Is it me, or did it just get epic in here?
Not just me? Okay. Good.
“Ballad of Fallen Angels” marks the beginning of a plot arc that will span the entirety of Cowboy Bebop. It introduces the series’ major villain, and starts the slow dance of discovery regarding Spike Spiegel’s origins. It’s also a dizzyingly fast episode, with almost no preamble before the action starts.
That action starts on Mars, with a meeting between rival crime syndicate bosses in a marble-floored room with vaulted ceilings. They leave their blood on a treaty of some kind that promises “no more betrayals,” and one of them, a rather short and unassuming man named Mao Yenrai, sighs as he watches his former enemy’s craft rising into the air above the city. He remarks that finally, he can get stop worrying and some well-deserved rest. Apparently, Mao has never seen a mob movie in his whole life, because being a crime boss and claiming that you’re out of the game is like being a teen girl in a horror movie and claiming that you’ll be right back. Case in point: no sooner has he breathed his sigh of relief when his new friend’s craft explodes in mid-air. A strange white-haired man with a cormorant on one shoulder walks in flanked by guards, draws his katana, and slits Mao’s throat.
With the last of the air in his bubbling windpipe, Mao tell him: “If Spike were here, you would never have done this.”
Speaking of Spike, he’s in the living room aboard the Bebop, checking out a 28 million-woolong bounty on Mao Yenrai. But wait, you say, Mao is dead. Yes, he is. But it looks like the white-haired weirdo who gave him a close shave made it look like Mao, capo for the Red Dragon crime syndicate, is responsible for the death of the man in the aircraft, the capo of the White Tigers. Thus the bounty.
Despite the fat bounty and the fact that they have a lead, Jet has no desire to touch this one. The nature of the crowd involved—the syndicate—and his own experiences in ISSP have taught Jet better than to tangle in this kind of mess. Spike, however, is determined to go. His eagerness to throw himself into danger, and Jet’s justified caution, precipitates a series of passive-aggressive little digs in the moment but also foreshadows the central conflict between the two men. They might make a good team, but they’re very different people. They also don’t know very much about each other: Spike asks Jet how he got his mechanical arm, and Jet asks Spike what stake he has in the syndicate battle. We get the sense that until this point, both men have kept their interactions strictly surface-level only. The imagery in the scene encourages this assumption: Jet slams his hand on the table in frustration, upsetting a delicately balanced deck of cards. Spike picks one up off the floor. It’s the ace of spades, the death card. Naturally, Faye chooses this moment to roll in and interrupt the fight before it can really start.
One of the things we learn about Faye early on is that there is no trick she won’t pull, and no question she won’t ask. Faye relishes popping the blister, picking the scab, opening the box that everyone begs her not to. So when Jet berates her for not asking before she looked at Mao’s bounty stats, she replies that it was right there on the screen for everyone to see, and then asks (condescendingly) if he and Spike had a fight. When Jet tells her to can it, she only presses harder. This is a good indicator of the trio’s future interactions: Spike and Jet have a silent spat, Faye seeks to exploit it, and everyone retreats to their separate corners to lick wounds. In this case, Spike takes off in the Swordfish II, silencing Jet’s threat not to back him up with an abrupt “Your call.” Jet throws his hands in the air and stalks off, just as an old contact calls up the Bebop with a hot tip on Mao’s whereabouts. Seeing the opportunity to grab the bounty for herself, Faye leans forward to listen.
The tip takes her to the Tharsis opera house. In a rare change of costume, Faye is wearing an evening gown and has pulled her hair up. She’s also slid into her snob persona, and asks the usher to park her zipcraft for her after snowing him into believing that she’s a guest of Mao Yenrai’s. (The number of people who know that Mao is actually dead is apparently very small.) Meanwhile in another corner of Tharsis, Spike re-encounters an old friend from his past: Annie, short for Anastasia, who is an old friend of Mao’s and now runs a magazine stand. (Let us take a moment of silence here for the paper porno mag featured so prominently in this episode. Either there was a paper fetishist on the Bebop staff, or cultures have changed wildly after the migration to space, re-igniting a love for glossy mags depicting nude women over, say, downloaded images of the same. Seriously, paper? Does 2071 no longer have the Internet? Or is it censored so heavily that two kids are more likely to steal some magazines than download what they want? These are Important Worldbuilding Questions, damn it!)
