Cowboy Bebop (Netflix)
We were always going to get a flashback episode eventually, right? So much of what defines Spike, Vicious, and Julia is rooted in a past we’ve heard about only obliquely. Before what’s sure to be a big, bloody standoff in the season finale, it makes good structural sense for Cowboy Bebop to wind the clock back and show us how everybody got here.
But at the risk of breaking my strict personal policy of not turning these recaps into an endless list of differences between the live-action series and the anime, it’s worth pointing out that the original series did not do this. Vicious and Julia aren’t the most complex characters in the Netflix series, but they’re definitely characters with their own arcs. They’re almost more like symbols in the original show, with Julia representing loss and Vicious representing hatred. Dramatically expanding Vicious and Julia’s arcs isn’t necessarily a good or a bad choice, but it does change something that was purposefully enigmatic into something that Cowboy Bebop spends all 51 minutes of this episode spelling out in large block letters.
Much of the fun of a flashback episode comes from seeing how different these people are from the characters we’ve come to know over the series. As the episode opens, Spike and Vicious kill a DA who’s threatening to take down the Syndicate. Vicious is still a psychopath — but he’s also a guy who can make a bunch of jokes about shaving pubic hair, and he adores Spike. Julia, for her part, isn’t a guarded and traumatized woman in a cavernous apartment with a closet full of silk dresses; she’s a nervous, giddy young singer who doesn’t realize her boyfriend’s darker side is that dark until it’s too late.
And Spike — well, “Fearless,” but we’ll call him Spike for consistency’s sake — is himself, but looser, chattier, and quicker to smile. He eventually explains that he’s been Vicious’ “brother” since childhood when Vicious rescued him from a life on the street. Spike has responded to that generosity with unflagging loyalty, leading him to a morally dubious life as Vicious’s co-enforcer.
Nepotism, inevitably, survived humankind’s leap to outer space. As a result, Vicious has climbed up the Syndicate’s ranks despite being a huge liability because his dad is the boss. The Syndicate will be his somebody, he proclaims, and he intends to bring Spike with him to the top. As a field test on the path to being promoted into capos, their mentor Stax tasks them with negotiating a partnership with the Neptune cartel, which would helpfully extend the Syndicate’s reach to the outer planets.
Vicious, being Vicious, screws this up almost instantly by getting too hot-headed during the negotiations. Still, Spike remains loyal. If nothing else changed, you get the feeling Spike would rather spend his life cleaning up Vicious’ messes than stand against him.
And then Julia enters the scene. When Julia sings at Ana’s for the first time, both Spike and Vicious fall in love with her on the spot, but Vicious makes the first move. He isn’t exactly charming, but you see how Julia might have been overwhelmed by his passion: lavish picnics, fancy jewelry, the fact that he bothered to learn a few seductive Russian phrases.
And despite his feelings, Spike seems relatively content to sit on the sidelines, wishing he had Vicious’ girl. Maybe this could have worked — until the night when Vicious crosses a line by finding, torturing, and killing the Neptune cartel member who insulted him during their negotiations. As Vicious gets off on his own viciousness, Spike and Julia comfort each other and consummate their cautious flirtation by falling into bed together.
At this precise moment, Vicious has become a problem that might take care of itself. He has dramatically overstepped by giving the Neptune cartel a reason to go to war with the Syndicate, and his dad is more than happy to apologize to them by killing his son and calling it even. Just one person is standing in the way: Spike, who can’t bring himself to be his executioner or even to stand back and let Vicious die.
Instead, Spike invents his own solution: killing the entire Neptune cartel singlehandedly so there won’t be anyone left to retaliate. He even breaks his own code, shooting a fleeing young woman in the back so there are no witnesses. If this is a parting gift to Vicious before Spike runs away with Julia, it’s the best thing he can offer: A future Vicious would never have had without him, paid for with guilt and trauma that will haunt Spike for the rest of his life.
But Vicious won’t let go that easily. When his father tells him that Spike and Julia plan to run away together, Vicious knows he needs to act both quickly and ruthlessly to stop them. So he sends one of his Syndicate minions to collect Julia and keep her locked up at his penthouse and goes to meet Spike with a large enough crew of goons that there’s no chance even Spike could get away.
Except — as we know, and Vicious eventually learned — Spike did get away. A hail of bullets and a tumble down a cliff weren’t enough to kill him, though he did emerge with a new name and a lot more baggage. And to paraphrase the text at the end of the episode: He’s going to carry that weight.
• This episode fills in a lot of gaps, but there are still plenty of unanswered questions. How did Caliban discover Spike and Julia’s affair? When did Vicious and Julia get married? How did Spike survive, why did he rechristen himself “Spike Spiegel,” and how exactly did he save Jet’s life? Cowboy Bebop doesn’t need to answer any of those questions, but if the show gets picked up for a second season, it wouldn’t be surprising if we get another flashback episode filling in some of the timeline gaps between the end of this one and the pilot.
• Other little bits from previous episodes that show up here: A photographer takes that Polaroid of Spike and Julia while they’re doing the Jupiter Jig; Vicious stabs Ana in the leg, necessitating the cane she uses; and after they have sex for the first time, Julia says she feels like she’s in a dream, setting up Spike’s “It was time to wake up” in the pilot.
• There are, perhaps inevitably, a few bits that overexplain parts of the backstory that might have been better just hinted at. Vicious gets a long, overheated monologue about witnessing his mom’s death by suicide when he was nine years old and how his dad called him weak when he cried. Spike gets several monologues: One about how Vicious rescued him from the streets, and one about how he’s always tried not to love anyone because he’s afraid of having something to lose. John Cho beautifully delivers the latter — but it’s also needlessly putting words to something that was already plenty clear from the look in his eyes.
• “YOU’RE GONNA CARRY THAT WEIGHT” was also used as the closing text in the original anime’s series finale.
• In case the Cabaret parallels weren’t clear enough, Gren introduces Julia to the stage by saying, “Willkommen.”
• Apparently, it rains diamonds on Neptune. Sounds painful!
• Ana’s advice on guys from the Syndicate: “They’re like bears: Fun to look at, but don’t roll down the windows.”
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