Firefly got fourteen episodes and a movie. Never really got the chance to show itself, thanks to the network. There have been attempts to expand it further, but, ultimately, there is relatively little to it beyond a season and a film. Despite that, it commands an amazingly dedicated fanbase, and is typically regarded as one of the greatest sci-fi shows ever made. If you want to hear how Fox screwed it over, this is the internet, there are thousands of pages on it from more dedicated angry fans. Personally, I don’t know if it would have maintained its quality in a longer run, but I will say this: It ended on an unbelievably high note, and had plenty more room to grow.
Here’s the gist of the show: It’s a space western, and that is exactly what it sounds like. The crew of the “Firefly-class” spaceship Serenity travel from planet to planet, however, most of the places they land more strongly resemble the 19th or early 20th century than the future, due to the inhabitants having to rebuild civilization from almost no resources beyond a terraformed environment. There are some planets that are appropriately futuristic, but they’re only available to the social elite. So, most of the places they visit seem more like the set of Unforgiven with a few random holograms than the set of Blade Runner or Star Trek.
The crew of Serenity is more than a little eclectic. The Captain is Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan “The Lord Thy” Fillion), an honest thief and former sergeant for the Independent Planets during the Unification War. The Unification War takes place roughly 500 years in the future and ends about 6 years before the show’s start. It arose because while the same organization leaving the Earth That Was had terraformed almost all of the moons and planets in this new solar system, but had hoarded nearly all of the technology and resources in a few core planets, which formed an Alliance, and left the others to fend for themselves. Those planets that had been left on their own (where most of the show takes place), tried to negotiate for a more equitable distribution of resources. In response, the Alliance decided to force those planets under Alliance control, and succeeded. This leaves Mal with a slight distaste for authority.
His First Mate, and second-in-command during the war, is Zoë Washburne (Gina “Pick Warlock” Torres), who is extremely loyal, capable of killing almost anyone she feels like with almost anything she has handy, and perpetually stoic. Her husband is the childish, hilarious, and loving pilot of the ship Hoban “Wash” Washburne (Alan “I can make playing a chicken seem Oscar-worthy” Tudyk). The ship’s engineer is the mechanically gifted, wholesome, and occasionally overly blunt Kaylee Frye (Jewel “The second Amy Pond” Staite). The ship’s … I’m gonna go with “guy who shoots people,” since I don’t know his official title, is the mercenary Jayne Cobb (Adam “Don’t read my Twitter” Baldwin). The perpetual passengers of the ship are: Inara Serra (Morena “You should watch Gotham” Baccarin), a companion (sort of like an escort with high-ranking social status and a ton of additional skills) and the person Mal refuses to acknowledge is his love interest; Derrial Book (Ron “I played the Devil on The Twilight Zone” Glass), a shepherd (future version of a pastor); Dr. Simon Tam (Sean “Nightwing” Maher), a gifted doctor on the run from the Alliance for breaking out his sister and fellow passenger, River (Summer “I need more roles” Glau).
River Tam is brilliant. During a speech in the pilot episode, Simon indicates to the crew that he himself is an exceptionally bright person. He’s a genius, even among doctors in the far future. Despite this, and despite her being a few years younger, River constantly made him feel like the idiot child. At 14, she had gotten bored with graduate-level physics (and this is physics 500 years from now). She was a prodigy in basically every field, even dance and music. Then, the Alliance essentially abducted her and started to perform experiments on her with the goal of giving her psychic powers and turning her into the perfect assassin. Unfortunately, they also removed her amygdala, which left her unable to attempt to filter her emotions. More than that, by using that in tandem with her psychic abilities, it also makes her unable to filter the emotions of others around her. As you might guess, this makes her more or less insane.
She seems to talk nonsense most of the time, but much of it actually is either semi-prophetic, psychic, or just an unusual observation that most people wouldn’t make out loud. Throughout the series up until this point, she has managed to demonstrate some unbelievable abilities, like memorizing a battlefield and then killing three people with three shots from a distance with her eyes closed (because she didn’t want to see the blood). Summer Glau somehow manages to portray her honestly, without ever having to really dive into hackneyed renditions of insanity or psychosis. River is River.
This episode is the first time she meets someone who, while not her equal, definitely serves as her dark reflection, and is the reason why I have to put this episode on this list:
Jubal. F*cking. Early.
