Firefly Fridays – Episode 9: “Ariel”

Welcome to the last of the originally approved episodes of Firefly’s run, and it’s easily one of the top-tier episodes from the first group. Obviously, there were more ordered, but this was the last of the first wave. It’s also the last episode to air before Fox just started pre-empting it for whatever they felt like, but we’ll cover that next week.


The episode starts with Serenity heading towards Ariel, one of the central worlds of the Union of Allied Planets, so that Inara can renew her Companion License. Everyone else is to stay on the ship so that they can avoid any trouble with the Alliance. Jayne makes a snide comment about Simon, to which River seems to respond by cutting him across the chest with a knife. Creepily, River says he looks “better in red.” Simon patches up Jayne and tries to apologize, but Jayne responds by requesting that Mal leave the Tams on Ariel. Mal tells Simon to confine River to her room, before telling Simon that River is getting worse, something Simon sadly admits.

Not quite the Western Aesthetic we usually see.

Simon then presents the team with an offer of a job: Sneaking River into a futuristic fMRI in an Alliance hospital so that he can do a full brain-scan of her to figure out what’s wrong. As payment, Simon will help them raid the hospital’s medical cabinets to steal high-grade pharmaceuticals. Kaylee expresses hesitation about stealing medicine, particularly after they already backed out of that in “The Train Job,” but Zoe points out that, unlike the poor Outer Rim planets, inner planets can replenish their medical supplies almost instantaneously. Just to drive home that these are good people, Mal says that the poor on the Outer Rim could really use those meds.

Simon poses a two-part plan. First, the crew will use a refurbished abandoned medical shuttle and fake IDs to bring Simon and River in as cadavers so they won’t have to be scanned. After they’re in, Mal and Zoe will go and get the meds while Simon takes River to the scanner and Jayne stands guard. They’ll fill the empty coffins with meds and bring them back out.

Ambulance of the Future!!!!

The preparation for this particular heist is pretty hilarious. Simon writes a script that is technically accurate and contains a bunch of medical jargon, which the rest of the crew, particularly Jayne, cannot quite get right. Meanwhile, Kaylee and Wash find a wrecked medical transport (as well as a catalyzer that he just ignores), which they fix up until it looks believable. Jayne bribes a guard for IDs, uniforms, and keycards. Simon convinces River, who is terrified of going into a coma again, that this is the only way to help fix her head. He injects both of them with drugs to become corpses temporarily.

The crew lands on Ariel in the fake medical shuttle and, just as they start to relate their backstory, are allowed straight in without any questions. Humorously, Jayne, who either just can’t adjust to changes or was too proud of memorizing his line to not say it, still delivers his prepared speech rather than just going through the door. Mal revives the Tams in the morgue, then takes off with Zoe to collect the drugs. While the Tams are rousing, Jayne puts a call in to an Alliance officer, revealing that he’s reached an agreement to sell the Tams. Simon and River then wake up, nauseous, before getting dressed as a doctor and patient.

The Tams sneak in.

As they’re going through the hospital, River insists to Simon that he help a patient who is being killed by his doctor. Simon insists that’s not what’s happening, but when the patient codes, Simon saves the patient then berates the doctor for making a very basic mistake that would have killed him, impressing both River and Jayne with his medical knowledge and authority. It really serves to drive home how much Simon would have had if he hadn’t given it up for River, but Simon never seems to second-guess it.


Mal and Zoe get accosted by a doctor with a severe complex about his authority and, while Mal really does try to be as polite as possible while dealing with a complete douchenozzle, Zoe takes the more direct approach by knocking him unconscious. Using the doctor’s ID, the pair raid the medical supply closet, stealing everything that Simon told them was valuable, necessary, and easily replaceable.

