As far as Bebop episodes, especially episodes dealing with Spike’s past go, Ballad of Fallen Angels is fairly straightforward, which makes me very nervous usually. Because the moment something is too straightforward, you know there is a layer under it.
The episode starts off with Mao trying to broker a deal with the White Tigers, which results in the death of both the White Tiger envoy and Mao himself.
We see Vicious on-screen for the first time and the episode really changes up the game with what Mao says while dying. We’ve seen Spike as just this easygoing goofball kind of character so far. You’d think he’s been bounty hunting all his life or was waiting tables before then or something. Definitely not the heir-equivalent to a major crime syndicate. It’s one of those moments where Bebop plays around with contrasts so well to heighten the drama and impact of a moment.
You see this obviously-powerful man (Mao) and this embodiment of evil (Vicious) and the powerful man mentions that the same guy who was running around in a towel getting bitten by a Welsh Corgi, is the only one who could have stopped Mr. Walking Evil. Makes him that much more intriguing, mysterious, and cool. The next time you see Spike, you can’t help but wonder, “Who really is this guy?” Of all the moments in Bebop which I wish I could go back and experience for the first time all over again, this one is indisputably at the very top of the list. The reveal of Spike as Crown-Prince-in-exile is handled with beautiful subtlety and classic Bebop minimalism.
We cut to the Bebop next, which is docked in a harbour. Mao’s bounty is flashed on the screen but Jet has misgivings on going after it while Spike plays it out casually to be a good bounty which they should pursue.
Jet senses something is up and asks what he is hiding but Spike just asks him what happened to his arm. The scene basically establishes that, like classic non-communicative, baggage-heavy characters, neither of the two know much about each other’s pasts after three years of partnership, even though there is quite a bit to tell. So we as the audience are not missing much by being utterly clueless.
Faye shows up on the scene and we see Jet giving her a hard time, making her feel like an outsider. She shrugs it off in classic Faye fashion and gets interested in Mao’s bounty.
In the meantime, Spike decides to leave against Jet’s will while he is distracted with being an ass to Faye. Jet tries to stop him but he doesn’t listen. Something similar is repeated in Jupiter Jazz as well, with Spike leaving against Jet’s wishes. In the third set of episodes dealing with Spike’s past, however, this motif is completely removed with Spike acting more maturely, choosing to stick around even when he does not expressly need to.
After Spike leaves, Faye reads out that Mao is wanted for the murder of the White Tiger leader and there is a bounty on his head. While it is not explicitly stated yet, we are to understand Mao holds significance for Spike as well and seeing him on the screen sets him off.
Ballad of Fallen Angels gives us a lot of information which is very critical for completely understanding future episodes and I will discuss that at the end of this. But right now, we are being given quite a bit of information to understand the events of this episode itself. For starters, we are told through Jet’s reaction that the Syndicate is really something much more dangerous than the average bounty head the crew hunts. We’ve seen some scary-looking guy decapitate another in its context already. For Spike, the whole situation seems to be a code which only he knows and what goes on in his head is left to the viewer to figure out basis the cues given.
Ballad of Fallen Angels also sets a very clear expectation with the viewer that the story arc of Spike’s past is something they need to figure out themselves. Unlike the fairly straightforward stories we have seen so far, this episode is where the narrative starts to “abandon” the viewer to their own conclusions and interpretations. You are not told a story as much as “shown” a story from here on out whenever Spike’s past comes up. Spike doesn’t sit down and tell someone Vicious is his arch-rival or that he worked with the mafia or what role Julia played in his and Vicious’ lives. We figure it out on our own basis scenes and flashback…and are still figuring it out. This is very unlike the story of Faye’s past or Jet’s which are clearly narrated and explained so the viewer knows exactly what is going on.
