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Spike Spiegel's Entire Backstory Explained

From the first time viewers heard the trumpet blast that opens Cowboy Bebop, it was destined to become a cult classic.

The show was riddled with obsession. Its signifiers were all pulled from the worlds that reward nerds for their devotion to minute details: jazz music, westerns, martial arts movies. And like those crate-diggers and archivists, the story's central character was singularly obsessed with the little details of a distant and sometimes hard-to-recall past.

The way that the show metes out bits and pieces of Spike Spiegel's backstory is similar to the way that researchers learn about the history of genres like hard bop, with information coming in snatches through a careful read of the liner notes until eventually they are overwhelmed when the scope of the larger picture becomes clear. This careful drip of information both maintained Spiegel's air of mystery throughout the short series and rewarded the type of folks who would rewatch it and tell their friends.

The legend of Cowboy Bebop has grown substantially since folks heard the first strains of "The Real Folk Blues," and it continues to grow more than 20 years later, a permanent fixture on any list of the best anime of all time. While we wait for Netflix to roll out their live-action retelling, we've finally sussed out the backstory of the guarded and cool Spiegel, dating back long before he ever set foot on the Bebop. Any space cowboys looking to know more about the disheveled killer hiding a tragic past should read on — as long as you're not concerned about spoilers.

The cultivated facade of Spike Spiegel

Part of the allure of Cowboy Bebop is that it doesn't hold the viewer's hand. From episode 1, the audience is tossed into the barely-controlled chaos of bounty hunter Spike Spiegel's life. We know little about Spike and it's clear that he likes it that way.

The pilot introduces us to Spiegel and Jet, and while it's clear from the outset that Spike grew up rough, his slick exterior and practiced nonchalance keep both in-universe characters and the audience alike at a healthy distance. Spiegel puts on the air of someone who doesn't care about much beyond where he's going to get money to pay for his next meal. He can't be bothered to straighten his clothes or look the people he's talking to in the eye. It would take almost the entirety of the series to learn why Spike wore his cool like armor: the last time he cared, he got crushed.

A mysterious childhood

At the time the Cowboy Bebop story begins, Spike is only 27 years old. It's hard to believe, given the weight he clearly carries and the weary way he moves through the world. Squaring his age with his demeanor only works if you realize that Spike has lived many lives in his short time being alive.

Spike was born on Mars in 2044 AD. While other portions of his brief life are illuminated as the series goes own, Spike's childhood is talked about relatively little. Via context clues, fans can gather that he didn't exactly have a charmed childhood. It might be safe to assume he grew up an orphan, but even if his parents were around, all who watch the show can agree that Spiegel grew up in less than ideal conditions.

We can piece together much of Spike's history from flashbacks revealed throughout the series. After making a living for himself as a hood and a thief in the slums of Mars, Spike draws the attention of a Chinese crime syndicate called the Red Dragon. The syndicate's lead, Mao Yenrai, takes a liking to Spike, bringing him on as a protege of sorts.

Spike joins the Red Dragon Crime Syndicate

Once inside the syndicate, Spike rises quickly. He's an incredibly skilled martial artist and assassin. Coupled with his brash and likable personality, his skills lead to him becoming a top man in the organization while still incredibly young. His rapid climb — on top of his obvious personal friendship with Mao — lead to rumors that he's next in line to take over the Syndicate.

Contrary to the guarded Spike we meet at the beginning of the series, the Spiegel we see in flashbacks is reckless and open. In fact, his gung-ho manner inside the Syndicate leads to his first real mistake: he loses an eye during a poorly planned mission and has it replaced by a cybernetic implant.

While his unguarded and youthful nature has obvious physical effects on him, the most lasting legacy of his vulnerable youth comes in the form of two friendships that would define his life (and ultimately lead to his downfall).

Spike meets Julia and Vicious

Spike's encounter with fellow young Red Dragon members Julia and Vicious would permanently alter the course of his life. While Spike and Vicious' exact moment of meeting is not quite known, it's clear from flashbacks that they became rather close friends.

Spike has yet to adopt his distant cool, but the roots of it are seen in flashbacks to Vicious and Spike's time together in the Syndicate. Rumors are swirling that Spike is next in line for the leadership of Red Dragon, a position he has no interest in holding. By contrast, Vicious is full of ambition. He wants nothing more than to head the criminal organization, and he makes it clear throughout the series that he doesn't particularly care what he has to do to take over. He will stop at nothing to be the boss.

