Everything comes to an end, but just because it has ended, does that really mean it has stopped? Does the thing simply cease to be because it has played its course? Or does its history, the very fact that it has existed, and the very fact that there are spoilers below, make that thing live on? If it doesn’t, that just doesn’t seem right.
From outer space, we zoom through the small spaces of Serenity until we see River, asleep, and hearing a strange man’s voice. She awakens suddenly and goes out to the lounge, where Simon is regailing Kaylee with a story of drunken shenanigans that took place just after he became a surgeon. In the middle of the story, they both look over and see River, who is smiling and watching them. River then sees a strange flash of Simon looking at her, regretting his life choice to save her. Instantly Kaylee and Simon are back to laughing over the story, and River goes upstairs, obviously confused.
She walks into the galley, trailing her hands along the bulkheads as if feeling to make sure the ship is real, and into a conversation between Book and Jayne. Jayne is questioning Book over his celibacy vows, and Book is taking it all with a joking demeanor. River then has two more flashs. Jayne admits to being stupid, that the money was too good, and Book bitterly says he doesn’t care if anyone is innocent, and wonders what that makes him. Like before, the two keep laughing, and River continues to walk, disoriented, into the crew cabin corridor.
There, she sees Wash and Zoe on the bridge kissing, and she is overcome by the passion of the moment and walks back towards the stairs to below. She comes across Inara and Mal, who are discussing Inara’s imminent departure. Again, the flashes.
INARA: I’m a big girl. Just tell me.
MAL: None of it means a damn thing.
River rushes down to the hold area, where she finds an oddly gun-like shaped twig, and a sudden field of leaves. She picks the twig up just like a gun, and looks at it whimsically.
RIVER: It’s just an object. It doesn’t mean what you think.
All of the sudden, everyone is panicking, telling River to just set the gun down, and that she knows she shouldn’t be touching it. The crew quickly, but cautiously, move in and take the gun, all except Kaylee, who is looking at River in abject horror. Mal checks the gun and finds it to be fully loaded with the safety off. Mal chews her out about touching the gun, and River says that she understands but does not comprehend then rushes away, saying that it is very, very crowded. Mal queries Simon, saying he thought River was getting better, but Simon says that none of the meds are working as her body keeps becoming resistant to them. Mal chastises Simon to take extra care with River, because they are very alone out where they are. Just then, outside the ship, another, smaller vessel pulls up in their blind spot. Aboard this ship, a man in tight red leather looks at the mug shots of River and Simon.
Back on Serenity’s bridge, Wash worries about River with Zoe. Zoe is a little more calm about the situation, saying in a nonchalant tone that River could either blow them up or rub soup in their hair next. Wash responds sarcastically but pauses as he notices an odd sensor reading from behind them. Before he can even fully suggest a cause and solution, Mal and Jayne walk onto the bridge, with Mal royally chewing Jayne out for leaving a gun laying around, while Jayne adamantly protests that he doesn’t just leave guns lying around. Jayne then turns the conversation towards it being crazy-River’s fault and mentions he didn’t even want her on the ship. Mal gives him a meaningful look and asks him if he really wants to go down that path, and he demurs but holds his ground that it isn’t his fault.
Mal then voices the suggestion they lock River in her room from now on, and Zoe tries to argue that she’s harmless, ignoring Jayne’s recounting of the butcher knife incident. Zoe says that River has probably never even picked up a gun before, and that is when Kaylee pokes her head in and says that isn’t the case. Everyone looks at her, and they all go down to the galley.
Outside, the red clad man makes his way down via spacesuit to the top of the ship and looks in at the others through the galley window and listens in.
In the galley, Kaylee recounts the assault on Niska’s skyplex, and how River picked up the gun, barely looked, shot the men dead, then laughed like it was a game. Simon is understandably confused and upset, especially as Kaylee starts to say that River isn’t human for what she did, trying to convince the skeptical crew. Below, River stands on the rails of the hold’s catwalks and listens in with a blank face. Simon and Book both try to defend River while Jayne is not too keen on the notion, then Mal brings up the largest issue, namely they have someone on the ship that might be a danger to them, regardless of intent.
He then brings up how River knows things that she shouldn’t or couldn’t. Jayne, perhaps remembering “Safe,” asks if Mal is calling her a witch, and Wash makes fun of him. Inara appears from the shadows and calls Wash out for joking, and Simon tries to say River is just intuitive. Mal, though, says that she is not intuitive: she’s a reader, as in a mind-reader. The crew wonder if psychics are even real, and Mal looks to Simon for confirmation. Simon tip-toes around the possibility, and Wash interjects.
