“Toys in the Attic” (season 1, episode 11; originally aired on January 8, 1999)
While I find the “life lessons” structure of “Toys In The Attic” to be a bit cheesy, I can easily overlook that aspect of the episode in light of how much of a clean-burning machine the rest of the episode is. Listening to the Bebop’s human protagonists tell us the guiding precepts of how they live their lives is a negligible aspect of the show considering how sharp the repartee in “Toys” is or how effective the “spooky” atmosphere is. Hell, the trip around the Bebop that we take as Spike and Ed go in search of the “mysterious space creature” is a hoot in and of itself. “Toys In The Attic” is that freak Cowboy Bebop episode where everything but the show’s organizing themes seems to matter. It’s an entirely self-contained narrative, one that embraces and uses the defining characteristics of the show’s protagonists to put them through the paces of a very enjoyable character-driven chase episode.
The biggest difference between “Toys In The Attic” and “Stray Dog Strut” is that the space that the characters are given to run around in the former episode is drastically limited. It’s consequently more of a horror story than “Stray Dog Strut,” which is a relatively carefree action-adventure. Still, for all of the horrific overtones of “Toys In The Attic,” the episode is also full of humor. Nothing, not even the “mysterious space creature,” is taken entirely seriously in this episode—not even the macho sense of entitlement that Spike and Jet subscribe to. “A man does not take back his word,” Jet says in this episode right before taking off his boxers. He’s just lost a bet because Faye tricked him into betting everything he has on him using loaded dice. Spike even has to beg Faye, in his own cool way, to give Jet back his clothes but she refuses: “It’s rough out there in the real world.”
This line is especially funny considering that no part of “Toys In The Attic” takes place in “the real world” of outer space. In fact, it takes place entirely within the claustrophobic, self-contained setting of the Bebop. As Jet explains at the beginning of the episode, the fact that there is no bounty in this week’s episode has led the crew members to do some desperate things. [Spoiler alert] Their minds are going, Dave, which makes it fitting that the creature that’s stalking them is a mutant piece of food. This doesn’t mean that the killer mutant lobster goo thing isn’t a serious threat, just that it’s not as malicious or life-threatening as some of the Bebop’s previous antagonists, like Mama or Vicious. It’s just a manifestation of the idea that downtime can be pretty deadly, nyuk nyuk.
Which is why I’m a-okay with the fact that all the little “lessons” that the Bebop crew impart to us are meaningless extensions of their personalities. Ed nonsensically tells us that, “If you see a stranger, follow him,” while Faye tells us, “‘Survival of the fittest’ is the law of the land. To fool and to be fooled is the reason we live.” These mantras are only selectively applicable, which is fine considering the circumstances under which our heroes come up with them. They’re bored, so they’re not thinking about the big picture so much as they’re thinking are about how to occupy their time.
This brings us back to the mysterious space creature. “Toys In The Attic” commendably uses this threat to make the show’s protagonists explore the ship in ways that we haven’t really seen them do before. The computer-generated sequences where we’re skittering through the vents of the ship as seen through the eyes of the creature are especially effective. But I also mean the scenes where Spike, Faye, and Ed traipse around the Bebop looking for trouble. This episode is about play first and character second so it stands to reason that watching the crew explore the ship leads to a lot of fun sight gags, like Ed’s graffiti on the revolving corridor that’s straight out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. (So many references to that movie throughout the show; so very many references…).
“Toys In The Attic” is a filler episode but it’s a superior filler episode because it’s about what it’s about, which in this case is killer boredom. And that’s all that it’s about. There’s no greater significance to the threat that the crew faces, no greater understanding of the the characters beyond the revelation that these guys have too much free time on their hands. Their minds are racing on auto-pilot, which makes some of their deadpan reactions to events that much more funny.
Take the way that Faye starts freaking out after she’s bitten by the creature while soaking in the bath tub. She protests that, “I haven’t committed any crimes,” a statement which is dubious in and of itself. And then whines, “I’m still young and lively… ” Spike’s incredulous reaction (“‘Lively?’”) is priceless. Pure panic is motivating our heroes and it’s leading them to say whatever pops into their heads. I love when Jet gets bitten and he moans, “Hey, I’m feeling a lot sicker now. Do I look paler?” “You’re pretty pale to begin with,” Spike replies coolly.
This is just another reminder that Spike is the star of the show. Of the Bebop crew, he’s the one that takes himself the least seriously and hence he’s the most resourceful when it comes to stopping the mysterious space creature (it just rolls off the tongue). Think of it: Spike’s the one that’s perusing the database for what kind of disease is afflicting Jet, not Ed the character that lives and breathes computers, and not Faye. This could just be because both Ed and Faye are too unreliable to do that kind of grunt work. But still, while one might expect Spike to go after a mutant lobster with four different kinds of weapons, one wouldn’t necessarily imagine him looking things up on a computer. That’s normally Jet’s job, but with him out of the picture, it’s up to Spike to save the day. I guess Spike knows how to handle being bored better than the rest of the crew, even if that boredom manifests in the form of a murderous leftover.