“Gateway Shuffle” (season 1, episode 4; originally aired 11/13/1998)
The opening scene of “Gateway Shuffle” has a very satisfying comedic mischievousness to it, one whose light-hearted tone is striking considering that most of the episode is as suspenseful and brooding as a horror movie. In this first scene, we rejoin Faye, now stranded in a ship that’s run out of fuel and fast running out of other provisions. The sequence is especially ironic considering that at the end “Honky Tonk Women,” it seemed like Faye was making a clean break from just about everything and was not going to be heard from again—ever.
The way we meet up with her again at the beginning of the episode is especially clever when you consider that this is the writers’ way of bringing a new character into the fold. In “Gateway Shuffle,” Faye proves her usefulness to the Bebop’s crew and becomes an unofficial crewmember. She’s no longer a long-legged puzzle: she now gets to proves that she’s a pro to the boys on a mission where they’re not competing but rather cooperating for the same goal/prize.
I say that “Gateway Shuffle” has horrific overtones but it’s actually more like a Hammet-esque mystery than a true-blue horror story. Still, much of the episode is dominated by the ghoul-like grimace of Twinkle Maria “Mama” Murdock, the leader of a vicious gang of eco-terrorists and boy, is Mama scary. On the planet Ganymede, the sea rat, a very expensive but, according to Jet, “totally disgusting” dolphin-like fish, is considered a local specialty. Mama and her gang of sons guns down everyone but the Bebop crew in cold blood in a restaurant that serves sea rat; Mama’s sons do this while wearing bizarre and not a little bit grotesque novelty sea rat masks.
The carnage of the scene is shown to us through one of several tense and consummately well-edited montage sequences where we see isolated images of dead bodies and overturned tables while an automated sound recording spells out the intentions of the Space Warriors, Mama’s gang. The juxtaposition of the dead bodies with the recording’s obliviously chipper tone and the Goblin-esque trilling of Yoko Kanno’s xylophone score is especially ghastly. The scene reminds me of the beginning of Dawn of the Dead.
With her dimwitted brood of henchmen, Mama is basically a monster in search of a castle or maybe just a swamp to haunt. Her triangular face, ear-to-ear grin and leering eyes make her one of Bebop’s most memorable bounties. You don’t know what she’s planning throughout most of the episode and she’s kept tied up in a single location (the Bebop) for most of the show. But that just makes her all the more creepy. Suggestive explanations of what Mama has planned are all that we have to go on, reminding us that “Gateway Shuffle” is essentially a locked room mystery—except the world outside this episode’s locked room is all of outer space.
“Gateway Shuffle” is a battle of personalities: the inconspicuous, happy-go-lucky Faye is pitted against the omnipresent, evil Mama. They are polar opposites of each other. On the one hand, Mama’s influence is pervasive, a concept that’s visualized through the motif of portentously flickering computer screens (these images are made to look that much more foreboding thanks to the show’s frequent use of silent, static takes). Mama’s responsible for everything the characters respond to. You can see that idea being vaguely hinted at when she’s first apprehended by Spike. The lingering shot of the back of Mama’s head as Spike boasts that her truant son Harrison won’t be getting punished by her anytime soon is pretty chilling.
Faye on the other hand spends most of “Gateway Shuffle” trapped in her tiny space ship. She provides Spike with a single vital clue as to what Mama’s planning and she only gets her hands on that clue because she’s lucky. Then again, Spike wouldn’t be able to figure out what Mama’s planning, let alone survive Mama’s scheme, without Faye.
Like Spike, Faye improvises her way through events so that she’s never a highly visible presence in this week’s episode. This is a big contrast with Mama, whose acts of violence characterize her as a creature that needs the spotlight to survive, like the scene where we hold our breaths and wait for someone to stop Mama from theatrically pressing a button and releasing a deadly virus. Faye on the other hand only pops up on the Bebop’s computer screens to have brief, two-way conversations with Spike.
Faye and Mama are being juxtaposed and not Mama and Spike because we presumably already know whom Spike is. Faye’s identity is a little more vague, making Mama a good foil for her. For instance, we know that Mama is an ideologue, someone whose strong-arm beliefs and tactics wind up blowing up in her face by the end of the episode. Faye however acts just like Spike might if he were in her place in “Gateway Shuffle.” The way that the canister holding Mama’s virus just drops into her lap is almost exactly how you would expect Spike to just happen upon such a vital clue. Faye’s a reactive character, just like Spike and, yeah, I guess Jet, too (he’s still pretty much just a sidekick though).
That having been said, for that crucial identification to matter, Spike has to recognize Faye as a kindred spirit by episode’s end. The scene where she works with Spike to stop Mama’s missiles from reaching their target destination is that moment. I love this sequence because it’s the moment where Faye and Spike stop competing with each other. Spike and Faye only really come together as a team when they both drop the ball and have to escape the slowly closing hyperspace tunnel before it traps them permanently in hyperspace. The sequence where Faye and Spike are gunning their ships’ engines as hard as they can to get out is nail biting, absolutely. But it’s also a great way for the two characters to finally bond. They see each other in a whole new light thanks to this mutual near-death experience even if neither one of them wastes time afterwards acknowledging that their relationship has evolved.
The Bebop is now almost at capacity. The only person missing at this point is Ed.