“This is exactly what I didn’t want. I wanted simple, I wanted in-and-out, I wanted easy money.”
“Things always get a little more complicated, don’t they, sir?”
“Once, just once, I want things to go according to the gorram plan!”
“Ariel” has long been one of my favourite episodes of Firefly, and I used to think it was because it contains one of my three favourite things, a heist. That plot device definitely contributes to the fun of the episode, but it also contains some of the most resonant character beats in the show, adds to the show’s exploration of mental illness, and even contributes a significant chunk of the show’s mythology in an awesome way to boot. Also, it’s absolutely dripping in ownage, both physical and verbal.
Let’s look at that plot first. I’ve been complaining, or at least observing, that the plot is at best a simple set of decisions to build character and a hangout vibe around, sometimes feeling superfluous, and occasionally being the worst part of the episode. Here, it’s still simple by, say, The Shield standards, but by the standards of Firefly it’s a fast-paced thriller with constant twists and turns. What I like from a heist fan perspective is that it actually plays fair, never hiding crucial information from us longer than it has to – Jayne’s been betraying everyone from the start, but that information is revealed to us very early on, and beyond that any twists aren’t about information hidden from us, they’re reversals where people reveal their full motivations, or invite consequences they didn’t anticipate (I think not just of Jayne being betrayed back by the Alliance officer, but of the Alliance officer getting killed by the Hands).
“You could’ve got off with Shepherd Book at the Bathgate Abbey. Could’a been meditating on the wonders of your rock garden by now.”
“Beats just sittin’.”
“It is just sitting.”
In terms of character, this is really Jayne’s episode. Almost every episode so far has been payoff of one scene or moment or another from the pilot; “Ariel” is the interesting day Jayne promised when the money to betray Mal would get good enough. There’s an uncommon interpretation of Jayne, that he’s a secretly if not a genius schemer then at least pretending to be much stupider than he actually is, and usually these people point to this episode and say that Jayne said what he did to Mal as a manipulative move to save his own life, a theory which I think requires a) a complete misunderstanding of how human beings actually work, b) underestimating Mal’s intelligence, both generally and emotionally, and c) ignoring not just what Jayne says and does in the past and future, but throughout this episode.
I was wondering, this runthrough, if Jayne’s betrayal would come from the clarity of vision he received in “Jaynestown”, but unfortunately I couldn’t see any evidence that way (more likely it’s, you know, the physical danger River poses at the start of the episode itself). I do, however, see its presence in the guilt he clearly feels afterwards. It begins when he watches Simon explore River’s brain; Jayne isn’t as outright horrified as Simon, but he’s clearly unsettled. Running with the idea that “Jaynestown” taught him that he likes to be thought of as the good guy, perhaps he’s disturbed not by what they did to River, but that he could be responsible for it happening again. Perhaps, when he was running them out quicker than Simon expects, he was actually trying to get them out before the Alliance feds showed up. Every time Simon praises him, Jayne can’t look him in the eye and tries to shrug it off – Jayne knows the difference between a good guy and a bad guy, he knows which side he falls on, and he doesn’t like being put in the wrong box.
“Well, if I didn’t know better I’d say you all were ready to save some lives.”
The episode climaxes with on of Mal’s most iconic moments, when he threatens to throw Jayne out the airlock, declaring “You turn on any of my crew, you turn on me!”. This is a minor expression of the show’s appeal, that if you were on Serenity‘s crew, you’d be safe and protected, but this time turned against an internal threat. Mal will tolerate an asshole, but he will not tolerate a family member getting hurt, and it’s easy to think “Well, I wouldn’t betray anyone, so even my asshole tendencies would be tolerated!”. What’s more interesting is how Jayne responds. Ruck Cohlchez referred to this as showing a character turning on a single line of dialogue; Jayne would rather at least be thought of as a good person than a bad one, and Mal respects that enough to give him a second chance.
Meanwhile, the show’s mythology is still chugging along. We learn in this episode that the Alliance cut open River’s healthy brain and destroyed her ability to filter feelings, though we don’t learn why; the violation of it is sold entirely through Sean Maher’s horrified, frightened, sad reaction. We also notice something the characters don’t – when Jayne lies, River’s brain lights up. The Hands make another appearance, killing anyone who even so much as spoke to Simon or River. All this mythology works, and it works because it’s rooted in a character: the Alliance. The Alliance wanted something about River, and it’s willing to kill and violate to do that.
“Is it time to go to sleep again?”
“No, mei-mei. It’s time to wake up.”
Speaking of River, I continue to be shocked by the representation of mental illness. When I was younger, I used to complain about River’s overly flowery and precise way of speaking – being mentally ill does not magically convey poetry – but I’ve softened on that; the overall emotional affect of River’s mental illness, the way she fits into her little community and how that community must accept the lows of her bad days for the high of her good days is so true that I can’t fault the show for giving River a beautiful way of speaking.
- A rare, fantastic complication of Mal’s hatred of the Alliance when he believes Alliance people smile all the time, only for smiling at the wrong person to get them caught.
- Simon gets a hell of a lot of ownage in this episode (which makes him the hottest he’s ever been with his shirt on), but my favourite is randomly rocking up to a medical crisis, fixing the whole thing, chewing out the attending physician, and walking off without a scratch. Though, really, he should have gotten caught for that.
- The hangout vibe gets pushed to the edges, but it only becomes more powerful, starting with the opening scene where Jayne is cleaning his guns, Inara and Kaylee are playing a game, Simon is trying to get River to eat, and Wash and Zoe are arguing over taking a holiday to an Alliance world. Endearingly, Simon ends up having to help out Wash with places to go after Inara fails. But, that same vibe feeds into the otherwise totally expository scenes, when you can feel that everyone likes and respects each other (“It’s all very good, stealing from the rich, selling to the poor…”).
- Similarly, the worldbuilding takes on a greater edge. The heist is morally justified by the fact that nobody will miss the medicine and everyone will gain from it being stolen, Mal and Jayne play horseshoes while discussing the need for work, and tension is raised by having Alliance guns be overengineered pieces of crap.