Overthinking Cowboy Bebop: Session 23

Overthinking Cowboy Bebop: Session 23

Cowboy Bebop takes a turn for the self-reflective, raises doubts about the persistence of identity, and throws a dog into a minefield. Kind of a busy half-hour, truth be told.

Aww, he's wearing sunglasses and getting his mind wiped! Just like a little Rory Calhoun.

This is pretty dickish, if you really think about it in any kind of detail.  You know the device is going to turn your brain into soup, so you hook it up to your DOG? Would you send your dog into a minefield so that he’ll clear the way for you?  There are some circumstances where this kind of thing might be morally acceptable – in a very real sense, animal testing of medicine is exactly this save that the minefield is biotic rather than petrochemical – but you don’t do it to your pet on a whim unless you’re a rampaging dick.  That said, when watching the episode one isn’t really struck by the moral dubiousness, because the viewer already knows what Jet and Ed do not:  i.e. that Ein is a superintelligent computer genius.  As soon as they slap the headset on him, he hacks the system and gives them access to Londes’ files.  I love a couple of little details about this.  I love that Ein controls the computer with little neck twitches and subvocalized barks, for all the world like a dog that’s asleep and dreaming it’s chasing something.  I also love that because the plan was for Ed to take control of the hacking as soon as the program engages, and Jet has his eyes locked on the display, he never even realizes that Ein is responsible.  Most of all, I love the reaction we get here from Ed.

Come to think of it we get more characterization for both Ed AND Ein in episodes 23 and 24 than in all the other episodes combined.

She’s interested.  Not shocked, not even quite surprised (although there’s a bit of that at first), but interested. This was not something that she was expecting, and she finds it fascinating… and her reaction to something that she finds fascinating is to quietly and almost smugly observe.  This is sooooo hackerish.  It’s also the calmest, most rational, and most intelligent expression that we’ve seen on her face in the entire series, which I think is deeply revealing of her character.  And it’s also kind of hilarious because a normal person’s reaction to watching a dog hack the internet would be to act like Radical Edward does in day to day life (screaming, flailing, handstands), but Radical Edward’s reaction is to start acting like a normal person.

Guest art for Brain Scratch apparently provided by Frank Miller.

Back to the plot.  Remember when I said that they uncovered the files on the leader?  Actually, they uncovered the absence of files on the leader.  The Londes identity turns out to be a shell, pure and simple.  (You know how I’ve been tracking the way that this show has been playing clever tricks with mystery and closure over the course of the past few episodes? Okay, well here’s the way it works this time:  they search and search through the signifying labyrinth, only to find a vacuum at the center. How freaking po-mo is that?) They do manage however to trace the account that created the website back to a hospice bed, where a thirteen year old with locked-in syndrome named Ronny Spangen has been using a brainwave controller hooked up to the internet to create the Londes persona and the whole Scratch movement.  Because he doesn’t have a body any more, he wants to create a world where no one else does either.  Which, I mean… we’re supposed to accept the boy as a tragic figure, and to an extent we do.  But that’s some straight-up supervillainy right there.  Whenever you come across plans of the form “Because I had to [X], the whole world should have to [X],” you want to be nodding and smiling, and frantically dialing 911 behind your back.  Jet handcuffs the kid — this is a pretty poignant image, right?

Symbolic of something. Not sure what.

— and Ed disconnects his terminal from the internet.  This happens none too soon, because at the same time Spike is facing off against the wall of TVs that got Faye, and learning that his brilliant strategy of shooting bullets at the screens is no match for Londes’ nerve-hacking voodoo.  (You may remember this plot, or something like it, from such recent episodes of Cowboy Bebop as Pierrot le Fou.  Again, there’s no suggestion that Spike ever really learns, or particularly wants to learn, the true nature of the ass he’s trying to kick.)  Now, in one of my early posts I pointed out that Cowboy Bebop is full of awesome things that don’t make a lick of sense.  Londes’ Best-Buy™-Franchise-of-Death is one such.  What is the point of this place?  Is it literally a venus flytrap for bounty hunters, to keep them from finding out about Ronny?  It’s vaguely plausible that Londes would want to make something like that, kind of, but to have the corpses just be left lying there?  Look, I’ve seen <strike>a corpse or two in my day</strike> an episode of CSI or two in my day, and let me tell you:  corpses STINK.  Eventually, that alone would have brought in the Swat Team and toppled Londes’ whole little empire.  But again this is really a nitpick…  The show runners weren’t trying to think of a logical plan, they were trying to creep out the audience.  And speaking for myself, the image of a big room full of corpses that just went to sleep and never woke up again certainly got the job done.

As did this image, come to think of it.

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?

    Reply

  2. Adrian #

    Finally!

    Reply

  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!

    Reply

    • stokes OTI Staff #

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

      Reply

  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.

    Reply

    • stokes OTI Staff #

      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.

      Reply

    • 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.

      Reply

      • fenzel #

        Sorry, “relativity,” not “relatively.”

        I also apologize for all other typos.

        Reply

      • 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.

        Reply

        • stokes OTI Staff #

          “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.

          Reply

  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!

    Reply

  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.

    Reply

    • stokes OTI Staff #

      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?

      Reply

  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.

    Reply

    • 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?

      Reply

      • 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.

        Reply

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