For a lot of fans, the first four episodes of Cowboy Bebop are fun space adventures with good action and great music. But if the entire 26 episodes had been like that, it would neither have become the massive hit that it is, nor would we still be talking about it 17 years later. Possibly the most important episode of the entire series is the fifth one, simply by virtue of it being the first to directly deal with Spike’s past, and how dangerous it is. There’s still plenty of mystery surrounding it, but the haunting way the information is doled out and the degree to which Spike is willing to sacrifice himself makes it a mystery fans want to solve. I’m talking of course about the very fittingly titled, “Ballad of Fallen Angels.”
While the first four episodes tended to be capers or zany romps, “Ballad of Fallen Angels” is a crime drama, and not a particularly jokey one. While Spike still maintains much of his devil-may-care attitude, the closer we get to the final conflict, the less he’s smirking. That’s a really great indicator that this isn’t your average problem, and one that lets Faye know this isn’t the fun and fancy-free way her new pals normally act. Basically the entire second half of the episode is devoted to the showdown between Spike and his former best friend from his former life, and we don’t yet know why that’s such a big thing, but it’s pretty big.
The episode begins with Mao Yenrai, an older man in a business suit, signing a piece of paper along with a man named Carlos. We find out that Mao is the head of the Red Dragon Crime Syndicate, Carlos is of the White Tiger, and they are signing a historic peace accord between the two warring gangs in order to stave off interference from the ever-increasing police presence. The accord doesn’t last too long, though, because a man named Vicious, with long, silver hair and an ominous looking bird, has arrived with his gang. They blow up Carlos’ ship as he tries to leave and then break into Mao’s office. Vicious thinks peace between the syndicates is weak and has his men kill Mao by slicing his throat. Before he dies, Mao said Vicious would never have done this if Spike were still around, but of course he isn’t.
Later, aboard the Bebop, Jet and Spike get a message about a 28 million Woolong reward being placed on Mao’s head for some unspecified crime. Spike says he has a lead, but Jet is wary, realizing that Spike probably knows more about Mao than he’s letting on. There’s definite tension between the two and Faye walks right into the middle of it with her bundle of shopping bags. Spike leaves to go after Mao despite Jet’s misgivings, and Jet storms off to his room, leaving Faye alone to receive a call with a lead on the bounty, which she takes; it says that Mao is going to be at the opera in a private box.
Spike’s lead is Annie, a convenience store owner and apparently a former friend of both Mao and he. Annie is shocked because she believes Spike died 3 years ago (it’s always 3 years). She warns Spike not to get mixed up with Vicious, but she knows he’s going to anyway. She gives him a gun and he’s on his way. Faye, meanwhile, has gone to the opera and is forced into Mao’s box by one of Vicious’ men. Vicious has been expecting her, and even knows who she is. He then forces her to watch the whole opera sitting next to Mao’s dead body (real gross). Later on the Bebop, Spike is getting ammo and grenades while Jet is trying to talk him out of going, because Mao is already dead, but Spike already knows this. They get a call from Faye who asks to be rescued. Spike says he’ll go, but not for her sake.
The meeting place is a cathedral and Spike, wearing a long raincoat, walks slowly towards it, while the song “Rain” plays on the soundtrack. Inside the cathedral, Faye is being held by one of Vicious’ goons and he tells Spike to drop his gun. Instead, Spike shoots and gets the guy right between the eyes, spraying blood on Faye. This causes all the rest of the goons to begin firing, and Faye makes a run for it while Spike fights them off. Eventually, Vicious makes himself known and Spike races upstairs to face him. In front of a large stained-glass window, Spike and Vicious duel with a gun and a katana, respectively, and Spike gets a shot off before Vicious flings him through the window. As he falls, we get a montage of memories from Spike’s old life with the Syndicate, out of context. We see him standing with Vicious, fighting the same foes; we see a blonde woman in bed with Vicious while Spike is outside with a bouquet of flowers. He then has a vision of the blonde woman humming while he’s recovering from some injury only to wake up and find himself bandaged from head to toe. As it turns out, it’s actually Faye humming; she had called Jet for backup. Spike’s alive, for now.
This is, simply put, a fantastic episode. It shows how dark and how serious of a show Cowboy Bebop could be if the story warranted it. Whenever I watch this episode, I always feel like that we learn more about Spike than we actually do; we learn some, granted, but we don’t learn a whole lot. It’s more just seeing glimpses of Spike’s past completely out of context. It’s important that we meet Vicious and see that there’s someone out there who legitimately is Spike’s match. If not for Faye being nearby and having called Jet when she did, Spike would have died. We’ve never seen Spike in any kind of real distress; he’s always able to get out of problems very quickly. Here, however, as quickly as Spike dispatches the henchmen, Vicious proves far more difficult. It’s good to set up a recurring villain who is as fearsome as Vicious is, even if he does sort of look a little too anime-villain for me, and sort of breaks me out of the mood of the show.
Speaking of the mood, this is another great marriage of image and music, in a way the series had not yet attempted. The color palette is a lot of red and black when Faye’s in the opera box, and a lot of muted purples and grays when Spike is heading for the cathedral. Coupled with the aforementioned song “Rain”, this contributes to a memorable and distinct tone. As Spike is falling from the cathedral window and having his extended flashback, there is a chanting chorus of children singing in a round-robin style, which feels very eerie and like a memory itself at the same time. Yoko Kanno’s compositions are always fantastic, but it’s moments and episodes like this that show how versatile she is; it’s not just writing jazz or blues riffs. There are proper mood pieces in this episode, but the rest of the time, it’s completely silent. It all makes for a markedly different feel than anything we’ve seen up until now.
Now that we’ve officially hit the ground running, and Faye and Spike have come to some kind of understanding, it’s time to see how well the three crew members work together. Good thing they have one of the freakiest bounties they ever go after in the form of a very old yet ageless “child” jazz musician. He’s really scary. “Sympathy for the Devil” is next time.