When you’re making a TV show about characters who are desperately avoiding confronting the demons in their pasts, you eventually run into a problem: At some point, those characters must confront the demons in their pasts — if only so the audience can understand what motivates them.
More than halfway through a season that has been heavier on style than substance, Cowboy Bebop clearly understands that it’s time to dig into what makes our three heroes tick. In fact, the series attempted to deal with this problem just one episode ago, when Jet’s dark past as an ISSP cop was (clumsily) dredged back into the present.
But what do you do about a character like Spike Spiegel, who is far too cool and self-contained to let anyone dig around in his past? “Binary Two-Step” provides a blunt but novel solution: subjecting Spike to an elaborate piece of technology that digs right into the brain, forcing him to deal with his deepest traumas in a loop.
This means, of course, that he’s forced to come face-to-face with Julia. Or, at least, a computer pretending to be Julia.
Spike stumbles into this particularly unconventional form of therapy as he attempts to earn a lucrative bounty by tracking down a mysterious target named Dr. Londes. Spike eventually wanders into an extremely Scientology-esque storefront — ostensibly operated by Londes — which promises to solve all his problems with a fancy computer and a pair of goggles.
Unfortunately, but inevitably, there’s a catch: Dr. Londes isn’t a person at all. L.O.N.D.E.S. is an AI. better known as a Life Observing Neural Development Emulation System. This AI has gone rogue — and now that Spike is jacked in, it will devour his consciousness altogether unless Jet can pull the plug before it’s too late.
While Jet races against the clock, we spend much of the episode in Spike’s mind palace — a Western town with “Julia” at its center. Wandering down the street, Spike encounters his long-lost love over and over again, reconnecting with her for just a moment before Vicious shows up and rips her away again.
Within the boundaries of this simulation, the important thing to remember is that we’re not actually seeing Julia and Vicious; we see Julia and Vicious as Spike remembers and imagines them. In one early loop, as Spike convinces Julia to run away with him — and then watches, powerless, as Vicious shoots her in the head — Spike lives through one imagined Hell. A few cycles later, amid a brutal shoot-out with “the Syndicate,” Spike lives through a different Hell entirely: one in which Julia confirms all the horrible aspects of himself Spike fears might actually be true.
This is, by far, the most information we’ve gotten about how Spike views himself, so it’s worth quoting in its entirety:
“Vicious isn’t the villain; you are. You never loved me. You just loved taking your best friend’s girl, and now you’re going to get me killed. I don’t love you. I could never love a monster like you. Who are you kidding? Everything you touch dies. So for once in your life, do something right and just let me go.”
As far as exposure therapy goes, this is pretty radical, but it’s hard not to be relieved when Spike responds to this soliloquy by agreeing to let Julia go. Sure, this is only happening in his brain, but at least it implies a new kind of closure that suggests he might let go of his obsession with Julia in the real world. It certainly looks that way when Jet manages to pull Spike out of the loop just in time, snapping him back to reality as — we’re left to assume — a sadder and a wiser man.
But as Spike recovers on the Bebop and reflects on his experience in the machine, we see the rest of his conversation with “Julia,” in which Spike agrees to flee from Vicious and the Syndicate — on the sole condition that Julia runs away along with him. The L.O.N.D.E.S. method has failed after all. Whatever it’s going to take to resolve Spike’s anguish over losing Julia, it looks like it’s going to need to resolve itself in the real world, with real-world consequences to match.
But that’s a problem for another episode. For now, Spike has his real memories, his fake memories, and a bowl of noodles. I’m not sure it was the intended moral of this episode, but it’s the one I’m walking away with: Whatever else goes wrong in your life, you can always eat some pasta.
• Back on the Bebop, Faye hooks up with Mel the mechanic (and gets her first orgasm — or at least the first she can remember — in the trade). There’s not much to this subplot besides a rare, welcome moment in which Faye briefly lets her guard down, but it’s nice to see a same-sex hookup that isn’t treated as either unusual or a preamble before some needless tragedy.
• No spoilers, but the episode’s several allusions to “Radical Ed” are definitely designed to get fans of the original anime hyped up.
• “Binary Two-Step” replaces the traditional “SEE YOU SPACE COWBOY…” closing text with “ARE YOU LIVING IN THE REAL WORLD?” For those in the know, that’s an allusion to Cowboy Bebop: The Movie — but without that context, it seems like overstating just how trippy this episode actually was. (Or is that just what they want us to think…?)
• This time in archaic technologies that somehow made the leap to outer space: Polaroid photos and audio reels!
• The bounty on “Dr. Londes” is 90,000,000₩, which is both double the price for Udai Taxim from the previous episode and 60 times the price for Tanaka (before the damage to the casino) in the series premiere. Call me crazy, but I’m starting to think the Cowboy Bebop economy doesn’t actually make any sense.
• This might just be a me problem, but every time someone said “Dr. Kaypack” my mind flashed to this horrible, horrible movie.
More From This Series
- Cowboy Bebop’s Creator Is Back With a Jazzy New Sci-Fi Anime
- What to Watch After Binging Cowboy Bebop
- Alex Hassell on the Immense Discomfort of Re-creating Cowboy Bebop’s Iconic Duel