More spoiler-ridden thoughts below the fold. The thing that bothers me most about the ending of the series is Ed's departure. It doesn't make much sense, and had she stayed, I think the series would have been more impactful to me. As it is now, I keep straining to think of ways for Jet and Faye to run into Ed and Ein again and get back together.
Let me rewind a bit. In the first 23 episodes, what we essentially get is an introduction of characters, a little backstory on each, and some relationship-building between them all. In the last few episodes, we see a lot of conflicts come to a head. A lot of unpleasant things happen, but it's not a total loss. There's some hope in the end, which is all I really ask. Actually, there's a lot of room for interpretation, but if you give me that sort of opening, I'm going to insert hope.
Steven Den Beste has a long, spoiler-laden analysis of the series in which he looks at it from two angles. One, the tragic point of view, sees almost no room for hope or happiness. The other, which posits that Cowboy Bebop is really a Ronin story, presents a very interesting perspective. I think I come down somewhere inbetween. There is tragedy in the story, but also hope and honor.
Of the main characters, Jet's story is the most straighforward. He changes and grows as the story moves along, but his growth is along the same trajectory as it always was. Den Beste's ronin theory describes Jet remarkably well:
Jet served a dishonorable master, the ISSP. Once he found out that the organization was corrupt, he faced that dilemma: if he remained part of it, he too might become corrupt, forfeiting his honor, or have the ISSP prevent him from carrying out what he saw as his duty. But leaving was itself dishonorable. Still, he found the best answer he could: he left, but became a bounty hunter, because it let him continue to pursue lawbreakers and to bring them to justice, which he had accepted as his duty in life. He decided that he had to stay true to his own honor rather than to stay true to a corrupt and dishonorable master. ...And it goes on. I don't know nearly as much as Den Beste about Japanese history and culture, but this fits Jet well. Spike, I'm not so sure about. Steven says:
Jet owns the Bebop, and he puts up with Faye and Ed, and Ein, in part because of his feeling of obligation to not turn them out. They need help, he can provide it, and he feels as if he must even if he gains nothing for doing so. He feels protective about the others, for the same reason. He gives up the possibility of shaking down the gate corporation for a huge sum of money and instead demands that they leave the chess master alone, because Ed wants to keep playing against him. Faye and Spike keep wrecking their ships and he keeps fixing them. And in one exchange between them, it becomes clear that Jet had even taken Spike in out of that same kind of feeling of helping someone less fortunate, giving a place to someone who didn't have one.
Jet and Spike were both ronin, but in every other way they were opposites. Jet became a ronin to save his honor. Spike was a ronin because he had lost his.The only problem is that Spike was a gangster. Jet was basically a cop, and it doesn't take much to draw parallels between a cop and a Samurai (in the idealized sense, at least). Jet's crisis came about because he was always trying to do the right thing. Spike had no such luxury of pretending that he was doing something good. Can one be a ronin without ever being a Samurai? He was a gangster who found love and tried to run... but was not followed by the one he loved (the whole event only postpones the inevitable though). There is some sort of honor in Spike's world, but it's not the honor of the Samurai. It's the faux-honor of the gangster. Spike's story seems to jive well with my limited experience of Yakuza flicks, which are filled with talk of honor but acts of deception and betrayal. Gangsters with honor are gangsters who are crushed by weasely boss' or betrayed by friends and that's what happens to Spike. Steven is right that Spike had no honor, but I'm not sure ever had honor until the end. He gets revenge on Vicious, but dies in the process. I think the one saving grace of this, for Spike, is that he also gets to join Julia, even if it's only in death. I think Spike's death could have meant more to the story, but this isn't really explored for reasons I'll belabor in a moment.
