A girl who cannot become a princess is doomed to become a witch.
…wait, wrong show.
This episode picks up straight from where the previous one left off: with Sayaka locked in battle with a Witch, the walls of the labyrinth shattering and crumbling as a fairly accurate analogy for Sayaka’s current psyche. The battle over, she throws the hard-won Grief Seed to Kyoko, declaring a little snidely that she doesn’t want to owe her any favours. Sayaka leaves, leaning on Madoka like a dead girl walking, and Kyoko looks even more strained and emotional than she did at the end of their conversation in the church. A good old’ switcheroo has taken place: pragmatic, nasty Kyoko is feeling feelings for someone else, and selfless, emotive Sayaka has plunged into bitterness.
Except of course that there’s nothing good about this scenario. Madoka tries to get through to Sayaka, as gently as she can, and get her to, you know, maybe, not let herself get nearly murdered in her quest to do the right thing. Sayaka’s immediate response is resentment, throwing accusations of pity in Madoka’s face and saying she doesn’t understand. If Madoka wants to stop Sayaka getting hurt, why doesn’t she fight the Witches too? She brings up Madoka’s “incredible potential”, information Kyuubey passed along ever-so-coyly a few episodes before, which I just knew was intended to be ammo in a future conversation like this. Why should Kyuubey do all the emotional manipulation themself if they can outsource to the magical girls, turning friend against friend in the process?
Madoka, clearly unequipped to deal with the gnarly subtleties of convincing her self-harming best friend of her self-worth, flounders, and ends up being left in the rain. Sayaka flees into the storm, warning her not to follow, then immediately starts sobbing and wondering how she could have been so mean to her. It’s a sombre and heartbreaking scene that has an intense emotional honesty to it (or at least, parts of it really rang true to conversations I had as a teenager), even with all the magical stuff. And it kicks double hard when you realise this is the last conversation these two have, ever, these two whose friendship has been an emotional constant throughout the tumultuous series so far.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, even if the air in this episode is thick with foreboding. Kyoko and Homura are meeting at Homura’s house while all this is going on. Where are Homura’s parents? Why are the walls holographic and the whole place peppered with imagery to make us think we’re inside a giant clock? Kyoko just eats some instant noodles and doesn’t ask, instead focusing on Homura’s information about Walpurgisnacht. What that is, we still don’t know, except that it’s not good news. Homura announces that it will appear in a certain place in the city. Kyoko asks how she can be sure. Homura flatly replies “statistics”. Just as Kyoko (and presumably the audience) is wondering where these “statistics” can come from if this has never happened before, Kyuubey arrives, distracting her with the need to shove a spear in their face.
Kyuubey doesn’t stay for long, but it’s worth noting that their nigh-expressionless voice has gained a touch of smarm. The cat’s out of the bag, after all, and they have no business trying to win these girls over. So instead they just drop some cryptic info about Sayaka “becoming a problem sooner than expected”—with a significant look at Homura that confirms she knows what this means. Thoughtfully, the Devil Kitty ponders Homura’s “irregularity” once more, then vanishes into the shadows in the most ominous way possible.
Time somehow ticks on even amidst all this mess. After school the next day, Madoka calls Sayaka’s house (the first implication that anyone other than Madoka has living, present parents/guardians) and learns that she didn’t come home the night before. If Madoka’s stung by what her friend said to her, she doesn’t show it, entirely determined to find Sayaka and try and make things better. Sayaka, it turns out, is trailing Violin Boy and Hitomi, casually twisting the knife into her own gut by watching what we can only assume is Hitomi’s love confession and the beginning of the relationship that comes from it.
We don’t know, because the focus remains on Sayaka’s reaction. The sunny scenery around her ripples away, replaced by a mixed-media backdrop eerily reminiscent of a Witch’s labyrinth (hmmmm), and giving her the appearance that she’s drowning. She seems to wake up as if from a nightmare, letting out a scream and flinging herself into battle against another Witch, motions even more frenzied than before, all with the same calm, sad chiming music that played over the love confession. It’s a beautiful cut, blurring the border between visual symbolism and actual magic, placing Sayaka in some sort of weird emotionally distraught unreality.
