“Planet’s comin’ up a mite fast.”
“Ah, that’s just ’cause I’m goin’ down too quick. Likely crash and kill us all.”
“Well, that happens, let me know.”
Plot has always felt pretty superfluous to the whole Firefly thing, and this episode is the shaggiest yet. The Serenity crew head back to Persephone, and Mal picks up a job that brings him into Inara’s world of upper-class Alliance bullshit, where his manly impulsiveness gets him caught in a swordfight. But it takes about half the episode to get to that point; what makes it work is that the majority of it is about the relationships between these nine weirdos, from Zoe and Wash’s marriage to the crew’s increasing protectiveness of River to the simple burgeoning friendship between the new passengers and the old crew.
That scene of Jayne, Book, and Simon playing cards for chores has always been my favourite example of the show grouping together spare plot-irrelevant crew members – growing up, my extended family always passed the time playing card games, so it felt really real to me – but for this rewatch I was especially struck by their group reaction to River wandering in and having a freakout. As with many things River-related, it strikes the right balance – when you learn what her deal is, it makes sense that she’d do that, but at first it just seems like an irrational freakout.
What I’m really struck by, though, is the reaction of the people around her. Simon, obviously, is totally focused on calming her down, Book is trying to soothe Simon’s embarrassment over this – “We’ll have a few mystery meals” – and Jayne is completely indifferent. It definitely reminds me of the way my family has dealt with mental illness and disability – okay, so this is part of this person’s deal, there’s nothing we can do about it, and we have factor it into what we do moving forward.
That River scene is flipped over with another clue to her powers; when Badger comes in and takes over the place, she wanders in, and begins taunting Badger by speaking in his accent, taking on his personality, and laying out what must be his backstory and inner life in a stunning monologue, and dismisses him as a wannabe, “a sad little king of a sad little hill”. What makes this totally work is that Badger is impressed by this; he’s damaged by the ownage, but he respects it too much to be genuinely upset. River wasn’t just owning him, she was specifically saying something to prevent the situation from escalating.
“That there? Exactly the kind of diversion we could’a used.”
I’ve never quite managed to buy into the whole Companion thing. It’s not because of sexual hangups, probably; it’s not because I can’t buy into the overall lifestyle – I love the Victorian novels this episode draws on, I love Mad Men, which on top of the joys of dinner parties and casual authoritarianism has Joan metaphorically prostitute herself and completely sells us on the idea that it’s cool when she feels empowered by it – it’s because, I think, Firefly doesn’t buy into it. Just based on what we see in this episode, I cannot understand why Inara likes spending time with Atherton, or why people enjoy being in the Alliance; there are snatches of joy, like “You look lovely, dear!”, but for the most part it seems a pretty miserable experience, so it’s not much of a meaningful choice. That’s fine in an episode like “Bushwhacked”, where it never was one, but less so here.
The overall vibe I get is that Mal’s libertarian rock-flag-and-eagle FREEDOM sensibilities are banging up against his pragmatism in a world that doesn’t really accept either (“I never back down from a fight!” “Yes you do! You do all the time!” “Well yeah. But I’m not backing down from this one!”); something about it doesn’t quite click for me, and I think that it feels like the show is treating Mal as more heroic than I think he deserves, or at least in the wrong way.
Mal lays out the difference between he and Atherton as being that while he doesn’t respect Inara’s job, he respects Inara herself and Atherton doesn’t, and I think the episode agrees with him while I don’t – “I may not respect your choice of a career, your choice of friends, or your privacy, but I respect you!” – and I think that, if the show was less head-over-heels for Mal and didn’t apologise for his hypocrisy, I’d take it a lot better. You can contrast it with his relationship with Kaylee this episode, where he genuinely says something foul to her over her perfectly reasonable interest in the pretty Alliance dresses, and him pulling her into his scheme is as much apologising to her as it is pulling off a scheme.
“‘Kay, help me find our man. He’s supposed to be older, kind of stocky, wears a red sash crossways.”
“Why does he do that?”
“Maybe he won the Miss Persephone pageant. Just help me look.”
“Is that him?”
“That’s the buffet table.”
“Well, how can we be sure, unless we question it?”
Harrow (Larry Drake) is the closest thing we get to a positive Alliance character this episode, and he’s more of an undercover criminal who comfortably fits into both worlds – I like that he almost immediately recognises Mal for a fellow-traveller, and Mal’s attacking Atherton is simply the demonstration of character he needed to trust him. I also love the final punchline of the episode: the revelation that the cargo he needed delivering was cattle, which is a small bit of personality that makes him and fellow anti-Alliance people more likable.
“Besides, why would I wanna leave Serenity?”
“Can’t think of a reason.”
- As far as ownage goes, slut-shaming is a lot less awesome than “I cannot abide useless people.”
- The small scifi details that keep interrupting the old cliches are one of this show’s charm points. The opener has digital pool (that, true to life, fucks up), and I also love the gun shield thing that stops people bringing weapons into the ball.
- “You didn’t have to wound that man.” “Yeah, I know, it was just funny.” – Mal is sometimes too easy to relate to.
- The DVD commentary for this episode has writer Jane Espenson, costume designer Shawna Trpcic, and Morena Baccarin. It’s interesting both for the specific insight into areas you normally don’t hear about – Trpcic describes the inspiration for costumes as being Indian – and for the insight into working under an auteur.