Cowboy Bebop Re-watch: “Black Dog Serenade”

“Black Dog Serenade” is an episode of the series that has a good example of what my workshop calls “The Refrigerator Door Effect.” (Not to be confused with other all-too-common refrigerator issues.) The Refrigerator Door Effect is what happens when someone enjoys a story so thoroughly that the plotholes and inconsistencies don’t occur to her until she has her hand on the refrigerator door to fetch herself a celebratory beer. She stands there remembering the story, and realizes: that whole thing made no sense at all.

All narrative is, on some level, sleight of hand. You can prolong the suspension of an audience’s disbelief by burying flaws in the fundamental premise under compelling emotional or aesthetic details. Some storytellers are better at this than others: George Lucas is terrible at it, but Francise Ford Coppola is pretty good. Consider The Godfather: the story is all about the ascension of Michael Corleone to the role of Don, so his older brothers Sonny and Fredo must be removed from the equation. Fredo is happy in Nevada, so he gets de-cluttered West. But Sonny plans to take their father’s place. So to get rid of him, Puzo (and later, Coppola) took advantage of his tragic flaw, impulsiveness, and had the Corleones’ enemies lure Sonny out to a tollbooth by beating up his sister. They know he’ll probably come rescue her, because he’s done it before. And Coppola knows that the audience will be so busy worrying about Connie, rooting for Sonny, and then reeling at the violence of his death, that they won’t bother to ask: What if Connie never called Sonny?

Connie doesn’t actually want to get her husband Carlo, who beats her, in trouble. Like many victims she blames herself for the abuse, and after Sonny retaliates once, she begs him not to do so again. So why would she even make the call? And why would anyone build such an important plan on that one fragile detail? But the first few times I watched the film, I never bothered to ask. I was too wrapped up in what an awful bastard Carlo was, and how I really hoped Sonny would waste him, and how disappointing it was that Carlo got to live for ninety more minutes.

“Black Dog Serenade” pulls this same maneuver. As a human story, it’s great. But as a logical narrative, it falls apart. And that’s fine, because the plot for this episode isn’t as important as how the episode points toward one of the central themes of the series as a whole: the power of the Syndicate, and the inability of solitary individuals to fight against it.

The episode revolves around an uprising at a prisoner transport vessel that is locked inside the Gate system. On board is Udai Taxim, a Syndicate assassin that Jet believes is responsible for the loss of his left arm. Years ago when he worked for the ISSP, he and his partner, Fad, tracked Taxim to a back alley on Ganymede to arrest him, and Jet wound up with a bunch of bullets in his left arm. He lost it, and his mechanized limb is serviceable, but not terribly sensitive. After the uprising, Fad contacts Jet and asks him to join him on a quest to neutralize Taxim. At first, Jet refuses. Then he realizes he needs to get over the loss of his arm, and he thinks he can do it by tracking down Taxim for a re-match. He succeeds, but discovers more about his old partner than he ever wanted to know. And in the end, the new knowledge is just as painful as the new arm.

“Don’t you feel that?” Faye asks early in the episode, as she watches a cigarette burn down toward his fingers. The ensuing conversation happens on two levels: Faye pesters him to repair the ship, then his arm, when what Jet really needs to repair is himself. The same could be said of the series’ other characters, which is another reason the conversation works. It also serves as a nice contrast to the stilted conversation Jet has with his former partner. Faye is snappish, whiny, and passive-aggressive, but she clearly wants what’s best for Jet. The same cannot be said for Fad.

Just as all the characters in the series have some form of physical damage (Spike’s eye, Jet’s arm, Faye’s memory loss), they also have chapters in their lives that they must close in order to heal fully. Their ability to do so forms the emotional arc of the series, and it really begins taking shape after the “Jupiter Jazz” episodes. Jet has already let go of his old flame, Lisa, but he has yet to shake off the hold his old job has on him. He still acts like a cop, and still relishes any opportunity to communicate with his old ISSP contacts. Re-watching this episode, it finally clicked for me that what Jet also misses is having a partner. Spike and Faye just don’t cut it. They’re so wrapped up in their own problems that Jet asks Ed to water the bonsai if he doesn’t come back from his trip with Fad to the prisoner transport ship.

