As for the stuff that this episode is more specifically about, let’s start with the orphanage. It’s usually a good idea to pay special attention to the parts of Cowboy Bebop that seem a little pointless, and all of this business with the horrifyingly creepy children and the comically pleasant nun caretaker has nothing to do with anything from a plot perspective. Oh sure, the nun hands Edward a picture of her father and tells her that he’s been coming around asking about her, prompting her to put the bounty on his head so that Spike and Jet can track him down. But they could have done that any old way – why not have the picture get mailed to the BeBop, like Faye’s videotape? Why not have Appledelhi coincidentally meet them in Singapore? But the scenes at the orphanage have tremendous thematic resonance. First of all, it gives Ed more of an arc for the episode. Rather than going directly from the BeBop to her father’s embrace, she goes from the BeBop, to the orphanage, and then to her father. (Actually she goes back to the ship in the interim, but you know what I mean.) More to the point, the group at the orphanage is a family. They aren’t a “real” family, obviously — the absence of a “real” family is the defining characteristic of orphans qua orphans, pretty much — but they do family things. They sit down to dinner together. Without necessarily making a big deal out of it all the time, they look out for each other. And when Ed shows up out of the blue, after vanishing without notice for who knows how long, they don’t bat an eye before taking her in.
What does this remind us of? What other place, what other group of people?
Hard Luck Woman summarizes Cowboy Bebop’s ideas about meaning. I’m not talking about what makes the show meaningful — if that was something that could be neatly summarized, I wouldn’t need this whole series of posts, and in any case it changes from episode to episode. Rather, I’m talking about the account that the show gives of what makes life meaningful. And this actually is pretty consistent over the run of the show, and is pretty easy to summarize. Basically, Cowboy Bebop tells us that our lives are given meaning by our families. However, “family” in this case has very little to do with biological relationships. Family is a thing you build around yourself, whether it’s a ship’s crew (like the main characters), or a master-apprentice relationship (like Doohan and Miles in Wild Horses), or even a bunch of mostly faceless voices on the radio (like the tight-knit community of Space Truckers in Heavy Metal Queen). I brought this up a little in the last post, where I mentioned that it’s not an original message. In fact, statistically speaking this is THE message of the last fifty years of scripted television. It is in a sense the story that the medium of serialized, scripted television wants to tell. Serialized TV shows are sort of inherently going to feature a group of people who spend an unrealistic amount of time together. Take Friends, for instance, or Sex and the City. How many of y’all have friends that you really see that often? The only people who you really see that frequently are either a) people you have to see on a regular basis because of your job, and b) people that you have to see on a regular basis on account of they live in your house. Mind you, you do get a lot of shows that are just about families. But almost any other show you try to write will end up having its characters develop into a kind of surrogate family. (This isn’t my own observation, by the way: I’m not sure who pointed it out first, but I’ve picked it up third hand from film studies people I know.) The only other way around it is to write a show that is deeply and specifically about the details of a particular kind of job — but these are pretty few and far between. Most shows that pretend to be about a job are actually about building surrogate families. At least over the long run.
Other shows don’t even try to hide it. Community, one of the best shows currently on the air, is explicitly about this. Same for Cheers, same for Friends, same for all the Joss Whedon properties. Same for shows with more outré subject matter, as long as they also focus on human relationships to any significant degree. The X-Files is about alien conspiracies and about Scully forming a familial bond with the various agents that she’s surrounded with over the years. Grey’s Anatomy is about medicine and about drawing a collection of improbably photogenic doctors together into a lopsided family unit. One of the interesting ways that this manifests is that it’s incredibly common for TV characters’ “real” families to be somehow incomplete: Scully’s father has passed away, Meredith Grey’s mother is in late-stage dementia. And Seinfeld is an interesting case, because the main characters’ families do show up occasionally, but the main characters can’t stand them. They can’t wait for their families to leave so they can go back to spending time with the people they do care about. And it’s not like the core four don’t get annoyed at each other… they spend most of their time annoyed at each other, in fact. But they never want to get away from each other. In a family, the presence of the other is comforting even as it annoys. And to television – or at least the shows that aren’t directly about families – this is all that family really means. So this kind of television could be seen as an assault on the traditional family, in that it suggests that there are other, better kinds of family to be had. It’s an assault that we mostly don’t notice though, first because there are all those shows about families, and second because it’s just so incredibly commonplace.
