Since its debut in 1998, Cowboy Bebop has maintained popularity in the anime zeitgeist for its iconic soundtrack, kickass characters, and unique subversion of the western genre by adding elements of sci-fi, noir, and comedy. Now with Netflix's live-action Cowboy Bebopon the horizon, it seems a more perfect time than any to comb through the best of the 26-episode anime series to watch before jumping into the new mix.
If you need a refresher or are new to the series here are some of the basics of what you need to know upfront:
Cowboy Bebop follows a group of bounty hunters (also known as cowboys) who surf the galaxy looking for dangerous space criminals for the right price. The first being Jet, an ex-cop and owner of the Bebop spaceship; Faye, a chaotic con-artist and cowboy who suffers from amnesia; a young hacker named Radical Ed, a hyper-intelligent corgi named Ein, and lastly Spike Spiegel, super cool and rascally smart-mouth with a dangerous past that he can't outrun.
More specifically, the series' sprawling narrative is loosely strung together by the drama that unfolds between Spike, his ex-friend (now enemy) Vicious, and a woman named Julia.
With a short amount of time left before the Netflix adaptation drops, we know 26-episodes is a big task to watch before the new series' drops, but don't fret space cowboys in training. We've combed through and gathered the best 8 episodes — or sessions — you should watch for your mini-binge sesh so you feel prepared for the new series.
It seems kind of cliche to be telling someone to start with the first episode of a series, but the first episode is a certified Bebop banger. It introduces Spike and Jet as they navigate the seedy and dangerous world of bounty hunting. Here, the duo is tasked with taking down a man named Asimov, who has betrayed the powerful crime syndicate called The Red Dragon by stealing their black market performance-enhancing drug called Red Eye. The great thing about the pilot is that it successfully cements the eclectic tone that the show is so famous for. It's got sexy gun-fights, energetic jazz, edgy comebacks, and humor balanced with a tragic allegory about trying to change your fate.
If there's anything Honky Tonk Women establishes during its first five minutes of Faye Valentine's introduction to the audience it's this: she's a beauty, she lacks grace, and she will punch you into outer space. Honky Tonk Women takes place briefly before Faye inevitably joins the Bebop crew, and just after she crosses paths with Spike and Jet. Without going deep into spoiler territory, this episode focuses on Faye's kidnapping at the hands of some casino cardshark gangsters who blackmail her into passing along encrypted data on a casino chip for money. It's a fun and explosive introduction to the series' main female protagonist, and a great first glimpse at how she wields chaos to her own self-detriment and to the annoyance of Spike and Jet to save herself from a tricky situation.
So, remember we told you about Spike's dangerous past and that drama with his enemy's girlfriend? It's time to unpack a little bit of that trauma. Well, buckle in because this episode is all about spilling the bounTEA (haha!) between Spike and Vicious. If you're looking for the full picture of what dark heart lies at the center of the show's ethos, look no further than the Ballad of Fallen Angels. This is the series' biggest and most iconic episode to fans within the fandom. It's so big in fact that the cathedral battle sequence between Spike and Vicious gets an entire shot for shot recreation in the Netflix trailer. You might find yourself asking: then why is an episode so important located in the early half of the series? Because in order to understand Spike's inability to reconcile with his past in a healthy way as the series progresses, you have to first understand who he was before he became a laidback bounty hunter. Though this episode is admittedly gloomy, it is visually stunning in its contrasts between vivid and dark imagery all set to ominous opera music as the climactic showdown between friend and foe takes place.
It's all fun and games on Venus until somebody loses an eye. In this episode, Faye and Spike find themselves in the semi-toxic atmosphere of Venus that causes some of its residents to go blind. After hearing about a large bounty on a gang in possession of a stolen rare flower that cures this ailment, Spike questions the duality of doing bad things for a good cause. Admittedly, this episode is one of many standalone filler episodes in the Bebop session line-up, but the reason we placed it here is for its bittersweet storytelling that peels back the more cynical layers of Spike's personality. "Waltz for Venus" offers some great comedic and heartfelt moments between Spike and a local admirer mobster named Rocco as Spike teaches him how he's able to take down bad guys in a cool way without exerting much effort.
For the horror fans out there, this one is for you. Aside from the main series villain Vicious, Pierrot le Fou (despite being dressed up like a clown) is no laughing matter. It's yet another standalone episode that doesn't really move the main plot along but is iconic enough to also be featured in the live-action Netflix trailer. This titular creepy clown is the result of an illegal science experiment gone wrong. As a result, Pierrot can (sort of) fly, deflect bullets, and harbor a great deal of murderous rage, which of course, he aims towards Spike. When the two face-off against each other in an electrified abandoned amusement park (think evil space Disneyland) hijinks ensue. It's certainly the most unique genre episode in the series.
Cowboy Funk is a ridiculously funny episode that answers the question: what if the unnervingly cool Spike Spiegel met his match? Similar to Ballad of Fallen Angels and Pierrot le Fou, this session is also referenced in the live-action trailer. Though not as legendary in the Bebop lore as the other episodes, "Cowboy Funk"is known for letting Spike embrace his impulsive side in a way that all newcomers to the series shouldn't miss. This episode follows two antagonists for the Bebop crew; Teddy Bomber, a man who blows up buildings in a fight against capitalism, and Cowboy Andy, a literal cowboy-dressing bounty hunter who bears a striking resemblance to Spike. OK, the latter is not a real antagonist, Cowboy Andy is actually very helpful, but he pisses Spike off so much that the running joke in the episode occurs every time the two go after Teddy, they start fighting each other instead. You'll just have to watch this one for yourselves.
It's also cliche to suggest watching the series finale of the original source material for a reboot that is just around the corner but do it anyway. Less is more in talking about this two-part episode conclusion. What we will say is that its ending has been a big source of debate these last twenty years. So much so, the creator and director of the series Shinichiro Watanabe refuses to give a straight answer on the subject. Epically choreographed and beautifully scored, The Real Folk Blues is a series masterpiece that centers around the idea that a person's fate cannot be avoided forever, and everything must end. Here, all hell breaks loose when Vicious takes over The Red Dragon and Spike prepares for, what seems like, another destined confrontation. It's an episode drenched in themes about the bonds formed by a makeshift family and exploring the deeper connections of a love potential worth risking everything for.
It will be interesting to see how Netflix's Cowboy Bebop transitions the beloved anime classic to live-action (ahem, Death Note), but either way, it's time to giddy up and get ready. See you November 19, space cowboys.
The original Cowboy Bebop anime streaming now on Netflix and Hulu. Netflix's Cowboy Bebop begins streaming on November 19.