7) Heavy Metal Queen
This is a great one too. Spike teams up with a mysterious space trucker named V.T. (who is a dead ringer for Glenn Close in The Shield) to track down a black-market explosives dealer named Decker (who is a dead ringer for Woody Allen). Actually it’s more like Spike is tracking him, and V.T. gets reluctantly caught up in his nonsense, but you get the drift. After a big space truck chase, they corner Decker in an old mining station that was evidently built by a team of video game level designers because parts of it randomly explode every twenty seconds or so. Decker crashes his space truck and dies (no money for you, everybody!), and then the protagonists get trapped in the mine and need to blast their way out. Their plan ends up requiring Spike to jump between spaceships without a suit, and he almost doesn’t make it, but at the last minute he manages to save himself with a combination of quick thinking, his pistol, and Newtonian mechanics. And while Mythbusters has taught me that bullets don’t pack nearly enough kinetic energy for this trick to have worked, it was still hella awesome.
What makes the episode work, though, is the character of V.T., and the way they flesh out this weird little subculture of space truckers. Oh sure, their spaceships look more like freight trains, but they all hang out at roadhouses and communicate by CB radio. They’re truckers. (Belinkie, if you’re reading this, know that they borrow a lot of their call signs from Convoy.) And V.T. is totally rad, and extremely refreshing way. She’s a middle-aged career woman with a blue collar job. She’s good at it too, fiercely so — within the space trucking culture, she’s something of a legend — without falling into the played out “uptight corporate dominatrix” archetype. She’s not sexualized at all, but she’s still very cool looking — in animation, female characters who aren’t meant to be hawt are often made conspicuously ugly or grossly fat, or old to the point of decrepitude. She calls Spike on his bulls___, which is always a plus. She’s not the least bit feminine, and this isn’t played up as a defect or as evidence of lesbianism. (Nothing wrong with lesbians, but there’s no reason why they should have a monopoly on comfortable pants). And not once – thank GOD – is there even a suggestion that she would be happier if she just had a man and some kids in her life. So yeah, VT breaks a lot of the stupider unwritten rules of how women are characterized. Also interesting is the fact that Spike seems to like her a lot. He’s solicitous and respectful to her from the minute they meet (and actually becomes much less of a mopeypuss from this episode on). Plus – and I include this almost incidentally – she kicks copious amounts of ass.
But none of the stuff I’m talking about makes her a well written character. Rather, the fact that she’s well written (believable, and what is more important, interesting), allows all the feminist stuff to matter.
Let’s see, where was I? Oh yeah, one more important thing. V.T. always goes by her initials, and her real name is a mystery. People are always trying to guess it, and there’s even a cash prize involved. Right at the end, Spike cracks the code. But he turns down the cash, despite the fact that they didn’t get the bounty (again), and his ship just got wrecked (again), and they’ve had to start feeding Ein bean sprouts because Faye ate all the dog food. Nice.
Musically, this episode spends a lot of time repeating V.T.’s favorite heavy metal song, which always seems to be playing on the radio in her space truck — another refreshing thing about the character is that she has well-defined musical tastes, which is vanishingly rare for any character, male or female. But it’s also interesting that the big truck chase has a prominent ska number… and just like we heard blues in episodes one and five, the last time we heard ska was in episode two. Hmm. Hmm. Nah, that’s gotta be a coincidence.
8) Waltz for Venus
Yes, that’s right, we are eight episodes in, almost one third of the way through the series, by the first time our heroes successfully collect on a bounty. Also note that these clowns have nothing to do with the main plot of the episode. We just see them getting caught right at the beginning, presumably to explain why the main cast hasn’t up and died of starvation already. What this episode is really about is Rocco Bennarro.
Rocco’s a goofy small time hood who sees Spike capturing the aforementioned clowns, and makes a unilateral decision that Spike will become his kung-fu teacher. Spike isn’t interested, of course, but Rocco tries to convince him by 1) attacking him with a knife, and 2) mocking him when Venus’ helium-rich atmosphere makes his voice squeak. And yes, this actually works.
