Cowboy Bebop crams so many different styles from visual art, music, and storytelling together that it becomes easy to miss how profoundly deep it reaches into the human condition. The allure of wayward dreams, friendship and finding home, and facing up to a difficult past and certain death all subsist beneath the flare of this single 26-episode season. Fight scenes dazzle with such exuberance, the soundtrack composed by Yoko Kano and performed by The Seatbelts unleashes a fury of notes reminiscent of all-night jam-sessions, and the tv show’s writing so seamlessly weaves death-defying adventure with boredom and bickering-inducing downtime that it’s easy to get caught up with the Bebop crew. Look close enough at the show and you will find more than an abundance of style; Cowboy Bebop’s brilliance lies in capturing the affections of an entire generation and putting them into a single story.
It’s a bold claim, as bold as the sign the show throws up in the middle of an episode, prompting a commercial break, that reads: “The work which will become a new genre of its own will be called Cowboy Bebop.” But hang with me a bit longer. This anime tv show launched in Japan in 1998 to universal praise. It tops many a list of best anime shows of all time and I am not alone in my unflinching praise of it as a masterful piece of art. What I will do here is attempt to probe Cowboy Bebop and unearth some things that might have been missed by viewers, hoping to explain just what it is that has kept this show so fresh.
If you prefer not to be spoiled, then here: *spoiler alert*. Now go watch the show asap and come back. This essay would better be read after watching the whole show, but I’ve tried to write it for those who haven’t as well. Many will not be familiar with Japanese anime, but those put off by cartoonish things are missing out on a true piece of art with Cowboy Bebop.
The world of Cowboy Bebop is post-catastrophic. Written before our era of post-apocalyptic over-saturation, the world of Bebop drags on much like our present does but does so in the greater theatre of the solar system. “Hyper-space gates” have allowed for travel to other planets and asteroids for human colonization. The science fiction imagination that stimulated thoughts of outer-space exploration in the dark uncharted sea of black has pushed people as far as the (once)planet-turned-prison Pluto and the terraformed planet of Venus. Though we travel to exotic locations, much of the scenery doesn’t change that much – we still have the same airports, slums, skyscrapers, and cars but now with flying ships fit into the grid. The only thing to indicate a difference in the city environments is greater and lesser degrees of poverty. It is as if the future has come and only made things worse: more homelessness, a greater disparity between rich and poor countries (now planets instead of earth-regions), and mafioso “syndicates” that routinely infiltrate the police force and extort the local neighborhoods. The main characters are self-employed bounty hunters who scrape out a living by catching criminals wanted by the police and chase the dream of that big payoff for that big bounty head. From a macro perspective, this is a system by which a corrupted police force (the beyond global ISSP: ’Inter-Solar Special Police’) sics poor people on wanted criminals who don’t have the means to pay them off. Welcome to the future of Cowboy Bebop, 2071.
The new hyper-space gate technology mentioned above was developed when people were still earthbound, but they quickly found a way to travel to the moon and back with relative ease. As we learn in Session 14, the still young invention was pushed into production prematurely and caused a massive disaster that marks the beginning of the new era. An explosion of the first hyper-space gate near the moon destroyed a large chunk of the earth’s only moon and sent its shards hurling toward earth. The moon rocks killed many people on earth and formed a thick asteroid layer in earth’s orbit that pelts its surface repeatedly with meteors. The entire planet earth became a disaster zone – a place where the memory of a great catastrophe lives on everyday. Rather than tend to the planet of their origin, the earthlings of Cowboy Bebop chose to double-down on their new space-travel technology and transform the rest of the solar system into synthetic earth-like environments. Like with most characters and the general mood of the show, the home that was once earth has been lost and we are left as drifters wandering the great empty expanse of outer space. Everyone seems haunted by some demon of their past; a missing sense of belonging pervades the atmosphere of Cowboy Bebop and nowhere is this more obvious than with the loss of the earth as home.
There are those that still remain, but throughout the show they are depicted as “weirdos” – the only ones crazy enough to still remain there amidst the rubble and meteor showers. So we are in a situation in which those with a home (planet) are the crazy ones and everyone else who is opportunistic enough to move towards greater wealth and prosperity are homeless. The homeless are well-adjusted and sane, while those that remain are crazy.
