Ballad of Fallen Angels – A Deep Dive

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.

For more Bebop Essays, please click here

Please Note: The content on this site is covered by Copyright and a Creative Commons license. Have a look at these in the sidebar and understand the terms. If you want to reuse anything fully or partially you need to take permission and give proper credit.

The Black Dog: Exploring the Character of Jet Black

The story of Bebop is set up fairly simply in terms of character structure. You have your protagonist Spike, the antagonist Vicious, the deuteraognists Jet Black and Faye Valentine, the “romantic interest” Julia (though I have a different opinion on this matter), and sundry tertiary characters in the bounties they encounter. There is no one foil character though, and each character ends up with multiple foils in others which highlight their own qualities through contrast and comparison. For a story which does not say a whole lot and leaves the actual plot for you to fill in, these contrasts are extremely important.

The character of Jet Black is a direct homage to Blade Runner, with both Rick Deckard and Jet having the themes of police and bounty hunting to them. He is also a key player in Bebop’s overall theme of not adhering to the ideals of toxic masculinity. Men who act like pompous pricks or objectify women are generally treated with contempt in the narrative. ‘Cowboy Funk’ pokes fun at the pompous fragile masculinity of Spike through the parallel of Andy, Faye’s choice of clothing never causes either of the Bebop boys to be an idiot to her, Gren can be gay and also be a soldier, something which the militaries of this world are just barely beginning to come to terms with etc. Gender and sexuality doesn’t define a character, despite all the lines about men doing this and women doing that. These lines are stuck in purposefully without adding any resonance to them in the narrative itself to negate how ridiculous these ideas really are.

Jet Black is very “typically stereotypically masculine” in his external appearance but he is balanced with his “so-called feminine” side in the most non-caricaturised way possible. Throughout the series, we see him go about the domestic work around the ship, taking care of everyone, being emotionally far more expressive than Spike and Faye, while also being the ex-ISSP bounty hunter he is (like literal Blade Runner, no shit…Rick Deckard with an apron and laundry). He expresses his concerns about the people in his life, is a proxy father to Ed, shows understanding of Faye when Spike is clueless, is the confidante to Spike and the general voice of reason for everyone, whether the listen to him or not. And none of this is used to paint him up as a “sissy” or anything out of the ordinary. It’s just who he is. Somebody’s gotta do it so he does it.

Emotionally, Jet is the most sorted member of the Bebop. Granted, he has likely had a more well-adjusted life than the others have and therefore has the emotional bandwidth needed to ground them. He is shown as intensely sensitive and caring, watching out for his crew even when they act like jerks to him. He is the father figure to everyone and the two sequences which particularly stick out in my mind are his rescue of Faye in Jupiter Jazz, something which perhaps saves her life both physically and psychologically, and his worrying about Faye and Ed in Hard Luck Woman. It shows how Jet has a heart of just pure gold.

The hunt he goes on for the Betamax player in ‘Speak Like a Child’ always seems to me a lot more than just a hare-brained treasure hunt. I often wonder what we are to think of why Jet lets Faye stay on the ship and always feel he understands her situation better than he lets on. He likely doesn’t know the specifics but perhaps we are to understand that, having been with the police, he knows a troubled young person when he sees one. They can use the extra pair of hands of course but I get a sense Jet has insight into the desperate situation Faye is in, whether through finding out from one of his contacts or through his own experience, thus allowing her to stay on. The same thing which leads him to worry about her being alone in a dangerous sector despite her having sucked all the coolant and stolen all their money causes him to take her in when he sees her alone and in trouble two times in a row.

I’ve covered his relationship with Spike below in more detail but the other character whose relationship with Jet is particularly beautiful is Ed. Ed is as much a pet on the Bebop as Ein is by virtue of how bizarre she is. Everyone sort of takes care of her but Jet is often seen taking on the role of proxy father to her, at one point even making her pose as his daughter in what is definitely one of the funniest sequences in cinematic history. This paternal equation is shown through sequences like in ‘Speak Like a Child’ where he is depicted telling her a story while hanging up the laundry, or in Bohemian Rhapsody where he expresses the crew would not want Ed to lose her chess partner.

When Faye asks Ed to go find a place where she belongs it is interspersed with images of Jet worrying about Faye and Ed very much like a doting father. Appledelhi, her real father, has meanwhile run away chasing a meteor, forgetting her again. It’s ironic for Ed to leave following this advice, trying to find him because, even if she does, he cannot provide her the kind of stability and care Jet already gives her. Just like Faye herself realises later, the Bebop is where Ed really belongs simply because Jet is more a father to her in one day than her real one has been in seven years.

