Cowboy Bebop: Top Ten Essential Episodes
Cowboy Bebop is widely regarded as one of the most popular and influential anime series in the West. It takes place in a future in which an eclectic group of bounty hunters chase down dangerous criminals across the galaxy. The series made a huge impression with American audiences in the early 2000’s, helping to usher anime further into the mainstream as a legitimate medium for mature storytelling. It fuses unique character designs, fluid animation and a very jazz influenced soundtrack. The series had a powerful atmosphere and explored tropes ranging from anywhere between film noir to exploitation. Here we shall discuss which episodes best exemplify what makes this series both unique and iconic.
10. Asteroid Blues
This episode is the first of the series and does an excellent job of establishing who are characters are right away. We have Spike Spiegel, a laid back wisecracking bounty hunter with a mysterious past who serves as the main protagonist. Then we meet his partner Jet, a former cop with a tough exterior but a gentle demeanor within. Here the audience learns the status of this world in which criminals often run free. Jet and Spike hunt down a crazed drug runner who is willing to murder his own men to achieve wealth and power. This episode makes distinctive visual use of the drug sold by the dealer. A spray is used and injected into the eye. The leads the reddening of the eye. Hence the nickname of the narcotic. It’s know as the “red eye”. On a side note, the villain is named after one of the most famous writers in science fiction, Issac Asimov. It’s a simple story, but it’s fast paced while still touching on some classic crime thriller tropes.
9. The Ballad of Fallen Angels
Episode five is the first to touch upon the main plot in a mostly episodic series. Namely, the secret truth of Spike’s past. While pursuing a bounty for a member of a major crime syndicate, the crew becomes involved in coup within the organization. Most importantly, this episode introduces the audience to the main villain of the series, Vicious. Vicious is shown to have a major grudge against Spike for reasons only hinted at here. When Faye Valentine, an additional member of the crew, encounters Vicious, we learn everything we need to know about the man as he casually observes vicious murder. We also are first introduced the love triangle between Vicious, Spike and Julia. The character of Julia is only revealed through flashback. However, proper use of editing and music establish her importance very quickly. The concluding battle in a church provides some of the series most diverse and emotional action sequences.
8. Jamming With Edward
This outing is important for one primary reason, the introduction of it’s most divisive character. That would be Edward. When the Spike and the gang attempt to catch a hacker who has been using satellites to cause destruction on the surface of the long abandoned Earth, they enlist the help of this eccentric young girl. We are allowed to see the importance this character could serve plot wise while adding a true comic relief character to the roster. The most interesting aspect of this session is the actual suspense to build up who Edward is. The payoff also leads to some excellent humor towards the end of the episode. This is easily one of the better examples of the comedic components of Bebop. Whether you like or dislike Ed, you should know by the ending of this episode.
7. Toys in the Attic
This story is an example of how despite a very well balanced tone, Bebop could tackle radically different stories and styles with each episode. Here it explores a parody of sorts of the horror genre, blending both comedy and genuine thrills. Modeling itself after such classics as Ridley Scott’s Alien and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Spike and Ed must team up to catch a strange creature which has infiltrated the ship. Some examples of this include specific scenes where Spike must hunt the creature in ventilation shafts with his primary weapon being a flamethrower. This is a classic throwback the sequence that occurred in Alien. The utilization of classical music while the ship is on autopilot is a reference to several sequences to Space Odyssey. The creature itself is a reference to the monster in John Carpenters sci-f comedy, Dark Star. Even an homage to 1980’s action films are references here. This entire episode is essentially a massive homage to the classics of genre films. With the rest of the crew out of the action, there are many good moments of tension here all leading to a strangely comic climax.
6. Mushroom Samba
Another example of how eclectic this show can be, this episode is easily one of the most discussed among fans. This is simply due to how ridiculous it is. After crash landing on a planet, the crew find themselves running low on fuel and water. Interestingly, they send Ed and Ein, their super intelligent dog, out to search for the necessary items. Ed then stumbles across a bounty named Domino Walker, who seems to smuggling hallucinogenic mushrooms of all things. What ensues involves frantic psychedelic imagery and an obvious reference to exploitation films of the 1970’s. A notable aspect of the session is that we are able to observe the power of the hallucinations from the perspective of three different characters. In a fascinating sequence, the whole sequence takes place in the same area. Images show the same basic events occurs, but with Faye, Spike and Jet experiences something unique to them. This is mostly impressive due to showcasing the strengths of the animation Bebop often excels at.
