Remember when I began this series of posts, and I told you that the last time I completed a full re-watch of Cowboy Bebop, it was at a friend’s place over the 2008 holiday season? Well, that friend was Peter Watts. And this episode was the one during which he sat up, turned to me, and said: “I really like this series. Why can’t we make stuff like this here?”
Cowboy Bebop might not strike anyone as holiday fare. There’s no singing. Nobody exchanges gifts. But this episode does feature a woman finding a place to rest after too long spent waiting and wandering. And on this show, that’s the closest anyone ever gets to a Christmas miracle.
“Gateway Shuffle” begins with Faye Valentine stranded in her zipcraft. She tries thumbing a ride, but gets left in the lurch. Cut to an orbiter off Ganymede. Inside a very fancy restaurant where the table takes your order through an intelligent surface, Spike and Jet are surveying their latest quarry. “The house special is Ganymede sea rat,” Jet says. He then explains that although the sea rats taste “totally disgusting,” and were only eaten by early space colonists in the days before the hyperspace gates stabilized, they’re now consumed for status as the result of a flashy ad campaign. Wisely, Spike orders the lobster miso stew.
Meanwhile, at another table, a severe-looking woman surrounded by men in identical t-shirts is eating a vegetarian meal. The men worry about an ampoule they lost. She implies that someone should take responsibility for what happened. “M...Mother,” one says. “You, Harrison,” Mother says, and forks her cucumber with more force than strictly necessary. She seems displeased but languid until she hears Spike and Jet’s bounty yell out an order for sea rat stew.
Then it all goes straight to hell: The mama’s boys don sea rat masks and, on Mother’s orders, empty their Kalashnikovs into the crowd while she sings an aria. One throws a holographic grenade that informs us that the men are Space Warriors, “eco-soldiers who work night and day to preserve the environment and protect endangered species all over the universe.” It thanks us for listening as the camera pans over the bodies of well-dressed people bleeding all over the rat meat they were just eating.
At this point in the episode, Peter noted: “I’m really starting to love this show.”
Hiding beneath their table, Jet realizes that he recognizes Mother, and that she’s worth twenty-five million woolongs. Just as she and her rat boys are making their escape, Spike puts a gun to her head and takes her hostage. The boys whine about it, their voices hilariously muffled by their sea rat masks, until Mother informs them that there is little they can do because “these men are professional bounty hunters.” I’m uncertain how she understood this so quickly, given that there’s no visible badge or license for bounty hunting in the Bebop-verse, and information about bounties isn’t hard to come by when shows like Big Shot are broadcast all over the star system. Maybe she just assumed that the only two people to survive this particular outbreak of violence would have to be seasoned tough guys. Or maybe she just has a crush on Spike. I wouldn’t put some serious kink past her — before being taken away, she tells Harrison that his “punishment” will be forthcoming, and she smiles gently as he begs, “Mother! Please, no...”
Lost in space, Faye has suited up and is now in a dying man’s craft. He begs her to take the briefcase currently handcuffed to his wrist to the ISSP, but instructs her not to open it. He dies, leaving Faye still stranded.
Back on the Bebop, Jet and Spike are reading and watching anything they can find on the Space Warriors. Jet explains that the current organization is a radical version of its earlier predecessor, which actually did great work until a woman named Twinkle Murdoch joined the group and took over. Under Twinkle’s leadership, things got nasty, and the members who didn’t go AWOL all took up arms. (Apparently, no one suspected that a woman named “Twinkle” could be so murderous. In 2071, no one has ever listened to “A Boy Named Sue.”) Twinkle claims that she is not a terrorist, but “a warrior of peace fighting for the rule of nature.” As a can of soda foams up all over Spike’s hand, we learn that the bounty on Twinkle has since been rescinded by the Ganymede government, the very same organization that posted it in the first place as a result of Twinkle and her boys’ work for the sea rats.
