The first two DVDs of Cowboy Bebop feel almost eerily self-contained, considering that the show was produced only a couple of years after DVD technology was even invented. The five episodes on the first disc form a beautiful little arc all on their own. The second disc doesn’t quite have as much of a shape, but it still feels coherent, with all five episodes sharing the same theme (and to a large degree, the same tone). Alas, Disc three does not feel coherent at ALL. Toys in the Attic, far and away the silliest episode of Cowboy Bebop so far, serves as something like a summary coda for the thematic arc that started in disc two, giving us a chance to catch our breath before Jupiter Jazz, a sprawling two-parter that could have very easily been a stand-alone movie. And then there’s the last episode on the disc, Bohemian Rhapsody, which feels like they just stuck it in because there was space on the disc. Which they did. And that’s normal. The fact that these kinds of aesthetic questions can come up at all shows that Cowboy Bebop is a little smarter than the average bear: when you watch TV on DVD, how often do you spare a moment’s thought for how the episodes are spaced out over the discs? I don’t either, usually… but something about Bebop invites this kind of analysis. (It might just be a function of how perfectly that first disc peaks in the fifth episode: it feels so planned that it has you grasping at straws for the rest of the series). Anyway. Moving on. This time I tried to just work the analysis in with the plot summaries. If you preferred the old format, let me know in the comments and I’ll switch it back for next time.
11) In Toys In The Attic, we find the Bebop floating through deep space on its way to Mars. The crew hasn’t had any work in weeks, so they’re a little bit broke, and a whole lot stir-crazy. The episode beings with Faye literally beating the pants off of Jet at poker (see above), while Spike tries to grill kebabs with a flamethrower. (The kebab sequence is a pretty cute joke, and it doubles as a convenient way to establish that, hey, they have a flamethrower on board. I wonder if that’ll come in handy?) Jet wanders off to the cargo bay to find a blanket and sulk, where he sees a mysterious refrigerator, and is bitten by a mysterious alien blob monster. Spike tries to help him with some traditional medicine, but it, uh… it does not go so well.
The bulk of the episode plays out pretty predictably. The blob monster picks off the members of the crew one at a time, until Spike is the only one left. He gears up, flamethrower in tow, and climbs into the air ducts to go hunt the thing. But the plot takes a hard left turn into crazytown at the end, because Spike loses. You think that he’s killed the monster, but in true horror movie form it jumps back up and bites him, which we’ve been given to understand is probably fatal unless treated. And since everyone else has already lapsed into alien-venom induced comas… yeah. This episode ends with a Total Party Kill. The “Next Time, On Cowboy Bebop:” sequence at the end even starts out with Ed saying “And so they all died. It’s very sad, but what can you do? This was the last episode of Cowboy Bebop,” before the other cast members break in and shout her down. (The “Next Time, on…” sequences have been played pretty straight up until this episode, but later in the series they go batpoop insane. Later on, we’ll come across an episode where the teaser trailer is basically “Next week, on Cowboy Bebop: a thrilling search for… ahh, who are we kidding. The story never really goes anywhere. I’d skip it, if I were you.” And then there’s one where it starts off with Jet saying “I’m tired of doing these voiceovers. Here, Ein, you give it a shot,” followed by twenty seconds of barking.)
Much like these teaser trailers, Toys in the Attic is very ridiculous. In fact, it’s almost fractally ridiculous, by which I mean it is silly on many interlocking levels. It is, first of all, a parody of the movie Alien, and while Cowboy Bebop has referenced all sorts of movies in pretty much every episode, this is the first out-and-out parody. So that’s pretty ridiculous. Second, the episode is broken up into four “lessons,” separated by title cards (pictured left), in which each character takes a turn providing voiceover narration and a moral to the story. Jet narrates the opening up until the monster bites him, then Faye narrates until it bites her, and then Ed, and finally Spike. This kicky formalist conceit would already be ridiculous in a French New Wave kind of way, but it’s pushed to new heights of ridculosity by morals themselves, which range from deadly serious (Jet, who more or less says “Hubris is clobbered by Nemesis”), to the amoral (Faye, whose big lesson is “Put yourself first and don’t trust anyone”), to the surreal (Ed, who breaks the 4th wall in her narration – “Lesson? Lesson? What lesson?” – before settling on “If you see a stranger, follow them,”), to the… well, we’ll get back to Spike’s moral in a bit. And also silly is the scene where Spike takes a time out from fighting the space alien to try to light a cigarette with his flamethrower, which is one of the most priceless bits of comic business I’ve ever seen comitted to film.
But just when you’ve been lulled in a sense of security, suddenly… look out! Behind you!
