Know what the key fictional difference between a bounty hunter and a private detective is? A bounty hunter hunts, a detective solves mysteries. One moves forward, the other looks back. Yeah, there are similarities- both live somewhat laterally to the law and use leads to track criminals for profit- but the bounty hunters open-ended lifestyle doesn’t accommodate sitting in an office and waiting for a client. Time’s money and he’s got a fistful to make.
Understanding that a story’s potential starts with its character archetypes is crucial to identifying why Cowboy Bebop was able to tell 26 wonderful stories. By laying its foundations on space bounty hunters, Bebop gave itself the tools to create a wide range of rich stories and build a series whose every episode exists independent from each other.
The second part of the Bebop Sessions is about those characters and the storytelling opportunities they provide, so we’re gonna start with two that are integral: Punch and Judy.
Despite the fact that the gun-slingin’ hosts of ‘Big Shots For Bounty Hunters’ aren’t complexly-defined, they are fundamental to the shows structural freedom. With a hearty ‘Hi, amigos!’, this team’s low-budget daily broadcast informs all three hundred thousand bounty hunters on the latest and biggest-paying jobs. They are characters with a practical use- they are regularly appearing mechanisms to start and update the majority of the stories and give information on the bounty heads in a way that doesn’t feel forced. They allow the characters to be anywhere in the solar system and still be on the clock.
Though it takes a couple slaps and a kick for Spike to get his old beater tv working, we tune into their show for the first time in Session # 2, Stray Dog Strut. The two flash the mugshot of pet kidnapper Abdul Hakim, the man worth 8M woolongs for breaking into a lab and stealing an experimental animal. In an attempt to shake off the men on his trail, he’s undergone extreme facial reconstruction. With fresh intel from the doctor that had performed the plastic surgery, Spike goes after the bounty.
Stray Dog Strut is a fast, fun episode that features three separate chase scenes with progressively more exotic animals and an antagonist who looks like Kareem Abdul Jabar. It also introduces the first new addition to the Bebop’s crew. Ein, the young welsh corgi.
Ein is a data dog and if you know what that is then both of you is smarter than I. Here, that apparently means he has a passable grasp on the English language and understands that pushing buttons makes things happen. The Lab Security Guards chasing Hakim (chasing Ein) race finishes with the first running the second directly through the front door of Police Headquarters. Punch and Judy tell us that no one gets paid when the bounties turn themselves in.
Stray Dog Strut is the first example of Bebop’s naming conventions, a riff on the Stray Cats 1981 song ‘Stray Cat Strut’. Look at a list of the series episodes, you’ll notice that all the titles either have musical vocabulary or directly reference real songs.
Honky Tonk Women starts with a purple-haired woman with a penchant for yellow clothes and a red blouse walking coolly into a smoke filled head shop. Spotting the silhouettes of a couple men tailing her outside, she pulls an uzi from her grocery bag and unloads the clip. Some claim that with her unbelievable luck, this woman is the legendary Poker Alice, but when the thugs casino-running boss pulls out the Ace of Hearts from her shorts, he proves that here ‘luck’ is just good ol’ fashioned ‘cheating’. He needs those talents, so makes her a deal- relieve a target of the weight of his wallet or the debt that’s put her on the lam will put her behind bars. Faye Valentine is a woman who knows when to bluff. But when the simple exchange for a mythical hacking program lands on its head, Faye hitches a ride with our bounty hunting heroes. With a sparkly new 6 million woolong bounty on her head care of Big Shots, ends up handcuffed to the Bebop’s toilet.
Faye is played by the great Wendee Lee. Lee, like David Lucas/Steven Blume, would go on to appear in virtually every other voice over dub for a more than decade, but both would do their best work here. Lee’s Faye is cocky to cover uncertainty, brash but emotionally cautious.
For its scope, Honky Tonk Women is a slickly directed quasi-Vegas heist flick full of flashing lights and clacking coins. It’s so well styled that you can almost smell the cigarette smoke in the ethereal hollowness of the song playing over the establishing shots. When Spike and Jet’s luck goes tits up and Faye steals the bounty money they had chanced into, it’s hard to not respect the way the episode plays with the here today, gone tomorrow rollercoaster of gambling. For their troubles, the two come out the end exactly one chip richer. They head back to the casino to place a last bet.
All right, let me come clean. You know how I’ve been talking up and down about how separate from each other all the episodes are? There’re two times bookmarking the entire series where a pair of episodes is chronologically connected without sharing a common title. It first happens with Honky Tonk Women and Gateway Shuffle.
Maybe I’m weird, but I’ve always found the matriarchal crime family dynamic to be cult levels of creepy. Why do the grown men of the Space Warriors need to call their eco-terrorist leader Twinkle Maria Murdock ‘Mother’? I think my discomfort comes from my belief that misfits who need obedience and the overwhelming sense of kinship could easily be duped into becoming violent fanatics. When they gun down a restaurant for serving Ganymede Sea Rat while their protectors-of-the-weak rhetoric plays over the sea of dead bodies, I have to entertain the thought that maybe I’m right.
Floating aimlessly through space at the exact moment is the food-less Faye in her gas-less Red Tail, hopelessly sending out an SOS to any passerby. She drifts within range of a destroyed shuttle and because she’s just that way Faye ends up disregarding its critically injured government agents last wish and opens the case he died protecting. He had infiltrated the Space Warriors ranks and stolen a vial of Monkey Business, a retrovirus they were using to hold the Ganymede in terror until the moon instigated new ecological protections for the Sea Rat. The room full of screaming ape men trapped in test chambers tells us Ganymede should be very afraid of what will happen if they don’t comply with the demands. The episode ends with Faye forcing her way onto the Bebop to the quiet protests of the others.
Bebop is like Jazz: there’s an underlying structure but its flexible enough to allow for improvisation. On the surface, these stories have few similarities. We’ve got a light-hearted chase, a cool high stakes game of 21 and dark social commentary on terrorism. They’re different, but, by design, they all fit within the context of the show. What’s more, aside from a few exceptions, every episode can be viewed in any order, jumping from 10 to 22 to 6 without damaging the larger narrative that a few key episode beautifully construct. That’s true versatility. And it’s all thanks to a misfit crew of bounty hunters living aboard a beat up old fishing boat flying through space. Like its characters, Cowboy Bebop is really cool but it’s the sort of cool that comes from being really smart.
See You Space Cowboy…