Hard Luck Man: Cowboy Bebop 24 “Hard Luck Woman”

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[Cowboy Bebop 23 “Brain Scratch”]

In  some ways, I think this episode is the finale and “The Real Folk Blues” two-parter is but a denouement. At the very least, the idea of “Cowboys on the Bebop” ends here. This is the last bounty they hunt, and fail at turning into money. After this they are no longer Cowboys on Jet’s ship, just flotsam in the post-Earth solar system.

I’m not going to talk about Faye anymore in this post. She’ll come up again more interestingly in “The Real Folk Blues” especially in the context of Julia (and Spike) but everything else I’ve endeavored to speak into in the very first piece of anime blogging I ever did in this life, almost four years ago Hard Luck Woman.

Instead I’ll write about Spike, who, interestingly enough has been a rare subject for me to cover. I don’t really believe I’ve said anything substantial about him, and I endeavor to change this here. I think I figured things out after finally watching the film that was referenced in this episode, 1967’s Cool Hand Luke.

I found it incredibly interesting how Luke, brilliantly played by the late Paul Newman, is considered one of the greatest heroes in American cinema. Really? Luke was an aimless, but self-possessed decorated WW2 veteran who got himself a 2 year term in a Florida chain gang (some kind of penal colony). He was this everyman that was ground under the heel of the penitentiary, but is otherwise ignoble; had no aspirations nor hopes in life, and is even disdainful of the people who surround him no matter how amiable.

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This got me thinking about Spike himself, and if there was anything between this film and Cowboy Bebop beyond the baskets of eggs Spike and Jet ingested during Ed’s farewell montage. Luckily for me, some people already put these thoughts into words:

Let me put it this way. He’s not a terrible person, necessarily. He’s just afflicted by the kind of bitterness you can only really experience when you’re young, bitterness born of the conviction that things can never again be as good as they were Back When (compare/contrast Jet’s bitterness, the self-deprecating bitterness of an old man). Unfortunately this is a self-fulfilling prophecy; you certainly won’t find things that make you happy if you don’t look for them. And Spike’s is an egregious case. He fails to see potential sources of happiness in the present, and when he charges headlong at his past, he demonstrates a blindness or ambivalence toward all the bad things he left behind, things he’d really be better off without.

Pontifus, (Cowboy Bebop 20-26) A portrait of the Spiegel as a young Spiegel

Pontifus arrives at this conclusion most notably after considering Spike’s actions in the face of Vincent Volaju’s attempted mass murder. I’m not wholly behind his take on Spike’s apparent lack of caring – Spike after all assisted Elektra in getting the vaccine. After that he let others take care of things as he had a date with Vincent. A hero’s hero will take point on saving the populace, but either Spike’s trust in everyone else is to be acknowledged, or he just felt he no longer had any responsibility after doing his part.

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It’s also interesting how Pierrot Le Fou was the last “villain” he bested, the way he beat the likes of Asimov Sorensen. He didn’t beat Andy. He didn’t beat Vincent. He certainly didn’t beat Ed’s dad. Spike was in a slump! Only Vicious remained. We now have a hero who not only wasn’t wholly on the side of the angels, but also wasn’t much of a winner. Spike is indeed very interesting, given how his appeal is something closer to that of a hero’s hero despite being close to a complete opposite without being malicious.

There had been anti-heroes in the movies before, but they were really heroes in disguise. The audience identified with them even though they were on the wrong side of the law, were unwashed, had rotten luck, were physically repugnant or were just plain bad guys[…]

[Paul Newman’s] been in movies where he is a fairly ordinary guy in a fairly ordinary situation. He’s more or less like the people he hangs around with, except he won’t be pushed. He knows his own mind.

The bad guys in his movies don’t like that, and so they try to break him. And he fights back, no matter how much it hurts. If the characters he has played stopped there, they would be more or less conventional heroes. But they don’t. Although they exhibit heroic stubbornness and integrity, they’re not very likable.

For on thing, they’re loners. For another, they don’t seem to have basic human feelings. They do rotten things and don’t fell bad. They’re cold and aloof, and their enemies are usually fairly average people, with a sense of humor. People just like us[…]

He smiled at the idiots who were crossing him. He didn’t care what people thought. And a subtle change took place: The hero stopped wanting to be a hero[…]

Newman brings this character to the end of its logical development, playing a hero who becomes an anti-hero because he despises the slobs who worship him. Luke is on a Southern chain gang. He’s the only prisoner with guts enough to talk back to the bosses and the only one with nerve enough to escape.

He begins the movie as a likable enough guy, always smiling, always ready for a little fun. He eats 50 hard-boiled eggs on a bet and collects all the money in the camp. That Luke, he’s a cool hand[…]

A desperate, discouraged man who despises his admirers and will no longer pay the price necessary to entertain them.

The movie hero used to be an inspiration, but recently he has become a substitute. We no longer want to be heroes ourselves, but we want to know that heroes are on the job in case we ever need one. This has resulted in an interesting flip-flop of stereotypes.

Used to be the anti-hero was a bad guy we secretly liked[…] [And now] we get a good guy who becomes a bad guy because he doesn’t like us.

Roger Ebert, December 3, 1967

I think it’s fair to view Spike under this lens. Spike doesn’t do things for you and me. Remember how in Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door he apologized to the hostage that he isn’t a cop who would be threatened by the gun pointed at a non-combatant’s head. It was a clumsy set-up of characterization that they were (amoral) bounty-hunters, and it wasn’t wholly authentic. But there’s still meaning in it. Spike doesn’t really care. When he does, people die (“Waltz for Venus”).