In the future brain scanning machine, Simon finds out that River has had multiple brain surgeries which have removed her amygdalae, preventing her from being able to suppress or regulate her emotions. As Simon puts it: “She feels everything. She can’t not.” The further implication within the show, later confirmed in the movie, is that not being able to prevent herself from feeling has enhanced her ability to feel other people’s emotions from her natural low-grade empathic abilities all the way to full-on telepathy. Jayne then leads the pair to a different backdoor than originally planned, despite River’s objections. All three are arrested.

Yep. That’s a brain.

Jayne discovers quickly that the Alliance commander, Agent McGinnis (Blake Robbins) has no interest whatsoever in doing business with him, instead choosing to collect the reward himself. Mal and Zoe get back to the shuttle, but Zoe recognizes a radio broadcast as a code for arresting criminals. As Jayne and the Tams are moved through the hospital, Simon thanks Jayne for trying to help him and River, not knowing that Jayne is the one that ratted them out. River’s nonsensical chatter in this scene is pretty brilliant: It simultaneously can be an implication that she knows that Jayne and the Alliance Commander did while also being a metaphor for what has done to her brain by the Alliance. It’s also about Christmas. Jayne and the Tams get put into holding, but Simon and Jayne disable the guards. As they yell about which way to get out of the hospital, River says “Doesn’t matter. They’re here.”


At that moment, it’s revealed that the two blue-gloved men in dark suits from “The Train Job” have arrived at the hospital and are talking with Agent McGinnis. However, upon finding out that he and his team spoke with the prisoners, specifically River, the Hands of Blue pull out a blue cylinder that causes Agent McGinnis to hemorrhage everywhere, quickly killing him. Presumably, they kill the rest of the team later, as screams are heard coming down the corridors, causing Jayne, Simon, and River to try to escape. They reach a locked door that they can’t force open, but, at the last second, Mal and Zoe open it from the other side. By the time the Hands of Blue reach the room, the crew has escaped.

Inara returns to the ship, where Kaylee fills her in on the events in an intentionally confusing way. Mal and the rest arrive, telling Wash to get them out of Ariel. Mal tells Jayne to hang back for a second, then knocks him unconscious.

A Gut-Wrenching Moment. Screw you, I laughed, why didn’t you?

Jayne awakens in the airlock in the cargo hold, with the inside door sealed and a radio on the floor. Mal, on the other side of the airlock, shows him that he has the other radio, then cracks the outside door a little, revealing that Serenity is leaving the atmosphere. Mal tells Jayne that Simon’s plan was good. Too good for them to have gotten caught at the back exit, where they weren’t supposed to be, unless Jayne called the Alliance. Jayne denies it, but Mal just opens the outside door more and tells Jayne they’ll be leaving atmosphere in 2 minutes, at which point Jayne will be sucked out. Jayne begs for his life, then for a more honorable death, before finally admitting that he did betray Simon and River, but says that it wasn’t betraying Mal. Mal responds that:

“Oh, but you did. You turn on any of my crew, you turn on me. But since that’s a concept you can’t seem to wrap your head around, then you got no place here. You did it to me, Jayne. And that’s a fact.”

Jayne, accepting what he’s done, just asks Mal to not tell the crew what he did. Mal, seeing Jayne’s regret, changes his mind and allows Jayne to live. Meanwhile, Simon gives River a shot based on his findings in the brain scan. River worries that it’ll put her to sleep, but Simon insists it’ll help her to wake up.


Alright, so, this episode always kind of reminds me of “The Train Job.” Both are heist stories involving medical supplies, both feature the hands of blue, both involve the team getting separated with one half being captured (in the former, it’s Mal and Zoe that get captured, in this one, they’re the ones that get away), both involve Mal threatening to execute someone using Serenity. The former takes place on a colony that’s been abused by the Alliance by being overcharged and undersupplied with medicine to treat a condition which was caused by mining for the benefit of the Alliance. The latter takes place on an elite planet which has most of the futuristic technologies appropriate for the time, where medicine is plentiful enough that the crew has no worry about their theft impacting the hospital. I’m not saying it’s meant to be a reflection of “The Train Job,” I’m just saying I think of them as being a pair. They both kind of show different sides of being a noble thief.