Jet Black as a Foil Character

In the story of Bebop, Jet acts as a foil to three characters majorly-Faye, Vicious, and Spike.

As a foil to Faye, his role is largely to bring attention to the recklessness of her choices and her emotional imbalance. By being more balanced in how he approaches things, he offsets her emotional turmoil and ridiculous behaviour. He also offsets her insight into Spike’s life, which the narrative builds. Jet has known Spike a lot longer than she has but she gets more well-rounded visibility to him, getting to see both aspects of him, the goofball cowboy and the former gangster.

As a foil to Vicious, Jet Black represents honor, loyalty, and letting things go. There are two significant people in Spike’s current life, a man and a woman. He had a similar set in his previous life who are opposites to each other, so Jet is the replacement for Vicious in his current existence. Where Vicious is completely out of touch with his emotions, cold and uncaring, Jet is the exact opposite. He ends up being the rationality in his crew members’ lives, showing them genuine love and concern. Where Vicious is constantly hunting Spike, trying to displace him, Jet offers him stability and belonging. Where Vicious refuses to let go of things from the past, Jet quietly forgives Spike and accepts him back after he has stormed off post some very juvenile antics in Jupiter Jazz. Where Vicious tells Spike he is the only one who can kill him, Jet patches him up and saves his life many times. These actions on Jet’s part work to establish again and again that, even though they live in a broken world, good people still exist. They offset the sheer evil and extremism in Vicious’ posturing. While Vicious claims he is the only one who can keep Spike alive, in fact it is Jet who actually does this.

Similarly, Jet acts as a very major contrast to Spike and also as a deflective element, confusing Spike’s narrative to the viewer at-times unless you look deeper. Jet has had a very different life than Spike and most of the elements which happen in Spike’s life like abandonment by a lover, confrontation with a past friend/rival also happen in Jet’s. It’s a way of pointing out just how different and desperate Spike’s background is that these elements are so much more dramatic and hold much higher stakes for him than they do for Jet.

Just like with Faye, Jet Black is the emotional contrast to Spike. He is more balanced, more rational, more in touch with his own inner workings and those of others. He is used in this case as well to establish Spike’s insight into Faye’s life by again being shown as unaware of the exactly traumatic nature of her past.

He is also used to purposefully confuse Spike’s narrative by all his talk of asking him to let go of the past. In truth, by the end Spike seems not to be holding on to the past in the way Jet thinks. Jet choosing to keep his artificial arm even when Faye is shown pointing out he can get an organic one, is him holding on to his past, even if as a lesson. Jet has the choice to hold on to the past or give it up.

It is not so in Spike’s case. Even if he lets go of it completely, Spike’s past will not let go of him. We are shown this when he is found so easily at the beginning of Real Folk Blues. Jet could have ignored the whole Udai thing, he had the choice, but Vicious having ascended to the top of the Red Dragons was simply too powerful for Spike to ignore at that point. He would have come after everything in Spike’s life. Jet speaks to Spike from his own perspective, imagining the other man is holding on to a past he has the choice to let go of. It confuses the narrative in the audiences’ minds as well but I feel what Spike does with regard to Vicious at the end is a mix of their past equation, the recent events in Spike’s life, and also a need to protect the people who have gotten dragged into the mess because of him rather than just due to false ego.

The arc with Jet’s former partner is also reminiscent and a foreshadowing of Spike and Vicious’ final showdown. There are three notable Mexican standoffs across the show and the movie which result in death. There is also a gun duel in the movie-within-a-movie which plays during Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door so if you want to count that, then there are four. All of these instances result in the death of only one of the characters involved in the showdown. If you are a firm believer that Spike dies at the end, then this might not be in line with your beliefs but I have never believed that he dies. It’s not just a hunch and I have strong reasons for it captured in a separate piece.

Anyway, the first standoff happens between Jet and Fad, where Jet shoots Fad while the other man has done a roulette sort of thing with his gun and a single bullet, so he may or may not hit Jet. He stacks the odds against himself on purpose. The second happens with Elektra and Vincent, where Vincent outright chooses to not shoot her since he finally remembers who she is. The third happens with Spike and Vicious, where again we see Vicious not land a killing blow. Spike shoots him through the heart and he could have very well stabbed Spike through the heart as well resulting in instant death but we see him choose to not do that and I always wonder at this fact. He was definitely skilled enough with the blade to do it and we see him come close to doing exactly that in Ballad of Fallen Angels.

