Cowboy Bebop Session 2: Stray Dog Strut
Coming off a pretty strong pilot episode, Cowboy Bebop gives us a weaker second episode. It isn’t bad, but it suffers from a story that doesn’t feel complete and one of my least favorite storytelling techniques: the “as-you-know” exposition info-dump. Still, we learn a little more about Spike and Jet, a new character joins the crew, Big Shot: For Bounty Hunters is introduced, and the music remains great.
Let’s start with a good use of exposition: Big Shot, the delightfully low-budget bounty hunter TV show. Last week, Spike and Jet got their information from an internet database (I currently do not recall the word for “internet” in the Bebop universe). This week, bounty head Abdul Hakim (worth 8 million wulongs) appeared both on the database and on a cheesy TV show named Big Shot: For Bounty Hunters. Big Shot is kind of like America’s Most Wanted, in that it gives viewers information about fugitives. Unlike AMW, which advocates calling the authorities with tips about featured fugitives, Big Shot gives out the information for the purpose of helping viewers capture the criminals and collect the bounty. It is hosted by Punch and Judy, two over-the-top stereotypes masquerading as people. Punch uses a hilariously exaggerated Texas/Mexican accent and plays the smart partner to Judy’s ditzy blond, who always wears an open jacket without a shirt or bra. Cowboy Bebop uses Big Shot to set up the bad-guy-of-the-week, informing the crew, and the viewer by extension, of what kind of criminal they will be hunting. The sole purpose of the show is to reveal details that probably would remain unknown without some kind of third party, such as the database or an informant. Spike and Jet would never know that Hakim was a “serial pet thief” unless someone was to tell them, because Hakim himself isn’t too likely to do so. Some episodes, like “Asteroid Blues,” simply give us Spike and Jet reading this information. “Stray Dog Strut” uses an informant and Big Shot, which are much more entertaining methods of storytelling.
Speaking of informants, this episode reveals that Spike and Jet have some network of friends and contacts who advise them on whereabouts and physical descriptions of bounty heads… usually for a price. Here, the Bebop crew has the fortune of being on good terms with a doctor who performed plastic surgery on Hakim to help him evade the law and the bounty hunters. After a call from him, Spike and Jet are on the trail of serial pet thief Hakim.
Like the villain of the last episode, the bounty head of “Stray Dog Strut” is introduced as an unstoppable force. Physically modeled after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakim is a sinewy giant, barely able to fit in the world around him. When we first see him, he takes out three men with guns aimed at him, despite being unarmed himself. And unlike Asimov, who relied on a drug to help achieve his superhuman feats, Hakim gives out drug-free beatings. What a seemingly unstoppable force is doing as a serial pet thief is beyond me. Surely the people in charge of all the gangsters we saw running around last week would want someone like him fighting for them. It’s true that the pet he stole in this episode, which led to the 8 million wulong bounty, is very valuable, but I just don’t see how a man of his talents never got into a more lucrative field of criminal enterprises.
Another thing about this episode that doesn’t quite work is why the dog Hakim stole, later named Ein, is so valuable. We know that he is something called a “data dog” that cost a lab millions of wulongs to develop. We know this because of some very clunky dialogue from the scientists tracking Ein and from a rushed explanation on Big Shot that doesn’t tell us anything new. What we don’t know is what makes a data dog so valuable. Ein does show some heightened intelligence throughout the series, but it’s never anything more than how dogs are often portrayed on television. (See: Frasier, Spaced.) Supposedly, we get a little more information about what makes Ein special in the manga based on the series, but I have not read the manga and thus cannot comment. (Web personality Mr. Plinkett has commented on the idea of essential information only being available in tie-ins, a concept he and I both dislike. Check it out here. The specific line is around the 15:45 mark in Part 1, but the whole thing is worth watching.)
Strangely, in an episode in which not enough is explained, the biggest problem is the awful use of exposition by the scientists. In their first two scenes, we see them driving around a large van looking for Ein, as one scientist tells things to his partner for no one’s benefit but the audience’s. It’s clear that the other scientist knows how much money went into developing Ein because he was there. Also, it’s likely that he knows just how much trouble they’ll get in if the police catch Ein, because we later learn that the scientists were operating out of an illegal research facility. This is an example of “as you know” exposition, when a character tells another character something he or she already knows, often preceded by the phrase “as you know.” Because the listener already knows the information, there is no reason for the speaker to be saying it aside from filling in the audience. Obviously, this is not good writing.
