Having written about the five genres of Madoka, I want to spend a little time on the show’s structure – but there’s so much to say here that I think I’ll just have to indicate a few approaches, rather than follow each exhaustively.
With any work of art that is experienced in a set sequential order (e.g. film, music and literature as opposed to photography or painting) the question of structure falls into two parts: the structure as experienced over time, and the whole structure, seen “from above” at a glance. We begin each work with only the first perspective to draw on, but as we whizz round and round the hermeneutic circle the second begins to take shape, albeit a cloudy and provisional shape. By the end, and especially on a re-watching or re-reading, both conceptions are well formed and tend increasingly to inform each other, but they never quite coincide. No matter how many times we see Oedipus Rex or how well we know what’s going to happen, it’s still a shock.
When Madoka was first broadcast it was in weekly instalments, and a lot of attention was focused on the temporal aspects of its structure. The show gained a reputation for revelations and twists, and sometimes cliffhangers as well. I’ve included a chart below, for interest. For my idiosyncratic purposes, a Revelation is the introduction of unexpected information that adds significantly to what we know but doesn't invalidate our previous understanding; a Twist is the introduction of information that necessitates our rethinking (in a non-trivial way) what we thought we already knew; and a Cliffhanger is the interruption of the action with an immediate point of interest about to be decided. There is of course plenty room for argument about these categories.
Note that the above only refers to the endings of episodes. Plenty of twists, shocks, etc. happen in other places. Episode 11 begins with a Revelation, for example, an unusual placement; while Episode 10 is virtually one long series of twists, even though it doesn’t end on one, instead dropping us off at the status quo ante. But the endings of episodes are where such devices are usually held to be particularly effective in terms of making people want to “tune in next week”. Considering its reputation, Madoka is actually surprisingly light on such things. Even on the most generous interpretation only seven of its episodes end on a twist, revelation or cliffhanger; while on a parsimonious reading one could make a case for saying that only one episode (Episode 8) does so, though that episode boasts several.
That said, I think it’s fair to say that the plot of Madoka conforms pretty well to a standard type of story arc, with a strong element of “directionality”, characterized by increasing tension (I've borrowed this chart, by the way):
Not of course that “tension” is the only relevant criterion here. The directionality of the show’s plot (which can be set against its symmetry) manifests in numerous other ways, for example in the increasing stakes being played for. I will just note that for now and pass on.
The potential problem with twists, etc., is that, like Party Poppers, they can only be used once, and any plot that relies on them too much won’t bear re-reading/watching. How does Madoka stand up on that basis?
The re-watchability of a series rests on many factors, including some (such as character, visuals, music) that fall outside the purview of structure as such, and hence the scope of this post. Having suggested at the top that the question of structure falls into two parts, however (the real-time experience and the appreciation of the whole, of which more below), I now want to revise that by adding that re-watching introduces a hybrid category: a real-time experience that becomes available only when you already know what’s going to happen. It’s on a second viewing, in other words, that you notice things like foreshadowing, dramatic irony, and so on. (A first viewing may also stray into this territory, because our experience of other instances of the genre may alert us to features such as, say, death flags, but only the certainty of a re-watching allows us the leisure to identify the role of these things other than in a provisional way. After all, many shows, not least Madoka, use their viewers’ genre assumptions in order to surprise them.)
In this context we should note the lavish use made by Madoka of dramatic irony and double meaning. Almost everything that Homura says in the first nine episodes, for example, takes on an added and/or different significance on a second viewing, and the same is true to a lesser extent of many other characters, from Sayaka’s joking speculation in Episode 1 that fate has brought Homura and Madoka together across time and space, to Kyubey’s offer to Madoka in Episode 9: “If you ever feel like dying for the sake of the universe, call me.” Even Madoka’s job as her class's Nurse’s aide, tasked with accompanying students to the sick room, foreshadows her final role as psychopomp.
