“Stray Dog Strut” (season 1, episode 2; originally aired 10/30/1998)
“Man, I hate kids and critters. They’re nothing but trouble.” –Spike Spiegel-
This week’s Cowboy Bebop is all about comic/dramatic timing and the continued exploration of Spike’s dislike of anything or anyone that isn’t a man. The kind of chauvinism that Spike espouses in “Stray Dog Strut” isn't serious enough to be worth worrying about, however, since it’s strictly directed at “kids and critters” and hence is only an indirect confirmation of the assumption that last week’s episode already set up, namely that women are the downfall of men. Still, as part of the show’s noirish inheritance, Spike’s staid dismissal of women, children, and dogs has to be laid out at some point if he’s going to slowly overcome his prejudices and/or learn to accept that he’s wrong. So there’s no need to take offense just yet. Or as Jet says, “Don’t get too hot-headed,” lest Spike come back and yelp in reply, “What part of me is hot-headed?!”
“Stray Dog Strut” tells you a lot about the show’s rich and uniquely off-kilter sense of humor. It’s the first episode to feature “Big Shot: For the Bounty Hunters,” an intergalactic TV show that both confirms and pokes fun of Spike’s self-image as a cowboy. There’s nothing serious or romantic about the mercenary lifestyle that “Big Shot” presents. Instead, it’s a warped view of the lone-wolf lifestyle Spike has embraced. The show’s hosts are, after all, a blonde wearing a mid-riff-revealing vest and a mustachioed man that addresses his audience of “300,000 bounty hunters” as “Amigo!”
“Big Shot” is a show designed to help bounty hunters find their next big score/victim. But the atonal difference between the show’s zealous banjo soundtrack and some of the show’s infographics plainly spells out one of Cowboy Bebop’s first major breaks with Spike’s self-centered worldview. For instance, when the show’s hosts give us a more formal introduction to this week’s bounty, the abnormally tall Abdul Hakim (modeled after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), they call him a “serial pet thief.” After that, they warn viewers that Hakim is worth nothing dead, showing us an image of a man hanging by the gallows while a lurid red sun hangs overhead. Amongst other things, this is one sign among many that the show’s weird sense of humor isn’t just a product of writers throwing darts at a broad target. The jokes in this week’s episode are all fairly measured, and even the more caricature-like supporting characters are never too broadly sketched out. I mean, the female host of “Big Shot” has big boobs, but they aren’t that big, are they? Fellas? Back me up here?
In any case, the plot of “Stray Dog Strut” is fairly basic: Hakim is on the run on Mars, and Spike has to track him down. All we know about Hakim is that he’s big, he’s no pushover, and he carries a big steel briefcase around with him wherever he goes. A thief steals that case early on, leading Hakim to chase him while Spike chases Hakim. Spike is joined later by a group of stone-faced men in straitjacket-like coats that all want Hakim’s briefcase. It’s a chase episode! But there’s more to it than just running around.
The deliberate tone and pacing of the gags that make the chase scenes work in “Stray Dog Strut” really becomes apparent during the episode’s pet shop confrontation. The fish tank showdown between Spike and the man that stole Hakim’s briefcase is exceptionally well timed. This is before the contents of the briefcase are revealed to be Ein, the data dog.
First, we see the thief peering into the fish tank from over his shoulder. A huge fish slowly swims past him. If the fish tank were a street separating the thief and Spike, the fish would be interchangeable with a passing truck or something else that’s big enough to obscure the thief’s view of Spike on the other side of the street. The fish moves past and reveals Spike’s face. Then we get a reverse shot from over Spike’s shoulder through the fish tank of the thief cringing and laughing nervously. Then back to over the thief’s shoulder to see Spike’s characteristically smug but cool smile. Spike motions to the top of the fish tank silently to suggest that the two need to talk. Then back to Spike’s side of the tank. The thief, now resigned, slowly moves his head up. Then a wide-angle shot of the fish tank that shows both the thief and Spike simultaneously as Spike cocks his gun. Only then does Spike talk.
This scene is the last time when Spike is in total control of his search for Hakim and/or Hakim’s briefcase. We’re shown how strategy has no place in a chase, especially one where a dog is involved, throughout the remaining episode but especially when a table of Go players is overturned after Ein runs underneath it, forcing the people chasing him to jump over or barrel right on through. There’s no point to strategy or skill in this episode, as it only sometimes works. When Abdul and Spike face off on the bridge, they seem evenly matched, but just as they’re about to trade more blows, Ein flies off the bridge and onto a nearby junk boat.
Which leads us back to why Spike can’t abide kids, critters, and, in almost every episode except this one, women. It doesn’t matter which group it is; all three gum up Spike’s plans after a point and force him to improvise in ways that he’s not comfortable with. This is a strange thought, considering that so much of the Bebop’s adventures are based around improvisatory plans hatched on the spur of the moment. This is the life that Spike’s chosen to lead, in other words, and he is good at making things up as he goes. But oftentimes, he has to acknowledge that his life is governed by a double standard: be loose and accommodating but not too loose. Control is key, and as usual, the writers did a very good job of showing how fine a line there is between living life on your own terms and totally losing your grip.