Please allow me to introduce myself
I’m a man of wealth and taste
I’ve been around for a long, long year
Stole many a man’s soul and faith…
In many ways, Cowboy Bebop is a story about the hold the past has on all of us, and the way we sometimes remain frozen in our moment of greatest trauma. “Sympathy for the Devil” announces this theme brilliantly. In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past forty years, the episode takes its name from a Rolling Stones song told from Lucifer’s perspective as he recounts his experience of watching generations of humans around him fail and die. As we’ll see, this invocation is entirely appropriate.
The episode begins with another important theme of the series, a dream of Spike’s. In the dream, Spike replays a surgery he once had to replace his organic right eye with a synthetic, cybernetic one. He wakes up in a sweat, clutching his right eye. If you buy into Freudian analysis, the eye is symbolic of manhood, and fears about loss of sight or losing an eye are disguised anxieties about castration. Freud uses E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story “Der Sandmann,” to discuss this idea, and I encourage you to read it if you have the opportunity. Since the Sandman is said to bring on dreams by scattering sand in children’s eyes (or in Hoffmann’s tale, by gobbling up their eyes if they do not close them for sleep), it’s interesting that Spike is in the midst of a dream about his eye when he experiences his rare moment of terror. Spike’s nightmare is about no longer being able to see things properly—a literal loss of perspective. The remainder of this episode is his nightmare made real: almost nothing is what it seems, and almost everyone suffers as a result.
The bounty this time is a man named Giraffe. Giraffe is in a blues club listening to a young genius named Wen play a harmonica when Spike and Jet identify him. Unfortunately, there is another bounty hunter on his trail, a big guy named Fatty River (hey, it’s no worse than Jelly Roll Morton) and Jet has to distract him so Spike can slip out and trail the bounty. The bounty himself is now following the pint-sized bluesman and his father, a man in a wheelchair. (Why has 2071 not yet invented the Christopher Pike chair? Well, we’ll get to that.) In a bit of a complicated footchase, Spike follows the bounty and the bounty follows the kid, but the bounty takes a cab and Spike takes the Swordfish II. He’s in the air when he watches Giraffe falling out of a high-rise window, and does some fancy flying to catch the man’s body much like he did with Ein’s in “Stray Dog Strut.”
Giraffe then hands Spike a large ring and says, “Don’t be fooled…by the way he looks.” He dies shortly thereafter. Spike keeps the ring, and back on the Bebop, he and Jet and Faye wonder what to do with it. Faye says they should sell it (the fridge is so barren that she recently resorted to eating Ein’s last can of dog food, in what is now a classic scene), and Jet promptly provides her with an invoice for all the resources she’s sucked up during her time aboard his ship. (I sometimes wonder if maybe Jet has a fat stack of cash somewhere that he doesn’t tell the others about. How else do they survive these lean periods? Maybe Jet sells his bonsai on Space Etsy to keep the fuel cells full.)
Later, between bites of opera cake, Fatty tells Jet that Giraffe and Wen’s father, a man named Zebra, were once the leaders of a paramilitary squad. Things went bad, Zebra betrayed Giraffe, and then wound up with a kid. When Faye dismisses this story as a simple case of internal politics, Jet tells her: “Betrayal may come easily to women, but men live by iron codes of honour.”
“You believe that?”
“I’m trying to, real hard.”
Faye and Jet continue their tête-à-tête as Spike chases down Wen and Zebra for the second time. While Spike is following them, Faye notices Wen’s photo in news coverage about his concerts. However, the person in the wheelchair sitting beside Wen isn’t Zebra, and the photo itself is a stock image from thirty years ago…but Wen looks just the same.
Simultaneously, Wen is confronting Spike, pulling a gun on him and telling him to quit sniffing around. He reveals that he’s actually far older than Spike, and that he remembers when this colony was just being settled. In flashback, we watch a young Wen playing the harmonica for his family, then freezing in wonder as he watches pieces of the sky falling down overhead. The sky catches fire, and in one of the series’ most powerful images, we watch Wen—his eyes much harder than they once were—struggle up from under his father’s charred corpse. Wen tells Spike that from that moment—the moment of the Gate Incident, when an unstable hyperspace gate near the moon caused a massive explosion that sent chunks of lunar rock hurtling toward Earth—he has been unable to age or even die. Since then, he’s been both a victim and a victimizer, the subject of research experiments and a grifter who takes advantage of adults so they can play the role of his parent. He shoots Spike in the arm, and although Spike gets a shot of his own in, too, Wen manages to get away.
Earlier, I wrote that one of the predominant themes in Cowboy Bebop is the hold that past traumas have on the characters. Wen is the perfect metaphor for that: a boy quite literally frozen in the past, watching the world continue on without him. He is the Lucifer from the Stones song, fated to see humanity stumble and fall over and over again while he remains eternally youthful and devious. Since the previous episode, “Ballad of Fallen Angels,” had to do with Spike’s past finally catching up to him, it’s not difficult to draw a parallel between the two characters. Spike’s relationship to his past is equally traumatic, if not so clearly explained as of this point in the series. And like Wen, he seems unable to grow past that moment of trauma. Whatever happened between him, Vicious, and the mystery woman from his flashbacks was enough to change his life forever, a personal disaster that mirrors Wen’s environmental one.
