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Every episode of Cowboy Bebop is good, except one

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The sci-fi Western noir anime is nigh-perfect — emphasis on ‘nigh’

Spike, Faye, Jet, and Ed in Cowboy Bebop: The Movie. Image: Sunrise, Bones

Fans of the 1998 sci-fi western noir anime Cowboy Bebop can agree on three things: The series is still amazing, even after all these years; Yoko Kanno’s score is immaculate and arguably the greatest thing to come out of the series aside from the series itself; and there are, at most, one or two episodes out of the 26-episode anime that are kinda “ehh.”

Look, I know some of y’all just started yelling, but can’t we just keep it a buck fifty here? I am not alone in saying this, just look at the comments of the list of Cowboy Bebop episodes we recommended last month where, in-between several dozen replies shouting at me for not recommending newcomers just watch the entire series (which I totally did, mind you), folks debated which of among the 26 episodes in the series was the weakest. Some suggested that either “Sympathy for the Devil” or “Toys in the Attic” were the worst episode of the series. I respectfully disagree. “Sympathy for the Devil” features an intriguing antagonist whose nature not only harkens to the series’ overarching theme of “living in the past,” but materially alludes to a major event in the history of Cowboy Bebop’s universe. “Toys in the Attic,” while inconsequential to the anime’s main characters’ arcs, is a fun and spooky send-up to Ridley Scott’s 1979 horror classic Alien that collectively foregrounds and juxtaposes Spike, Faye, Jet, and Ed’s personalities for the first time since Ed’s introduction. It’s fun!

Neither of these episodes is the “worst” episode of Cowboy Bebop. That honor goes to an episode so unexceptional that it is seemingly non-existent in the memories of fans of the series. Here’s why the 21st episode of the series, “Boogie Woogie Feng Shui,” is the nadir of a near-perfect show.

Jet Black and Pao Meifa searching for the sunstone in “Boogie-Woogie Feng Shui” Image: Sunrise

Set smack-dab in the middle of the series’ final quarter, “Boogie Woogie Feng Shui” centers on the character of Jet, the eldest member of the Bebop bounty crew and captain of the ship. After receiving a cryptic email riddle from Pao Pu-Zi, an estranged acquaintance and noted master of “universal Feng Shui” (more on that later), Jet scours Alba City on Mars in search of him — only to discover that Pao is now dead. Visiting Pao’s grave, Jet meets Pao Meifa, Pao’s teenage daughter, before being fired upon by mysterious assailants. Eluding their would-be pursuers by diving into a nearby river, Jet brings Pao Meifa back to the Bebop. Learning that her late father attempted to contact Jet prior to his death, Pao Meifa is convinced that his message relates to a fabled “sunstone” hidden somewhere on Mars and begs Jet in her quest to find both it and hopefully the truth about her father’s demise.

The problem with “Boogie Woogie Feng Shui,” or more specifically, why it earns the distinction of being the “worst” episode of Cowboy Bebop in my estimation, is that it ultimately amounts to a shaggy dog detour that focuses on a particular character (Jet) that does nothing to advance his arc or deepen the audience’s understanding of him, before concluding with a climax that as anything but climactic. And sure, this same criticism could arguably be applied to “Toys in the Attic,” but what that episodes offers in lieu of shortcomings — and what “Boogie Woogie Feng Shui’’ conspicuously lacks — is time spent in the respective headspaces of Bebop’s core characters. It juxtaposes and offers a peek into the thought processes and personality quirks of Spike, Faye, Jet, and Ed as they mull over the mystery at the heart of the episode.

The previous two Jet-specific episodes, “Ganymede Elegy” and “Black Dog Serenade,” which respectively delved into the character’s history via his past failed relationship with a woman named Alisa and the story of how he lost his arm as a member of the Inter-Solar System Police force. What “Boogie Woogie Feng Shui” lacks in comparison to either “Ganymede Elegy” and “Black Dog Serenade” is a central concept that fully comes together. The episode as a whole centers around “Universal Feng Shui,” a philosophy which itself centers on relationships and bonds between living beings (i.e. humans) and their environment are formed through a sort of “law of attraction” known as the “chi of magnetism.” Jet and Pao Meifa’s bond is the focus of “Boogie Woogie Feng Shui,” with the two serendipitously meeting by way of their shared connection in the form of Pao Pu-Zi, but Jet seems to be the only one of the two who seems to express anything resembling an intimate interest in the other. Furthermore, it’s especially odd that for an episode centered around relationships and auras of attraction that the rest of the Bebop crew, whose dynamic as a group would otherwise seem a perfect example of and focus for applying Meifa’s “chi of magnetism” theory, are rendered almost entirely peripheral to Jet and Meifa’s ongoing search for the sunstone. There’s no real reason for them to be involved anyway since there’s no actual bounty for these bounty hunters to hunt, and that certainly doesn’t work in the episode’s favor.

Pao Pu-Zi’s grave decorated with Pao Meifa’s Feng Shui Compass in “Boogie Woogie Feng Shui” Image: Sunrise

How “Boogie Woogie Feng Shui” wraps up the setup ultimately reads better on paper than how it actually plays out on screen. After Jet and Meifa finally recover the sunstone Ed accidentally discovers that, when combined with Meifa’s Luopan board, the stone can be used as a magnetic compass pointing to Pao Pu-Zi’s last known whereabouts. Piloting the Bebop into hyperspace, Jet and company open a wormhole in hyperspace by shooting the sunstone with a blast from the Swordfish II’s cannon, revealing a pocket dimension where Pao Pu-Zi’s ship is stranded. Running out of oxygen and with no means of escape, Pao Pu-Zi reveals that he sent his message to Jet to exert his own “chi of magnetism” with the hope that he would bring his daughter with him so that he could say goodbye. The episode ends with Meifa making peace with her father, returning to Mars, and Jet reflecting on how the one thing that’s changed since his encounter with Meifa is that he never looks at the horoscope pages when checking the news now, so as not to inadvertently seal his own fate.

Creator Shinichirō Watanabe can’t coalesce the parts of a fascinating story into a satisfying conclusion. What’s missing for the episode ultimately, aside from any particularly noteworthy or memorable moments of action or character development, is any semblance of clear tie-in between the themes of the episode and the series as a whole. There’s nothing here comparable to how Wen’s secret yearning for death in “Sympathy for the Devi” mirrors and foreshadows Spike’s own ultimate fate in the series, or how Gren’s ruminations on what it means to be a “comrade” in “Jupiter Jazz” compel the audience to examine the partnership between Spike, Jet, and Faye aboard the Bebop. It doesn’t help either that this episode is sandwiched between “Pierrot Le Fou,” one of the most iconic and action-packed episodes of the series, and “Cowboy Funk,” a fan-favorite episode for its central antagonist Teddy Bomber and Spike’s half-witted nemesis and comedic foil Cowboy Andy.

Ultimately, “Boogie Woogie Feng Shui” a so-so episode in a series defined by spectacularly unique, tightly focused, and enduringly memorable highs. While it certainly is not without its own hints of charm, it never quite fully comes into its own and could easily be skipped, but arguably is so relatively inoffensive that it wouldn’t even matter if you did.