[Note: this was originally written last weekend… then I found out that TV Club Classic was taking a week off. Damn those mushrooms… ]
“Mushroom Samba” is an endearingly trippy Cowboy Bebop episode. I couldn’t have picked a better episode for Thanksgiving weekend if I tried. And I didn’t plan it this way either, I assure you. Which is also fitting: the plot of “Mushroom Samba” is as improvised as Bebop episodes get. It’s a weird but pleasantly light genre pastiche that throws together characters whose outfits and accessories recall blaxtaploitation films like Super Fly and Coffy and even the spaghetti western Django. In the episode, the Bebop’s crew starve, hallucinate and sit on their butts while Radical Edward and Einstein the data dog chase an illegal mushroom dealer that side-swipes the Bebop and runs away.
But wait a minute, what is a character dressed like Super Fly dragging an empty coffin behind him doing in a Cowboy Bebop episode? Well, there’s no real reason just as the Bebop crew has no real plan to solve their fundamental problem: they’re out of money, gas and food. This forces them to prioritize, making food their biggest priority. Everything else comes secondary, including linear logic, apparently.
“Mushroom Samba” is an episode structured around a series of loosely inter-connected gags, all of which, in some way, bring the Bebop crew closer to finding food. The episode doesn’t have a traditional, easy-to-follow plot because being without food for so long has made the crew lose their minds a little. They don’t even really need ‘shrooms for things to get really weird for Spike, Faye and Jet, but it certainly adds a certain extra something to the episode’s proceedings.
That absurd off-the-cuff tone also playfully reinforces the show’s central ethos: to live an improvised life, one must be willing to roll with the punches, no matter what strange new form they may take. Things have a way of working out for the group and that’s always something to be thankful for (“Quit complaining and be thankful that we can even eat!”).
When we first meet Spike, Jet, Faye, Ed and Ein in “Mushroom Samba,” they are all starving. This is the status quo that the show is constantly returning its protagonists to: broke and hungry. But this time, our heroes don’t have a bounty to chase. They can’t even actively pursue the guy that hits their ship and runs off since they don’t have any gas. Their plan up until that point was just to drift into Europa’s orbit with a little help from inertia. But being hit by a stray spaceship has forced the Bebop to crash-land in the middle of Western World Development 8271, a barely inhabited desert. While Faye is doubled over in the ship’s bathroom (she eats emergency rations that expired a year ago) and Jet and Spike are murmuring over how to fix the Bebop, Ed and Ein set out to find food.
Most of “Mushroom Samba” sets up a series of fast-and-loose gags later on in the episode. In the first half of the episode, Ed and Ein meet: Coffee, a bounty hunter modeled after Pam Grier’s Coffy; Shaft, one of the Shaft brothers; and Domino, a dealer of illegal mushrooms and the guy that smashed into the Bebop and ran off. The scenes in which we meet the episode’s cast of supporting characters are hilarious unto themselves because they’re packed with little sight gags and a winningly outré sense of humor. Series writers Michiko Yokote and Shinichiro Watanabe abjectly refuse to take anything in “Mushroom Samba” seriously. Everything’s a fever dream, everything’s a gas, everything’s hysterical. Oh hey, is that a Django reference? Oh, it is.
Speaking of which, the scene where Shaft lays out his grievance with Domino is especially funny. He’s standing in the middle of the street, wearing Super Fly’s iconic purple overcoat. And he accusing yells, “I’m the younger of the Shaft brothers that bought mushrooms from you!” Domino, like us, is slow to understand. Shaft then rhetorically asks Domino if he’s wondering why he’s dragging an empty coffin with him. What, why a coffin? “It’s because I’m going to go home after putting your corpse inside,” Shaft starts to say. And then the coffin gets unceremoniously run over by a passing truck that seems to come out of nowhere.
The fact that the scene continues beyond this point makes this formal introduction to Shaft and Domino that much more funny. After all, we still don’t know what possible harm Domino’s mushrooms could have possibly done to Shaft’s brother. “My big brother,” explains the now histrionic Shaft, “ate a mushroom he bought from you and laughed and laughed and twisted his intestines to death!” Domino tries to make it seem as if that’s not such a bad thing, if you think about it: “A happy way to die.” Yeah, yeah, a happy way to die…wait a minute, what?
Keep in mind, this all happens before Jet, Spike and Faye eat hallucinogenic mushrooms and start to freak out. The events with Shaft and Domino: these are both real, or at least, they’re real enough. Maybe this is how Ed normally sees the world: a weirdly benign place where everyone waves their arms over their heads in a panic and blabs inconsequential things. Ed chases Domino with a motorbike and attacks him with stink bug gas, which she also accidentally gases herself with. And then they get into a spectacularly strange chase scene involving two rockets launchers, characters modeled after semi-famous Blaxtaploitation characters, a speeding train, a Corgi dog, hallucinogenic mushrooms and a talking cow.
“Mushroom Samba” is as inexhaustibly joyful as it is because it’s totally elastic and high on its own giddiness. It’s a great palate cleanser and features a number of really well-choreographed gags, like the three-way comparison of what Jet, Spike and Faye are doing while they’re, uh, seeing things. For my money, Jet is the funniest tripper. As he sits and stares at his bonsai trees, he steadily becomes less and less lucid. He goes from mumbling about how, “Hey…you know, the world really is a great place…did I just say something,” to waking up with a tube of lipstick in either hand and a huge pink smear on his mouth. No, “Mushroom Samba” doesn’t make much more sense than that. But contrary to semi-popular thinking, I don’t really need an episode that’s as chipper and inspired as this to have a big point about life and the universe. Sometimes, it is just enough to be really good at being silly for silly’s sake.