On Cowboy Bebop, part three

The final bounty that the Bebop crew sets after together tests the crew’s mettle like none other as they go after the leader of a cult. A man named Londis has been appearing on TV and convincing people to join his cyborg cult or “migration.” He has purportedly found a way to store someone’s brain activity – all of the electrical patterns in the brain and so the entire cognitive activity of a person – into data. Once your “soul” is digitalized and mapped into electron-silicon content instead of electron-neural content, you can then release that soul from the body and join the ethereal space of the internet. What if our minds or souls could escape the confines of our bodies and exist somewhere else? It’s an old thought experiment with a Cowboy Bebop twist: a figurehead has created a scandal by forming a cult around his new “technology” and is killing people with it. People get the word that they can leave their impure bodies behind and find ascetic bliss in the “other world” of the internet and they start committing suicide or otherwise going missing. The awakening that the SCRATCH movement preaches is that of the spirit transforming from the imperfect material world to the perfect world of spirit, via a new piece of technology whose powers people are unsure of. The old mind-body problem has taken on a new dimension with the new ability to store a massive amount of material data, and now people are becoming convinced that living in the internet can make their spirits immortal.

Every member of the Bebop crew plays a role in this session. Even Ein the dog finally reveals his power as a “data-dog”, with hacking abilities that surpass even Ed’s programs. Together the crew probes the case and work their leads to locate this guy but run into the same trouble that everybody else has – nobody can find this guy. Everyone with a lust for the reward has been searching for this man whose face is splattered all over the news, but everyone has come up empty. They can’t find him because he doesn’t exist in the flesh, only in image. The name of the man ‘Londis’ is taken from a dead man who disappeared many years ago before he could age to the way he looks now, and his image was computer generated by the mastermind of the SCRATCH movement. Londis only exists in cyberspace and on TV screens convincing people that they can escape their flesh-and-bone bodies and live in “the infinite sea of electrons” that is the internet. So, a fake man is telling people through the bevy of electronic screens in this society they can transcend their bodies by swimming through the cybernetic currents and finally achieve enlightenment. The internet and its electron current, dashing from one circuit board to another, is the new dream-place.

Jet takes a trip through the device that the SCRATCH movement has been using to upload people’s souls: a new immersive video-game system similar to the oculus rift that takes up your entire field of vision when you put on its goggles. They discover that when you run the SCRATCH program, a series of images fire-off rapidly and bombard your eyes and ears with their religious symbols. But that’s not all, it is also designed to paralyze certain inhibitors and force the viewer into a a sort of passive dream-state while all of this is going on. It might have taken Jet had it not been for a shock of pain that disrupted the process coming from Ein’s bite. Every cult or religion has utilized trance states or otherwise induced moments of utter tranquility mixed at some times in with ecstatic revelry with others but this is a true twenty-first update. The magic or mystery of how an array of symbols or a pantheon of gods can imbue so much meaning and emotion into a body has been nullified and replaced with direct reorganizing of the neuron-firings in the body’s brain. The possibility of transcending the body and entering the untarnished spirit-world is surely believed by some of the members of SCRATCH, even before they are put under the goggles and selectively paralyzed by their program, but the methods of this cult have evolved away from collective chanting, alternative ritual, and dance to seizing an individual’s immediate perception. It is a cult tailor-made for the personal computer station.

As the bebop crew works their way through electronic trial that was left by the video-game goggles back to the man they believe to be Londis, they come to a startling destination. The man behind the cult is indeed a man in the flesh-and-blood, but he is a kid who has been resting in a hospice for years. “Ronny Spangen” is a young adult in a vegetable state, sleeping without conscious control over any of his bodily functions except for his thoughts. He used the machines that are monitoring his sleep and found his way into the internet, where he could start building a website by pulling religious imagery, music, historical figures, etc. together into a cohesive cult movement. This man is deeply asleep, yet, through his hacker training, he is able to access the attention of just about everyone in the solar system thanks to the internet and the interconnectedness of 2071 society. From their he is constantly and methodically convincing people that “you must awaken, awaken your soul” and live pretty much in the same way as he is, although without the life support machines and doctors of the hospice.