Homura comes to her “rescue” after this battlefield breakdown, offering her a Grief Seed to cleanse her Soul Gem with, reminding her quite forcefully that this ain’t the time to be messing around. Sayaka, loathing the thought of accepting help from Homura, kicks the Seed away. She will not associate with magical girls like you. She will become a different kind of magical girl, a good and proper kind of magical girl. There’s a neat and nasty parallel here to the whole Not Like Other Girls problem and how society often encourages it in an effort to pit women against each other, but we can get to that in a moment. First we have to talk about the fact that Homura straight up nearly murders Sayaka in this scene, something I had totally forgotten about.
Homura tells Sayaka to stop beating herself up, because it’s causing Madoka grief. Sayaka tells her this has nothing to do with Madoka. Homura receives a decidedly significant and ominous Epic Zoom-In and declares “everything is about Madoka”. Themes and aspects that have been foreshadowed for a long time start to take physical, or at least verbal, form this week, and this is a big one. In her effort to protect Madoka from more emotional turmoil, Homura is willing to kill Sayaka on the spot, and is only stopped by Kyoko coming out of nowhere and restraining her. God damn, Homura, who and what are you? And why did I not remember that scene?!
So what’s that all about? We get some more big hints when Homura finds Madoka in a park, still hunting for Sayaka long after the sun has set. Madoka gets into another conversation with Kyuubey about her magical potential (intercut with some neat shots of the nearby fountain, the arcs and jets of which look uncannily like a bow and arrow shooting towards the stars). Kyuubey has the grace not to directly suggest that she could save Sayaka with her godlike powers, but gently leads Madoka there on her own. Madoka is halfway through asking to make a contract when Kyubbey is suddenly filled with bullet holes, in one of the most shocking-and-satisfying moments of the whole series. Rest in pieces, you little demon.
Homura shows an as-yet-unfamiliar side to her when she approaches Madoka. She’s crying, shaking, demanding to know why Madoka keeps trying to throw her life away. It’s a surprising parallel to Madoka’s own conversation with Sayaka at the start of the episode; surprising because Homura and Madoka barely even know each other, not at all linked by the close friendship that she and Sayaka have. Or are they? Static flashes and Madoka wonders, aloud, for a second, if she and Homura have met before?
But she decides to run and find Sayaka instead of dealing with this weirdness, and leaves Homura sobbing on the ground with Kyuubey. Who shows up looking menacing as all hell, eats their bullet-hole-riddled clone body, then stares into the centre of Homura’s soul and says they’ve guessed what her deal is. “You’re not from this timeline, are you?” the creepy little critter asks. But there isn’t much time to dwell on that bombshell, because we then have to deal with Kyoko finding Sayaka in the train station and everything just… God, everything just falling apart.
The final gut-kick to Sayaka’s positivity seems to have been a conversation she overheard between two nasty dudebros, ragging on their girlfriends and deriding women as a concept. I’d say their derogatory language is overkill, but I’m not one to argue in this current cultural climate that Men Can’t Possibly Be That Bad. The most important thing is that their concentrated awfulness and disrespect makes Sayaka wonder aloud if this bitch of an Earth (in Samuel Beckett’s words) is really worth protecting, the final straw to break her proverbial camel’s back. I think it’s implied that she murders these dudes. Like, actually.
Kyoko finds her in the wake of this, and finds her with her Soul Gem turning black. That mournful, beautiful violin-filled theme of hers begins to play. Sayaka waxes poetic for a moment about how hope and despair really do balance each other out, like Kyoko said. Then the Soul Gem cracks, and the world shatters, the chaos cutting away to a final looming shot of Kyuubey suggesting, seemingly directly to the audience, that “if half-grown women are called girls, it makes sense to call half-grown Witches magical girls.”
