Before you go forward, you have to go back. And so without a word Madoka Magica’s tenth episode drops us in an unfamiliar and distant scene where a timid girl unrecognisable as Homura is introducing herself as Homura.
It’s her first day at a new school after spending a long time in hospital with a heart condition, and she feels very unsure of herself and out of place. But a plucky, sweet classmate named Madoka does her best to guide her and pep her up, reaching out a hand and offering a smile and saying her name is cool. It’s not much, but it’s enough to give the insecure Homura a little bright moment in an otherwise draining day. Madoka’s superpower, as always, is kindness.
It’s fitting, then, that when Homura is sucked into a Witch maze on the walk home from her dreary day at school, it’s Madoka, clad in frothy skirt and bearing a bow and arrows, who swoops in to save her. Mami is there too, Madoka’s magical girl mentor, and all too happy to bring Homura into the fold and help her out. Their action-scene introduction is thrilling both in its colour and sparkle and in how it drives home the topsy-turvy nature of this alternate storyline with expert precision. What is this strange place, where Homura is meek and wide-eyed and Madoka is the confident, badass magical girl?
All becomes clear when the story zips forward in time and reveals that Walpurgisnacht has descended, and Mami has died in the process of fighting it. Alas, poor Mami… though again, this time it’s Homura bent over her body in horror, and Madoka who pragmatically stands over them. Only she can defeat this mega-Witch, as the last remaining magical girl around. And so, despite Homura’s terrified pleas, she plunges heroically into the fray… with one last bittersweet, but wholly sincere, smile to Homura, saying she was glad she could save her. The next thing we see is Homura bent over Madoka’s dead body. As Homura laments that she should have died in her place—useless, worthless little Homura, compared to the grace and glow and power of Madoka!—who should appear above her to ask, with an eerily casual and expressionless tip of their head, if she’d be interested in a magical solution to this dilemma?
And so, with Kyuubey back on their bullshit recruiting girls in their darkest moments, we learn the answer to the long-pondered question of Homura’s wish: she wished to redo her first meeting with Madoka, to be the one to protect her this time. There are a few interesting things about this wording that tie into a bigger problem with wish-making that the show has alluded to before, but we can get into that in a little bit. First, we have to deal with the revelation that Homura is a time traveller, granted the power to be hurled back through the cosmos to, as per her wish, redo her first meeting with Madoka. After making her contract, she wakes up back in hospital, ready to start her first day of school. But this time? This time she’s going to be cool.
So eager is she to see her friend—who was a corpse a few hours ago, as far as she’s concerned—that Homura throws social convention to the wind, and runs to Madoka’s desk in the middle of class, grabs her hands and announces for the whole school to hear that she’s a magical girl just like her!! Madoka looks embarrassed and awkward about this (she has no idea who Homura even is), but the ensuing conundrum isn’t dealt with, since the show efficiently switches to Homura joining Madoka and Mami’s squad and practicing her newfound time magic. Finally, we’re granted concrete evidence of how Homura’s famous “irregularity” works. It’s neat, but as Mami points out, sort of difficult to fight with. So Homura, being a good student, goes home and learns how to make a bomb on the internet.
Clearly, Urobochi hadn’t quite gotten the “time magic and modern weaponry” concept out of his system yet. Which, frankly, is understandable, because it’s a really fun concept. Homura becomes gradually more confident and capable over her Witch-hunting adventures with Mami and Madoka, helped, of course, by Madoka’s loud and delighted encouragement. But everything comes crashing down once again with the arrival of Walpugisnacht. Madoka survives the battle this time, but when it’s done, something goes very, very wrong with her Soul Gem. Homura, having worked so hard to fight alongside her friend and protector, now has to watch her turn into a Witch… but before anything can get too crazy, click, the Groundhog Day loop resets, and a horrified Homura wakes up in her hospital bed again.
I’m not actually sure how many timelines this episode crosses. There are only three or four scenes of Homura waking up in hospital—the official start of a new loop—but the implication seems to be that the story presented to the audience is a series of patchwork snippets of different alternate worlds, efficiently clipped together to show the most pivotal moments in what has probably been a years-long, exhausting trip across spacetime. In the next one we see, Homura is trying to explain the truth about Witches. Through reasons that go unexplained, Sayaka is part of the magical girl squad in the timeline, and she’s snippy and disbelieving, accusing Homura of trying to turn the girls against each other (oh, the irony), and furthermore getting grumpy at her for nearly blowing Sayaka up. Mami, ever the mediator, gently asks if Homura could use any weapons other than bombs. Homura, ever the good student, goes and steals a massive pile of guns from the Yakuza.
