Cowboy Bebop's Ending Might Not Be So Tragic After All

"Cowboy Bebop" is effortlessly cool. The series has breathtaking animation, both in the hyper-detailed backgrounds and unmatched dynamism of the action, and Yoko Kanno's score is chock full of bangers. Each of the 26 episodes (or "sessions") were approached as if they were short films, and so the anime traverses multiple genres: film noir, western, sci-fi, heist, horror, comedy, and more. In short, there's something in "Bebop" for everyone. The cherry on top is the best English dub for an anime ever.

However, beneath the fun lies a tragic, even cynical tone. All of the main characters spend so much time living in the past that they don't appreciate the new friends with them in the present until they've all split up. Notably, hero Spike Spiegel ends the series dead ... or does he?

Sleepy Spike

In the spectacular series finale, "The Real Folk Blues," Spike briefly reunites with his lost love Julia. Tragically, Red Dragon Syndicate hitmen gun down Julia shortly after the reunion. With nothing to lose, Spike confronts his friend-turned-enemy, Vicious. The two engage in a literal knife and gunfight that leaves Vicious dead and Spike mortally wounded. He collapses after pointing a finger gun at Vicious' men and uttering, "Bang."

The final shot of the series is a black-and-white frame of Spike's still face. Instead of signing off with the usual "See you, Space Cowboy," the episode makes the viewer a promise: "You're gonna carry that weight." It sure looks like Spike's dead, but some fans prefer to think he's just unconscious. Indeed, Spike has dodged death many times throughout the series, including in his first battle with Vicious during Session #5, "Ballad of Fallen Angels."

Series creator Shinichirō Watanabe has said the answer ultimately lies with the viewer. Speaking at London Comic-Con in 2014, he said:

"I want the audience to interpret it however they want to. Just because I put something there, doesn't mean they have to believe it, and I want them to take it and interpret it for themselves. If I say something in an interview, that tends to make it official, so I try to avoid giving a definite answer. In the past, people watching my shows have come up with better ideas than my original intention for the story. So I think it's good to let people use their imaginations."

One of the films that inspired "Cowboy Bebop" was "Taxi Driver," a film which climaxes with a shoot-out followed by an epilogue that may be a dying dream. Like Scorsese's film, "Bebop" trusts its audience enough to let them choose what they want to believe about its ending.

The fates of Jet and Faye

Spike may be the hero of "Cowboy Bebop," but he's not the only one. He has four companions throughout the series: ex-cop Jet Black, wannabe femme fatale Faye Valentine, eccentric adolescent hacker Radical Edward, and super-intelligent "data-dog" Ein. Ed and Ein get the closest thing to a happy ending; in Session 24, "Hard Luck Woman," they leave the Bebop together to find a new home. As the pair literally walk off into the sunset, Spike and Jet gorge on boiled eggs to distract themselves from loneliness while Faye finds her childhood home in ruins.

Jet and Faye's fates are much more ambiguous. In "The Real Folk Blues," Spike and Jet share a final meal of bell peppers and beef (minus the beef) before Spike goes off to face Vicious. Faye, who's realized the Bebop is her home now, fails to stop Spike from leaving. The last shots of them are of Jet watching Spike fly off and Faye crying alone in the ship's corridor.

If Spike is dead, then Jet and Faye are the only crew the Bebop has left. This is bitterly ironic since of all the main characters, they're the two who've shared the most hostile relationship. Speaking to IGN, Watanabe was reticent to share more about their ultimate fates:

"I've never really clearly stated what happens to Faye or Jet in any official situation. What happens to them after Spike leaves the ship? Don't also forget that in the last scene of the series, Spike could be sleeping ... I guess you could say I don't think they'd get along very well."

Where this writer falls

Sorry to disappoint, but I fall on the side that Spike's dead. I view "The Real Folk Blues" as similar to "The Sopranos" finale; Spike dying isn't the only possible interpretation but it is the most logical one. In just the context of the episode itself, the shaman Laughing Bull tells Jet that, "[Spike's] star is about to fall." Sure enough, a star is seen going out during the end credits after Spike collapses.

This is a call-back to Sessions #12-13, "Jupiter Jazz," where Laughing Bull described a falling star as the sign of a warrior whose battle is over; in this episode, the warrior in question was the one-shot character Gren. This episode ends not with the usual closing but with an upward tilt into the sky. "The Real Folk Blues" ends the same way; the visual language of the scene makes us feel like we're watching Spike's soul ascend to heaven.

Spike dying would also do a much better job bringing the series full circle. Session #1, "Asteroid Blues," opened with flashes of the Red Dragons' initial ambush of Spike after Julia stood him up. Spike returning to face Vicious after losing Julia forever and not escaping this time would provide a perfectly symmetrical ending. Likewise, in Session #20, "Mad Pierrot," Spike says one day he won't be coming back to the Bebop. What better place to end the series than with the day that finally happens?

Whatever happens, happens

Throughout "Bebop," Spike was always cavalier about the thought of dying. One of his most famous lines is "Whatever happens, happens." Spike's most direct confrontation with the grim reaper is in Session #6, "Sympathy for the Devil." The villain of this story is Wen, a harmonica-playing immortal child. In the episode's climax, as Wen takes his last breath, he finally understands what it's like to die and asks Spike if he does too. Spike doesn't; he responds by throwing Wen's harmonica in the air and mimes blasting it with a finger gun, whispering "Bang." Spike repeating the gesture in his last moment is him answering Wen's question.

As for the lack of resolution with Faye and Jet, that's because "The Real Folk Blues" is the ending of Spike's story; the last time we see them is the last time Spike saw either of them. The lives of others continue on after you're gone, but we don't get to see the rest of their lives because Spike won't be able to.

I don't think Spike's fate is a total downer of an ending, though. A theme of "Cowboy Bebop" is that running away from your problems is like living in a dream. The closing title card of the feature "Cowboy Bebop: Knockin' On Heaven's Door" asks viewers, "Are you living in the real world?" By facing death, Spike answered that question and proved he was really alive.