Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Whole Damn Thing--COWBOY BEBOP #4

Hi amigos! All 300,000 bounty hunters in the solar system, how y'all doin? It's time once again for another installment of Witless Prattle's continuing (and halfway over) coverage of the entirety of Cowboy Bebop.

Before we get too far along with that, I want to say something about the Bebop movie and when we'll be covering it. I know that continuity-wise it comes somewhere in between the final clutch of episodes, but I'm going to covering in the order of its release, partly because it breaks up my neat little orderly system for reviewing these things by DVD and also because really . . .I like the movie, it's awesome, but it's less an actual story and more like a curtain call for Bebop. Which is fine, and well-deserved. I see now reason why I shouldn't treat it like what it is.

I'm just glad they didn't do anything stupid, like a make a prequel that's three times as long that only serves to wring more blood from the proverbial turnip and makes the implicit explicit. If such a thing will happen, I sure hope I am a pile of ashes in a paperweight on someone's shelf when it does.

So with that said, let's get on with this week's episodes, shall we?

"Your story needs editing."

The first of our two Faye episodes actually provide some backstory for her, and don't feature her getting tied up. There's a novelty. It also starts off by juxtaposing her origins against the fate of some frozen fish--not the only time this week that Faye is metaphorically tied to fish, oddly enough.

The meat of this episode calls back to her lesson from "Toys in the Attic"--"Nothing good ever happened to her when she trusted someone." This is the story behind that particularly cynical bromide, as we learn that Faye was thawed out of cryogenic suspension, with no memory of her life before she'd been frozen, trusted and maybe fell in love with her insurance caseworker, Whitney Haggis Matsumoto who runs a con on her an turns her already considerable debt into figures best expressed with scientific notation.

There's an undercurrent in this episode that eventually everything comes back on you. Whiney conned Faye, which has caused Faye to become something of a (rather unsuccessful) con artist, the doctor hunting Whitney steals a police car and pretends to be a cop when they're trying to turn him in for the bounty. Likewise, Whitney, like Faye, has had to continually reinvent himself and concoct new identities while he's been on the run.

Faye does it, of course, because she can't remember her past. The real tragedy of her character is that she owes everything but she has absolutely nothing. There's a concrete answer to that in that what she owes and doesn't have is "money," but it goes deeper than that. Lacking a past, lacking any grounding or any place to belong (that she feels comfortable in) she kinda. . .fills in. Even Spike says her past is always changing, and he'd know better than anyone.

I do like that the song accompanying Whitney and Faye's montage is slightly off-key and arrhythmic. Very appropriate, that.

"My Funny Valentine" is a bubbly episode, kinda funny, but ultimately tragic. We'll revisit Faye's backstory a little later on (and it won't have the soft cushion of farce when we get there) but this is the first definitive clues we've got to her past and why she is the way she is. It's also great that she's allowed to be the feature of an episode in an episode wherein the word "Featured" doesn't mean "Tied up."

"This ship is my ship, and this arm is my arm. I don't need instructions."

Jet Black suffers some more.

If Bebop has themes--and it has a lot of them--one of the crucial ones may be that however hard you try, the past always comes back on you--in some cases, rather violently. No greater illustration of this can be found than in the first shot of this episode, wherein a prison door won't stay closed. . .because one of several murdered men is blocking it from shutting.

Seems a mutiny has happened on a prison ship (I like that the prison ship is designed like a Tommy Gun. Nice touch) and one of the heads of the mutiny is Udai, an assassin for the Syndicates who is the man Jet blames for losing his arm. and on that arm hangs a tale . . .

Jet's old partner wants his friend to team up and stop the mutiny. Both of them are well past their best years, as is Udai, who Jet says "doesn't belong in this day and age," and Jet tries to distance himself from going after him as "old news" and "past the statute of limitations." But the past is not so easily escaped from.

And Jet's not averse to trying to escape. The fact that he doesn't feel pain when his cigarette burns down between the fingertips of his arm, even though Faye points out her could repair it and feel again, is a telling detail--Jet lives in denial because that's the only way he can live. He denies his past in much the same way he complains and grouses about the crew of the Bebop (you know, the people he welcomes back whenever they run off and helps even though it gains them nothing) For whatever reason, Jet can't say how he feels anymore.