When Annie sees Spike, she slackens and murmurs, “Oh my dear God.” She then proceeds to open up a bottle of something very hard, and throw back a few as Spike lets his eyes drift lazily over the porn. When he chides her for drinking so much, she says that his return is a shock to the system—he is, after all, the walking dead. “You died three years ago. That’s how things work here.” After a moment during which they both look at a framed photo of Mao, she relents and asks Spike what he wants. Spike asks what happened to Mao. The liquid in Annie’s glass ripples as her grip tightens, but whether her knuckles are whitening with rage or terror, we can’t be sure.
Back at the opera house, Faye has made it to Mao’s balcony box. Mao—the thing that used to be Mao—is even sitting in his customary seat. Just as Faye tries to speak to him, she learns that she might just be in over her head. Mao’s boys seem to know all about her, having nicked the key to her zipcraft (which I imagine contains all of her pertinent information, like license and registration, etc.). She is given a seat next to Mao’s bloodied corpse, and the white-haired weirdo who murdered him says, almost sweetly, “You’re trembling.” Admirably, Faye maintains her composure and asks him who he is. “Vicious,” he answers, as the audience below begins their applause.
Let’s talk for a moment about Vicious. At first blush, Vicious might seem a little silly. He looks like a cross between Roy Batty and Captain Harlock, and calls himself Vicious, for Christ’s sake. He’s almost the definition of a wanktastic wannabe supervillain, forever inhaling the fumes of his own hype. But it’s precisely because Vicious believes his own hype that he’s so dangerous. He has made the shift from seeing himself as a fallible human being to seeing himself as a force of nature, and now acts accordingly. Think about the kind of man you’d have to be to play Weekend At Bernie’s with a crime boss’ greying corpse. Would you let him sit next to you in the limo? Would you buckle his seatbelt? Would you slip your hand inside the fresh new slit in his throat and make him do old Muppet Show routines? (Okay, okay, maybe that’s just me.) The point is, Vicious is more than just, well vicious—he’s sick. And he’s either frightening or charismatic enough to encourage loyalty in the men surrounding him. For whatever reason, they believe that having Vicious at the top of the Martian crime syndicate food chain is a good thing, and they’re doing everything they can to help him achieve that goal.
Back at the magazine stand, Annie begs Spike not to get tangled up with Vicious again. She’s still equipping him for the fight, though. And more importantly, she lets Spike know that Mao had a bunch of men out looking for Spike after he disappeared three years ago. Mao believed that Spike was alive this whole time. This is one of the first clues we have that Spike left something very important behind, all those years ago. He clearly had people on Mars in the syndicate who cared about him, even loved him, and he walked away from all that and wound up on an old fishing trawler with, of all people, an ex-cop. Whatever happened three years ago, it wasn’t just bad, it was catastrophic.
That catastrophe still has a hold on Spike, because back on the Bebop he starts arming himself for battle. He takes a gun and a paper bag full of grenades out of the fridge, and starts checking them over. Jet tells him that this is a bad idea, that Spike doesn’t know what he’s dealing with. “Yeah, I know,” Spike says, as he tests the balance of a handgun in his grip. “I know the whole sad story.” He explains that he has a debt to pay off, and Jet finally tries to open up about his mechanical arm, saying that it’s what he had to pay for getting “too gung-ho.” Spike sighs and says that he doesn’t want to do this, he just has to, because his past is finally catching up to him.
