Overthinking Cowboy Bebop: Session 23

This episode of Cowboy Bebop begins with the image of a TV turning on. Yeah, it's gonna be one of THOSE episodes.

23) BRAIN SCRATCH is tricky to describe.  The show opens with a montage showing a variety of different takes on a single news story about a mysterious cult called “Scratch:  The Migrate to Electronics Movement.”  Actually, that’s not quite true:  the show opens with Spike watching TV and channel surfing, but we don’t get to learn that right away.  Rather, we see what he sees.  Fourth wall?  What fourth wall?  This includes the Scratch cult’s own indoctrination video, a serious news broadcast, and a schlocky Hard Copy style tabloid.  Each of these has its own appropriate music:  the cult gets shimmery new age wallpaper-muzak; the serious news broadcast gets one of those instantly identifiable newsroom fanfares (you know, the ones with a marimba in the background banging out morse code rhythms even though morse code hasn’t actually been used in newsrooms for decades).  The music for the tabloid news show is a little more interesting.  It kind of sounds like the soundtrack to a particularly trashy kind of 70s horror film:  I’m thinking of Zombi II here, although there are certainly other examples.  Beyond the actual news broadcasts, we also see a talk show or two, a commercial for a plot-critical video game system called the Brain Dream, a couple of other unrelated commercials, and, well, this.

What the hey?

What makes this even weirder is that this clip reuses the 70s horror music from the tabloid news broadcast, and that Alfalfa-looking kid shouts something like “And that’s why our network refuses to broadcast shows like the one you’re currently watching!”  This is not the fourth wall you are looking for.

I suppose I should mention that TV broadcasts of one kind or another are interrupting the main narrative of this episode CONSTANTLY.  In one of them, we learn that Big Shots – you remember Big Shots, right?  The bounty hunter hit parade show that, prior to this episode, one would have guessed was the only TV show that exists in the Bebopverse?  – yeah, we learn that here, three episodes out from the series finale of Cowboy Bebop, Big Shots has been cancelled due to poor ratings.  Fourth wall?  You keep saying that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means.

And here we have Londes, in one of the Scratch cult's indoctrination videos. It's neat how they use NON-animated images in the background to help establish his "wrongness."

After their TV binge, the crew sits down to dinner, and Jet provides some helpful exposition.  Apparently, Scratch’s followers believe that they can leave their physical bodies behind by uploading their consciousnesses onto the internet.  The powers that be were content to let this slide as long as the ideology was just a theory, but recently the cult’s members have begun to put their beliefs into practice by committing mass suicide.  As a result, a hefty price has been put on the head of cult leader Londes.  Londes used to be a respectable neurobiologist before he had a mystical vision and broke with society, only to reappear as a shadowy counterculture figure half a century later.  This is a story beat we’ve seen before:  remember Bohemian Rhapsody?  Just like in that one, the crew decides to divide and conquer.  Spike tries interviewing cult members, Jet  manages to track down an old man who might have known the cult leader in his youth, and Ed works her magic with the internets.  Between the three of them, they manage to turn up precisely nothing — again, like Bohemian Rhapsody, and also to a degree like Jamming With Edward.  Meanwhile Faye (who is working alone, having once again snuck away from the BeBop sometime during the gap between episodes), has had a little more luck.  Her plan was to find Londes by actually enrolling in the cult. This leads her to a mysterious abandoned warehouse where she encounters something unexplained and nasty.

That ain't right.

Then there’s a giant pyramid of TV screens, and suddenly they all burst to life, filling the air with static, and Faye’s vision begins to swim…  With the last of her energy, she puts in a distress call to Spike (which again is something we’ve seen before:  remember Ballad for Fallen Angels?).  Spike sets off to rescue her, tracing her signal from his Swordfish, while Jet and Ed try to duplicate Faye’s strategy by enrolling in the cult, just to see if they can track down the mysterious leader.  I mean, since it obviously worked out so well for her, right?

The cult’s uploading process turns out to use the aformentioned Brain Dream system, a nifty gizmo that you control directly with your brainwaves.  Think something like a Nintendo Wii crossed with a Scientology E-Meter.  The good news is that you can complete the process from the comfort of your own home!  The bad news is significantly worse.  The device can write brainwaves as well as reading them, and the cult’s website is more riddled with malware than a post-soviet warez server.  It almost brainwashes Jet, and would have too, were it not for the crew’s secret weapon:  Ein the wonderdog.

The Jaws of Life.

Before the virus can do serious harm, Ein, uh… takes steps to ensure that Jet snaps out of it.  And then, in a supremely well thought out plan, Ed and Jet hook Ein up to the computer, thinking that this way they can walk through the process without anyone getting hurt.