One of the most important devices that Cowboy Bebop employs is the transitional shots between scenes set over the moody soundtrack. These landscapes, cityscapes, slum shots build up the world without doing too much work And give the viewer a respite from the high-octane battles and chase scenes. They are mostly still-shots that give the viewer a sense of what ordinary life is like in this new world:
This bleakness pervading the societies and the tightly controlled environments they are set in is reflected in the main characters of the show. Spike Spiegel is a former syndicate member searching for his beloved Julia, hoping that when they reunite they can start over and live free: “it’ll be like watching a dream.” Faye Valentine is a woman in massive debt who is constantly worried about authorities trying to collect on her, while simultaneously unable to remember anything at all about her life before she woke up in this future in her mid-twenties. When Faye wakes up, she is immediately conned into taking on somebody else’s huge debt load before she can even get acclimated to this new world. Welcome to the future Faye. Jet Black is an ex-policeman of the ISSP, who quit in a quiet protest of its intractable corruption. Jet owns the spaceship that the Bebop crew makes their home for a few years, turning his sense of justice towards catching criminals in a non-institutional setting. It is in investigating the circumstances around bounty heads that the theatre of justice takes place in Cowboy Bebop, where the crew members must decide which characters should be pursued and captured and which ones should be assisted. All of this, of course, so long as they have enough food to eat.
Then there’s Ed, the child genius hacker from earth whose personality is as wily and chaotic as the internet screen which she is constantly looking at and a master at controlling. Coming from earth, Ed is reminder of the manic, ecstatic earthlings together with the hyper stimulation of the internet, where one’s attention can be pulled in many directions at the speed of light. They also have a dog, his name is Ein.
Together the Bebop crew becomes rather successful, as each one of them is extremely talented in their specialties. Everyone can shoot firearms and pilot aircraft very well, Spike and Faye are top-notch hand-to-hand fighters with Jet being no slouch, Ed’s hacking gives them almost unlimited access to information, and Jet has many useful contacts from his old police-force job. Though they are able to tackle the most dangerous and difficult cases, they always seem like they are just barely earning enough to get by. While they are likely the most adept bounty hunting crew in the solar system, the threat of running out of food and fuel always looms, making you wonder just how difficult it is for everyone else. And we don’t have to guess too much either, the bounties they go after and side characters they meet along the way are usually in a desperate situation and trying to get out if not seeking some lost connection of yesterday. They generally earn the sympathy of the Bebop crew, in contrast to the scammers and thugs who do the grunt work of keeping these dreamers locked into their place in the system and/or extracting tribute. That job falls on the syndicate henchmen, small-time crooks, and the police.
Nearly everyone we meet including the main crew has a dream for how their life will be resolved and their fortunes reversed. Between the constant presence of the syndicates, the ISSP, and the bounty hunters, improving one’s life is a high risk endeavor and often means moving to entirely different planet. Migration from the global South to the global North is dangerous today on earth, so imagine having to get off your economically depressed colony in an expensive spaceship, fly through space, then enter only a handful of guarded gates and you get the picture. As the Bebop crew witnesses the failed dreams of the people they meet it starts to dawn on them that this rag-tag living situation they have going on right now with each other isn’t as bad as they think. Faye’s dream for finding and remembering her past life is dashed when she discovers the rubble of her old house, Spike comes to terms with Julia and his’ entanglement with the syndicate, and Jet becomes resigned to carry out a little justice on the fringes of the inter-solar system instead of root it out entirely as a hero-cop. The glitter of their lost dreams starts to fade as time wears on but rather than let it drag them down, they learn to make good use of their exceptional skills by relying on each other. Most episodes are a lesson in the dangers of lofty dreams of distant place, with the occasional nod to the comfort of friendship, that is, if they are not about how irredeemably corrupt the solar system is. By putting their camaraderie to good use and getting over their illusions the Bebop crew actually ends up helping a few people their struggles and ridding the world of some nasty ones.
There are hints of our characters progressively breaking free from the grip of impossible dreams as the show progresses, but the subtlety of it is what makes the show so endearing. You can go back and watch the series a second time (or nth time like me) and look for the slow transformation that the characters go through; doing this will only increase your affections for the characters and their little crew. The in-your-face gushing of energy from all of the fighting, musical jamming, and noir-style case-cracking becomes almost a distraction from how the main characters learn to face-up to their fate.