WASH: Psychic though? That sounds like something out of science fiction.
ZOE: You live in a spaceship, dear.
Mal looks to the crew, and it is grudgingly accepted that she probably is psychic. Simon pleads, saying that she is just a kid and wouldn’t hurt any of them, but the argument falls somewhat flat. Mal says he isn’t going to make any decision on it yet, and suggests they all get some rest.
In the corridor, Kaylee catches up to Simon and begs him to understand why she had to say something. Simon says he isn’t mad at her, but worries over having to take River off the ship, which she thinks of as home. He then somewhat fesses up to his dark inner thoughts of “if only she hadn’t—” and starts talking about how he had thought the hospital was home. Kaylee lays it on pretty thick, poking him to admit there is something, anything about Serenity that he likes, and he smiles and starts to move closer, even daring to almost put a hand to her cheek. Book then storms through and kills the moment, wishing them a good night. Leave it to the holy man to break up the romance.
Mal sits alone and forlorn at the galley table for a while before he walks to his cabin and goes down to bed. As he does, the red clad man climbs down the nearby hatch and pulls out a gun. He checks the hall and then goes to stow his helmet. When he comes out, he bumps into Mal, who he beats the ever-loving gos se out of and dumps down into his berthing. He then locks the crew quarters shut and heads down to engineering.
Kaylee is working on the engine, and calls out to see if it is River when she hears a noise. When no one responds, she reaches for a wrench, and as she stands back up, she drops it in fright as the red clad man is standing there, kind of smiling at her. She asks how he got on the ship, and he alludes that he is Santa Claus, then goes off on a tangent. She asks what he wants, and he admires the engine. He then asks her if she has ever been raped. She tries to say that the captain is nearby, and the red clad man tells her that she is helpless and makes her say it. She does, with a tear streaming down her eye. He then tells her is going to tie her up and that if she so much as makes a noise, he’ll do all manner of unseemly things to her. As he ties her up, he asks where to find River.
In the lounge, Book is just finishing his toilette when he hears something from above. He looks up the stairs, only to be hit suddenly by a flying kick from the red clad man. The impact knocks Book out instantly. The noise wakes Simon, who comes out and checks on River. She isn’t there, and when he turns around he is literally dropped on by the red clad man, who doesn’t knock him out, but instead draws a gun on him and asks him to sit down. He reveals he is there on a warrant, which doesn’t specify if Simon needs to be alive or dead, then asks after River. Simon tries to get some information out of the red clad man, such as who he works for, but the man seems to mishear him and yet again go on tangents. Finally, the man admits he is a bounty hunter named Early, and says he’s been tracking them since Ariel. He then convinces Simon to help him find River through a combined hope of stopping Early by staying alive and a threat against Kaylee.
SIMON: You are out of your mind.
EARLY: That is between me and my mind.
They start the search, and Simon rushes down to Book’s side, sneering at Early for hitting a shepherd. Early replies that Book is no shepherd, and they move on to the infirmary. There, Simon tries to play to Early’s sympathy on what the Alliance did to River. Early cuts him off, saying that he ought to be shot or stabbed, since he is a surgeon, just so he knows what it is like. They then go to the hold, where Early continues to admire the Firefly design in a very existential way. Simon almost tries to jump Early, but Early just lifts his gun without looking and tells Simon it isn’t his moment. They check the shuttles, and leave Inara sealed in after she attempts to use feminine charm on Early, for which she only receives a bloody lip.
On the bridge, Early loses his patience with this game of hide-and-seek. He announces, waking Mal and Zoe, that if River doesn’t show herself he’s going to kill Simon, to who he then apologizes, saying he is on a schedule and is frustrated. River’s voice then comes over the P.A., saying he is wrong. He tries to say he isn’t lying, but she goes on, saying that he was wrong about River being on the ship. She says that she knew the crew didn’t want her around anymore, so she melted away and became one with the ship. River is no more. Early asks who they are talking to, and she says they are talking to Serenity, and Serenity is not happy. Early looks about with a near look of panic.
In Engineering, a trussed up Kaylee hears River, who gives her consoling words and absolves her for what she did. She then asks Kaylee to be brave and break herself free to help.
