The final two episodes of Cowboy Bebop are the series’ strongest outings. And if you haven’t seen them, I do not recommend reading any further.
Up to this point, the show was devoted to delivering slick style, mixing up genres, and polishing it all off with an eclectic soundtrack. In contrast, the finale is quite brutal, and very bleak.
The setup is dire. With the departure of Ed and Ein, and Faye separated from the crew, Spike and Jet find themselves at the aptly-named “Loser Bar” drowning their sorrows. Jet tries to make the best of the situation, espousing the merits of their original two-man team. Spike is silent. Meanwhile, Faye wanders, running across Julia being chased by some goons. At the Red Dragons headquarters, Vicious is looking to start a coup.
Much like Jupiter Jazz, The Real Folk Blues two-parter aggressively digs into the main cast’s weaknesses, exemplifying how they just want to be on their own, but at the same time cannot live without each other.
Except for Spike.
Spike is always on his own, even when he’s with everyone else. While the other characters try to let go of their baggage, and try (but fail) to act like normal adults with one another, whenever the series shines a light on Spike’s past, it’s clear he has no intention of leaving his past behind. Consequently, in these final episodes, he finds himself back with his old lover, and on track to kill the old friend that betrayed him.
Like any good ending, part of what makes the finale of Cowboy Bebop stand out is the meticulous nature to which it is crafted. The series’ key creative leads, chief writer Nobumoto Keiko and director Watanabe Shinichiro, make their best showings on the script and storyboards respectively–digging into Spike’s inner demons, and presenting the material in a no-nonsense manner. Both episodes have very few musical cues, opting to let the harsh events happening on screen play out as-is, with no fanfare. As “Loser Bar” gets shot up by the Red Dragons, Jet is gruesomely shot in the leg, with gunshots being the only background noise. The final episode is almost entirely in the rain, with the proceedings draped in dark shadows and gray colors. When Julia is shot, the only sound is that of the doves flying by as she falls to her death.
Bebop has a ton of great moments, and these episodes particularly have many. This time around, I could appreciate the mundane scenes more, be it Faye and Julia smoking by the car, Spike and Julia meeting in the graveyard, or Spike’s confrontation with Faye before taking off. While Bebop is known for its over-the-top spectacle, the show never fails to nail the subtle character moments. In The Real Folk Blues finale, it is in these moments that the cast is portrayed as living, breathing humans. One of my favorite remarks is Spike asking Julia about why she didn’t come to the graveyard when he escaped the Red Dragons three years back. Before she can answer, he sarcastically snarks that perhaps she called it off due to the rain. Without the show’s typical nods to the staff’s otaku setlist of movies and music, the quiet and sparse nature of these scenes let the characters’ personalities take center stage.
Spike’s return to the Bebop in the middle of the night always hits me hard. It shines a very deliberate spotlight on the two bounty-hunting partners just… chatting. Of course, with Spike chowing down on Jet’s lousy food. It comes in sharp contrast to the rest of the episode, and is a momentary return to normality. The way in which the two shoot the shit casually before Spike takes off to exact his revenge has a palatable melancholy that goes down smooth.
The shining moment of the scene is the Tiger Striped Cat story–a veiled attempt for Spike to wax poetic about his life. Spike ending the story by remarking “I hate cats,” followed by him and Jet laughing is the perfect touch. The “acting”–both the character animation and the voice acting–is outstanding. The realistic rendering of the two of them sharing a hearty laugh, followed by Jet painfully running his hand across his face when he hears that Julia is dead, is flawless. The manner in which the scene drops in the quiet and twangy track Forever Broke zings–especially in an episode with little musical cues–cementing how hollowed out Spike has become after the death of the woman he loved.
Spike’s final assault on the Red Dragons is a superbly assembled scene from the start to finish. A final battle backed by an insert song has every right to be extremely cheesy… but this is Bebop. The insert song is a retake of The Real Folk Blues with alternate lyrics, aptly titled See You Space Cowboy. It knocks down the drama of the kayo-kyoku-inspired Real Folk Blues, opting for a mellow bluesy backing, contrasting perfectly with the bloodshed unfolding on screen.
While Spike shooting up a whole office building of mob goons all by himself certainly isn’t “realistic,” all the carnage is rendered with amazing precision and fidelity, and comes together to create an extremely visceral final showdown. The manner in which mobsters’ bodies are riddled with holes, the in-your-face bloodspray, the vigor of the explosions, and the spread of debris–it only works in animation, but at the same time feels chillingly real. The icing on the cake is the stone-cold expression Spike keeps on his face, and the focus in his eyes while he is being shot from all sides by mafia soldiers, taking them down, one-by-one.
Spike’s ultimate meeting with Vicious marks the second time we see the two fight face-to-face in the series, and it’s short and sweet. The scene boasts great action animation, and you can feel the vigor in every move the two characters make.
Spike fires his Jericho 941, grazing Vicious’ face, his gun shaking against Vicious’ sword. The two of them then proceed to kick back each others’ weapons ahead of the final blow. These moments are frighteningly tactile, and I get goosebumps watching them each time.
Sound direction doesn’t slack either, with the echo of Spike’s final shot followed by Vicious falling lifelessly to the ground being timed perfectly.
Spike’s walk down the stairs never fails to make me tear up, but this time around, I could understand his emptiness. When I was younger, I thought pointing your fingers at a bunch of armed mafiosos and saying “Bang” before falling to the floor dead was badass as hell. And don’t get me wrong–that’s super badass. But with everything resolved for Spike, it’s clear he has nothing else to live for. Hence his snide final utterance. It guts me up even more now.
The final ending credits are, of course, beautiful. Again, the show runs the risk of being super corny by closing off on a song like Blue–problem is Blue is such a damn good song. As the staff credits fade in and out, we are treated to views of the Martian cityscape, the blue sky, and the stars of space.
One star fades.
There are worse ways to end a series.
To Be Continued