I wonder if Sayaka, now a musical-themed magical girl, is any good at music herself? Because now might be the time to challenge Kyuubey to a fiddle competition for her soul. Or it would be, if she wasn’t so determined not to regret anything. And if Kyuubey knew what a fiddle was.
All the buildup of Kyuubey’s otherworldly creepiness comes nicely to a head in this episode’s cold open, where they clinically discuss (in that adorable little voice that never changes tone) the benefits of having your soul disconnected from your body. Sayaka’s still not buying it, even with all of Kyuubey’s scientific language, so they instead opt for demonstration: apparently, one big perk of having your self and your physical body detached is a higher pain tolerance, so Kyuubey attempts to sell their practice by showing Sayaka the normal amount of pain she’d feel if her soul was still part of her. The imagery of Sayaka rolling on the floor in agony while Kyuubey stands on her Soul Gem, eerily blue-lit, expressionlessly explaining that she’d simply black out if she was still a normal human, is the most quietly horrifying picture the series has thrown at us yet.
Allegedly, if a magical girl works hard enough she can stop herself feeling any pain—but it slows down your reaction times, so Kyuubey wouldn’t recommend this. Kyuubey talking about what they would and wouldn’t recommend for magical manipulation of the soul as though they’re helping Sayaka work out which phone plan is best for her is delightfully dissonant and freaky. Perhaps more so because Kyuubey has revealed themself as the ultimate brand of terrifying villain: a villain who doesn’t believe they’re a villain. As Homura points out to Madoka later in the episode, Kyuubey doesn’t see what they’re doing as “cruel”. They’re a lifeform that operates in a different way to humans, and lacking human perspective, genuinely don’t see a problem with soul-removal and the other things in their repertoire.
This is, however, not an excuse, since Kyuubey’s clear lack of empathy still marks their magical girl business for malpractice. Kyuubey, there’s a little concept called “informed consent” I’d like to discuss with you at your next board meeting. Keeping information from the girls simply because they “didn’t ask” may seem to be a product of Kyuubey’s expressionless alien logic rather than malice, but only on surface level. Judging by their “humans always react like this” comment re: Madoka and Kyoko freaking out about Soul Gems, magical girls have raised these issues in the past, and Kyuubey has subsequently made a conscious decision to avoid trouble by simply not mentioning the whole soul-selling thing unless it becomes directly relevant. It covers Kyuubey’s ass if anyone accuses them of lying, and it makes the system so much more efficient.
It helps that Madoka and Sayaka didn’t think to ask if there were any other nasty conditions in the magical girl fine print because they were already faced with a massive caveat in the form of Mami’s warnings (brought to a head by her death). They knew that being a magical girl wasn’t all fun and sunshine because Mami had explicitly discussed the dangers and downsides of it with them—as far as they were concerned, the threat of death was enough of a serious condition that they didn’t think to delve deeper and look for more. And this suited Kyuubey just fine.
Mami did everything she could to make sure these girls would be consenting to life as a magical girl with as much information and agency as possible; Kyuubey sat idly by, silent through every opportunity to add “oh, and we take your souls too”. As Kyuubey points out (presumably in an attempt to… soothe??? Sayaka), Mami went through her whole magical girl career not knowing she’d had her soul removed. By keeping her in the dark and happily letting her take a mentorship role, Kyuubey again lifted the blame off themself and passed the burden of misinformation to Mami instead. Kyuubey doesn’t possess human emotions as we know them, but it doesn’t mean they don’t know how to play with them. Hell, if Mami had survived and Sayaka and Madoka had become magical girls, maybe Kyuubey would’ve picked then to daintily reveal the truth about Soul Gems, leading to the girls accusing Mami of lying and turning them against each other, all in the name of… God, prevetning the Heat Death of the Universe or whatever it is this little rat’s trying to do. I can’t remember. I hate them too much.
In any case, with Kyuubey essentially revealed to be our villain, emotional manipulation and lack of consent are framed as the show’s principal villainous traits… which is particularly interesting and poignant given that the stars of this story are teenaged girls. Kyuubey’s system is a fantastical one, taken to alien extremes, but it’s not too hard to see it as an allegory for plenty of real life systems that prey, quietly or not-so-quietly, on girls and women every day. I didn’t tell you because you were too stupid to ask; stop being so emotional; don’t you see that this thing making you feel terrible is actually good for you? These are the insidious phrases echoing around girls as they grow into adult women, whether from the voices of the media, from personal relationships, from jobs and institutions… it goes on. Otherworldly nature and all, Kyuubey has always made a perfectly realistic antagonist to me: the world is wired to turn girls against each other and drink them dry for the gain of others, why wouldn’t an alien race get in on it too?
As with poor Mami, a lot of people struggle through the system without realising the full ramifications of it… but Sayaka and Kyoko now have, so let’s swing over to see how they’re dealing with it. Sayaka isn’t taking it well, understandably, but heartbreakingly the thought process we see most is her lamenting that now Violin Boy will never love her—for what boy in his right mind would date a soulless zombie? As I begin to sob that she’s still basing her self-worth around what she can do for this guy, Kyoko knocks on her window to drag her out of her funk… and across town to a dilapidated church, for a heart to heart.