The first session, Asteroid Blues, sets the thematic standard for how the show will operate. Broke, hungry, and angry with each other, Spike and Jet set off for a new bounty head on a slummy border-town asteroid. They chase after a man named Asimov Solenson who stole a lot of a potent drug that the syndicates cooked up. His plan is to sell enough of it with his girlfriend and run off to Mars – where they can be happy. Breaking with their gang and taking the drug-selling business on all by themselves creates a ripple in the fabric of their town – a colony called Tijuana situated on an asteroid. Their attempted break with the crime business norm has got not just the gangs but the police and our protagonist bounty hunters all chasing after him. Asimov and his lady make their play to improve their lives, following an new form of the American dream we could redub ‘The Mars Dream’, and end up the center of attention.
The runaway couple escaping their troubled life for a safer, more prosperous one elsewhere perfectly mirrors Spike’s motivation. His own attempt to abscond with his beloved Julia was cut off when she stood him up at the meeting place. A deflated Spike is now cast adrift around the solar system looking for her: his lost dream. This gives him more time to contemplate the prospect of escapist dreams, which he does by interacting with the colorful characters that the Bebop crew comes into contact with in their bounty hunting adventures. The nameless woman that looks very much like a Hispanic version of Julia befriends Spike for a brief conversation. She tells him of their dream to go to Mars: “ I hear there are parks, festivals – people are happy there”, to which Spike replies “Sure, if you’re rich.” “Then I’m sure we will be quite happy.” She seems to think that they can be rich too and start a nice family in their better place: she looks about eight months pregnant. This suggests she is looking forward to idyllic family-life you see in advertisements from the nineteen-fifties, but the swell under her dress is actually a hiding spot for the drug vials they need to sell. Spike follows them to the end of the line – a police line that lights up their spacecraft and ends the couple’s dream at the same moment she makes eye-contact with him and says: “Adios.”
Though Spike may be sympathetic to the couple’s plight, his goal was to chase after them and collect a reward for putting them in jail. Watching the two go out together he is no doubt reminded of his own dream-girl and the danger that comes with trying to get out from under gang rule. The ’better place’ in this solar system has massive barriers to entry and requires, for the majority of people anyways, an escape that sets off alerts in the systems of control headed by the syndicate-police corruption alliance that Jet so despises. Even here, in the outer space that once filled children’s dreams with wonder, social mobility is only more risky – in proportion with the size of the society that has grown out into space. Everybody dreams though, so what’s a person to do? Much of the progression of the show shines forth in those moments when the characters alter their dreams to fit the realities of their situation. This is not merely say they quit dreaming and get real, but, as we will see, reevaluate their expectations and make the best of the powers that they have.
We finally meet characters from Spike’s past in session 5, Ballad of Fallen Angels. Spike’s old boss, his mentor Mao Yenrai, has been killed and goes to investigate a bounty that’s been placed on his head, though he knows there is far more behind the story. He returns to his old neighborhood to get more intel on the situation and visits his old friend Annie who then begins drinking big glasses of hard alcohol in front of him.
“What’s bad for my health is seeing you come back from the dead;” she says, “it’s a shock to the system.”
“But I’m alive” says Spike.
“No you’re not, you died three years ago. That’s how things work around here.”
There is an awkward silence and then they exchange some warm words about Mao. Spike gets filled in with what the viewer already knows: Spike’s old friend Vicious has killed and replaced the two’s old boss Mao in a power play. He wants to keep the syndicate fierce and resents the way old men are forging peace with other syndicates when they should be fighting for more and more power. This turns out to be Vicious’s sole motivation: achieving power through violence.
Spike returns to the Bebop and immediately gets into an argument with Jet. He is going to face off with his old friend Vicious to get some revenge for his murdering of Mao. He cannot resist getting back involved with the politics of the syndicate from wence he came. The syndicate keeps attracting him back; the old social web of friends and enemies asserts itself. He justifies his fight with Vicious by saying to Jet: “Let’s just say my past is catching up with me.”
When he arrives at the meeting spot, a giant church on a dark hill, Vicious refers to Spike as an angel forced out of heaven become a devil, to which he replies “I’m just watching a bad dream.” Later, the middle of a standoff, Vicious refers to Spike as a “ravenous beast” like him: “The same blood runs through both our viens – the blood of a beast who wanders, hunting for the blood of others.” To which Spike replies, “I’ve bled all that kind of blood away.” The haphazard use of a mix of religious and “wilderness” imagery highlight a greater confusion about dreams coursing through the show. Spike sees his life as if he is drifting around in a purgatorial dream-land. After his affair with Julia fell through, he is still caught in the prospect of a better life with Julia (his dream-object) but in a hazy limbo of dejection. As an soul he is in purgatory, as a beast he is a wanderer no longer hunting other beasts, as a human body he has lived through death with no concern for his future survival anymore (a corpse not yet dead); but in a way, it doesn’t even matter.
