
But only to a degree. Because really, you could criticize any work of entertainment with a tragic story arc as “misery porn” regardless of whether or not it’s well-done. Fortunately, Madoka is very, very well executed, with characters we care deeply about, and so the tragedy registers as intended. That doesn’t make it any easier to watch these next few episodes, as Sayaka reaches rock bottom and the show reveals its darkest secrets.
Some critics of Madoka treat it as a Neon Genesis Evangelion-esque allegory for depression, with each of the Puella Magi representing different (none-too-healthy) methods of coping. Mami deals with it by throwing herself into her work; Homura, by becoming apathetic and detached; Kyoko, with her amorality and binge eating; Sayaka, well she just deteriorates. Certainly considering Urobuchi’s personal history, it’s an easy way to analyze the show. But episodes like “I Was Stupid, So Stupid” make the analogy extremely blunt, as it reads like the story of a teenager driven to suicide.
Sayaka emerges from her mad witch hunting exhausted and barely able to stand, but refusing offers of help, including Kyoko’s reminder to clean her Soul Gem (which Sayaka still treats as a sign of greed). Then she has an angry conversation with Madoka, brushing off her attempts at comfort and mocking her for standing on the sidelines. She shoots Madoka a chilling, dead-eyed expression, as if she’s willing herself to become the inhuman shell she fears she is.1 Then she runs off, berating herself for what she told her friend, but unable to apologize. One doubts, at this point, whether she even believes her own words about having a purpose fighting witches.
Sadly, Sayaka’s friends and acquaintances fail to help her, though not for wanting of trying.2 She spies on Hitomi and Kyosuke, who are now officially dating and oblivious to her condition, cast in shadow that emphasizes both Sayaka’s distance and depression. Madoka tries, but she can’t offer more than a shoulder to cry on, while allowing Sayaka to guilt her for inaction. Since Sayaka can’t make herself feel better, all she does is lash out at her friend, then plunge into work that further endangers her. Her own high standards are devouring her, and there’s nothing her friends can do to stop it.
Homura’s approach doesn’t help, either. The two girls have eyed each other warily from the start, and Homura’s offer of a Grief Seed only stokes Sayaka’s suspicion. Sayaka correctly pegs that Homura’s aloof act is a front; it must be, if she’s trying to help Sayaka now. Not that it matters: if the “transfer student” wants to help her, she reasons, there must be a catch. And so Sayaka lashes out instead of accepting Homura’s help; in her mind, only a weak Magical Girl can’t stand on her own, and a dishonest one like Homura can’t be trusted anyway.
As before, Homura responds poorly; her attempt to open up proves counterproductive. She shifts to angry weariness, as if she’s had this conversation a million times before. She drops her empathy, asserting that she doesn’t care about Sayaka at all, only about her impact on Madoka. She even offers to kill Sayaka if she doesn’t come to her senses. This outburst prompts Kyoko to step in and disarm Homura, fearing for her new friend’s life. Homura is many things but she is a rotten therapist.
Nor is Homura much of an ally. She invites Kyoko to her apartment (full of weird floating art installations and a giant, swinging pendulum) for a strategy session, as they discuss how to fight Walpurgisnacht. She still withholds key information from Kyoko, though, making us wonder why she’s bothering. It scarcely matters anyway; Kyubey, with his preternatural sense for Magical Girls collaborating, turns up and advises them that Sayaka is on the verge of a breakdown. It’s not clear yet what he wants them to do with this information, though he clearly doesn’t care about Sayaka herself.
Kyubey’s bastardy leads him next to Madoka, still swimming in guilt about Sayaka’s depression. Madoka is concerned about her friend, and her insecurities come to the fore. She reiterates her earlier feelings of self-loathing, that she’s a perfectly ordinary girl of no importance. They read more intense now, girded as they are by her failure to lift Sayaka from her malaise. Madoka’s turmoil isn’t as dramatic as Sayaka or as flamboyant as Homura, but it’s largely the same. One doesn’t have to be a Magical Girl to feel depressed.
Typically, Kyubey makes no effort to comfort her, instead insisting that all of her problems could be resolved if she just contracts with him. After all, she has more potential than any Magical Girl, with the potential to become a god. In this episode, his facade of “Logic” begins to crack. Kyubey’s starting to seem both cruel and desperate in baiting Madoka, knowing the right buttons to push but also blurting out something that will come back to haunt him. At this point, though, Madoka isn’t thinking clearly and prepares to offer a wish…
Fortunately for Madoka, Homura arrives and blasts Kyubey full of holes with a handgun. As if liberated by this burst of violence, she finally unleashes her emotions for the first time, telling Madoka to stop beating herself up for the mistakes of others and downplaying her own value. It’s a striking scene, both from the transition from violence to tenderness and Homura’s finally allowing her humanity to shine through. Perceptive viewers have guessed at Homura’s depth and turmoil, but it’s finally made explicit that she, too, is a messed up teenager.
The moment’s ruined when Madoka runs off in fear, leaving Homura in tears. Then Kyubey reappears, red eyes gleaming malevolently from the shadows, taunting Homura that he can’t die. He then eats his own corpse while bantering with her about the nature of her powers. Homura, he discloses, is evidently a time traveler, explaining why he hadn’t contracted with her, along with Homura’s preternaturally good timing throughout the series. It also explains why Homura’s the only character who knows what Kyubey’s up to, hissing that he’s actually something called an “Incubator.”3
Meanwhile, Sayaka snaps. Amidst her despair, she rides on the train with two loudmouthed assholes who rant about their clingy girlfriends.4 She then unloads on them about their unwillingness to appreciate what they have, and how it relates to her own dilemma. It’s interesting how much emphasis is placed on this scene, to the point where it directly causes Sayaka’s final deterioration. The two men’s grotesque sexism forces Sayaka to confront the hollowness of her decision to fight for others: her actions, both as a Puella Magi and a woman, will never be appreciated.5 The scene ends with her shorting out into darkness, with only one eye remaining visible through the haze…
Only Kyoko is on Sayaka’s wavelength. She’s long since abandoned her hostility to the blunette, and in a touching scene tries to talks her down from the ledge. It’s remarkable how much empathy Kyoko’s grown in just a few, short episodes: how their relationship has rekindled her generosity and willingness to reach out to others. It’s also heartbreaking how Sayaka fleetingly connects with a girl she previously hated, admitting her shortcomings and confiding in her things she couldn’t even tell to Madoka. Finally, it seems, a real friendship among Magical Girls has formed.
Of course we can’t enjoy their connection long, because Madoka is rigged for tragedy. After Sayaka’s meltdown on the train, we can guess she’s crossed the point of no return, and her final flame out is a doozy.6 As she confesses her failures to Kyoko, repeating back her philosophy about “balance,” Sayaka’s Soul Gem turns completely black. Kyoko is blasted off by an explosion that seems to engulf half the city. Sayaka was afraid that she’d simply die if she became useless, but it turns out Puella Magi aren’t often afforded that luxury.
I don’t know if new viewers will still be shocked by Kyubey’s final reveal – that all Magical Girls are doomed to become Witches. But it still feels like a kick in the gut, telling us everything about the show has been a con, on both the characters and the audience. And Kyubey’s smug smirk into the camera – the only time he’s shown anything like emotion up to this point – only highlights how rigged the whole game is. As Sayaka learns, good intentions can’t overcome a system that’s rotten the whole way through.