Howdy, folks! How y’all doin’? I’m blogging the Blog of Shame today after far too long spent away. While I was away, my site got hacked, I had a job interview, participated in a media foresight excercise, recorded two podcasts, and celebrated Independence Day by finishing my re-writes—though not necessarily in that order. But now I’m back
from outer space and it’s high time I wrote about the next session of Cowboy Bebop, “Waltz for Venus.”
“Waltz for Venus” marks one of the few times that our heroes actually succeed in their chosen profession. Spike, Jet, and Faye make not one but three collars, all before the jump. Huey, Louie, and Dewey never knew what hit them—one minute they’re hijacking a vessel bound for Venus, and the next a tall, lanky fellow in an ironic sleeping mask is turning a big, fake yawn into a devastating punch.
Sitting behind Spike and quickly developing an epic man-crush on him is a young, twitchy fellow named Rocco Bonnaro. We watch Rocco clutch two parcels close to his body when things start to go bad on the way down to Venus, but by the time he reaches the spaceport he’s leaning on a parcel postman to deliver one of the parcels “or else.” Then his eyes light on Spike, and start to glow with the first sparks of a scheme.
Meanwhile, Spike is sharing Faye’s cut of the bounty with her, using a nifty little device that trades cash between two cards. It looks like a digital version of a pocketbook, and my guess is that the cards themselves work like the SUICA cards that make riding the rails of Tokyo so much easier than pretty much anywhere else on the planet. Japan Rail East began experimenting with these cards in the late eighties, and by 1994 they had a working prototype that they tested on 400 customers. By 1997 they had refined the technology, and a television crew filmed the field tests. In 1998, the team of engineers and interface designers promised a smart card system that would be the new default by 2001, and they delivered on schedule. The SUICA (or Super Intelligent urban Card) now acts like a combination metro pass and debit card, enabling you to buy manga and onigiri on your transit account with the same ease that allows 15 million passengers in the Tokyo area alone to pass through smart wickets without clogging subway arteries. The same technology that makes this happen now lives in your credit card, and it’s one of the reasons you should carry that card in a Faraday wallet. But I digress.
Spike reminds Faye that this cut of cash is the only one she’ll be getting, and she tells him that the track is more fun than the bank. Spike seems to worry a lot about Faye and her money problems in this episode: later on, when Jet conjectures that she’s gambling, he folds his arms and huffs and says “I don’t care. It’s her money.” (Sure, Spike. We know. You don’t give a good goddamn. Sell it somewhere else, sweetheart.) And while Spike has a point, so does Faye: people with bounties on their heads and massive debt loads and pasts laid out like Chutes & Ladders aren’t exactly Black Card material.
After Faye waves bye-bye and departs for the track, Rocco comes at Spike with a knife. Naturally, Spike deflects him without a second thought, and Rocco takes the opportunity to make some funny noises that he clearly learned from kung fu and wuxia movies and not a real instructor. He then begs Spike to be that instructor, pleading for his new “master” to educate him in the ways of pain.
No, not that way.
Spike is having none of it, and does his best to escape the spaceport. He almost makes it, but the Venusian air is loaded with helium and Rocco buttonholes him by offering a pill that will return Spike’s voice to its normal sexy self. The Venusian air is actually very important to this episode: on the way to Venus, we overheard an announcement warning passengers to report any adverse reactions to the atmosphere to a doctor immediately, as they could be the sign of a severe and possibly fatal allergy to the spores “native” (what?) to Venus.
Out there in the Venusian air, Rocco tries to learn what looks like a simple throw. Spike lifts a few lines straight from Bruce Lee, the inventor of his Jeet Kune Do technique, telling Rocco to “be like water,” because water is formless but powerful. Rocco doesn’t really get it, though, and when he sees some shady looking types, he stashes his second parcel with Spike and tells him to meet him two nights hence at an abandoned cathedral at the edge of town. (Abandoned cathedrals show up a lot in this series. Apparently Christianity isn’t doing too well in 2071.)
Spike is left literally holding the bag, and when he returns to the Bebop, he opens it. Inside is a Grey Ash plant, a priceless specimen of the rare species from which the drug that treats Venus sickness is derived. Faye wants to sell it, but Jet says the merchandise is so hot it could fission the ship and everyone on it. With that in mind, Spike does some re-con and figures out the destination of the first parcel that Rocco sent: a deserted place way out in the wastes. We get a really beautiful shot of the Swordfish II’s black shadow flying across the burning desert, and then Spike arrives at the interstellar equivalent of Miss Havisham’s house.