The Gate Incident that ruined Wen’s life is responsible for a lot, in the world of 2071 and in the lives of the series’ characters. The event had a direct impact on Faye and Ed’s lives, and it may in some way explain the low-tech look of some elements like magazines and wheelchairs. Last week while my husband and I were puzzling over the presence of paper nudie mags in 2071, he suggested that they were either nostalgia for an earlier time, or the result of diminished trade between the hyperspace gates. The physical connectivity between the gates might be great, but we have no idea whether the digital communications are as stable or frequent. This in itself could have stifled innovation, but perhaps a more likely explanation is that, in the world after the Gate Incident, all funding was sapped from consumer technologies and re-invested in stabilizing the hyperspace gates and assuring that such a disaster never happened again. It would certainly explain the tiny size of the cities on Ganymede and Mars, and the presence of chunky mobile phones and newspapers. In a very real way, the world of Cowboy Bebop is just as frozen in a moment of trauma as Wen and Spike are.
Cowboy Bebop was released in Japan in 1998, three years after two major events in Japan’s history: the Great Hanshin Earthquake (January 17, 1995), and the Subway Sarin Incident (March 20, 1995). Like many major disasters, they were failures of preparation as much as they were failures of alertness or security. The Kobe earthquake killed over six thousand people and stranded three hundred thousand in the January cold. The building codes that were intended to protect the people of Kobe from Japan’s finicky fault lines had been revised to account for new research in seismology as recently as the 1980’s, but those new codes only applied to new structures, and not renovations on existing structures. The destruction was devastating, and the collapse of the Hanshin Expressway and other arterials kept aid from reaching victims. The situation was in fact so dire that Yamaguchi-gumi crime syndicate was able to deliver food, water, and blankets more quickly to Kobe residents than the local authorities. Similarly, Japanese authorities were well aware of the threat posed by Aum Shinrikyo, the cult that carried out the sarin nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system (an attack that killed fifteen and injured thousands more, permanently disabling some), but failed to make the necessary arrests. Keep these events in mind, each time you hear Spike say that something happened “three years ago,” because at the time of the series’ first airing, “three years ago” meant something much deeper and more painful to the audience—two disasters of almost apocalyptic proportion, in a country that has been post-apocalyptic since 1945.
With these events in mind, the following scene between Jet and Spike becomes all the more touching. Jet wraps up the wound on Spike’s arm, calling it a “little scratch,” then chidingly reminds Spike that they don’t have the money for a funeral. Without making eye contact, Spike says “I’m sorry,” in a sad, low, genuine sort of way. Keep in mind that this is Spike’s first time out since tangling with Vicious, and he was out for three days when that happened, and Jet doubtless sank the last of their money into fixing him up. (You want to know why Faye was stuck eating dog food this week? There’s an answer.) In short, they’re all starving because Spike can’t keep his eye on the ball, and he knows it.
Meanwhile, Spike has managed to save Zebra, and now Zebra is crying. They use a device called the Alfa Catch to peer into Zebra’s memories, and learn that Giraffe was actually trying to save his old partner with the ring he later gave Spike. The stone inside the ring is apparently made of Handwavium, and inside its crystalline structure is a compressed singularity that, when in contact with Wen’s tissues, will shortcircuit his pineal gland into functioning normally again and get him back on the aging track.
Yeah. It’s total bullshit.
That doesn’t stop Jet from fashioning the stone into a bullet for use in Spike’s gun. All three hunters know that the plan is shoddy at best, and Faye comes right out and says that she doesn’t expect Spike to come back. (Jet’s expression of a similar sentiment is simply to provide and light a cigarette for Spike.) Spike himself says that he has a bad feeling about this, but naturally he goes out anyway to finish what he started. Again, if you think of Wen and Spike as two sides of the same coin, this move makes sense from a narrative standpoint. And if you see it in the context of the previous episode, it’s about Spike’s re-affirming his position on the team after chasing Vicious and nearly getting killed.
Spike shoots up Wen’s stolen cab from the Swordfish II, and he and Wen enter a shootout. Wen almost nails him again, causing a bullet to graze his right cheek just under his synthetic eye. Then Spike gets his turn, and he puts one right in the brain. It’s important to recognize the role of seeing and perception in this episode: just before Wen’s body withers and dies, Last Crusade-style, we watch through Spike’s eyes as he focuses intently on Wen. Throughout the entire episode, Spike and the others have failed to see things clearly, as they truly are, from Giraffe and Zebra’s relationship to Wen’s youthful appearance to what is really inside the ring. Only Faye’s sharp eyes noticed the timestamp on the photo that was her and Jet’s first clue about Wen’s true origins. And only Spike’s sharp shooting can put Wen down for good. This he does, listening as a tortured, ancient Wen extols the virtues of death and asks repeatedly: “Do you understand?”
Of course, he doesn’t. Instead, Spike picks up the harmonica, tries to blow into it, and produces no sound. He flings the thing up in the air instead, tracking it with his two gun fingers, and as it drifts back down into his perfect and lethal vision he whispers,
Madeline Ashby is still working on re-writes.