Okay, Cowboy Bebop, I thought I had you figured out. We’ve been friends for about ten episodes now, and I thought I knew your game. I thought you were trying to make your own genre while deconstructing the tropes of science fiction. I thought you wanted to be the anti-Star Wars. Now you are coming at me with a straight up homage to Alien? Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good homage. Abed Nadir via Dan Harmon would be proud of how Cowboy Bebop distills the ingredients of Alien to a 22-minute Readers’ Digest (Anime Digest? Cinema Digest?) version of Ridley Scott’s best picture (yeah I went there. Fight me.)
Now I want to know why this episode went there.
Why did Nobumoto deviate from original story telling into a one-shot homage? What was the purpose of weaving Alien’s plot threads into a short-form story? Why draw up a zero-g airlock sequence, with all the attention to detail of Ripley trying to stop the self-destruct sequence on the Nostromo, only to reduce the entire thing to a farce? I’ve had days to think about this, and I don’t see what is gained by undermining a perfect space horror/survival story at the moment of its highest tension. I guess I’ll have to break this down.
Toys in the Attic opens with on claustrophobic shot from the point of view of the episode’s peril. We are inside a pipe. A red gel tints the peril’s first-person skittering through the Bebop. The claustrophobia tells us nothing good will come from anything that sees the world through this point of view. One by one, each of the characters fall victim to the peril. Jet is the first to go, and like Kane, he lasts the longest in the aftermath of contact with the peril.
One touch, a single moment of skin-on-skin with the black oozing menace is enough to bring about a comatose state. Spike speculates that the inevitable outcome of contact with the peril, which he assumes to be a space-mutated rat, and Ed assumes to be a straight-up alien, is inevitable death.
The peril gets Faye in the bath. It gets Ein in the hallways of the ship. Spike and Ed gear-up with thermal vision glasses and motion sensors, again calling back to Alien with just a bit of Predator thrown in for good measure. When Ed and Spike get separated, and the peril very nearly lands an attack on Spike, things escalate to the next level. Spike arms himself with a gun, flamethrower, gas grenades, and surplus military kit from Jet’s time with the ISSP.
Only after Spike roasts the peril with his flame unit does he remember how all of this might be his fault. He brought something aboard the Bebop – something he left in a long forgotten refrigerator: his lunch. Spike wanted to hide a lobster from everybody, so he stowed it in a fridge in the cargo hold. When he dares to crack open this fridge, he finds a biological horror the likes of which would make Cronenberg squirm. Naturally, he blasts the fridge out the airlock a la Alien.
This, however, is not the reduction of the story to farce. Oh no, in fact, I found myself oddly on board with the idea that space radiation, hyperspace, or years of neglect might mutate someone’s lobster into the refrigerator of horrors. I’ve had roommates. I know there are some containers in the fridge one simply doesn’t open; they get thrown in the bin, the bin gets emptied into the nearest dumpster, and said dumpster gets lit on fire just to be sure.
Spike being so afraid of the peril that he sets the Bebop to auto land on Mars makes sense to me. Spike forgetting to turn off the auto-pilot once he realizes his spoiled lunch is the source of this invasion also tracks. Where the story folds in on itself is in its elimination of the peril.
In short: Ed eats it while having a dream of bean rolls.
That’s the episode. This perfect precis of Alien is punctuated with all the nuance of a loud, wet fart. So let’s go back to the first question: why?
I went so far as to watch the “next time on Cowboy Bebop” post-credits sequence thinking it might shed some light on things. Therein, Ed proclaims that the show is over because the rest of the crew is dead. However, people should stay tuned to the next episode: Cowgirl Ed. That’s when the rest of the cast chimes in and demands to know what is going on. Jet tells the audience the actual name of the next episode…something on Saturn. It doesn’t matter because Ed eating the peril makes me feel like we’re only a beat away from Heath Ledger’s Joker showing up to ask, “Why so serious?”
I’m so serious because the episode created effective dramatic tension. It had each of the characters narrating their way through a life lesson before falling prey to the slithering peril. Consider these lessons and tell me you wouldn’t think they were building toward something.
Jet’s lesson is that people who try to get rich quick or live at the expense of others will all be visited by divine retribution. Jet invokes morality, and quite possibly calls back to a recurring motif with the Alien movies. Recall that the only reason humans are introduced to the xenomorph is because the company wants to make a quick buck. Then again, Jet’s also the first to get laid low by the lunch peril. Perhaps the real lesson is the gods’ understanding of right and wrong doesn’t matter. Or maybe it’s a dose of irony as Jet talks about living at the expense of others in terms of Faye hustling him at dice, but he, as a bounty hunter, thrives on human misery.
Faye’s lesson is to embrace the idea of survival of the fittest. She approaches life as a dog-eat-dog hustle, and that nothing good has ever come to her from trusting people. She’s the second person to fall to the peril, and the in doing so disproves her own thesis. Spike tends to her without hesitation. It’s quite likely she would have died without the implicit trust and care of her shipmates.
Ed’s lesson is simple: if you see a stranger, follow him. It’s the sort of simple joy that Ed brings to every situation. Ed reminds us that the path forward is one of discovery and understanding. Except Ed’s lesson matters about as much as anybody else’s on the Bebop. Moreover, Ed’s high-minded idealism gives way to somnolent snacking. Ed eats the stranger. That has to be a zero-sum on Ed’s worldview.
Spike’s lesson: never leave things in the fridge. Okay. Fair point. In life as in Cowboy Bebop nothing comes from putting things in the fridge and forgetting about them.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to be a lazy critic, the kind of jerk who takes things at face value, but honestly, I don’t know what else to do with the ending of this episode. The lessons, compelte with their own title cards, are meant to give a sense of weight to each individual narrative. Yet none of the lessons end up meaning anything. In a similar scope, the episode is another master class in building a story, but instead of delivering the final showdown between Spike as Ellen Ripley vs lunch slime as xenomorph, the writing calls in the comic relief. Cool. So nothing matters? Is that the thesis?
Let’s call that my lesson for you: sometimes there is no lesson. There’s a good kind of absurd, like an AI making art with space lasers, and then there’s this. Toys in the Attic engages in its own kind of fan adoration, masterfully so, but seems to not even understand why it is undertaking the work. Because the very strength in visual story telling it mobilizes, it also undermines with a cheap resolution that smacks of someone shouting about the episode running long and over budget.