The biggest surprise for me was Faye's arc of the last few episodes. She confronts her past and gets her memory back only to find that it gave her no comfort. She had sought this past for as long as she could remember, and it gave her nothing... nothing except the realization that she already had what she really sought. This is a variant of a common story. A protagonist seeks some unattainable goal only to realize it's been sitting right before their eyes the whole time (this story seems to happen most often with a male character seeking to win the affections of the pretty, popular girl, only to realize that he's really in love with his "normal" female friend that he's known forever). Faye finally understands that she does belong somewhere, and when she finds out that Spike is leaving to face certain death, she can't handle it. She asks him why he's leaving and pleads with him to stay. Steven attributes this to selfishness, which I guess I can see, but I'd give her more credit. I think she's giving Spike a chance (or at least, she thinks she is). She sees that Spike's life still has worth and she tries to make Spike see that she wants to depend on him, but Spike is empty. For most of the story, Spike is aloof. He doesn't seem too connected to anything, in part because he's been traumatized in the past. Knowing what I do of Spike's story, I can't say that I blame him for leaving, but from Faye's perspective, she just doesn't have any idea why he needs to do it. I think she's offering a chance at redemption to Spike, even if she doesn't realize that Spike can't be redeemed in that way. I don't see that as a fault either. Faye is far from perfect, but it's clear she's turned the corner. I think this is why I liked her story's end so much. She's the one character that doesn't really have a straightforward trajectory. As such, I can't imagine a scenario where Faye and Jet don't stay together, and I could even see Spike's death really galvanizing Faye and Jet's relationship.
Which brings me to Radical Edward and Ein. I think Faye's return and Spike's departure would have been more meaningful if Ed and Ein were still members of the crew. Instead, we get a tacked-on backstory for Ed and her inexplicable departure. In episode 24, Ed finds her father... but her father is clearly not interested in Ed. I agree with Steven's take on Ed's story as well, and find Ed's departure baffling. It doesn't make any sense to me. Indeed, this is the only real story (other than when we first meet Ed) that really goes into Ed's past, and it's in an episode that also has significant happenings for Faye. As such, we spend about 10 minutes total (if that, and that's in the course of 26 episodes) on Ed's past, which is kinda lame. For most of the series, Ed plays a sort of comic-relief foil to the rest of the crew. A cheery, naive child in the presense of bitter, world-weary adults. It worked really well. I loved the character of Radical Edward, even if there wasn't really much meat there. So this backstory of a father that abandoned her felt arbitrary and pointless. Ein followed Ed, and they make a good team, so there's at least that. The only other trace of hope I can see here is that Ed left right after Faye left, and Faye told Ed that it's good to be where you "belong." Faye found that she didn't belong where she thought, so it stands to reason that Ed could come to the same conclusion. But that's just my naive optimism coming out, I guess. I like the idea of Spike being a tragic figure whose death brings together those that were around him. They might not live happily ever after (they are bounty hunters, after all), but at least they'd be growing.
It's funny, because I wonder how much the show's creators thought about such things. A part of me wants to think that the story is really just an excuse to creat a compelling audio/visual experience, which is something they do in spades. This is probably the most visually and stylistically impressive anime series I've seen. There's a real cinematic feel to every episode, which is an achievement these days when a lot of movies don't feel cinematic. They hit a good balance between humor and drama, and nail the tone of the whole series. I think the reason this series is so popular is that it's such a visceral experience. Plus, the series is more episodic than serial, so it's easy to isolate parts you like from parts you don't. For all their faults, I think people can at least identify and empathize with the characters, and the creators do a good job of setting everything up in the series.
Having just finished the series, I'm not sure how it will sit with me in the long run. I may be tempted to write some more about the series once I've had more time to think it over (episode 23, in particular, warrants more thought on my part - shades of Ghost in the Shell's existential themes), but these were my initial thoughts. All in all, it's a good series, and it is one I'd recommend as a gateway drug. It's very accessible and, as previously mentioned, it's a visceral experience. The ending isn't perfect, but it's not the black stain for me that it seems to be for Steven (or, at least, not yet, we'll see how I feel later or if I ever rewatch it). I don't think the ending ruined all that came before it and I can see a silver lining in the dark clouds of the story. Of course, part of that is probably wishful thinking on my part. The creators didn't show a lot of things I'm taking for granted about the ending, but they did leave it open to interpretation.