9
Jul
2018
0

Adios, Cowboy: Review 9 – Jamming With Edward

If one were to flashback to my review of episode 3 and 4, they would recall me feeling like I was not in on Cowboy Bebop’s joke. I could see enough intention in the writing to know there was something meta at hand, but I couldn’t figure out what it was beyond Spike and Jet being terrible at their jobs. By the time I got to episode 7, I realized the gods conspiring against Spike and Jet is the joke, and the show is probably layering a deeper story into variations on the theme. Like the “jazz” the series is eternally invoking, I’m beginning to think Bebop wants its audience to see the nuances amid repetition. With episode nine, I suspect the joke has reached its final form.

Jamming with Edward revels in both the absurdity of life and in the absurdity of Cowboy Bebop, itself. The eponymous Edward is a computer hacker from Earth. Edward possesses a seemingly limitless talent for hacking and a penchant for doing whatever the hell they please. Where Western hackers in the 90s were depicted as an extension of punk culture, and thus a generally joyless sort of radical, Radical Edward – as Ed is known by the Earth PD – is a portrait of enthusiasm and, unexpectedly, kindness.

Ed’s fixation on the Bebop crew tracks back to episode eight, where Roco latches on to Spike as a mentor. That said, Ed’s place in the opening credits serves as plot armour against being a one-and-done character. Roco’s fate, however, has me thinking that the series’ ultimate peril (assuming there is one) will likely involved Ed. In fact, I think this episode drops some masterful foreshadowing to that end in the context of Spike whinging about all the new people on the Bebop. After Ed is situated on the ship, Spike tells Jet there are only three things he hates in the universe: beasts, tomboys, and rugrats. My money is now on an end-of-series event that places Ein, Faye, and Ed in serious peril that would otherwise kill them were it not for some heroic sacrifice on Spike’s part.

In negotiating their way on board the Bebop, Ed offers to help run down the episode’s bounty: a mystery hacker who uses orbital laser platforms to carve geoglyphs into South America. Though the PDE and Bebop crew suspect Ed of being the hacker, the reality is that the rogue artist is a fifty-year-old military AI.

The explanation for how this could happen is not nearly so interesting as the fact that it exists in defiance of tired conventions about stories with AIs. Rather than being presented as an existential threat, this AI, cut off from communications with Earth for half a century (which must feel like an eternity in machine time) hits a point of existential ennui in their existence. It subverts the “machine is self-aware thus vengeful for its existence” gimmick and instead breaks ground into something new: the machine intelligence who makes art.

MPU, the AI so named by Ed, creates out of a desire to feel connected with people beyond its lonely orbit. It knows that humans use art to feel more connected, and so it uses the only tools at its disposal, orbital weapons platforms, to imitate its makers. Stop and ponder on the juxtaposition a sentient machine that employs the height of military weapons technology to create a decidedly primitive art form. I’ll risk an overstatement when I say the contrast is beautiful.

The episode also gives us a hot take on the enduring pontifications over the validity of machine life as actual life. Wrapped in the blanket of anime fan service, Big Shot, Cowboy Bebop’s show-within-a-show, dismantles the ₩8,000,000 bounty on MPU. Speaking on behalf of the PDE, Big Shot’s male host announces that bounties can only be collected on living things, and AIs do not meet that definition. In one breath, we witness the banality of bureaucracy rendering verdicts that have consequences far beyond the intended scope. However, the wisdom, if not the legitimacy, of the verdict is called into question when Big Shot’s woman co-host shrugs her shoulders, pushes her boobs together, and says that she’s confused by all the big words her co-host is using to define life.

Big Shot might house a lot of Bebop’s shameless fan service, but in this particular episode it is showing the literal wrong side of the argument. Like so many middle-aged men at a science fiction convention having a “debate” about the “ethics” of what they would do during their trip to Westworld, Big Shot is a measurably tedious and tired thing. Their ruling on MPU is a lesson in the inverse. Thus, anyone with an ounce of compassion can see that MPU is alive, which is why Ed wants to save it, literally, before helping the Bebop crew try to secure the bounty. The Capital-T Truth of the episode is found in kindness, compassion, and figuratively carving out a purpose while using space lasers to carve glyphs into a planet.

But what about the people living on the Earth, Adam. Don’t they deserve better than to live in fear of being lasered by an artist AI?

One of the ideas the episode works to dismantle is that of Earth being a terrible place. Jet twice states that nothing good comes out of Earth. This is because during the two generations where humanity came to call Mars, Venus, and Ganymede their homes, the sphere of lunar debris in decaying low-earth orbit (remember that big explosion from episode 6) has reduced the planet to a mausoleum. The people who remain on Earth live in underground shelters that mostly resemble trailer parks. Where Mars is shown as a place of wonder, both culturally and technologically, Earth is a realm of poverty. Given the scope of humanity’s diaspora across the solar system, MPU is doodling on a largely uninhabited planet. Let that put your mind at ease.

To that end, Jamming with Edward shows what happens when a story works to undermine the biases it writes into its characters. Bebop’s Earth makes divorcing the series’ science fiction from one of the most tedious debates in science fiction fandom an effortless affair. It further presents a gender-unknown character in 1998 as just another Tuesday in the year 2071. Contemporary TV is rarely so bold. Likewise, I struggle to imagine contemporary TV talking about an AI who makes art without including some sort of “killer robot” peril. In contrast to Jet’s grumbling, everything good in this episode comes from Earth. And like any good jam session, its focus is on making people smile.

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