On the bridge, Early tries to regain control, saying that River is just somewhere with a com playing games, and she giggles, earning a “That’s somewhat unsettling” from Early. She then identifies him completely, Mr. Jubal Early, bounty hunter. He gets into an argument about morality, where she accuses him of being a sadist, and it gets under his skin. Early tries to force Simon to defend him, which Simon does sarcastically and River giggles. Early seems confounded that no one is taking him seriously, between River’s giggles and Simon’s snark.
River then contacts Mal and starts to conspire a plan with him, then switches back to Kaylee, who is now free. Kaylee slowly and quietly makes her way forward. On the bridge, Early tries to use a locator on the ship to find River, and relates a story of his only smaller mark than River, a deadly and unpredictable midget. Simon askes what the midget did.
EARLY: Arson. The little man loved fire.
Kaylee makes it to the crew corridor, where she unlocks the doors then runs for cover. River talks Zoe and Wash out of taking action and then tells Mal to go after assuring him that she knows exactly what Early is doing. The power on the ship is cut, and River keeps talking to Early while Mal dodges down towards the upper airlock. She relates about how Early’s mother knew him for a sadist and was relieved when he left, and a flash of Early shows him upset, but he outwardly stays calm. She continues to taunt him with his past, until he suddenly realizes from her words that she is not in his mind, but on his ship. She laughs out loud, and we see her sitting in his cockpit in a spacesuit.
Early panics, and River plays with him a bit, commenting about the buttons and then making him admit to his flaws. She then says it is alright, and that she will go with him, because she knows she is a burden to the crew and doesn’t want to be anymore. The crew listens guiltily. Early is relieved and starts to head out, but Simon jumps him. Early wrestles with him a bit then manages to get a shot off into Simon’s leg. Early calmly says “See? That’s what it feels like,” and keeps moving. Simon then jumps him again and they fight outside of Jayne’s cabin. Jayne wakes up, irritated, grabs the blanket that hides his guns, then rolls over with said blanket. Early again knocks Simon down and heads out. River tells Simon it will be okay as he sits and groans on the steps to the bridge.
Outside, Early makes his way towards his spaceship, but then has a surprise encounter with Mal, who pushes him hard and off into the black. River sends Early’s ship off, and floats down to Mal. She asks for permission to come aboard, and Mal gives it to her, and tells her to give Simon a trashing for messing up the plan. She bemoans how he takes so much looking after.
In the infirmary, Simon guides Zoe in removing the bullet, and Mal and Inara discuss Early’s low chance of survival. Mal attempts to look at Inara’s lip, but she pulls back, they have an awkward moment, and she leaves. In the hold, Book admits to feeling bad for not being able to stop Early, and Jayne laughs at the notion that Book has anything to feel bad about, but then regrets his own lack of any involvement in the ordeal. Kaylee and River are sitting nearby, playing jacks, and Kaylee is relating a story from her childhood that apparently ended with her daddy whoopin’ her good. She picks up four jacks and challenges River to do the same, and River has a strange moment of looking at the ball, which just looks like the planet they passed at the beginning, before she drops it and plays. Outside, the ship floats away, and somewhere else in the black, Early floats along and says, “Well, here I am.”
And here we are, my friends. What a wonderful and powerful episode to end on, and considering the week after this aired was when the pilot was finally shown, and then it was the next summer before the other three were ever “aired”, well, it is an amazing episode to end on with its deep existential themes and the bounty hunter that was there for River, but left with a whole television show.
And, I am just going to say, there is no way I can comment on everything there is to comment on this episode without just quoting the whole gorram thing. Seriously, if you only watch one episode of Firefly any time soon, watch this. Jubal Early demands it.
Ahem, so, in my normal fashion, let’s talk about the characters. There are really only three characters in this, and that is Jubal, Simon, and River. Kaylee to a lesser extent as she is the only other crew member to get a longish discussion with Jubal, and what a—wait for it—powerful scene that was. So let’s start there.
The “Have you ever been raped” scene goes to a dark place that makes a writer feel dirty (from personal experience and Joss’ admission in the commentary). To sit down and write out this truly vile person, and at the same time want to make them out to be a badass, well, it makes the writer wonder if they are really as good a person as they thought they were. And Kaylee’s reaction to the power and control that is forced on her just sells it all the more, both in having to verbally admit that she was helpless and from having to meekly be tied up and betray River. When we come back to her later, and she is sitting there, on the grating, looking blankly into the camera and just devoid of thought, one could think that she had been, at least emotionally, completely violated. Now mix in the romantic bits she had at the beginning of the episode, where her feet are across Simon’s lap and they are laughing and the almost-kiss. Seeing what Jubal did to her, coupled with my Kaylee-obsession, makes me want to jump into the screen and die screaming as Jubal cuts me from crotch to gizzard. At least I would have tried.
