End of Spike Spiegel
[SPOILERS FOR COWBOY BEBOP DUH]
Achilles was doomed from his birth to lead either a long and plain life or a short and glorious one. Despite all of his mother’s precautions, he made his choice and headed to Troy. Hector dreamt he would die by Achilles’ hand. Despite the pleas of his people, he entered the field and fought Achilles. Achilles killed Hector, and later on Achilles himself was killed.
Then there’s Spike and Vicious.
“Life is a dream.” The words flash across the screen so often that they threaten to turn from thoughtful motto into banal slogan. The concept itself has been bandied around so much: Chuang Tzu’s butterflies, Calderon de la Barca’s play Life is a Dream… The beauty of Cowboy Bebop is that it changes the concept and makes it something much more powerful.
The classic “life is a dream” is made up of two equalities: life = dream; waking up = dying. A certain devaluation of life comes along with the concept. Calderon de la Barca was a Catholic priest, and so in his view death was the real beginning of life, a life with God in Heaven. The sage Chuang Tzu took everything lightly as he couldn’t ever be sure life wasn’t just a dream.
But that’s not what happens with Spike. Spike tells Faye that he’s woken up, so obviously the second equality falls to the ground. And the reason is that the first equality doesn’t hold either: it’s not life as such that’s a dream, it’s self-alienation from our own destiny. Spike’s awakening is his discovery that he has been running away from himself.
Vicious’ Red Dragon coup and the death of Julia are the catalyst. All of a sudden Spike remembers his destiny is to stop Vicious. Years ago he strayed from that road and he’s been dreaming ever since. The epic/tragic aspect is the fact that Vicious had already told Spike that only he was strong enough to kill him. So that for Spike, a fully awake life (eyes wide open) must lead him to his death. Becoming who is means dying soon thereafter. Like Achilles, or like cherry blossoms for that matter.
I worry that casual viewers will simply conclude that life is a fluffy thing that “cool” people like Spike can toss about and throw off at will, but that’s not it at all: life in Cowboy Bebop is a serious affair. And it’s not that Spike goes off to die (as Faye misunderstands), he goes to live. Death is but a consequence of that. And avenging Julia’s death (as satisfying as that might sound at some level) doesn’t really need to enter Spike’s calculations. After all, Julia herself was simply acting on her decision, taken years ago, of running off with Spike. A decision that brought her to her death, a death that should have happened already. So if anything, Spike avenges not Julia’s death as such, but the bind that Vicious put her in for siding with Spike in the past.
I’d go so far as to say that Vicious’ coup was really an elaborate plot to draw Spike, a fully awake, fully armed, ready Spike, for one final confrontation. When the elders capture him, he asks them to kill him, knowing full well that they won’t and that he’ll escape. I think Vicious might be the only character in Cowboy that didn’t ever dream, but just waited and planned for the moment the others would wake up!
Let me bring the “Mushroom Samba” hallucinations into play. My interpretation is based on this simple logic: if in the middle of your dreams you hallucinate, then it means at that moment you’re seeing reality. Spike finds himself going up a stairway. A little frog reminds him that the steps will lead him to heaven, and is shocked that Spike would keep going up. Reminds him! Spike tries to brush the frog off.
Usually, we would be happy to go to heaven, so the situation is unexpected to say the least. But I feel that it’s just a faithful portrait of Spike’s life at that point. Spike is bounty hunting one criminal at a time. Capturing criminals, especially after having belonged to a criminal syndicate like Red Dragon, means making little steps toward heaven. Spike is doing the job mechanically and although he pretends to be lively and carefree (like Kaji in Evangelion) he’s really like a zombie up a stairway. The frog is something like his conscience, trying to get him to snap out of it and get working. Spike is in denial and brushes his conscience off. At some level, he might realize that becoming who he is will not only cost him his own life, but Julia’s also. Vicious’ activities take care of that dilemma for Spike, allowing him to act…
I was thinking of doing one post on the destinies of the crew of the Bebop, but this post on Spike is long enough as it is. I’ll write about Ed and Faye in my next post…