On her zipcraft, Faye opens the briefcase—the one she was explicitly told not to—and inspects the contents: a cylindrical device encased in egg crate-style foam. Elsewhere in a lab, apes in human clothes claw at the tubes that hold them prisoner. Two men in cleansuits slowly lower a nest of diamond-shaped McGuffins into an icy container. On a screen in the lab, a bureaucrat claims that the bounty has been removed, and that the sea rats will be protected. Clearly, this is Space Warrior territory. The boys threaten that unless they get Mom back, they will “carry out the plan.” We cut back to Faye, who is playing with the device she found. It’s another diamond-shaped McGuffin, but tucked inside a copper wire sheath. It’s of little use to Faye, though, because now she has an empty stomach to go with her empty fuel cell. Luckily, a ship just happens to be passing by, so she hails it with her sweetest voice and listens to dead air as the other crew makes their decision. They take their sweet time, though, because that other ship is the Bebop and the two guys baking Schadenfreude Pie on the other end of the hail are Jet and Spike.
Aboard the Bebop, women in handcuffs become all the rage. Spike surveys Faye’s loot—the stuff she bought with the money she stole from him and Jet. It’s a pile of clothes and accessories, but Faye claims to have lost most of the money gambling. Just as Spike whines that there’s nothing worth pawning in the pile, he digs out the McGuffin. Seeing it, Twinkle briefly loses her cool.
On Ganymede, in a city that looks like the Palm Jumeirah of Dubai, the bureaucrat is talking about a “virus” and is looking for the people who “kidnapped” Twinkle. Meanwhile, Spike is grilling Faye while Twinkle looks on. As he asks Faye about the McGuffin, he tries hard to open it. The copper wire surrounding it is surprisingly resilient, and every attempt to crush the outer casing results in an elegant contraction of the metal but no actual destruction. Twinkle grows increasingly irritated as she watches Spike test his might against the device. Spike seems to notice this, but then dismiss it.
Jet is doing some interrogating of his own. His old friend on the Ganymede police force, Bob, has finally answered Jet’s calls and is telling Jet not to sweat Twinkle’s rescinded bounty and just kick her loose. (He’s also looking at porn, but in a really halfhearted way, the way people flip through last season’s IKEA catalogue.) Jet smells a
sea rat, and reminds Bob that he’s got major dirt on him and that he’d better play ball if he wants to collect his pension later on. (Pensions, wow. Maybe this is a work of optimistic science fiction.) Bob then informs Jet that the Space Warriors are holding Ganymede hostage with the threat of deploying a virus called “Monkey Business” that will, well, turn humans into monkeys. ISSP had a mole inside the group, but he lost contact before he could deliver a sample of the virus.
Of course, from the way Spike is doing everything he can to break into the McGuffin, and the way Twinkle is sweating and twitching as she watches him do it, we understand that the thing Faye picked up off the dead man is the sample, and Spike is about to spray it all over the living room. He shoots at the ampoule and the casing pops off, but the diamond-shaped vial floats intact through the air and into Jet’s open palm. He tosses it back to Spike and informs him that they have to let Twinkle go, even though “we’re holding the trump card right here in our hands!”
Cue Twinkle Murdoch’s villainous laughter.
The Bebop docks with the Space Warriors craft, and Twinkle spouts some nonsense about the “hour of judgment” coming soon, and whatnot. Then she joins the craft and has a video conference with the bureaucrat, during which she gives Harrison his punishment and starts turning him into a monkey. Making use of the distraction, Faye slips her cuffs (do these boys never learn?) and starts refueling her zipcraft. Then there are some space maneuvres wherein it becomes clear that the ship that the Ganymede police thought belonged to Twinkle and her boys was in fact a decoy, when the police cruisers get blown up. Bob quickly calls Jet and tells him that the bounty is back on. Spike locks on to Twinkle’s signal (she’s railing on about returning humans to their “proper place in nature,”) and discovers that her ship is in hyperspace and that because the Bebop is so close to a gate, they can nab her. Just then, Twinkle releases the virus as a missile. If that missile reaches Ganymede, Spike and Jet will have to do battle with an entire planet of the apes just to get their reward.
