1. Cowboy Bebop's first episode is among the most heartbreaking
Though "Asteroid Blues" takes place before Faye, Ed and Ein join the gang, the debut episode of Cowboy Bebop does a fantastic job of setting the tone for the series. The kinetic animation, stellar soundtrack and general lawless whimsy work together to establish a universe you immediately want to explore -- on top of telling an engaging story -- all in the time it takes to do watch a 7-Minute Abs triple feature.
In those 20 minutes we don't learn a whole lot about Spike, the perpetually chill bounty hunter at the center of the series, but if you look closely, you can glean a couple of things through his targets.
Bandit-tweaker Asimov doesn't share a ton of personality traits with Spike (nor does Asimov's partner in life and crime, Katerina, for that matter). Whereas Spike is cool and collected, Asimov is like a rabid dog trapped in a human's body, just waiting for an excuse to lash out. This would explain why Asmiov thought it was a good idea to steal from an omnipresent organized crime syndicate that seemingly rules the solar system.
And we're not talking about pocketing some loose change from the petty cash box, here. Asimov went as far as to snatch an entire bag of Bloody Eye, a rare and valuable drug that greatly enhances the user's perception (and aggression). Imagine a Mario Super Star made entirely out of cocaine, and then inject that into the base of your skull -- that's what it feels like to use Bloody Eye.
To make matters worse? Ol' Asimov has been getting high on his own supply.
During his fruitless search for buyers across Tijuana, Asimov is pursued by syndicate goons, using Bloody Eye to evade capture and cause a lot of chaos in the process. Not exactly subtle for a space fugitive, which is why it makes sense that Spike is able to track both Asimov and Katerina pretty quickly.
Though Asimov is not one for small talk, Spike does strike up a conversation with Kat. At first, she believes the shaggy-haired stranger to be your run-of-the-mill puckish rogue, but all the while Spike is sizing up his bounty. She even lets her guard down, admitting that she can see herself living out the rest of her days on Mars. Noticing that Kat's "pregnant" belly is more than a little suspect, Spike outs himself as a bounty hunter.
Spike isn't joking around -- he's speaking from experience. As we learn later on in the series, it's impossible to escape the clutches of the syndicate. More importantly, one of the major themes of the show is how futile it is to try to escape from your past. Even if Katerina did make it to Mars, what then? That time bomb of an addict husband is going to blow a fuse sooner or later, and their little fantasy world will come crashing down faster than you can say "intervention."
As it so happens, it's more like "sooner" than "later."
Chased by bounty hunters, gangsters and eventually the police, Asimov gets increasingly desperate. Attempting to avoid capture from these three parties in a small ship makes for a thrilling action scene, but there's really only one way it ends for Bonnie and Clyde.
Until this moment, Katerina really was holding onto the hope, the dream of Mars. But now, with a fleet of opposing ships in front of her and a lover reduced to a sweaty, rabid pug in the next seat over, the illusion doesn't hold up. The entire reason Kat embarked on this dangerous smuggling run was all in order to leave the life she knew behind. The camera slooowly zooms in on her face and it's just dead. There's nothing there anymore. That technique saved a good amount of money on animation to be sure, but it's also an effective way to show that every ounce of hope Katerina was holding onto has been drained away completely.
Spike sidles up next to the doomed pair just as Katerina puts Asimov down like mangy animal.
For most of the episode, we've seen that Spike is a pretty unflappable guy. Minus getting choked out by Asimov in the middle of the episode, for the most part Spike oozes effortless confidence. But seeing this one act of violence seems to shake him. Maybe it's because he was once himself so close to running away from the syndicate with a lover, Julia, back before everything went sideways. At this point in the series, Spike thinks that Julia betrayed him, so looking at a woman execute the man she had meant to escape with really hits home. That confidence disappears, and all that's left is a broken man, half-alive.
Of course, Asimov's ship is then immediately torn apart, the vials of Bloody Eye spilling out from Katerina's "pregnant" belly.
I've watched this episode more than a dozen times, and I've never really been able to decide why Katerina would kill Asimov right before they're both about to die anyway. Was an act of mercy, putting a rabid dog out of his misery? Getting one in the head is probably a better way to go than asphyxiating in the cold vacuum of space, after all. Or was it closer to murder, a white-hot flash of rage that sought to place blame on the man who kept them both out of paradise?
