Hard Luck Woman opens with pretty much the same image that Brain Scratch closed with: television. Some details are different, of course… it’s Faye watching, rather than some anonymous audience, and rather than watching a communication from Londes, or the general deadening blitz of modern media, she’s watching that mysterious betamax tape she got a hold of in Speak Like a Child. (As you probably remember, this is a time capsule tape that Faye made for herself when she was in high school – and due to her amnesia, it’s her only record of her life pre-cryosuspension.) Differences notwithstanding, the resonance is pretty unavoidable, especially when the camera zooms in and focuses on the blurry grain of the CRT image.
I wonder if that effect was as striking back when most people were actually watching Cowboy Bebop on cathode ray monitors? Come to think of it, although Faye is obviously watching an old school TV to go with her old school VCR, I’m not sure the CRT blur in Brain Scratch even makes sense. Don’t they usually watch TV on their little floating holographic view-screens?
But all of that is beside the point. What matters about this scene is that it establishes (with wonderful economy, relying almost entirely on lighting and body language), that Faye has been staying up night after night watching the tape over and over, scouring it for something — anything — that will jog her memory and lead her back to her forgotten past. Obsession, nostalgia, futility… this much is pretty standard Cowboy Bebop stuff. What’s interesting is that this is the only time we’ve ever seen any of the principal cast members devote energy to something for more than a single episode. It’s not like this is the first element from an earlier episode to pop up again — as I’ve said before, the show trades HEAVILY on recurrence, and of course there’s the continuing plot of Spike’s backstory. But the thematic resemblances are only approximate, and Spike doesn’t dash off in pursuit of Vicious and/or Julia unless he happens to stumble across them. This is the first continuing plot element that has any kind of agency behind it: Faye is watching the tape because she hasn’t given up on her past. She has a long-term goal and she’s taking active steps – if faltering and repetitious ones – to achieve it. This will all end in tears, naturally, Bebop being the kind of show that it is. But given that Faye’s first and only instinct for the main bulk of the show has been to cut and run as soon as the going gets tough, this probably counts as an astonishing milestone in her personal development.
While she’s lost in thought, Radical Edward appears at her shoulder in a way that would be frankly horrific if Ed was the OTHER kind of creepy feral child. Faye freaks out a little and tries to cover up the video. But she changes her tune when Edward lets on that she recognizes one of the landmarks.
Well. All that Edward actually says is “Waterfall” (or “water sploosh,” in the subtitles), which is just a one word description of what’s on the screen at the time. Now, Japanese is a strongly pro-drop language, so maybe there are subtleties to which I am not privy. But doesn’t Faye’s decision to interpret this as “[I recognize and know how to locate the] waterfall,” seem like a hell of a stretch? In a different show that would have been intentional, and Faye would learn a valuable lesson about not jumping to conclusions or assuming people mean what you want them to mean. In Bebop, where the plots run on high octane contrived coincidence, it turns out that this was EXACTLY what Ed meant. So Faye learns nothing. It’s just as well that she doesn’t seem like the maternal type, because she’d probably run into some trouble down the line:
21st-century analogue of Dora the Explorer: Can you say “backpack?”
Faye: “WHAT? Baby, are you saying you know where the backpack is? Take me to it immediately!!! THIS I COMMAND!”
But maybe I’m being too hard on the show… it’s possible there’s more to this exchange that takes place off camera. The next action we actually get to see, after the title card, is Spike and Jet waking up to learn that Faye has diverted the BeBop to Earth and gone AWOL overnight. (Their reactions are laconic and crotchety respectively, but you probably don’t need me to tell you that by this point, right?) Of minor interest here is the fact that we get to see Spike brushing his teeth. In one of the early comment threads, there was some discussion of whether Cowboy Bebop should be thought of a slice-of-life anime… I still think it’s a little too action-packed to qualify, but I’ll grant that you don’t usually get this much information about an action hero’s dental hygiene.
And then, over a delightful hard rock track that sounds for all the world like a slower-burning version of Heart’s immortal Barracuda, we’re introduced to this mysterious fellow.
