Cowboy Bebop: “Brain Scratch”
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Cowboy Bebop: “Brain Scratch”

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Cowboy Bebop

“Brain Scratch”

Season 1, Episode 23

In “Brain Scratch,” writer Keiko Nobumoto delivers a thoughtful episode that’s expressly about the mystery of the week’s protagonist. This is refreshing because for once, a disposable character doesn’t just serve as a foil for Spike or one of the other members of the Bebop’s crew. Londes is the leader of Scratch, a cyber-cult that encourages members to leave their bodies behind and find inner peace by becoming pure digital information. Londes is an enigmatic figurehead that indirectly evokes the Aum Shinrikyo cult that came to world prominence in 1995 after the now-infamous Tokyo Sarin Gas Attacks.

As the human face of Scratch, Londes’ motives are suspicious because of the weird gulf between the group’s message and the mysterious 100 or so members that have died (that number is an approximate figure, as quoted by a news program). With his saucer-sized dilated eyes and sheet-white pallor, Londes looks like he has simultaneously been brainwashed but is also about to hypnotize prospective members of Scratch. Spike and the group spend the entirety of “Brain Scratch” trying to decipher Londes’ motives, which are ultimately not really about transcendence but rather one individual’s fears of dying.

The mystery of Londes’ identity begins with a promotional video for Scratch. We find out through the group’s rhetoric what its general philosophy is: As in Buddhism, suffering is inherently connected with physical sensations. According to Londes, the body, “is an existence all too impure to store the gods within us called souls.” The human body is therefore a scapegoat for the many passions that lead people astray. “As long as there is a body, desire will be born,” Londes solemnly intones. “As long as there is desire, human ego will not disappear. Humans will continue to fight to fulfill their bodies’ desire, and it will never end.” Scratch is thus “an electronic transcendence group” that seeks to “free your soul from your body and lead you to the infinite sea of electrons.”

It should be noted that the Bebop crew’s interest in Londes is not a matter of altruism. They’re not after him to avenge the deaths of approximately 100 strangers. In fact, Spike and Jet only become aware of Scratch after they see that Faye’s been brainwashed by Scratch and is now trying to leave her body in order to cancel out the massive debt she still owes from when her previous hospitalization. Also, as Spike speculates, Faye probably sought out Scratch because of the bounty on Londes’ head. So there’s no point where our amoral protagonists’ motives are directly utilitarian. Their objectives are always primarily personal and then inadvertently selfless.

This makes the Bebop crew the perfect group to stop Scratch, a cult led by an individual that masks his personal motivations behind impersonal rhetoric. This is made clear during Spike’s confrontation with Londes. While Jet and Ed independently trace the source of Scratch’s signal to the Alles Valley Hospice, Spike tries to rescue Faye from Londes. By this point, we know that Londes was never a person but rather a fictitious persona. But it’s still unclear who created that personality. Who is the boy on life support that Spike and Ed are visiting and how does he relate to Londes?

The answer to that key question is not immediately forthcoming because Londes was designed as a form of subterfuge. He masks his creator’s identity because Scratch was not created to serve a purely selfless philosophy. Instead, it’s a vindictive system designed to distract adherents long enough to senselessly hurt them. Londes, in other words, is a personified act of misdirection. But if he’s the Wizard, who’s the man behind the curtain?

Before I answer that, I just want to make a note of the subtle and exciting way that Nobumoto shows us that Londes cannot be trusted, not even when he seems to be speaking to a greater universal truth. When Spike finally confronts Londes, represented on a mini-Babel-like tower of televisions, Londes tells him that he blames television for distracting mankind. First he tells Spike that he thinks God is a man-made creation: “Why do you think people believe in God? It’s because they want to. God didn’t create humans. Humans created God.” Then Londes conflates television with religion: “Television controls people using information and steals their sense of reality. Yes. Now, television itself is a religion.”

At first, this philosophy is tempting and seemingly valid as it’s related via images of news anchors and TV ads, some of which we saw earlier when Spike was channel-surfing and stumbled upon Faye during a news segment about Scratch. Spike was distracting himself by flipping channels, lending credence to Londes’ theory about the dominant role television plays in our lives. It confirms Londes’ bleak conclusion, namely that “TV has created people that are easily fooled by such an idiotic fantasy.”

But then we see that the more time Spike spends listening to Londes, the weaker he becomes. And yet, while Spike swoons, Londes never breaks character; Londes was designed to believe his master’s rhetoric. The moment when Spike starts to feel dizzy while listening to Londes is crucial. It’s the decisive point where we, the viewer, realize that Londes isn’t right and that he’s trying to trick our happy-go-lucky hero—and us by proxy.

[SPOILER ALERT] Ultimately, we learn Londes is a virtual persona created by Ronny Spangen, the 15-year-old boy that Jet and Ed look in on. According to Jet, Spangen “became a vegetable two years ago” after a “medical accident.” So it’s fitting then that, once Spangen is unplugged from the Scratch network, Londes’ last words are a personal appeal from Spangen and not the kind of omniscient, emotionless stuff Spangen had previously spouted through Londes: “Why… am I the only one… ? Everyone should have the same body as me… No… I don’t want to disappear… I don’t want to disappear… ” Spangen/Londes’ words suggest that ultimately, we are responsible for our own actions. It was Spangen that created Scratch and Londes; he’s not a victim of circumstances or the corrupting influence of technology, but rather of his own poor decisions.

Which is why it’s important that Jet tells Spangen, before slapping handcuffs on one of his wrists,  “you’re no longer a boy: You’re a damn good con artist.” Spangen has to take responsibility for his actions. And it might as well start with a symbolic gesture like being carted off to jail (he is still catatonic, after all). “Brain Scratch” is another high-quality entry in the Cowboy Bebop canon. The nuanced way Nobumoto relates such a deeply satisfying individualistic philosophy through the episode’s mystery plot doesn’t really hit you until the episode concludes and you can reflect on everything that just happened. A big take-away is embedded throughout the episode, seemingly staring you right in the face the whole time. And it all comes to a very satisfying head during the episode’s final few minutes.