When he’s not stabbing his way into judo lessons, Rocco smuggles contraband for the local mob and takes care of his sister, Stella, who has been blind since birth due to an adverse reaction to Venus’ plant life. These duties conflict when Rocco is tasked to transport a fantabulously valuable “Grey Ash” plant, which happens to be the only substance that can cure Stella. He tries to double dip, and – Cowboy Bebop being Cowboy Bebop – ends up getting himself killed and the priceless ash plant destroyed. Luckily he managed to collect some seeds ahead of time. And luckily, Spike does the noble thing and sees to it that they go to Stella, rather than just selling them at a massive profit. (In fact it’s implied that Spike pays for her very expensive medical fees, which means that the crew probably still takes a net loss on this episode. Man, they cannot catch a break, can they? Dog food and bean sprouts, ahoy!)
I don’t quite know how to feel about this one, honestly. I mean, I see how it fits into the Spike’s broader character arc: he plays big brother to Rocco and Stella, and this continues the humanizing process that begins with his treatment of V.T. in the previous episode. And while Rocco does play a very annoying character type, he’s a pretty innocuous example of said type. The music box theme that pops up here becomes important in the soundtrack of a later episode (see below). But nothing about it really grabs me. Also there’s something off-putting about the way they deal with Stella’s blindness. She’s been blind from birth, and by her own account doesn’t have a problem with her condition. Then her brother gets himself killed trying to “fix” her. I wonder which one she would rather have had: working eyes, or a living brother? There’s nothing problematic about this so far — it’s entirely believable that Rocco would try to do something like this for his sister, and after all, it’s not like he thought he was going to die. The problem is how everyone else reacts to it: Spike and Stella both seem to think that this was a fair trade, her life for his. The idea being: until she can see, Stella isn’t really alive. Okay, that’s an overstatement for rhetorical effect, but still, you see the problem right? Something similar pops up with the main character in Avatar.
Just for the record, that music box theme I was talking about earlier? Has a conspicuous melodic similarity to the honky-tonk piano theme that they’ve been using to finish most of the episodes… which was introduced in episode three. This is beginning to wig me out a little bit.
9) Jamming With Edward
This episode is a bit more of a whodunit than most: typically the identity of the bounty is known from the outset, but here it’s a general purpose bounty on the persons or persons responsible for hijacking an orbital laser defense satellite to burn pseudo-Nazca earthworks into the ruined surface of the planet. (Incidentally, I’m beginning to think that one of the Mysterious Tragic Pasts that we’re going to be delving into is that of the Earth itself. I don’t think we actually heard anything about the Gate Incident until episode six, where we learn that it blew up most of the moon. In episode nine, we also learn that it made the surface of the Earth uninhabitable, which is why most people moved on other planets, and the few who remain hang out in a network of tunnels to avoid near-constant meteor impacts. I’m guessing we’ll learn more about it later on — and maybe even the cause, although I could see this writing team leaving it unexplained.) The prime suspect is a mysterious hacker known as “Radical Edward.” All the crew has is the name, so there’s a fun little sequence here where Jet goes around digging up totally useless, contradictory information about who Ed actually is. I like this because I just imagine the writers taking the character designers aside and telling them “Hey, have fun guys. This one is for you.”
It turns out that the real culprit, however, is the CPU of an ancient spy satellite, who – isolated from all outside influence following the gate incident – has gradually over the ages become self-aware, and then insane. Never mind that there’s no reason why the satellite wouldn’t still be picking up broadcasts from the tunnel people, and never mind that the gate incident was actually just fifty years ago: it’s a cool bit. And the requisite action scene, which has Spike and Faye frantically threading their ships through a gauntlet of defensive laser blasts, is pretty damn cool as well. On the downside, though, Cowboy Bebop joins the ranks of countless other scifi shows in utterly failing to come up with an interesting visual metaphor for cyberspace.
At the end, Ed has to convince the program to voluntarily transfer itself to the drive that Spike has inserted. She tells it that they’ll make a copy, give it to the police, and keep the real copy with them on the Bebop so that it won’t have to be lonely anymore. It agrees, there’s a snap cut to represent the data being beamed into Ed’s cyberspace rig, and then Ed falls over backwards. Later on, a disk is presented to the police (who promptly refuse to pay, on the grounds that bounties cannot be collected on inanimate objects the crew must always fail at everything they do). Now here’s the thing: there’s a suggestion here that the artificial intelligence somehow merged itself directly into Ed’s mind. If not, presumably it spends the rest of the series cruising around on the Bebop with everyone else. But at least in what I’ve seen so far, the AI is never mentioned again. Which makes it possible that Ed was just lying to get it to transfer itself onto the hard drive, and it spends the rest of the series moldering in cyber-jail. That’s some coldhearted business, right there. And after the AI let Ed play around with the laser satellite, too…