The session dwells on this only briefly at the end when Jet says: “I guess all he could do was dream, so the dreams turned bad.” Ronny Spangen is indeed only able to dream, but that dream-state is far from the transcendent world of the spirit he is telling everyone to follow him into. His terminology and symbolic design of the movement as the man Londis are tricks put over on people to get them to experience the world as he does. He may or may not believe that he has found salvation as a vegetable hooked up to a life-support machine, but he lets out his true intention when the bebop crew puts a stop to his meddling in cyberspace at the real location of Ronny Spangen’s body: “No, it isn’t fair. Why does it have to be like this? Everyone should have the same body as I do”, he says as his digital image vanishes. In his unceasing dream-state, Ronny Spangen is aware of what he is missing out on and it makes him angry. He is lonely and wants other people to feel the same way that he does, but he does so out of spite. Left with no access to the world but through various screens that are hooked-up to (the internet) Ronny cultivates a desire to control people.

Spike: “Why do you kill off the members of your own group? What’s the point of that?”

Londes: “I am not forcing anything on anyone. They are merely practicing a faith that they’ve decided to believe in of their own free will. Tell me, why do you think people believe in God? Because they want to. It’s not easy living in such an ugly corrupt world, there is no certainty and nothing to hope for. People are lost so they reach out. Don’t you get it? God didn’t create humans, no, it’s humans who created God.”

Londes: “Do you want to know what the greatest and also the worst device that humans ever invented? It’s television! Television controls people by bombarding them with information until they lose their sense of reality. Now television itself has become the new religion. Television has created a people who believe instantly in dramatic fantasies who can be controlled by tiny dots of light.”

Spike: “You’re like a kid with a toy… You’re the one that can’t tell fantasy from reality. You’re the one who lives in the little dots of light. If you want to dream, just do it by yourself”

This is the death blow for Londis, (as the leader of SCRATCH) dealt at the same moment that Jet and Ed are disconnecting Ronny from the internet. It doesn’t defeat him in the way that Jet and Ed did but does so ideologically. Unfortunately for Ronny’s dreams of controlling people through cyberspace, Spike can see through him and into the body of origin, with its desires in tow. Ronny does indeed live in fantasy world of little dots of light, where dreams manifest and travel form one screen to the next. In fact, he is actually living their and unable to wake, even though he is telling everyone else to wake up and, ironically, join his existence in a ’dream to the death’. He doesn’t want to simply dream all by himself the way Spike recommends, not with all of his prowess as a hacker and mind-manipulator; the real question is: why does he chose to fabricate a cult and instill (or, more aptly, upload) false hopes in people while killing many of them? It’s tempting to say that having nothing to do but surf cyberspace in world of Cowboy Bebop has bred someone with the desire to prey on the distraught and the curious, as if the solar system was so thickened with corruption and sadness that a man forced into a perpetual dream in this place could only dream-up sinister plans. The fascination with television and the desire for control may be the result of getting locked up in dreams, or getting locked up in the dreams of everyone else in cyber-solar-system-capitalism, or it might be the intense loneliness of a man unable to feel the presence of another body and converse the way people typically do.

What gave Spike the prescience to fire back a quick response to the domineering grandiosity of Londis’s comments can be traced back to an experience he had in a previous session. In session 21, ’Pierrot le Fou’, Spike is attacked by a fat, flamboyant assassin in a top-hat who appears to truly relish murder. Spike narrowly escapes the first encounter and goes back to meet him for another showdown, all before the bebop crew get the chance to dig around and find out who this guy is. He was a human experiment conducted by the military to create an unstoppable killing machine. Bullets stop before his invisible force field and fall to the ground, he has every heavy fire-arm at his disposal, and he can fly (just run with it). The catch is he has the mind of a child and instead of becoming smarter with age, the extreme manipulation of his body chemistry has sent his intelligence the opposite direction. He is like a little kid with toys, but his toys are the deadliest weapons and he faces no repercussions for using them. The government even covers up for this gruesome lunatic out of fear for the public backlash.

Keep in mind, Spike knows none of this. All he knows about “Mad Pierrot” comes from his encounters with him in gun fights. Spike is able to see quite clearly for himself that this is a murderous child when he is finally able to inflict a bit of pain on him and watches as he screams for his mama. And that’s all he really had to do: touch him. By the time Spike meets Londis on a big television screen he can spot the wayward dreamers inflicting misery and death upon others. Individuals deprived of human contact and possessing oversized weapons only result in destructive dreams, meanwhile, those with modest dreams for them and their loved ones are routinely shot down. Spike learns the ways of this world over the course of the show from one oddball character to the next and from there he makes his decision on how to face up to his past.