The mixture of types of imagery itself does the work of turning Spike into a character stuck in a dream. We will get more imagery in the Spike-centered episodes about snakes, dragons, and stars (on top of angels, beasts, and corpses) but the important point is that Spike is lost and his life is itself a dream. Is Spike stuck in a dream or is he dead? Is he an angel forced out of heaven? Is he an anime character? In the world of Cowboy Bebop, where cybernetic cities are littered across dark, empty space, life goes on as if in a dream that doesn’t get anymore real by fleeing from one side of it to another.
It is between the fantasies that pull us outward and the forces playing on us in our immediate environments that our futures are foretold. A dream imbued with enough desire becomes fantasy, and a fantasy’s merit is determined by where it leads us – its destination. The image of perfection in an entirely different social and environmental situation is a powerful attraction, but all too often the result is abandonment. A dream is just a heap of images upon images upon images, flashing one after the other in an only semi-coherent form. Following an image and placing all of your hopes and wishes into it is not necessarily futile: this is how some of the most intense of human dramas are played out. What Cowboy Bebop demonstrates is the harm that comes to people when they are separated from their formative relationships and the difficulty that comes in reconstructing a place one can call home. The bounty hunters of the Bebop create their new home reluctantly and carry with them a dream that no longer inspires but haunts their lives. Each brief montage of our character’s memories is a patchwork of shots put together without a narrative and layered in a kind of nonlinear hallucinatory sequence. The past buggers every character in Cowboy Bebop like a puzzle that won’t ever accept completion. Our protagonists ease this jumble of painful memories by solving cases and catching bounty heads during their time in their makeshift home. Together and with not a little bit of animosity, they help reground each other in what they have been missing: genuine human relationships.
This situation with our main characters is resonant with the greater solar-system-capitalism or cybernetic-capitalism-in-outer-space of Cowboy Bebop – humanity’s new condition. People have lifted-off from earth and “escaped” its bounds* only to end up with more of the same: consumerism, corrupt authorities, and different, more restrictive bounds*. One can jump from planet to planet, through spectacular and expensive hyperspace gate tunnels, only to end up in the same technocratically controlled cities and terra-formed environments. It’s like the progressive fantasy of jet-propelled innovation already sent us to the stars and our dreams are only left to wander around looking for anything better. The poverty never left, we (as humans living with security-capitalism) just took it right along with us in our mad dash to leave it behind. In this ordeal, the dream of life on another planet is within reach but offers no reprieve: it’s the same as life on earth except more technically integrated with human inventions.
Ballad of Fallen Angels ends with Spike getting thrown off of the church balcony through a window, falling down next to shards of glass as a dream-montage kicks in on his way down. The images of key moments from his past are interspersed with his view falling away from the broken window over a haunting song.
He wakes up looking like a mummy with all of the bandages from the damage. He will continually skirt death throughout the show, only to end up right back on the Bebop crew. Spike just can’t seem to die until he faces Vicious and makes his move at the old powerful syndicate of his past. The immediately following session, Sympathy for the Devil, hits this home with the antagonist being someone who can’t die. As a result of the first hyperspace gate accident on the moon that sent the earth into perpetual turmoil, a boy was infected with some kind of substance that prevents him from aging and always regenerates any bodily harm done to him. This near-immortality has made him totally indifferent to the lives of others. He kills people without care and just moves from one person to use as cover to another, never with any friends to grow old with. This time spent all alone has given him time to perfect the blues harmonica and he wails beautiful sadness throughout the session. Spike takes it upon himself to find the cure and free the boy (now at least seventy) who then thanks him for lifting the curse off of him. Death is something that Spike is going to have to earn. His life itself is a long dream that he will only wake up from when he reconciles with his past. A fallen angel does not get to die so easily.
We get more than a mirror of Spike’s predicament in the immortal child though; we witness a kind of healing of the world with this death. Since the great catastrophe on the moon, nothing has been able to halt humanity from expanding into the solar system or even alter its course. The child is like a painful memory of a human-wide traumatic event that has finally been exorcised. If only symbolically, a different future not wholly stained by the mark of a ruined earth becomes possible with the death of this child who hasn’t aged since the catastrophe.
The next time we get to peer into Spike’s journey is the two part Jupiter Jazz. Here we learn more about the Vicious vs. Spike dynamic, the politics of Spike’s old syndicate, and we even get a fragment of a cosmology fit for the world of Cowboy Bebop.
