Few anime have had the kind of impact that Cowboy Bebop had. While it wasn’t as big of a hit in Japan, it’s universally beloved in the western anime fandom. Even though it’s only 26 episodes, Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim has continually run and rerun it since 2001, with no sign of stopping. It’s maintained a consistent presence in the fandom, which is no mean feat in a community that’s so obsessed with seasonal shows. Beyond its massive popularity, Bebop is one of the most well-respected anime out there. There have been plenty of monster hits, but even the most popular anime develop a notable subset of people who don’t like it. Just look at the big hits like Attack on Titan or Sword Art Online. For all their popularity, they’re also divisive at times. What makes Bebop stand out is how little of that you see in the fandom. From critics to fans, to people who don’t even watch anime normally, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone with a negative impression of Bebop; it’s just that respected. With all that in mind, the question of whether it holds up is moot; it very clearly does. What’s far more interesting is why it still holds up and what makes it so special. Everyone has their own experience with Bebop and their own favorite aspects, but for me, the episode that embodies all of what makes Bebop so transcendent is episode 5: Ballad of Fallen Angels.
At the risk of falling into hyperbole, Ballad of Fallen Angels is the best single episode of television I’ve ever seen. It’s a relatively simple story on the surface: a former mobster who got out suddenly has to deal with his past catching up to him. Like so many of Bebop’s stories, it’s something we’ve seen a million times before that’s simultaneously completely unique. From the start, Ballad of Fallen Angels has a different feel from the previous four episodes. Unlike the more lighthearted adventures with the crew of the Bebop chasing a dog or stopping a terrorist from turning people into monkeys, Ballad of Fallen Angels opens with Viscous killing the leader of his Syndicate and taking power, setting an ominous tone that persists throughout the episode. Part of this feel comes from how quiet the episode is. For about three-quarters of the episode, there’s barely any music playing. Music is a powerful tool a director can use to set a tone, but an absence of music can be just as powerful. From Spike discovering the bounty on his old boss to Faye meeting Viscous at the opera, there’s a tension building that doesn’t get released until the church scene at the end of the episode.
If Ballad of Fallen Angels defines Cowboy Bebop, then the church scene defines Ballad of Fallen Angels. The haunting organ and lonely lyrics of Rain lend an air of finality to Spike’s walk to the church, as though he’s headed towards an inevitable ending. His subsequent battle against Vicious and his men is both thrilling and intense, reminiscent of a John Woo action movie. Afterwards, Spike’s conversation with Viscous hints at something that’s only confirmed at the end of the series: Spike isn’t really alive. He’s alive in the literal sense, but all he does is drift through life trying to run away from his past. To him, his life after leaving the Syndicate is nothing more than a dream. When Viscous asks Spike why he’s still alive if he’s abandoned what he was in the past, Spike never answers because he doesn’t have an answer. For all intents and purposes, Spike died when he left the Syndicate.
As Spike falls from the church window, his life flashes before his eyes. Without a single line of dialogue, we learn that Spike and Viscous were once friends until they had a falling out over a woman they both loved. A scene like this would normally be accompanied by a sad or nostalgic soundtrack, but Bebop instead opts for the soothing chant of Green Bird. Once again, this foreshadows a major idea that’s only confirmed in the final episode: death isn’t something to fear. For Spike, death is just waking up from a dream. His life aboard the Bebop has no meaning to him because everything after he left the Syndicate is nothing but a dream. The mixing of past and present in the shot composition only adds to the idea that Spike can’t escape from his past. Spike’s reaction to waking up to Faye humming the same song Julia once did further illustrates just how stuck Spike is. Rather than thank her for saving him, Spike teases Faye about her singing ability. Doing anything else would require opening up and moving beyond his past, something Spike still can’t do.
Ballad of Fallen Angels perfectly illustrates what makes Bebop great. It combines familiar stories with flawless execution and imbues them with new meaning. No matter what perspective you come in with, Bebop has something. The archetypal story and John Woo-esque action make it easily accessible, but the sheer quality of its execution and depth of its themes ensures that there’s always more to dig into. Even with such heavy ideas about life and finding meaning, Bebop always maintains a breezy feel that prevents it from becoming too dour while also never detracting from the weight of its themes. No matter what you’re want to get out of it, Bebop delivers. The end card in the final episode confidently says “You’re gonna carry that weight,” a statement that couldn’t be more true. Even twenty years later, we’re still carrying that weight.
See you space cowboy…