In the greatest punch of irony yet, Sayaka has turned into a Witch in the next scene… though with a few markedly different details to the monstrous form we saw in the current timeline, implying that small aspects of the world shift with each leap to an alternate stream of story. Whether this is simply String Theory at play, or if things are changing as a result of Homura’s repeated meddling with time, is not addressed—this episode is, again, almost breathtakingly efficient in its portrayal of only the most pivotal events, and by breathtaking I mean Mami shoots and kills Kyoko in the next scene and I literally gasped aloud.
We barely even have time to dwell on the fact that Kyoko was part of the squad in this timeline before she’s dead, and Mami is pointing her gun at the rest of the team, distraught and insistent that if they’re all going to turn into Witches, they have to die. Madoka then shoots Mami, and breaks down sobbing with Homura, and just, just, Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ, guys. Everything is broken and the worst, ironically (yet again) in a timeline where all five magical girls had managed to somehow work together.But oh, it’s not over yet. Homura and Madoka still have to fight Walpurgisnacht. And they do, and they survive, but both with massive injuries and blackened Soul Gems. They lie in the rubble of the city, somewhat resigned to the fact they’re about to turn into Witches, and resolved to at least do it together—Homura has an utterly heartbreaking line, somehow deadpan but legitimately tender at the same time, where she asks Madoka “How about the two of us become monsters and mess up this whole awful world?” Again, for that breakneck efficiency, we don’t see the progression of it, but there’s a greater sense of intimacy and friendship between them in this timeline. They are special to each other, and not just because they’re the last people alive in what looks like Hell on Earth. It’s conveyed quietly and cleverly through dialogue and body language, all in a very short scene, giving its climax incredible heartwrenching power.
Madoka gives Homura the last of the Grief Seeds, healing her Soul Gem, but dooming her own in the process. She asks Homura to go back in time again—the request of a dying girl—and stop her from becoming a magical girl. Homura promises, promises with all her heart. But before she leaves, she mercy-kills the person she loves more than anyone else alive, just for a final nail of certainty that this is The Darkest Timeline. We don’t hear the gun go off, but we do hear Homura let out a strangled cry, emphasis on emotional impact rather than the death itself as with previous ones.
And back she goes again. There is no opportunity to stop and rest and breathe, not even for a girl who can freeze time.
And so the mysteries about Homura fall into place. Her wish, her history, her time powers, how she became so entrenched in her pragmatic, Madoka-centric worldview, and how she became so cynical and tired. There’s no narration, everything is simply laid out for the audience to put together themselves, including, best of all, a return to that scene from the introduction to the very first episode… but this time, with context, and this time with Homura not on mute, screaming to Madoka to save herself all the while. It hurts. The only reprieve in this time-hopping, trauma-listing episode is one timeline where Homura shows up at Madoka’s window in the middle of the night and ominously tells her not to wish for a miracle, before disappearing again. It’s implied that Madoka has no idea who she is. It’s so absurd it’s hilarious, in this heaving sea of disaster.
It’s certainly a different spin on “the world-altering power of friendship”. Even with the very impersonal Walpurgisnacht looming as an ever-present danger, it draws the major conflict in the show back to a very personal level. It’s not about saving the world, it’s about saving the girl who was kind to her—something that’s an intriguing mix of selfless and selfish. After all, Homura didn’t wish for Madoka to come back to life, she wished to “redo their first meeting” and be the one to save her herself. The Soul Gem system has twined around her as it did Sayaka and Kyoko, turning Homura’s good intentions into a soul-destroying (figuratively and literally) saga that can only lead to tragedy and despair.
It raises the question, as with Sayaka and Kyoko, of making a wish for someone else, which in turn plays into Mami’s warning that wishing for someone else often secretly means wishing that person will be grateful to you. It’s a conundrum, the biggest trouble here being that the longer Homura works at her time-travelling quest to save Madoka, the further away from her she becomes, manifesting both as that ridiculous instance where their only interaction is Homura’s ominous presence at Madoka’s window, and as the current timeline that has been our story so far. Homura is distant and cynical, mechanically dedicated to protecting Madoka in the name of a friendship they no longer have (nor really had in the original timeline—they seem to only achieve a close bond in The Darkest Timeline with the mercy-killing). Her wish has turned tail and stung her, as Kyuubey’s contracts are designed to—hope and despair balancing out to zero, and all that.
Yet, Homura still hopes, still strides ahead to try and find the way out in the increasingly tangled (as we’ll discuss next week) web that is the world of magical girls, with Madoka at its centre. Perhaps the biggest irony the series has thrown at us is Homura herself: seemingly the most cynical and stoic of all the characters, who derides traits like kindness and selflessness as the road to ruin for magical girls… and who was secretly the most traditionally magical girl-y of them all, working tirelessly in the name of The Power of Friendship, dedicating her life to another girl, refusing to give into despair.