By the time of Jupiter Jazz, the Bebop crew has become pretty well established and settled into the ship. So much have they grown as a team, they all split up and run away from each other. Faye takes off with the crew’s common fund and Spike and Jet “break up” in a fight over what to do about it. Spike is off on his own with a loose tip that his dream-girl is out on a moon of Jupiter called Calisto. Calisto has got to be the most depressed looking town you’ve ever seen depicted in an animated show, and their is slow, lulling jazz saxophone playing over the shots we get of it.
We hear it’s in the midst of a financial depression and it is constantly snowing (I guess the weather regulation workers quit). The mood of the place perfectly reflects the characters mood; having grown accustomed to their living situation on the Bebop, the banality of life together has settled in along with them and they can’t take it. They’ve reached that decision point where it’s a future of comradeship or taking their separate ways and they do what they’ve been doing their whole lives: flee. When Spike wakes up at the beginning of the session he asks where everyone is and gets a non-reply, he then remarks dryly, “what a depressing group.
It’s here on Calisto that Spike runs into Vicious again, but we don’t learn much from their exchanges. Instead we get a look into the psyche of Vicious via his relationship with an old war friend. With the Bebop crew scattered in their sad, frustrated city without any women, the entirety of Jupiter Jazz is centered around an old comrade of Vicious – someone named Gren. It is in their “friendship” that we can understand the contrast that Vicious offers to Spike.
Gren reaches out to Vicious for a drug deal, a deal that has brought Vicious out to Calisto. They were in the same squad in a war that took place not far away on Titan. It was there that they met and Vicious gave him a little music-box during a break in the fighting. Vicious never actually says anything to Gren that we hear, but he cuts down a scorpion walking right next to Gren’s face. During the shot, there is a moment where the viewer thinks Vicious put the knife through Gren’s face until we switch up to see that he has helped him. Anyways, they have their comradely moment and Gren thinks he’s made a friend.
Vicious however doesn’t remember things so warmly. Gren was put in military prison after the war and he learned that Vicious testified against him. Distraught by a betrayal from someone he trusted and considered his comrade, Gren reaches out to make a deal. When they meet back up for their drug deal after so much time has passed by, Gren wants answers:
“…We were comrades, risked everything together in that battleground of death. I trusted you. I believed in you.”
Vicious: “There is nothing in this world to believe in. There is no need to believe.”
Vicious shows his true colors here and why it is Spike’s destiny to cut him down. He shows no remorse and will kill anyone who gets in his way towards more power. His old war buddy is easily thrown away to the dungeon despite being friends. Vicious is saved by his bodyguard, a person whom Spike knew from the syndicate at a young age, when he jumps in front of Vicious to take the bullet. When Vicious leaves he takes the huge drug score and looks over his bodyguard’s dead body and says to himself (all alone mind you): “There is nothing in this world to believe in.”
This scene paints Vicious as a thoroughgoing nihilist. It’s not just his own statement that there is nothing to believe in that makes him so: his unflinching stare, his cold eyes that are compared to a snake, and his unhesitating use of violence without changing his expression all demonstrate his lack of care for anyone who stands between him in his search for power. No friend or lover is spared, not a comrade from war nor a best friend. He turns on Spike in the past, as we recollect from memory fragments, and calls him “a beast whose lost his fangs” who now deserves to die – must die. Vicious’s world is one of competing powers slaying each other until one reigns supreme and then must keep that power. It’s the Hobbesian world of constant war, all against all until you get to the top of the chain and subject everyone else to your will. Some might also call him a ’realist’.
Gren fell prey to Vicious’s snake-eyed beast not so much as a combatant as a romantic who believed in his old friend, wondering desperately what could have become of a relationship forged under the most trying of circumstances. He was withering away in a snowy city with no women and no future trying to make sense of what happened to him and why a friend could do such a thing and break the bond that he had thought was so strong. The cold heart of Vicious was underestimated by Gren, but he wanted closure above all else anyways – Gren knew that he was going to die soon because of an illness) so he chose to chase after the dream of his old friendship, fond memories of the bonds from war camaraderie, the old fraternity.
