Puella Magi Madoka Magica Episode 4 – Okay, Let’s Talk About Magic
Most of us are not perfect people. We squander the life we’ve given, make terrible choices, and do rash things that we know we’ll regret.
This lack of wisdom is hard to write, though. There’s a fine line between a tragic flaw and a character that does stupid things for no reason. The only real way to avoid that is to make the bad decision make sense, either in the context of the character’s circumstances or their personality as has been revealed (preferably both). Even then, it’s hard to make a bad decision seem less like a contrivance and more like a natural fall.
And yet, the best tragedies hinge on such set ups. Puella Magi Madoka Magica has already established that it’s trying to be a tragedy, but does it have what it takes to be the best?
Note: I talk about a critical plot point from last episode, so if you haven’t seen it (and you should have), consider yourself forewarned.
Last week’s episode saw Mami, the magical girl mentor to Madoka and Sayaka, at a high point in her life as a magical girl. After being forced to choose between a life of bitter struggle and death, and choosing life, she had lived a lonely and isolated life, spending her days fighting to protect people who had no idea what she was doing.
That changed when she met Madoka and Sayaka. Finally, she had found someone to share the burden of her fate, some compatriots to make her task less deadly. If only they would figure out what they wanted to wish for and sign the contract …
And then, flush with the pride of having younger girls look up to her, wanting to show off, and running on the emotional high of realizing that other people care about her, she strides into battle, only to be almost instantly and brutally killed.
The beginning of this episode sees both Madoka and Sayaka trying to come to terms with their friend’s sudden and brutal death, and what it means for their prospective careers as magical girls. Unsurprisingly, both decide to turn down Kyubei’s offer, much to the relief of Homura, who had been trying for 3 episodes to get them to say “no.”
While the show isn’t exactly subtle about their mourning, this isn’t a show of subtlety. Madoka Magica is trying to yank your heartstrings as hard as it possibly can, and it does so adeptly here.
Also lacking subtlety is the story of Sayaka’s relationship with her crippled crush, Kyousuke. A budding young musician whose career is wrecked by an unfortunate accident is hardly original, but here it’s effective enough as a way to get Sayaka to care.
In a fit of petulant anger, Kyousuke lashes out at Sayaka for bringing him music to listen to that he knows he’ll never be able to play. He moans that only magic or a miracle could save him.
It has to be a torturous situation: seeing a friend in pain and knowing you could do something about it. Even if that something would damn you to a life of suffering that seems increasingly meaningless. It’s understandable that it would create a moment of weakness. And that one moment is all it takes to radically change the course of your life.
It’s clearly a foolish decision, but who can blame her? She had the power to save her friend, at a high cost to herself, and she chose to use that power.
It might even be something noble. I’ve always thought that love in its purest form is something giving, sacrificial. There’s a beauty in consciously giving up something for the sake of someone else.
The thing is, I think Sayaka is ignoring the consequences of her action, rather than accepting it. It will become more evident in later episodes than it is here, but it seems that Sayaka did not take to heart the warnings of the other magi. To me that makes a big difference. It means her decision is more an act of rashness than love.
There’s also the question Mami asked about Kyousuke, a question that remains unanswered: are you doing this for him, or because you want him to care about you? If it’s something selfishly motivated, then it’s not what I would call loving.
And also more tragic. Because tragedy is rooted in flaws, in the mistakes we make, whether consciously or unconsciously. The people behind this show seem to know it, and know how to use that for all its worth, without seeming dishonest contrived.
That makes me excited to see the rest.
You can watch this episode here.