17 Comments on “Overthinking Cowboy Bebop: Session 23”

  1. Sillyweasel #

    I am SO glad you have finally decided to stop trying to make each of these articles smaller and allow one post for one episode at a time.
    I love this series (of posts as well as the show itself) and seeing it had been updated from my twitter feed earlier gave me at least a good 30 minute escape from my current insomnia and depression. Keep up the excellent work and I look forward AS HELL to the last few posts.
    Question: Will you be wrapping up with the final episode itself? Or will there be another post going over the entire series itself, separate from the post for the finale?

     
  2. Adrian #

    Finally!

     
  3. fenzel #

    Man, these posts by Stokes are great.

    I love them almost as much as the earlier Cowboy Bebop posts by the other Stokes.

    I hope when we bring on new Stokes to write the next article, it’s just as good!

     
    • stokes #

      Doubtful. I have it on good authority that that guy’s kind of a hack.

       
  4. Qwil man #

    All these paradoxes and differing answers seem to be completely ignoring the most selfish and relevant reason to ask the question in the first place: I’m alive and I want to remain alive. You talk about copying the data in a brain and destroying it as though the act of destroying the (assumed) brain won’t end its stream os consiousness. I’m sure there are people who will disagree on a personal level, but I care far far less about the information contained within my brain than I do about staying alive, and an overwhelming amount of evidence says I need THIS brain to continue to get blood, oxygen and electricity to continue to experience the sensation of existing.

    If you copy my brain into a robot that will behave exactly like me I’d love to hang out with it, but I won’t see though his eyes or think his thoughts because I’m busy with my own. THAT is the reason a copy of me isn’t me, because I’m being me right now. Not even because I remember my life, but because I’m experiencing my sense of self.

     
    • stokes #

      Oh, I agree completely! The question though is whether there actually is a stream of consciousness, or just a bunch of discrete little consciousness-chunks that we interpret as a stream because the alternative is too horrifying by half.

      I wouldn’t tend to take the “identity does not persist” argument TOO seriously, though. Even if it were true, would it get us anywhere? We’d all just keep experiencing our identities as persistent anyway, so it’s hard to see how it would even matter.

       
    • fenzel #

      One of the other issues with this is _demonstrating_ it. As much as we can currently tell, individual, subjective consciousness is nonfalsifiable, which means, in a scientific heuristic, it doesn’t exist — or rather, the burden of proof is on the person asserting it exists, and there isn’t any proof.

      Of course, we intuit that individual, subjective consciousness exists. We experience it. But quantum physics and relatively, among other things, have taught us that intuition, experience and casual personal observation are well-nigh useless in determining the nature of reality. The universe just plain doesn’t work the way human beings experience it to work. Our perception and experience are too limited.

      The way I see it, this presents a choice – you can either take the scientific approach and develop your working theories for how existence works based on what you can falsify, declining to assert nonfalsifiable things (such as the existence of the conscious self), or you can come to terms with the limitations of the scientific heuristic (which, of course, gets you in trouble on the Internet sometimes).

      There are other philosophical tools for exploring this, but contemporary philosophical exploration, as I understand it, is heavily tied up in scientific methods and heuristics, and professionals seem to be leaning toward them. For example, there has been a lot of publicity for experiments over the last few year that show that the brain makes a decision before a person can report consciously making it. I see this as pretty baldfaced question-begging (because there is a preceding mechanism, we can rule out a root cause without accounting for the preceding mechanism), but a lot of people (most notably some New York Times writers last year, I believe) see this as proof against free will.

      So I’m skeptical that we will see progress in our lifetimes on the question of subjective consciousness, but I do see a lot of risk that people will rely too much on the scientific heuristic, come to the conclusion that subjective consciousness must not exist, and commit suicide by robot brain replacement and stuff like that.

      This summer I read Brian Greene’s _Fabric of the Cosmos_, and in it he talks about quantum teleportation, which isn’t teleportation at all, but exact copying. He argues that, if something is an exact copy down to the fundamental qualities of its quantum particles, it is the same thing – that there can be no quality of individuality or identity other than this. I suspect this is because he has had to dedicate his brain so thoroughly to the scientific heuristic in order to proceed as a quantum physicist – that he must disbelieve nonfalsifiable things.

      But my suspicions about the limitations of the heuristic means I would never step into one of those teleporters.

       
      • fenzel #

        Sorry, “relativity,” not “relatively.”

        I also apologize for all other typos.

         
      • fenzel #

        On the flipside, for this argument to hold any water, then the limitations of the scientific heuristic have to be “around” something — that is, if they only extend so far, then we need to acknowledge the places where they do extend, and not mistake a limitation for a repudiation. It’s not all or nothing.

        The way I see it, if you actually want to make a definitive claim about something that happens in the world, if you want something useful, thinking scientifically about it is often the best way to go, limited only by the human mind’s persnickety and ill-advised tendencies to listen more to other types of arguments, whether they are valid or not.

        So, if you want to know where life comes from, ask a scientist. Even if they don’t have a perfect answer now (and they have a pretty good one), by applying a scientific heuristic, they will have a useful answer that will get better over time, and they have good mechanisms in place for eventually separating useful assertions from total bullshit.