Whether you take Spike’s word here is up to you. One of the central questions asked by the series is how much control we have over our own lives, and at what point we should surrender to forces beyond our control. In this episode, Spike is having a Michael Corleone moment, claiming that just when he thinks he’s out, they pull him back in. But his tune changes later on, and we start to wonder if maybe some part of Spike actually needs this, if maybe he just can’t help himself.
Just then Faye calls to make sure that the wound stays open, saying that the men holding her want someone to come and pick her up. Jet is having none of it, but Spike asks where she is, before reminding her that this is not actually about her for him and that he has his own reasons for meeting these people. He suits up and heads for a ruined cathedral on the Martian surface as Mai Yamane starts to sing “Rain.” (Why there is a cathedral on Mars is an untold story in and of itself—I can’t help but wonder if it was some sort of architectural fanfiction like the Hearst Castle or Casa Loma, a copy of Notre Dame made out of love for Notre Dame and not any love of religion.)
In the cathedral, Spike meets Vicious and they exchange pleasantries. Vicious is clearly out of his head, talking pseudo-poetic nonsense about fallen angels. Spike replies with his own analysis: “I’m just watching a bad dream I never wake up from.” For a character endowed with such agency and drive, Spike seemingly sees his own role in life as remarkably passive. He feels like a viewer, not an actor, and knowing this about him can help explain some of his decisions here and elsewhere. Then somebody steps out with a gun to Faye’s head, and threatens to shoot her. Spike looks completely unfazed, and shoots the guy in the head, spattering his blood all over Faye’s face. Thus begins the firefight.
The fight is very fast, and we learn that Spike is as proficient with his guns as he is with his feet. He still winds up shot, though, so he’s bleeding when, aboard the Bebop, Jet snips one twig too many off his bonsai tree and moans that he’s butchering the whole thing. (If you ever have to explain symbolism to someone else, this is a good example.) Faye calls him for help, having done the smart thing by fleeing the fray and finding a phone. Jet wants nothing to do with it, but he gets up and leaves anyway.
In the cathedral, Spike and Vicious are trading verbal jabs to match their shots and parries. Like all good psychopaths, Vicious utterly despises anyone who is not as strong as himself, and loathes Spike for not embracing his killer instinct more wholeheartedly. They wind up pinning each other, sword versus gun, in the light of a beautiful stained glass window depicting—you guessed it—Fortune’s Wheel. (Actually, it might be the Heavenly Rose, or a mandala-style arrangement of the saints or apostles. But in any case the wheel is still there, grinding Spike and Vicious under its terrible weight.)
All looks lost when Vicious grabs Spike by the head and throws him out of this window. Spike falls slowly to the ground, surrounded by shards of broken glass. In slow motion, we see Vicious notice that Spike has used his pickpocket skills to slip a grenade his way. It explodes, and the glass breaks into even smaller pieces, and one of the greatest flashbacks of all time begins. I can’t really explain the dreamlike beauty of this sequence, so I’ve clipped it for you here, instead:
Who is that woman? Well, if you’ve been paying attention, you should recognize her from the end credits of each episode. She’s the blond woman seen chasing after Spike and the man we now know as Vicious. She’s the one staring at herself reflected, in the window, as rain falls outside. She’s the one holding Spike’s hand, smiling at him, as another man watches the two of them from atop a wrought iron walk-up.
You don’t really need any more information that that, do you?
Just in case this episode was too hard, it ends on a joke: having woken from his three days of sleep, Spike hears Faye humming to herself in much the same way that the mystery woman was in his memories. This time, he doesn’t ask her to sing for him, he tells her she sings off-key. The joke here is that Faye is voiced in Japanese by Megumi Hayashibara, a woman as famous for her singing voice as she is for her acting voice. Faye responds by shredding a pillow on Spike’s broken face, once again upsetting the cards on the table. As before, Spike picks up one of the fallen ones and, just as before, it is the death card.
SEE YOU, SPACE COWBOY.
Madeline Ashby should be working on re-writes. As usual, she is watching anime instead.