Sunday, July 24, 2011

Cowboy Bebop - Session 7: Heavy Metal Queen

Heavy Metal Queen makes its case as an unusual episode immediately by opening with the sight of strangely long bulky ships pushing past each other in space to the unexpected tune of some thrashy metal. Compared to the series’ more traditional space-oriented openers in which sleek spaceships zip through colorful gates or drift unhurriedly through the stars as we listen to the low rumbling of engines and mellow jazz, this one seems to be taking us to a much louder, grungier, and more aggressive corner of the universe.

And although it may not seem so at first, it ends up being a corner that allows for a relatively lightweight palate cleanser of an episode as some relief after couple of dark and important ones. As always, there is more to the episode than what is on the surface, but still, just about the deepest question Queen has to ask is “hey, did you know there are space truckers?” This is just fine considering that we’ve had to shoot a child in the head and slit an old friend’s throat to get here.

The space trucker central to this episode is VT, a tough-looking woman with a strong distaste for bounty hunters accompanied by her cat Zeros and is – by way of her CB handle and taste in music – the eponymous Queen of Heavy Metal. The opening scenes in space conclude with some nicely understated exposition in the form of her docking at a truck stop and humoring an overconfident chump who quickly loses a few bucks in the long running game of trying to guess what her initials stand for. We get a small sense of her mysterious character in the way she adds his cash to the impressive stack of bills gathered, presumably, in small increments over the years from people who recognize her but don’t really know who she is.

After this, we follow VT into a little bar where we find a grouchy Spike, hungover and on the phone with Jet in a bathroom stall. They’re discussing this week’s bounty: an explosives expert / space trucker / Woody Allen look-alike named Decker. While Spike is complaining about not being able to get anywhere near guy, cut to Faye who is seconds away from spotting Decker at a diner appropriately called “Woody’s”.

The sequence that follows is another great example of how Faye’s sensual charm is effective only in a limited sense. As we see here and in her failure using similar tactics in Ballad of Fallen Angels, she has an undeniable power over men, but not all men, and certainly not over those directly relevant to her goals. In this case, she has no trouble whatsoever using her sex appeal to get the drop on the man she assumes to be Decker, but allows the real one to escape while doing so. Bad luck plays a significant role in this, granted, but the fact remains that her attempted manipulations have a surprisingly low success rate, regardless of precisely why.

Also noteworthy in this part of the episode comes when, in the middle of all of this, while Faye is slithering into the booth to get close enough to pull a gun on the wrong man, the scene suddenly returns to the bar, where a ditzy waitress is being harassed by some lascivious desperados. In the span of just a few moments, the depiction of a woman ensnaring a victim changes to a woman being victimized, and then immediately VT involves herself as the woman who comes to the waitress’ rescue. Briefly, both Faye and VT come across as powerful, albiet in different ways. This lasts right up until we discover that Faye has the wrong target, which leaves the only one of the three with any relevant power.

Going back to the earlier assumption that Heavy Metal Queen is going to be loud, grungy, and aggressive because of the title, subject matter, and background music, I would add that these qualities give the episode an air of brusque masculinity. Those sleek spaceships are absent from the opening shots because this episode is about phallic-looking space trucks full of straight lines, loud music and, as we discover later, pinup art and girly magazines. So, the fact that the most masculine of these three women emerges as the hero here is definitely in keeping with the manliness this episode is supposedly about.

To see the flipside of this particular brand of masculinity, though, look at the men involved during these scenes. The man in the diner who isn’t Decker comes across as pathetic and a little silly when he is discovered to be someone else (and what is he doing in a place apparently meant for kids?), and, well, “lascivious desperados” pretty aptly describes way the men at the truck stop present themselves. And then there’s Spike, who is too absorbed in concocting his hangover cure to pay any attention to the brawl going on right behind him at the bar. In short, the “real men” are all pathetic in their own way, plus horny and oblivious in specific cases.

They do redeem themselves here and there throughout the episode, however. Spike eventually helps VT route the desperados in the bar (although for selfish reasons). Jet’s handyman skills prove useful in getting both Spike and Faye back in the air with remarkable speed after their respective spacecraft are damaged. More notably, though, is Spike’s bold action that saves himself, Faye, and VT from the collapsing asteroid mine.