Spike is forced to confront his past when the tensions at his former syndicate boil over and Vicious attempts a coup of the old leaders of the Red Dragons. The coup fails, Vicious is put in chains, and the syndicate is now hunting down Spike and Julia for their past relationship with Vicious. The stars having aligned just so, Spike is now called upon to confront all of the elements in his old life.

After dodging the syndicate gunmen in a few firefights, he gets a message from Julia and goes to meet her in the rendezvous spot where they would have met long ago had she followed through with their plan to escape. When she eventually goes to embrace him, she repeats Spike’s old dream for the two of them: “Let’s just go away somewhere, escape, vanish, go where there’s no one else, just the two of us.” Spike’s face is expressionless – this is an old plan and Spike has had too much time to witness what happens to people who flee from the challenges put before them by their social web and the responsibilities generated thereof. Nonetheless, they reunite after ~5 years to join forces against the onslaught that the syndicate is bringing down upon them.

They travel to a familiar old spot where their friend Annie is staying (the hard-drinking lady that Spike visited a while back). Her place has been wrecked by the syndicate and she is bleeding out on the couch. She has just enough strength left to spill out a few words in front of Spike and Julia, “everyone has lost their sense of place in the world, like kites without strings or tails.” Not long after, she dies. As Spike covers her body and goes to collect a shotgun and extra shells, Julia says, “you won’t need all those weapons if we run away together, you know that. You’re staying. Then I’ll stay too. I’ll stay with you until the end.” Spike stops to look at her and says nothing in response. Her resolve is never tested, for when the Red Dragons come back to the spot she dies in the firefight. With Julia’s death, any last shred of hope that Spike had for a different life together has vanished but, based on his reaction to the arrival of Julia and the lessons he has learned throughout the show, Spike is prepared for end of this dream.

Faye had a run-in with Julia prior to her reunion with Spike and the two were able to exchange some friendly words. The two are rather similar: good with firearms and driving/piloting, they are both able to evade or kill some more syndicate henchmen pursuing Julia. When Faye comes back to the Bebop, she speaks with Jet about Julia. Both of them have picked up on the hold Julia has on Spike throughout the show and out of curiosity Jet asks what she is like. Faye describes Julia:

“Ordinary, the dangerous beautiful kind of ordinary that you can’t leave alone. Like an angel from the underworld, or maybe a devil from paradise.”

There doesn’t turn out to be anything special about Julia according to Faye, just a beautiful woman that causes all kinds of trouble. A devil in paradise or the reverse would seem extraordinary enough, but the point is that she was a distraction in Spike’s life in the syndicate. She is an ideal representing Spike’s wish to be free of the bitter realities of life in the syndicate (the underworld) – a common desire to run away, the lure of somewhere better manifested in a pretty face.

In the show’s finale, Spike doesn’t ever express much relief or lust or rage at getting his lover back and then losing her. He stoically and gradually moves toward his end as if he knew where he was supposed to go the whole time and was only waiting for the proper moment to go for it. The time spent with the Bebop crew was full of adventure for a beast of prey (hunting* bounties) but none of it he took very seriously. Being a man of such skill and talent, he seemed to be mostly motivated by tempting fate with the most dangerous jobs he could find because he felt himself to be dead already and drifting through that hazy limbo of purgatory-sleep. After Julia stood him up, he was dejected enough to consider himself dead, while at the same time he was unable to be killed by anyone but Vicious. There was too much at stake in Spike’s life/death: a man of his skill and position cannot go on dreaming in purgatory, not with the weight of so many lives resting on his shoulders. Only by choosing, paradoxically, to do battle at perhaps the highest seat of power will Spike fulfill his fate. And it is here, in his relationship with Vicious, that Spike will finally confront his mortality and simultaneously do something that will have major ripples for the world of Cowboy Bebop.

All that is left before the big showdown is to see off his bebop friends one last time. He gets Jet to make him a last meal and tells him a story about a cat with infinite lives who finally dies without resurrecting after its first true loved one dies. When Jet asks him if he’s doing it all for the girl he responds, “She’s dead. There is nothing I can do for her now.” The dream is over and it is time to go. But before he can leave, he is confronted by Faye with a gun drawn on him asking the big question:

Faye: “… Why are you leaving? You told me once to forget the past because it doesn’t matter. But you’re the one still tied to the past Spike!”

