Apr 9 2010 5:18pm

Cowboy Bebop Re-watch: “Honky Tonk Women”

Sometimes, people who don’t watch good anime very often complain that the female characters aren’t strong enough, or that they’re forced into proscribed gender roles, or that they’re no more than eye-candy. *

Meet Faye Valentine.

The third episode in the series, “Honky Tonk Women” introduces a major character in a deceptively simple way. The camera pans down toward a crowded back alley. A woman in matching yellow vinyl shorts and halter vest makes her way into an old-fashioned tobacconist’s. The camera lingers on her long legs, her silk stockings, the way she crosses her arms while she inspects the merchandise. She buys a cigar, gets it lit by the owner. He tries to flirt with her, until she rests a machine gun on the counter. She pivots toward the door and points it in the direction of the men waiting for her outside. “You know the first rule of combat?” She spits out her cigar. “Shoot them before they shoot you.”

She opens fire.

Unfortunately, this tactic doesn’t quite work. The woman is taken to a ship orbiting Mars, where a sleaze in a bad suit insinuates that she’s “Poker Alice, Queen of Hearts,” a famous gambler from the pioneer period of the American West.

“If Poker Alice was still alive, she’d be over two hundred years old,” Faye says.

“Considering that you’re looking pretty good, the hottest granny in the star system.”

Oh Gordon, you old scumbag. If you only knew.

As an aside, I find it interesting that the image of both Alice and the Queen of Hearts are brought up in relation to Faye. As we learn throughout the series, Faye can play both roles: the lost girl wandering a wonderland devoid of any apparent internal logic, and the tyrannical queen quick to order execution. Gordon the sleaze has a proposition for our expert gambler. He will erase all of her debts if she will just do him one favour. It sounds like a good deal, right?

Enter Spike and Jet.

Jet has had a dream wherein Charlie Parker quotes Goethe, saying “Only hands can wash hands,” or “If you want to receive, you have to give.” Don’t ask me what the relationship is between those two aphorisms, but the upshot is that Jet wants to go gambling at the Spiders From Mars Casino, one of several casinos on a station orbiting Mars. The station uses centrifugal force to create gravity on its outer wheels, and employs spinway cars for mass transit. The camera lingers on all these elements, but the most audacious design feature has to be the massive roulette wheel projected as a continuous advertisement/art installation from the station’s hub. (Remember during the first episode, when I said that the entire series likes to focus on images of wheels to emphasize the theme of loss, gain and overturned fortune? Well, it doesn’t get much clearer than that.)

“You shouldn’t play here,” Jet tells Spike, when they arrive at the casino. “Your eyes are too sharp. They’ll kick us out if you win too much.”

Upon first viewing, one might attribute Jet’s warning to superstition, or to Spike’s presumed ability to count cards. But the truth is that Spike’s eyes (or one of them, at least) are that sharp. He actually does see more, and more clearly, than most people. We the viewers don’t learn why until a few episodes from now, but for now it functions as a hint, or at least a lesson in how to avoid encountering the dreaded Rod and Don in an otherwise well-scripted piece of dialogue.

“Thanks, Mom, but if you didn’t want me to win, you shouldn’t have brought me here,” Spike says, and sets out for the blackjack tables. The Three Old Guys (Antonio, Carlos and Jobim, named for a Brazilian jazz musician of the same name) from the first episode are there, and Spike helps them out. The Three Old Guys are a running gag throughout the entire series, and their job is basically to complain about the state of the star system and how hard done by they are. In that way, they might function as a possible future for Spike, Jet and Faye: still delusional, cantankerous and bitchy long into their golden years, held together by their own personal centrifugal forces. For a while, I wondered if they were something more. Perhaps only Spike sees them, I thought, or perhaps they’re metaphors for fantastically inept Magi or guardian angels. But no. They’re just proof that the ravages of old age can only be ameliorated by the presence of good friends, on this planet or any other.

Eventually, Spike settles on a blackjack table. The dealer is none other than Poker Alice herself, and when Spike sits down she glances quickly at a monitor below the table. On a blurry screen is the image of a man who looks a bit like Spike. We transition to a flashback wherein Gordon instructs Faye to cheat this man out of almost all his chips, at which point he will tip her with his last one. That last chip is the episode’s McGuffin. Everything hinges on it.

