The Bebop Sessions 02: Freestylin’

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 hunter’s 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 where most episodes exist 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 show’s structural freedom. With a hearty ‘Hi, amigos!’, the galaxy’s public access show informs all three hundred thousand bounty hunters on the hottest big-ticket jobs. They are characters with a practical use- they are regular mechanisms that initiate the stories and provide information on the bounty heads without feeling 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 Big Shots for the first time in Session # 2, Stray Dog Strut. The two hosts 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 the hunters off his trail, he’s undergone extreme facial reconstruction. With fresh intel from the doctor that performed the 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 are 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 ends 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 men tailing, she pulls an uzi from her grocery bag and unloads the full clip. Some claim that with her unbelievable luck, this woman is the legendary Poker Alice, but when the thug’s 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 song playing over the establishing shots. When Spike and Jet’s luck goes tits up and Faye steals the bounty 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 of the ploy 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 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 government agent’s dying wish and opens the case he was protecting. He had infiltrated the Space Warriors and stolen a vial of Monkey Business, a retrovirus they were using to extort Ganymede into protecting the Sea Rat. The test chambers full of screaming ape men tells us Ganymede should be very afraid of not complying. The episode ends with Faye forcing her way onto the Bebop to the quiet protests of the others.

All this show that Bebop is like Jazz: there’s an underlying structure but it creates 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 eco terrorism. They’re different, but they all fit within the show’s context. What’s more, aside from a few exceptions, every episode can be viewed in any order; you can jump from episode 10 to 22 to 6 without damaging the series’ beautiful narrative that slips into Bebop’s larger melody with session 5. 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…

Part 01- Prelude

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