I’m starting to suspect that Cowboy Bebop is the kind of show that only shines on multiple viewings. Both episode six and seven, on first glance, are entirely mundane affairs. Heavy Metal Queen leans into familiar patterns of mistaken identity, blown bounties, and an A and B plot that move in different direction before meeting in the middle.
The A plot has Spike and Faye on the hunt of a fellow bounty hunter called Decker, who is worth ₩12,000,000 for…oh who the hell cares at this point? It doesn’t take an oracle to see that this team of rag-tag bounty hunters is not going to get their man. Alternatively, if they do get their man, he is going to be killed by circumstances beyond Spike, Jet, or Faye’s control.
There are only two reasons why Decker is worth mentioning. To understand reason one, recall that Sympathy for the Devil and its dream sequence of aggressive medical intervention has me suspecting that Spike might be some sort of artificial person. Now pair that knowledge with Spike hunting a bounty hunter called Decker, which sounds a lot like Deckard when said aloud. I know, it’s a stretch, and I’m probably wrong, but it’s what I would do if I were trying to layer my secrets in plain sight.
The other reason that Decker is (barely) important is that he catalyzes Spike meeting a space trucker called VT, the eponymous Heavy Metal Queen. It is through VT we can see, though I only saw it on a second screening, that Keiko Nobumoto and Shinichirō Watanabe are almost certainly in on their own joke.
I have observed, pretty much from the outset, that Spike and the Bebop crew might not be the best of bounty hunters. One might even go so far as to say they are remarkably bad at their jobs. VT punctuates this observation by spelling out the reality of bounty hunting in the Cowboy Bebop universe; therein, all bounty hunting is gambling by another name. It is the first time in seven episodes that the series isn’t being intentionally evasive under the veneer of coolness. Granted, we are still wading about amid first principles of establishing characters and conflicts, but at least in this moment I don’t feel like I’m about to have the rug yanked out from under me.
Much of what this episode does through its background characters – some of whom are shitty shitty stereotypes of Mexicans/Latin Americans as poncho clad banditos – is to deconstruct the romance and “freedom” of the bounty hunting life. Even without the revelation that VT was married to a bounty hunter, the practical depiction of her space trucking life makes it seem more rewarding than bounty hunting. She makes buckets of cash hauling cargo from the asteroid belt to the inner planets. She also gets to bring her cat to work with her. I don’t want to indulge in too much working-class fetishism, but hauling crap through space while talking to a cat summarizes about two hundred hours of my life playing Elite Dangerous. For what it’s worth, I always made more money hauling cargo in that game than I did trying to run down criminals. Sure, bounty hunting was exciting when I was blasting lasers and missiles at the bad guys, but it there was a lot more of floating through space waiting for criminals to pop out of hyperspace. So what the show is doing with VT tracks with my lived (video game) experience.
When Spike quite accurately points out that Faye’s intelligence on Deckard – a short bald guy driving a space truck – is effectively useless, it is VT who becomes the deus ex machina of the episode. She leverages trucker chatter (read: actionable intelligence from reliable sources in real time) to provide Spike with a real lead Decker. Of course, it should come as no surprise that Decker dies before they can claim the bounty. By this point that outcome should be entirely expected.
What stands out is the layering of details that serve to frame VT as the point-of-view character for the episode. The story opens and closes on her. Set dressing characters talk about her late-husband as a bounty hunting folk hero. The only agency in the episode rests in her hands, and she is the most vocal critic of the bounty hunting lifestyle. In her scathing critique, an audience can see that the creative powers behind Bebop are firing a flare into the night. They are having someone outside the core group, someone capable and trustworthy, demonstrate the absurdity in the show’s primary conceit. Perhaps I wasn’t the only person to tell Nobumoto and Watanabe that they weren’t sure what the show wanted from them.
On that note, it is worth reinforcing the idea that this episode, and a few others to date, only shines on multiple viewings. Unless a person is paying very close attention to Heavy Metal Queen, the episode will probably feel as pointless as Gateway Shuffle. It only comes together on a second viewing, once a person has time to appreciate the attention to detail that goes into showing VT as the only character with any agency and any sense of history within the story. That effort is, arguably, the more important writing lesson to be found in this episode: never be afraid to layer in the detail.
What’s missing is an understanding of why this is happening. VT gives the audience the freedom to see the show as something intent on deconstruction, but she doesn’t answer why the show wants to take itself apart. Why go to the effort of making a core group of characters only to constantly undermine them without ever seeing them grow from the experiences? Why give us a narrative and thematic framework for ensuring that every other episode can be taken apart within the context of the setting and story? I still don’t see the long game. On a positive note, Heavy Metal Queen tells the audience they are right to question what they’ve seen to date. Jet and Spike might be the hero of their own story, but VT lets the audience see that their lifestyle is one of the worst in the solar system and their privation is a mess of their own making.