Playing dumb over spoilers is admittedly a fruitless effort, not when it’s in regards to a show that’s now a decade old and has been so thoroughly discussed by the anime community. But man, if you truly have no idea what happens in Puella Magi Madoka Magica and you plan on watching it, stop reading this post and get cracking. Enjoy that rock while you’re still living under it.
If you’re like me and you watch (way too much) anime, the “three episode rule” ought to sound familiar to you. In case you don’t know, it’s basically a guideline where you give an anime (I suppose any TV show, really) three episodes before deciding to finish it or drop it. I personally don’t subscribe to this to the letter. My preferred point of no return is halfway and there are many shows where I dropped it at just one episode or two. Plus, it’s not like every good anime will necessarily hook you in at the third episode. That said, the three episode rule is a long standing concept in anime fandom and if there’s any show that perfectly exemplifies it, it’s this one.
The third episode of Madoka is arguably the show’s most famous one and if not that, it’s what put the show on people’s blimps back in 2011. It certainly was for me. I remember watching this at anime club in high school with the first two episodes, completely in the dark over the story before being tremendously thrown off by the end of the screening and left considerably more interested in the show from that point on. Not that you wouldn’t necessarily get hooked at Episodes 1 and 2, there’s plenty about them that spurs intrigue, but if not those then the show will most likely grab your attention here.
Anyone who’s seen this episode knows exactly why this episode stands out. It’s the ending. Much of this episode plays out similarly as the last one. Madoka and Sayaka continue their magical girl open house. Mami fights another monster of the week. Homura remains vaguely adamant that Madoka must not become a magical girl. There is of course some progress being made but fundamentally, the episode plays out the same. That is, until you get to the end. Just when you think it’s business as usual…Mami dies…in very disturbing fashion no less. Three episodes in and one of the main characters is now dead. This is why I urged anyone who’s somehow new to this show to go watch it. The shock and surprise I felt when I and presumably many others who got to this scene…you simply can’t replicate that.
The funny thing is that if you look closely, the signs pointing towards Mami’s death are there. In regards to the action, it’s actually to the show’s detriment that Mami sticks around. The girl is a badass but she’s so powerful to the point that you have to wonder how Madoka and Sayaka could even shine once they become magical girls. Early on in the episode, Mami reveals to Madoka and Sayaka that she was in a traffic accident when she became a magical girl and it’s implied that she impulsively wished for her life to be saved. That detail plays into a bigger theme, and we will get to that in due time, but it also effectively makes the viewer aware of Mami’s mortality. Later in the episode, Homura confronts Mami about the witch and offers to fight it for her. Mami chooses to ignore her plea, having become agitated with Homura’s cold attitude, but you can’t help but think this decision will backfire in the end. Right before the big fight, Mami admits to Madoka that being a magical girl makes her feel lonely and that she’s selfishly wants her and Sayaka to become magical girls to give her company. When Madoka says she wants to be by her side, this fills Mami with renewed purpose and resolve. The witch she fights, Charlotte (that’s literally the only witch I know by name) is far too much of a pushover at first. All things considered, the death flags weren’t just raised, they were waving wildly in the wind.
Despite the telegraphing and the obvious fact that I know what’s about to happen, Mami’s death is still a punch to the gut. For the short time that she’s present (and alive), I really do sympathize with her situation. We spent a whole episode where she presents herself as the experienced mentor figure, only to now reveal a much more vulnerable side where she feels vain and lonely about her profession as a magical girl. The sudden shift in personality piques my curiosity and while she is being selfish, I can’t blame her for wanting other girls to be magical girls just like her. To suddenly see all that setup and that entire potential arc just come to a screeching halt without a proper resolution, let alone a satisfying one, it’s still going to provoke a reaction out of me.
What also stands out is how unceremoniously Mami is killed off too. Charlotte revealing its true form is a dirty trick but it’s extremely believable as why would it play fair in the first place? And the attack happens so quickly too. The death flags may be there but it’s not like you have Mami struggling to fight back or getting injured. She dies within an instant the tables are turned on her. Let’s not forget the manner in which she dies either. The fact that Mami gets decapitated and seemingly devoured by the witch is disturbing enough on paper but the direction makes it even worse. There’s no blood or gore. In one shot, you see Charlotte open its jaws right in front of Mami. In another, you see Mami’s now lifeless body revert back to its civilian form but with the head perfectly framed out. Its silhouette then falls to the ground and the “camera” cuts away right as Charlotte mangles it even further. Anything graphic is left to your imagination and the scene is more powerful that way.
Up until Mami’s death, Madoka and Sayaka are weighing on becoming magical girls and what they could wish for. Sayaka evidently has one wish in mind – curing a career-shattering injury of a violin player and her crush, Kyosuke Kamijo (Seiko Yoshida) – though Mami warns her about wishing on the behalf of someone else. Madoka meanwhile decides she’d just be content in simply being a magical girl but is forced to agreed with Mami that she should wish for something. Both characters are still thinking over their prospects but after seeing Mami die, they’re now confronted with the fact that they very well die on the job and must decide if the risk outweighs the pros of whatever they may wish for.
As for Homura, Mami’s death pretty much proves her point that being a magical girl isn’t fun. It’s a thankless and dangerous profession. More importantly, you have Homura barely blinking an eye over her peer getting the axe and that’s despite her offering to fight Charlotte in the first place. She takes the Grief Seed left by the witch and leaves. Sayaka takes offense to it as it is in line with what Mami was saying about the competitiveness among magical girls but Homura responds back with pragmatism. Mami is dead and the Grief Seed is technically better off being used by someone who isn’t. It’s harsh and cold but Homura isn’t wrong either.
There’s a reason why Madoka made such as splash back in 2011 and this episode is strong remainder as to why. This is where the show reveals its true colors, a magical girl series that’s clearly much darker than the more happy go lucky variant that we’re used to. It was downright novel at the time and there’s a reason why some magical girl anime that have aired since heavily borrows elements from it.
I’ll admit that upon rewatching this episode, the shock and awe is a bit lost to me. Even so, it does provoke a strong reaction out of me which I think is a testament to the show’s craft and execution.
Thanks for reading!
Read my Puella Magi Madoka Magica reviews (page will be available soon)