The Real Folk Blues is the ending that Cowboy Bebop needs, but it’s not the one the audience deserves.
Yes, this is where I’m going; this is the hill I die on. Stop clutching at your pearls. If Cowboy Bebop isn’t going to grow beyond its initial offerings in its final forty-five minutes, then there is no reason I should lay off the heretical reviews. Bearing that in mind, let us come right to the point: The Real Folk Blues is the end of Vicious’ story. Spike and the crew are along for the ride. In fact, there are grounds to think that Spike has never been anything more than the point of view character to Vicious’ story.
And why not adopt this point of view? The very first thing Cowboy Bebop did was to strip agency from Spike and Jet. We’ve repeatedly seen the Bebop crew injected into other people’s stories. If they are the eponymous real folk, then they are singing the blues as the embodiment of the idea that not all people in the world get interesting lives. Post-modern alienation says that some people, most people despite their effort to convince themselves otherwise with blogs and long form reviews of 90s cartoons, are little more than bit players in a life that is devoid of intention or purpose. The cast are the manifestation of Bebop reflecting the nihilism that would have emerged out of lost generation Japan in the 90s. Where the salarymen struggled to enter the executive-class and exert the faintest control over their lives, Spike and Jet symbolize the people who dared to live outside this established order. For their hubris, they are pushed to the margins of society. Capitalism: it’s like Shadowrun, but without all the grime.
Enter, Vicious. Spike and Jet might be mourning the loss of Faye, Ed, and Ein – albeit through stoic denial of any feelings – at the start of The Real Folk Blues, but the story begins with Vicious’ failed coup against the troglodic goblin triumvirate of the Golden Dragon Syndicate. Once more, the recurring themes of fate, augury, and supernatural folk rituals (see what I did there?) are to blame for Vicious’ failed revolution. The goblins reveal that a fortune teller warned them of Vicious’ treachery – even if it was obvious to the audience that Vicious has been playing his own game. This brings us to the key difference between Spike and Vicious and why this episode, perhaps the entire series, belongs to Vicious. Vicious struggles against his fate while Spike shrugs his shoulders and lights another cigarette.
Granted, some people might be inclined to argue that the difference between Spike and Vicious is a simple good/bad dichotomy. Spike is the good brother and Vicious is the bad brother. Cowboy Bebop, for all its musical allusions, can be framed as a retelling of Cain and Able. I suppose that would make Julia an Eve-like figure, which might bother some people since Julia seems to have had a thing with both Spike and Vicious. However, it’s not my fault that when you think it through Christian creation myths are prone to incestuous conclusions.
The catch to the good brother-bad brother interpretation is that time stands still on the Bebop. If Faye’s and Ed’s arcs, such as they are, taught us anything it is that there’s no place for growth or change on the Bebop. Since the show sets up each episode as a session, rather than a chapter, there’s no way of measuring how long Spike has been trying to be something other than a Syndicate hitman. There’s no culmination of good deeds in Spike’s redemption. Moreover, all of the flashbacks to Spike’s past, including the revelations of Spike and Julia’s romance seen in The Real Folk Blues, demonstrate that Spike only left a life of murder and larceny because of his love for Julia. That’s nice, but it doesn’t allow for a meaningful discourse on good or bad. To borrow a phrase from Rick and Morty, Spike lets his wiener do the walking. The fact that Spike saw fit to try to kill Andy over a fit of pique in Cowboy Funk, tells me that he is still a bit of a murdering bastard.
Thus, if we set aside arguments about good versus bad as applied to Spike and Vicious, I propose to treat the scope of each character’s narrative arc as the thing that sets these two characters apart from each other. The Real Folk Blues defines that scope as the third act of Vicious’ arc; it is the finale of Vicious’ attempt to be something other than “the real folk” by overthrowing the Syndicate. The only way to find any lesson in this episode is to look at it through that lens. Taking the approach of the episode belonging to Spike, and thus buying into the Bebop manifesto, is, ultimately, boring and predicated on the episode cheating its way into having a purpose.
Consider that Julia isn’t really a character in this show. Julia is a prop, or at best a concept. When the writing needs to find a way to move Spike from point A to point B, it name checks Julia. We only see her as a memory, a fever dream, or the manifestation of Spike’s latent desire to have someone take care of him. He even projects his fixation with Julia on to Faye, who, thank the gods, is not having any of it. Faye might be terrible, but even she deserves better than to get caught up in Spike’s emotionally stunted Nightingale complex.
There is devious intention to having Julia meet Faye at the start of this episode. It is an attempt to integrate the personification of Spike’s psychoses into the familiar characters and emotions of the Bebop gang. The writing is trying to gloss over the fact that Julia is narrative packing paper through treating her as one of the gang. The ease of her integration into the gunplay and nonsense of Cowboy Bebop is a kind of loan against the audience’s existing relationships with the characters. There’s no actual substance to Julia, only the feeling of something stronger that isn’t actually developed. In other words, it’s a cheat.
By the time Julia shows up for her reunion with Spike, the writing has primed the audience to accept the emotional depth between these two characters without ever doing the work of building a meaningful relationship. On paper, we are expected to be totally enamored of this tangled relationship. The audience should burn with Spike’s desire for revenge when Julia is killed with all the consideration that one would put into tossing a broken prop into the dustbin.
Am I the only one who sees this as a cheap con job? At best, it is a play for maximum pathos because that’s all this show is capable of doing. On average, it is boring.
Either through intention or design the Bebop manifesto is built on an arc for anybody but the would-be protagonists. Rather than admitting the supposed bad guy is more interesting than the hero, Bebop spent its time admiring itself for alienating the heroes from any control over their lives. It dedicated episode after episode to showing the audience that sometimes we are not the hero of our own story. It has shouted that people are just players in a game beyond our understanding. Fine, as you like it, Bebop. But there’s no walking back that message at the 11th hour just because things are coming to an end. In committing to alienating the headline characters from their stories, the writing made the person who is asserting control over his life the most interesting of the lot.
Cowboy Bebop ends with the bang of mutual annihilation between Vicious and Spike. It’s a good ending to Vicious’ story. He struggled to rise above the drudgery of being real folk, and in the end was laid low by Spike, as the avatar of real folk. As for Spike, he claims that he went to fight Vicious because he wanted to see if he was ever really alive. I would submit that this is a fair question. For all of the mystery box references to Spike’s past, I don’t think he really had a story.
Is it a good ending to the series? Meh. It’s a fitting ending. It is deterministic and cynical, which is exactly what I would expect from a show whose definition of coolness is firmly rooted in apathy and freshman philosophy. Is it the brilliant, tragic, and heart-rending affair that people have been banging on about for literally my entire adult life? Hell no. But it’s probably the best ending Bebop could have managed after 24 episodes of having its cast faff about and only ever flirt with a purpose beyond saying there is no purpose to life.
Up next: an epilogue/review on this series.