Including note-taking.

The big Firefly thing I’m going to address in this episode is the Blue Sun and the Alliance and what they did to River. This episode finally starts to really tell the story of what was done to River’s mind and how valuable she is to the Alliance. River has no amygdala, because, after multiple surgeries, the Alliance ended up removing one or both of them… somehow. The episode seems to imply that it’s only one that gets “stripped,” since Simon speaks of it in the singular, there being two of them in the human brain, and Simon in an excellent doctor proficient in multiple fields (including, apparently, neurology). This definitely makes more sense than losing both, since it seems River wouldn’t even be able to function at all without either of them, even if there are sophisticated future treatments. Since the amygdalae play a role in emotional response, decision-making, and memory, it also seems to make sense with River’s odd quirks.

The Ultimate Weapon.

Now, this isn’t really fully explained until the movie Serenity, but the Alliance tried to make River into the ultimate weapon by enhancing her brain to the point that she can read the minds of anyone in her proximity. However, she’s not capable of reading anyone, she HAS to read EVERYONE, which explains why she has more trouble when in larger groups unless the group is focused on something singular and happy. This episode, though, is our first hint that River has additional secrets, to the point that the Hands of Blue have to kill anyone who speaks with her. In the movie, it’s revealed that River was exposed to a room of the highest-ranking members of the Alliance, meaning she knows every secret of the Alliance, including that *Spoiler for a 10 year old movie* the Alliance created the Reavers.


What is not fully expanded on within the series is that the Blue Sun Corporation clearly had a huge part in both River’s treatment and in the higher-levels of the Alliance. Throughout the series, River responds negatively to any image of the Blue Sun logo. In “Shindig,” she tears off the food labels that have the logo and, in this episode, she slashes Jayne’s shirt because it bears the logo.


We see the Blue Sun logo on products throughout the series like coffee cans, food cans, shirts, cola products, breakfast bars, and alcohol bottles. These don’t really seem out of the ordinary for a single company. They’re like Coca-Cola or General Mills: They just have a lot of fingers in a lot of pies, and that’s not innuendo… or maybe it is, I don’t really know what they’re into. But, this episode has a product that is completely out of the ordinary: The brain scanner itself has the Blue Sun logo on it.

So, what exactly is the Blue Sun’s role in the whole saga of River Tam? Well, we didn’t really get the full reveal, but it seems pretty obvious that Blue Sun is owned or in partnerships with the Alliance at the highest levels, because River’s reactions indicate that they were behind at least some of her torture. This makes sense if they’re the company that manufactures the complicated medical equipment that would be used to perform the surgeries. Additionally, they had enough clout and ubiquity to be able to embed messages for River in advertisements around the ‘Verse. In the movie, the message that “triggers” River to remember Miranda is in an ad for Fruity Oat Bars, a Blue Sun product.


Sadly, we didn’t get to really see the full extent of this, but it was a great plot point to have a massive and seemingly harmless corporation being tied into the Alliance’s shadowy workings. It’d be like finding out that Monsanto entered into a government contract to manufacture Agent Orang-oh, right.

This is one of my favorite episodes in the show. It’s a solid heist with a great prep montage, it finally gives a semi-explanation for River’s condition, it has Jayne’s hatred and resentment of Simon and River come to a head, it has Mal showing his willingness both to be brutal and also to forgive, and it also finally gives us a real shot of how the “other half” lives in this heavily classist future. The only downsides are 1) it doesn’t have Book. At all., 2) it does have elements that seem to be shared by “The Train Job,” 3) the dialogue isn’t bad, but it also doesn’t have some of the signature great lines of other episodes, and 4) it doesn’t quite give us enough forward motion on the River Tam mystery for an episode dedicated to it.

Score: 4.5 Fireflies (or 1 Brain Scanner)


See you next Friday, Browncoats.

PREVIOUS – 8: Out of Gas

NEXT – 10: War Stories

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

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