In all three cases, the antagonist of the arc chooses to not hurt the arc’s protagonist fatally. While yes, this leaves us with an open-ended closure in Spike’s case but, going by the parallels of the other two, it always seems to me like Vicious maybe has a moment of remorse or recalls his friendship with the other man and changes his mind at the last minute, choosing to let Spike live even as he himself is released from life. Not landing a blow on Spike at this point would not be the honourable thing to do as per the Samurai code. Vicious is widely believed the be a ‘Samurai’ due to a hint the series places in the third episode where Spike walks past a screen displaying the words “Only a true Samurai can kill him like that.” Because Vicious carries a Katana, a sword typically used by the Samurai, it is easy to believe the screen indicates that he is the Samurai who can kill Spike but actually he does not really fall into the definition of a Samurai as defined by Bushido, the code of the Samurai, or pretty much any other Japanese literature which talks about the definition of a true Samurai. A Samurai needs to be honorable, loyal, and compassionate and Vicious is none of that. But Spike does fit this definition to an extent and his code of honor loosely aligns somewhat with that of a Samurai. Therefore, Vicious not landing a blow at that point would dishonour his opponent and so I feel he does injure him, keeping up the illusion of an equal fight, but decides to not kill him after all at the last minute.

For more Cowboy Bebop Essays, please click here

Please Note: The content on this site is covered by Copyright and a Creative Commons license. Have a look at these in the sidebar and understand the terms. If you want to reuse anything fully or partially you need to take permission and give proper credit.

Cowboy Bebop Essays: What I am doing

Recently shifted blogs from Blogger to WordPress. I like it here.

Ok so Cowboy Bebop has been hands-down one of my favorite pieces of work cutting across all artistic platforms (and if you know me personally, you will know I have the attention span of a chipmunk and dabble across a huge variety of them).

I watched it for the first time in the first decade of the 2000s as a teen. It was completely out of order starting at Jupiter Jazz 1, because Animax was all I had. I was already in love and, once I got it in the right order the second time they aired it, it was a lifetime commitment. But somewhere, a few years later, life got in the way…and not in a “good” way. Bebop still lived rent-free in my head and was cherished like anything, something I would think back to for cheering me up when shit really hit the fan (which it did on a pretty regular basis), but I somehow happened (not even realising it) to go through 7-8 years without actually watching it again. I’d talk about it, read about it once in a while, but nothing else.

Anyway, I didn’t even know the live action was coming out…it was my brother who showed me the trailer a few days before it premiered since, even though he loves Bebop, he knows it’s always first dibs for me…Though I was skeptical, I decided to give Netflix a bit of a chance which was obviously a bad, horrifying idea.

To recover from that hot mess, I started writing little articles to vent but after 3 I no longer cared. It wasn’t worth wasting time on-it simply wasn’t Bebop for me. Then I started watching the show again because, since the Netflix thing is cringe, I needed to fix the bad taste.

Now as I watched, with more experience, exposure, life lessons, and growing senility, I started seeing new aspects to the same story. Things which had seemed like loopholes when I saw them earlier now seem like carefully constructed plot points indicating at a story within a story. There are connections I am seeing between things which had seemed just random earlier.

It’s kind of cool to explore these thoughts…I might end up too far from the mark but then that’s what Bebop is all about right? All part of getting old and crazy.

The coolest part of it has been finding others who love this thing in the same way. You know who you are. Thank you for being around. 🤗

Cowboy Bebop: Why I believe Spike doesn’t die at the end

I wrote this pretty early on and since then I’ve got like ten other things to add to this. Reading this back, compared to what my views are now, the explanations below seem a bit simplistic but I guess that’s because it was a starting point which has been built on since. I will update this….some….day….very soon.

_______________________________________________________________

I’ve never quite believed that Spike dies at the end of the series. It is left open to interpretation and even Watanabe never committed to it either way. In an interview, he stated that he himself was not sure if Spike is dead or alive and wanted fans to draw their own interpretations. Then in another interview with Red Carpet News TV he mentions that fans who saw the scene and thought he was sleeping were probably right…”Just sleeping” he repeated in English after the translator finishes translating what he has said. The first time I saw RFB 2 as a kid, I was broken-hearted by the last scene. I desperately wanted to believe he survived or at-least wanted to know conclusively either way. But back then I got distracted by other stuff…cause I was a kid. But this time around I wanted to try and know for sure. I do feel that the last couple of episodes are set up in such a way that if you watch them in a flow, without looking deep, you get one story while the moment you look deeper, you can actually get something indicating toward the exact opposite as well.

