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Cowboy Bebop Captures the Indignities of the 2020 Gig Economy

Photo: Adult Swim

In an essay published in the November issue of Harper’s (stay with me) the novelist Garth Greenwell makes an argument against “relevance” as an aesthetic criterion. “When I use relevance as a filter for determining what books to read,” he writes, “… I’m presuming that I can guess, from the barest plot summary, whether a book will be useful in my life. But how can I know what I will find relevant about a work before I have submitted myself to the experience?”

Which is to say: When I began my recent rewatch of Cowboy Bebop, I did not expect to find the 1998 space Western anime series particularly relevant to my experience of 2020.

In a shocking turn that apparently only Garth Greenwell could have predicted, though, I was dead wrong. Cowboy Bebop turned out to be the perfect show about the isolation and indignity of freelance employment. Between the COVID-19 pandemic, a recession, and the recent $200 million passage of California’s Prop 22 certifying that gig workers are not employees, this is a tough time for freelancers. And Cowboy Bebop captures the lonely precarity of the 2020 gig economy like nothing else I’ve watched.

You’ve probably heard of Cowboy Bebop if you’ve ever made a half-hearted attempt to “get into anime,” since it’s frequently cited as a good introduction to the genre. Set in 2071, Cowboy Bebop builds a setting where Earth has become uninhabitable and the galaxy is dominated by interplanetary crime syndicates and corrupt cops. The show follows a crew of bounty hunters living on a spaceship called the Bebop: Spike Spiegel, a sardonic jeet kune do expert fleeing a criminal past; Jet Black, a gruff ex-cop with a prosthetic arm and a penchant for bonsai trees; Faye Valentine, an amnesiac grifter carrying a heavy debt and a price on her head; Radical Edward, a mischievous preteen hacker; and Ein, a corgi who is supposedly an ultraintelligent “data dog” but mostly just acts like a corgi. Blending elements of space opera, Hong Kong noir, and Hollywood Westerns, it’s a weird, improvisational mélange of themes and tones that balances violence and ennui with absurdist humor and a killer soundtrack.

But the Bebop crew aren’t just bounty hunters — they’re freelancers, 4 out of the 300,000 such gig workers plying their trade throughout the star system. In every episode, the crew tunes into a Western-themed TV show called Big Shot that functions as a kitschy bounty-hunting job board. In every episode, they get wind of a worthwhile bounty head and set off in search of a payout — usually in the form of a career criminal with a ridiculous name. Shootouts, hand-to-hand combat, space dogfights, and hilarity ensue. And, in (pretty much) every episode, they don’t get paid.

Sometimes this is because the person the crew is trying to capture is killed by some other rival. Sometimes they just get away. Sometimes the government refuses to pay on a technicality. And sometimes the bounty can’t be collected for a ridiculous, sci-fi reason — like when a crew of eco-terrorists accidentally turn themselves into monkeys using a DNA-targeting virus. Which is, of course, absurd. But not that much more absurd than our current, hellish economic structure. Getting paid is one of the eternal Sisyphean tasks of a freelancer’s existence, and Bebop gets that.

In Cowboy Bebop, there is never enough money, and it never sticks around for long. In one of the first scenes of the series, Jet cooks up a pan of something he calls “bell peppers and beef.” While he describes their next bounty head, Spike points out that there is not, in fact, any beef, and therefore the meal is not “bell peppers and beef” by any obvious definition. “It is when you’re broke,” Jet says, before running down a list of how Spike’s ship-repair fees wiped out the money from their latest bounty.

And then in episode nine — one of the few times the crew manages to successfully capture a bounty head — they still don’t get paid because the culprit turned out to be a rogue satellite AI. “The term ‘bounty’ as legal context only applies to humans or other life forms,” reads the host of Big Shot, quoting from a police report. “Sorry, amigos!” Once again, the Bebop crew is shit out of luck.

In addition to financial precarity, the show captures a profound sense of loneliness. That rogue AI? Its crime was carving massive, animal-shaped earthworks onto Earth’s surface. “It was lonely, so it drew some friends,” Spike observes. Alienation is a constant theme throughout the series, and the outer-space setting provides a striking visual emphasis: Characters are frequently confined to the cockpits of solo spacecrafts, communicating only via video, surrounded by an airless void. These visuals land differently during the COVID-19 pandemic — social distancing has nothing on the isolation of deep space.

The thing that moved me the most on this rewatch, though, was the sense of stillness. You might expect Cowboy Bebop to be nonstop gun fu and giant laser fights, and there’s certainly plenty of that in each episode. But it’s also full of people sitting around. The show doesn’t elide the “in between” moments of waiting, yawning, and drifting that are so plentiful in freelance (and quarantine) life. The characters wait a lot: for a new bounty to be announced, for money to come through. They paint their nails and trim their bonsai trees and smoke endless cigarettes and get on each other’s nerves. Rarely does an action show pay so much attention to listlessness or capture it with such care.

The genius of Cowboy Bebop in 2020 is how it manages to be both escapist —Space! Cartoons! Martial arts! — and oddly cathartic. By depicting a crew of emotionally damaged misfits hustling unsuccessfully while cut off from most of society, it reflects a jazzed-up version of what life feels like right now: draining, futile, isolated, exhausting. That sounds like it should be depressing. And to some extent, it is. But for me, watching a show about lonely people is a great way to feel less alone—and watching a show about unsuccessful freelancers who can’t catch a break helps me feel better about my own fruitless job-hunting. The world is an uncaring place and none of us are getting paid enough to deal with it. There’s something comforting about television that understands this.

Cowboy Bebop is streaming on Hulu.

Cowboy Bebop Captures the Indignities of the Gig Economy