I embarked on this review series under the impression that Cowboy Bebop is a master class in storytelling and science fiction. The world at large offers so much unreserved praise for Cowboy Bebop that I wanted to set aside my critical swagger learn from a master. After watching Gateway Shuffle, I can see Critic Adam standing in the wings, cracking his knuckles as he threatens to shove Student Adam into the orchestra pit.
For real, though, how am I supposed to feel when nothing the Bebop crew does in this episode amounts to anything. I get it, space is big and empty. People are small and unimportant. Does that premise really need a reducto ad absurdum proof?
I feel like Bebop tricked me into giving it a bit of latitude after Honky Tonk Woman. Even if this episode is in on its own joke, which I think it is, I don’t know what to make of it. I can see the writing dancing back and forth over the demarcation line between a work enraptured with its own sense of cleverness (let’s call that the Jimmy Fallon effect) and one that is genuinely working hard to be smart but chunking the landing.
The episode opens with Spike and Jet settling in for an expensive lunch on Juipter’s gateway station. How expensive? Spike, the man who was famously served “special” beef and bell peppers in episode one, orders a lobster. This indulgence is to be paid for by a soon-to-be-collected ₩8,000,000 bounty on a guy called Morgan, who is sitting two tables away from the lads. The guys, and the show, are literally dinning out on their laurels.
Things take a turn to the weird after Morgan gets shot in the face by an eco-terrorist called Twinkle Maria Murdoch.
Hi, kids. It’s me, Critic Adam. I know some of you might be looking at that last line and wondering, “what’s an eco-terrorist?” Well things were a little bit different back in the 90s. We had a war on drugs, but there wasn’t a war on terror. So from time to time, the more radical members of organizations like Greenpeace would take it upon themselves to commit acts of “terrorism” in the name of protecting the environment. This kind of terrorism was usually limited to property damage. After 9/11 happened, eco-terrorism dropped off the radar because the governments of the world discovered a thing called “extraordinary rendition.” That’s where you get sent to a black site in far off lands; wherein, it’s legal to attach jumper cables to a person’s genitals and literally shock the gender appropriate monkey. Anyway, now you know. Back to the review.
Despite capturing Murdoch, who is worth a whopping ₩25,000,000, Spike and Jet end up having absolutely zero influence on the main conflict of the story. Even when the Bebop rescues Faye from a dead orbit around Jupiter, it amounts to nothing in terms of story and conflict. Literally, nothing.
Spike, Jet, and Faye could have taken the Bebop to Saturn in search of the Titanian Orgasm Mermaids, a human sub-species I just now made up, and it would have been more meaningful than their actual contribution to the story. Instead, they decide to play heroes when Twinkle’s henchmen launch a missile attack that would devolve all life on Ganymede into ape-people. Ape-people? What in the damn hell is this, the plot to the Super Mario Brothers movie?
Hi again, kids. Back in the 90s Bob Hoskins, John Leguizamo, and Dennis Hopper were in a live-action adaptation of Super Mario Brothers, the video game. Luigi was the main love interest because, apparently, nobody could love Bob Hoskins in the 90s – hence his being in Super Mario Brothers. And however bad you think this movie might have been, you need to aim lower.
With the missiles containing the…Monkey Business Virus (oh come on) in flight, Spike and Faye take off in their fighters to try shoot them down in hyperspace. What national-level crisis can’t be improved by two terrible bounty hunters trying to solve the problem of their own accord? Meanwhile, on Ganymede, the local government makes the perfectly sane and sensible choice to close Jupiter’s hyperspace exit gateway, thus stranding the missiles in hyperspace.
Spike and Faye make it through the gate in dramatic fashion just before it closes on Twinkle, who was sprung from the Bebop once her people started lobbing WMDs. Without an active exit gate, Twinkle and her crew are consigned to spend eternity drifting through hyperspace. Also, Twinkle and her crew get turned into ape-people as the payoff to an extended physical gag that calls back to Spike Jet interrogating Twinkle and Faye. And on that note, I guess I have to talk about Faye.
I’m pretty sure this show isn’t poking fun at fan service so much as it is serving it up. Both of Faye’s visits to the Bebop have included light bondage. Her capture in this episode sees her in a slightly pared down version of her typical attire amid a pose one might call porn-ish. Moreover, where Faye is seen to be competent enough to escape from confinement and Martian gangsters only one episode ago, the audience is now meant to believe that she’s stupid enough to forget to check the gas tank on her space ship. I have played a lot of Wing Commander Privateer and Elite Dangerous in my life, and if there’s one thing I do, it is always refuel on landing my ship.
What, then, is the lesson on deconstructing genre and crafting good science fiction we should be taking from this episode? Fucked if I know. I want to believe that this bizarre exercise in alienating characters from their stories is an in-joke building to a hilarious punchline. Though where does one go after having the characters dining out on unpaid bounties, which is an apt encapsulation of how I feel about this episode.
Gateway Shuffle feels like a long walk for a twenty-two minute reminder that sometimes people are not the heroes of their own story. I don’t know who still needs to be reminded of that theme after seeing it on display in every episode of Bebop to date. One should think that a hyperspace chase to demonstrate the concept of shikata ga nai would be overkill. So maybe it’s a Cold War metaphor?
Hi, kids, did you miss me? The Cold War was a geopolitical conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union that lasted from about 1947 to 1991. During that time, mounting tensions between the east and west culminated in a military doctrine of nuclear retaliation that would have wiped out life on Earth. Remember comedy comes in threes.
Both the creators and the 1990’s target audience would have grown up under the shadow of the cold war. Part of that omnipresent peril was the idea that a government official with their finger on the button is the ultimate power broker. I don’t know if that crushing anxiety translates for a modern audience. Recent nuclear fears stem more from petulance and incompetence than brinksmanship. From our point of view, it’s tempting to look back at 1998 with a bit of nostalgia and muse on how much more stable things were compared to today.
My bottom line on this episode is to call it as Cowboy Bebop’s first lesson in what not to do. Flying through hyperspace might not be like dusting crops, but we should remember that there is a clear purpose and science to dusting crops. There’s no evidence of any such intention in this episode. Perhaps an audience from the 90s needed to be reminded that other people had power over their lives. People who entered adulthood with the 21st century and fun things like the Patriot Act, security certificates, or the endless imperium of customs and border agents, need no refresher on powerlessness.