On to Simon. My first thought is how can that boy put two words together when Kaylee is going calf-eyed on him. She must be a veritable fountain of pheromones towards him, and it really makes you wonder if he’s the sly one, to steal Nandi’s word. Who knows, had the show gone on, Whedon might have explored that instead of giving them the happy ending of the movie.
Moving along to his interactions with Jubal, I am glad to see a new side to Simon. Here he is, with his life threatened, his friends incapacitated, and his sister in trouble, and he manages to keep his cool, at least once he gets his head around the fact that Jubal is crazy, and even puts some sass into it. His quick responses to Early as well as his nearly uncaring demeanor towards his own wellbeing show that steel under Simon that I think a lot of people discount. The boy has gumption, you cannot deny. He just needs the right cause to bring it out, which is most often than not his sister.
So, let’s slide over to the true star of this show: Jubal Early. First, some trivia. The name Jubal Early refers to an American Civil War general of the same name that Nathan Fillion claims to be descended from. I say “claims” not to cast my own doubt on it, but because all the other sources I see use the same term. I guess I can claim to be descended from Charlemagne (three times at that, boy was virile) and know that I am, but the most I can do is claim (short of stealing the huge tombs of genealogy my grandfather has compiled). But I digress. The next bit of trivia is that Early is not dead. I can’t remember where it was that Whedon said it, but he is on record, somewhere, as saying that Early is not dead. Perhaps he’ll be in a comic book. I hope so.
Anyway, another thing I should bring up is that Early is not psychic. He is just highly intuitive, and this comes straight from Joss’ mouth in the commentary. On the same token, Simon says the same thing about River—and yes Whedon did also say flat out she is psychic—and both River and Jubal have the ability to read people at a glance. Okay, maybe he isn’t feeding on their thought waves, but that is about as close to psychic as one is going to get. He knows that Book isn’t a shepherd, he knows that threatening Kaylee will coerce Simon, he knows to deal with Book and Mal quickly and directly, to not deal with Zoe, Jayne, or Wash at all, to threaten and scare Kaylee, to be blunt but safe with Inara, and to use logic on Simon. And all of this he gains, according to Joss, by his little eavesdropping session on them. Mmhmm, not psychic. Gotcha.
Another thing about Jubal is that he is, again from Joss’ mouth, a direct representation, at least in words and thoughts, of Joss’ own metaphysical belief, which is more or less a loose existentialism. The big thing in this episode, to the point that it is the title of the episode, is that an object in space is not any less real because we don’t understand it. Additionally, while a thing can be “imbued,” as Jubal actually says, with meaning, there is still a level of meaning that the thing has unto itself. Such as a ball. It is just a ball. But it can also be a planet, or a superball for playing jacks. I bring this up because this is about all Joss talks about in the commentary. Actually to the point that he is more or less ignoring the episode aside from commenting on the characters in the episode, but not waiting for actions to happen, or even characters to be on screen as he rambles on. It was all pretty interesting and somewhat enlightening, if almost more of listening to a podcast than watching a commentary.
Yet another big thing with Jubal was that, and I somewhat touched on this already, he was a paired foil to River. Both are intuitive, both are built to kill. Yet, while Jubal looks at a gun and only sees a gun, River can look at a gun and imbue—that gorram word again—it with some other meaning, such as a twig, which was more to say that it had lost meaning to her and she saw it as a harmless nothing.
And this gets into my discussion of River. Lawdy lawdy, our first fully River episode, and it is our last and punches you in the head. Where to begin with all the River-isms? Book’s shadowy past in his flash-line about not caring if anyone is innocent or not? Simon’s line of regret and his actual admission to it with Kaylee? The fact that she didn’t get any thoughts from Kaylee when she saw her? The whole Mal-Inara thing? And no, I’m not getting back into that. I stand by what I said, although I don’t know if I either did not convey it right or if most of ya’ll missed exactly what I was saying? Oh gorram it.
