Oh, we’re living in a world of pain this week.
Sayaka has become the very monster she so abhors—metaphorically, a “selfish” person; literally, a Witch. And now that we know the history of this particular Witch, we can recognise and realise how laden with personal symbolism the labyrinths are. Sayaka’s Witch form is combination of a knight and a mermaid, with a superhero cape for good measure, and her labyrinth is a concert hall run through with train tracks, thudding away under an endless symphony of violins. Kyoko retrieves Sayaka’s limp and lifeless human body and shouts at the monster that has suddenly appeared, and Homura intervenes with her usual mix of heroism and cold logic. She saves Kyoko with her time-pausing magic, but also plainly states that the monster is Sayaka, and tells her to abandon the “baggage” she’s holding onto.
It’s Homura who has to drop the bombshell (goodness knows how many times she’s had to do it before) to Madoka and Kyoko: yes, all Witches were once magical girls, and all magical girls are doomed to become Witches. For every person Sayaka saved, she will now hurt someone else; for every ounce of hope she inspired she will now create an equal amount of despair. Madoka sobs over her best friend’s corpse and Kyoko channels her grief into anger, grabbing Homura by the collar and demanding to know how she can just say such terrible things without feeling. How can she call herself human? To this, Homura replies that she doesn’t, and Kyoko shouldn’t either. Then disappears into the night with her usual mystery and menace.
She imparts a final bit of wisdom: don’t be seen with the dead body. I read this as just her normal brand of cold, plain-speaking logic, but a friend pointed out that it’s entirely likely that the girls did get caught with one of their friends’ dead bodies in a previous timeline, which is why the warning is so specific. Knowing this show’s knack for conservation of detail, I wouldn’t be surprised.
Madoka returns home after spending almost an entire night searching for her best friend, only to find her dead and transformed into a monster. Kyuubey follows to try and explain themself, tone as matter-of-fact and bubbly as always even in the face of Madoka’s distraught reactions. Have you heard of “entropy”, they ask, as though standing in front of a middle school science class? The universe is running out of energy, so Kyuubey’s race set off through space to try and find some backup batteries to keep the cosmos running. They were delighted to find humans, whose output of emotional energy greatly exceeds the physical energy needed to create and sustain their lives. And the greatest source of this volatile and valuable emotional energy, Kyuubey and co. decided, were girls in their early teens.
Madoka listens to all this curled into herself, surrounded, oddly enough, by a collection of mismatching empty chairs. Why does she need so many in her bedroom? It’s strangely eerie for something so mundane, mostly because I suspect the seats represent all the magical girls who have come and gone before her, sucked into the system and ground up to fuel Kyuubey’s plans. When the hope in a Soul Gem gives way to despair and turns into a Grief Seed, it apparently creates such an explosive amount of energy that the heat death of the universe itself can be warded off. Isn’t that great, Kyuubey asks? They seem put out when Madoka doesn’t agree. In the big scheme of things—and we’re talking literally about the fate of the universe—is it really such a big deal? This is “the needs of the many over the needs of the few” on a scale so massive that individual human emotion is too tiny to factor into it.
Again, this establishes Kyuubey’s villainy as the most frightening kind: the kind where they genuinely don’t think they’re doing anything wrong. From a purely scientific point of view, their argument even makes sense. No, we don’t want the universe to sputter out and die. But we also can’t live our lives in such a detached, big-picture perspective—it’s just not part of human nature. In the end it’s this detachment from emotion that marks Kyuubey as an antagonist, a force that does not understand nor intend to understand human values, relationships, and emotions, and who thus cannot be reasoned with in such terms. When you think about it, their dismissal of love and friendship and their clinical take on hope makes them the polar opposite of a traditional magical girl.
Kyuubey vanishes into the night casually suggesting that Madoka should call them if she ever feels like dying for the sake of the universe. If it wasn’t such a sombre and chilling moment, it would be a hilarious line.
The next day Madoka attempts to go to school as normal, but her knack for covering up her sadness was never on par with Sayaka’s, and the most she can muster to reassure Hitomi that she’s okay is a heartbreakingly flat “I’m just tired.” To her surprise, Kyoko calls her away from school to propose a rescue mission. Maybe, just maybe, there’s a chance that they can get through to Sayaka and make contact, freeing her or de-Witching her in the process. Kyuubey’s rules seem to change willy-nilly, she figures, so there’s no reason not to at least try.
Of course, if this was a normal kid’s magical girl show, this would actually work. Kyoko even makes a nod through the fourth wall at this, musing aloud that that would be “like one of those stories where love and courage triumph over all.” Again, does the magical girl genre exist in this universe? Now that I’ve thought of it I can’t unthink it, and the deeper we dive into this “deconstruction” of the genre’s tropes the more it bugs me, and the more lines like that just feel like cruel nudges to the audience’s expectations rather than anything relevant to the characters themselves.