The state of war has effected the two characters in different ways and pushed them in different directions, despite their becoming friends for its duration. Vicious never really left a state of war. He continued to aggressively work his way up the commander’s hierarchy afterwards as a member of a syndicate. Friends are a mere stepping stone towards victory, including comrades, mentors (both Spike and Mao), lovers, and bodyguards – his own troops. The closest we ever get to a reason for his relentless pursuit of power is here in Jupiter Jazz: “There is nothing in this world to believe in.” Gren is the opposite. He covets his comrades and is “attracted to that very word.” Gren appears as a woman for the moment of exchange and represents a kind of feminine disruption of the male-fraternal military order. As a result of Vicious’s betrayal, Gren was forced to undergo some experimental drug therapy that scrambled his hormones and gave him female breasts as well as other feminine qualities. He tells Faye “I am both and neither one.” His transgender status was not his choice though, it was more of a consequence of Vicious’ willingness to throw his friends away into the dungeon for personal gain. It’s as if the feminine side of life had to be embraced to counter the affects of Vicious.
Gren meets up with Faye before the drug deal and they have an tender exchange of their own. The intervention of Gren’s story and his position as trans offers a nexus within the show that allows the two men and their woman comrade to get along without so much bickering. Whereas in previous episodes they were at each other’s throats and making essentialist claims about men’s honor and women’s sensibilities (especially in session 6), from now on they are far more lenient with each other as they explore their own personal pasts and catch bounties with efficiency. This isn’t to say they stop yelling at and complaining about each other, but their attacks are much more comradely and much less vicious* from here on out (another subtle shift you can pick up in the duration of the show). The conversation between Gren and Faye stands out in the show and deserves to be quoted in full:
Gren: “So you came all the way out here all alone?”
Faye: “I am alone. I don’t need any comrades. They’re not worth it. I end up worrying about things I shouldn’t, you know me being such a prize and all that. All the guys end up fighting over me Like dogs.
They say people are social animals – they can’t live alone. But you can live pretty well all by yourself. I swear, when I’m dealing with them it’s nothing but trouble. And I get nothing out of it, so it doesn’t matter if I’m there or not, right?”
Gren: “Your were just afraid they would abandon you, so you abandoned them. You distanced yourself from the whole thing.”
Faye: “Your a strange one aren’t you?
Gren: “I guess so.”
Faye: “I don’t know why I’m telling you all of this. I feel like I’m in a confesion booth, You’re not a preacher by any chance are you?
Faye clearly had things to get off of her chest. As she was settling into a living situation that was oddly comfortable and just the right fit for a high-risk-high-reward person, she took off for fear of intimacy. She claims that the boys keep fighting over her, as I’m sure those in her past have, and that she’s getting no benefits from the relationship, but she’s called-out instantly by someone who actually has no one to call a comrade and knows exactly how that feels long-term (rather than merely running away from it). Gren tells her that she is the one with abandonment issues, that her disregard for comrades is bogus. She’s so taken aback that he comes off as a preacher bestowing wisdom upon her in her moment of vulnerability. And it is with this advice from a lonely trans person with a rough backstory that the Bebop crew gets over their petty squabbling and becomes a genuinely capable crew of bounty hunters. Post-Gren and post-Callisto (those embodiments of abandonment, loneliness, and depression) the Bebop crew learns to appreciate each other and solve some major (and minor) problems for the people they encounter.
This is made even more clear by the immediately following session (again) when they quit the solo search for a bounty head (with a “friendly competition” incentive) and pool their own heads together to solve a major crime. They end up getting to the bottom of a corporate cover-up that explains why the great catastrophe that ruined earth was allowed to happen. The world again undergoes a kind of symbolic healing when the man who invented the hyperspace gate technology is put to rest. The bebop crew learns who was at fault and a once brilliant old man is allowed to rest in peace.
The journey of Faye helps highlight what has happened to the world in Cowboy Bebop’s future. Her story begins when she is awakened from a long frozen slumber with no memory of any part of her past life. One might think she is like a blank slate without a past, thrust into the world to try and fend for herself in her mid to late twenties. But there is one big thing that looms large: the medical debt that has accrued from her cryogenic treatment after all of the decades. So she never really had a blank slate: her massive debt that she has no means to pay back demonstrates how nobody gets to begin their life from a neutral position in this world. Her debt is not to any community or family (whom she cannot remember and are likely long since dead) but a numerical debt that must be paid for a service she never agreed on. Her life is dominated by what modern images of human culture always seem to leave out: debt. She has been made responsible for the cost of the machines that have kept her alive. Bereft of any cultural, familial, or personal memory and dropped into this cybernetic solar system, she still must pay.
