“Heavy Metal Queen” (season 1, episode 7; originally aired 12/04/1998)
[Writer's Note: As commenters have noted, I got V.T.'s gender wrong. This is something that I've always been confused by when I've watched this episode. I just assumed he was a gay man. Apparently, I was wrong. Changes to the article now reflect V.T.'s correct gender. Apologies for the mistake.]
After “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Heavy Metal Queen” is a bit of a disappointment. Though it features a lot of fun individual moments, “Heavy Metal Queen” is a rather slight episode, one that doesn’t have the focus or the mystery that I maintain “Sympathy for the Devil” piles on for the sake of making a point about the instability inherent in the series’s universe. “Heavy Metal Queen” by contrast just seems unintentionally slapdash. Its events don’t really accomplish anything beyond making Jet more of a supporting character and less of a sidekick, though that’s an almost accidental development. “Heavy Metal Queen” also shows Spike and Faye working together in ways that we haven’t seen them do since “Gateway Shuffle.” Which is reasonable since that was only two episodes ago. Still, it’s a little disappointing because it reminds us that Spike and Faye already came together as a team in “Gateway Shuffle,” an all-around more decisive, moody and satisfying episode.
Then again, the Bebop crew isn’t really the focus of “Heavy Metal Queen.” The real star of this week’s episode is V.T., the mysterious trucker that Spike and Fay team-up with in order to catch Decker, this week’s bounty. When we first meet V.T., we first see her long-haul rig, which looks just like the trucks in Stuart Gordon’s minor gem Space Truckers. V.T.’s ship is a long, irregularly shaped container with jet thrusters and a cockpit. When you compare her rig with the spaceships that Faye and Spike respectively use to pursue Decker, you realize just how different V.T. is from our bounty hunters.
V.T., a mysterious trucker whose name people take turns guessing at ala Rumpelstiltskin, was designed to be categorically against what Spike and Faye stand for. Even though she leads a necessarily itinerant lifestyle like Spike does, she considers his job to be necessarily nobler than Spike’s freelance bounty hunting. Weirdly enough, V.T. doesn’t object to the fact that Spike and his fellow bounty hunters make a profit by screwing over other people, many of whom they have never met before bounties were put on their heads. We know that almost every time Spike has chased a bounty down, the people he’s chasing deserve the fate they meet because of Spike’s direct involvement.
Instead, what’s troubling to V.T. about bounty hunters is a personal issue that she only hints at until the end of the episode. But what makes V.T. so much better than Spike? Well, first of all, V.T. considers chivalry to be a non-negotiable virtue. When Frito Bandito-esque bounty hunters try to rape a waitress at the bar Spike is recovering from a hangover in, V.T. immediately comes to her rescue. “So it’s a bounty hunter’s job to chase a woman’s ass instead of a bounty,” she spits out. These actions only serve to prove why, if these men actually did represent all the bounty hunters in the universe, V.T. would be right for saying, “Bounty hunters are all back-stabbing scum.”
They’re not however because Spike does help V.T. kick bad guy ass, too, though his motives aren’t as pure as V.T.’s are. Spike only backs V.T. up after he’s jostled by one of them. Blissfully ignorant of what just happened with the waitress, Spike tells us point-blank that the reason why he’s joining V.T. in beating these guys up is because the egg he was using to make a Prairie Oyster dropped into his lap after a bounty hunter accidentally pushes him. “Grudges over lost food are never pretty,” he grumbles before he starts putting out lights.
Still, that central difference between Spike and V.T.’s respective motives isn’t really developed in a meaningful way. Spike is willing to hear V.T. out when she says that “bounty hunters are all back-stabbing scum” even if he doesn’t think the reason V.T. gives him as to why is necessarily a negative quality. “As far as I know,” V.T. says, “they’re all living their lives by gambling.” Spike grins and readily concedes, “Well, maybe so.” Tension between V.T. and Spike only perfunctorily arises after V.T. figures out that Spike is not who she claims to be. They fall out but then re-unite later after V.T. selflessly offers to help a fellow trucker to catch the guy that hit his truck and ran. That guy happens to be Decker so V.T. throws Spike a bone and enlists his help, too. The two go their separate ways at the end of the episode and that’s about it.
The fact that there’s no lingering tension between Spike and V.T. doesn’t matter so much as the fact that V.T. doesn’t seem to affect Spike at all. Asimov’s woman, Ein, Faye, Mama, Vicious, Giraffe—all of these characters did something to Spike. By contrast, V.T. just sort of drifts in and out of Spike’s life, which is fine for a single episode but it leaves “Heavy Metal Queen” feeling slight.
This is admittedly a minor complaint considering that the humor, music and action scenes in this week’s episodes are all pretty much on-target. I especially love Yoko Kanno’s carnival-esque music during the chase scene in the Linus Mines. I’m mainly disappointed that “Heavy Metal Queen” ends on a relatively airy and inconclusive note while, I’d argue, the last six Bebop episodes have all otherwise felt like they mattered in some way (yes, even “Stray Dog Strut”).
So what is V.T. to Spike? Their relationship doesn’t really have any substantial stakes to it, which is probably why the episode ends on such a wishy-washy and nonsensical grace note that it does. Even the scene where Spike risks his life to save everybody else doesn’t really prove anything to V.T. besides what we already know: Spike is not entirely selfish.
But why does Spike need to prove himself to V.T., a character we’ll never see or hear from again? It’s not because he feels like he needs to disprove V.T.’s misconception about bounty hunters. Because if that’s the case, V.T.’s reason for hating bounty hunters (the death of his husband) should be introduced to Spike before he proves himself to V.T. so that Spike know why he needs to impress V.T. Ostensibly, Spike just does the right thing on instinct, proving that he is worth a damn after all. But even if that’s true, V.T.’s relationship with Spike isn’t strong enough to make “Heavy Metal Queen” more than an uncharacteristically weak episode in Cowboy Bebop’s original 26-episode run.