May 25 2010 12:29pm

Cowboy Bebop Re-watch: “Heavy Metal Queen”

Hi, there! I apologize for the tardiness of this post. I’ve been busy with those pesky re-writes, and writing a call for papers on Avatar: The Last Airbender. In between, though, I managed to re-watch episode 7, “Heavy Metal Queen.”

I can summarize this episode for you fairly quickly: the Bebop crew loses a bounty, meets a kick-ass trucker, trashes some ships, and almost gets blown up. Oh, and there’s a cat.

The episode opens with a trucker named VT coming home from a long-haul trip to Venus. Adding “in space” works for a lot of pulpy SF, the way “and zombies” works for a lot of pulpy horror. Truckers in space are no different. They just work. VT is a tough-looking lady with a fluffy, long-haired cat named Xeros. These two have quite a racket going: other truckers regularly bet on what name VT’s initials correspond to, and if they’re wrong she keeps the money. If they’re right, they get to keep the accumulated stack of woolongs. Nobody has ever gotten it right, so that stack is pretty big.

We follow VT to a diner named M4C’s, where Spike is hanging out in a bathroom stall nursing a miserable hangover. Apparently, Spike is waiting for a bounty head named Decker. He thinks he’s the only one with a hot tip on Decker’s location, but the whole diner is full of other bounty hunters. These other bounty hunters are causing a ruckus that really pisses VT off. (VT thinks bounty hunters are scum.) When she starts busting the heads of some guys who are hitting on her favourite waitress, Spike joins in because the raw egg for his Prairie Oyster has been disturbed. “I needed that egg,” he says, before the fists start flying. Having bonded over pwning some numbskulls, Spike and VT learn a little bit about each other: VT’s husband once enjoyed Prairie Oyster cocktails, too, and Spike is impressed by her little “pleased to meet you, won’t you guess my name?” racket when the Three Old Guys appear to try it. (They fail spectacularly.)

It’s worth noting that the whole front end of this episode features women kicking ass. Faye is looking for Decker, too, at a kiddie restaurant named Woody’s. This is no accident: Decker looks exactly like Woody Allen. (And the restaurant caters directly to children. Draw from that what you will.) Faye pins down a man she thinks looks like Decker, but too late, she realizes that it’s not him. However, she spots the real Decker as he flees, and takes off after him. He uses a highly volatile explosive to blow her zipcraft clear to Hell and gone, but she manages to get a good look at both him and his truck, so she can tell the others later.

In the meantime, Spike is having his own problems. VT has discovered he’s a bounty hunter, and the guys whose heads he just cracked have vandalized the Swordfish II. Lucky for Spike, he has a special effect on cats. Xeros climbs atop his head and gives VT a look that says “Can we keep him?” So Spike hitches a ride with the trucker and her cat, and they all take Faye along. In the truck, Faye tries to give Spike a physical description of Decker and his vehicle, but is frustrated with the way VT blasts her favourite heavy metal music. Oddly, Faye needs an explanation of what heavy metal is. In a world where beleaguered ex-cops have dreams about Charlie Parker, it seems unusual that someone might not know what metal is. Then again, VT was probably just being facetious.

Back aboard the Bebop, Jet is grumbling about the twin repair jobs that just showed up on his docket, and Faye and Spike are busy sniping at each other. This is one of the few times that we see Spike without his customary suit, and we learn that his laundry uniform is a pair of boxers and his necktie. Faye is wearing a green mud mask. It’s a throwaway moment, but it proves how comfortable these two are with each other by this point in the series. Even when they’re snippy, they’re snippy in their underwear. It’s sort of an intimacy benchmark.

While Spike and Faye bicker, VT and Xeros have hit the road. Over the 2071 edition of CB radio, she learns that Decker has also caused a hit-and-run with one of her fellow truckers. She knows more about the truck than this driver does thanks to Faye’s description, so she puts out a call to everyone listening on the band to look for it. We watch as all the truckers ask her questions about the truck and herself. My favourite part of this sequence is seeing how much time the production designers put into each truck’s cockpit. They’re only onscreen for a few seconds at a time, but each one is individual and unique: one driver has a bunch of pinups, another has a shelf of bottles and carefully-preserved pot plants. (And apparently, they’re all named after characters in Sam Peckinpah’s 1978 trucker film Convoy. Watanabe has claimed that he was effectively raised by the films of the 1970’s, and in moments like this, it shows.) More interestingly, all the other truckers respect and admire VT. Even the ones who have never met her have a certain loyalty to her, and they want to help. Finally, she gets a tip that Decker is near the abandoned Linus Mines on an asteroid. So she rings up Spike and Faye, and they light out to nab their prize.

Of course, it all goes wrong. The Linus Mines were abandoned because the asteroid itself was unstable, and Decker is carrying highly explosive cargo. Spike, Faye, and VT chase him into the mines, things blow up, and Decker dies. That’s unfortunate, but the real bad news is that one of the shafts has collapsed, trapping our heroes in the asteroid with all the explosive cargo. Ordinarily, Spike would blast his way out of this particular problem, but Jet didn’t have time to repair his weapons systems, and Faye only has a couple of pincers to her zipcraft’s name. (To my knowledge, Faye’s craft is never given a proper name.)

So they craft a plan worthy of Wile E. Coyote: Faye will use her pincer arms to retrieve some of the explosive from Decker’s truck, and then Spike will eject the seat from his rig. Faye will then pop the explosive canister into the pod, and Spike will time the pod to shoot straight into the mineshaft’s blockage. Of course, this means that Spike will have to enter a vacuum, for which his only preparation is inserting a pair of earplugs. (I’ve wondered ever since: could vacuum really suck out your eardrums?) He’ll also have to hold his breath and aim himself at VT’s rig, hoping she’ll catch him in time before the pod blows.