I distinctly remember theorising, when I first watched this show, that all Witches must have once been magical girls. I distinctly remember a tangible feeling of horror going through my chest at the end of this episode. It has never felt so wrong to be right, let me tell you.
And so Sayaka falls, her ideals in broken pieces around her feet, her pure soul literally blackened. One the one hand, this is a story of a naïve and idealistic young hero being broken by harsh reality, a tragedy both in the loss of this sweet soul and in that she brought this end upon herself with her own stubbornness and pride. On the other hand, we can—as I’ve been talking about a lot throughout these writeups—come at this story reading it not as a generic hero’s tragedy but with a more gendered slant that gives it a whole new weight. Sure, Sayaka was naïve and idealistic and stubborn, traits that led to her downfall when she refused to adjust them to accommodate the nastiness of the real world when she was faced with it. But rather than looking at this as the tragedy of a young hero falling from grace in her pursuit of impossible ideals, let’s read this as the tragedy of a young girl getting caught in the teeth of an oppressive system.
Sayaka values herself based on what she can do for other people, and this is, to a degree, what’s expected of her—I draw your attention, again, to that bit of dialogue between hospital staff about Sayaka providing Violin Boy with the strength and hope to get better. It’s a little snatch of conversation, but given how generally fantastic this show is with conservation of detail, I think it’s significant. It provides a peek into the assumptions that inform Sayaka’s worldview and her view of herself, and the assumptions that ultimately lead to the pit in her self-esteem. When she can do good things for other people, that’s good! but when she can’t do good things for other people—even if those things are literally impossible—she’s useless. We see this in domestic form in her relationship with Violin Boy, and it’s taken to its logical extreme in her attitude to fighting Witches.
Sayaka isn’t a tragic figure because she’s plucky and idealistic and naïve, she’s a tragic figure because she’s a fourteen-year-old girl with cripplingly low self-esteem who gets manipulated and abused by a system she has no control over, a system that isolates her from support networks and preys on her insecurities to the point where she’s pushed to self-harming behaviour. Sayaka’s failure to be a good (magical) girl, a selfless being who fights nobly for others and never bothers them with her negative emotions, results in her being slammed to the other end of the spectrum: she becomes a vile monster that other, proper and good, girls ought to stamp out, the very thing that she loathes so much.
That nod to Utena’s princess/witch dichotomy in the intro was a joke, but it’s also very relevant, to the point where I wonder if the showrunners picked up that iconic series’ terminology as a sort of homage. Sayaka’s soul literally goes from “pure” to “corrupted”, demonstrating this ideological split once again—she had personal motivations, she had selfish feelings, and her grip on that peppy concept of “hope” that she was supposed to be providing for everyone else slipped, and now she is no longer “pure”. You could say she’s, you know, an ordinary three-dimensional human being, but that isn’t the way she sees it, a view that’s been reinforced by society her whole life. No, the only thing to become when you cannot be the perfect girl is to become a monster. That’s the way the world will see her anyway, and if not, that’s the way it’s taught her to see herself.
Sayaka is a tragic character because she just wanted to do good and the world destroyed her—emotionally manipulated her, removed her bodily autonomy, turned her against her friends, taught her to see other women as the enemy, sent her into a spiral of self-loathing that eventually caused her death, vilifying her as a monster in the process and essentially blaming her for the whole thing. Sayaka bears the hallmarks of an archetypal tragic hero, sure, but she also provides a heartbreakingly relevant emblem for the tragedies that befall young women. It’s not commentary I necessarily picked up on when I first watched this show, so I’m glad to have watched it again now that I’m older and wiser. Whether or not the writers intended it, they’ve created a gut-punch of a feminist allegory right here.
If you’ll excuse me, I have to go be sad for a while.