Already wrote this one once, because I consider this one of the ten best episodes of television. Some of my impressions are taken from that review, so, if it seems like I’m re-using stuff, that’s why. Except for the airing of the pilot, this was the last episode aired of the show, and is the last episode of the show in general.
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.
The first thing River hears is a man’s voice saying “we’re all just floating.” Which is both a great metaphor for the wandering nature of the people on-board and a magnificent statement about the nature of reality from a bigger perspective. We all pretend we’re on something, but whatever we’re on is just floating through space. You’ve never been not floating in your life. It’s just more obvious when you’re on a spaceship.
Now, the main thing about the next sequence is that no one reacts to River, at all, so it’s likely that she’s not physically walking through the ship. She’s probably just extending herself through it to hear all of the people psychically, until the very end.
River awakens to hear Kaylee and Simon talking, with Simon telling her a story about how during school he once ended up singing naked on a statue of Hippocrates because he drank too much saké. Then, randomly, River sees Simon turn to her and say that he’d be there right now. This is clearly Simon’s inner thought, as it’s not something Simon would ever say out loud and is not responded to by Kaylee.
She walks through the ship, encountering Jayne and Book. She sees a flash of Jayne saying that he got stupid and didn’t resist the money when he turned the Tams in, which isn’t surprising, but she also sees a flash of Book saying, in a threatening manner, that he doesn’t care if someone is innocent or not. This is one of the most direct hints we get to Book’s violent past, since he’s apparently just remembering something, not actually thinking this towards River.
She sees Zoe and Wash on the bridge kissing passionately and appears to be somewhat overwhelmed by the emotions coming off of them, signified by the sound of rolling waves crashing until she cannot bear it any more. She moves away with an almost sick look.
She sees Mal and Inara arguing, and this scene was actually filmed twice, because one way doesn’t make sense given that “Heart of Gold” hadn’t aired. In the original airing, Inara is threatening to leave if she doesn’t get more opportunities. In the “real” version, Inara is talking about leaving soon, but it’s revealed she hasn’t told the crew yet. In both versions, however, their inner thoughts are the same: Inara wants Mal to tell her his feelings and Mal feels like her behavior has rendered all his feelings pointless.
River hears the ocean again and stumbles away looking uncomfortable. She steps on a stick and picks it up, seeing a version of the cargo bay filled with leaves and branches, looking like an autumn park. She says “it’s just an object, it doesn’t mean what you think.” It then jump cuts to all of the characters approaching her, revealing that the stick was actually a gun. Mal disarms her, saying that she shouldn’t have a gun. River leaves, upset. Mal asks Simon about River’s condition, but Simon says it’s hard to figure out how to medicate her. Outside, a ship is shown approaching Serenity. The man onboard it, Jubal Early (Richard Brooks), is shown to have conducted thermal scans of the ship, matched its trajectory, and is reviewing wanted posters for the Tams.
The crew then discuss whether River is dangerous, and the first parallel is made between Early and River: they both eavesdrop on the conversation, Early through the ship’s hull, River through the floor. Jayne recounts when she cut him with a knife during “Ariel” and Kaylee tells the crew about River shooting Niska’s men in “War Stories.” They go back and forth, but the message is pretty clear: River can be extremely dangerous, even if she doesn’t mean to be. It’s also brought up to the entire crew that River is likely psychic. In a great exchange, Wash points out that sounds like ridiculous science-fiction, only to be reminded that he lives on a spaceship. Wash only responds “So?” On the one hand, he has a point that spaceships don’t mean that psychic powers exist. On the other hand, she’s right in that they currently use multiple technologies that would basically be just as implausible as mind-reading to anyone in the past. This is why I love them.
The crew turns in for the night, with Kaylee following Simon and trying to apologize. Simon is angry because River really loves the ship, though he admits that he preferred helping people at the hospital, showing the wish that he was back there from River’s psychic reading. He has to fight against blaming River, because he knows that it’s not her fault, but that of the people that did this to her. Still, on some level, he resents her a little. Kaylee and Simon almost share a moment, but then part ways, heading to bed.
Early enters the ship and systematically takes out most of the crew. First, he defeats Mal with ease before locking him and most of the crew in their rooms using the control panel. 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.” I’m genuinely a little scared of Joss Whedon for writing that line.
Early 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.” Another is that he mishears Simon ask if he’s Alliance and responds “Am I a lion?… I don’t think of myself as a lion. You may as well, though: I have a mighty roar.” After they don’t find River in her room, the pair begin going throughout the ship looking for her and, honestly, everything about Simon and Early’s exchange while they’re searching the ship for River is pretty much perfect, start to finish. It cannot be done justice in a review.
Early and Simon then encounter Inara in her shuttle. Inara tries to convince Early to stop searching for River, but he pistol whips her for trying to manipulate his emotions with her Companion skills. Early 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. She first remotely contacts Kaylee and comforts her while saying that she’s going to free her and then needs her to be brave and do something for her. She starts to mock Early with her laughter, which Early outright states is “somewhat unsettling,” then by going into his past and his motivations for being a bounty hunter. 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, eventually even he starts to believe that River might now be Serenity.
River contacts Mal the way she’d contacted Kaylee and tells him they need to work quickly, seemingly being able to see his every move. Kaylee, meanwhile, has followed River’s instructions and freed herself. She manages to get to the control panel and unseal the rooms. River contacts Wash and Zoë. Zoë wants to face Early, but River flatly states that Early would win. River messes with the ship’s electrics, allowing Mal to sneak around the ship. River mocks Early more until he realizes where she’s getting her info: She’s on his ship.
Early, aware of how powerful his ship’s weapons are, is now even more afraid of her. However, River surprises him by saying that she’s going to go with him, feeling that she’s not wanted on the ship. 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. River comes back onboard, seeming more normal than she’s been in the series up until now. As the rest of the crew recovers from the attack, River joins Kaylee for a game of jacks.
The last shot of the series is Jubal Early, floating out in the vastness of space, saying, calmly “Well, here I am.”
So, the main reason I consider this such a great episode is that it’s the first time River meets someone who, while not her equal, definitely serves as her dark reflection:
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… and apparently would be an ancestor of Nathan Fillion).
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 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.
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 to stop him. After having two straight episodes of crappy villains, this is even more amazing.
Part of the reason he’s able to be so great is also 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 people who read this, I purchased, and read, this 192-page novel… rather than, as someone pointed out, 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 avoiding “engaged agency,” 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 by Mal.
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 nature scene, 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. An object in space.
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, even for Firefly. Within the series, I simply don’t think there’s much better, from the surreal opening to Jubal’s existential closing. This is a top-tier episode, without a doubt. However, you’re about to notice that I don’t rate it the perfect episode in Firefly, even though I think it’s one of the best episodes of TV. That’s because, despite how much I think this episode is amazing and insightful and unique and creative, it’s also a little too surreal and odd to really represent everything that’s good about Firefly. So, I give it just a little knock down.
Well, this was the end of the series, but I’m pretty sure most of you realize that I am going to have to do Serenity the movie, so that’s next week. At the end, I’ll post my personal ranking of Firefly media.
Score: 4.5 Fireflies (or Jubal Early’s Ship)
See you next Friday, Browncoats.
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NEXT – Serenity (Film)
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