After the last three episodes’ bombshells, Madoka Magica no longer has many secrets. As the endgame with Walpurgisnacht approaches, characters become unusually direct and honest in explaining their motivations and questioning the Magical Girl system. All that’s left is to play out the last moves before the grim climax, a battle royale with the “wickedest witch of them all” that will leave Mitakihara City in ruins, and our heroes more than likely dead. That is, unless Madoka and Homura can find a way to change fate.
As Kyubey helpfully explains, what we learned in the last episode has a bigger impact than altering specific timelines. Due to a quirk of karma, Homura’s efforts to rescue Madoka have given the latter a “greater potential” as a Magical Girl (and hence as a Witch) than anyone other human in history. It’s an odd twist on the Chosen One narrative, because it’s specifically the doing of a character in the narrative. And also because it wasn’t anything like Homura’s intent; she merely wanted to save her friend, not to make her even more powerful (and dangerous) than she ever would have been.
Not that Kyubey seems to mind. In fact, he welcomes the great expenditure of energy that Madoka’s transformation into Kriemhield Gretchen would unleash, as it makes his job of averting entropy much easier. Whereas in previous episodes it’s possible to read his motivations as merely amoral alien logic, he seems to gloat over his good fortune in this episode. He tells Madoka that to Incubators, humans are no different from livestock, although they nominally have the power of “consent” (though certainly not informed consent, a concept Kyubey doesn’t understand) and thus share the blame for their exploitation. He also asserts that if it weren’t for Incubators, humanity would never have evolved, with assertions that historical figures like Cleopatra and Joan of Arc1 were Magical Girls.
At this point, Kyubey’s claims to detachment seem positively perverse. For all his victim-blaming and appeals to Logic, it’s abundantly clear that he has no qualms about deceit or finding easier ways to achieve his goals. And yet, it’s still possible (in the series proper, at least) to view him as acting in a greater good.2 Saving the Universe, after all, is a much greater end goal that the emotions and feelings of a few humans. From a utilitarian perspective, Kyubey has a point: who wouldn’t tell a few lies if it literally meant the difference between apocalypse and a sustainable universe?
The problem is, those stakes are so abstract that it’s impossible to make them register for his victims (or, for that matter, impossible to fact check). Altering Kyubey’s analogy, a wolf can’t convince a deer not to run from it because its death will feed the wolf’s cubs or sustain the ecosystem. If Kyubey’s actions help sustain the Universe for a few thousand more years, what does that matter to Madoka, who even in the best timelines won’t live to see it? Even if we’re meant to see Kyubey’s side of things as valid, it doesn’t make the suffering of our protagonists any easier to bear.
Certainly, this episode makes clear that there are real stakes to Kyubey’s game; that human lives aren’t merely abstract. Sayaka’s body is found, followed by a tearful funeral (Kyousuke and Hitomi, who sense that they’ve contributed to her death, are shown in silhouette weeping by her side) that ripples through Mitakihara. There’s a beautiful scene of Junko and Madoka’s teacher, heretofore comic relief who complained about her boyfriends, commiserating over drinks. They ponder what could have driven Sayaka to such extremes, and whether they could have done anything to save her.3 Perhaps Mami and Kyoko, without living family or friends, will be forgotten; Sayaka clearly will not.
And Homura has reached a point, finally, where there’s no purpose in pretending it doesn’t matter. She completely loses her facade, arguing with Kyubey and completely breaking down before Madoka, explaining her motives and backstory in a way that’s both bewildering and heartbreaking. She is endlessly frustrated by her predicament, to the point of insanity: she sees no way forward that won’t result in despair, and hence her becoming a Witch. More so because Madoka herself, oblivious at best to Homura’s efforts, is often her biggest obstacle.
And yet, she refuses to admit her efforts have been in vain. That her promise to Madoka in a past timeline overrides any considerations in the present. It’s heartbreakingly tragic, because Homura’s actions trap her in the cycle that she’s been trying so hard to break. Even if she somehow succeeds, the Madoka she’s saving won’t be the Madoka she knew a million traumas ago. All she can hope is that this time, things will be different. This time, she pleads to Madoka, she will listen and allow Homura to protect her.
Instead, Homura’s confession provides a catalyst for Madoka’s decision. For one, because she’s finally privy to information that’s been hidden from her; she can, at last, make a informed decision about contracting denied to most Magical Girls. For another, because she can’t stand to see Homura suffer any more. Sayaka’s death brought home, if there was any doubt, the inherent unfairness of the Magical Girl system. She can’t bear to lose another friend to it.
But largely, I think Madoka acts because Homura’s emotional nakedness finally destroys her own mental block. Throughout the series she’s insisted that she’s ordinary, dull, not worthy of attention or consideration; her self-loathing has prevented her from acting decisively. But when she meets someone who loves her unconditionally, for all her faults, it’s enough to shatter her defenses.
Because ultimately, Homura doesn’t care. Part of her knows that the Madoka she confesses to isn’t the one who inspired her to contract in the first place; part of her now accepts that it’s her fault that main timeline Madoka is so indecisive and frustrating. The girl she hugs and bears her soul to is still Madoka. She is still a person worthy of love and friendship, still a person with an important place in the world, even if she is a confused adolescent rather than a confident Puella Magi. And finally, finally, Homura’s able to make Madoka see that.
And as Homura lays her trap for Walpurgisnacht, using enough explosives and heavy weapons to arm a tank division, Madoka finally comes into her own. Sent to shelter with her family as the Witch approaches Mitakihara (disguised as a colossal storm cell),4 she’s told by Kyubey that Homura stands no chance against the Witch. Madoka won’t accept this as an answer, and determines to rescue her friend. After all of Homura’s suffering, it’s the least she can do.
She’s momentarily stopped by Junko, who wonders aloud whether Madoka is being rash, stupid or tricked. But Madoka reminds Junko of her earlier words about her maturity, words which seemed rote reassurance at the time but now affirms Madoka’s self-actualization. Junko, who earlier regretted that Madoka couldn’t share what she knew about Sayaka with her, realizes that her daughter has matured a great deal, even if she doesn’t fully understand why. All she can do is trust her daughter to do the right thing.
Meanwhile, Homura marches to her fate. Shinbou and Curry unleash their apocalypse in a flurry of furious imagery, at once bracing and bizarre, from a cavalcade of circus animals heralding Walpurgisnacht’s arrival to Homura unleashing a stadium filled with missiles, rockets and bombs on the Witch. All to no effect: Walpurgisnacht emerges without a scratch, cackling insanely as she deals Homura a near-fatal blow. Homura, yet again, is forced to end her mission in vain; worse, she seems on the verge of surrender, her Soul Gem glowing ominously black…
Then Madoka arrives. She comforts Homura, then announces that she’s finally ready to make her contract over Homura’s protests. But this contract will be different. This contract, she can control. As the episode concludes, having learned all she possibly can about the Incubator system, her friend’s motivation and all of the possible consequences, Madoka finally becomes the hero of her own story.