Even The Team Behind Cowboy Bebop Pushed Back On Its Ending

Warning: Major spoilers ahead for the ending of the original "Cowboy Bebop."

Shinichirō Watanabe's "Cowboy Bebop" offers an experience like no other — it is a genre hybrid exploration of the lives of four bounty hunters who cannot help but carry the unbearable weight of the past. As a result, the present, which is ever-fluctuating and volatile, becomes almost devoid of meaning, especially for our green-haired protagonist, Spike Spiegel.

While "Cowboy Bebop" has been about many things — adventures in space, camaraderie, and facing your inner demons — the anime is primarily centered on Spike's tussle with the past, and how it bogs him down to the point of blasé nihilism. "Whatever happens, happens," Spike says at one point, though this attitude toward life does not stem from apathy, but instead from unhealed trauma.

In the final episode of "Cowboy Bebop," "The Real Folk Blues (Part 2)," Spike has an epic confrontation with his former partner and nemesis, Vicious. The entirety of Spike's arc leads up to this inevitable moment, this mad dance between two people who want one another dead to achieve their own idea of retribution. Vicious dies in the end, but the episode ends with Spike walking out of the church grievously wounded, dropping to the ground while uttering, "Bang!" The screen cuts to black, as white doves flutter in the air.

Did Watanabe always plan this kind of resolution for Spike, and how did his team react to this? Here's a breakdown of how Watanabe conceived the ending, how it was received, and what the scene means for Spike Spiegel.

Everything ties back to 'Ballad of Fallen Angels'

The fifth session or episode of "Cowboy Bebop" season 1, "Ballad of Fallen Angels," is an unforgettable one. The episode marks the introduction of Vicious, and from the get-go, the viewers understand that this man exudes a ruthlessness unmatched by anyone else in the Red Dragon Crime Syndicate. Faye, who often finds herself in dangerous situations, is visibly spooked when Vicious kidnaps her, which further points to how unhinged he is as a person.

In an interview with the Daily Texan, Watanabe explained how Spike's fate had been written in stone even before the episodes were conceived, and how "Ballad of Fallen Angels" foreshadowed the ending of the anime:

"Actually all of the episodes that contain Vicious that come out in 'Cowboy Bebop' are directly related to the ending. Even before I made the first episode, I already had the ending in mind. Even though I had the ending in mind by myself, I was opposed by my staff. They were upset because they were saying that we wouldn't be able to make a continuation. So I told them I'd think about it a little more, but ultimately I decided to go with my original idea."

Watanabe's team understandably pushed back against the ending, as the death of the protagonist would mean the end of the series. "Cowboy Bebop" without Spike would be akin to "Tokyo Ghoul" without Kaneki — Spike is the soul of the show, as his outlook toward life encapsulates the philosophy of the show, directly contributing to the laid-back vibe.

Why Spike and Vicious' fight was inevitable from the get-go

To understand why Spike's fate was inevitable, it is important to delve into his past. The reasons behind Spike's and Vicious' rivalry in the anime have not been explicitly spelled out the same way it has been in the Netflix live-action series, which is exactly why it is so compelling. In "Ballad of Fallen Angels," we know Spike is running away from something in the past, has a possible connection with the Syndicate, and the return of Vicious compels him to confront parts of himself he had left behind or buried deep within.

Everything obviously leads back to Julia, who Spike was in love with while being a part of the Syndicate, and his rivalry with Vicious stems from this aspect of his life. After Julia's apparent death, Spike moves through his existence like a ghost — present, but not really present, simulating a life with extremely real stakes and risks, while never taking anything to heart, or seriously, for that matter. After learning  Julia might be still alive, something inside Spike is jolted back into place, almost like being resuscitated from a near-death experience and finally being able to live.

Watanabe understands that Spike's motivation, in the end, is one thing and one thing only: to avenge Julia, and the only way to do this is to kill Vicious. "I have a debt to pay," he tells Jet earlier on, as killing Vicious is something he must do, at the cost of even losing his own life. Every moment in his life has led to the final fight in the church, where Vicious wields a katana, and he, a gun, and the two wound each other brutally and relentlessly until the other drops dead. Reality is a meaningless construct without Julia's love, and only vengeance can lead him back to who he truly is.

See you, space cowboy...

In the same interview with the DT, Watanabe stated he's unsure whether Spike was dead or alive, which further adds to the open-ended nature of the ending:

"I've never officially said that he's died. At this point, I can tell you that I'm not sure if he's alive or dead. I think probably rather than being yelled at for killing Spike, I think ... people are more upset that I might make a continuation."

Although Watanabe refused to offer a set answer about Spike's death, there are certain cues and thematic parallels to look out for during the scene. The white doves are similar to the ones that fly upwards when Spike watches Julia die in his arms, which further heightens his existential ennui, snapping all desires to lead a full, meaningful life. Spike's death is undoubtedly upsetting for "Cowboy Bebop" fans, but his fate was always tied to Julia's, and that of Vicious, bringing things full circle from a narrative standpoint.

Hence, it is a gut-wrenching ending, for sure, but it is one that sums up what Spike stood for all along. A broken-hearted, green-haired bounty hunter, with the zest for life robbed from him, existing in a limbo state until he had to do what needed to be done. We are always going to have to carry that weight — the one that comes with killing our darlings.