We know that Kyoko and Sayaka are two poles, or rather, two sides of the same coin. It’s only fitting that it’s revealed Kyoko’s vehement dislike for Sayaka stems from Sayaka reminding her of her own younger self—Kyoko is, after all, unlikely to waste the energy on self-harm, so she directs her self-loathing at someone else who resembles her past mistakes instead. In an attempt to repair this, she tells Sayaka the story of her own wish and the road to her current personal philosophy: she too made a wish for someone else’s sake, and everything went to pot.
Kyoko’s father was a preacher, a deeply empathetic man who wanted to save the world. Kyoko admired this, and so was very sad when people stopped listening to her father’s “alternate teachings” and started shunning him instead. Now… Kyoko’s implied to have been at least a few years younger than she is now (which would put her at the fairly innocent age of eleven or twelve), so we don’t really get a sense that she understood what her father was preaching and why people were against it. If her father was straight up starting a cult, we don’t know. The new doctrine isn’t described to us since we only see its impact on Kyoko’s family, who go poor and hungry (which probably explains Kyoko’s constant, compulsive snacking, and reacting so viciously to people wasting food) when their flock deserts the church. Naturally, as an innocent child who wants to help out her faithful father, Kyoko makes a deal with the devil.
The irony here isn’t lost—for a double punch, Kyoko’s father calls her a “witch” when he finds out she used magic to bring him new followers (which is both foreshadowing and generally terrible). Despite his wish-induced success, Kyoko’s father had a breakdown, murdered his family, then committed suicide himself. Given we’ve just learnt that a magical girl’s body can be put back together essentially from the brink of death, I have to wonder if Kyoko was also the target of this violence and only got out “unscathed” because of her Soul Gem. Kyoko herself doesn’t say. The important thing for her to relay to Sayaka is that everything went to shit, so she resolved to never use magic for other people again.
Having heard all this, this almost uncharacteristically civil discussion from Kyoko (or at least, uncharacteristic of what we know of her—as she’s just revealed, at her core she’s very compassionate), Sayaka is still not convinced that Kyoko’s “do it for yourself” method is the better way. She stubbornly, righteously, announces that she will never regret her choice, and will keep fighting to be A True Magical Girl… and if Kyoko has a problem with that, she can start a fight. Sayaka doesn’t care. Sayaka refuses to lose. This infuriates Kyoko, but there’s little she can do except angrily chomp down on an apple in the ruins of her family’s church.
Naturally… Sayaka goes to school the next day and walks headfirst into a reason she should regret her choices. Violin Boy is back at school, but she can’t bring herself to go say hi—the close rapport they seemed to have when she visited him in hospital is revealed to be perhaps not so unique after all, as Sayaka watches him surrounded by doting, caring friends, feeling stuck on the outside. Worse than that, her friend Hitomi calls her to the café after school for the most weirdly diplomatic high school conversation about feelings in history, stating with the plainness and grace of a debate team captain that she also has a crush on Violin Boy.
Sayaka tries to dodge the subject, but it’s no use: Hitomi has noticed how much Sayaka cares about him, and because she doesn’t want to ruin their friendship, she wants to give Sayaka the opportunity to confess her feelings to him first. Again, it’s a baffling scene in that… I mean, maybe teenaged girls are capable of dealing with a shared crush this diplomatically, but I’ve sure as hell never seen it happen. It also comes completely out of nowhere—Hitomi admits she’s done her best to hide her feelings, but that’s no excuse to hide such an important plot point from the audience. However, it serves the purpose of punching Sayaka in the heart, starting an internal war between what she wants and what she should want, selfishness and selflessness rising to do battle inside her muddled head.
Once again, it’s with dear Madoka and nowhere else that she can actually let this anguish bubble to the surface. That night before she goes out to hunt Witches she bursts into tears, finally expressing all the distress and trauma that she’s been dutifully repressing. She sold her soul for Violin Boy, but now she’s going to lose him to her best friend—and she hates it. She became a magical girl to save him, but now she feels she can never face him, let alone ask him to love her. She admits the vicious cycle she’s caught in, admits that she selfishly doesn’t want Hitomi to take him away from her, admits that she’s scared and upset. Madoka just holds her and listens, the simplest and gentlest act of kindness, asking nothing in return—the polar opposite of Kyuubey, you could say.
But alas, for now it’s not quite enough—Sayaka still throws herself into her Witch hunt, even though she’s not doing too well. Kyoko, realising that there’s something of her old self she wants to save rather than see fail, dives in to help, only to be shooed away by the determined Sayaka. And so Madoka and Kyoko can only watch in horror as their friend hurls herself into the fray, starting to giggle towards the end, delightedly confirming that Kyuubey was right—she really can’t feel pain!
The maniacal laughter is a bit overkill, I fancy, but it’s still a haunting image to end the episode on—Sayaka diving into self-harming behaviour as the final result of her feelings of worthlessness, her final attempt to be seen as good and helpful even at the cost of her own personhood. She has embraced her identity as a soulless kindness-machine, disappearing into a literal shadow of herself in order to become the ideal faceless hero who fights despair. It’s the disastrous and tragic combination of Kyuubey’s system and the real-world system that has raised her to be selfless at the cost of her own sense of self.
It’s also our first hint of “she who fights monsters becomes a monster”, but we can cover that next week. Are you all ready to cry? Because I am. I’m crying right now.