Cowboy Bebop does play it a little differently than most, though, at least in this episode, which is the show’s fullest treatment of the theme. On the one hand, it reinforces how important these ad-hoc, self-generated families can be: the orphanage sequence does this, as does the running gag about Jet wanting to cook everyone a big dinner, as does the incredibly mournful business with the hard-boiled eggs. On the other hand, it also plays up the importance of the traditional “real” family. This after all is what both Faye and Ed are trying to recapture here. Faye comes right out and says at one point here that “Belonging is the very best thing there is.” But where do you belong? We might drop back and consider the title a little. It’s Hard Luck Woman, singular. Which one of them is it? Ed, or Faye? The show does quite a bit to put them into symbolic opposition. Ed, for instance, “grows up” over the course of the episode, moving from a kind of pre-conscious infant state at the very beginning, to an adolescent state at the orphanage, before finally striking out on her own at the end. Faye, on the other hand, moves backwards. It’s a little impressionistic, but you come away with the sense that she should look like her classmate Sally, that she was made into a young woman by her shuttle accident, and that when her memories come back, she regresses further. In her tense exchange with Spike, she gives him this little awkward bow which seems designed to mimic the way that Sally’s granddaughter bows to Faye when they first meet, and the flashback-y scene of her running up the hill is quite clearly meant to recall the way the granddaughter ran up to greet them in the earlier scene. I’m less sure, though, of what to make of the fact that Faye grows up again over the course of her run up the hill. Maybe that’s supposed to represent how futile the idea of recapturing her childhood is, memories or no memories? Maybe she was already devastated even before she saw the ruined house? Her parents were going to be dead no matter what, after all: time’s a bitch that way.
So again, which woman is the hard luck one? We might initially suppose Faye. Her family turns out to be completely gone, and she’s left alone in a ruined city on her pathetic little hand-drawn mattress. But as pathetic as the hand-drawn mattress is, she’s got it. And she can go back to the BeBop whenever she feels like it, and Jet and Spike will take her in. She knows where she stands — er, lies — and knowledge is, you know, generally thought to be worth having. Ed, on the other hand…
Let’s be clear. The reason Ed decides to go chasing after her father is that Faye tells her to. That’s where the “belonging is the best thing” speech pops up: Faye’s about to head off, for good as far as she knows, and she advises Ed to do the same. Now ask yourself: how well did it work out for Faye? What are the odds that it will work out better for Ed? I’d say slim. Maybe none. Did I even mention the reason why Ed wound up in that orphanage to begin with? Appledelhi dropped her off at a daycare center one day and forgot to ever pick her up. (And may I add: What.) Ed’s ending is… happy-ish. Non-violent, certainly, which in Cowboy Bebop as in Norse mythology and Quentin Tarantino movies is always worth celebrating if only for the sheer novelty value. But one could hardly suggest that her life is going to be a giant bowl of cherries from now on. Assuming she ever does catch up with her father again, he’ll probably forget her again the next time he goes gallivanting off. And then she’ll have to track him down again, and he’ll shower her with affection before pulling another disappearing act and — is it just me, or is Radical Edward going to end up dating a string of macho douchebags when she grows up? Honestly she’ll probably be fine. Ed is nothing if not resilient. But it’s hard to imagine her “real” father contributing to that fineness in a more meaningful way than, say, Jet would have.
What I love about Bebop’s message about family in this episode is that it doesn’t back away from the incredible loss that abandoning the biological “real” family unit entails. The show claims, like so many shows, that the families you can put together yourself out of whatever’s handy can be wonderful. Which they can. But it also acknowledges that people wouldn’t be trying to build families out of whatever is handy if they weren’t deeply, profoundly broken and alone. Which, let’s face it, they are.