Welcome to the Cowboy Bebop episode guide! This time out, we’re looking at episode 20, “Pierrot le Fou.”
We’re nearing the end of our Cowboy Bebop excursion and it’s high-time the show gave us a straight-up, weird-ass, hyphen-hyphen horror episode. An episode that’s stripped down and barely has any plot, relying entirely on action, design, tonal music, and one of the creepiest and weirdest characters ever invented in the form of the hyper-dangerous villain.
The episode in question is Session #20, “Pierrot Le Fou,” although the Japanese title translates to “Requiem for a Clown,” a somewhat more fitting moniker for an episode in which the bad guy cackles incessantly, has an omnipresent insane smile, and has several unexplained and whimsical powers. Guh, he’s so unsettling.
There are references, both visual and thematic, aplenty in this episode. The title “Pierrot Le Fou” is the same as a 1965 Jean-Luc Godard film which is perhaps, if one can measure these things, the director’s most self-aware and post-modern movie about a pair of lovers on the lam from both their mundane lives and Algerian hitmen. It means literally “Peter the Fool” or “Crazy Pete;” in the context of this episode, it’s “Mad Pierrot.” Pierrot is very clearly a comic book villain supplanted into this sci-fi anime. It’s no coincidence that he appears like the nasty mixture of the Joker and the Penguin and the lesser-known Batman villain, the Tally Man, who possesses a lot of the same weird powers. The episode even begins with a traversing of city rooftops in a way that Bebop never did before or after. Very Batman.
This is one of the few episodes where there isn’t a bounty to chase, there isn’t some huge revelation about one of the main characters, and there’s really no humor; Spike is absolutely in the wrong place at the wrong time. But for a few lines, the first four minutes of the episode is dialogue-free and completely dependent on action. Pierrot, the flying heebie-jeebie machine, comes upon a crime boss and his henchmen. They seem to know who he is and are mightily afraid. Meanwhile, Spike is in a bar playing pool, and beating whomever he was playing against. He takes a drink of his whiskey and leaves. He then comes upon Pierrot having just destroyed the group of thugs and says nothing. He isn’t involved, but he’s seen what’s gone on and that’s enough. Pierrot then opens fire with his cane gun and Spike has no choice but to return fire, but it’s not as easy as it looks.
This opening sequence is so awesome, so well-directed, so beautifully silent, that I want everybody to see it in as close to its entirety as YouTube has to offer. So enjoy, and get creeped out.
How exactly does Spike combat that? He already gets blown up and the next time we see him, he’s all bandaged up (Faye is her usual outwardly-uncompassionate self and says “I heard we picked up a mummy) and can hardly walk or eat. But he’s not safe. Jet goes to talk to another of his ISSP contacts and finds out that this guy is called Mad Pierrot, an assassin of sorts who seems to be genetically and cybernetically enhanced, and who never leaves loose ends. The only people on Mars who’d seen him and lived only got to live for a little while before Pierrot found them again. This revelation is accompanied by images of Pierrot appearing on a suspension bridge as a car full of guys drives on it. They get out and look at him. A train drives by and the next thing we see is all of the henchmen dead on the ground, Pierrot still standing there with his cane and hat and grin. The main target runs away and after another flash, the next thing we see is that man dead, his head through a chain link fence, held up by that metal.
Ed gets an email meant for Spike, inviting him to Space Land, a theme park somewhere. Faye intercepts and tries to keep Ed from giving it to Spike, be he overhears. Faye does not want Spike to go, but can’t say it, because of pride. And Spike doesn’t even think about not going, even joking that this might be the one he doesn’t come back from. Each of the crew takes turns calling him a bonehead throughout the rest of the episode. Spike heads off, while Jet has Ed do some research while he flies back toward the Bebop.
They discover Pierrot was a test subject for a government super soldier program, and while the physical upgrades worked perfectly, enhancing his speed, strength, agility, firearm usage, and ability to absorb bullets and fly (you know, those common traits), it also left his mind demented and steadily regressing. He’s now the mental age of a child, and as Jet points out, children can be the most dangerous. Because all kids are sociopaths. This information is relayed to the audience via flashbacks with weird industrial music (very different for Yoko Kanno) and images of Tongpu (Pierrot’s real name) getting tortured and upgraded, and eventually breaking free, killing his doctors, and making a break for the outside world. We also learn why he fears and hates cats; a heterochromatic cat watched him during his entire ordeal.
And it wouldn’t be a clown-inspired horror story without an abandoned theme part full of giant anthropomorphic animal robots walking around. Spike and Pierrot have a huge gunfight on the various attractions, including a massive roller coaster and a fun house of sorts with giant penguins sliding down an ice slide right at Spike’s head. A hologram cherub tells him it isn’t safe and he needs to go back outside. What a weird and upsetting amusement park. Faye shows up in her Red Tail cruiser, but is shot down almost immediately, leaving her unconscious. Spike can’t outgun Pierrot and gets his pistol shot out of his hand, but he has one trick left, a throwing knife, which he manages to throw into Pierrot’s leg but not before the mad clown shoots Spike in the shoulder.
But Pierrot, the child mind that he is, begins writhing on the ground in pain, crying and carrying on, not even moving when the giant marching dog comes to step on him. Jet buzzes in with Pierrot’s details but Spike tells him he doesn’t need them anymore.
I think I’ve used the words “creepy” and “unsettling” in this review more than any other ever in my life, but there are few so fitting as those for this. It’s a totally singular episode for the series and almost feels like it’s in a different show. There’s really not much to it, but it stands out so much and is so memorable specifically for all the gorgeously dark and nightmare-inducing visuals. Is there a particular reason Pierrot dresses like a whimsical French whatever he is/clown? Not really, other than it’s disturbing as hell. Why can he fly and flip around and not take damage when he’s shot and cackle in the most terrifying way possible? Just to scare us. He doesn’t scare Spike, of course, but Spike’s kind of a nihilist. Pierrot is a true monster, and monsters are at their most effective when they pervert something sort of wholesome. Disneyland is sure looking kind of foreboding now, I’ll tell ya that.
Next week, it’s another Jet episode, which have quickly shot up as my favorite of the series. He has to look after a young girl and learns all about chi and the art of balancing your life. Quite a huge turnaround following this nightmare. “Boogie Woogie Feng-Shui” is next time. Until then, be afraid of people in top hats and huge foppish collars.