A foreword: I apologize in advance if you came here today expecting a deep, dream-within-a-dream, reading of Cowboy Bebop. Apropos of this episode, such an effort would require extensive pretension toward knowing things about jazz. I have neither the time nor the desire to become an insufferable white guy who thinks he knows things about jazz – looking at you, Ryan Gosling. I now return you to your regularly scheduled review.
The third episode of Cowboy Bebop has given me serious pause to reflect on my love affair with Dan Harmon’s Community. Community’s writing is grounded in rapid-fire pop culture references and in-jokes. Community is at once a show with a clever surface-level plot, and an ocean of referential subtext accessible only to those who know what happened at Tanagra. I have always felt rather pleased with myself, perhaps even a bit smug, for being able to pick up most of what Community is putting down. Honkey Tonk Woman has given me an object lesson on what it felt like to be left out of the loop on Harmon’s comedy. Because in doing some additional reading on this episode, I’ve found it filled with musical references I missed even after two screenings. Full disclosure, I don’t know jack about music. Don’t look at me that way. You listened to music in high school; I played BattleTech.
I expect some of the references I missed in this episode are painfully obvious to the rest of the world:
- Honky Tonk Woman is both the episode’s title and a Rolling Stones song.
- Charlie Parker – mentioned by Jet in an elevator – was an American Jazz musician. I suspect that his music backdrops Spike’s fight with a Martian casino’s hired goons.
- Spiders from Mars, the name of the Casino where the majority of the episode is set, was David Bowie’s back-up band in the 70s.
Even though I know nothing about jazz, I thought I might be able to score a few smartness points with a reading on the invocation of the Rolling Stones amid a modified casino heist. Doing so reminded me why I had no appetite to be an English major in school. The kind of bullshit required to weave Keith Richards’ booze and drug infused lyrics into a tapestry of artistic intention isn’t beyond my capacity, but it is far-fucking-afield from the upper-most limit of my patience. Look at this verse from Honky Tonk Woman, and tell me it puts you in a mind for a critical discourse.
I laid a divorcée in New York City,
I had to put up some kind of a fight,
The lady then she covered me with roses,
She blew my nose and then she blew my mind.
Bravo, maestro, truly this is the work of the 20th century’s foremost lyricist.
Fortunately, this episode goes beyond Harmonesque musical in-knowledge and begins to iterate on established Bebop shtick. It’s not a large change, more of a gentle shift that acknowledges the show’s characters have a backstory. This recognition is enough to augur the importance of their respective pasts to future stories, and in doing so teases a bigger story arc.
The episode’s eponymous Honky Tonk Woman is called Faye Valentine. As is the established tradition with this show, Faye is moving one way through Mars’ orbiting casino complex while Spike and Jet are moving in another direction. She presents as a career gambler with a penchant for cheating. The menacing owner of the Spiders from Mars casino indicates that Faye has racked up both a considerable debt and a criminal record. With the anime version of Andy Garcia in Ocean’s 11 pulling Faye’s strings, she comes into contact with Spike and the Bebop crew. Therein, a case of mistaken identity (once again denying Spike anything that resembles agency) takes Faye from prisoner, to would-be bounty, to the counter-archetypical princess – one who saves herself and helps herself to ₩30,000,000 from Martian Terry Benedict.
Cool. Except there is a lot of conventional male gaze bound up in Faye’s character. For a time, I thought the woman co-host of Big Shot, Cowboy Bebop’s show-within-a-show, was an attempt to wink at anime’s tendency to dress women up as objects of oogling. After seeing intentional camera pans and flash cuts across Faye’s ass, crotch, and cleavage, I’m rethinking my original thesis. It’s not the worst fan service I’ve seen in my life, but the camera is far from paying the same sort of attention to the contour of Spike’s abs.
On a positive note, Faye comes into the series outside the confines of a sidekick or subordinate role. She very clearly has her own narrative, and it only intersects with Spike and Jet because they, once again, stumble ass-first into someone else’s story.
Then again, Faye’s escape from Mars with a ₩6,000,000 bounty on her head and ₩30,000,000 in stolen cash, ends up adding more complexity to Spike and Jet’s story than her own. Faye’s con introduces Jet’s history as former Inter Solar System Police officer. Likewise, it shows that Spike is playing toward a bigger game. Despite his poverty, money seems a secondary concern to Spike. He could have easily given chase to Faye as she blasted away from the Bebop. Even if he talked her into/extorted an even split of the stolen casino money, he would have raked in twice the posted bounty on Abdul Hakim. That Spike chooses to let Faye go with a nod of respect is a pretty obvious signal that he has motivations beyond mere avarice.
On a side note for those keeping core at home, Spike has now blown ₩16,500,000 in bounties over the course of three episodes. To quote Monty Python, “It’s not much of a cheese shop.”
Honky Tonk Woman teases that Cowboy Bebop isn’t a one trick pony. To that end, I’m more inclined to offer the show a bit of latitude. I want to see what Bebop will become if it keeps iterating. It’s also worth thinking about where a viewer’s goodwill might start to run dry on the arc of that change. Recalling my bottom line on Stray Dog Strut’s review, I don’t think it’s enough to be different for the sake of being different. A story needs to be doing something beyond merely standing out from the crowd.
Consider that a streaker running through the streets will stand out from the crowd. But in such a situation, there’s nothing intrinsically interesting or thoughtful about the naked man padding down the road. Being naked might not negate his potential for being interesting, mind you, but on the face of it, his actions are far from clever. One can also be certain that the odds are against anybody wanting to take the time to see beneath the surface of the dude running about absent trousers. At some point Bebop has to put its pants back on and figure out what it is going to do with its refusal to be mainstream.