Ok, so the most commonly quoted and obvious factor supporting Spike’s survival post the big battle in RFB 2, for anyone familiar with the anime, would be that he has experienced injuries which are way worse than what he receives at the Syndicate HQ and survived many times before. In fact, this is a recurring theme in the series and something they really go out of their way to establish. The counter argument to this is that he kept coming back only because the idea of Julia gave him a reason to live. But I do believe that, by the time the Real Folk Blues rolls around, he seems a bit distant and jaded with his idea of her and of his past in general. 

Even when he receives news she is in danger, he ensures Jet is ok and the Bebop will be safe before going in search of her. It seems like he wants to deal with his past and put it behind him rather than return to it or throw his life away over it. If Julia follows him in this well and good but he knows what he needs to do. He returns to his past with reluctance and due to a sense of accountability but it’s something he wanted to be free of for a while so clearly its loss doesn’t have as strong a hold on him anymore. The scene with the eggs in the previous episode establishes that he is as impacted as Jet by the apparent “breaking up” of their new crew and this new life has come to hold meaning for him. The contrast between Spike’s heavy past and the relatively lighter present, where he seems to feel more at home, is one of those factors which make the story of Bebop so compelling after all.

What is also used to support the idea of Spike losing his will to survive because Julia is dead, is the story of the two cats which he tells Jet. This story prima facie seems to indicate that once the white cat (presumably Julia) is dead, the tiger-striped cat (presumably Spike) will not come back to life again the way he had so many times before. But, when you look deeper, the story doesn’t really support his death in the near future. He mentions meeting the female cat after he becomes a stray while Julia was someone he met before he became “free” and hence she does not fit that description. In fact, he lost her when he became a “stray.” The idea of a long togetherness and the white cat dying of old age indicates at a much more wholesome relationship than what he had with Julia, which involved a three year game of chase ending in a few moments of strained togetherness and her sudden death.  

Spike also says himself that he hates the story and cats and then laughs it off. To me, this seems more a way of acknowledging and then negating/dispelling a fear which by now is there in most of the audience’s minds (especially if this is not their first time watching the show and they are yet to decide whether he is dead or not at the end)…the thought that he will lose his will to survive against insane odds, now that Julia is gone. The story, taken at basic face value in that moment, exacerbates this fear for the audience and confirms that he will indeed die for good this time. But nothing is as straightforward here anyway. He then goes on to state that he hates that story, hates the idea and then laughs at it…to me, this feels like he fears the story fits him to an extent but he wants to reject that fate. Something in him is leaning strongly toward survival rather than death, surprising even him.

It seems like he acknowledges that this story loosely applies to him, drawing out the fear which is building in our minds and Jet’s, and then plays it off as something he does not consider a good way to go about things. He is very much planning on coming back this time as well if he can. He tells Faye as well that he is not going there to die but to see if he is truly alive. This is the fight which he actually may not come back from but, if he does, he knows for sure he is alive this time around. 

To me, this idea of checking if he is “alive” comes from Vicious’ dialogue “I am the only one who can keep you alive and I am the only one who can kill you.” Spike has always lived in the shadow of the Syndicate and his life was not his own at that time. It could be taken at any moment if he stepped out of line…he wasn’t truly ‘alive.’ When he gets out, Vicious still claims he is alive because Vicious has chosen to keep him alive. His life is therefore not his own still if that is true. By Vicious’ logic, Spike is living on borrowed time because Vicious has chosen not to end him yet. This means that he is already a dead man on death row with the date of execution pending basis the executioner’s discretion. For him to go to the Syndicate, face Vicious at the peak of his power, give him the full opportunity to finally kill him, actually kill him, and still survive would mean that he truly is alive and has been all along since he left the Syndicate. It means he has not survived on Vicious’ terms…the ability to kill Vicious was in him all along and the life he lived after leaving the Syndicate was his own, on his own terms, not something given through cruel mercy. It means he has not been a dead man with a death sentence because he has been strong enough to kill his would-be executioner at the peak of his power all along. He is free, ‘alive’ and has been all along, on his own terms. In fact, with this perspective, Vicious becomes the dead man since he has been alive only because Spike has let him live.

Another key aspect which is mentioned in this context usually  is what Laughing Bull says about Spike’s star in the last episode. When Gren dies, his star “falls” quite perceptibly. It seems to be his spaceship plummeting through the sky but appears to us as a shooting star. When Laughing Bull is talking to Jet, he says that once a person dies their star falls. He says that “His star is about to fall” but doesn’t specify whose it is. Considering the level of layering and metaphors which exist in the show, LB saying it right out that Spike is about to die seems fairly counter-intuitive and way too simple. 

