We all handle grief in different ways. For Madoka and Sayaka, Mami’s absence is like a stifling weight in this episode, pushing each of them in their own unhappy direction. They now know the truth about magical girls, and have some idea of the actual bargain they are making. But knowing the danger won’t be enough to save them from themselves.
The episode opens with Sayaka running from her grief, running to the boy who gives her some sense of stability. But he’s not there for her, and so she can’t escape. Shots of the hospital frame Sayaka as trapped within geometrically impossible rooms with nearly vertical vanishing points, emphasizing how unreal and alienating her world now feels. Like with the witch worlds, Shaft’s tendency towards stark, interpretive backgrounds fits here – in the wake of loss like this, you won’t necessarily recognize the world around you as a place you know. Shots on the elevator position Sayaka as trapped, as her melancholy leads her to blame the same old target – herself.
“My fingers work perfectly, but what good are they?” she thinks, wishing that Kyousuke’s meaningless punishment were applied to herself instead. And then she questions even that motive, calling herself a horrible person as she wonders if Kyousuke would reward her for saving him. When pressured, Sayaka retreats into a kind of self-destructive heroic ideal. The idea of becoming a magical girl seems almost too perfectly tailored to her personal issues; not only does she have a wish, but she actually wants to be a hero, and suffer for the sake of others. She sees her life as a resource she’s wasting, and the promise of a wish as an obligation that must be fulfilled.
In contrast to Sayaka’s distorted world, Madoka’s world feels strange precisely because it is so familiar. The shots returning us to Madoka directly mirror those of the first episode, presenting her modern home and happy family as she attempts to put food in her stomach. But how can she just sit there and pretend things are okay when Mami’s gone? Doesn’t she have an obligation to Mami of some kind? Thoughts of her friend, and of her own relative fortune, bring her to tears. As sequences echo her once-happy everyday life, her own isolation from that reality becomes more and more clear.
Madoka and Sayaka admit these feelings to each other after school, on the roof where they once spoke with Mami and Homura. What was once an exciting secret shared between friends is now a burden; in spite of everything else being the same, their knowledge of the witch worlds, and of Mami’s death, prevents them from engaging with their old lives. No one else shares their fear and grief, and so everyone else is a stranger.
Kyubey says nothing here, but his presence is deeply felt. He doesn’t need to say anything – he simply has to sit there and let their own guilt do all the work. Madoka is understandably afraid to become a magical girl now, but with Mami gone, she now feels that not becoming a magical girl is somehow “selfish.” And Sayaka is even worse – trying to comfort her friend, she frames Mami’s death as an intentional sacrifice, as “showing them what it takes to fight.” It’s a very Sayaka line, and also a very wrongheaded one. Sayaka wants to see heroism and heroic sacrifices in everything, but in truth, Mami’s death was senseless. Glamorizing her death may help Sayaka come to terms with it, but seeing meaning in a death like that only plays into Sayaka’s worst instincts.
Sayaka’s destructive personality continues to inform the conversation as she asks Kyubey what will happen to the city now. Hearing that new magical girls will likely arrive, Sayaka bitterly replies that they “would only care about the Grief Seeds.” Like with Mami’s death and her own feelings on making a wish, Sayaka sees someone’s intentions as almost more important than the actual result. She wants actions to be performed with a pure heart, and not, as Kyubey says, in search of a clear reward. Sayaka’s personality actually makes her a natural magical girl, but in a world where simplistic idealism has such heavy consequences, that’s not a good thing. “It’s unfortunate, but I can’t pressure you” says Kyubey, but the caged shot framing implies the lie of his statement. By introducing them to this world, Kyubey has already pressured them as much as he possibly could – they are isolated now, and can’t return to the world they knew.
The episode’s scene-echoing continues as Madoka goes to visit Mami’s house, but this time, the framing is entirely different. What was once established as an intimate space is now vast and empty, a hole no person could fill. As Madoka stares across objects that remind her of her friend, a laughing group passes outside, emphasizing both Madoka’s isolation and the fact that to everyone else, the world is still the exact same place. And sinking once more into her self-image problems, she apologizes again for her own “weakness.”
Apparently summoned by all this overwhelming sadness, Homura does her best to comfort Madoka as well. She tells Madoka what she obviously needs to hear – that this wasn’t her fault, and that her own actions were completely understandable. But Homura is a gloom train all by herself, and so even though she finally reaches Madoka as a friend, her words here end up seeding feelings that will ultimately decide Madoka’s fate. Madoka is sad her friend is gone, but even more than that, she can’t stand the idea that Mami won’t be remembered. That she truly died alone, and that in the end, no one will care about her being gone.
Homura is still trying to scare Madoka here, and so she emphasizes this loneliness – but to Madoka, Homura’s words are a challenge she must live up to. “I’ll remember,” she says, articulating the hope that will eventually be her identity. And crossing a painful line she has no way of recognizing, she adds “I’ll never forget you, either.”
But even Homura is better company than Kyousuke. Sayaka’s eventual meeting with her friend is equally painful and beautiful, as her attempts to build him up leads him to ask if she’s intentionally torturing him. Hope is a painful prospect for Kyousuke – he’s been outright told he has no hope of recovery, and so Sayaka’s upbeat magical girl attitude just hurts him more. “I can’t even feel pain anymore” he says, his words echoing the sad disconnect of Sayaka and Madoka. And then “what use is a hand like this,” calling directly back to Sayaka’s feelings of uselessness at the start. Like with getting over Mami’s death, coming to terms with his body’s frailty isn’t something that can be fixed with an instant, magic solution. But Sayaka does have a magic solution, and the self-sacrificing mentality necessary to use it. As blood fades on the sheets and the bars of her world form a shadowed cross above them, a familiar figure appears in the window.
Sayaka’s battle against her first witch is a riveting visual highlight, but even the leadup to that sequence has some lovely single shots. Madoka Magica doesn’t need to go wildly interpretive to evoke danger and unease – like with the second episode’s confrontation, it can evoke danger through its harsh industrial landscape and individual eerie shots. But there’s no denying that the actual fight is gorgeous.
This witch world is very different from the last one; instead of a skewed wonderland of syringes and cakes, this one is focused on television screens, and the interpretative framing of media. Strange puppets tear apart the solidity of Madoka’s very self, leaving her constructed of flat colors with no outlines. And uncaring television screens replay Madoka’s sequence of regrets, casting her as the useless spectator she feels herself to be. But Madoka is saved by a gallant knight, a magical girl wrapped in the armor of a prince. Sayaka has made her choice, and forsaken the life she knew for the heroism she dreamed of. Sayaka has given up her own “useless hands” for the sake of a miracle, just in time for a new villain to arrive.
This article was made possible by reader support. Thank you all for all that you do.