Fine, aside: Mal and Inara. My dislike of this relationship stems from two things. One: it wouldn’t work. They have too much baggage, put it off too long, and now they probably have put each other up on pedestals in their heads. The second, my call of passive-aggressive, is that I think it unfair that Inara nor Mal have forced an “us” conversation. Recall back in Jaynestown how I lauded on Kaylee and Simon for having one? That is why I like them. Perhaps some of the comments are right that they wouldn’t work out because it is more of a physical thing and they both of issues and the two-worlds thing, etc. But at least they are moving in a semi-healthy direction towards trying to find that out for themselves. But Mal and Inara? They let it fester and are too worried or proud or something to make a move. Nor is either willing to just sit the other down and blatantly be “truthy” with a heavy emphasis on “I know these feelings won’t disappear, but I also know that no good will come of them.” Yeah, perhaps that is a bit emo, but it is better, I think, than sitting silent, fighting with the feelings, and letting them develop and change without any real interaction but instead only hope. Long as they haven’t broken the seal on their relationship, there is still hope that it is fresh. Passive-Aggressive White-Knight FriendZone-but-wanting-more things like that are the Schrödinger’s Cat of relationships (or Tupperware). Don’t break the seal, and maybe it is still good and you don’t have to throw it away.
ANYWAY! River. I loved our first true, deep glance into River’s head. Our only deep glance into River’s head, I mean. It reminds me of a description of autism I once heard: the person is completely open to everything and has no clue how to deal with it. Of course, back in 2002, autism was still a bit of a fringe condition, only ever heard of in crazy movies about the NSA or gambling and by parents of children who were just starting to be diagnosed. As opposed to now where doctor’s diagnose it like ADHD was diagnosed when I was growing up, which is to say, as a default. Yes, that is personal experience with my children talking. Also, of course, River would at least be a high-functioning autistic, not quite but almost to Asperger’s.
So yeah, River’s little guilt-trip on the crew at the end proving that she does understand (even if she doesn’t always comprehend) is poignant. That it was a bit of a farse doesn’t lessen it, and that right at the end she has a moment of clarity again, much like in “War Stories,” and that she gets to be friends with Kaylee again, well, it’s simply heartwarming. The last camera pan around where we see the crew is together again and River is included seals that deal.
Now then, to a few odds and ends. I loved the Jayne banter. I glossed over most of it in the summary because it was really just garnish, but his fear of a psychic reading his thoughts and the lines that came off it were nice. Even Inara, who was trying to keep the discussion serious, had to snark on him. And speaking of Inara, it was only obliquely mentioned, but the whole “Inara is leaving” thing must have been confusing to the original air-order watchers. Not that it mattered much, I guess, since the show was cancelled, but still. That was established in “Heart of Gold,” which didn’t air until the following summer. Almost makes me glad I didn’t watch during the initial run. I would have been confused and angry, I tell you what.
Originally Aired: 13 December 2002
Original Position: Episode 10
Fun Goofs: When Kaylee is giving her speech about River being a killing-machine in the galley, right before it cuts down to River, you can see a white-haired man with thick black indie-hip glasses reading a binder over in the kitchen. THERE WERE TWO SHOOTERS! EARLY HAD AN INSIDE MAN! GAH!
Richard’s Favorite Line: Three way tie.
MAL: When I want a lot of medical jargon, I’ll talk to a doctor.
SIMON: You are talking to a doctor.
SIMON: Well, my sister’s a ship. We had a complicated childhood.
SIMON: I can’t keep track of her when she’s not incorporeally possessing a spaceship.
And that, my friends, is as they say that. But we are hardly done. Next week is going to be “Richard recovers his sanity with an ice-cream scoop” week, also called vacation, and then I’m going to do a series-in-reflection post about any final thoughts on Firefly, and after that I’m going to cover the graphic novel Serenity: Those Left Behind, as it was pointed out to me by one commentor that it bridges the gap between the series and the movie. Also because it was the only one of the graphic novels my local comic book shop had in stock. After I get through that (I don’t know yet how many posts it will be), I’ll do the movie, then I’ll move into the other comics. And yes, while it will be some time after I’m done with all this craziness, I will be coming back with The Shepherd’s Tale as well in November, which will finally give us Book’s backstory. Exciting times ahead, my friends. The ‘verse isn’t done with us yet.
Richard Fife is a blogger, writer, and sadly not based off of Boba Fett. You can read more of his rambling and some of his short stories at http://RichardFife.com.