Sorry this is so ridiculously late. I just COULD NOT WRITE last night, which meant I had to do this during lunch and bathroom breaks and such at work. Also, this one proved to be a struggle to write, because there is SO MUCH happening in these final episodes.
We begin at the end, with the wheel of fate. It is everywhere in this episode. The great grinding gears of Walpirgisnacht are the cycles of hope and despair that transform the magical girls (back) into witches, and they are the endless cycles of reset time Homura creates. Both are the wheel of fate, as is the round clockwork buckler Homura uses to travel in time.
Hovering above Junko throughout the conversation with Madoka’s teacher is a reproduction of Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam. Notably, the position of the two characters aligns Junko with God and the teacher with Adam; at the same time, the red lighting on the teacher’s side and blue lighting on Junko’s causes God’s red mantle (which has been compared by scholars to both a uterus and a brain) to be barely visible; it is instead Adam who appears wrapped safely in red warmth. This image foreshadows Junko’s second scene in the episode, in the shelter, when she realizes that she has to stop protecting Madoka and start trusting her. It is a tragic scene, culminating in possibly the single densest shot in the series, a simple image of Junko’s mom-jeans-and-sweater-clad crotch, lower abdomen, and hand, Madoka’s mother reduced to a womb. The hand reaches out as if to grab Madoka, pull her inside–and then stops, and we cut back to Junko’s face. The woman will not be idealized (read: reduced and objectified) as a mother; she overrides her own mothering tendency and makes the active choice not to act, to allow Madoka to risk the life Madoka owns. Watching, we feel Junko’s pain as she lets go, but we also feel the profound respect and trust she is showing toward her daughter.
But Homura has been doing the opposite, pursuing a Christian ideal of salvation, in which the higher protects the lower, a permanent womb. She is trying to block Madoka from choosing the self-sacrifice she knows Madoka would make; if Junko is showing respect and trust toward Madoka, what is Homura showing towards her?
The answer, as of all people the supposedly unempathic and unemotional Kyubey notes (revealing once again that he has plenty of intellectual empathy, just no emotional empathy, a not entirely inaccurate first-order description of a sociopath), is that it has long ago ceased to be about Madoka. Homura herself described her journey to protect Madoka as a labyrinth, and the inside of her apartment resembles nothing so much as the surreal interior of a witch’s labyrinth. Extradiegetically, magical girls began as witches; diegetically, they all end as witches. Homura can transcend time. In Homura, all things are one, the past, present, and future become a single wheel. She is, in other words, both magical girl and witch, trapped in a labyrinth that is the narrative of the series itself. In that role as magical girl/witch, she brings both wishes and curses, at once protecting Madoka and ensuring her destruction.
But what transforms a magical girl into a witch is the transition from hope to despair, from the optimism that things will work out to the realization that death and decay are inevitable and inescapable, and Homura has never experienced that transition. Homura has never had hope. She was a weak and sickly child who became a magical girl out of desperation and a sense of duty, wishing to become not Madoka’s savior but her protector. Even in her wishes, she does not imagine that she will actually succeed, only that she will try. She is entirely and innately hopeless, and as such she is immune to despair–because like all other binaries, hope and despair are one. Thus it is not hopelessness that finally breaks Homura; rather, the realization that she is making things worse causes her to doubt her path for the very first time. For her, it is the transition from determination to doubt that threatens to bring about her transformation.
And there laughing at her is Walpurgisnacht, the witches’ Sabbath, the wheel of fate, the Harlequin. In the old commedia dell’arte, the Harlequin is a trickster figure, mocking all authority and order, and competing with the stern, sad Pierrot for possession of the beautiful Colombina. Like the Harlequin, Walpurgisnacht will dance forever with Homura, laughing at her and snatching away Madoka, her Colombina, defying rules or containment, a living symbol of the irreducible unpredictability and chaos of life. There is no higher and lower in the face of a trickster, only people. Rules are broken. Systems come crashing down.
And it is in this moment that Madoka arrives to make her wish.