So, this was the fourth episode aired, but it was also the first one after the show was pre-empted for baseball, something that definitely didn’t help with Fox’s reputation amongst the fanbase. But, whatever, on with the review!
In the beginning, Simon and Kaylee are talking about Simon’s language; specifically, that he doesn’t swear. Simon insists that he does, just only when appropriate. Inara passes by on her way out of the ship, to which Kaylee wishes her “good sex.” The pair are then interrupted by Jayne destroying the infirmary looking for tape so that he can conceal a gun on his person, only to be told by Mal that there will be no guns on the planet. Jayne mentions that he has enemies on the planet, which Simon sarcastically questions, but Mal insists on going in unarmed.
The ship lands in Canton, a town that harvests mud for manufacture of high-grade ceramics using indentured labor. In an attempt to spend more time with him, Kaylee suggests that Simon should come along. Mal agrees, saying that Simon could easily pass for a rich man looking to buy mud, which will divert attention. Book offers to watch after River while Simon’s off the ship.
The land-crew, consisting of Wash, Simon, Mal, Kaylee, and a disguised Jayne, wander into the Mudding Pits, only to find a statue of Jayne which people have clearly been treating as an altar, lighting votive candles and leaving gifts. Simon, proving his word, can only mutter “son of a bitch.”
Jayne says he has no idea what the statue is about, as the last time he was in Canton he committed a robbery that “went South,” which he imagines the Magistrate is still pissed about. At that same moment, Inara is meeting with the Magistrate (Gregory Itzin), who wants her to solve a problem for him.
Back on Serenity, River is “fixing” Book’s Bible. She’s attempting to solve the scientific impossibilities of the Garden of Eden by incorporating “non-progressional evolution” and Noah’s Ark with quantum-state phenomena. Book states that “you don’t fix faith, it fixes you.”
In a Canton Bar, the group is trying “Mudder’s Milk,” the single greatest alcoholic beverage ever created: It’s proteins, carbs, and vitamins, described as “your grandma’s best turkey dinner,” plus 15% alcohol. Why do I love this so much? IT’S BASICALLY VITAMEATAVEGAMIN!!!! Only with less alcohol. Simon points out that Mudder’s Milk is basically the same as the beer they gave slaves in Ancient Egypt to keep them from malnutrition, because why be subtle?
Mal finds out that the man they were supposed to meet was killed a few days prior, so they need another way to get the merchandise across town without being detected by the Magistrate. They’re then interrupted by a man playing a god-honest folk-song about Jayne called “The Hero of Canton.” The song explains the hero-worship, explaining that when he was here previously, Jayne robbed a large amount of money from the Magistrate, then dumped the money over all of the poor mudders of Canton. Jayne explains to the crew that when he stole the money, his ship got hit by a missile, and so he had to dump all of the money in order to escape. It was completely unintentional.
Back on Serenity, in one of the best short gag scenes in the series, River is trying to apologize to Book, saying that she “tore these [pages] out of your symbol and they turned into paper.” Book, who’s using the sink, turns around with his hair unbound from his usual ponytail, and reveals himself. I’m gonna put a picture in here, because I think the only verbal description is that he looks like a cross between that photo of Einstein sticking his tongue out, a man getting electrocuted, and John Legend in the year 2065. River, naturally, runs away screaming. Zoe comes to see what happened and is similarly taken aback by his hair.
As the crew leaves the bar they are confronted with a crowd who now recognizes Jayne as their hero. Jayne is quickly mobbed, while Mal tries to figure out how to use this to their advantage.
Inara is on her shuttle when the Magistrate brings in his “problem,” his son, who is 26 and a virgin. Inara, annoyed by the Magistrate’s attitude, convinces him to leave the pair alone.
At the bar, Simon and Kaylee are getting drunk and somewhat flirty. Mal tries to get them to leave, but Kaylee insists things are “going well,” which Mal correctly interprets and leaves them to their drinks.
