Madoka Magica’s ninth episode opens with a terrible transformation, as the witch that was Sayaka Miki takes form. Not yet aware of the true nature of witches, Kyouko fights back against this new creature, asking what it did with her friend. But even if the audience hadn’t figured out the truth by now, Kyubey has finally spilled the beans.
Incidentally, this witch “twist” is one more of the points where Madoka Magica demonstrates the solidity of its narrative construction. As I’ve discussed before, in good fiction, the term “plot twist” is itself a bit of a misnomer. The truth about witches doesn’t come out of nowhere – it’s a natural extension of the ideas the show has raised thus far, and in retrospect, essentially the only way the existence of witches could resolve given everything else we know. It may be surprising if you weren’t expecting it, but its role isn’t just to surprise – it’s to slot another piece of a fully realized whole into place. The key to a good plot twist isn’t that the audience doesn’t see it coming – the key is that it makes everything else make more sense in retrospect, leaving the audience with a sense of “ah, of course that’s how this story works.”
In this case, the truth about witches is a natural extension of the way Kyubey treats all humans as resources, our existing knowledge regarding soul gems, and the way emotional strength seems to be tied to power in battle. Instead of being two disparate forces contrasted against each other, we now see that magical girls and witches form a cycle, one more in a series obsessed with such cycles. The tragedies we’ve already witnessed now feel even more inevitable, because they were born of the hopes that stood against them.
Sayaka’s witch form is itself a form of revelation, since now we see for the first time that the nature of a witch and their labyrinth reflects the magical girl who created it. Sayaka’s witch is a mermaid knight, a creature that emphasizes her Little Mermaid plot arc (the girl who sacrificed her identity to be with the man she loved), as well as her belief in stable, chivalrous justice. Winding train tracks evoke the moment that made her lose faith in the world, while musical notes form a chain that echoes her original wish. Sayaka’s witch lays her identity bare, and clues us in to the sad fact that all the witches we’ve seen have likely been designed this way, their deadly playgrounds a final reflection of the humanity they’ve lost.
All Kyouko can recover from that place is Sayaka’s body. Aided by Homura, the two of them run into Madoka, surrounded by barbed wire that echoes the reoccuring chains and train tracks emphasizing their fixed trajectories. “That is the inescapable fate of all who become magical girls,” says Homura. “She ended up bearing a curse of equal magnitude to her wish.” Her words again emphasize the cyclical nature of this story. Sayaka wanted to sacrifice of herself to save others – but in this world, everything evens out in the end. Attempting to break the cycles we live in is the constant, thankless work of humanity.
Kyouko gets understandably angry at Homura’s words, a contrast that once again points to Madoka Magica’s mastery of “twists.” Homura seems inhuman here, but that’s due to our incomplete information – when the truth comes, it will not only be shocking in its own right, it will make total sense of all the information we’ve received thus far. But taken on their own, Homura’s choice to use Sayaka’s death to scare Madoka, and her frank discussion of disposing of the body, seem like the words of someone who doesn’t care about anyone at all.
That leads into one more of Madoka Magica’s iconic scenes, as Kyubey pays a visit to the despondent Madoka. Madoka’s framing here mirrors Sayaka’s from earlier – not only does the show create a strong contrast between the light outside and the black chasm of her room, but even the chairs that defined Sayaka and Kyousuke’s bedside have appeared, emphasizing her loneliness and the people who have left her behind. It’s a touch that seems directly evocative of Bokurano’s chairs – symbols of those who’ve passed, small touches of individuality now all that is left.
Kyubey tells something close to the whole truth this time, discussing how magical girls are actually created in order to stave off the heat death of the universe. A sharp contrast is drawn between the philosophies of the two characters – Kyubey’s words make sense according to his goals, but they can’t even parse Madoka’s objections to his actions. On the other side, Madoka can’t even really think of things on the scale Kyubey is describing them, making even his theoretically noble (though likely just self-preservation oriented) mission feel like one more expression of his awful, impersonal identity.
The actual fantasy worldbuilding here serves as a fitting explanation for magical girls – what Kyubey is really after is emotional energy, and adolescent girls apparently expend the most emotional energy of anyone. They care about things more deeply, experience higher highs and lower lows. It’s a truism that anyone who’s been a teenager can likely relate to, but it also plays directly into Madoka’s characterization. Not only is Madoka insecure because she can’t appreciate her own emotional strength, but now we learn that it’s her very ability to care deeply for others that is being harnessed by an uncaring universe. But for all that, this explanation also points to the ultimate escape from this system. Kyubey’s race values humanity precisely because their emotional strengths defy the laws of the universe – powerful, intimate emotions like love or courage can actually break free of the cycle.