Not that he does it on his own, of course. All three of them work together here (a rarity for Spike and Faye) over the course of a pretty exciting escape that ends with Spike recognizing a photo VT keeps on her ship. It shows an exceedingly famous bounty hunter and a younger VT, which is all Spike needs to figure out VT's name.

I stand by the idea that this is a slight episode that mostly just provides a short break between weightier ones, but I would hesitate to write it off as insignificant. True, we'll never see VT again, nor will we hear of her husband, yet if there is any significance to this ending beyond the way it slightly broadens the Bebop universe and deepens Spike's involvement in it by some degree, I think it lies in VT's relationship to her past.

Like so many other characters in this series, she allows her past some amount of control over her present life. In her specific case, it does so to the extent that she is unreasonably bigoted against people like Spike, who is basically a decent sort of guy in a line of work she is so completely against that she turns on him as soon as she finds out what he does. It's hard to know if VT changes after meeting Spike and realizing that it's ok not to hate him, but I think the point is that the past is a strangely powerful thing that influences everyone, albiet in different ways. So even when Cowboy Bebop is sidetracked on an oddball episode like this one, it still has time to comment on the themes that run throughout the entire series.

49 comments:

_J_ said...

In paragraph six you became bogged down in the theme of gender-roles via the assessment of Faye, the waitress, and VT. This interpretation was enhanced by assessing the pathetic / horny aspects of the men found in the diner. While I grant that those events took place in the episode, I’m hesitant to agree that this is a gender-themed episode, or that these events are meant to convey some message about sexuality.

Yes, we go from Faye utilizing her sexual appeal, to the waitress being sexually victimized, to VT defending the waitress. But those seem to be more “things that would happen in a trucker diner” rather than a critique of gender roles or assessment of sexual power dynamics. I think “sexuality” is the theme of Heavy Metal Queen in the same way that “mystery” was the theme for Sympathy for the Devil. We can posit that theme, and argue for that interpretation, but that argument is ultimately beholden to our own interpretive frameworks rather than the events of the episode.

You did manage to pull yourself out of the sexual rabbit-hole, or “vagina”, at the end of your review by once again characterizing this episode as an oddball that breaks the flow of the weightier preceding episodes. So, I applaud your ability to avoid entrapment within said interpretive vagina. The complaint I would have is that by focusing upon gender, you missed the larger theme of preconceptions, which I might argue is the actual theme of the episode:

- VT is a strong, masculine woman, so persons do not think of her as having a romantic past, which is the key Spike utilizes to guess her name.

- VT thinks all bounty hunters are X, when it turns out that not all bounty hunters are X.

- Decker is an explosives expert, so Faye assumes he’s a tough, muscular guy rather than a Woody Allen look-alike.

If the episode were to end with a ‘The More You Know’ message, or, if this were an episode of Degrassi, the ending moral lesson would probably have more to do with pre-judging people than gender roles.


Also, how do you choose which episode to review on each disk?

MA17 said...

I like the argument that the episode is mainly about preconceptions. I can get behind that totally.

About the gender thing, I'm not so sure. I think gender is important at times in this series, usually when Faye and Ed make it so, but also when someone like VT comes along and invites comment. It isn't easy to tell that VT is a woman (the guy at the AV Club wrote his entire article without realizing it), and I can't believe that the bar/diner scenes were put together as they are without intention beyond "things that would happen in a trucker diner". I'll concede that the episode isn't "about" gender nearly to the extent that what I wrote about it is. Overlooking the issue, though, is ignoring at least one part of what the episode is trying to say, though.

MA17 said...

I have included an extra "though" in the preceding sentence in case you find yourself wanting one later this week. Enjoy.

MA17 said...

Oh, and I'm just doing these in order. I started with Ep5 because that's how far the AV Club had gotten before I got to work on the project. Theirs go up on Saturday, and since that's the end of the week, I'm considering working a week ahead of them and posting on Sunday. I dunno.

MA17 said...

Part of me is interested in going back over all of these when (if) I finish writing about the series. If I do, I don't want to forget that I think VT and her husband give us a hint as to what will happen to anyone who loves Spike. Also, I think Faye loves Spike.

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