It’s election night in Canada and I just sent in manuscript revisions, returned from Seattle, and started a new phase of my current strategic foresight project. Naturally, this means it’s time for another re-watch post! Welcome to the next phase of Cowboy Bebop, the gradual closure of the story’s plot and thematic arcs. Starting with “My Funny Valentine,” in which we learn more about the mysterious Faye Valentine’s past, the series begins to answer some of the questions it started out asking. Along the way, it teaches a crash course in how to do a classic science fiction story.
“My Funny Valentine” is what is elsewhere referred to as a “white room story.” It goes like this: you wake up in a white room. You don’t know where you are, how you got there, or even who you are. You spend the rest of the story figuring these things out. In general, white room stories (or chapters) are seen as the sort of clumsy genre move only a newbie makes, because they’re pure exposition. Their characters aren’t developed so much as discovered, their worlds not built but learned. As such, white rooms were once classic pulp fodder, and they’re now staples of video games like the Silent Hill series. This doesn’t mean they can’t be done well: A Trap for Cinderella, by Sebastien Japrisot, is a stellar white room novel that cleverly transforms every new piece of the puzzle into a question about the heroine’s identity.
“My Funny Valentine” works in this way. In it, Faye learns that what tiny shreds of information she does have about her past are in fact a lie, and that the mystery of her true identity is larger than she ever thought. The stories Faye tells others about who she is, like being Romani or being Poker Alice, are no more fictional than the lies she was told three years ago by a trio of grifters.
The first half of the episode is told in flashback, while Jet is hunting a two-bit hood who charms women out of their money and Spike is in the bathroom eavesdropping (as Faye tells Ein the story of her past because his adorable doggy eyebrows remind her of the man she used to love). As a nested narrative, it’s not that neat. But we quickly forget that as we get swept up in the story of how Faye woke up in a white room.
As we watch, Faye is awakened from a cold sleep and told by Miss Manley (a nurse) and a doctor that she was the victim of an accident in a space shuttle fifty-four years prior. Only now has medical science advanced to the point where completely healing her is possible. Unfortunately, it couldn’t heal her memory: she knows nothing about who she is or where she’s from. And now that she’s awake, she owes the hospital the cost of her treatment...with fifty-four years’ interest.
This is the part of the story that isn’t set in the future.
With no knowledge about who she is or any assets she might possess, Faye cannot pay the debt. She tries to run, and through her eyes we witness a series of great first contact moments with the far future: flying cars, vending machines with talking holograms, barcodes on the back of her lawyer’s neck. It’s a repeat of an earlier moment when that same lawyer, Whitney, re-introduces her to the items in her hospital room: a mobile phone is really a thermometer, a television is really a washer/dryer unit, and so on.
Whitney also introduces Faye to what must be her first real romance. There’s wine, they dine, they drive. He claims to have fallen for her while she slept in her coma, and calls her his Sleeping Beauty. Then one night some extreme debt collectors try to kill the two of them. In the re-telling, it now sounds obvious that it was all a con, but in the moment Faye completely buys it, and watches Whitney sacrifice himself to save her (or so she thinks). Then she learns that he’d willed all his assets to her— including his debts, which are astronomical.
Three years later, Faye’s “screw them before they screw you” philosophy (espoused in “Toys in the Attic”) makes complete sense. And now we get to see it in action: when she realizes that the bounty Jet just brought in is Whitney, she abducts him, claims the bounty for her own, and demands closure. Spike chases after her in the Swordfish II. He says he won’t go easy on her, and they flirt with missiles while Faye processes her past with Whitney.
But here’s the twist: Whitney knows nothing about her past. He collaborated with Faye’s doctor to offload his massive gambling debts, but all her records were destroyed in the Gate Incident. “Valentine” isn’t her real name, but a callback to Rodgers & Hart song. Faye now knows even less about herself than she did before, because the route she expected to lead to the truth turned out to be a dead end. What she thought she knew was really a lie, and her one true story, the one about true love, was just a conman’s patter.
She turns Whitney in all by herself, and shares his measley bounty with the new men in her life—the ones who helped her take out the trash.
As Faye’s “doctor” cruelly observes, questions about identity are central to the human experience. It’s normal to try answering them, and it’s normal to feel anguish in resolving them. But normally, people have more to go on: a real name, a family, some memories they actually enjoy and take pride in. “I’m still in the dark,” she tells Spike, as they collect the measley bounty on Whitney. “I may never know anything about my past.” When he says this doesn’t matter, she retorts that at least he has a past.
“And you have a future,” Spike says. “That’s what counts.”
This exchange will come back and break your heart when you realize how neatly Spike has summarized the difference between himself and Faye.
Madeline Ashby cannot yet vote in Canada, nor can she tell you about the election results until the polls close in British Columbia.