Out there, Rocco has a sister named Stella who has been blind for most of her life due to the Venus sickness. She’s thrilled that her big brother has a friend like Spike, though, and shows him the music box that Rocco sent. (Music boxes also show up a lot in this series.) Behind a secret panel is a packet of Grey Ash seeds. Stella has no clue that they’re there, and Spike says nothing about them. Stella confesses to worrying about Rocco, because he makes the wrong kind of friends sometimes—not like Spike, who she has “something beautiful” hidden inside him.
“Something beautiful, huh?” he asks, as he stares out into the wasteland and pockets the seeds. “I think I lost that a long time ago.”
Back on the Bebop, Spike asks Jet about the theoretical value of the seeds. Jet replies that they’re insanely expensive, which means that at the moment, Spike is a very rich man indeed. He doesn’t let on about having the seeds, though, and he now has a choice to make about what to do with them. He has one roommate who’s concentrating on the next target (the shady looking types that Rocco saw earlier) and one with two hands full of long, sticky fingers. So Spike keeps quiet about the seeds and meets Rocco at the appointed time.
Rocco has been managing his own problems: he’s been on the run from his friends in the Grey Ash smuggling ring, and re-enacting Roman Polanski’s cameo scene from Chinatown with them. (No, really. It’s a shot-for-shot re-make, down to the slow orange flare of the cigarette in the villain’s mouth.) Through it all he tries to play things very cool, like Spike would, with varying success.
Sometimes I wonder if Rocco is meant to tell us in a roundabout way about Spike’s origins. He seems so much like the man Spike could have been if he hadn’t learned things the hard way early on, if he hadn’t practiced his forms every day and carved himself into a force of nature, if he hadn’t been both strong enough to lead the Red Dragons and strong enough to leave them behind. Maybe if Spike hadn’t run into Mao or Vicious, he could have remained a goofy kid with fluffy hair who idolized Bruce Lee but never learned the moves, who had the ideas for scams but neither the will nor the skill to run them successfully.
Rocco seems to consider this too, as his gunshot wound starts to bleed out. “I wonder, if you and I had met at another time,” he says to Spike, “would we have been friends?”
In retrospect, it shouldn’t surprise us that Rocco dies. Like Joss Whedon, Shinichiro Watanabe is a master of giving us deeply flawed people, teaching us to love them anyway, and then taking them away or breaking them irreparably. In this case it’s Rocco, a lovable loser who just wants to do right by his baby sister by allying himself with and subsequently running afoul of some bad guys. But Rocco is just another telling of the series’ central story: those who involve themselves with the Syndicate are entering a system too big for them to tackle, and volunteering for a fate too hard to fight. Every time you think you’re out, they pull you back in.
But the real tragedy here isn’t Rocco’s death, it’s how quickly the look on Spike’s face changes from pride to panic when Rocco performs the throw Spike taught him, only to be shot a moment later. One minute Spike is giving his pupil the thumbs-up, and the next he, a man who has seen and caused his more than his fair share of gunshot wounds, is pleading with Rocco not to die.
“Waltz for Venus” begins with Spike’s rare success in obtaining a bounty, but also presents him with the equally rare opportunity to pass along his skills to someone else. For a man responsible for so much destruction, Rocco’s cluelessness and Stellas’ illness are chances to create something instead, to extend the impact of his own life by improving someone else’s. He starts out literally holding the bag, and carries that weight all the way through to the end, making sure that Rocco’s dream does come true and that his struggle was not entirely in vain. The Grey Ash plant that Rocco worked so hard to obtain may have shriveled into nothing, but Spike still has the seeds, and he uses the money to buy Stella her treatment.
It’s important to recognize the significance of Spike’s selfless act and the hopeful symbolism of the seeds in this episode, because of what sprouts up in the next one: Ed. As we discover throughout the series, every crewmate on the Bebop has lost their “something beautiful.” But for a brief period in Spike, Jet, and Faye’s lives, they get it back.
SEE YOU, SPACE COWBOY.