Later on, we will learn more about him, for instance that he is the bounty head of the week, and that his name is Appledelhi Siniz Hesap Lütfen (which is apparently phonetically identical to the Turkish phrase for “Excuse me, check please”(?!)), and that he is Radical Edward’s long-lost father. But for now all we know is that he has some kind of operation going on that involves the meteorites that keep crashing into earth. This is vaguely sinister, perhaps? Although he seems a little cheerful for that to apply, and the fact that he’s actually running around exploring the blast craters himself rather than watching it all on a monitor somewhere (while stroking a cat, for preference) seems to establish him as a salt-of-the-earth type… It’s definitely mysterious, though. No getting around that. And at this point the stage is set for the episode’s two plotlines. Faye is going home. Edward is finding her father. Act break.
But not really, because Cowboy Bebop only has the one commercial interruption. So instead we just cut back to Faye, who has followed Ed to a derelict community built on an enormous trash heap. This turns out (after some comical hijinx involving a gaggle of feral children), to be the orphanage that Ed grew up at. Rather than lead Faye back to the mysterious waterfall, Ed decided to make a pitstop at her OWN childhood haunts. Way to rub salt in the wound, jerk.
Ed really did recognize the fountain, though. So after getting that 3D photo of Ed’s dad from a friendly nun, and eating some dubious-looking stew, Faye and Ed head off to what I’m told is Singapore. It has seen better days.
And it turns out that knowing exactly which flooded ruin you originally came from doesn’t actually provide as many answers as you might expect. Mind you, we learned at the start of this episode that Faye is dedicated. And while narrowing it down to a city isn’t much, it’s a start! To find some record of her past life, Faye will have to spend weeks, months, years even, going over the whole metropolis one pile of rubble at a time. It’ll be difficult, boring, and frustrating work (and it certainly won’t make for compelling television). But when you’re dealing with an insurmountable problem, dedication and patience are the most valuable allies you could possibly have.
No wait, what am I saying? The most valuable allies are jaw-clenching coincidence and suspiciously well-informed old women in motorized chairs. On the one day, that Faye happens to go to the one place Edward was able to identify, in the one record Faye has of her old life, her highschool classmate Sally Yung happens to be there on an outing with her granddaughter. Sally thinks Faye is a ghost at first, but then conveniently remembers that she was put in cold sleep “after that accident.” Faye, for her part, only vaguely recognizes her classmate, and after exchanging just a couple of words with her she decides to leave, telling Sally that she is a ghost after all. The implication seems to be that learning where you came from is not the same as remembering where you came from. Faye was after the latter, and the former doesn’t satisfy. So she grabs Ed and heads back to the BeBop. And then we really do get that act break.
In the second half, things proceed apace. Spike and Jet learn that Appledelhi is a wanted man, with an astonishing $50.000 000 price on his head. Faye, who was making a good-faith effort to move on with her life, has a flashback in the shower and remembers everything. The flashback is another one of those glorious Cowboy Bebop set-pieces… I’m particularly taken with the brilliant visual moment where the water in the shower drain suddenly wells up and overflows its boundaries, becoming the ocean, and the fountain, and the rain on the pavement of Faye’s childhood streets all at once. Anyway, she runs off to find her family, but not before colliding with Spike in the hall and apologizing to him (which is shocking, to him and us) and telling him “I have to go,” which if you’ve been paying attention to Faye’s arrivals and departures over the course of the series is almost equally shocking. Back in the other main plot thread, Spike and Jet track Appledelhi down and try to arrest him only to be disarmed by his Egg-Fu
…and more generally, like, beaten up by his fists of fury. Ed swoops down in the BeBop and almost crashes into the fight, in a sequence that’s clearly meant to mimic the way that she e-hijacked and crashed the ship at the end of the first episode she showed up in. We learn that Appledelhi’s business with the meteors isn’t sinister at all, rather, he and his assistant are on a quixotic mission to map the changes to the earth’s surface created by the constant meteor bombardment. (Oh, and I do mean quixotic in the most specific possible sense. It’s not just a noble mission that’s obviously futile: it’s an attempt to reestablish a lost social order by means of acting like a complete and utter loon. “Thus changing chaos to order!” says the assistant.)