The scheme works, despite some early worry due to Faye’s admitted inability to handle “delicate” operations, and Spike’s slippery fingers. He course-corrects by firing his weapon, which brings me to another question about vacuum: do firearms work, there? (Answer: yes. There’s enough oxidizer present in modern gunpowder to create the heat reaction that causes the gases inside the chamber to expand and propel each bullet forward. Moreover, Spike’s gun isn’t some antique from 1998, it’s a 2071 gun, and if firearms manufacturers haven’t solved that little problem after space colonization, well, they probably never will.)

While stuck in her truck, Spike realizes that VT is short for Victoria Telpischorei, wife of a famous bounty hunter. VT reveals that her husband is dead, and although Spike has the opportunity to take her stash, he doesn’t. Spike Spiegel may pick the pockets of pregnant women, but stealing from widows? No way. Spike tells her to keep the money, because he’s certain her husband will want a Prairie Oyster to nurse his hangover in the afterlife.

After all the epic activity of previous episodes, one-offs like this are nice. There isn’t much in here that pertains to the larger story, aside from a greater sense that all three bounty hunters are slowly growing more comfortable with each other. If this were a longer series, I suspect we’d get more episodes like this one, and that ultimately it would drag the drama along rather than finishing it satisfactorily.

Madeline Ashby wants your essays!

1. Megaduck
"(I’ve wondered ever since: could vacuum really suck out your eardrums?)"

Yes, if you were silly enough to hold your breath. You'd have bigger problems as the pressure would cause serious damage to your lungs, though.

Otherwise, no.

The best thing to do if you were going for a walk in vacuum would be to exhale and hope.

You'd have about 10 seconds of consciousness before you passed out, then about another minute where you could be rescued with no permanent effects, then another minute with increasing permanent effects until you were permanently dead.

"(Answer: yes. There’s enough oxidizer present in modern gunpowder to create the heat reaction that causes the gases inside the chamber to expand and propel each bullet forward. Moreover, Spike’s gun isn’t some antique from 1998, it’s a 2071 gun, and if firearms manufacturers haven’t solved that little problem after space colonization, well, they probably never will.)"

Modern guns will fire just fine in a vacuum. The problem is that all the grease and lubricant would evaporate off it but that's more of a long term issue.

It's perfectly practical to design a gun for vacuum work now, however.

It would not give you much velocity though. The mass differential between the bullet and body is just to great.
2. mechazoidal
"(To my knowledge, Faye’s craft is never given a proper name.)"
I don't think its name is ever given in the show proper, but the model kit and the official site archive refer to it as "Red Tail".

The archive also has an official short story about VT's husband, but it doesn't really go anywhere and only one chapter was ever released.
Madeline Ashby
3. MadelineAshby
Thanks, Megaduck & Mechazoidal! Now that I read the words "Red Tail," I know I've heard them somewhere. Aish.

One thing I forgot to mention in this post: I really enjoyed the depiction of Pets In Space, here. Starfaring endeavours are useless unless we can bring our pets long-term, and I've always really enjoyed the subtle touch of Ein swishing his paws helplessly through the air as he tries to swim through low gravity. I also noticed that VT buckles in Xeros with a human safety belt; this would obviously do the cat no good in a whiplash situation, but probably really helps in low-gravity environments. (Now I'm wondering how to handle litter boxes in space. That can't be pretty.)
Travis Butler
4. tbutler
As some people said in the earlier comments, one thing that makes Bebop such a masterpiece is 'show not tell', and the opening to Heavy Metal Queen is my favorite example.

Some reviews of Bebop ding it for being style over story; while it's undoubtedly stylish, I think a lot of these critics are simply missing the fact that a lot of the storytelling is done indirectly - through visuals, hints, theme and a bit of symbolism. (And I know I'm probably missing a bunch of the symbolism, in eps like Boogie Woogie Feng Shui.) HMQ does this brilliantly in the pre-title sequence; at one point back when I was on Usenet, I started to do a shot-by-shot analysis, but it got so long I felt I couldn't do it justice. But in that minute, set to a driving bass line that pushes it forward, we:

* Pan across an asteroid field, setting the scene in space.

* See the sparkle of running lights against the blackness, cluing in the arrival of a spaceship.

* Pull back to see that it's a large, lengthy ship. Long pan reveals decorations on the first segment, industrial markings on the second and third, suggesting individualism mixed with business.

* Cut to large rotating space structure, suggesting a larger context. Pan to another shot of the running lights, showing our ship approaching the structure.

* Cut back to the ship, then cut around to a ship's-eye view of the station approach lanes. Multiple ships, similar but personalized, suggest our original ship is part of an extended group, even a community; by this point, the association with trucking culture should be clear. Especially to those of us who lived through the era of C.W. McCall and Smokey and the Bandit. :)

* Follow the original ship's entry into the station, where a confusing array of lane markers and advertising cement the impression of a bustling hive of activity.

* End with the ship coming in to dock at one of the dozens of stations scattered across the interior of the depot.

A remarkably solid job of establishing the 'Truckers IN SPACE' theme of the episode, in just 67 seconds!
5. Vmetoikos
Ok, when I watched this, every time I watched this, one of the reasons I enjoyed it was because I thought VT is transgendered.

I'm now wondering if anyone else saw this?
6. Vmetoikos
Also, I think you'll find it is "Victoria Terpsichore" actually. But still kudos for the writeup!

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