One of the reasons behind this ambiguity may have been the fact that Watanabe wanted to make a follow-up movie or standalone story around Spike’s past in the Syndicate but then abandoned the idea later since people had already made their own versions of his past post the series’ release and he felt it would upset the viewers. Something similar is also the reason quoted by him for not making a follow-up to Bebop, mentioning in an interview that people are concerned he might do it. For a viewer who has already designed their perfect version of the ending, to get something official which contradicts it might ruin it for them. It’s actually rather nice of him.
Anyway, although he never made the story on the past, I don’t feel it would have had much significance on the events of the series itself unless they showed something definitive doing away with the ambiguity around Julia’s choices and her connection to Vicious and Spike…which, looking at the trend, they were unlikely to have done. Personally, I would rather have the movie they did create because it brings out both Spike’s past, builds on the present narrative of the series, and touches on the future as well (more on that in another piece).
Anyway, back from the meandering.
So, the next part is significant. Annoyed by Spike just taking off and Faye being obnoxious, Jet switches off the monitor and leaves. After he has gone, the video phone rings and someone, presumably an ISSP contact of Jet’s, flashes on with some ‘big information’ for Jet. Being the only one in the room, Faye becomes intrigued. We also see her pick up a card which has been dropped by Jet and it is the Ace of Spades. This is symbolic since Spike picks up the same card at the end of the episode and from this very moment forward, Faye gets pulled into his past and later on he gets pulled into hers…sort of like “being dealt the same hand.” It’s also generally known as the ‘Death Card’ and can either signify death or the end of a phase of life, depending upon which interpretation you want to go with.
We next see Faye arrive at the Opera House, where she has come following the tip from Jet’s informant. An attendant approaches her as soon as she enters and seems aware about Mao’s presence in the box Faye is headed toward. Faye hands him her keys and asks him to park Red Tail for her. As they speak, he acts shocked at the mention of Mao’s name but when she walks away, his expression changes.
In the meantime, Jet is researching Mao on what seems to be a hyped-up version of Google called Deep Space. He has to break through some encryption but eventually gets to know that Mao was trying to broker peace with the White Tigers and, it’s revealed later in the episode, also that Mao is already dead.
Also, if you ever feel the urge to look too deeply into the creators’ intent behind any originally-English content for the show (mostly song lyrics I guess), I invite you to look at the English used in the article about Mao. The team did not really read or have much command on English, just like most Japanese people.
We cut back to the Opera House and see the same man who had appeared on the screen to Faye, informing her of the “insider information” on where to find Mao, sitting in the orchestra. He is not playing his violin, just holding it and looking toward Mao’s box. I think this detail often gets missed along with the actions of the Opera House attendant since all of these come together to show how deeply Vicious had planned this all out.
The scene cuts to the lobby where the same attendant who had approached Faye is standing, tossing the keys to the Red Tail which she had given him, and a Syndicate operative approaches him. The information received by Faye was specifically planted on the Bebop by Vicious through the man in the orchestra. The attendant was waiting specifically for her to arrive, since she was the person to whom the message was given. Vicious is also aware of Jet since the man on the screen had said his name when he popped up.
Now, we can infer from this that the man who called the Bebop with the message was likely known to Jet, probably someone in the ISSP. The alternative would be to assume that Vicious was specifically targeting Faye and had hacked the camera on the Bebop monitor so he could tell exactly when Jet had left the room and Faye would be alone since, if the informant was unknown to Jet, he would likely just ignore the message. Implying this kind of hacking seems off because it would mean Vicious could see inside the Bebop at any point and would defeat the purpose of pretty much everything.
Faye gets to Mao’s box and runs into Vicious’ people who already have information on her. The Syndicate operative shows her the key to Red Tail saying they have done a check on her, revealing to her she was set up and everyone has been in on it. So basically, we establish that by this point Vicious is aware of the Bebop, Jet, and Faye.
In the middle of all this, we cut to a scene with Spike and Annie where through her the audience is informed for the first time that Spike had a close association with Mao and he faked his death three years ago. Spike is shown to honour Mao’s memory and takes ammunition from Annie.