Faye’s backstory offers a complement with Spike’s: she is not tied by her past in the same way that Spike is but burdened by it nonetheless. She is tormented by her lack of memory whereas Spike is tormented by a memory that will not will not disappear from his sight. We learn in the last session, when Spike tells Faye no less, that he has one prosthetic eye that only sees the past, splitting his very perception of the present into past/present. Half of Spike is stuck in the past by his very vision; his own body’s functioning has an imprint of the past inside of it, surgically engineered into one of his eye sockets. Faye on the other hand has no memory of past but spends her time searching for a way for it to come back to her – her dream of rekindling whatever life it was that she lost.
When Faye woke up from cryogenic sleep, she ran into some bad luck. A con-artists tricked her into falling in love with him, faked his death, and subsequently placed all of *his debts on top of hers. Now she is carrying around a ridiculous amount of debt that could never be repaid. When we are first introduced to Faye she is we learn that she is a freewheeling gambler who has learned herself how to swindle and cheat in order to survive and she has no desire to pay back such massive debt. Her auspicious start to life in the predatory solar system capitalism of Cowboy Bebop has taught her how to survive such a hostile environment: cheat or be cheated. She lives the fast life of high stakes, high risks, and lavish consumption, with an unashamed addiction to gambling. Although, such a lifestyle precludes settling down anywhere legally and necessitates avoiding the police at all times, so she ends up fills in nicely in a world full of wandering souls.
Faye’s transition to bounty hunter and her addition to the Bebop crew is rocky though aided by Gren in Jupiter Jazz. She might have a long-term goal of filling the empty place in her memory and finding a place to call home, but as soon as she remembers her past in a flood of images towards the end of the show she comes to see that her old house on earth has been obliterated and nothing of her old family ties enduring into the present. Her memory comes back to her, but no connections or life remains there in the ruble. Her old home, like the rest of earth, is a disaster zone that nobody wants to clean up. People have instead settled for continued expansion into outer space with the memory of the past being to painful to sit and dwell on for very long. Faye hasn’t had the time to adjust to this new life, waking up suddenly into the inter-solar system (like the viewer), so her quest for a past ends up in the place people have long since forgotten. The home that was once earth for every person has become like Faye’s memory (initially): desolate.
The end of Ed’s story also brings her back to earth. The oddball hacker kid isn’t exactly on a quest to locate anyone in her past so much as surfing the endless sea of the internet with total mastery. Ed is not searching for anything in her past, only new websites and databases for hacking, but she runs into old family nonetheless. As soon as she helps Faye locate her old home on earth though, Ed finds her father still traversing the earth with his own obsession. Ed’s father (we never learn his real name, Ed makes one up though) is as quirky as Ed: he spends his entire life roaming around the earth’s surface and mapping the changes as they occur to it as soon as possible. The constant barrage of meteors that hit the earth’s surface change the makeup of the landscape every few hours, making a clear geological picture of the surface very difficult to keep track of. The amount of will and labor involved in mapping such a landscape is borderline insane, which adequately describes Ed’s father.
Ed’s Father: “Since the gate accident, chaos rules the earth. How do you regain peaceful peace and non-chaos in the cosmic sense? Only through maps, that’s right! The earth has changed so we map those changes to understand them.”
Assistant: “We’re creating maps of the newly altered planet earth so we can save it!”
Ed’s Father: “… then we update those maps, thus changing chaos to order.”
His dream of reestablishing “cosmic order” with the earth through maps will seem futile to someone whose already taken flight from the earth and into the rest of the planets, but this guy stands like a giant rock on the ground, unflinching. Throughout the show, Spike pretty much handles all of his opponents skillfully and is never outmatched by even a dozen guys, but when he starts fighting Ed’s father he is torn to shreds. His powerful kicks have no effect and his punches all flail off course. A sweep kick lands on his legs but moves it not an inch – like he was kicking a giant tree trunk rooted in the ground. This guy brushes aside Spike with ease. His strong and sturdy stature is the perfect foil for Spikes nimble dance-fighting. He holds his ground and will continue with his with project despite anyone trying to get in his way.