Of course, given what we learn this time, who can blame him? Udai didn't shoot Jet and cost him his arm, his partner did. For the second time this series, Jet's opened himself up and depended on someone. . .and it's hurt him in ways external and internal. And circumstances conspire to force this issue to a head--it's no secret that as Jet gets close to Udai on board the prison ship, the bulkheads close in tighter and tighter, sealing them off.

I also like that when the secret comes out, it's cut in a way that makes it seem like Jet's partner shoots Udai from the flashback. It's a very concrete illustration of the idea of the past doing violence on the present, and a great homage to Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, which used the same effect.

"Black Dog Seranade" is a great episode. It has some fantastic action sequences, it has a very meaty and noirish story, and it provides some background on Jet, which we don't get much of, mainly due to the fact that Jet's usually filling the role of "person reacting to all the crazy people around him." It also frames the tragedy of Jet's character--because of all the stuff that's happened to him, he can't just come out and say he likes Spike and the rest of the gang, because look what's happened when he's trusted people in the past.

"Pieces, pieces--all gone!"

So after two heavy episodes, with one more to come, how about some good old-fashioned tomfoolery to cleanse the palate, eh? How better then, to shake things up than letting Ed and Ein go off on their own adventure and sideline the rest of the cast by having them trip balls on mushrooms.

As I said before, plot is not generally all that big a deal in Bebop, and here's another great example. The episode pretty much subverts the crisis do jour whenever it rears its ugly head--Domino the mushroom smuggler is a dolt, the Shaft Brother even moreso, and Pam Grier's here because there is never not a good time to have a Pam Grier homage show up. You're not really meant to take any of it seriously.

It also has two songs most likely to get stuck in your head for long periods of time in "Mushroom Hunting":

and "Chicken Bone"

It also has Ed running like a maniac. I could watch that all day.

Because this is Bebop, and even their less serious episodes swing some dramatic weight, and we get these, idiosyncratically enough, in the form of mushroom-induced hallucinations. Spike walks up an endless staircase that a talking frog tells him is "the stairway to heaven." Faye dreams that the toilet floods the bathroom and she's swimming with fish (Hm, there's that imagery again) and Jet talks philosophy with his bonsai trees and eats a lipstick because they can't all be thick with meaning.

Oh, and Ein can talk to cows because of course he can.

"Mushroom Samba" is a great, lighthearted episode, and is fondly remembered because it's almost entirely occupied with just having fun, which is one of the many things Bebop does very well indeed: it's never afraid to be silly in a way that's light and playful but doesn't turn into parody. Plus--two songs you will never ever get out of your head again! How's that for a slice of fried gold?

"The real value of a treasure like this can't be determined by looking at it."

There's something apt about the visual metaphor of this episode: Rabbits. The Rabbit Delivery Service is the one who delivers the package (C.O.D., of course) that touches the plot off, and Faye spends most of the episode at the dog track, watching the dogs chasing a rabbit which, naturally they will never get. Faye's talked a lot about meaninglessness and pointlessness, and thisLink is as apt an illustration of that as anything.

Equally apt is that the package in question has a Betamax tape in it. It's not enough that most of the cast is completely dislocated in time, but now even their flashbacks are. Jet even alludes to the legend of the Tamatebako, which involves a man disappearing and reappearing so many years later that everything is utterly changed.

Who on this show does that remind you of?

While the show, to it's credit, constantly subverts that the tape is some kind of Big Secret--the fact that Faye takes off while Spike and Jet do their big wacky scavenger hunt for a Betamax player (only to get one in the mail)--it's pretty much treated as an afterthought . . .

. . .which makes the emotional gut-punch at the end that much more deeply felt. Because the tape is a message Faye recorded for herself as a young girl, wondering about who she is now and cheerfully telling her not to forget the person she was, which is exactly what she's done.

Thankfully, this is also underplayed and it's allowed to play out without a bunch of Claremontian melodrama and rending of garments. The point of the episode and the series as a whole is summed up in the preview of this episode "What conclusions do you draw from it?" The information on the tape doesn't give you any specifics about Faye's past, but it gives you tons of detail about her character.

And that's all for this week. Join us next week when we have an utterly improbable guest star in "Wild Horses"; One of the most terrifying one-shot characters ever appears in "Pierrot Le Fou"; Jet has a somewhat lighter feature episode than usual in "Boogie Woogie Feng Shui": and Spike meets his utterly ridiculous opposite number in "Cowboy Funk." See you then!

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