Ed and her father are joyously reunited – for like a second, before he dashes off in pursuit of another meteor, leaving her in the dust again, so she doesn’t get what she wants. Spike and Jet don’t get what they want. That wasn’t a typo up above: it’s $50.00, not $50,000,000, and it turns out Ed was the one who put the price on his head anyway. As for Faye… well, maybe you’d better see some pictures for this one, too.
Faye gets back to Singapore and starts running up the hill to the house where she lived as a child. As she runs, she flashes back to making that run before,
as a child,
and as a high school student. It’s not totally schematic, but she’s definitely getting older as she runs along. We also see a lot of shots from her own POV, including the one where she pushes open the gate to the house…
Only to find this.
And pretty much directly after that, the episode ends with this music video, which again you really ought to just see.
It also contains my favorite two moments from anywhere in the show, which I’ll include as pictures here since youtube videos have a tendency to evaporate.
The scene where Faye draws the outline of her old bed in the dirt and lies down in it is simply heartbreaking. Just as brutal, though somewhat harder to explain to people who haven’t been watching the show all along and slowly absorbing its little messages about food and togetherness, is the scene where Spike and Jet eat, like, twenty-four hard boiled eggs. It’s so joyless, the way they just turn without a word and start in on the girls’ plates. I wonder if they ate the dog’s eggs too. Oh, and in case it wasn’t clear – Ed and Ein are gone for good. They don’t feature in the finale. With them departs everything that made the show lighthearted and cheerful. Oh, it’s not that these were the only funny characters, it’s just that the last episode is going to be about Spike and Vicious. And while there are good reasons for wanting to cover that territory, it’s probably not going to be much of a laugh riot.
Come to think of it the fact that Ed’s father’s name is Turkish for “Excuse me, check please” is pretty cute. We’ve had the meal, eaten our desert, lingered over coffee. Next episode, we’ll have to pay the bill.
So that’s the plot. And what does it all mean?
First, let’s talk about Spike’s fight with Appledelhi. This isn’t terribly important to the episode itself, but it’s does offer a good opportunity to talk about some interesting things about the series as a whole… or rather, about the experience of watching it. One of the things I found most striking about the show, when first exposed to it, is the way that the set pieces are bracketed off from the main narrative. I’m talking primarily about the action scenes — fights, chases, and the like — but also about the less showy but equally delirious lyrical setpieces, like the bit where Spike and Faye explore Chessmaster Hex’s garden of hobo delights in Bohemian Rhapsody, or Faye’s flashback from this episode. I used the Lacanian term “jouissance” to describe the sensation evoked by these set-pieces, and it’s worth taking a moment here to explain this concept in slightly greater detail.
It’s often been suggested that our perception of the world, as adults, is wholly different from the way infants see the world, which William James described as “one great blooming, buzzing confusion.” It’s not a question of the infant’s perceptual apparatus being different, but rather a difference in their system of thought. Because they have no conceptual framework to which their perceptions can be connected, they do not look at grass and see “grass,” rather, they see something like “GREEN!:prickly?” And although this is only theorized about infants — because how would you test it? — the difficulties encountered by people like Shirl Jennings suggest that it’s not far from the truth. This also suggests that this kind of overwhelming perception is not unique to infants — we’re all capable of it, we just tune it all out. We have to. How else could we function? Every once in a while, though, we will see (or hear, or what-have-you) something that provokes this response, and it is at these times that we experience jouissance. (Or call it what you will. The sensation is more important than the name.) It’s not enough for the stimulus to be merely unfamiliar. For instance, if I look at this, I don’t feel anything particularly interesting. I don’t know what it is, but it looks enough like a kitchen utensil for me to place it in my conceptual framework for kitchen utensils, even if that doesn’t tell me what to do with it. To provoke that “buzzing confusion,” the object/image/sound must be outside of our conceptual framework. And this is precisely what the set-pieces on Cowboy Bebop accomplish. At least at first.