On Serenity, River is hiding under the stairs, saying “They say the snow on the roof was too heavy. They say the ceiling will cave in. His brains are in terrible danger.” I consider these lines nothing short of brilliant. Book asks her to come out, to which she explains: “I can’t. Too much hair.” Book tries to explain that it’s part of his vows, but Zoe just tells River that he’s putting the hair away. Wash and Mal return, explaining the Jayne situation to an incredulous Zoe. Mal plans on having Jayne be at a celebration in his honor in the town, which should distract everyone enough to transport the cargo.
That night, Inara and the Magistrate’s son, Fess (Zachary Kranzler), talk, with Inara insisting that he be more confident in himself. At the same time, the Magistrate releases the partner Jayne abandoned four years ago, sending him to attack Jayne.
The next morning, Jayne’s still basking in his own glory, and Simon and Kaylee wake up together, resulting in Simon saying something exceptionally stupid and offending her. She insists he stay in the bar, because “that’s the sort of thing that would be appropriate.” The “ya blew it” look Mal gives him after is perfect.
Inara wakes up with Fess, who explains that he’s going to be helping his father get revenge on a hero who thwarted him. Inara starts to defend Mal, only to find out that it’s actually Jayne, something that leaves her flabbergasted. God, I love an opportunity to use that word. Fess reveals that the Magistrate has grounded Serenity.
Jayne’s old partner, Stitch (Kevin Gage), attacks Simon and cuts his arm when he tries to avoid telling him where Jayne is. The crew transfers the cargo successfully. Jayne gives a short, somewhat decent, speech to the mudders before being confronted by Stitch who tells everyone the truth about what Jayne did. Stitch tries to kill Jayne, but one of the mudders who has been idolizing Jayne most jumps in front of him and is killed. Jayne proceeds to beat Stitch to death with the base of his own statue. Jayne tells the crowd that there are no heroes. There are just “people like [him].” With that, he destroys his statue.
With the help of Fess, the crew takes off. Book goes to talk to River who is highlighting a Bible. She tells him to “Just keep walking, Preacher man.” Simon and Kaylee flirt again, with Kaylee pointing out that his manners don’t mean anything in their position, but Simon insists that’s how he’s respectful. She then makes a joke about them sleeping together to mock him.
The episode ends with Mal and Jayne sitting together, and Jayne remarking that it’s stupid for the man who died for him to have done so, and that they’re probably putting the statue back up. Mal agrees, but tells Jayne:
“It’s my estimation that…every man ever got a statue made of him, was one kind of sumbitch or another. Ain’t about you, Jayne. About what they need.”
Jayne closes the episode saying, “Don’t make no sense.”
Alright, so, this episode again highlights a big theme of Firefly: The inequity of the system of government. In Canton, the Magistrate holds all of the workers in indentured servitude. It’s even a selling point for the mud. The Foreman flat-out says: “We have over 2000 workers, mostly indentured. We pay them next to nothing, that way we can pass the savings directly to you, the customer.” Basically, they’re advertising “hey, we force people to live in terrible conditions to enhance profits.” Now, many people might point out that this is similar to the business model of [insert almost any major corporation], but the difference in Canton is that the Magistrate is the one in charge of this and also the one who has legal right to enforce debts. It’s basically like if Wal-mart had a private army keeping their workers in the store… or if this were the railroad and mining conglomerates of the 1800s and early 1900s.
However, while watching this episode, one other aspect of the society in Firefly becomes apparent: There’s almost no automation within the series. While we know that computers are capable of auto-piloting spaceships, we don’t see some of the basic automated processes we see emerge in the present, like crop-sprayers or self-driving harvesters. The focus of this episode is on “mudders,” literally people who farm mud, something that lends itself readily to being done by machines.
And yet, somehow, slave-ish labor is apparently the way they choose to do things. There are only 3 ways this makes sense:
Option 1 is if indentured servitude is cheaper than automation. Given that the workers A) constantly are trying to undermine the Magistrate and B) appear to only work during the day, this seems unlikely. It’s not like it’d take a complicated mechanism to harvest mud and, as evidenced by the very existence of Serenity’s engine, near-limitless power is not particularly expensive in the future. I can’t imagine it costs less to feed, clothe, govern, etc. the mudders than to upkeep some machines. Since the Magistrate is rich and able to both import and manufacture goods (as shown by his home), there’s also no scarcity of materials issue.