The prisoner transport ship is its own little story. By itself, it’s pretty good. (Prison riot! IN SPAAAAAACE!) The prisoners are all pretty smart guys who are on the ball, and the cleverest of them band together to pilot the ship, repel threats, and figure out what to do next. They don’t waste time figuring out who’s on top, or whether to ask for ransom, any other cliches. They just want to hold onto the ship because it has a lot of guns and it can get them where they want to go. It’s pretty basic, and it makes logical sense.

But the plot itself doesn’t, because Udai Taxim never shot Jet all those years ago. He’s not responsible for Jet’s missing arm. Jet’s old partner is. Taxim tells him as much as they’re in the midst of a stand-off.

Pop quiz, space cowboys! You once conspired with an organized crime syndicate to betray your partner, and he lost his arm. One of your fellow conspirators breaks free from prison. Do you:

a) Ignore him, and hope he goes away

b) Talk to the syndicate about it, and hope they deal with him

c) Deal with him yourself, and offer him something in exchange for his silence if you fail to kill him

d) Call your old partner (the one with the missing arm) for the first time in three years, tell him about the escape, and insist that the two of you find your former conspirator, and hope that you kill him before he can say anything to your old partner

Granted, Fad claims that infiltrating the transport is a two-man job. But he’s a corrupt ISSP cop. He’s on the take. He has the money to hire somebody to help. In fact, had he asked the Syndicate for assistance, they probably would have given it to him. As we see in the conversation between Taxim and the Syndicate, their relationship is no more. Taxim is a stone in their shoe, and Fad knows it. He could have eliminated the now-vulnerable Taxim at his leisure without any fear of reprisal. So why did he need Jet? Why did it have to be him? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to distract Jet entirely, by using his position in the ISSP to set up a fake bounty somewhere far from Ganymede? He could just withdraw the bounty a couple of days later, once he was sure the Bebop had cleared the Gate. Surely he can check up on entry/exit records. So how hard would it have been to ask the Syndicate for extra resources, throw Jet off the scent, and then quickly deal with Taxim? Sure, it’s a more complicated process, but it’s no more difficult than betraying Jet was. And it’s a hell of a lot better than being dead.

The answer is that the plot doesn’t have to make any sense. It’s the theme that’s important. Much like “Waltz for Venus,” this episode is all about the Syndicate, how ruthless and powerful it is, and how nobody who goes up against it can ever succeed. Fad sums it up perfectly: “The people who go against the Syndicate lose, Jet. They lose big. Either they give up like you did, or they die young.”

Cowboy Bebop is all about the past catching up with you. It might be a bad relationship, or an old injury, or major debts, but sooner or later all of the characters have to deal with the trauma that damaged them, so they can repair themselves. Jet’s mechanical arm is a perfect metaphor for this theme, and as with Spike, his trauma is related to the Syndicates. The Syndicates, be they Red Dragon or White Tiger or what have you, have an almost infinite reach. You can run, but you can’t hide. In fact, the series seems to suggest that the only way to survive is to go back and deal with the problem on your own terms, rather than waiting for it to sneak up on you (like Spike, running from Vicious and giving Vicious more time to establish power, gather resources, and craft a plan for destroying him). But in between fleeing that trauma and realizing that truth, there’s a lot of fighting against the pull of the past. It’s the stuff of great literature and drama. It’s so true on a human level that F. Scott Fitzgerald already described it in The Great Gatsby:

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

 


Madeline Ashby is a science fiction writer and foresight consultant. Her debut novel, vN will be available this summer from Angry Robot Books.

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