“Like a spent gladiator / crawling in the colosseum ducts / he can count on his remaining limbs / all the people he can trust.”
– The Mountain Goats
Sayaka Miki is falling apart. As she strikes again and again down on the fallen witch, we see a girl who’s completely given in to her anger, because she has nothing else to guide her. In the wake of her fight, she doesn’t even use this chance to protect herself – she tosses the Grief Seed to Kyouko, saying she doesn’t want to “owe” Kyouko anything. Sayaka’s need to be a hero has isolated her entirely now, and Kyouko revealing that they have much in common has actually made things worse for her. Sayaka doesn’t want to believe Kyouko is an older, wiser version of herself – she wants to believe she’s an enemy of justice, and thus foists that identity on her. What Sayaka wanted has spiraled beyond her reach, and with the situation no longer in her control, she reverts to her simplistic “I just have to be stronger to make this work.” But none of these characters are strong enough to make it alone.
Sayaka’s self-destruction becomes even more pronounced in the next scene, as she takes out her powerlessness on Madoka. Madoka only wants to help her, and what she says is true, but from Sayaka’s perspective, she doesn’t have any other escape routes. And so she lashes out, her unconsidered words to Madoka echoing both her soul gem and the scene’s background – splashes of darkness across deep blue. She pushes her friend away out of fear, and then immediately regrets it, once again taking the burden upon herself.
And then we’re off to a meeting between the two pro magical girls, where we finally get to see Homura’s very strange apartment. Homura’s home is about as cheery as you’d expect, defined by a wall of strategy-focused images and a giant mechanical pendulum. Kyouko asks where Homura gets her Walpurgisnacht (the traditional holiday that takes place six months from Halloween, incidentally) information, and Homura offers the vague, retroactively tragic “statistics.” Apparently Homura has fought this creature so many times she herself has become a statistically significant number of witnesses. Homura is reluctant to give up information on her power, and we immediately see why – Kyubey is always watching, waiting to emerge from the shadows and offer just enough information to put his charges off-balance (the “faster than I expected” is a nice touch, implying he did expect her to fail). He knows he’s not welcome here, but he doesn’t hold that against his marks.
Meanwhile, Sayaka gets to spend some time in the shadows herself, as she watches her crush be confessed to by one of her best friends. The lighting here makes a clear contrast between the worlds the two of them occupy, and having isolated herself completely, all she can do is throw herself violently into her work. When Homura tries to help her, Sayaka can only see her actions as suspicious, because that’s how she’s decided all other magical girls are. On top of that, she’s perfectly “happy” dying for her job, because with her body dead, she’s decided she has no other value. Sayaka has finally become the embodiment of her ideal, with no human desires left, but it brings her no happiness.
Homura, on the other hand, is thoroughly tired of Sayaka’s bullshit. She doesn’t care at all about Sayaka, but she’s still trying to save her for Madoka’s sake. The show sets up a somewhat bitter frame for this attempted rescue, with Homura framed as potentially drawing Sayaka back into the light, but both of them are too bound by their other goals to actually, honestly connect. In frustration, Homura almost kills Sayaka herself to save Madoka any more pain, only to be stopped by someone who truly does want to help Sayaka. And then we finally start getting details of Homura’s power, as what was previously “explosions and teleportation” is now clarified into a strange ticking shield and an actual grenade.
And then we arrive at That Scene. Riding aimlessly on the night train, no direction in mind, Sayaka overhears two young men talking about how they use and abuse the women in their lives. The scene is framed very differently from most of Madoka Magica – not only is it entirely in greyscale, but the shots here are grounded, incidental fragments of the train car that feel more mundane and real than most of the show’s fanciful visuals. In addition, the style of dialogue and even vocal delivery is different – these two men feel like actual real-life scumbags, any pair of everyday misogynists reminiscing on their recent conquests.
You could frankly frame the entirety of Madoka Magica around this one scene. This is the world women have to survive in – a world dominated by men who see women as resources to deplete, objects that eventually lose their value. You don’t need the constant pressure of a soul gem to understand that in today’s world, women have to reckon with a cultural paradigm that makes many people see them as running against time to make use of their value. Hell, in many anime, the jokes Madoka Magica makes about its teacher’s dating life would be garnished with allusions to how she’s “no longer worth much” because she’s too old to get married. The world is full of Kyubeys, and the fate of every woman in a patriarchal world is that they can’t escape riding the night train, and eventually learning the truth of this place.
Running into these assholes is the last straw for Sayaka. Rightly seeing herself in their conversation, she challenges them with the anger she couldn’t turn towards anything else. The world itself is too vast and impersonal for her to attack, even if the world is her true enemy. She loses faith in what she’s been fighting for, and the scene changes. The blue ripples that dominated her scene with Madoka now fill her body, followed by the musical notes that ended her earlier witch fight. Having been reduced to a dream and an ideal, Sayaka is consumed by all that is left.
And where there’s suffering, Kyubey always sees opportunity. Sayaka’s fall is a great chance for him, as it lets him pressure Madoka even more insistently. Kyubey’s talk of how Madoka would be a truly incredible magical girl feels like a grim parody, like he’s intentionally twisting that classic “everyone can be special” message to suit his own goals. But Madoka doesn’t feel special – she feels powerless, because what she wants isn’t to be a strong fighter, it’s to help the people she cares about. This scene makes for a strong contrast with the previous one – while Sayaka’s confrontation reflects the inherent injustices of the modern world in an antagonistic way, this scene emphasizes the way emotional strength and emotional labor is almost never valued at the same rate as physical strength. Madoka is indeed very strong and valuable, but her strength and value are weighed in terms that the world tends to disregard.
But even if Madoka can’t see her own value, Homura clearly can. In a sequence of shocking quick cuts, Homura destroys Kyubey and then breaks down herself, finally letting her repressed emotions take over. All of these girls are near the breaking point, but once again, legitimate connection is denied to them. Homura and Madoka no longer have the time to truly reach each other, even if Homura has finally arrived at a point where she’s ready to try.
And then we cut to the other pair who really should connect, who should be able to care for and carry each other. Kyouko reaches Sayaka at last, but she’s too late – having internalized all of her own “sins,” Sayaka can no longer be reached. She finally sees some truth in Kyouko’s words, but as she admits weakness to the girl who should have been her friend, tears fall and her gem breaks. Shattered by a hope betrayed, Sayaka’s dreams and memories flash before her eyes, the gem shifting and something dark and blue bubbling up from beneath. In a world like this, girls are not allowed to age gracefully into adulthood, surrounded by friends who love them in a world that respects their fundamental humanity. You are a magical girl, or you are a witch.
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