Once again, another unique character comes to the fore of analysis today: Spike Speigel! After trips to the Fire Nation (Zuko) and the Mystery Shack (Stan Pines), it’s time to venture into our solar system, Cowboy Bebop-style, to meet (or re-acquaint with) one of the galaxy’s most feared bounty hunters (sorry Boba Fett) and an all-around terrific character. Spike curiously enough is the first main protagonist to be written about in the “What’s in a Character” series, and he’s worthy of the title indeed; he’s a far more interesting lead than most leading men in anime between his backstory, dynamism as a character, and general coolness; he’s the type of guy who would know that, but if you asked him, he might look indifferent. So here’s yours truly, ready to explore the man that is Spike!
Just who is Spike Spiegel? There’s a straightforward answer that he’s a runaway member of a powerful crime syndicate; a feared bounty hunter and ace pilot; a lost lover floating aimlessly among the stars, a lazy bum who only does things when they benefit him, and for a select few, he’s a friend. Whatever the descriptor, Spike is his own man, and he’s worth looking into. Of course, any discussion of Cowboy Bebop and its characters starts with the idea that our main crew is searching for meaning in their own individual lives and ways. Through the show, those aims are made clearer by way of clean plot progression, development of character arcs, and the sequence of events that happens. In Spike’s case, his character is driven by three groups, or rather, phases of time in particular- his past, represented by the Red Dragon Syndicate and archrival Vicious; his present- which starts off as simply Jet Black but grows to include the newest members of the Bebop (namely Faye and Ed, and to a lesser extent, Ein), and his future, where Spike’s hope is held in the dream that one day he might see Julia, his love, again. (Side note- does it seem like a lot of tragic lovers are named “Julia” or “Juliet”? I blame Shakespeare.) In the backdrop of these three groupings, death sits in the foreground like the Grim Reaper it is so often characterized as, not just because of the constant and steady danger Spike and the rest of the crew find themselves in (thanks largely to their profession of choice), but also as this sort of haunting inevitability that hovers through the show- and specifically in Spike-centric bits. In the very first episode, or session, Asteroid Blues, he chases down the red- eye dealer, Ansimov, only to watch his associate, Katerina shoot him dead- and be brutally killed in turn by ISSP forces. She simply wanted a better life, despite the illicit means she attempted to do so- the first of many also searching for meaning in said lives not unlike Spike, and so death is present from the start. We see the “boy with the harmonica”in the 6th episode (Sympathy for The Devil)– Wen, who because of a freak turn of events involving the Astral Gate incident did not age, but instead turned to a life fraught with violence and loneliness. This time, it is Spike who delivers the finishing blow with a special bullet- hence “sympathy for the devil.” And what of Mad Pierrot, the fearsome assassin who underwent horrific experimentation in exchange for his formidable powers? With a warped mind, and no particular skills outside of killing, it is terrifying agony watching a man whose life was stolen from him attempt to kill Spike in episode 20 (Pierrot Le Fou) only to be driven truly insane by the meowing of a cat, and in a further cruel twist of irony, crushed by the giant paw of a mechanical dog. All of these encounters represented people Spike specifically watched or took part in their demise; all had their lives stripped away to some form of hopelessness, as perhaps a precursor to his fated final showdown. These were also part of his present, as was mentioned above. But what then of Vicious?
While I grouped Vicious as a part of Spike’s past (which he is), he is uniquely part of his present and future at the same time; a liminal (or timeless) figure who would exist until Spike found resolution to the question of his life’s meaning one way or another. The other individuals I mentioned died doing whatever they found some sort of meaning in, or what they believed was the best path forward in that situation, and while one-off characters, they were necessary to understand Spike and his relationship regards to Vicious. Vicious knew what Spike wanted. He continued to rise in the syndicate, obtaining high-ranking status and then personally initiating a bloody, silent coup that saw him take control. He’s not a dynamic character, but rather, serves as a character foil to Spike; a sort of dark side to him that is more ruthless, lacks a moral code, and would do anything in order to reach the peak of power. He was the one who tricked Spike into thinking Julia had betrayed him; and to that end, enabled the cynical worldview of the former, aided by nearly killing him in their first early encounter (Ballad of Fallen Angels). It is made clear that in order to truly move forward, Spike must encounter and defeat Vicious, which he does…and brilliantly, his future is no longer clouded, but left to the viewers to decide what happens next. (I actually detail my interpretation and thoughts of the final battle in the Cowboy Bebop review I posted; check it out if you wish to read about it.)
What then of Julia- and why does she represent the future for Spike? She is the only person who could ever give meaning back to his life supposedly– but the show hints at us that it’s not entirely true, as Spike does in fact find some meaning in the Bebop crew themselves, from Jet, his best friend, to Faye Valentine who he often bickers with (and arguably cares deeply about in return), and even to Ed, who is a bit of an enigma to everyone. Regardless, when the truth becomes clear and Julia’s brief reunion with Spike is shattered by a bullet, his only course of action is to fight and settle the score with Vicious- again, because the man in fact is the cause of all the events in Spike’s path- but not the entire explanation for his mental state, which while partially and strongly influenced by the past, also was shaped by his present aboard the Bebop and created a potential way forward with his ultimate showdown against said antagonist.
Spike is interesting because of of how his path unfolds and his unique way of dealing with the problems in his way; and he’s a man of experiences whose melancholy comes from a live lived with danger and deceit around every corner, but also some strong relationships to temper that. I’m sure there’s even more to be said about this character (such as how Steve Blum’s VA career took off after his brilliant work in the English dub, or that Spike is handy with a pistol), but it took a bit of introspection to look at his entire journey and draw some conclusions from it: He’s a man who doesn’t mind danger but fears dying without fullfillment of what life means to him; being a “bounty hunter” in a sense describes that Spike is in fact “hunting” for answers, and he’s got more support than he realizes from people. And well…he’s plain cool. Anyone who rocks a suit, a smoke and a pistol like he does along with amazing piloting skills can’t be too bad a guy. Space cowboy really sums it up.
Like what you see? Is Spike your favorite character? Anybody you’d love to see me talk about? Chime in!
Also, would you call it bell peppers and “beef?”
I guess it depends on who you ask.