The great thing about the Alien parody is that, in the midst of all this sillyness, it is played brutally straight. The monster is creepy, yo. The picture above doesn’t do the thing justice… no still image could, because the horror is in how they animate it. Its shape, mass and volume don’t seem to stay the same from frame to frame. It comes off as – dare I say it? – non-Euclidian. The more specific references to the original movie aren’t played as jokes either. There aren’t any face-full-of-alien-wing-wong comments, or anything… it’s just a monster loose in the air ducts, and a dude chasing it with a flamethrower, and a motion detector, and ventilation fans, and a creepy monster-POV cam, and the crew getting picked off one by one, and the monster slowly spinning out into space at the end.
So the only real joke in this very spooky episode is how note-perfect it is… until the huge, colossal joke at the end where we learn – and those of you who have seen the episode know that I’ve been kind of dancing around this – the monster’s origin. We’ve had various theories on this throughout the episode. Is it a rat? A mutant rat? A monster from the depths of space? Finally, we learn the horrible truth: Spike stashed some lobster in the back of the fridge over a year ago, and forgot to clean it out. The result? A poisonous mutant space lobster running amok in the crawl space. And Spike’s moral, of course, is “DON’T… LEAVE… FOOD… IN… THE… FRIDGE!!!” I almost expected a cameo from J. Walter Weatherman. This retroactively infects everything in the episode – if not the entire series – with near-toxic levels of sillyness. And it’s far and away my favorite moment in the series so far.
After that, things just get sillier. As the tainted fridge flies off into space, we’re treated to a rapturous, swooning montage set to Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers. (This is the second time that music from The Nutcracker has turned up on the show, the first being at the end of Jamming With Edward, also a notably silly episode. Not really sure what’s going on there.) The montage has some great, almost Eisensteinian, juxtaposition of images… it’s completely gratuitous, but then, it’s always been my contention that the best parts of Cowboy Bebop are the utterly gratuitous set-pieces. This is just the first time that the gratuitous set-piece was lyrical instead of bad-ass. Check out how every one of these shots seems to be layed out around a single axis of rotation. There are even moments where the “spokes” on the wheel – Ein’s body, the fridge’s glitter trail, etc. – seem to be rotating between shots like the hands of a clock.
And then at the very end, Ed – who possibly was never bitten after all, but just wandered off and fell asleep somewhere – absentmindedly grabs the monster up off the floor and eats it. Which struck me as a lot more messed up than it probably should have, but hey, I guess a free lobster is a free lobster.
Silly as it is, there’s a lot going on under the hood here, because the “lessons,” inappropriate as they are, do tell you a lot about the characters. What Jet actually says is that man has to earn his living through hard work, and that whenever people try to get rich quick, they are punished by fate for their greed and laziness. I remember reading somewhere that film-noir and pulp fiction heroes make a fetish of professionalism, clinging to the protestant work-ethic when all other moral codes have failed… and this is very much the kind of guy that Jet is. In several other episodes, people bring up his old police nickname, “The Black Dog who bites once and never lets go.” Which is honestly kind of cumbersome for a nickname, but we’ll let that slide: the point is that he’s the kind of guy who keeps his word, even if it means that he winds up naked and shivering in the cargo hold of his own spaceship.
Faye’s moral is equally revealing. Having watched quite a couple of discs ahead while I was writing about Choose Your Own Adventure books, I can tell you that Faye is the character who arcs the most over the course of the series from here on out. Which is an interesting choice on the writers’ part, but never mind that for now. What’s important is that her arc basically starts here: she doesn’t let people get close because she’s been hurt in the past. We’ll see how that begins to change starting in the very next episode, where she pulls a runner because she’s afraid of how attached she’s getting to Spike.
Ed’s moral is probably just meant to be surreal. But maybe not. So far, the only reason we’ve been given for her even wanting to be on the BeBop is that… well, for some reason she really wanted to come. “If you see a stranger, follow them,” is actually the most character development that we’ve had for her. Now, I don’t know if I would have ever come up with this next bit if I wasn’t trying to read deeper meaning into the episode. But maybe she was just lonely? A kid who has no family, so she follows the next stranger she sees in the hope that they will become her family? It’s at least plausible.
And then there’s Spike. Like I said, “Toys in the Attic” is a thematic coda to the episodes collected on the previous disc, which – if you remember – were all about how past trauma, and past sins, will always come back and bite you in the ass. “DON’T… LEAVE… FOOD… IN… THE… FRIDGE!” I don’t need to explain the metaphor, right? Yeah, I probably don’t need to explain the metaphor.