If that isn’t his middle name, I don’t want to know what it is (though, if he’s named after the Confederate General, his middle name would be Anderson).
He’s the bounty hunter Boba Fett wishes he could be. He’s an evil Samus Aran with what appear to be severe emotional problems. Basically every line he says is amazing, and actor Richard “Now everyone has a middle name joke” Brooks manages to not only sell the craziness, but to convey subtle menace, curiosity, and insecurity all throughout the episode. Yes, he gets the benefit of only having to fill a limited amount of screen time, but the fact that this character never got a second episode is a travesty. Still, he made this one glorious.
The episode’s opening is told from River’s perspective and, credit to Joss Whedon, who wrote and directed it, it’s definitely different. Because River isn’t in control of her own mind, her reality is slightly altered. She can hear thoughts and emotions expressed as words or even other sounds. Objects are not necessarily what they are, but what she perceives them to be, evidenced most directly when she picks up a gun, but sees it only as a stick, saying “It’s just an object. Doesn’t mean what you think.”
The crew then discuss whether River is dangerous, and the first parallel is made between Jubal and River: they both eavesdrop on the conversation, Jubal through the ship’s hull, River through the floor. After the crew turns in for the night, Jubal enters the ship and systematically takes out most of the crew, seeking the bounty on Simon and River. First, he defeats Mal with ease, before locking him and most of the crew in their rooms. Then, he intimidates Kaylee through a combination of insane philosophical speculation coupled with threats to rape her if she doesn’t cooperate. This exchange is only about 30 lines, and it is nothing short of horrifying, including Early telling Kaylee “You throw a monkey wrench into my dealings in any way, your body is forfeit. Ain’t nothing but a body to me. And I can find all unseemly manner of use for it.”
He then disables Book, again without any effort, and confronts Simon. This conversation, similar to that with Kaylee, is a combination of threateningly insane and insanely threatening. A notable line, however, is that when he is taken to River’s room, he asks “So is it still her room when it’s empty? Does the room, the thing, have purpose? Or do we — what’s the word?… The plan is to take your sister. Get the reward, which is substantial. (beat) ‘Imbue.’ That’s the word.”
Early then encounters Inara and seals her in her shuttle. Running low on patience, Early uses the communications system to tell River to show herself, or Simon dies. To his surprise, River responds, saying that she is no longer on the ship. She knew the crew didn’t want her anymore, but she couldn’t leave, so she has bonded with the ship. There is no River, there is only Serenity.
River, as Serenity, then begins to toy with Early, while sabotaging his plans indirectly through seeming omnipresence throughout the ship. In the battle of crazy-brilliant, even Jubal Early is outmatched here, something that has clearly never happened before. Despite initially being unwilling to accept that River is now a ship, but even he starts to believe that River might now be Serenity. Eventually, River, now revealed to actually be on Early’s ship, says that the ship and crew would be better off without her and tells Early that she’ll leave with him. Early appears ready to leave until Simon attacks him, and Early shoots Simon in the leg. Early is then ambushed by Mal near the airlock, and is thrown out into space in a spacesuit. The last shot of the series is Jubal Early, floating out in the vastness of space, saying, calmly “Well, here I am.”
So, a large part of this episode is the dialogue, and I cannot convey it here. I’m currently reviewing the episode’s script after having just watched it, and I don’t know that Early has any bad lines. There are no lines he delivers where I go “I think that was pointless.” Considering how absolutely nonsensical some of them come off out of context, that seems impossible, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t feel that way.
Another part is that Early is not just a new threat, he’s THE threat. People make jokes about the tendency in television to have the new enemy take out the strongest good guy in order to establish the new enemy as being “real.” This episode both does and does not do that. Early takes out Mal, a more than competent fighter, in a few seconds. Then, rather than deal with any other problems, just seals the rest of the potential threats in. He doesn’t fight Book, he just brutally knocks him out by surprise. He isn’t someone puffing his chest up and proclaiming his greatness, he is a calm, methodical, professional bounty hunter, and that makes him infinitely more dangerous than any typical enemy. If it weren’t for River, the entire Serenity crew, who we’ve seen in this show are each capable of handling themselves in serious situations, would be helpless. Part of the reason he’s able to do this is why he’s River’s counterpart: Jubal does not consider people to be people. They are only objects to him, devoid of any greater meaning than their use to him.