Back on the ship, Jet tries to warn Spike that Mao is dead already and he is walking into a trap. Spike tells him he doesn’t want to do it but has to. I’ve mentioned in the analysis on Spike and Faye that, while Spike gets a reputation for being reckless, he actually does all his death-defying to take care of people around him. Vicious is a figment of his past he always knew was coming to haunt him. When it does, the people around him get targeted. Spike is shown asking Jet where Faye is since he likely already suspects that, if Jet is still on the ship, Vicious will use her to get to him.
This proves true as they get a call from Faye and Spike leaves to meet Vicious. The interactions between Spike and Vicious here are very important in understanding the series since they give us a lot of context into why Vicious does what he does.
I find it interesting that when they meet, Vicious talks about angels “forced” from heaven when what we see later in the series gives us an understanding that Spike left willingly. I do want to explore this track in another piece but not right here. Spike responds to him saying he is only watching a dream he never awakened from and Vicious answers back that he will wake him up right now.
Spike talking about a dream here refers to two things. One is his sense of dissociation, likely trauma in his past, which leads him to feel his life is like a dream he is watching. I’ve explored this more deeply when talking about the theme of dissociation in the show. It also perhaps refers to his life in the Syndicate, which was a bad dream he was unable to truly get away from since here he is being haunted by it again.
Vicious saying he will wake Spike up at this point, is him talking about killing Spike. In Samurai tradition, life is a dream and death is an awakening from it. This is often confused with what Vicious says in the finale. When Spike confronts him at the end, Vicious says. “You are finally awake.” That awake does not refer to the “awakening from life as a dream” metaphor of the Samurai. Rather, that awakening ties in directly to the exchange they have in front of the Rose window in the next few sequences. Will come to that. Within the current dialogue, Spike tells Vicious to not be so anxious. Vicious asks if he is pleading for his life. He responds by saying he knows something like that doesn’t work on Vicious.
During the events of Ballad of Fallen Angels, both Spike and Vicious show a deep understanding of each other and the way they operate. The moment Mao’s bounty flashes on the screen, Spike automatically knows it has something to do with Vicious and goes to Annie for information. Vicious knows exactly what he needs to do to bring Spike out in the open.
Spike tells Vicious he kills those who saved his life, hinting that Mao was a benefactor for Vicious as well, but the other man simply dismisses Mao as a fangless beast just like Spike, establishing his callous coldness, heartlessness, and lack of fealty.
They are distracted through Spike getting threatened by a man who is holding Faye and he responds by just shooting him. This action on his part both amazes us with his general coolness but also does away with the idea to all present in the Church that Faye is of any significance to him. This essentially saves her life since immediately after he does this, Vicious’ people stop paying any attention to her and she is able to escape unscathed.
The fact that Vicious kidnaps Faye also tells us a lot about who Spike was when Vicious knew him in the Syndicate. For all his posturing as someone who is too cool for school, we do see that Spike has an empathetic and caring side to him. Vicious is aware of the same and hence attacks people close to him both times he has to lure Spike out. What he does in this episode by kidnapping Faye is the same as what he does in attacking the Bebop during the finale. A lot of the tactics which Vicious is shown using in this episode like targeting Faye, building danger for Spike’s companions etc. are also reflected directly in the actions of the “Syndicate” during The Real Folk Blues. This is covered in more detail in the analysis of The Real Folk Blues.
The exchange which takes place between Spike and Vicious right before the former is thrown out of the window ties back to Vicious talking about Mao as a beast who lost its fangs, just like Spike.
Apart from being a cold killer, Vicious is a control freak and a megalomaniac. He needs things around him to be exactly as he wishes them to be and is willing to kill whoever comes in the way of their being so. His entire need to take over the Syndicate is fuelled by his unwillingness to work under those he views as weak.