Like the rest of the episode, this moment sets a precedent that will echo throughout the rest of the series: The past is faster than you, and one day, it's going to catch up.
2. An impossibly cruel villain has an even crueler origin story
There is no shortage of sympathetic bad guys in Cowboy Bebop. We've already mentioned Katerina, but there's also an immortal boy-man and that digitized cult leader that turned out to be a bedridden hacker. As it turns out, the most terrifying villain in the series also has the most tragic backstory.
"Pierrot Le Fou" is a fan-favorite episode for a reason. Its story is simple enough: A superpowerful maniac known as "Mad Pierrot" is wreaking havoc with no discernable rhyme or reason for his actions. But it's the telling of this story that's stuck with audiences for close to two decades now. It centers around Pierrot himself, who radiates saccharine evil, like a cursed children's storybook.
With seemingly supernatural strength and flight capabilities, Pierrot easily dispatches Spike upon their chance meeting, and has a lot of fun doing it. The mad killer buzzes around like a bumblebee, audibly grinding his teeth before slaying his victims. If Tim Burton and Hayao Miyazaki teamed up to make a movie about a serial killer, it would star Mad Pierrot.
Strangely, a common stray cat scares Pierrot away before he can finish Spike off, but we know there has to be another showdown. Soon enough, the Bebop recieves a special invitation to a mysterious taking place at (where else) the solar system's creepiest abandoned theme park.
The showdown proceeds as you might expect. Heaps of unsettling atmosphere, strangely pristine attractions, automated robots waddling in out of nowhere and getting shot for their trouble. Spike's still pretty banged up from his previous encounter with Pierrot, which gives the fight scenes more of an edge than they would have had otherwise.
Meanwhile, Jet's been busy pretending not to care whether the person he won't admit is his best friend lives or dies. With the help of Ed, the pair discover that Mad Pierrot used to be a man called Tongpu, who was warped into a psycho-killer by what's essentially a Clockwork Orange version of the Super Soldier program.
Science goes horribly awry, Pierrot eventually snaps and turns on his captors, what hath god wrought, etc etc. The "created by experiments" conceit isn't exactly original, and while the flashback sequence is effective, it's kind of a bummer to realize that the living horror that is Mad Pierrot has such a generic origin. But the backstory exposition is important for a couple of reasons. Specifically, it gives us a reason for Pierrot's intense and irrational fear of cats, since one particularly indifferent feline stared at him while aforementioned traumatic procedures were performed.
Though Pierrot initially used his newfound freedom to get revenge on those who ruined him, soon enough his targets became more random. The way we're told, Pierrot was regressing psychologically, to the point that he was mindlessly killing just because it was fun. Sort of like a Benjamin Button situation, only not really like Benjamin Button at all but more like a five-year-old with an Iron Man suit and no sense of right and wrong. And as Jet puts it, "There's nothing more pure and cruel as a child."
Powerful as Pierrot may be, having the brain of a kindergartner has a couple of drawbacks.
Pierrot absolutely had the drop on Spike here, but he flinched because he saw that god damned lab cat in Spike's eyes; both of them have different colors in each iris. Hesitating for just a moment was enough to earn Pierrot a knife in the leg.
Up to this point, Pierrot hadn't even taken a scratch, thanks to his hyper-advanced defense system. But when that little blade hit its mark, and Pierrot immediately unraveled. He collapses to the floor, his face soaked in tears, crying out for a mother he doesn't know.
In that moment, this irredeemable monster becomes an innocent toddler. It's unclear whether Tongpu voluntarily signed up for those experiments, but it's probably safe to say "process may disfigure you into a horrible murderclown baby" was nowhere in the contract. It only took a few seconds, but that initial revulsion turned into pity. Oddly, it seems fitting that he was immediately crushed by a giant parade robot, a childish toy that can't comprehend its own lethality.
There's not really a lesson here. Spike got into a grudge match with a mentally-ill man bearing the powers of a supervillain and the mind of a child, and the child lost, screaming for his mommy to the very end. It's shocking and depressing and it leaves a heavy, rotten stone sitting in your stomach. But hey, at least it was a hell of an episode of television.