Cowboy Bebop Session 6: Sympathy for the Devil
“The blues isn’t about feeling better. It’s about making other people feel worse, and making a few bucks while you’re at it.” So says Bleeding Gums Murphy, Lisa Simpson’s saxophone mentor, and the first part of the quote certainly applies to “Sympathy for the Devil.” The episode revolves around a blues prodigy, who appears to be no older than 10 years old, and who certainly spends most of his time making other people feel worse. But Wen, the blues player, doesn’t solely rely on his music to do this.
After a creepy opening sequence taking place in a laboratory where Spike is being operated on (with lots of focus on his eye), Spike wakes up startled in a blues club where Wen is playing his harmonica for a captivated crowd. He and Jet are there to collect a 3 million wulong bounty on a man known only as “Giraffe.” Jet tells Spike about his love for the blues, but gets sidelined when he has to stall another bounty hunter, who is an old acquaintance. Giraffe leaves the club to pursue Wen when he leaves with a man in a wheelchair, and Spike pursues Giraffe. He tracks the three of them to a high rise, but before he can capture his prey, Giraffe is thrown through the window, and falls onto the nose of the Swordfish. Spike lands the ship and tries to keep Giraffe alive – he can’t collect the bounty if Giraffe is dead. More annoyed than anything, Spike yells at Giraffe to keep quiet so that he doesn’t waste what little strength he has left, but Giraffe insists on telling Spike to “help him” and warns him not to be “fooled by how he looks.” With his dying breath, he gives Spike a ring with a large pink stone.
Back on the Bebop, Faye opens the fridge to get some food, but is dismayed when she finds that it only contains a single can of dog food. Ein begs for it, but she eats it herself. She monologues to Ein, explaining more of her philosophy about how life is a game. To her, life is not just a game, but a rigged game in which the rules apply selectively and may be manipulated by those with power over others. She mocks Ein, telling him that he doesn’t eat if he doesn’t work, but this rule doesn’t apply to women, due to their nature as “delicate and refined.” (She then proceeds to shovel the dog food into her mouth.) When she sees the notice about the bounty on Giraffe, she smirks that she’ll have Spike and Jet capture him for her.
Based on that comment, it’s no surprise that her relationship with Spike and Jet has not improved. She tries to take the ring from Spike, but he angrily tells her that it will pay for food for him and Jet (and maybe Ein), but specifically not her, as she hasn’t been pulling her weight. Here, she passes on explaining the rules of the game to Spike, for he has the bargaining chip and more agency than a small dog. Jet also hands her a bill for all the expenses she has racked up since coming to the Bebop. Why Spike and Jet haven’t kicked her out yet is a bit of a mystery. It isn’t too hard to see a situation in which Faye could be a valuable asset to Spike and Jet; she clearly has skills as a pilot, card player, and gun fighter, and she could act as a distraction or bait for bounty heads. However, why she hasn’t left of her own accord is hinted at when Spike is about to leave for the episode’s climax.
The trio begins looking into Wen and the man in the wheelchair, who turns out to be an old friend of Giraffe’s, and goes by the name “Zebra.” Stories suggest the pair had a falling out when Zebra turned on Giraffe for money. While investigating Zebra and Wen from the Bebop, Faye accepts this story as likely being true, but Jet scoffs that betrayal comes easy only to women, while men live according to “iron codes of honor.” This is a bit strange coming from a man who uses a dirty ex-colleague as a source within the police station. We have seen Jet act pretty honorably throughout the series to date, but he and Spike are pretty much the only honorable men who have received extensive screen time… and Spike used to be a ruthless gangster. Even Jet admits as much when Faye asks him if he truly believes in his statement, and he replies that he is trying to. The comment is probably more of a statement about how Jet feels about women than he does about men; he would rather tell himself a lie about the goodness of men than let himself believe that women are humans capable of mistakes.
Spike meanwhile tracks down Wen and Zebra, and Wen reveals himself to be a creepy little sadist. He speaks very articulately, enunciating every syllable and using no slang words, and uses a cold monotone. He casually shoots at Spike, grazing his arm, and when he talks about the world around him, his voice drips with contempt. When he needs to escape, he pushes Zebra’s wheelchair, with Zebra still in it, down the flight of stairs separating him from Spike.
A flashback reveals that he used to be a happy child who lived on the terraformed Moon of Earth before a hyperspace gate explosion blew apart half of it. Nearly everyone living there died except for Wen, who awoke with a look of pure anger on his face. He has lived for decades in the body of a child, “recruiting” people to serve the role of his parent. If his behavior towards Spike and a cab driver, whom he shoots in cold blood immediately upon entering the taxi, are any indication, he has no qualms about killing people who get in his way. And his definition of “in his way” is disturbingly broad.
Spike brings Zebra’s barely living body back to the Bebop, and through a machine that translates memories into screen images, the Bebop crew learn that the stone will render Wen mortal again. The stone was created by the same gate explosion that made Wen immortal, but the contact between the two anomalies may release enough energy to cause a massive explosion. As Spike leaves to confront Wen, having carved the stone into the point of a rifle round, Faye is clearly upset as she says goodbye to him for what could be the last time. Spike, as usual, is very blasé about the prospect of dying, which only upsets Faye more. Is it possible that the overly cynical Faye, who doesn’t need anyone’s help with anything, has found a reason to stay in the form of another human?
As Spike and Wen meet for their showdown, Spike forces Wen’s cab off the road, and it crashes into a gas station. The resulting explosion creates a beautiful but haunting image of Wen in front of a wall of flames, with his green eyes shining against the red, yellow, and orange behind him. When they fight this time, Wen can’t seem to land a bullet on Spike, but he gets the stone right between Wen’s eyes, causing a transformation similar to the corrupt American at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: his body immediately ages decades before our eyes, going from a child to a shrunken, gray, skeletal dwarf. As his harmonica falls out of his pocket, Wen is finally put at peace, and changes from a rage-filled immortal to an old man at the end of his life, claiming to understand everything now. With his mortality has come his humanity and appreciation for life. For without death, why would we appreciate life?
Up next: Very loud heavy metal music plays while Spike tries to yell to Jet and Faye. Faye can’t hear anything, and continually asks Spike to repeat himself, while Jet begs Spike to turn the music down, before grudgingly deciding that he’ll try to sit out next episode…