After eight episodes of playing its cards close to the chest, Madoka Magica explodes in a burst of sudden clarity. Exposition clears up loose ends, character motivations are revealed, subtext becomes text. It’s the show’s emotional low point, but it counterbalances it by suggesting a way forward beyond surrendering to despair. And it also confronts head on some of the series’ more controversial elements.
This episode is ground zero for critics arguing that Madoka is a misogynist tract that punishes girls and women for desires. In an attempt to win Madoka over, Kyubey explains how he and his Incubator race are seeking to avert entropy – the heat death of the Universe, confusingly explained – through a sustainable energy source. The Laws of Physics have made their quest nearly impossible to achieve. Fortunately, they’ve discovered that human emotions avert the Laws of Physics; so the Incubators discovered a way to harvest human energy by converting them into Magical Girls, who release incredible amounts of energy upon turning into Witches.
Why do Incubators target adolescent girls in particular? Why, Kyubey claims, because they generate the most emotional energy of all humans when converted into witches, which is a Magical Girl’s inevitable fate. It certainly sounds misogynist, when taken at face value: women who express emotion or allow them to overtake their personality wind up destroying themselves, and others. There’s also a troubling subtext identified by Kumiko Saito, that since Magical Girls inevitably become Witches, “the magical girl’s true task is to fight against her own adult form.” Of course, it would be more troubling if that were framed as a good thing.
Because there’s one key point: we only have Kyubey’s word for all of this. We know he’s fully capable of deceit, by omission if not commission, and he makes clear that he neither understands nor cares about humans of either gender.1 Even if we take his comments about entropy at face value, the other material is harder to swallow. Surely, teenage boys are no less emotionally fraught than girls of the same age, but they’re also less encouraged by society to bottle up emotion and avoid displaying it. An alien who admits that he literally doesn’t understand human emotion is more likely to accept things at face value than to rationally assess them.
Further: if the women in this story are destroyed by emotions, it’s only because the Magical Girl system (eg. Kyubey) places them in that position, rendering their commonplace feelings destructive. The series makes this point explicit in a later episode, where Sayaka’s romantic drama is dubbed “the stuff of heartbreak” that normally fades over time. Most teenagers don’t become Magical Girls, of course… but all are part of a patriarchal society that punishes and otherizes femininity, or claims women are “too emotional” to hold positions of power and influence.
Frankly, Kyubey’s explanation reminds me too much of MRA incel rants about how women are “logically” inferior to men to take seriously. Or his rants that humans are dependent on Incubators for advancement, much as a certain type of angry, unaccomplished white man will insist civilization is all their doing. It’s too tied in with his exploitation (and trickery) of girls specifically, his victim-blaming insistence on their responsibility for what he does to them, and especially other scenes like Junko’s career block and Sayaka’s breakdown before the creeps on the train.2 I suspect that if “Witches Be Crazy” were Madoka‘s thesis statement, Urobuchi wouldn’t have placed these words in his villain’s mouth.
Certainly, Kyubey’s actions afterwards remove any benefit of the doubt. When Kyoko asks him if there’s a chance to bring Sayaka back from witchdom, he gives a noncommittal lawyer’s response that “there’s no precedent for it” and adds that a Magical Girl can do things even he’s not aware of.3 Afterwards, when Homura confronts him, he admits that Kyoko’s cause was hopeless, adding cruelly that “she should have known that.” He baits Kyoko into an ill-advised sacrifice, because her fate matters less to him than finding another way to advance his endgame.
Kyubey no longer has use for Sayaka, or as she’s now known, the monstrous Oktavia von Seckendorff.4 Her apotheosis is a giant mermaid-knight using her sword to conduct an orchestra blaring Kyosuke’s music, as familiars resembling Hitomi dance in the background. This frightful mindscape demonstrates her resentment over her pointless sacrifice mixed with angst and self-hatred.5 If Madoka seemed like an allegory for mental illness before, this episode makes it explicit, granted an added edge by Kyubey’s misogynist utilitarianism.
In the Incubator’s world, the mentally ill aren’t to be understood or comforted, but isolated and destroyed. Homura, still cynical as ever, initially seems to echo this sentiment. When Kyoko rescues Sayaka’s body from the labyrinth, Homura chides her for risking her life for “baggage.” Echoing Sayaka’s words, Homura admits that she no longer feels human, and tells Kyoko “neither should you.” She surrenders to Kyubey’s reasoning; if all Magical Girls eventually become witches, then why bother fighting it?
Kyoko is having none of it. She formed a connection with Sayaka, however fraught and short-lived, that she’s come to cherish; the kind of connection Magical Girls rarely achieve.6 Sayaka rekindled her idealism and wish to fight for others, even if the odds are impossible; she saw her as a kindred spirit, and perhaps something more. After Kyubey’s misleading answer (oh, let’s say lie), Kyoko conspires with Madoka to infiltrate Sayaka’s labyrinth and rescue her humanity. It’s a scenario that works in movies and fairy tales, not so much in real life.
Its failure marks a cruel subversion of genre tropes, like much else in the series. But Kyoko’s realization of this comes tinged with bliss. First, she has a heartfelt conversation with Madoka, reflecting the latter’s indecision and self-loathing back at her. Madoka still wonders if she’s a coward, if she’s worth anything; Kyoko assures her that, even if she’s a “weird girl,” Madoka sure isn’t a coward, and that there’s nothing wrong with avoiding a fight until or unless you have a reason. Where Kyoko has seemed toxic or misguided before, her cynical view of Magic serves to bolster Madoka’s self-esteem at its lowest point. If she can’t save Sayaka, Kyoko does help save Madoka.
So Kyoko and Madoka try, and fail, to rescue Sayaka. Gruesomely wounded by Oktavia, Kyoko wishes for a “happy dream” and decides that, if she can’t save Sayaka, she’ll end her suffering in a way that ensures that she’s finally with someone who truly understands her. That pain, she can relate to. In a beautiful gesture, Kyoko even kisses her Soul Gem like a rosary, reconnecting to her long-dormant faith (or at least the hope it once inspired) moments before death. Madoka is devastated, while even Homura is visibly moved as Kyoko stirs memories of her own motivations. It’s an act of liberation as much as loss.
When released on Blu-Ray, the episode concluded with a title card by Ume Aoki (header) showing Kyoko reaching for Sayaka as she drowns, a benign smile on her face.7 This heartbreaking art is accompanied by a romantic duet sung by Kyoko and Sayaka’s seiyuu, Ai Nonaka and Eri Kitamura, expressing their gratitude at finding each other and wish for a better life. Hanokage’s manga version reimagines this scene as the two meeting in the Afterlife, with Kyoko offering Sayaka candy and Sayaka instead clasping her hand. Together, they’ve forged something that matters, even in death.8
So many Magical Girl shows take their friendships for granted that Madoka‘s denying them can seem excessively cruel. But this episode emphasizes the series’ tendency to temper its cynicism with messages of hope, showing how (per Kevin Cooley) “love between magical girls… disarms the powers subjugating the magical girl.” Even in Kyubey World, women can still find each other. They still form bonds that transcend exploitation and misery, and even lead to true understanding. And sometimes, however fleetingly, they can find happiness.