Whatever these stories that Kyoko’s referencing in abstract terms are, she admits that she probably became a magical girl trying to follow their example. She’d forgotten that, somewhere along the road of her entire family and idealistic system falling apart, but Sayaka reminded her. And so Kyoko wants to try and help her if she can, and she wants to bring Madoka along for the ride since she has the best chance of getting through to her. And so they introduce themselves properly for the first time (Kyoko gives Madoka a candy bar instead of a handshake, which is actually super a big deal given her compulsive attachment to food) and set off into the lair of the Witch.
Along the way, Kyoko finally explains what exactly Walpurgisnacht is: a super big baddie of a Witch that she probably couldn’t take down alone, hence teaming up with Homura, who she otherwise doesn’t get along with. I have to note how strange and kind of wonderful Kyoko and Madoka are as a team-up, even if they only interact for this episode. Kyoko’s protective and supportive in a brash and snarky way that Sayaka never would have dared to be, threatening to punch Madoka’s face in if she throws her happy life away to become a magical girl. It’s something you should only do if you have no other options, she says, and you should count your blessings and embrace your life if you’re doing okay and have nothing to wish for.
Kyoko’s pragmatism isn’t all negative, it seems. It’s also the exact opposite to Sayaka’s line of thinking from the start of the show, which was, at the time, framed by her worrying she was being selfish. Selfless, selfish, idealistic, pragmatic, round and round it goes with those two until you’re not sure which way is right nor which way is up.
The fight between Kyoko and Sayaka’s Witch form is certainly a neat callback—in a “would you ever have believed we’d end up here?” sort of way—to their first battle back in episode five. Now it’s Sayaka being relentless and Kyoko being emotive and clinging to silly ideals like hope and courage. It’s a battle with the self as well, harking back to Kyoko’s dialogue in the church about how she was just like Sayaka when she was younger. It’s initially why she loathed her so much, and now it’s the reason she wants to save her. It’s a beautiful little arc, and impressive in that it’s so effective after really only knowing and developing Kyoko over a period of four episodes. Like Mami, the writing worked efficiently to give the audience enough of an impression to make her feel fleshed-out and multi-faceted, as well as just likeable in her own wild way that stands out from the rest of the cast. And, like Mami, the writing works enough to get you attached to her in a short frame of time, enough that what happens next is genuinely heartrending.
Naturally, this characteristic turnaround can only end one way: with the girl who lived only for herself dying for someone else. I go back and forth about whether or not this heroic suicide was necessary or was overkill, and in the end I find it’s a weird mix of both. The way Kyoko’s arc is set up—and the way it mirrors Sayaka’s—means the only meaningful way it can come to a close is with her sacrificing herself. And now that she knows there is no happy end in sight for a magical girl, it’s better to go out on her own terms doing something truly good rather than falling prey to Kyuubey’s system… which is actually entirely in-character for her.
Yet, it’s also very convenient. As Kyuubey says at the end of the episode, it’s oh so neat that Kyoko’s now dead, since it means only Homura remains to fight Walpurgisnacht and Madoka has no choice but to become a magical girl if she wants to protect the city. It’s disturbing how well a lot of Kyuubey’s lines can be transplanted into the mouths of writers talking about their characters, now that I think about it. But hey, Kyoko’s death manages to be the resolution to her personal arc, a solid and suitably dramatic way to defeat Sayaka’s Witch and give her resolution, and a convenient tipping point to influence the plot. This show is nothing if not intricately put together. As with Mami’s death, Kyoko’s serves multiple purposes and is definitely there for reasons other than shock value, and as well as Mami’s there’s not too much focus on the violence of the death itself.
And it’s just. It’s just so goddamn sad, guys. As an end to both Sayaka and Kyoko. As a bittersweet rebellion against this system of turning magical girls each other—Kyoko is, after all, “freeing” Sayaka from her despair and a state she’d never want to be in, destroying her prison in the process. The little mermaid who gave up her voice for the man she loved did fail and turn into sea foam, yes, but that was not the end of the story, because people still cared about her and came to try and help, even if in the end that meant destroying what she’d turned into. Kyoko’s whispered promise to not leave Sayaka alone guts me every time.
And Madoka, poor Madoka, has yet to wake up to the remnants of this fresh tragedy. When she comes to she’s going to find her world in pieces once again. She has never been more helpless or more vulnerable, knowing full well that the system she’s locked into is an eternal trap that will consume everything good. She will look at the situation and see no room in it for hope.
Which makes what Madoka’s about to do so very, very incredible. But before we get to that, we have to talk about Homura.