But for now, Madoka is only further isolated by Kyubey’s inhuman explanation. “In the long run, this arrangement benefits humanity as well” he says, but she can only think of the painful struggles of Mami and Sayaka. It’s the conflict that lies at the heart of almost all of Urobuchi’s stories; the contrast between the inhuman, goal-oriented values of a utilitarian system, and the dignity and value of the individuals who rally against it. The gilded palace and the ones who walk away. And he leaves with that final, classic utilitarian sales pitch: “if you ever feel like dying for the sake of the universe, just let me know.”
Kyouko takes the situation differently – in fact, her reaction seems like it might well echo how the old Sayaka would handle things. Having admitted to herself how much she and Sayaka have in common, she can’t let things end this way. She refuses to give up on Sayaka, darkening her own soul gem to preserve her body and grilling Kyubey on potential ways to save her. The scene ends with a line that directly echoes the pride of Sayaka, as Kyouko denies Kyubey’s help, finally turning her scorn on their true enemy.
Kyouko’s mirroring of Sayaka doesn’t end there. Her plan to save Sayaka requires Madoka’s help, and so the two meet once again, framed against the fairy tale characters of the unicorn and mermaid. We see a gentler Kyouko here, apologizing for her bluntness, clearly embarrassed about being this emotionally honest. Her plan involves depending on something the show has never valued up until now – Madoka’s true strength, the way she always works to connect with others. For the first time in the series, someone truly acknowledges Madoka’s value, saying “if anyone could do it, it’d be you.”
The Kyouko at the beginning of the series would not be saying these words to Madoka. The Kyouko from the start wouldn’t be proposing a wildly optimistic plan, and wouldn’t be offering to put herself in danger to save a near-stranger. That Kyouko would not – but Sayaka would.
While Kyouko was unable to reach Sayaka up until now, Sayaka’s words certainly reached Kyouko. Kyouko’s response to learning the truth about magical girls was to embrace something like Kyubey’s values, working only for herself, valuing others only insofar as they were useful to her. But watching Sayaka struggle against the nature of her contract didn’t just make Kyouko want to save her – it reignited her own belief in a higher justice, and in giving of yourself to help others. “I probably became a magical girl in the first place because I loved stories like that,” she says, speaking fondly on the fairy tales she’d been forced to abandon. Sayaka’s dedication to her ideals may have doomed her, but it also inspired Kyouko, returning her to the human compassion she had lost. And so, united by their communal love of an absent friend, two of Madoka Magica’s heroes connect for the very first time.
And so the two head off together, on the hunt for Sayaka’s witch. The chains that consistently mark their powerlessness are broken as the two approach, the camera emphasizing Kyouko’s fond feelings for her new friend. Madoka consistently laments her weakness and powerlessness, but if there’s anything that can save these girls, it’s exactly what she offers – friendship, understanding, empathy. When Madoka wonders once more if she’s a coward for not becoming a magical girl, Kyouko tells her off in her own blunt way. There’s nothing noble about fighting just because you can – in fact, she’d kick Madoka’s ass herself before letting Madoka become a magical girl. That’s what friends do.
At last, the two arrive at Sayaka’s final concerto. The mermaid witch wields a saber like a conductor’s baton, a sad parody of her former dreams. Madoka attempts to reach her friend using the only weapon she has, while Kyouko dances in the foreground, driving back ornate wheels that fall like reminders of the world they’re rallying against. There’s no pragmatism in Kyouko’s strikes now – all she has is her bond and her faith, a belief that she can reach Sayaka if only she doesn’t give up hope. Brought to their most fundamental point, the frame embraces the bond these two share, the way they mirror and complete each other. Kyouko accepts all of her friend; her pride and conviction, but her anger as well. And as they fall, Kyouko makes a request she thought she’d never make again, beseeching an uncaring universe to grant her one tiny request. The universe does not hear our prayers. But it is the fact that we make them that makes us human.
Kyouko knew this wouldn’t work, in the end. These girls do not truly have the power to change everything, to save everyone, or even to save the one person they care for the most. But the knowledge of success is not why these girls make wishes, and not why they sacrifice of themselves. “Salvation” is not the same thing as a happy ever after. In the end, with her strength fading and Madoka safe in Homura’s arms, Kyouko completes the task she came for. Embodying the strength of Madoka and Sayaka and every great human, she tosses her soul gem into the flame, spearing herself against the shadow of her friend. Sayaka is saved by the beauty of her conviction, a strength of spirit that brought Kyouko back to herself. Lonely in life, the two embrace a final connection at last.
But our human strength can only do so much. As Homura reflects on Kyouko’s sacrifice, Kyubey appears, grinning as ever at this newest turn of fate. Kyouko’s actions were selfless and honest and noble, the essence of what makes humanity great. But even through her victory, Kyubey moves closer to securing his own.
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