Vicious views virtue as a weakness. Loyalty, justice, honour, benevolence etc. are all things which he despises and therefore destroys those he sees practising it. He makes the move to kill Mao once he sees Mao leading the organisation in a more benevolent direction. Ballad of Fallen Angels is the beginning of the continuum which leads to Vicious’ coup in the finale. Spike is a threat to Vicious’ own ambitions since he is the only one who can challenge him and be an opponent on equal footing. He also has people in the Syndicate waiting for him to come back.
Vicious’ plans through the series run in two sequences and Spike is not his prime priority. His ambition to take over the Syndicate starts long before the events of the series and killing Mao is the first step to it. He needs to kill Mao to stop him from taking the organization in a “weak” direction. With Mao eliminated, he goes after Spike to eliminate this additional threat before he takes the next step but Spike survives. The fact that eliminating Spike is a secondary priority to Vicious when compared to his larger plans is also seen in Jupiter Jazz, where his focus is on his deal with Gren and he passes up an opportunity to kill Spike for it. That makes the significance of the deal with Gren that much more.
In the finale, Vicious again does not prioritize Spike. He focuses on and goes about his own plans, putting in place catalysts which will anyway flush Spike out to him.
During Spike’s flashback in Ballad of Fallen Angels, we see him in a gunfight back to back with Vicious, both of them friends. Vicious respects that man who was a criminal and a killer like him, albeit with a stronger moral compass than Vicious. Once Spike chooses to leave, Vicious views him as something despicable in his standards, a person who does not fit in with his world view and should therefore be eliminated.
He despises his own former close association with this man whom he views as weak and also tries to re-invoke in him the bloodlust which he himself respects. He taunts Spike saying he looks like a bloodthirsty beast because Vicious wants him to go back to being that. He can respect that man and would probably even be ok working for that man. For Vicious, taking over the Syndicate is not so much about seeing himself at the top as it is about ensuring someone who will run it in the way he would like to see it run is at the top. This is what he expresses every time he critiques Mao or the Van or shows contempt toward Lin/Shin. He even goes so far as to encourage Lin to betray him. In Vicious’ book, only someone capable of being truly ruthless is worthy of respect.
This is why he is so cavalier about dying at the end. When he sees Spike on the rooftop, he comments “You are finally awake.” This is not him speaking of Spike being awake/dead here in the context of the Samurai’s post-death awakening. He is perceiving that the bloodlust lying dormant in Spike has finally been awakened and that has drawn him to seek Vicious out. Killing Annie is a part of invoking this-it’s an unnecessary waste of life but he knows it will anger Spike. Attacking his companions, Julia’s death etc. are all ways of awakening that “worthy opponent” in Spike.
Vicious and Spike enter a Mexican standoff in Ballad of Fallen Angels much like the finale but it ends differently. Spike saying “let’s end it all” at this point could have also resulted in exactly what happened at the end but because he does not say it, Vicious does not land a direct blow on him but pushes him out of the window in disgust, offering him a coward’s death at best.
Vicious actually respects Spike quite a lot. He is narcissistic and views himself above all. Him saying to Spike that Vicious is the only one who can kill him is actually putting Spike on a very high pedestal. It’s him telling Spike he is so strong that only Vicious himself is a worthy opponent. It means in Vicious’s eyes Spike is the only opponent he views as an equal or even a challenge. Coming from a very different mindset, he cannot understand Spike’s motivations in leaving behind so much power to live a life of ignominy and keeps trying to awaken in him the individual he once was. He feels he sees that awakened finally at the end and is therefore no longer concerned about the outcome of the fight since it is evenly-matched in his book.
Random Trivia: Ballad of Fallen Angels seems named after a mix of ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’ by the Beatles and “Fallen Angels” by Aerosmith. Considering all the Beatles references strewn throughout Bebop, it’s very plausible. This is also the episode where Julia makes her first appearance, albeit through Spike’s flashbacks and I’ve covered all the other connections Bebop makes between Julia and Yoko Ono here.
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