Spike hops into the Swordfish II and flies against gate traffic to zap the missile. It splits into three parts and he nails two of them, but can’t recharge in time to do the third. Just then Faye chimes in, offering to help in exchange for a piece of the action. She wants eighty percent, but Spike offers forty. “Fine,” she says, firing up her craft. “I’ll take the sixty!” So she joins the fight, but not for long. The third missile splits into even smaller pieces, and the Ganymede government decides to do the sensible thing it should have done at the beginning: close off the gate at both ends and trap Twinkle and her virus inside. From then on, it’s a race to escape through the gate’s quickly narrowing aperture before it closes entirely. Naturally, Spike and Faye squeak out of there with only seconds to spare.
Back on Twinkle’s ship, Mama ain’t happy, and that means there ain’t nobody happy. A thruster surges, giving the crew some whiplash, and out of Twinkle’s pocket and into the air tumbles the single ampoule that was the topic of such intense dinner conversation only hours ago. We watch, and they watch, as it arcs delicately through the air. We see in flashback the moment when Spike slipped it into Twinkle’s pocket. We hear the sweet, shivery sound of it smashing across the glass.
On the Bebop, the ark is slowly filling with animals of another sort. Faye declares that “We’ll make some big bucks on the next one,” and says she’s going to take a shower. Spike says that this aggression will not stand, man, and we hear gunfire. I’ve never been entirely sure whether that sound of gunfire was Faye unloading on Spike after he walked in on her, or Spike trying unsuccessfully to shoot the lock off the bathroom door. Either way, Jet has it right: “Bad move, Spike-O.”
In retrospect, it’s a little odd that Peter liked this episode as much as he did. It’s replete with utterly crap science, and that’s usually what he latches onto first, when we watch anything. (We saw Star Trek and Avatar together with our friends and family, and if you thought those movies had problems before, well, try seeing them with a biologist.) Case in point:
Monkey Business (a). Okay, let me explain something about retroviruses. They don’t work like this. And even if you kidnap a specialist in retroviruses to engineer your doomsday device, they still won’t work like this. Why? Because retroviruses are exquisitely simple. They take over cells one at a time, switching them from hostiles to friendlies via a transcriptor enzyme that unspools the RNA inside individual healthy cells. They cannot reprogram the entirety of one’s morphology, because outwardly observable characteristics are the result of several different systems working toward separate goals. HIV is a retrovirus, but it doesn’t reprogram your skin cells into creating lesions. The lesions are just a consequence of the immune deficiency HIV encourages within the body.
Monkey Business (b). Humans are not descended from monkeys. Like monkeys we are members of the order Primates and the infraorder Simiiformes, but we belong to the superfamily Hominoidea, and monkeys do not. Hominoidea contains chimpanzees, gorillas and our other fellow great apes. So when Bob tells Jet that the virus will transform humans into monkeys because humans and monkeys share 95% of their DNA, he’s glossing a few things over. Do we share our DNA with other animals? Of course we do. But we don’t share most of it with monkeys.
“Objects trapped in hyperspace are visible to the naked eye, but have no impact on this plane of reality.” Wait, what? Let’s pretend that hyperspace is an observable dimension, and unpack this a little. Particles have mass. That mass increases relativistically as the particles achieve greater and greater speeds. However, photons (also particles, sometimes) are exempted from this rule because they are massless. This means that they could theoretically bounce off or be projected by objects traveling at super-luminal speeds whose mass is increasing while theirs is not. However, Faye would not necessarily see their echo immediately after clearing the gate, because objects moving faster than light are subject to the Lorentz Transformations. This means that she might see them at one time, but an observer elsewhere moving at a different speed might see them next week, or next year, or in the next five years, depending on their all-importance reference frame. In short, Jet (who is stationary) might not see them at all. I know I’m hairsplitting handwavium, here, but the hyperspace gates play a prominent role in the series and it’s fun to take them apart once in a while. TL;DR: FTL is short for Faster Than Logic.
SEE YOU, SPACE COWBOY.