Welcome to the Cowboy Bebop episode guide! This time out, we’re looking at episode 18, “Speak Like a Child.”
When it comes to what is ostensibly an action-adventure-sci-fi anime about bounty hunters in space, the most bold, brave, punk rock thing for Cowboy Bebop do is follow up an episode where a dog hops around after taking psychedelic mushrooms with an episode that ends in a gut-punch of seeing an amnesiac character’s childhood captured forever on a Betamax cassette.
A few weeks ago, we learned about where Faye Valentine came from, in “ My Funny Valentine,” and learned that she’d been cryogenically frozen for 54 years and has no memory of her life before it. Now we get to see what that life was, ever so briefly, and it’s both beautiful and devastating. I didn’t remember “Speak Like A Child” specifically, at least not by name, before I watched it for this column; it’s got no action, no bounties, not much spaceship flying, and is all about attempting to play an exceedingly outdated piece of media, but it might actually be one of the best episodes of the whole show.
Faye’s been on the run, and in a whole lot of debt, about as long as she’s been awake, and her first instinct is always to run away. At the beginning of “Speak Like A Child,” a package arrives for Faye and Jet is angry that he has to pay the COD shipping cost. Rather than wait and see what the thing is, Faye just takes off again in her personal ship, contemplating having to go on the run again, choosing to wait things out on a gambling cruiser. This leaves Jet, Spike, and Ed to wonder about what the little package is. While Jet wants to test it for explosives or poison (Faye has a lot of enemies) or simply return it and get a refund, Spike opens it and sees what we know is a beta tape, but he has no idea what it is. Why? Because this is 2060-something; the fact that I even know what a betamax tape is is a miracle.
They go to a vintage shop to try to sell the proprietor the tape, but he wants to watch it first. The tape shows a pretty scenic view of somewhere and the person holding the camera walking through a wooded area. They see a young girl facing away from the camera, but before more can be seen, the Betamax player screws up. Spike tries to “fix” it by kicking it and it breaks. Ed, luckily, finds a place where there’s likely a Beta player — in an old, broken down department store on Earth, which is basically a ruined, trashed mess of a place. Jet and Spike go off looking for the device and while they’re gone, Faye, who hasn’t been winning at gambling (big surprise), calls and is ticked off when Ed tells her they all went to Earth. “You took off and left me here?!” It was all for naught, as Jet and Spike’s travail garnered a VHS player and not a Beta player. Darn it all.
Faye calls again and Ed tells her the fellas are sad and disappointed, but doesn’t say why. So, obviously, Faye thinks it’s because of her being gone and decides to head back to the ship. Luckily, wouldn’t ya know it, Faye gets another package delivered to the Bebop. Ed tracked the first package and found that it was forwarded over a dozen times to different places but it originated on Earth. This second package also did, and it just happens to be a Beta player, so they hook it up and get ready to watch just as Faye returns. Jet tells her she can’t watch until she pays up the delivery money he paid, so she walks away, but secretly hides in the doorway. What they end up seeing surprises everybody.
The video was made by a teenage Faye, or whatever her real name is, along with her friends while they were at a boarding school in Singapore. They are sending their future selves messages of encouragement and well-wishes. Faye is the video’s director and films herself doing lots of things and offering a number of poetic gestures and “advice” to her older self. She’s shy, a little awkward, but undoubtedly upbeat and happy. She looks like the whole world is in front of her and tells herself to keep looking up and believing in herself.
The tape ends with Faye doing a cheerleader routine which includes the chant “And now a big cheer from my heart. Let’s… go… me, alright! Do your best! Do your best! Don’t lose me!” All the other crew watch this with wide-eyed, heart-rending astonishment. Present-day Faye has no memory of this at all and can do nothing but look at her young self and weep.
I’ll say it again: what a brave episode for Shinichiro Watanabe and company to have. 2/3rds of the way through the series, we have an entire episode dedicated to that last reveal, and it’s not a violent moment, nobody dies, but the proceedings are 100% changed from here on out. The show bets, accurately so, that the audience likes these characters enough by this point that we’d be willing to watch a whole episode of people looking for a video machine from the 20th Century and watching a home movie. Faye so badly wants a family, and we can see that, at least for a short time in her younger life, she was happy, content, friended, and above all, innocent. The horror of the universe hadn’t found her yet. She looks for any reason to come back to the Bebop when Ed calls because, whether her hard-edged self wants to admit it or not, she needs those other 3 weirdos and that dog. It’s her wanting to maintain the strange family and the unfortunate splitting up that is inevitable that colors the final episodes. And it’s bittersweet and gorgeous.
Next week, it’s another action romp, a nice restart for the final eight episodes and the feature film, before all the heaviness really comes to a head.