Context: This up until now is the only post I’ve ever completed – it was adapted from a response I wrote to a friend about Mami and her role in Madoka Magica and as such is extremely rough even after I polished it before posting here. A lot of the thoughts I write about are my own, but I feel like I’m super scattered with my thoughts across the post (even more than normal) and more worryingly draws on thoughts that I personally came more from others than myself, even if they’re just common notes that would be relevant across a wide range of topics. As such, while I’m glad I wrote this, it wasn’t really ever intended for more than a couple people, so keep that in mind as you read through this.
also WARNING spoilers for all of Madoka Magica after the jump
One of the primary criticisms I’ve heard about Madoka Magica is that the show uses plot twists too frequently and is a dark story simply for the sake of being “edgy”. Oftentimes, this criticism is made towards Mami and her early death; but Mami, her personal story, and her role in the overarching story of Madoka Magica is more complex than many people often realize.
For starters, why choose to kill off Mami, especially right when we were getting to know her? Midway through that fateful third episode, Mami is opening up about her feelings of loneliness and weakness to Madoka, and yet just a few minutes later Madoka and Sayaka (and us watching) are reeling from her sudden death. There’s definitely a shock that comes from her death, but did she have to die so early into the story, and in such a dramatic sequence of events? My belief is that not only did Mami have to die at that point in the story for the plot to progress, but that Mami’s death was a crucial symbolic moment for the series, and for the strife created by the magical girl cycle.
Throughout the story, both before and after her death, Mami acts a symbol of innocence from the true nature of the magical girl system. She never knew that magical girls become witches, she never knew that their soul gems are the vessels of their actual souls, and she often downplayed the significant dangers of being a magical girl to Madoka and Sayaka. We even see how she went totally berserk in one of Homura’s many timeloops when she did find out those details, killing Kyouko before being killed herself. So when she dies in episode 3, suddenly the facade that hid the true nature of the magical girl system to Madoka and Sayaka is torn away, whereas before her death those things were only hinted at beneath the surface.
Additionally, while there’s an inherent “shock value” in Mami’s sudden death, it makes sense in the context of the story, both with what had been shown at that point in the story (we’ve seen the creepy dreamscape labyrinths multiple times by the end of episode 3) and also in hindsight. Because we have tonal foreshadowing of this crucial moment, the twist is not something created purely for “shock” (the common criticism of Mami’s death) but is a natural result of what Madoka Magica was building towards for all three of the first episodes. Yet for all this foreshadowing, Mami’s death is still a stunning, shocking moment, both for its unexpected suddenness and as a plummeting conclusion to Mami’s individual story. If the question is still “why did Mami have to die?”, the answer is in the dramatic contrast before and after Mami’s death. Before her death, Mami painted an image of an idyllic magical girl life, but then her death shatters that image as Kyubey begins revealing the truth. All of the cruel, utilitarian “fine print” of the magical girl system begins leaking out; Kyouko, a selfish, yet darkly realistic magical girl, shows up to take over Mami’s “hunting grounds”; and the series as a whole gets much darker, particularly in the fourth episode’s horror and labyrinth sequence with the entranced suicide cult.
All of this fits in with how Madoka is a very setting-focused, very plot-focused show, with characters slotting into specific roles within the story; but what makes Madoka great is that the characters are still well-developed and multi-dimensional beyond their respective plot roles. Mami was not just a plot device that drove the story forward when she died, but exemplified multiple ideals through her personality, experiences, and actions, and those things came together with her roles in the plot to help make her a great character.
We see this in how Mami puts on a facade of coolness and spectacle when she acts as a senpai to Madoka and Sayaka: her fighting is played up and stylized to look cooler, she actively tries to show off to Madoka and Sayaka when in combat (Tiro Finale), she mentions the seriousness of making a contract with Kyubey but isn’t very convincing in those arguments (likely on purpose), and she actively invites Madoka and Sayaka to watch her on her witch hunts, where they’ll be useless and she’ll get to show off the whole time. With that framing, we see Mami as someone who wants to take these girls under her wing and be a respected senpai to other girls. However, Mami’s confession of her own wish when she became a magical girl and her conversation with Madoka shortly before her death show us the truth: she is not as tough as the mask she wears would indicate, but she is alone and has been alone since becoming a magical girl, and the reality of having to fight witches as a magical girl has taken its toll on her. And it’s not even that the mask she wears in front of Madoka and Sayaka isn’t also a part of who she is, but the reality of what she feels on the inside merges with her external facade to create a nuanced, multidimensional character, a character with real motivations and real desires even as part of a story where she was destined to die. We see this in Mami’s interactions with Homura as well, as perhaps there’s a part of her that fears that Homura, in her pursuit of Madoka, will stop at nothing to destroy the only relationships Mami has at that point. We wonder why Mami was so distrusting of Homura’s warnings in episode 3, but then we understand that in Mami’s eyes, Homura was a very real threat to her chance of maintaining her first real friendships in a long time.
And all of Mami’s character development then doubles back to further emphasize just how much her death symbolizes a loss of innocence, because her conversation with Madoka should be a key step on the path to a happy conclusion. Mami finally has friends she can lean on, that will be there for her, and this should be a celebratory moment in the series. But then in a flash, all of that is taken away when Mami is killed, unexpectedly and despite Homura’s warnings. What should have been celebration turned into mourning; and the three magical girls working together to fight witches became a lonely, downward spiral of despair. Mami’s death, the loss of innocence, makes this transition powerful and dramatic, and is a crucial moment in Madoka Magica’s long road to Walpurgisnacht.