‘Cowboy Bebop’ Ends by Adapting One of the Anime’s Most Iconic Episodes (RECAP)
If you’ve only ever seen one episode of the 1998 Cowboy Bebop, chances are good it was “The Ballad of Fallen Angels.” It ranks highly on most fans’ lists, and it also works as a standalone—devoted mostly to Spike’s backstory and history with Vicious, it’s an entry point for one of the show’s most intriguing characters and many of its themes. Plus, it features one of the show’s most visually entrancing sequences as Spike is thrown out a stained glass window and remembers his love, Julia, in brief, flickering flashbacks as he plummets toward the ground.
Netflix’s Bebop plunks “Supernova Symphony,” its version of “Angels,” at the very end of the season. There’s a version of this story where it could’ve worked as a closer, and care has clearly been taken to replicate the anime’s iconic imagery. But some of the narrative choices are absolutely baffling. They go against character motivations that were established only a few episodes prior, and some are unrecognizable by the end credits. Here’s how it happens…
Spike (John Cho) was rescued from Le Fou not by Jet (Mustafa Shakir) and Faye (Daniella Pineda), as it turns out, but by Gren and Ana. In the end, who saves him doesn’t much matter. Jet and Faye are able to track him to Ana’s club, and they all reunite—then Jet gets a call from his daughter, and things take a turn for the worse. Vicious has her, and he wants to trade her for Spike. Jet, having had no clue Spike was ex-Syndicate and having established a rule on the Bebop against lying, is livid. He wants to kill Spike himself, but he’ll settle for handing him over to Vicious; Faye, on the other hand, reminds him that Spike saved them both and that she “won’t carry the weight” of having his blood on her hands.
So, a new plan is established (off-screen). Jet goes to meet Vicious and pretends to hand over Spike, but in the end, they both fight him and his guards—and they lose. They’re taken prisoner and dragged to an old church. They’re tied up and Vicious taunts them, saying to Jet that he will kill Jet’s daughter, but first he’ll make Spike watch as he kills them both. Faye turns up in the nick of time, using her ship’s headlights to temporarily blind Vicious and then getting Jet and his kid on her ship. Spike, though, heads back into the church to confront his past.
That doesn’t go well, to say the least. He and Vicious come to blows, as was destined from the start of the season. There is a moment that replicates the anime almost exactly, where Spike holds a gun to Vicious’ heart as he holds his sword against Spike’s. But then things veer wildly off-course, as Julia (Elena Satine) appears and shoots Vicious, saving Spike. He’s overjoyed that his love has come back to him, and he says they can be together now and run away from the Syndicate. But Julia has other plans—she no longer wants to be free of the Syndicate, but rather, she wants to kill Vicious and lead the Syndicate with Spike.
I’m sorry. WHAT?!
Within the context of the original, this is a confounding storytelling move. Even within the confines of this show, this is a head-scratcher. Throughout Bebop’s episodes thus far, Julia has wanted to get away from the Syndicate; that was the whole reason she asked Mao to kill Vicious in the first place. She wanted freedom from her husband, specifically. She was never shown to be power hungry. And when she discovered that Spike was alive, she also deeply wanted to find him and admitted she was still in love with him. At no point is it obvious that her motivations have changed, or that she suddenly finds power more alluring than the man she has clearly pined over for years. Such a drastic character shift should’ve been shown, not told.
The show tries to make an argument that Julia’s upset with Spike for not trying to save her from her abusive marriage with Vicious—but then it contradicts itself by having the injured Vicious chime in to say that he lied to Spike, and that Spike had no idea that Julia hadn’t wanted their union. This move not only goes against everything Julia’s character has been shown to want, but it irrevocably mars her going forward, if Bebop gets a second season. By extension, it also unmoors Spike, as his goal was always to reunite with Julia and rekindle their love—his quest to re-live his past is a huge part of who he is, and it is only resolved in the anime’s final episode. Making Julia a power-hungry crime leader changes them both so dramatically that it’s hard to envision what they would look like in a hypothetical second season.
Anyway, Julia monologues for a bit about how betrayed she felt by Spike, and she then shoots him and pushes him out the stained glass window in a homage to “The Ballad of Fallen Angels.” (The cinematography is okay here, but this sequence just doesn’t translate to live-action in a way that makes one’s breath catch how the animated version does.) Spike lives, because of course he does; but when he makes his way back to Jet, Jet wants absolutely nothing to do with him and says that if he sees him again, he’ll kill him. This is also a huge heel-turn for Jet, as a character. He got angry with Spike in the source material, sure, but never to the point of threatening to kill him and meaning every word. And why would he still be so loyal to the law and the ISSP, given how they treated him? This drama feels manufactured.
In the final minutes, the only one who seems true to their source material self is Faye, who leaves in search of more answers about who she once was after discovering a street sign in the background of her past self’s video. Julia makes one last nonsensical move and chooses to keep Vicious alive, nearly shooting him the way he almost shot her at the beginning of the show. As satisfying as it is to see Vicious so helpless, it’s just plain wrong—Julia knows Vicious would kill her if he could, so why doesn’t she do him in? All it would take is one person loyal to him to let him go, and she would be a goner.
The final moments of the episode introduce one last integral character: Ed. As a dejected and purposeless Spike stumbles drunkenly down an alley, he collapses. When he opens his eyes, a green-goggled, orange-haired kid is there, with Ein, no less. She jumps up and down excitedly and tells him they need to go after their next bounty, and that’s where things end to conclude Season 1.
Ultimately, I am not confident Bebop will get a second season. This is not to say that nothing worked well—there were glimmers of hope, and no one can claim it didn’t try to honor the source material. Pierrot Le Fou’s episode was very good, and the main cast was mostly solid with Cho as a standout (I had trouble buying Alex Hassell as Vicious, since he never felt truly imposing or menacing to me. He was great on The Boys, though). The music was excellent, which made sense since Yoko Kanno was on board. But the show struggled to find its footing for too many episodes, moseying along with a clunky script that was faithful to the original in all the wrong ways.
Even in the moments when Bebop showed promise, it was plagued by plot holes and myriad inconsistencies. A good adaptation can leave a few bones of its source material behind while still maintaining the themes at its heart, but Bebop oft seemed like it was so concerned with making a recognizable skeleton of what came before that it forgot to give it life. See you, Space Cowboy.
Cowboy Bebop, all episodes now streaming, Netflix