For once in her life, Faye does as she’s told, and cheats Spike out of all his chips. For a guy with such sharp eyes, he doesn’t say much about it, aside from telling Faye that he seems to be very generous, when he comments that he doesn’t seem to be very lucky or very skilled tonight. (I have no statistics on this, but I think that about seventy-five percent of what comes out of Spike Spiegel’s mouth is flirtation. The other twenty-five percent are swear words, whining, and requests for cigarettes.) A crowd of gamblers are watching, Dr. No-style, when Faye cleans him out. He holds up the final chip. She holds out her hand. He walks away.

On the casino floor, someone scores a jackpot. As the bells ring and the lights flare, Spike literally bumps into his shorter, more nebbishy double. In a moment of Shakespearean (or Dickensian) coincidence, the chips in their pockets bounce out, and they inadvertently (and unwittingly) trade. Nebbish Spike whimpers and scrambles across the floor until he finds what he thinks is his chip. Surprised but silent, Spike waits until he’s gone before uncovering his new chip with his shoe. This is a tiny detail that says a lot about Spike. He may be clumsy on occasion, but he never really loses grasp of what’s in his physical space.

Faye arrives after he retrieves the chip, accusing him of messing up the whole plan and demanding the chip. Spike tells her that she has no business complaining, given that she cheated the whole game and he never said a word. This draws no small amount of attention, and Faye flees. Just then, some pit bosses try to mess with Spike. One throws a punch. Spike bends like bamboo for a moment, then snaps back up. “Bad move,” he says, and kicks the guy in the face. He then makes short work of his friend as Jet looks on, his arms full of his winnings and a hangdog expression on his face. (Sidebar: no one rocks a vanilla ice cream suit like Jet Black. It’s fitting that Jet goes to the Spiders From Mars Casino dressed as the Thin White Duke, but he really makes it his own thing with that fedora and scarf combo. Everyone always cosplays Spike, but let me tell you — the right man could really get some mileage out of that outfit Jet’s wearing here.)

Faye uses her bracelet to activate her zipcraft remotely. It shoots itself free of its parking space, and pilots itself through the casino as the assembled gamblers scream and run in terror. This is the opening gambit in Faye and Spike’s long game of “Who can blow up more stuff?” As characters, these two have the unique ability to screw any situation six ways from Sunday, and together, they’re Armstrong’s Mixture: extremely sensitive, volatile and explosive.

Jet and Spike hitch a hilarious ride on Faye’s zipcraft, trapped on the windscreen like especially stubborn bugs. Annoyed that he cannot find the chip, Gordon puts a bounty on Faye. Handily, Spike and Jet already have her in cuffs on the Bebop. Faye makes reference to her astronomical debt, then tells Spike that if he had just given her the chip, there would be no problem. Spike produces the chip, but says that the story is likely bogus. They slam the door on her, and investigate the chip. There’s a microchip inside.

Just as Spike begins watching the episode of Big Shot that finally reveals Faye Valentine’s full name, Faye uses her lipstick case to contact Gordon. Jet and Spike plan to turn her in for the bounty, and Faye seems a little sad that she’s only worth six million woolongs. Then she claims to be a Romany, cursed to wander the stars. When Spike says the story is probably bogus, she calls Spike a scruffy-looking nerf herder gaujo, a “bumpkin, who doesn’t know which way is up.” (I wonder if she meant gaucho, a cowboy.) Spike says he kinda likes that, and he and Jet walk away.

Things are looking great for our boys when Gordon docks with the Bebop and demands the chip. Jet drops some science on him and says that, as a former ISSP cop (does this surprise anyone?), he knows all about the contents of the microchip. It’s the key to a master de-cryption program, and without it the program is useless. He says that the plan to turn it in to the police, and Gordon offers to buy it off them. They organize a trade while Faye breaks free.

To perform the trade, Spike has to walk out onto the magnetic dock of the ship, turn off his boots, and float straight toward Gordon’s ship. It’s a beautiful shot, one that showcases how comfortable Spike is in space and how easy ship-to-ship travel can be if things are designed just right. We get a great inverted perspective that showcases the fallacy of thinking about “up” or “down” in weightless environments, and then Spike has to make the trade. Meanwhile, Faye has raided the fridge, and is high-tailing it out of there. (Ein delays her a little by barking and chasing her in the other direction.)