We are also shown with the example of the Van that mystic predictions in this universe have their limitations. They are told by their astrologer that Vicious will attack on the red moon but the astrologer is not able to predict that he will also recover from the setback of being discovered and will kill them all.

In Spike’s case, as Blue is playing at the end of Session 26 and the screen pans up during the credits, we do see a star eventually but it doesn’t fall. It twinkles and fades. It is not clear whose star it is or why it fades instead of falling. For all we know, it could be Vicious’s star. We see several stars brighter than the others in the sky but only one of them fades. There is one just a little below and to the left of the one that fades which is also equally prominent but doesn’t get disturbed. The indication here could be that of the two men, Vicious’ star has faded.

Even if we are to assume this is Spike’s star, the fact that it does not fall indicates, to me, that whatever has happened to Spike involves anything but dying. The fading of the star may also mean renewal-an end to his old life and the beginning of a new one. Maybe this star fades and is renewed again in a fresh avatar. With Vicious, the Van, and Julia dying, he is pretty much free of all of that and may actually get to start a new life for real without being constantly hunted…a life in which he  can even meet the female white cat (or may already have met her), have a long wholesome life together, and die of old age. A free life, purged finally of all the burden he has carried for so long. So his star fades off from the sky and perhaps reappears as the star of a new life and self.  

It could also be that the star we see is not even a star since in Gren’s case his “star” was his ship. 

There is also the presence of doves. Doves during a character’s death or during action sequences are a classic John Woo device. We generally see an analogy that the presence of doves at Julia’s death and during the last scene indicate Spike died as well but actually both spots had people die so they don’t necessarily have to be for Spike. For Woo these represent the soul of an individual. When asked to explain about it he has said “Also, these guys have done some bad things in their lives but their souls got saved in the end, which I also wanted to express through this image.”

Another reason why I believe he is still alive is the Toys in the Attic metaphor…which is covered in detail in another post. In that episode, the crew members are impacted by the metamorphosed lobster, and we feel like they are all toast but they don’t actually die. 

There is also the parallel of the ‘Bang’ which resonates back to ‘Sympathy for the Devil.’ In that case, he has just killed Wen and in this case he has just killed Vicious. Wen was immortal and could not be killed unless the ‘stone’ was used. Vicious seemed immortal, untouchable, and could only be killed by Spike. I have come across this argument that Spike is dying in that moment and hence says the second ‘Bang’ because he finally understands what Wen meant by being at peace when dying. While this is very poetic, I actually feel it means the exact opposite. In the scene from SFTD, Spike has killed someone who could not be killed but did not understand what he meant by the peace of dying since Spike is a perennial survivor. He comes close to death again and again but does not die. I feel the second ‘Bang’ indicates that he has once again killed someone who could not be killed and still does not understand what Wen meant because somehow he has managed to survive again. It also ties into the end card of ‘You’re gonna carry that weight.’

An alternate interpretation could be that he believes he is dying, feels light now because all that he has been carrying is gone. He doesn’t know if he will make it or not so he assumes he won’t. But the metaphorical death of his past also means the death of his past self. Wen felt light because he was finally free of his prison of immortality and Spike feels light because he is free of his past now. So he does finally understand and hence the ‘Bang.’

The final one for me is the above screenshot. This is again one which is used to prop up the idea that Spike is dead because Vicious slices him with a Katana….which is the weapon of a Samurai. Now if I pick up a spatula that doesn’t automatically make me a chef. The line says “true Samurai” which means someone who embodies Bushido, the samurai code. One casual look at Vicious’ character will tell you he’s the opposite. Bushido runs on honor, compassion, righteousness, none of which are qualities he’s had even a remote brush with. Just because he is toting a Katana doesn’t mean he is a Samurai…forget a true one. And this is kind of a definitive clue in my mind that we are supposed to take away that Vicious indeed cannot kill Spike.

I feel there are enough of these little clues hidden in the last two episodes. It’s only when you look closely that you realize what they can possibly mean. It’s all open to interpretation and I know that the exact opposite of everything I have written up there will make perfect sense as well. Either way, this is the ending I choose to believe because the other one feels way too gut-wrenching to me and reminds me of simply too many other wasted lives I’ve known to be palatable. 

For more Cowboy Bebop essays click here

Please Note: I usually write about things I have not seen talked about anywhere else. The content on this site is covered by Copyright and a Creative Commons license. Have a look at these in the sidebar and understand the terms. If you want to reuse anything fully or partially you need to take permission and give proper credit.