After a handy, abridged flashback to the fight scene at the end of the previous episode, Madoka wakes up wondering once again if it was all a dream… until she glances over and sees a pink-eyed Devil Kitty sitting on the shelf with her toys. To her credit, her immediate instinct isn’t to scream and fling the creature across the room, which means she has more resolve than me.
Given that these are spoileriffic analyses, I want to take a moment to talk about Kyuubey. They (er… it? Homura says “it”, and Mami says “he”, but let’s go with “they” for now) are pretty cleverly designed in terms of fitting all the technical hallmarks of a cute magical girl companion while also managing to use those same elements to be unnerving. Kyuubey has big eyes and a cat mouth, which should by all technicalities be adorable… but the unblinking, ever-staring red eyes and the fact that the mouth doesn’t move when they talk is uncanny and creepy. Kyuubey is small and fluffy and has those Neopets-esque ear extensions, which should be cuddly and cartoonish… but instead they just seem alien. Kyuubey speaks in a high-pitched cute voice, but the existential words they actually say create an unsettling dissonance. Even before we know Kyuubey is essentially the villain of the piece, everything about them is engineered to set the audience just a little bit on edge.
Kyuubey, with some help from the much more human and approachable Mami, takes the time to explain what exactly Madoka and Sayaka have wandered into. This is The Exposition Episode, but the info-filled dialogue is neatly broken up into pocket-sized flashbacks interspersed over Madoka’s morning so it doesn’t get tedious. The audience learns that after chasing off the Witch (and Homura) in the mall, Mami treated her new pals to tea and cake (in the apartment she lives in… alone) and a rundown of the magical girl business. Here we learn about the shiny Faberge Egg full of magic, called a Soul Gem, that lends Mami the magic powers that she uses to fight Witches—the sacred duty of the magical girl. The Soul Gem was created when she made a “contract” with Kyuubey and took on the role of Magical Neighbourhood Watch in exchange for the granting of a wish.
This gets Sayaka’s attention—it seems the girl has a special awe-filled place in her heart for justice-dispensing heroes (oh boy, is that going to come back to break my heart later), and a lot of respect and admiration for Mami and the work she does to keep the city safe. Mami waves her enthusiasm down by asserting, quite seriously, that Witch-fighting is not anything to be taken lightly—it’s dangerous, life-threatening even, and even though Madoka and Sayaka have been chosen by Kyuubey they should think long and hard before accepting the offer. She invites them to come with her on her next Witch hunt, something that Sayaka is… excited enough about to make me wonder if she’s really taken the whole “life on the line” thing to heart.
Sayaka has her head full of altruism: she’s jazzed by the prospect of protecting people, superhero-style, but she’s also tied up in knots about the wish-granting opportunity. Neither she nor Madoka can immediately think of a wish they’d want granted, nothing they want so badly they’d consider throwing themselves into a lifetime of dangerous servitude for it. I think this is probably pretty normal, but to Sayaka it seems to be a sign of personal failing—since she can’t think of anything to wish for, when so many other people out there would jump at this chance, she declares she must be spoiled and ignorant.
And hey, it’s important to recognise your own privilege, but it’s also incredibly painful to see this “what are you complaining about, there are children starving in Africa!” guilt trip ploy used as a manipulation tactic on Kyuubey’s part. As we’ll soon learn, Kyuubey has picked up at least one magical girl by offering her help when she had literally no other options, but it’s easy to see that finding girls who are doing pretty okay and guilting them into service to justify their cushy existence is also in their repertoire (I also have to note how quietly nasty it is that Kyuubey’s already granted the girls small tastes of magic power like telepathy… giving gifts before they’ve even said yes, all the better to make them feel bad if they say no). That said, that Sayaka so easily spirals down into this mindset tells us a great deal about her personality—and it gives us the first silhouetted glimpse of Violin Boy, the centre of this “I don’t have any problems, so why was I chosen over someone who does?” crisis.
This leaves Madoka feeling all the sillier that she’s just focussing on designing a potential magical girl costume. Hey, you have to have the aesthetic. (That the design she comes up with is the one she eventually does wear—and of course has worn in past timelines—raises a few questions. Is the magical girl costume chosen by the wearer? Manifested out of her desires and personal standards of beauty? Or are Madoka’s designs instead an outpouring of her memories of other timelines?)
Madoka is also conflicted because something about her still wants to reach out to Homura, even though she’s been pinned as the villain in the eyes of the others. When Homura approaches the girls and asks Madoka to remember their conversation yesterday—about whether changing who she is would be worth losing all she holds dear—Madoka’s first instinct is to try and communicate a little less cryptically. She asks what Homura wished for when she became a magical girl. Homura pauses. Glares at her. Keeps going. And I die inside a tiny bit.
The dialogue-filled first half of the episode gives way to a magic- and tension-filled finale as our Primary Colours Trio head out to hunt Witches. Mami says, frankly, that she usually looks for them in places where accidents and fights occur, or out-of-the-way locations where people are likely to commit suicide, since Witches create despair wherever they go. Indeed, Mami ends up rescuing a Witch-hypnotised woman as she leaps off a rooftop before the episode is out.
I am… in two minds about this. On the one hand, grouping serious mental health issues like depression and suicide ideation under “despair” and attributing them to an unseen magic monster is… grossly simplifying the problem at best, using it for shock value at worst. On the other, if I had the chance to “heal” the depression of my loved ones by shooting the shit out of a magical monster, I probably (definitely) would. So I can see the appeal as a fantasy from that perspective, but I also wrinkle my nose at this definition of mental illness as something frightening and otherworldly that can be fixed with a little magic.
In any case, having saved the suicidal-because-magic businesswoman and resolved to smack the source of the trouble with a baseball bat, Mami and her new squad travel into the Witch maze. The theme of this one is still majorly butterflies, so there’s not too much to add to last week’s discussion of that symbolism, except to admire the “Lovecraftian rose garden” aesthetic of the labyrinth. It remains deeply unsettling and visually fantastic, and Mami’s epic magical gunfight with the beastie is delightful to watch (I see she went to the Gabriel Reyes school of marksmanship, the motto of which is “why reload when you can just conjure another gun out of thin air?”)
For her efforts, Mami receives a Grief Seed, and we receive our final bit of exposition for the episode: a Grief Seed is dropped by a dead Witch, a spiky little vessel full of despair and everything nasty. Magnetised to dark energy as it is, it can “cleanse” a Soul Gem by sucking bad vibes out of it and, if you will, replenishing its magical girl’s heath bar. If not just for duty, this is why magical girls need to fight Witches—they need the Grief Seeds to clean their Soul Gems, carrying the deeper implication (though we’re not yet sure how deep it goes) that their magic just won’t work if they don’t keep up a regular routine of slaying monsters.
Homura appears, continues to be cryptic as hell, then vanishes into the shadows again. Despite that ominous interlude, Madoka returns home gushing internally about how brave and powerful Mami was in her fight—if wee little Madoka could do something like that, she thinks, it would be truly wonderful! Even if she doesn’t have something to wish for yet (she’s in the same camp as Sayaka on that front, though she seems less distraught about it) she has a potential reason to fight. Far from being deterred by seeing Mami at work, both new recruits seem more entranced by the concept of magical girl-ness than before. With the worldbuilding set up and all the cards laid on the table, they’ll be making an informed choice if they sign up with Kyuubey… right?