Of Cowboy Bebop’s 26 episode-long run, “Sympathy for the Devil” has always been a personal favorite of mine. It might not be the best episodes the show has to offer but it does hold up pretty well. Much of the episode revolves around an expressly incomprehensible line of dialogue, a line whose meaning is thankfully never explained. The line in question is a very weird declaration and the only line that vaguely justifies the episode’s title. Wen, a child musician famous for playing the blues harp, sneers at Spike when he calls him a “kid.” Wen says, “I may look this way but I’ve been alive since the days when humans crawled only on the face of the Earth.” Now there’s a line that would seem to require a good explanation.
But we never get one. And I’m very glad we don’t.
To me, “Sympathy for the Devil” is about accepting a certain amount of mystery in one’s life. There are just some things that we simply can’t wrap our minds around, no matter how logical they may superficially appear to be. If we found out what Wen meant, it’d give too much away. After all, we do find out how he, an old man in a very young body, has not aged over the course of several decades, maybe even centuries. Supplying a reason why is up to the viewer, a concept that Spike embraces when he repeats, “Like I do…” when Wen asks him, “Do you understand…? Do YOU…” just before dying.
There are a lot of intentionally unexamined concepts that fuel the drama in “Sympathy for the Duel.” For instance, there’s the loaded concept of a uniquely male concept of “duty” that Jet presents to Faye. She rolls her eyes at him but he sticks to his guns and tellingly replies, “That’s what I’d like to believe.” Making sense of the world is a matter of faith but in this case, Jet’s faith in macho camaraderie has already been confirmed by the time he claims that, “Women easily betray others, but men live for duty.” We’ve already seen the lengths that Giraffe, a 3 million-woolong bounty that Spike and Jet are tracking at the beginning of the episode, seemingly went to to rescue Wen. Wen’s just a boy while Zebra, the handicapped man that accompanies Wen everywhere he goes, is thought to be more capable. When Giraffe tells Spike to “Help…him…” we can’t help but assume he means Wen.
He doesn’t however because, as we find out, Zebra was the one being held hostage by Wen. This proves to us that Jet was right for claiming that men, in this case Giraffe, are bound to each other by the ephemeral obligation he calls “duty.” Spike also confirms that half of Jet’s sexist binary by insisting on chasing after Wen even after they retrieve Zebra’s comatose body. There’s no bounty on Wen’s head, so there’s no mercenary reason for Spike to pursue Wen, just an obligation to avenge Giraffe’s death.
But why is Giraffe’s death so honorable? Maybe it isn’t. I like the fact that we don’t know for sure why Jet and Spike feel obligated to finish what Giraffe started. All we know is that they’re horrified once they figure out that Giraffe died trying to protect Zebra, a friend and former colleague, from Wen. All that matters is that Jet and Spike are now affected by Giraffe’s Watchmen-esque death, an event that they now realize wasn’t just a wanton murder.
Still, I don’t think further explanation regarding why Spike needs to hunt down and kill Wen, a boy that can’t age and apparently can’t die, is necessary. Much of the plot in “Sympathy for the Devil” revolves around quasi-mystical Macguffins, like the Alfa Catch, a computer that translates Zebra’s memories of when Wen killed Giraffe into video footage. How does such an object work? No one knows because nobody wants to know. It just does.
The only time characters try to figure out how something works is when Jet tries to explain to Spike how Wen’s predicament works and why the ring that Giraffe gave him could potentially kill him. His spiel about how “his [Wen’s] pineal gland continually produces a substance similar to melatonin that inhibits aging,” is knowingly ridiculous. It’s why Spike answers Jet’s befuddled question of, “Do you understand,” with, “Like I do.” For all Spike knows, the bullet that he and Jet forge out of Giraffe’s ring is magical. Spike smirks as he loads it into his pistol because he doesn’t know how it’ll work. He just knows that it will.
Spike’s confrontation with Wen is one of my all-time favorite scenes in Cowboy Bebop because it both preserves Wen’s mystery and respects Jet’s question: “Do you understand?” Spike doesn’t so we don’t but we go with the flow anyway because we must. If Spike and Jet didn’t want to avenge Giraffe because they felt it was their duty to do so, they’d want to do it for another reason. Consequently, when Spike opens fire on Wen, we literally see events through his confused but determined eyes. As he aims at Wen, his eyes initially see a kid-shaped blur. We see Wen but we don’t know what we’re looking at, as is evinced in that great close-up of Wen’s malicious and enigmatic face screen-capped above. Is Wen the Devil? Probably not, but looking like that, who can tell?
I love “Sympathy for the Devil” because it staunchly defies our need to have every action motivated by some easy-to-digest reason or another. That concluding scene of Spike trying in vain to produce music on Wen’s blues harp ends the episode on a perfect note. It’s no longer a musical instrument to Spike, just a weird-looking object. He flings the blues harp into the air and watches it rise in the night sky like it were the bone the monkey in 2001: A Space Odyssey famously threw into the air “in the beginning.” Spike only shoots at the blues harp with his cocked thumb and forefinger and not with a real gun because by now, he’s used to unanswered questions. They’re just a part of life for him. Then again, I’m betting that if Spike’s magic bullet didn’t kill Wen, he probably wouldn’t be smiling by the end of the episode.