5. Jupiter Jazz
Faye runs off with the crew’s loot at the beginning of this episode, prompting the others to search for her. She flees to one of moons of Jupiter. As fate would have it, Spike learns of a possible lead regarding his former love Julia. It seems Vicious has business that brings him there as well, leading to a another confrontation between the two. This two part plot is essentially the second act of the story involving Spike and Vicious. The most interesting aspect here is when Faye encounters a strange man named Gren. Gren seems to have a history with Vicious as well. This gives us some more back story and motivations for who the main villain is, possibly hinting at a sense of honor one might not think he retains.
A very strong component of the session is within the brief flashback sequence of Gren and Vicious. The little that is mentioned about a major war implies that the foundation of this future was rooted in much more massive conflicts. Much like the rest of the series itself, the audience is witnessing the aftermath of something much grander. The mystery provides more intrigue, allowing the viewer to ponder the specifics. We are given hints of Vicious and his past, but are then sold primarily through atmosphere and character interaction. Gren himself is damaged and complex. However, much like Spike, we only scratch the surface. We can only really judge the characters by who they are in the present. This is a must see since it greatly furthers the relationship between the crew and gives the audience more information regarding Spike’s origins.
4. Pierrot Le Fou
Though the main plot of Bebop is very intriguing, the stand alone episodes are what make up the bulk of the show and provide it with it’s clearest identity. Ironic, considering how diverse these stories often are. Here, this is an example of a fairly straight forward story executed flawlessly. Easily one of the darker outings, Spike stumbling upon a vicious assassin murdering his targets. This alone prompts the man to hunt down Spike and end his life.
This is essentially a game of cat and mouse but it flows by with bright and fluid animation, concluding in a hectic battle reminiscent of the final scenes of Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke. In a notable reference to superhero comics, the villain here is actually a blend of three different Batman villains. His gleeful smile and crazed demeanor are reflective of the Joker. His attire and and shape are modeled after the Penguin. In a more subtle reference, his top hat and assassin background are a reference to a less popular villain known as the Tally Man.
3. Hard Luck Woman
With the series ending fast approaching at this point, the writers had to essentially resolve the character arcs of the rest of the crew before focusing on the finale with Spike and Vicious. Both Faye Valentine and Ed get some closure by the end of this episode. Faye decides to return to Earth to re-explore old landmarks she found on video she recorded as a child. This leads them to an orphanage Ed had stayed in when she was young. Here she learns that her father has been looking for her for some time. In a shocking twist, it is revealed that the crew’s most recent bounty is actually Ed’s father. This leads to a major inner conflict for Edward, resulting in a truly powerful conclusion for the character. Though the focus is primarily on Edward, Faye is allowed to have resolution as well. This is mainly done through flashbacks, however Valentine reaches the crescendo of her development by learning to overcome her tragic past. Her realization is reflective of the primary idea of the series and foreshadows the inevitable conclusion all these characters must reach.
2-1. The Real Folk Blues (Part 1 and 2)
No list of Cowboy Bebop would be complete without the final two episodes. This final part is the last act of the dual between Spike and Vicious. Early on it is revealed that Vicious has finally taken control of his crime syndicate. In a final attempt to assert his power, Vicious is planning to destroy everyone connected to his previous life. This prompts Spike to find his former love Julia and protect her from his wrath. Death and destruction do indeed follow, concluding with the final bloody battle between these two men.
This episode has some of the most memorable quotes and exchanges in the entire story. The main theme of death being a constant aspect of life is at the forefront here. Interestingly, the concept of acceptance and embracing the future intertwines with Spikes journey at this point. The past always haunts our characters as they constantly try to outrun it. Still, our past choices do define us. It’s only how we choose to reconcile our sins that we can truly grow as individuals. The ending here is sad and slightly controversial. However, most would agree it is rather fitting indeed.
Virtually every episode of Bebop offers something different for each viewer. This series is so successful due to the diversity it holds. Though the overall tone of the show is unique, each individual episode provides a very different type of storytelling. It is rather possible that a viewer may prefer the main plot episodes, the darker somber stories or even the crazed comedic ones. Overall, this series continues to stand as a classic due to it’s characters, stories, animation and music. Bepop wasn’t afraid to be too dark or too crazy. It could be tender and tear jerking or side splitting hilarious. In any case, may this serve as a guide to getting just a taste of all this classic anime has to offer. See you later space cowboys…
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