This is Spike: a guy who hates annoying women, kids, and small animals. However, he’s a softie. This makes him endearing, it makes him “human” (read: “a good person” for the moralists); it makes him moé. You ask him to be his friend and he’ll give you a cold shoulder, but when he sees you down on your luck he’ll be the first to offer you a cigarette. UGUU~

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It’s enough to make us care, it’s enough for us to feel good when Ed left him the pinwheel – not Jet, who really deserves more affection from anyone in this ship of fools. This totally makes sense to us, because we like Spike to some degree. We may respect Jet, but it’s Spike whose story we want to follow, the guy who’s kept us entertained.

And when we start hearing “The Real Folk Blues,” it’s his pain we feel, and all our well wishes we send uselessly to him as he heads to his doom.

About ghostlightning

I entered the anime blogging sphere as a lurker around Spring 2008. We Remember Love is my first anime blog. Click here if this is your first time to visit WRL.
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9 Responses to Hard Luck Man: Cowboy Bebop 24 “Hard Luck Woman”

  1. Cratex says:

    While Spike is certainly the center of the story, I never actually liked him all that much. Intelligent, talented, resourceful, screw-up. I always suspected he was the reason the Bebop was so short on cash. It didn’t occur to me until the end that he was just killing time until his past caught up with him, but then it became immediately obvious to me that it was not only what he was waiting for, but he wanted it to happen – he just wasn’t motivated enough to make it happen any sooner. I couldn’t feel any sympathy for him.

    • This is good stuff.

      Spike is indeed that parasitic entity, that stray animal you let in your home. It will not give you any loyalty, as you try to convince yourself it creates its own value one way or another. In the end it will do what it will, and if you consider whatever you gave it as “an investment” you’re fooling yourself. The question is, how does Jet really feel about this? I’m sure he’s not okay with the financial drain Spike perpetually presented, but if he can stomach and care for someone like Faye who’s even a bigger cost sink… I don’t think he minded Spike either.

      All of these characters are sympathetic not because they’re good-natured beneath their mercenary and uncouth ways. They are sympathetic DESPITE their obvious failures of character. They’re sympathetic because you can tell how human they are — their inauthenticity in acting strong, like they don’t need each other, or anyone. But they are so obviously empty, and lonely.

      The tragedy is, they couldn’t be for each other what they themselves wanted each other to become. This is mostly Spike’s fault, because this bastard never could care past a threshold.

  2. megaroad1 says:

    A lot of juicy stuff from Faye this episode but I’ll wait on it till you’ve blogged the next episode and bring her up. I didn’t know that your first post was on precisely this episode. Congratulations! The circle is now complete.

    In my view, Spike’s biggest flaw is that he doesn’t have a ‘purpose’. Faye says in this episode that she’s a ghost, but it’s Spike who’s the real ghost. After running out from his life at the Syndicate with all it signified (being an up an coming crime boss, Julia, Vicious) he basically tags along with Jet’s project, adding little to it, except his fighting skills (boy does he get owned in this episode though). Just running away from something isn’t really much of a life project and it shows in his lackdaisical attitude to almost everything in life. In that sense, I think Spike doesn’t really descend to Luke’s uncaring attitude to those who surround him. As you point out, he is a softie. He has these little details like visiting Stella Bonnaro with news from her brother in “Waltz for Venus”, that I don’t see a guy like Luke having. But of course this lack of purpose will disappear the moment Julia and Vicious come back into his life (and the story).

    • The post on The Real Folk Blues won’t have much discussion on Faye, because we’ve done that years ago, and the points still hold.

      He is a ghost, as you say, and the great thing about this show is that he could’ve run into Vicious and Julia sooner and none of the other things would’ve mattered, but the thing is — you can say the opposite. None of these things about Spike mattered. His story was over, it just needed an ending. The story told over the course of 26 episodes and a film is the end of humanity… not in an apocalypse like in Evangelion, but in presenting a milieu that is wholly without possibility.

  3. Pingback: There’s Nothing I Can Do For a Dead Woman, Cowboy Bebop 25-26 “The Real Folk Blues” | We Remember Love

  4. Xard says:

    The ending montage with Call Me, Call Me has been from the time I first saw it one of the best moments in the whole show for me. The song itself also ranks very high in my Bebop music list. Really, I don’t remember much else about this episode because the ending was always impressive on wholly another level.

    Well, apart from Spike and Jet getting their asses royally kicked by Ed’s dad.

    Speaking of Ed, did you know she was largerly based on Yoko Kanno? This strange, childish, somewhat catlike genius was based on Kanno’s perceived eccentric but brilliant personality :D

    • Xard says:

      Found the relevant bit from ancient interview (posting in case you didn’t know, I find this whole thing pretty damn funny):

      KAWAMOTO [chuckles]: Of the four main characters — Spike, Faye, Jet and Ed — only Ed had a model, based on what the director said. I had to follow that direction.

      AI: Watanabe-san? You had someone in mind for this?

      [Everyone stares at Yoko Kanno. Everyone laughs]
      WATANABE: She’s the one. It’s not really the outward appearance I wanted, but the… the inner behavior.

      AI: Really?!

      KANNO [laughs...just like Ed]: I’ve never been aware of it, but when I see a portrayal of Ed, I realize I do a lot of things like her that I’m not even aware of. Like during a recording
      session, I may decide to take a nap on the couch in the middle of it — I never thought that
      was like Ed, but everyone thinks it is!

    • Agreed, it’s certainly one of my most favorite if not my outright favorite musical montages (yes, even more than Flashback 2012, more than Kom Susser Tod) in animation.

      Yes, that’s one of the very first things I read about her. I only started reading about her after I fell in love with the Bebop OST and I was stupefied at how one person could make this AND Macross Plus and Escaflowne — both OSTs I’ve already owned and loved.

      • megaroad1 says:

        And then the very same person goes on to do the soundtrack for the Ghost in the Shell TV series. You just have to bow to that level of talent.

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