Naturally, the deal goes bad. Gordon’s flunky tries to kill Spike, and Spike doesn’t take too kindly to that. He disables the magnets on the other guy’s suit, and kicks him away toward a long and lonely suffocation. Spike has just gotten the money when Faye shoots her way out of the Bebop (“You’re supposed to open the hangar!” Jet shouts) and grabs it for herself. Gordon shoots some missiles at her, but with some fancy piloting and a deployment of chaff, she manages to avoid all of them and even hack one missile to go straight back to Gordon’s office. Spike is left alone with only the chip to show for his efforts.

“She beat me at my own game,” he says, voice tinged with no small amount of wonder.

Is Faye’s depiction occasionally problematic? Yes. Does she use her body to her advantage? Yes. But one of the best parts of the series is the way it problematizes the system that makes that kind of behaviour necessary. To some extent all of the characters are examples of points at which that system has broken down, but Faye’s experience takes the cake and shows us how easily the people of 2071—especially women—can be chewed up and spit out. The result is a hardbitten woman who really does believe in her first rule of combat. Every man who falls for Faye’s wiles is seen for what he is: a dupe, a sap, a chump. Similarly, the only men she keeps around for very long are the ones who take her seriously and believe in her cleverness and ability to kick ass. For anyone who feels uncomfortable writing female characters, watch closely.






*Or they’re New Hampshire State Representative Nicholas Levasseur. In other words, とんちき。


Madeline Ashby is a grad student and science fiction writer living in Toronto.

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1. MindElemental
Great writeup!

You inspired me to re, re, re, x50 rewatch Cowboy Bebop, which I thought I could never, ever do after how many times I've already seen it.

This episode has my favourite characterisation moment in the series: Jet's "Oh, Spiiike!" when he sees Spike brawling. When set against the context of the earlier "Don't win too much", it perfectly establishes the relationship between the two and their personalities: Jet is the responsible member of the duo, and he knows Spike well enough to automatically blame him for the present mess.

Wow, I could rave about this episode - and series - all day, but for now, I'll just say I also love that the writers don't forget about Faye's claim to be a Space Gypsy...
Yonatan Zunger
2. zunger
BTW, I believe that the word Faye uses for Spike is "gorgio," which is to Romany what "goy" is to Yiddish.
Angel Banchev
3. Tiranas
You`ve inspired me to start re-watching Cowboy Bebop again and i am fatefully following the re-watch so far. Don`t have anything to add to your commentary, other that it has been spot on so far. Also i am glad that you`re gonna include the OVA in the rewatch too. Also, also what Faye says to Spike about him being a gaujo is what she actually means, but the meening of the word is a bit skewered in the explanation. In general gaujo has very close meaning to gaijin, in that that it refers to an outsider, someone not of that particular culture, who doesn't posses the inherent traits, that that culture has. This is both true for the Romani and Japanese culture respectively. I think here is used quite nicely to show what Faye thinks about Spike during the whole situation in this episode, though her opinion does change farther along. As far as i know, there is no apparent connection between the two words, other that in the anime its pronounced a bit off. I just gotta say that your last sentence is absolutely true and i can't wait to see what you think about Faye and romance, but that is getting ahead of ourselves. All and all, all is great with the re-watch so far.
Stephanie Folse
4. telophase
There's a cosplayer who's been rocking Jet's vanilla ice cream suit at A-Kon and AnimeFest in Dallas for years.
Larry Sica
5. lomifeh
This is the anime that really got me hooked. Unfortunately I only have the "1st Session" DVD at this point. Guess I will need to go shopping for the other five plus the movie. Not many others have really matched this one.

I was at the Animecon out in CA one year and this guy was hanging out in a white suit with a Sax playing Clutch, everyone was loving it.
A.J. Bobo
7. Daedylus
The bit where Spike gets punched was the spot in this show that really solidified Spike's character for me. He takes a pretty nasty punch, but doesn't go down. In fact, he just stands back up (very slowly and dramatically) and then lays the smack down on the pit boss and his flunkies. And he does it like this happens all the time (which, I'm pretty sure it does). Anyone that can make fighting back seem sarcastic (look at his face right before he kicks the guy) is a hero I want to root for, and not someone to take lightly.
8. illukar
Cowboy Bebop is definitely worth watching/rewatching. And there are plenty of women in anime/manga who are more than eye candy.

It's (probably not) strange, though, that finding a strong woman who _isn't_ eye candy is a rare thing.

And interesting how many of the strong women are morally questionable (confidence tricksters such as Faye). Still, she was my favourite part of that show.

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