Spike: “Look at my eyes Faye”, he says as he moves them right in front of to her’s, “One of them is a fake. I lost it in an accident. Since then I’ve been seeing the past in one eye and the present in the other, so that I could only see patches of reality, never the whole picture.”

Faye: “Don’t tell me that. You never told anything about your past before, so don’t start now.”

Spike: “I felt like I was watching a dream I’d never wake up from. Before I knew it, the dream was all over.”

Faye: “My memory finally came back. But nothing good came of it. There was no place for me to return to. This was the only place I could go. And now you’re leaving just like that. Why do you have to go? Where are you going? What are going to do, just throw your life away like it was nothing?”

Spike: “I’m not going there to die. I’m going to find out if I’m truly alive. I have to do it Faye.”

Faye’s admission that she feels at home on the Bebop and that she wants Spike to stay is a first for any of them. Formerly they insulted and argued their way into comradeship, so this gesture signals an end to their wild ride through the solar system. Faye’s regained memory hasn’t led her anywhere, whereas Spike will now do what she can’t: return to his past. The two had grown closer in the last part of the show, with Faye even trying to save Spike in his encounter with Mad Pierrot. This situation was foretold by Old Man Bull all the way back in session one when he gave Spike his prophesy:

“You swimming bird. The bird will meet a woman, the bird will be hunted by this woman, and then death.”

“One more time.” replies Spike, “I was killed once before, by a woman.”

Alas, all Faye could do was allow Spike to die when she dulled the luster of Julia’s memory. She does have something that Spike doesn’t, however: a future. With all of his loose ends tied up, Spike is set to go live for a small time, finally awake from his long slumber. Faye had already awoke from her long slumber and while her lack of a past had haunted her, like Spike’s more embedded memory of his past haunted him, Spike has unfinished business from an old life. Faye’s duty is to create a future to fill the void of her past instead of assuming a fate foretold by it.

Vicious has broken his chains with the help of men loyal to his faction and stands alone atop one of the most powerful syndicates in the world. He stands above the bloodshed after slicing up the old leaders and says, “From now on my power is the only power.” It isn’t even clear that Spike knows that he has completed the coup, he seems to know that the will of Vicious will not be denied and the two of them are unmatched in fighting strength, destined to lock horns as “ravenous beast[s].” More fragments of memories pour in as he makes his way to the main building of the Red Dragons.

Spike and Vicious are two opposite reactions to a world that has scattered peoples apart and feels suddenly like a bad dream. Once a promising team in a major syndicate, they were split-up by a beautiful woman and left a void in an extremely powerful organization. Their fallout had very big consequences and instead of forming a team that could guide the Red Dragons (possibly the most powerful organization in the solar system) into treaty-making and general de-escalation like their mentor Mao Yenrai was attempting, Spike’s absence allowed Vicious to assert his violent predilections. We don’t know how Vicious behaved before Spike left, but the two of them were friends as we know from the dark blue memory fragments that have been coming in periodically. Their failure to maintain a tight crew and Spike’s flight from his responsibilities has resulted in the rise of a bloody dictator to head the great syndicate. Two beasts that, once separated, let their extremities take over their futures.

Spike spends a great deal of the show in a mopey daze. Having attempted to reach his fantasy life and failed, he remains in a dream-state and lays about when not on the hunt. His disposition is like that of a cat spending a great deal of time asleep when not attacking his bounties (as the show alludes to occasionally) in contrast to Vicious’s snake. His attitude is an intense nonchalance epitomized by a beautifully simple line at the end of session 19, when he and his spaceship are heading for a crash-landing on earth and his life is decidedly out of his hands: “Oh well, whatever happens, happens.” Once the action is over and he has caught his meal in the hunt, concern for anything else (besides finding his old dream-girl of course) simply doesn’t exist. His seeming lack of care for anything is a counterpoint to Vicious’s intense care for accumulating power and waiting for that moment to strike. The fissure between them created two polar opposites where there should have been a balanced team, an opposition that some have called the difference between active and passive nihilism. The active nihilist Vicious is concerned with a pure destruction and power in the wake of any other meaningful human dimension (such as friendship) and the passive nihilist Spike is concerned with nothing in particular, having withdrawn from his meaningful life inside the syndicate. Their are complications though: Spike has plenty of hedonistic tendencies in the earlier parts of the show and hasn’t exactly withdrawn from worldly pleasures altogether and Vicious may be exacting revenge on Spike for taking Julia away from him. This might all be over a woman, like a modern Trojan war, but the two characters are such stark opposites and yet so similar in fighting ability it cannot be that easy. Even if Spike’s lack of care is due to love lost, staying away from the world in which he has a voice and his actions may influence has proved costly for not only the ones he once cared for but many others – considering the size and power of the Red Dragons. Spike’s strong desire for Julia has led him to abandon his former life and leave open the path for a ruthless killer to take the position he could had and within which he would have performed with far more grace than his counterpart.