I say “at first,” because my experience of these sequences has shifted somewhat over the course of the series. Only somewhat, to be sure, but I think predictably. The thing about excess — whether we’re talking about artistic gestures that don’t fit into the standard narrative framework, or the leisure time that we don’t spend in the regimented work/eat/sleep cycle that dominates so much human activity, or the little scraps of cookie dough that are left over after you’ve finished cutting out as many little snowmen (or Christmas trees, or any other non-tessalating holiday iconography) as possible — is that it doesn’t STAY excessive. Rather, you wad it up, roll it out again, and make more snowmen. Which is to say, more generally, that excess generated by one system will be used to generate another system. The set-pieces in Cowboy Bebop stay excessive from the point of view of traditional narrative, but by the time you’ve watched all the way through the series they’re beginning to coalesce into a meaningful system in their own right. At its worst, this effect can destroy the magical sensation of Jouissance (which is sort of beginning to happen for me with the musical numbers on Glee), but I wouldn’t say Bebop has gone that far. At its best, you end up with a situation where the original jouissance, although weakened, is still present, and the new signifying system becomes interesting in its own right. (And of course we should remember that the new system will generate its own excess, and so on right down the line.)
Which brings me back to the fight scenes. For most people, I’ll wager, watching Spike mop the floor with Asimov Solensan in Asteroid Blues didn’t do much to advance plot or character. Oh, we learned that Spike was a badass, I guess, but that was thoroughly incidental to the sequence’s non-diegetic, excessive kickassness. When we look at all of Spike’s kung-fu throwdowns over the course of the series, however, a new system begins to develop. This can basically be expressed by paying attention to the way Spike and his various opponents handle themselves in a fight. One of the truly brilliant things about the fights on Cowboy Bebop is that the people do fight very differently. It’s never just a matter of the coolest-looking thing the animators could think of. As a result, the fights are expressive. They tell us something about the characters and the world they inhabit. Each fight has what can only be described as a value system, something that is very rare in fiction (although see the duels from The Princess Bride) and even rarer in real life (although the classic Ali/Foreman Rumble in the Jungle has at least been read as this), and always special when it happens.
By the time we get to Spike’s fight with Appledelhi, we’ve built up enough of a sense of the way that fights are supposed to go in Cowboy Bebop for the slight differences here to be profoundly affecting. Spike himself, and most of his major opponents, are all about motion. They’re constantly bobbing and weaving, striking where the opponent does not expect and moving out of the way before the opponent can respond. Within that, there are a bunch of other subtle little differences. Pierrot, for instance, is distinct from Spike mainly in that he is so utterly relentless. But the differences between Spike and Appledelhi are not subtle in the least. Spike moves. Appledelhi doesn’t — not unless he has to, not even when a spaceship is threatening to crash into his head. Spike expends immense amounts of energy. Appledelhi doesn’t break a sweat. How well this kind of thing works in actual fights is debatable: Appledelhi’s signature move seems to be the headbutt, which may go some lengths to explaining his apparent brain damage. But it’s a joy to watch, and it makes sense that Spike would lose to him. Spike seems to depend pretty heavily on striking where the enemy does not expect. Appledelhi counters by expecting him to strike exactly where he does.
This might have some interesting implications for the show outside the fight scenes, where after all the characters are struggling not against other characters but against fate, which like Appledelhi is overwhelmingly strong and difficult to trick. Spike’s way of handling the chaos of life is to allow himself to be chaotic, letting go of everything that he can possibly stand to let go of, which turns out to be essentially everything. Appledelhi’s approach is the opposite. The earth is being bombarded with meteors? Screw it, we’ll make a map. But the constant bombardment makes any attempt to — I said screw it, we’re making a map. Again, this may not be a good lesson to apply to your day-to-day life. The series as a whole tends to come down on Spike’s side. But in this particular confrontation, Appledelhi wins. There may be something to that.
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.