This philosophical divide drives a wedge between Spike and Vicious, and their cleaving is completed when Spike falls for Julia. We see his first meeting with Julia in a flashback, in which it's abundantly clear that Spike is immediately smitten. Vicious and Julia have some undefined history together, and the resentment that Vicious feels over Julia growing close to Spike has deadly consequences.

The simmering romance of Julia and Spike

Spike has strong feelings about Julia from the first moment he saw her. Julia, for her part, does not reciprocate. Her fondness for Spike grows as she nurses the brash young assassin back to health after a mission gone wrong gets Spike shot in front of Julia's apartment. She takes him in until he recovers.

At some point, early on in their romance, the pair are discovered by Vicious. It's clear from his reaction that Vicious knowing puts both Spike and Julia in danger. It turns one of the organization's most dangerous men against them and gives him leverage against them in an ongoing quest for power.

Spike's injury and his love for Julia lead him to come up with a dangerous idea: he wants to abandon the Syndicate and bring Julia with him. However, the Red Dragon only allows one way out of their dealings: death. Spike offers to fake his own death and elope with Julia, leaving the Syndicate behind forever.

A growing rivalry and a sinister plot

While it's unclear in the series, it's possible that the men who shot Spike in front of Julia's apartment were working for Vicious. After he learns of their relationship, he tries to use Julia to complete the job. He threatens to expose Julia and Spike's plot, leading to both of their deaths at the hands of Syndicate assassins, if she does not personally betray Spike.

Julia and Spike have planned to meet in a cemetery after Spike's faked his own death. Vicious tells Julia that she must ambush Spike and kill him if she hopes to live. He makes it clear that either Spike dies at her hand or she dies along with him. Rather than sell out the man she's grown to love, Julia opts to run away. She goes into hiding and destroys the paper listing the location of their planned rendezvous. This botched encounter is a large stone tossed into a pond, with ripples emanating outward that come to touch the life of every character in the story.

Best laid plans

The great irony in Julia's sacrifice is that it leads Spike to believe he'd been sold out anyway. When Julia fails to appear at the cemetery, Spike can only gather that she put her ties to the Syndicate ahead of her feelings for him. This scene, of Spike's hope for a future with Julia being slowly crushed as he waits for her in the rain, marks the end of the open and emotional Spike seen in flashbacks.

Because of the way he's hurt by Julia's seeming betrayal, he starts cultivating an air of detached indifference. The Spike we meet aboard the Bebop is several years beyond the point where he's ever openly cared for another person. While we think we're meeting a terminally uncaring assassin, it's really a coping mechanism to avoid being hurt in the same way ever again. He can't hide how he feels forever, though. The old Spike shines through any time he believes Julia might still be alive.

Joining the Bebop and searching for Julia

Little is known about Spike's decision to join his travelling companion Jet aboard the Bebop. We know it comes shortly after the scene in the graveyard, and the transactional nature of bounty hunting allows him to put his skills from the Syndicate to use without getting entangled in further relationships. However, Jet and Spike's early friendship is left to be inferred by the viewer.

Once on board the Bebop, Spike makes a freelancer's living. He only shows those glimpses of an old life when names from the past bubble up during gigs. Spike's nemesis Vicious uses this against him, laying traps for him by floating the name of Red Dragon leader Mao. Spike also charges headlong into several dangerous situations just at the mere mention of Julia's name. His inability to let go of the past sets all of the show's characters on a catastrophic path that culminates in the series finale.

Coming to a head

Spike's inability to forget his love for Julia or his hatred for Vicious ultimately leads to his death. After reuniting with Julia in the series' closing episodes, Spike is set on a suicidal path to revenge. Just as they are about to depart for the life that they had planned years before, Spike and Julia are ambushed and Julia is killed. She dies in Spike's arms, leaving him with no reason to go on living. He hurls himself into an attack he knows he won't walk away from, saying goodbye to his friends on the Bebop before charging Vicious in an attack that leaves both men dead.

In the end, the aloof Spike has two things buried deep down that he truly cares about: his love for Julia and his need for vengeance against Vicious. Letting those come to the surface brings an end to the legendary series — as well as the lives of all involved.