The qualities that make Spike the better part for a powerful position is learned throughout the show. After all, the question still remains: “why must Vicious be stopped? What puts his fantasy of ultimate power on a collision course with our protagonist?” Spike meets strangers and befriends some sincere people simply trying to help their own friends and family with great difficulty. He also meets some ambitious characters whose fantasies have taken over their lives and led them down the path of domination and death. A fantasy that pulls people towards each other, their nearest friends, comrades, family, one that carves out a space where they all belong (no matter how much quarreling or heartache it takes to make it), this is what we get from the “space cowboys” on board the Bebop. A fantasy that extracts one away from all of that or a fantasy that is born of alienation from such a homely place, will produce (or abet) a world devouring itself.  By the end of his dreamy journey through purgatory, Spike can tell the difference.

Jet’s fantasy of stopping corruption, catching the bad guys and spreading justice, may have netted some vicious characters of its own (demonstrated in session 16, Black Dog Serenade), but the intensity of his disappointment with the system was matched by the intensity of his hopes to cure it. This led him to quit his quest altogether, teaming up the Spike and joining him in is flight from the past. In contrast with Spike though, Jet has put his skills to better use as a bounty hunter than he formerly did in his past life. In each of the sessions that probe into a grand cover-up or conspiracy in the seats of power, Jet is the one to put the narrative together and discover its history. As a kind of freelance detective, Jet mounts more assaults on the power elites than he could have serving as a cop and remaining within its bureaucracy; his quest for justice was enhanced by removing himself from the police force and getting a taste of desperation. Jet also seems to have found his home on the Bebop, which is symbolized by his role as its de facto cook and house-keeper – he wears the apron. Whether Faye has found her home or not is as open as her future: a free choice.

Spike faces off with Vicious for the last time at the very top of the Red Dragon’s headquarters in what looks like a throne room. After tearing through the building and its guards wielding grenades, sticky-bombs, and his handguns, Spike is told by Vicious “finally you’re awake.” The long dream is over.  It’s fitting Cowboy Bebop would end with a duel, Wild West style. Nobody wins though, they both kill each other. Spike kills Vicious but pays the ultimate price for leaving his world behind with Vicious in his place.  At this point he can only sacrifice himself to cancel out his mistake instead of rule.  After the end credits and another beautiful song, Spike’s star fades out in place instead of burning up as a shooting star like Gren’s did. It is as if they are saying that Spike found his way home and made things right in his old life. In a way, he was already dead, but the world is a far better place for his homecoming.

Before we see Spike collapse on the walking down the stairs, we cut to Julia’s final words, muted at her actual time of death: “It’s all a dream?” “Yeah,” replies Spike, “just a dream.” These words are a consolation for the two characters drawing their final breaths, especially for ones led astray by their dreams in life. Of course, from a cosmic perspective, our lives are just short events with a start and a finish that was once destined for a reintegration into the earth. The entirety of one’s life is a dream, seen from this cosmic place, which we earthlings have ventured out into. Cowboy Bebop considers a world in which we are shooting stars burning up from our rapid activity, unable to reconcile ourselves to our new reality and the magnitude of the increased freedom of movement for some.  Here, in imagining our current security-capitalist state written into the solar system, our mortality remains, as well as the desire for an escape.  For those with the will and the skill like Spike, the weight of a dream is immense: he actually has the power to change this world for the better but chose to flee instead. He carried that weight around until his death when he could be truly free from the burden, as the ending song indicates.  The final words from the show are written at the bottom of the screen where it usual leaves you with “See you space cowboy” and reads: “You’re going to carry that weight.”  The only thing that releases us from our dreams is death and it is the manner in which we reconcile those dreams with reality that determines our fate, perhaps more that anything else.

Between the cosmic highway and our terrestrial ground, we have the blue sky: End Credits with the song ‘Blue’.



Author: billrosethorn

(Geo)Philosopher, Occupier (until there is a better idea).

One thought on “On Cowboy Bebop, part three”

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