“I / I am a time bomb, and I / I only live in that one moment in which you die.”
– The Dismemberment Plan
Episode ten opens with the arrival of a new student – Homura Akemi, a shy girl with braided hair who’s been isolated in the hospital due to a heart condition. She doesn’t say much, but it’s clear through her defensive body language that she’s uncomfortable, and not used to interacting with lots of people. Fortunately, she’s saved from the questions of her curious classmates by Madoka, a smiling girl who leads her to the nurse’s office. Though Homura is so insecure she turns everything into an insult towards herself, Madoka is kind to her, and attempts to draw her out of her shell. The contrast between the confident and outgoing Madoka and the nervous, lonely Homura is striking.
Of course, we’ve seen this scene before, or at least a different interpretation of it. Back when Homura “first” arrived at school, this exact scene played out in reverse. Homura strode in in full, icy confidence, taking her seat with barely a word. Her conversation with the rest of the class was just as one-sided, but this time, her near-silence was on her own terms. When she went to the nurse’s office, she declared that intent herself, and dragged the nervous Madoka along with her. Every beat of this scene had its inverse in that early scene, each emotional choice reflecting the different people each of these characters had become.
In the next scene, the parallels between these characters are made even more clear. Insecure about her physical frailty and shyness, Homura feels like there’s nothing good about herself. Just considering herself a burden on others, she wonders if she’ll always be this way, and then if she should just end it altogether. We’ve seen these feelings before, albeit in a less extreme form – this is exactly the way Madoka looks at herself. Made to feel tiny by a world that judges power and worth in very specific, outward-facing ways, both of these girls are unable to value themselves.
And those that harbor such insecurities are easy prey for witches. Walking home from school, Homura finds herself in a bizarre wasteland, the mental maze of a girl who clearly had some affinity or resentment for sculpture and painting. But Homura is saved by a pair of girls who have clear reasons for their confidence – Madoka and Mami Tomoe, magical girls imbued with great powers. Now it makes sense why Madoka is so proud and strong; she actually has strength, a clearly articulated strength that proves she is valued by this world. She smiles as she says “don’t tell anyone else in class,” her happiness betraying how wonderful it is to demonstrate this strength and save another.
But that strength and happiness disappears in moments. As the show cuts ahead to the encounter with Walpurgisnacht, we see Mami has already fallen, with Madoka soon to follow. Homura urges her to run, saying that “nobody can fight that thing alone” – and she is right. But just like when she chased after Sayaka, Madoka is a person who has to fight. We see here that Madoka’s strength isn’t truly dependent on her magical powers – though they were what brought her to confidence in herself, that confidence is not her strength. Even when she knows she will lose, she still chooses to fight. Her pride is not in her physical strength, but in her will to save others, and give of herself.
And then Homura is left alone, crying over her friend’s body in the ruined landscape of the Walpurgisnacht. Madoka did what she hoped to, but Homura cannot accept this. With Kyubey leaning overhead, she screams of how she wished she’d never been saved – and then Kyubey gives her that chance. We finally learn the key to Homura’s power; tethered directly to Madoka, it gives her the chance to revise that first meeting, to try again in the hopes of a better outcome. And so Homura’s journey truly begins.
The next sequence of this episode is, well, awful. Hard to watch. We see as Homura moves from excited to share her powers and happy to be closer to her friends, to desperate but still hopeful, to completely numb. Because we’ve seen these stages of the journey across the show’s first nine episodes, we’re right there with her as things slip out of her hands. We see as she learns what witches truly are, when her best friend and source of strength loses all hope. We see the proud Sayaka turn her suspicious eye on the one girl trying to save them, and we see that scene that felt so climactic last episode replayed in parody, just one more in a sequence of tragedies.
That sequence is the end of it, or at least as much as we can watch. Learning the truth is too much for Mami, who’s always been the most fragile of them – she kills Kyouko and aims for Homura, before Madoka stops her. The girls collapse in that awful train station, half gone and half miserable, with only Homura left holding any strength. She’s only strong since she’s been here before, but she can’t carry Madoka alone. And things end as they always do.
It’s been established again and again throughout Madoka Magica that breaking the cycles of the universe is difficult, if not impossible. We’ve known that in an intellectual sense all along, and have had it illustrated through both the mechanics of magical girls and the story of Sayaka and Kyouko. But in this episode, the fundamental conflict of Madoka Magica becomes a visceral, lived experience. Homura’s life is one awful circle, and the only salvation she can seek is the connection of Madoka. She wants to be loved and not have that love stolen, but that lasting connection lies outside of her circle. And so she dies and seeks it and dies and seeks it and dies again.
Villains often say “I want to destroy everything,” and we as audience members think “okay, they’re a ridiculous character.” But as Homura talks of becoming a monster with her friend and destroying all the unhappiness of this world, it seems like the only possible response to a world that has given her far too much sadness for one person to bear.
And Madoka gives her her hopeful, impossible mission. Save Madoka from herself – save the girl whose strength is in giving of herself from the allure of Kyubey. Madoka refuses to give up on this world, and to that end, she asks Homura for one more impossible thing. It’s the final straw, crystallizing the person Homura must become in order to be strong enough to protect the person she wants to save.
Finally, having gained all the context that explains Homura’s current character, the final reveal of the cycle slots into place. That opening scene from the very first episode wasn’t a dramatic flash-forward at all – it was just the end of a prior timeline, actually preceding the start of the show. It was one more interpretation of Homura’s vow, as she continues her endless cycle of tragedies. And then, as that chain falls once again, she renews that vow, accepting that however many uncaring cycles may come, her own belief in her friend will stay strong.
Episode ten is an exhausting trial, a slowly tumbling reveal that makes sense of everything we’ve seen before while also perfectly capturing Homura’s fatigued spirit. Our nine episode journey through what was likely just one more “average cycle” for Homura has given us the context to see inevitability in all of the actions the characters take here – they fail, but they fail in ways perfectly representative of the proud, insecure, emotionally generous people that they are. This episode demonstrates once again how “plot twists” aren’t really part of Madoka Magica’s vocabulary, unless turning a jewel and seeing the opposite side mirrors it counts as a “plot twist.”
But even more than the marvel of its construction or the sadness of its repetition, this episode is a testament to the strength and dignity of Homura. Like Sayaka, she has given up everything for an ideal, an ideal that embodies the flame of humanity burning against the cold rain of the universe. She may not believe Madoka when she says that the world is worth protecting, but she will never give up on Madoka herself. In the face of a world that gives her no reason to hope, she fights on, weathering the slings and arrows of a thousand fortunes to bring her friend safely home.
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