Joss Whedon cited Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel Nausea as his inspiration for this episode. Being a dedicated writer for the dozen people that read this, I purchased, and read, this 192-page novel… rather than, as someone pointed out after, just buying a book on Firefly and Philosophy. I’m not smart, guys. However, having read Nausea, I will confirm that, yes, there are ideas within the novel that are reflected there, and since you made me read an existentialist treatise in narrative form, I’m going to go ahead and address them. Enjoy.
Jubal Early and River are both address the concept of “engaged agency” in existentialist terms, but in opposing ways. Avoiding “engaged agency” is wanting to disavow any responsibility for your actions. The most common example is, adapted from Sartre’s example of “bad faith” in Being and Nothingness, that of a waiter who does not wish to be a man who is a waiter, so the man dissolves into the role and becomes a waiter. He is no longer a true human, he is only the function he performs, and therefore believes he bears no responsibility for what he does. Both River and Early do this during the episode, in exactly the opposite way.
Early tells River that he hurts people “only when the job requires it.” River, knowing the true him, says that he’s lying, and that he likes to hurt people. Early says “It’s part of the job,” to which River responds “it’s why you took the job.” Early likes to hurt people, but society and ethics frowns on it, so Early picked a career in which he would be permitted to hurt people by saying that it wasn’t him, it was just “part of the job.” He believes that he isn’t a bad person, he isn’t even a “person,” he is only a “function” that necessitates bad acts. He even says “what’s life without work,” indicating that he doesn’t see any point to his existence outside of performing the function. This is him denying his own agency, but he is being inauthentic. No one is forcing him to be a bounty hunter, so he is still acting in bad faith.
To contrast this, River tells Early that she has “dissolved” into Serenity, thereby becoming Serenity. Now, this would seem to be “bad faith,” but it is actually a twisted mirror of it. By being Serenity, the thing which is actually responsible for keeping all of the people she loves alive, she isn’t disclaiming responsibility. She is actually taking on responsibility beyond her normal self. She is saying that she will keep these people safe, because they are now a part of her. In the end, that is exactly what she does, as she destroys Early’s plans and ends up having him kicked out into the void.
Another parallel of the characters is how each one addresses a gun. River sees it just as an object, in fact, she sees it as a stick within a beautiful garden, removed of any meaning that we imbue within it. When Early addresses the gun, he also says it is “very pretty,” but he points out that the design is part of the function, that the beauty is derived from the gun’s capacity to shoot someone. River sees it as just what it is, an object. Early sees it only as its function.
While River doesn’t really have a direct equivalent, there is also Early’s statement to Kaylee that she “[a]in’t nothing but a body to [him]… [a]nd I can find all unseemly manner of use for it.” Once again, we see that Early is already considering the value of Kaylee only in terms of how he can use her. The closest parallel is when River, later, asks Kaylee to do something for her, but addressing her as a person with the ability to choose to act, not a tool.
Lastly, I’m going to address Jubal Early’s catchphrase “does that seem right to you?” Early asks that three times during the episode. They are: “Man is stronger by far than woman, yet only woman can create a child. Does that seem right to you?”; “You know… this girl is the smallest cargo I’ve ever had to transport. Yet by far the most troublesome. Does that seem right to you?”; and “They make psychiatrists get psychoanalyzed before they can get certified, but they don’t make a surgeon get cut on. That seem right to you?” Now, look at the common theme here: It’s just something that he finds as being grotesque, in the existentialist sense, because all three have some wrong relation to their function. It’s also bizarre, because on some level, Richard Brooks says the lines with such sincerity that you almost want to nod in agreement.
Despite all of this, Early ends the episode, defeated, with the ultimate statement of existential acceptance: “Here I am.” He isn’t performing any function at this moment, he is just existing, since that’s all that’s left to him in the void.
This episode is, appropriately, the perfect blend of form and function. The philosophical images and concepts are woven flawlessly into the narrative. While I didn’t address it much here, the sounds effects, the camera work, and the acting are all high-caliber. All of Firefly, from start to finish, takes about 15 hours to watch. If you have a weekend, this is a good use of it, if only because it will require you to see this episode.
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NEXT – 7: The Honeymooners
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