        But if you want to know why something exists, science isn’t going to be all that helpful, because normative assertions and intentions are nonfalsifiable – you can’t find experiments that would disprove most of them were they to turn out a certain way, and as long as there is no possible way to disprove something, it becomes much more difficult to separate meaningful, useful assertions from total bullshit with that kind of authority.

        This doesn’t leave the human mind without tools for approaching such matters, but it has a lot of important implications.

         
        • stokes #

          “If you want to know why something exists, science isn’t going to be all that helpful…”

          Yeah, that’s a good way of putting it. This is where people get confused about evolution a lot of the time, I think. You’ll come across statements like “Giraffes evolved long necks so that they could eat leaves on high branches.” This is not correct — at least not what scienctifically. Rather, science tells us that giraffes evolved longer necks for no damn reason, and as a result were able to eat the leaves on taller branches.

           
  5. Qwil man #

    I got too wrapped up in my gripping fear of death to mention that I’m really really glad to have this series back. Keep it up!

     
  6. MrsSpooky #

    So glad to see your Bebop postings again! I was beginning to think you’d given up on it. :)

    I loved this, especially where you said “…all that persists are memories and the illusion of identity, not identity itself.
    And once we’ve followed the chain of reasoning around that far, we realize with a shock that this is something Cowboy Bebop has been about all — the damn — time! ”

    I wasn’t wild about this session when I first saw it. Watching it again, I was struck by what Spike said in that scene where he faced off against Londes on that pyramid of screens. Spike says “I’m sick of this act. What’s wrong? Come on out. An illusion isn’t enough for me.”

    Then:
    Spike: Just like a little kid.
    Londes: What?
    Spike: YOU are the one who can’t tell… fantasy from reality, Londes. If you want to dream. Dream alone.

    I thought it was significant that Spike “I’m just watching a dream” Spiegel would say something like that. And I love the profile shot of him when he said it.

    For some reason, I can’t shake the thought that the whole session was written as the means to have Spike say those things.

     
    • stokes #

      Huuuuuuuuuuuh. That’s an interesting idea. A question to ask, then, would be whether Spike is self-aware enough to apply that knowledge to his own situation?

      Shades of Sympathy for the Devil, right? In that case Spike obviously doesn’t recognize the similarities between himself and the baddie of the week (or at least explicitly claims not to — one could argue that he’s not to be trusted). Is he just as oblivious and/or self-deceiving this time around? Or has he matured a little, meaning that he’s talking as much to himself as to Londes in that sequence?

       
  7. vee #

    great article!

    I really liked how you connected this episode to the central traumas at the center of the three adult characters’ backstories and how they’ve “died” through simultaneous personal betrayal/extensive physical harm, lost their identities, and returned to bum around space aimlessly, something like the cultists who leave behind their personal possessions/bodies to inhabit cyberspace forever.

    But to follow this parallel, this episode implies that such a compromised existence (which–the life of being a badass bounty hunter–gets presented visually as fun, free, and “cool”) is a mistake/delusion and that those who have entered it SHOULD wake up, the way Faye does at the end through the intervention of her family unit/crew.

    The differences between the crew and the cultists of course are 1. the remnants of memories from their former lives which come back in the form of key phrases, talismanic belongings (Julia’s name, music box, fake eye, Jet’s watch, Faye’s videotape) which the show suggests should be faced and then left behind and 2. they’ve forged a few grudging connections in the afterlife, ie, when Faye wakes up from THIS coma, there is at least someone around, not the romantic figure who will sweep her off her feet and buy her pretty princess dresses (subverted thoroughly the first time around) but part of a crew that will begrudgingly rescue each other when it matters. I guess that’s the show’s best case scenario after you’ve had the misfortune to symbolically die–grudging, ambiguous, and subverbal connections with the people around you. If you try for anything else–to return to the past, to fix mistakes, etc, it will blow up in your face. I like how the show still forces you to enjoy yourself, not by diluting this underlying bleak thesis, but instead overloading it on the other end with sensory awesomeness, eg. gun versus sword fights, hot ladies, zero-G battles, cool music, superpowered corgis, etc. Of course this uncompromising combination of “bitter” and “sweet” helps make the show so compelling.

     
    • stokes #

      The “talismanic belongings” thing is a really interesting idea that had not occurred to me. It’s almost a gesture towards Cartesian dualism: you need to discard material objects in order to arrive at some kind of spiritual connection. There’s a sense in which totems like the music box, the video, Jet’s watch, and so on are actively preventing the protagonists from making real connections.

      This actually makes me think back to the end of Inception. [Spoilers] When Cobb walks away from the top to go play with his kids, that could also be seen as a rejection of the material fetish-object in favor of a spiritual connection, right?

       
      • pureblood-3 #

        Just to point out it’s probably Jet’s arm/scar which is his talismanic belonging, rather than the watch which he managed to throw away at the end of Ganymede Elegy. Not sure what that says about him, though.