The scientists also suffer from poor line readings. The voice work is relatively weak in the first few episodes, but shows a marked improvement around “Ballad of Fallen Angels.” Unfortunately, this can briefly take one out of the episode. The worst example in this episode is a scene in a weapons shop. Spike is trying to get information on Hakim from the owner, who responds by attempting to extort Spike. Instead of paying the guy off, Spike picks up a pair of nunchaku and comments on the design. The owner then gives up the information, and his line reading makes it seem like he was so impressed by Spike’s knowledge of weapons history that he decided to give away the information he’d previously withheld in hopes of receiving some money. I had to stop and wonder whether the line was supposed to be said with a more scared tone, because I couldn’t understand why the owner would be impressed into giving out free information.
But enough about what didn’t work. Let’s look at what did. Spike and Jet’s scenes add to our knowledge of them and the Bebop. Early on, we see Spike complaining that everything on the ship is broken, after kicking the TV to make it work and seeing Jet walk by with some tools, who states that some unnamed part is “history.” Later, Spike seems positively giddy when he confronts Hakim. Last week, Spike reversed his blasé attitude about the “small fry” bounty head when he learned how dangerous Asimov was, and this week, he was at his happiest when about to take down Hakim. Part of his happiness was no doubt related to the 8 million wulong reward, but for him to be so happy before securing the reward shows that he was likely looking forward to the fight.
Conversely, Spike gets extremely annoyed with Ein, stating that he can’t stand animals or children. It’s not that Ein is a bad dog; Jet gets along with him fine. Rather, Spike is not as easygoing as he thinks himself to be. When Spike chases down Hakim a second time, after losing him but gaining Ein, Jet asks him to stick to their plan and not to get hot-headed, to which Spike angrily responds that Jet hasn’t seen him hot-headed yet. Once again, Jet shows that he wants to keep things simple and direct, maintaining the set plan, and is worried about Spike’s improvisations. And what does Spike’s line mean? Does he not realize how upset he was? Or does he know that he has the potential to get even more angry and irrational? But perhaps most importantly, we see that Spike truly is a good person, despite his rigidity. [SPOILERS] When he has to make a choice between saving Ein, an innocent dog, and capturing Hakim, he chooses the former, thus losing out on the bounty. (This makes two weeks in a row in which our heroes don’t get their man.)
We also learn a little more about the world(s) of Cowboy Bebop. Most of this episode takes place on Mars, the supposed paradise planet. What we see of it isn’t too special. The establishing shot shows that for the most part, Mars remains an uninhabitable red desert. A large crater has been terraformed to allow for human life, and the borders are lined with atmosphere machines to keep the air breathable. Obviously, we don’t see the entire planet, or even the entire crater, but what we do see doesn’t seem like a very good place to live. Most of the episode is spent in a rough neighborhood, with people picking fights, teens stealing briefcases directly from their owners, and apparently a strong pet black market. Mars, like Tijuana, seems to be past its zenith, and is beginning to decay. Also, one thing I noticed was that, at the end of the episode, a pet shop owner seen earlier was watching Big Shot. Seeing as how it’s aimed at bounty hunters, is she a bounty hunter on the side? Does she need to keep informed of criminal activity to prevent her shop from being victimized? Or is Big Shot so entertaining that everyone watches it? I’m guessing the last option is most likely, because it is pretty damn entertaining.
Although this isn’t one of Bebop’s best, “Stray Dog Strut” has more good than bad. Exciting chase sequences, good music, nice visuals, a pet store owner who wears a turtle on her head, and the Spike and Jet interplay makes up for the weak story and storytelling.
Up next: Faye Valentine introduces both the next episode and herself, making statements such as “money makes the world go ‘round,” “show no mercy,” “that’s how the game [life] is played,” and indirectly referring to herself as great. Girl’s got an ego, that’s for sure.