Madoka Magica’s third episode opens with the reveal of Sayaka’s secret treasure, the one thing she might be willing to die for. Sayaka is a strong-willed and driven person, but Sayaka is also a teenager, and her secret reflects that; it’s a boy she happens to like. The late afternoon light sets a melancholy tone as we’re introduced to Sayaka’s crush, a boy who keeps smiling even though he’s bedridden, who turns away when he has to cry. It’s a very efficient bit of storytelling, and one more example of how Madoka embraces narrative minimalism and inference to make the most of its running time. We just get a brief conversation detailing the tone of their relationship, and then Sayaka’s “gift” sends her back into a memory, where she sees the passionate boy who inspired her love. Her gift is as cruel as Kyubey’s, and her revery seems like Madoka’s simplistic idealization of Mami; with a cut to her crush’s tears and then his crippled arm, we see that his smile is a mask. A destructive little tragedy in a minute and a half.
We then jump back to Mami showing off once again, dispatching a witch’s familiar with a called shot and a wink for the camera. In light of her theatrical performance, her following “this isn’t a magic show, you know” falls a little flat – it’s consistently clear that Mami really is performing, and that she really does want her friends to see something special in what she does.
Mami’s actions here work in both a dramatic sense and a character one. On the individual level, Mami playing up the theatricality of her job makes sense for what she wants – she clearly wants Madoka and Sayaka to join her, and so even though she’s still considerate enough to warn them about the danger, her overt actions make being a magical girl seem like a wonderful adventure. And beyond her actions working as character truth, they also serve an important dramatic purpose; the entire show is setting up an expectation of safety and normalcy here, so the coming fall can land that much harder.
Madoka Magica is almost entirely composed of multi-level storytelling of this sort; nearly all of its dramatic choices work as both tonal dramatic fuel and also underlying narrative bedrock. From the first scenes with Homura that either reflected the show’s cyclical nature or offered invisible context on Homura’s character, to the ways the actions of almost all the other characters frame them as both coherent individual actors and thematic pillars, Madoka Magica is always telling a story on several levels at once.
Mami pushes even further in this scene, now actively asking her friends what they might wish for. Mami’s own wish is revealed in characteristic fashion, a brief series of shocking cuts that offer more context for her and more than a hint of suspicion for Kyubey. It’s more clear now why Mami is alone, and why she takes pride in her work; her job is all that she has.
If Mami embraces her “duty” as an escape from loneliness, Sayaka sees it as an opportunity to sacrifice of herself. Continuing her thoughts from the last episode, she wonders if it’s possible to make a wish for someone else. Her feelings are a naive kind of selflessness – they directly reflect the privileged ignorance she diagnosed in herself last episode, while trying to “make amends” for it in the worst way possible. Mami rightfully challenges Sayaka’s thoughts, asking her if she wants to make the wish for him, or if she “wants to be the person who makes his wish come true.” Sayaka has already admitted she doesn’t care about anything strongly enough to give up her life for it, but she wants to be the kind of person who would commit to that kind of heroism. It’s a credit to Mami that she’s willing to challenge Sayaka on this kind of self-focused romanticism, even if, as Homura soon says, she really is leading them towards the chopping block.
Of course, Mami isn’t the only one pushing Madoka and Sayaka towards this exciting new career opportunity. And Madoka doesn’t really need much convincing; staring at the imagined pretty, useful version of herself, she wonders if it’s possible to simply wish to be that person all by itself. Madoka has no confidence in her identity, and as Kyubey alternately stands in shadow or dominates the frame, he plays directly into that. “I’ve never met a girl with such potential before” he says, assuring her that she really is special – but only special in the way he needs her to be.
But Madoka’s situation is different from Mami’s; she has a support structure, loving parents who really want what’s best for her. Madoka’s very present parents make her somewhat unusual among anime protagonists, and the show continues to make great use of them. With Momdoka drunk in bed, it falls to her father to give her some parental advice. He speaks frankly about how her mom’s job wasn’t necessarily her initial dream, but that it became right for her over time. We don’t have to always love what we do, but we can take pride in it all the same.
