It’s been a while since I talked about meta-plot, the overall structure of a series. Partly that’s because it seems like that talking meta-plot be a case of flagellating the deceased equine; partly because it sometimes seems like meta-plot is just too simple.
I mean, after all, there are supposedly only seven basic (meta-)plots:
Rags to riches
Overcoming the monster
Voyage and return
Comedy (Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl)
Tragedy (boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl)
There are shows that are essentially meta-plotless. Lucky Star, anyone? It’s by definition a series of amusing vignettes. I like it. Do you like it?
There are shows whose meta-plots are obvious. Spice and Wolf. Boy (Spice) meets girl (Wolf), boy sorta kinda loses girl (but not really), boy gets girl. It’s a comedy. It’s not a funny comedy, but it’s a comedy.
There are shows whose meta-plots are disguised. Black Lagoon. I’ve talked about Black Lagoon as an example of stealth storytelling. The show shoves Revy in your face. It’s impossible to watch Black Lagoon and NOT watch Revy. But the show is about Rock’s development from salaryman to gangster. It’s a Rebirth story.
Quick: What’s the meta-plot of Cowboy Bebop?
Talk about well disguised! Talk about stealth storytelling! Man, that one is totally hidden!
You know the story goes somewhere. Despite an ending that leaves major characters’ stories hanging in the air, when Bebop is over you know the story is done. You know it. You can feel it. The story’s done and there ain’t a gonna be no more.
So what the hell was the story?
This is one of the things that makes Cowboy Bebop a classic. It does have one of the major meta-plots, but the trick is it’s really hard to see and it’s not done in a stereotypical way, and so it feels like you’re watching something really different. You’ve seen Bebop. You KNOW you’re watching something really different!
So what the hell was the story?
Okay, let’s start with something: the story is about Spike. It’s not about the Bebop, Faye, or Jet, because their stories get neglected at the end. It’s not about Ed or Ein, because they’ve bailed before the end. It’s about Spike, and that’s why his backstory is built into story and they others are tacked on as episodes that diverge from the main spine of the story, and that’s why the show’s over when he dies.
So: Rags to Riches? Nope, no riches. The Quest? What is he questing for? Rebirth? Redeath is more like it.
You can argue that there’s an element of Overcoming the Monster in there, Spike vs. Vicious and the gangsters moving in on Spike’s old gang, but you know, that doesn’t feel right. For one thing, Vicious isn’t around enough; he plays no role at all in over twenty of the episodes, not even as an eminence gris. Most of the time Spike and the gang are NOT overcoming the monster.
This is where the sneaky part comes in. Let’s take another look at Tragedy. Spike’s end certainly feels tragic, doesn’t it? But come on: Boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl? I mean, yeah, it seems like Faye has fallen for him by the end, but he’s never really “gotten” her; I mean, if Spike has to choose between Faye and Julia, where’s he going?
Oh, yeah…Julia. Hmm. What is she?
Not “who is she.” We know who she is. She’s the woman Spike loves. What is she, structurally? What does she do that reveals the meta-plot?
She’s Spike’s connection to his old gang. And because Spike loves Julia (You knew that, right?) she’s a connection to his old gang that he cannot cut. She’s the connection to his old gang that keeps him away from the metaphorical “girl” of “Boy meets girl.”
Figured it out yet? The “girl” isn’t Julia. In fact, she’s the opposite. The “girl” is his freedom.
Think about it. As we meet Spike, he has a taste of freedom, so to speak. He’s the free-est of the free: a bounty hunter. He can go anywhere, do anything. In samurai terms he’s ronin. Boy meets girl.
He and Jet hook up with (in order) Ein, Faye, and Ed. Now, there’s a little ruckus with Vicious that sets up his back story, but after that they’re free, and so Spike’s free. Boy gets girl.
And finally Julia comes back. The gang needs him. She needs him. And because she is his narrative ball-and-chain, now Spike is morally obligated…obligated by his own moral code, I should say…to do something about it, just like Sam Spade is morally obligated when his partner, Archer (no, not Sterling Archer, Miles Archer of Spade and Archer) is killed.
You didn’t get that reference??? Dude, take two hours off from anime and watch The Maltese Falcon. You’ll thank me when you’re done.
Anyway, the gang needs Spike and the call comes to him in the form of Julia, the one person he cannot refuse. There goes your freedom, Spike. Boy loses girl.
Spike Spiegel, tragic hero
Spike is literally a tragic hero, not just because he dies, but because he’s the hero of a tragedy: Boy meets freedom, boy gets freedom, boy loses freedom. Tragedy.
It’s one of the powers of Cowboy Bebop that it operates at such a deep level. Unlike, say, Samurai Champloo, where the meta-plot is obvious (It’s The Quest for the samurai who smells of sunflowers. Duh.), in Bebop it’s hidden. You know it’s there. You can feel it in the rhythm of the series, and in the way you feel when it ends. It’s because that meta-plot is under there that you overlook the Swiss cheese ending: even though there are loose ends hanging all over, you know the series is done, and you know the series is done because the meta-plot is resolved.
What a wonderful series!
I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.