When viewed in tandem, the two parts of “The Real Folk Blues” give devoted viewers an immensely satisfying sense of closure. Or, to put it more specifically, the rapt pacing that characterizes these two episodes grants us a cathartic kind of symmetry. One shouldn’t think of this two-parter as one long episode that was randomly broken in half but rather as two episodes that are intrinsically united. Because the narrative fragmentation of these two episodes is especially artful. Viewers should look at the Cowboy Bebop movie that I’ll be reviewing next week as a generous gift from the show’s creators. Because in “The Real Folk Blues,” we get an excellent, self-contained finale that just happens to be composed of two parts.
So much of what makes “The Real Folk Blues” (named after the song that plays over the series’ end credits) immediately charming is its purposive sense of choreography. It’s all in the cutting this episode, as you can see during the balletic dogfight that ends part one or Spike and Vicious’s climactic fight scene at the end of part two.
Another especially well-choreographed scene is Spike’s recurring and now-decipherable flashback, the one that’s been constantly represented in fragments during the show’s end credits. This scene is cut, sound-edited, and framed to reflect the power of the pregnant pauses that punctuate Spike and Julia’s exchange. For instance, the pause between Spike saying, “I’ll let them say I’m dead,” and, “I’ll be waiting at the graveyard. Of course, I will be alive,” is thoughtfully reinforced by the frame-within-the-frame of the window that neatly forces Spike and Julia into a very small space. Also, the echo of his words are finally driven home by the surreally pronounced “Tep” sound effected produced when Julia takes the business card (?) from Spike. This is a dream-like sequence, as Spike and Julia will expressly suggest in part two at the point of dying—but it’s also hyper-real. And you get that sense just from the way this sequence is paced, scored, and visualized.
That sense of ostentatious orderliness is most apparent in “The Real Folk Blues (Part One),” as it’s an episode about the unapologetically comforting promise of hope (i.e. the unabashedly sentimental scene between Big Shot’s Alfred and his mother at the airport). “The Real Folk Blues (Part Two)” is more about promises not kept and keeping hope alive in the face of certain death (i.e. Annie’s death). So it’s fitting that these two episodes are linked by Julia and Spike’s long-anticipated (for them) graveyard encounter.
Again, the power of connecting the cliffhanger ending of part one with the graveyard opening of part two is all a matter of pacing. No words are necessary for the first episode’s cliffhanger: Spike takes something (we can’t see it) out and lowers his hand. He stares up at Julia, who we see from over Spike’s shoulder. Then she pulls out a gun from her overcoat pocket, slowly. She aims the gun. Spike sees the gun pointed at him. And we now see what he took out earlier: a red rose. This last shot of the rose lingers for a couple of seconds. Then: “To Be Continued.”
Part two begins with a reminder of how there is neatness and order even at the end of things. Just look at the way that the headstones are arranged in an overhead shot (seen in the image above) used during Julia and Spike’s graveyard meet-up. The scene revolves around the idea that we can find sense in our lives even when everything breaks down (you can also see this sentiment reflected in the shaman’s discussion with Jet later on). So it’s fitting then that the by now familiar, slow, pulsing music box lullaby theme that we’ve heard so many times before should be used to score this scene. Because it’s also perpetually winding down.
But the most striking and meaningful structural details that unite these two episodes and give them a sense of symmetry are the stories that Spike and Jet tell to make each other feel better. Because while Faye’s Point Break-esque farewell is poignant, Spike and Jet’s use of storytelling as a means of reassuring each other is even more moving.
Storytelling and armchair philosophizing between friends is shown to have therapeutic value in both episodes of “The Real Folk Blues.” Remember: The first episode begins with Spike and Jet shooting the shit at the Loser Bar. Jet idly complains about having been abandoned by Faye and Ed in “Hard Luck Woman.” His rant concludes with him telling Spike, “I completely understand why you hate women and kids now.” This is a textbook example of chauvinist thinking since chauvinism can and should be defined as the assumption that everyone that doesn’t conform to the way that you define yourself (in this case, male and adult) is inferior when compared to you. And as is usually the case in Cowboy Bebop, that kind of chauvinist rationalization is used as a means of protecting Spike and Jet’s respective egos. When these guys sulk, their default assumption is that any other type of people simply aren’t worth getting close to.
So in “The Real Folk Blues (Part One),” the episode where stakes are set up and the issue of Spike’s imminent and inevitable death is put on the table, Jet tells Spike a story about a man that turns his back on his past. Jet ends the story by saying, “Men only think about the past right before their death, as if they were searching frantically for proof they were alive.” The idea that all men only think about their pasts before dying is patently absurd. But again, the flagrant implausibility of this capper reminds us that Jet’s story is his way of reassuring Spike that he’d be doing the right thing if he just left Julia, his own would-be femme fatale, and moved on.
But, as Spike tells Jet in his story about the stray and nigh-invincible cat that nobody wanted in part two, we learn that moving on is overrated. Sometimes, we have to face the end and recognize that there is an order to things and that, yes, everything must end. Thankfully, the show doesn’t come to a full and complete stop until Cowboy Bebop: The Movie. But if that film didn’t exist, “The Real Folk Blues” would have been a very high note to go out on.