Cowboy Bebop Recap: The Tears of a Clown

Cowboy Bebop (Netflix)

Sad Clown a-Go-Go
Season 1 Episode 8
Editor’s Rating 4 stars

Cowboy Bebop (Netflix)

Sad Clown a-Go-Go
Season 1 Episode 8
Editor’s Rating 4 stars
Photo: Geoffrey Short/Netflix

Remember a few years ago when everybody was suddenly really scared of clowns? I said then, and I’ll repeat now, that clowns aren’t actually scary. What’s scary is a guy who has guns and grenades and rocket boots and will stop at nothing to kill you. (And fine, it’s not great if he’s got clown makeup on too.)

As you probably guessed, this discussion of clowns is not hypothetical. Mad Pierrot, a killer klown from outer space, was one of the more memorable villains in the original Cowboy Bebop anime, and he’s no less unnerving in live-action.

As “Sad Clown a-Go-Go” begins, the Bebop crew takes a field trip to a bowling alley to celebrate Faye’s “birthday,” which they’ve arbitrarily decided is that same day. But their night off is ruined by the sudden emergence of Mad Pierrot. The cackling killer has been exposed to so much Red-Eye that he’s both incredibly deadly and incredibly insane, and Vicious has busted him loose on the condition that he hunt down and kill Spike. (Frankly, I’m a little surprised that Vicious isn’t doing his own dirty work here, but I guess he has a lot on his plate right now.)

Mad Pierrot has the element of surprise, but even accounting for that, the fight doesn’t go very well for Spike. The cackling Pierrot uses guns, grenades, and rocket boots in his all-out assault and eventually manages to set Spike on fire. He only gets away when Ein starts barking, setting off a mental trigger that makes Mad Pierrot freeze and gives Jet and Faye enough time to get Spike out of there.

Their pasts may be somewhat checkered, but Jet and Faye are understandably baffled that someone is trying so hard to kill them. Spike knows exactly why, but he still refuses to tell his crewmates about his past as a Syndicate killer, leaving them in the dark about the inevitable violence looming on the horizon.

If I have any bone to pick with Cowboy Bebop here, it’s that I still don’t really buy that Spike’s secret past is so terrible that telling the truth would ruin his relationship with Jet. There’s obviously an inherent tension between an ex-cop and an ex-gangster, and it’s certainly been implied that Spike did some unusually heinous things while working for the Syndicate. But these two also met when Spike saved Jet’s life. They’ve now spent years living and working together. One episode ago, Jet had a friendly chat with the cop who sent him to prison and married his ex-wife. Is he really going to reject Spike outright instead of respecting how he’s changed?

For whatever reason, Spike isn’t ready to trust Jet with the truth. But he’s also not willing to risk Jet’s life. So after agreeing to let his friends help him kill Mad Pierrot — who has settled into an amusement park and put on a clown costume — Spike disables the Bebop and sneaks off to the EarthLand amusement park to face a likely death on his own.

Their battle is one of the weirder, better brawls on the show so far — pro tip: any fight will be more memorable if one of the participants is a clown with rocket boots — but it also comes to a cleverly-executed anticlimax when Spike manages to stab Mad Pierrot in the leg. Almost instantly, the “best hitman in the solar system” bursts into tears and starts screaming for his mommy. Looks can be deceiving: When it comes down to it, this hardened killer is just a traumatized little kid in a grown man’s body.

So Mad Pierrot and Vicious have a lot in common after all! I’m liberating the typical Syndicate subplot update from the “Stray bullets” section below because there’s finally a lot to say about it. Vicious finally sets his plan into motion after crawling along at an extremely deliberate snail’s pace for most of the season. It’s a dizzying series of double-crosses and fake-outs that starts with Vicious, bound and gagged, getting beheaded in front of the Elders.

Just kidding! That “Vicious” was the Eunuch, wearing a face-changer like the one Hakim used in “Dog Star Swing.” The real Vicious, wearing a face-changer to disguise himself as the Eunuch, takes the opportunity to slice up the guards, Mao, the deputy Elders, and eventually Caliban, the lead Elder himself, who is revealed to be Vicious’ natural father. Defiant to the end, Caliban sneers that his son will never be anything more than a scared little boy as Vicious kills him. But whatever traumas lie in his childhood, it’s Mao who really gets the last laugh when she tells Vicious that Julia, the only person he actually seems to love, has also been working against him all along.

This means that — after lots of preamble — Cowboy Bebop is finally ready to shift into its endgame. All the cards are on the table: Julia knows Spike is alive. Vicious, apparently the Syndicate’s new leader by default, knows Julia wishes he was dead and is clearly not above some violent retaliation. Spike would do just about anything to save Julia. These three characters have been on a slow-motion collision course from the moment Vicious learned that “Fearless” was still alive — but even a slow-motion collision course eventually results in a crash.

Stray Bullets

• Like his anime counterpart, Mad Pierrot is named in homage to Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 New Wave film Pierrot le Fou, which itself was a reference to the stock character of Pierrot the sad clown.

• Mad Pierrot quotes Roy Batty’s death soliloquy from Blade Runner, but Jet also asks Spike if he served at the “shoulder of Orion” or the “Tannhäuser Gate” — two locations referenced by Batty in the same monologue, so I guess at least some of those places also exist in the Cowboy Bebop universe. (This is clearly just the show having fun, but hey, prove that our heroes haven’t secretly been replicants the whole time.)

• The “old Lee Marvin movie” that inspired Jet’s rhyming plan of attack is The Dirty Dozen.

• Monkey Punchy, Jet’s special rum of choice, is probably named in honor of Monkey Punch, the manga artist best known for writing the long-running series Lupin III.

• In another sign of the growing closeness between the Bebop crew, Faye gives Spike her beloved loofah to chomp down on while Jet heals his arm. At least he’s coherent enough to bite down on the handle instead of the sponge.

• Caliban is played by John Noble. I can’t help but think his casting was partially inspired by his role as Denethor, father of Boromir and Faramir in the Lord of the Rings movies (and a very memorable bad dad).

• And not to nitpick, but now that we’ve learned the leader of the Elders was also Vicious’ dad — shouldn’t he have been called Prospero instead of Caliban?

• The EarthLand amusement park was changed from the SpaceLand amusement park in the original series, which is a minor but thoughtful swap — after all, wouldn’t people who spend all their time drifting around the galaxy look for escapism in a facsimile of the home planet they lost?

• “I’m layered. Like nachos.”

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Cowboy Bebop Recap: The Tears of a Clown