“You guys had a riot on account o’ me? My very own riot?”
Firefly is about trying to hold onto values in a universe that steadfastly refuses to submit to them, and generally that theme is seen through the eyes of Mal, a natural idealist who once took on the universe, lost, and lost badly. Jayne has consistently represented absolute cynicism, always advising the most selfish and/or violent choice (e.g. abandoning Simon and River) and assuming others share those values; this episode shifts him from the show’s court jester to protagonist, lets him discover that there are things like community and heroism, and that his cynicism will have him miss out on these things. What makes this episode great is that it achieves this point without sacrificing the humour, character work, or adventure of the show.
The further I get into the show, the more impressed I become with the simplicity of the plotting. Mal slips into the background for most of this, and like Homer Simpson this only ends up making him cooler and funnier. His goal is actually extremely simple: find the goods, get them onto the ship without getting caught. Initially, he plans to do this by posing as a mud buyer, and then when Kaylee expresses an interest in Simon coming along, he gets the idea to have the doctor play the buyer. They explore the town, and it seems like a straightforward Star Trek style exploration of a new planet – the town of Canton is smelly, disgusting, and so poor that their primary export is mud. it becomes slowly apparent, though, that something funny is going on – there’s a statue of Jayne in the town, a boy seems to recognise him, and it culminates in some old guy singing a goddamned folk song about the Hero of Canton, Jayne.
“We gotta go to the crappy town where I’m a hero!”
The way this unfolds is, again, so simple and brilliant. We have two competing ideas: that Jayne is an asshole, and that the town sees Jayne as a hero; even if the basic juxtaposition wasn’t funny (god, I feel so disgustingly clinical writing it like that), the silent and less silent reactions of the rest of the crew nearly make me throw up laughing. It pays off with an equally simple explanation: Jayne stole money from the local Magistrate, but had to drop it on the town in order to break atmo, and the townspeople believed he did it for them. Mal gets the idea to use this fame as a distraction while he nicks the goods (or, more accurately, he’s forced to think quick to save face with his contact).
Jayne reacts surprisingly well to being a hero; at first, he’s pretty clearly just enjoying the glory, but he finds himself respecting the ownage of the townspeople and pleased for being responsible for it, to the point where he’s reluctant to use their love of him for profit. What he doesn’t know is that, when he dropped the money, the partner he dropped along with it, Stitch, survived and was taken in by the Magistrate, and now that Jayne is back in town, the Magistrate is going to set Stitch on Jayne.
Jayne is brought to the centre of town, and asked to give a speech. We’ve spoken before about the show failing to properly express ideas it simply doesn’t believe in, and interestingly, that consciously plays out here as a character beat; his heroic speech is clipped and dumb. When Stitch rocks up, he tells the townspeople exactly who Jayne is: someone who will sell out anyone and everyone for a quick buck, and when Jayne tries throwing out his typical cynicism – “You’da done the same.” – Stitch loudly and voraciously denies this. When he goes to kill Jayne, a young boy throws himself in front of the shotgun, and Jayne quickly owns the shit out of Stitch before running back to check on the boy, now dead. Distraught, Jayne perfectly articulates his actual worldview, no stammering, not a missed word:
“All of you. You think that someone’s just gonna drop money on ya? Money they can use? Well there ain’t people like that. There’s just people like me.”
He pushes down the statue, letting it fall apart, and leaves without another scene. On the ship, he reflects on what happened; he cannot comprehend why the boy would choose to sacrifice himself for Jayne, even after knowing everything he did. Mal, recognising another broken idealist, tries to comfort him by telling him people need something to believe in, and Jayne’s as good as anyone else to act as a symbol. The episode ends on him thinking this over as “The Hero Of Canton” plays us out. I think what he’s doing is trying to figure out how his self-serving worldview actually fits into the universe – before, he projected it onto everyone else, but now I think he has more perspective.
Floating around this are three smaller plots, interlocking with the same idea. Kaylee and Simon’s romance advances; the episode opens with them flirting over the fact that Simon never swears, and Kaylee spends the first half of the episode pursuing him. When Mal catches them sleeping next to each other, Simon panics and insists he would never take advantage of her, and she’s deeply offended; they reconcile when she asks why he’s so concerned with being proper out in the black, where it doesn’t matter, and he replies that out here it’s more important than ever. It’s all he’s got.
What I think we’re dealing with here, and forgive me for using an overused piece of jargon, is a deconstructed Nice Guy plot. One of the basic elements of Nice Guy Syndrome is the belief that there’s a right way to have sex with a woman and a wrong way, and the right way, for whatever reason, does not include saying “I would like to have sex with you” in any straightforward manner. With some men, it’s a fear of rejection (see: Dutch on The Shield); with Simon, I get the vibe that he thinks expressing any kind of sexual advance would, I don’t know, dishonour her or something, and as he lays out himself, this is tied into the environment he grew up in. For their relationship to develop, Simon will have to find which of his ideals he’s willing to throw out and which he’ll keep.
“Eggs. Living legend needs eggs.”
- There’s also Inara’s plot bedding Fez, the son of the Magistrate, and frankly I’ve never been all that impressed with this one – it’s a fairly straightforward “boy becomes a man by realising he can decide what ‘being a man’ means for himself”, expressed in the most disgustingly Oedipal way possible.
- Finally, there’s Book looking after River. I roll my eyes as the super-genius ‘fixing’ the Bible, so I can only imagine how a believer reacts to it, and I’ve seen more than one black Firefly fan who hated the jokes about River being frightened of Book’s hair. “Keep walkin’, Preacher-man,” is pretty funny though.
- I’ve found that, more often than not, a non-judgmental layout of the facts creates a stronger emotional reaction than judgement, and Jayne’s honest speech is further evidence for that. In the text, he’s not calling them stupid, and he’s not saying how awful the world is; the context and Adam Baldwin’s performance can carry that emotion well enough.
- Ownage count: Stitch beats the crap out of Simon, though Simon gets him good over the head with a vase. Jayne pretty much wipes the floor with Stitch when they fight. Fez owns his dad at the end.
- Out of curiosity, I checked what pictures the AV Club used for their coverage of the show. Apparently my taste for iconography is stronger.