The hit anime Cowboy Bebop was a hit in part because it was so unique: a mashup of space combat, martial arts, and mercenary anime tropes, with a driving jazz-funk soundtrack and pop culture references woven together to create a world that felt lived in. Spike and the Bebop crew fell together organically, their messy backstories intertwining and playing out in unexpected ways through the 26 episodes.
Despite there being hyper-intelligent corgis, suicidal AI satellites, and Alien-like sentient leftovers, Bebop's reality had grit and character that set it apart. Here are 11 episodes ("sessions" in series parlance) that prove why Cowboy Bebop is still one of the best anime series of all time.
Session 1: "Asteroid Blues"
It might be cheesy to say that the first episode of Bebop defined the show, but in this case it's true. Unlike series where it takes weeks for the plot to catch and the characters to grow on you, viewers were thrown into the deep-end in "Asteroid Blues."
We open with Spike demonstrating his martial art skills while the "heavy" of the group, Jet, prepares a dinner in a delightful sequence that sees every punch Spike throws coupled with a shot of Jet preparing stir fry. Their subsequent bickering about the sub-par food and lack of bounty money instantly establishes their odd couple dynamic. And this is just in the first sixty seconds. From there, it's a breakneck race to the end of the episode punctuated by hand-to-hand combat, gun fights, and spacecraft races, pausing only long enough for a quick drink in an off-world saloon. We get our first use lascivious male-gaze here as well, as the recurring characters of the three old codgers ogle one of Spike's bounties. Bebop isn't afraid to use sex when it needs to grab attention - usually at the main characters' expense. Spike's ultimate failure firmly establishes that this isn't a friendly universe and there are no easy wins.
Episode 2: "Stray Dog Strut"
I'll be honest, I was originally going to go with the third episode, "Honky Tonk Woman," where Faye Valentine is introduced. As important as that development is in the series, it's a predictable beat - the crew meeting up with a scoundrel that matches their own skill level. "Stray Dog Strut," on the other hand, introduces Ein, the "data dog" corgi that engineers his own escape and proves to be one of the most intelligent members of the crew (even if they never realize it). Without ever bowing to sci-fi tropes (like having Ein speak) or breaking the loose rules of logic the series (adheres?) to, Ein quickly became a fully developed, lovable character, vital to the success of more than a few missions.
Session 5: "Ballad of Fallen Angels"
"Ballad of Fallen Angels" is a stark contrast to the kinetic, lighthearted episodes that come before. It's our first glimpse of what lies underneath Spike's carefully manicured bravado and one of the first times we see him crack under the weight of his past. This episode also introduces Vicious, who is exactly what we imagine Spike would be like if Spike ever decided to chuck his moral compass. It's a blood-soaked affair that leaves us with more questions than answers.
Session 9: "Jamming With Edward"
Despite being an integral part of the Bebop crew, the hacker wunderkind, Ed, isn't introduced until almost halfway through the series. Everything that Ed does is pitch perfect "goofy kid," even when she's destroying firewalls and digging up digital information that the crew needs. She's a perfect contrast to Spike's increasing moodiness, Jet's dour demeanour, and Faye's larcenous "black widow" attitude. Plus every dog needs a kid companion and she and Ein are made perfectly for each other. The episode itself gives us our first glimpse of a broken-down Earth and the artificial intelligences that we left behind to become digital ghosts. It's a tantalizing thread that's never fully developed (in classic Bebop fashion) but adds yet another story layer that we keep hoping to explore further.
Session 11: "Toys in the Attic"
"Toys in the Attic" is Bebop at its silliest. When the crew finds a forgotten fridge, what's inside turns out to not only be terrifying, but dangerous. The sentient leftovers target crew member after crew member, evolving to overcome every attempt at containment or execution. As the entire Bebop crew drops, it's up to Ed and her iron stomach to save them all. The tightness of the shots drives home the claustrophobic feel of the ship and shout outs to the Alien series, as Spike arms himself with a flamethrower and motion detector, make this a horror episode that will have you jumping despite yourself.
Session 15: "My Funny Valentine"
I have a soft spot for the sessions that deal with Faye's past. As hard-tack and no-nonsense as Faye is, it's in this episode (and the next on the list) that you find her toughening up was a hard-realized necessity. Faye awoke from a long cryogenic sleep with no memory of her past, a massive unpaid debt, and plenty of people who want nothing more than to take advantage of a beautiful, forgotten woman. It's one of the first sessions that gives us a satisfying chunk of backstory and establishes Faye as much more than just a "sexy bounty hunter."
Session 18: "Speak Like a Child"
The counterpart to Session 15, the episode sends the crew on a scavenger hunt for ancient "Beta" technology that could provide the key to finally giving Faye the answers she needs about her past. It's a session that's light on the violence (despite several antique tape players meeting their end) and high on character development. There's Spike's aforementioned "percusive maintenance," Jet's philosophical musings, and all of it culminating in them spelunking through the ruins of a forgotten mall to find a player that can read Faye's tape. But the humor of the episode is bittersweet as we're confronted with a young Faye cheering "Don't lose me!" into the camera as a message to her future self, when we know that's exactly what's happened.
Session 19: "Wild Horses"
I could recap this session and tell you the intricacies of why I think it's important. How mystic visions combine with hard technology to craft an atmosphere that's just this side of post-apocalyptic. But it's got a space rescue involving a rebuilt Space Shuttle Columbia. I don't need any other reason to include "Wild Horses" in this list.
Session 22: "Cowboy Funk"
This session, which introduces the ridiculous "Cowboy Andy," gained notoriety for being pulled soon after the 9/11 attacks. The "Teddy Bomber" attacks on skyscrapers were deemed too much for viewers that had recently seen the real thing play out on the news. It's still a great "filler" episode, with Andy proving to be a good enough bounty hunter to anticipate where the Bebop crew will be finding their marks, but inept enough that his interference leads to failure. But as much as I like Andy, there are too many hanging plot threads at this point to be able to appreciate the session fully. You just want it to wrap up so that you can move on.
Session 24: "Hard Luck Woman"
This is possibly the most satisfying session of the entire series. Not only do we get Ed's backstory and meet her father (who's just as much of a goofy mess as she is), but we get even more hints of the tragedy that befell Earth. Faye unexpectedly discovers links to her past while the crew tracks down Ed's father, and we're treated to flashes of memory - an incident with the space shuttle, a forgotten mansion, a injury where cryosleep was the only solution. Faye staring at the stars as she lies in the ruins of her childhood home is a heart-wrenching resolution to her story. As Ed and Ein light off on their own at the end of the episode, you can't help but feel relieved that they're safe from the nasty business Spike has left unfinished.
Sessions 25 & 26: "Real Folk Blues, Parts 1 & 2"
In the final sessions of the series, things come together and fall apart in glorious slow motion (punctuated by periods of ultra violence). Spike is forced to finally deal with his past and either be destroyed by it or put it aside to accept the new family he's found in the Bebop crew.
The scene between him and Faye makes my heart ache every time I watch it because of all the "could have beens" that are wrapped up in it and never said. Even though Spike and Julia are finally able to reunite, even with all of Spike's superhuman endurance, agility, and speed, it's readily apparent that there is only one way his final confrontation with Vicious will end. The final shots, with a few spare piano notes playing as the screen fades to black, still makes me tear up years later.