The desire for a reestablished earth, with a well-ordered map that will provide the ground for a more ordered “cosmos”, is certainly a monkey-wrench thrown in at the end of the show. Here someone in the show that finally has some optimism and enough charge to go right through anyone who tries to stop him. His quest consumes him entirely though; he leaves his newfound daughter behind to go chase after another meteor strike (even forgetting her gender). The dream of reordering a chaotic geology in persistent flux and a fully charted earth is intriguing but born of the chaos resulting from the mad dash into outer space. The manic obsession with order is a reaction to the haphazard colonization of anything and everything now reachable by the new technology of hyperspace travel. Mapping out the constant changes to the earth’s surface is a way of coping with the chaos of humanity’s new era of synthetic environments in the darkness of deep space. The desire for a perfectly represented surface of the earth and the stability of that old home is the same desire for the perfectly planned cities that inhabit the other planets and moons, only here it works on rubble. It’s a bit reactionary, the more and more I sit and think about it, yet another dream to add to the list in the world of Cowboy Bebop. And yet, still, his eccentricity for an earth forgotten by everyone else is charming. Unlike most eccentrics in Cowboy Bebop, Ed’s Father’s fantasy isn’t interfering with anyone else’s livelihood either.
Comparisons could be drawn with session nine, in which Ed first joins the Bebop crew. It is presumed that someone is hacking into a satellite and drawing old patterns on the surface of the earth from orbit. However, as our protagonists discover, the satellite system itself is taking its lasers and burning imprints into the ground in the form of primitive sketches of extinct animals. Since the accident that destroyed much of the earth, much of the former life on the planet has disappeared. The satellite computer (which Ed gives the name EMPU, like CPU but with empathy perhaps) has grown lonely at the absence of activity and forms it once observed. After the destruction of the earth, it seems that even the machines once used to monitor it are trying to recreate the way it used to be. EMPU’s crude drawings of animal migrations and other patterned behavior from the perspective of a satellite in orbit are similar to Ed’s father’s dream of an earth restored to order with maps. Both are using the the same point of view in looking down on the earth as a map does (order in the comic sense), while one is creating a digital, real-time representation and the other is using its memory to make primitive art of the way things once were. The computer intelligence is reconstructing the things it once observed on earth’s surface from rough memory, while Ed’s father, the human, is reconstructing the surface of the earth in the purest accuracy he can achieve in the ever-present. His dream is the image of the perfect picture of the earth, an exact image of an earth that refuses to remain true to the image.
The two-part Jupiter Jazz session described above opens and closes from the first scene to the last with an old wise man speaking with a youth out in the secluded mountains. Old Man Bull is first spotted by Spike in session one and is visited by Jet in the last session. He gives words of advice in all of his lines throughout the show and in Jupiter Jazz he speaks of Gren:
Youth: “A star just fell from the sky.”
Old Man Bull: “That is not an ordinary star, that star is the tear of a warrior. A lost soul who has finished his battle somewhere here on this planet. A pitiful soul who could not find his way to the lofty realm we here the great spirit awaits us all.”
The star was indeed Gren in his spaceship burning up on its way to the surface of Calisto. Gren wanted to go back to the battlefield of Calisto to rest in the place where he made his friends, where the intensity of combat produced his cherished bonds of comradeship. A star that has fallen. If Gren’s story has one more thing to tell us it’s that, despite the benefits of friendship and the increased joy and strength that such a bond makes, the pining for lost connections can drag us down. Gren’s old wartime bond became a kind of fetish he could not let go of, that pulled him down like a meteor is pulled down to a planet. We see this reflected in Spike’s desire for his dream-girl Julia, Faye’s longing for any memory of her past at all (a time and place where she be-longs), and Jet’s desire for a just police force. It’s the desire to fill a void with something spectral, a fantasy that one’s life will be absolved of its problems once it is reached – the void occupied. It causes a comet bursting with energy and momentum to be attracted to a massive object and burned up during the descent.
A warning coming from the wise, but once that longing for a lost dream is avoided, what comes next? We don’t get to see that until the end so sit tight and enjoy the ride. The sense of belonging that the Bebop crew has in the present is not the answer either; it would only be a further fetishizing of the crew that one has established and is a part of, that is, if the way to keep burning bright is to remain in place. Becoming satisfied with what we’ve already got and counting our eggs or blessing or whatever only transfers the wayward dream into the here and now: domesticating desire as it were.
Old Man Bull’s metaphor of life as a star is a perfect fit for the solar system world of Cowboy Bebop, where the only ones left on the home planet of earth are maniacs. A life now burns like a star to eventually burn up by the acceleration caused by a nearby moon, planet, or asteroid. Released from the bounds of the home that was the earth, we are left shooting around a constellation of space-stations at light-speed, each of us more like shooting stars than earthly creatures. Giant spaceships zip through a lightly-sparkled abyss. No longer bound to the earth and destined to be recycled into the earth’s ecosystems, we instead burn up and burn out in space.
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’.