An aborted visit to Sayaka’s crush lends a sense of urgency to the wish question, as Sayaka’s heroic instincts prompt her to keep watch over the grief seed until Mami can arrive. This witch world is very different from the last; full of scalpels and syringes, it echoes the maze’s hospital setting, telling stories of what was likely a very unhappy life. Images on the walls foretell the shape of the witch to home, and then Homura arrives, saying she’ll take down this witch. It’s a line that once again has no significance on the first watch, but gains great importance on the second; this is likely a series of events that has played out many times, and always ended in one of two consistent ways. But Mami has none of the context necessary to understand the offer Homura is making, and so, in classic tragedy fashion, she chains her potential savior.
Madoka finally opens up as she walks with Mami towards the witch, passing through a pill-chandelier wonderland and into the sweets-themed heart of the witch’s own secret desires. She speaks of her self-doubt, and how she didn’t really feel proud of anything about herself until she met Mami. As she reflects on how great Mami is, we see a brief wince from her hero – but even if Madoka’s self-image is needlessly insecure and her view of Mami idealized, her wish to help others seems utterly sincere.
In response to that honesty, Mami tells the truth for the first time as well. She admits she’s just been acting cool, and reveals the loneliness that inspires her behavior. Being a magical girl is a harsh and thankless task, and the competition between heroes means even in this, isolation is the fundamental nature of her life. As Madoka reassures her, we see Mami become truly vulnerable, haltingly asking Madoka if she’ll really stay with her. It’s a simultaneously sad and heartwarming display of friendship, as two people who couldn’t find strength in themselves individually each give something infinitely precious to the other. Madoka may lack confidence and Mami may feel painfully alone, but they can bring meaning and happiness to each other.
As the battle begins, we see a new Mami appear, a girl brimming with confidence and joy at the thought of a life no longer spent alone. Her theatrical tricks no longer seem like a desperate, deliberately cool affectation – they’re the expression of her happiness, of her love. She fights with style and grace, marveling to herself at this feeling of lightness and resolve. She smiles to her new friends, and resolves to finish this last lonely fight quickly.
It’s perhaps the one moment that’s best defined Madoka Magica in the collective memory – the sharp jolt, the gasp, the fall and brief wondering if this has really happened. Mami’s death presented in a series of images as shocking and evocative as you could imagine, a sharp punch in the gut after three episodes of building Mami as the show’s icon of stability. She was the mentor, and she’s gone. She was lonely, and she’s gone. She had just found happiness, and she’s gone. People speak of morbid twists as if they exist just to shock, but every early moment of Madoka Magica has been building to this. Mami’s arc, her own framing of her trial, and the contrasting words of Homura, all come home here. It’s a horrible, shocking moment, and it never goes away.
The rest is requiem. Kyubey briefly tries to manipulate the girls before Homura arrives, and demonstrates why she should have fought this creature in the first place. Their “battle” is a joke, nothing like Mami’s beautiful performances – the gaudy worm is destroyed by the sullen girl through some trick you can’t even really see, and then the fight is over, Mami’s teacup lying cracked beneath the spoils. It’s a job, and an ugly one. It’s the truth.
Madoka Magica is a story about hope, but it’s not a very happy story. It’s one of those stories that makes things seem as terrible as they could be, because a lot of the time, that’s how things really are. Gen Urobuchi is an optimist, but his characters don’t triumph because they deserve to, because they’re fully sketched people who have earned a sense of peace. They struggle and struggle hard, and not all of them make it through. Hope isn’t something you hold on to because the world constantly rewards it; hope is something you hold because you need to, something you treasure because it’s the one thing they can’t take away. There is brief happiness in this episode of Madoka, and then it is taken away. If there is any hope, it is the hope we bring ourselves.
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