Option 2 is if the Union of Allied Planets has banned robotics. This actually seems probable, since the only robot I remember from the series is Mr. Universe’s (presumably illegal) robot bride. The only problem is that banning AI or humanoid robotics wouldn’t likely prevent the kind of mechanisms required for harvesting mud. It’s not like you need to be able to process emotions or quantum physics to figure out “check how muddy this mud is. If it’s muddy enough, collect it. If not, muddy it more.” It’s at this point I should reveal that I’m not 100% sure what the mudders actually do, since they don’t actually make the ceramics, but I can assume it involves purifying the material and making it the appropriate chemical composition to be made into ceramic plating. Pretty much no matter what, it seems like a relatively simple set of algorithms could handle it, compared to the ones required for INTERPLANETARY TRAVEL. To those of you who would point out that interplanetary travel is not as complicated when you don’t have to account for fuel… yeah, okay, but it’s still a lot of math to figure out the closest routes based on orbitals and such, or routes that don’t intersect with certain territories, so shut up you pedants.
Option 3, and probably the actual reason, is that many of the members of the Alliance, like the Magistrate, thrive on preserving their status. For the Magistrate to be wealthy and authoritative on his moon, he has to make sure that no one else on the moon ever has any wealth or authority. Power only exists in relative terms, after all. Even though pseudo-slavery might not be the most economically viable model for the Magistrate to be rich and powerful on an Alliance-wide scale, it makes sure that he’s the most powerful man on his little moon. I’m sure there’s an analogy one could make to certain historical models of government or society where people were kept in an intentionally deprived state for the claimed purpose of easier economic exploitation but might instead have been based more heavily around preserving a power structure by suppression of a large group, but my slavish attempts to name one have been feudal.
And, really, this is somehow one of the most ridiculous and yet one of the most understandable aspects of the Firefly future: People have shitty lives entirely because the Alliance wants them to have shitty lives. This is the future. Energy is now post-scarcity (though not to the Star Trek level). Interplanetary shipping is part of life. Asteroid mining is stated to exist repeatedly. There are dozens of planets worth of resources and finding more is no longer a ridiculous concept. Everyone should basically have all of their base needs met at all times, just because it would be easy to provide them. The starting point in a future society with this level of resources should be above safety on the hierarchy of needs, and yet it’s often below physiological, with people dying from lack of medicine or adequate shelter, and a huge percentage of the population not being “burdened with an overabundance of schooling,” despite the fact that they have an interplanetary internet. Even without knowing that the government experimented on River in a completely unethical and immoral way, the state of the future speaks volumes as to their cruelty.
River and religion is just a very funny aside for me. It’s a perfect point-counterpoint when she’s trying to make the Bible into a scientifically viable, logical system, something that Book, accurately, states is not the point of faith. Faith is supposed to make you better through your interactions with something bigger than yourself.
Overall, I love this episode. It’s not in the top-tier for me, but it’s a damn good hour of television. The idea that Jayne, literally the LEAST moral member of the crew, becomes a folk hero through complete happenstance is hilarious, but the message at the end is really what makes the episode for me:
The truth of a person isn’t what people need. They need the idea.
Jayne himself even says that there aren’t really heroes in the world, that there are only people like him, who do good through failing at their own selfishness. But, in the end, the mudders need someone to believe in. They need something to unite them, so they can keep going. They even point out that the only things they’ve ever been able to beat the Magistrate on was to keep the money they believed that Jayne gave them and to keep up the statue of Jayne. Those were the two things that convinced them to have a riot serious enough to defeat the administration. And maybe one day they’ll believe in the story of Jayne enough to unite and change their circumstances again for the better. You’d think they’d realize they could do that based on the fact that their riots actually forced the Magistrate to change his mind, but history says people in oppressed groups often take a while to hit their breaking point. However, faith in a focal figure also helps, since interaction with something bigger than yourself can make you better… oh, wait, I said that already. Weird.
Also, the “Ballad of Jayne Cobb” should have gotten certified gold.
Score: 4.0 Fireflies (or 1 Jug of Mudder’s Milk)
See you next Friday, Browncoats.
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