Author’s note – Would you like to know two words that I don’t type out all that often, so naturally I’m not 100% sure how to spell them: bohemian and rhapsody. In so much as I think this is one of the best offerings Cowboy Bebop has put on the table to date, it’s also the one whose title has given me the most cause for backspacing and swearing. Enjoy.
Those who read this series on a regular basis will recall that Jupiter Jazz, as an emotional coda to the series’ first half, left something of a sour taste in my mouth. One might even say I found the entire two-part arc to be so much faffing about. It revels in obvious misdirection and ersatz-high stakes, but culminates in yet another zero-sum episode. The flashes of genius it shows are unceremoniously shrouded in writing that insists on breaking the rules, even to the detriment of its own strengths. Bearing all this in mind, I approached Bohemian Rhapsody with diminished expectations. I held on to the hope that the second half of the series might see the writing find a happy medium between being cool and being effective. Never did I dare to dream it would turn on a dime toward story telling that is much more conventional, but also much more mature than what has previously been on display.
The tonal shift from episode 13 to 14 is so sharp, so unexpected but meticulous, that part of me wants to lean into the idea that there is a meta-story to Bebop. Something about how the struggle toward a self-identity goes hand in hand with forging a purpose in a chaotic world. There are two reasons I am going to hold off on that point. First, this series has burnt me too many to deserve the effort. For all I know episode fifteen will be a musical about farts, and I’ll be right back to scratching my head and wondering why the hell everybody loves this show. Second, Bohemian Rhapsody, itself, stands as a lesson against indulging in flights of conspiratorial fancy.
Bohemian Rhapsody transform the hallmark opposite plots that alienate the cast from the story into something much more familiar to the contemporary audience. There is an A-plot to this episode and a B-plot. Both plots are happening at the same time, and each is related to the other. Most important of all, Spike, Jet, and Faye are taking actions in the A-plot that have measurable consequences, which, in turn, allow them to move through the story’s conflict as active agents.
Instead of jazzing over the daily grind of being a bounty hunter, which was fine for an episode or two, Rhapsody dives headlong into leg work. To borrow a phrase from author Kelly Robson, Bohemian Rhapsody is what happens when writers don’t let their stories take the monkey bypass. This course pays multiple dividends, and on behalf of people who came to Bebop outside the confines of a nostalgic adolescence, it is about damn time that we start seeing some payoff for our sticking with things. Cowboy Bebop has never felt like a bad show, but it has regularly felt like it can’t quite realize its potential. Now things are starting to crystalize.
Let’s take a jog through the highlights. Spike, Jet, and Faye start the episode by arresting some goons. The professionalism on display in these arrests shows a competence that has been in short supply for these characters since day one. However, the old Cowboy Bebop trope of mistaken identity leads us to the bigger game within this episode. The arrested nitwits are little more than pawns executing the whim of a master hacker who uses them to infiltrate the hyperspace gate network and steal billions of Woolongs. There is a lot to unpack with this crime. It’s also the kind of caper that adds buckets of context into this world with only a scant bit of exposition.
The hyperspace gates, the technology that make inter-planetary civilization possible, are owned and operated by a single entity: the Gate Corporation. The hack absolutely tickles my subversive soul as it exposes an inherent weakness in the private management of a public utility. What happens is that the secure network between the gate network’s tollbooths and a passing ship (recall episode 1) is turned into a syphon that drains the cash card/bank account attached to a ship passing through.
The only connections between the goons and the mastermind behind the hack are identical chess pieces. Spike, Jet, and Faye are all convinced that the chess pieces assigned to each goon are part of a much larger conspiracy. The revelation that one of the architects of the gate network, built fifty years before the episode takes place, was a chess prodigy known as Chessmaster Hex leads the crew to think that they are wrapped up in a decades old mystery.
The legwork that goes into building this rationale is incredibly satisfying. It feels like this is the first time I’ve really seen the Bebop crew do something as opposed to reacting to external events. Ed, meanwhile, uses one of the chess pieces to start a game of digital chess – this is the B-plot – the piece being a physical avatar that links to an online chess portal. The game is quite literally afoot on multiple fronts.
Where this episode shows real growth from something like Gateway Shuffle is in how the story is resolved. Consider the episode’s title. Even a musical dumb-dumb like yours truly can recognize a reference to Wayne’s World when he sees one.
Okay, settle down. That was a joke. Can you imagine if I tried to connect Cowboy Bebop to Wayne’s World? The Bebop as analogous to the mirthmobile. The juxtaposition of Wayne and Garth hanging out with a bunch of weirdos in search of a new dream as something that runs parallel to Spike and Jet gathering bounty hunters gathering on the Bebop. You know, this tracks better than I thought it would when I started writing this bit.
If there’s a single lyric to Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody that resonates with Cowboy Bebop it’s, “…nothing really matters.” The subtext of the entire first arc of episodes was that nothing the Bebop crew did really had any impact on the story or the world around them. That existential angst gels with the revelation that the master hacker is now 98 years old and quite senile save for his ability to play chess over the internet. When Spike and Faye run him down, they don’t find a criminal mastermind but an old man who long since forgot about his master plan for revenge. Hex has become one derelict among many, living out a quiet life on an unregistered drift colony built of space garbage.
Nothing really matters then becomes the motif of this episode, right? Wrong. Because even though the Bebop crew can’t trace the money the old man stole, and claim the ₩12,000,000 bounty, they can extort the hell out of Gate Corporation having discovered the gaping security flaw in the hyperspace network. How does Jet handle this? Does he ask for countless millions and a retirement home on Europa? No. He tells the Gate Corporation to leave the old man alone, so Ed can still have a chess partner.
Jet chooses a meaning beyond wealth. In a universe so patently chaotic that a man can grow old and be stricken by dementia as he waits for his revenge to materialize, Jet carves out meaning in Ed forging a connection with Chessmaster Hex. It is poignant, perhaps to a dagger point, as there’s good reason to believe Hex dies after defeating Ed in a match that had gone on for a week.
When faced with the assertion that nothing matters, Jet invents a meaning. We can also see Jet making a decision that echoes his lesson from Toys in the Attic. He doesn’t extort the Gate Corporation and, in turn, live off the expense of others. He simply does something nice for a shipmate.
I really hope this is a turning point for the show and not just a well-crafted one-off. I fear I’m setting myself up for disappointment by connecting this to the rest of the series, but if the theme of the episode is to reject nihilism and “getting yours” then maybe Cowboy Bebop wants me to start seeing a bigger picture.