Madoka Magica slows down in its second episode, as all that exposition stuff the first one avoided gets woven in with our formal introduction to Kyubey and Mami Tomoe. The episode is less overtly thrilling until its (tiro) finale, but that’s partially the point. There are consistent repeated shots and sequences here, from the moment Madoka turns before “waking up” to the various shots and full scenes used to represent her daily life. The show is establishing an initial sense of normalcy, and beyond that, how Madoka feels about her normalcy. This is a safe, pleasant, and relatively empty world – a world that demands little, but doesn’t offer Madoka much of an identity.
Early on, Mami and Kyubey lay out the terms of the magical girl bargain. If you become a magical girl, Kyubey can grant you any one wish – however, in payment for that miracle, you must fight against the witches. “If magical girls are born from wishes, then witches are born from curses. Magical girls spread hope, whereas witches spread despair.” We quickly learn the overt narrative meaning of the “despair” spread by witches, but in order to understand the hope of magical girls, the whole series will have to be unspooled.
Mami tells them to weigh their options carefully, but in truth, this whole situation is dishonest. No one can comprehend the gravity of a choice like this when it’s presented to them, particularly not a young teenager. And when Mami offers to show them the magical girl ropes, that too is an act of deception, albeit an earnestly meant one. Mami has her own goals here, though they, like so much of Madoka Magica’s character work, go almost entirely unspoken. The way she frames the life of the magical girl, as antagonistic but dignified, has meaning. The way she speaks to Sayaka and Madoka implies, if not desperation, at least a certain yearning. And the way her later battles are more performance than fight demonstrate that more than keeping herself safe, making sure her new friends don’t think less of her is the most important thing on her mind.
Mami isn’t the only character who gains texture in this episode. As Sayaka and Madoka wile away time on the roof of their school, Sayaka asks her friend “have you come up with a wish yet” as if it’s a foregone conclusion. While Kyubey’s motives are clear in his happy-go-lucky peer pressure, Sayaka’s take a little more unpacking. “Having a wish you’d trade your life away shouldn’t be all that uncommon,” Sayaka says, and as she refers to herself as sheltered and ignorant, we see a momentary flash to an unknown character. More than caring about a wish, Sayaka mostly seems upset at the thought she doesn’t have a cause to sacrifice herself for. She sees this as the magical opportunity it is, and because she doesn’t necessarily want that gift, she feels guilty for being the one to receive the offer.
Sayaka and Madoka are both too young to really know who they are yet, and even though there should be no shame in that, the fact that they’ve been given an opportunity to accomplish anything makes them feel guilty. Madoka seems to feel this even more acutely than Sayaka; while Sayaka seems mostly frustrated with the fact that she doesn’t have a cause to die for, Madoka seems unsure of her own value altogether. Her friends laugh gently at her apparently silly priorities, and when she learns Mami could have stopped the witch if not for her, she sees it as her own failing. Mami’s ostentatious battle performance works perfectly on Madoka; unlike herself, she sees Mami as a being of infinite grace and beauty, someone like the strong woman her mother wants her to be. “The sight of Mami pouring her heart into saving others was really amazing,” she confides to herself. “If someone like me could really help other people, I think that’d be nice.”
While this episode’s early scenes are largely confined to the visual vocabulary of the first episode, the pursuit of the witch allows things to stretch in all manner of beautiful directions. The suicide of the witch’s target is framed in oblique, reflected shots, as the woman is imprisoned by stairs or captured in shattering glass. The stage of the witch’s battle is a forbidding and claustrophobic space, and when the butterfly-themed monster is finally slain, we next see the girls framed with what looks like a butterfly in a web in the foreground. This episode is lifted more by individually beautiful shots and a strong fight sequence than uniformly stellar direction, but it’s still got plenty to offer. And now, with the initial motives and everyday life of three of the show’s protagonists established, things can begin their sad march forward.
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