In addition, Madoka also has a rich array of motifs and allusions, both visual and otherwise, which can’t possibly be picked up (at least by me) in a single viewing, or even three. The form of Sayaka’s witch, with a mermaid’s tail, for example, alerts us retrospectively to the fact that her story is as much that of Andersen’s “Little Mermaid” as of Faust: she has given up her humanity to save the boy she loved, having to stand mutely by while he goes with someone else. This sorts with Sayaka’s continual association with water, starting with her “blue” coding (as opposed to Kyoko’s fiery red). Too much of water hast thou, poor Sayaka: hence the focus on a single falling tear, which triggers her transformation into a witch in Episode 8 and is reprised at several later points, first during the conversation about Sayaka between Kyoko and Madoka in Episode 9, then in the drop of water that falls from the tip of Madoka’s furled umbrella after she has returned from Sayaka’s funeral in Episode 11, and finally in the further tears that Sayaka sheds on seeing Kyousuke and Hitomi together in Epsiode 12. There’s a lot more to the show's visual symbolism than this, of course, and perhaps at some point I’ll write a post about it, though I feel far less confident in writing about visuals than some other things. (Just take a look at what show does with musical staves and railway lines, though, to be going on with.) For now I simply note it as an example of the kind of thing that takes more than one viewing to be fully appreciated.
The other way of thinking about the show is in terms of its overall architecture, the way that pace, exposition and similar "temporal" aspects are handled in relation to other qualities such as theme and character. Unlike many anime, Madoka is short enough – just 12 24-minute episodes – that it can be held in the mind’s eye, and its facets viewed from various angles.
The number twelve has many divisors, and I'll take advantage of this as a way to briefly model the show's balance. For example, we might split the series into two, putting the cut-off point at the end of Episode 6 (which on first watching was my personal WTF moment) when it becomes undeniable that Kyubey is not looking out for the MGs’ interests at all, but actually “ripping their souls out of their bodies”:
Alternatively, we can divide the story in three. The first third deals with the decision as to whether or not to become a Magical Girl, and ends with Sayaka contracting at the end of episode 4. The middle third charts her career as an MG, from idealism to despair and her transformation into a witch at the end of episode 8. And the last third shows the consequences and fallout from that, and the attempts first of Kyoko (episode 9), then of Homura (episode 10-11) and finally of Madoka (episode 12) to “save” fallen MGs:
Or we can break it into four three-episode segments, each of which focuses on a different character (Mami, Sayaka, Kyoko, Homura/Madoka), and each of which concludes with the death of that character, Mami and Kyoko’s deaths being literal and physical, Sayaka and Madoka’s deaths being either temporary or a kind of translation to a higher state. Each of these events triggers a decisive change of direction within the series:
Now, I wouldn’t deny that my own “ingenuity” plays some part in the patness with which these kinds of divisions appear to work, and as a general rule it’s not a method of analysis I’d be inclined to push very far, but I hope this at least hints at both the coherence and flexibility of the show's structure: this is far from being a story that merely lurches from one twist to the next, or flails about trying to find a way of coping with its own premises (Steven Moffat, watch and learn). For such a tense and packed show there’s something almost serene about the way it gives itself time to explore its world, its characters, its morality and the dilemmas that accompany all these, without letting one aspect overwhelm the rest. Take Madoka’s version of the mind-body problem, for example. We see the challenge to a sense of self raised by the fact that MGs are detached from their own bodies confronted (or not) in a variety of ways: Mami doesn’t know about it; Sayaka knows but is destroyed by the knowledge; Kyoko knows and decides it’s unimportant; Madoka uses it, becoming a god or “concept” in order to change the whole universe. This of course says something about their respective characters (I haven’t decided yet whether I need a separate post on character), but also, and without ever becoming remotely like a philosophy seminar, the show takes each position out and examines its strengths and weaknesses, apparently at leisure. To do all this without slowing down the story takes tremendous skill.