“Dear diary, today I was pompous and my sister was crazy. Today we were captured by hill folk, never to be seen again; it was the best day ever.”
I will not lie: I consider this episode to be lesser Firefly. But ‘lesser Firefly‘ just means powerful emotions hit only about half as often; the key emotional arc of this episode is too strong to let a slack, boring plot get in the way. Our filthy heroes are still carrying the cargo of cows from the last episode, and today they’ve found the seller. Mal observes that Simon and River are far, far away from any Alliance, and also he finds them both extremely annoying, so they should go into town and get some fresh air while he barters with the buyers. This section has the lazy-in-a-good-way tone Firefly can hit, as River and Simon are sketched in. River starts off the episode having a bad fit, refusing to let Simon perform tests on her and babbling semi-coherently; when she lands, she calms down, philosophically observing that the cows stopped being cows in space, and only returned to their true nature when they got back on solid ground.
“Is it bad that what she said made perfect sense to me?”
Simon, on the other hand, is adjusting extremely badly to fugitive life, best signified by his experience in the souvenir shop, where he desperately tries to stop River touching anything and ends up putting his foot in his mouth shittalking Serenity and the border lifestyle in front of Kaylee. Simon is unhappy and perpetually on edge, only relieved whenever he sees his sister is happy, an experience captured quite magically when she finds a group of dancers and joins in, combat boots and all (it’s easy to sell us on the idea that River is a genius dancer when she’s played by a genius dancer).
Meanwhile, Mal is preoccupied with selling the cows, and we get the always-fun idea of casually competent characters as he barters with them – Book expresses concern early on when the buyers argue the price, but Mal reassures him that this is normal and they’ll settle soon, and with that information you can see how both Mal and the buyers are simply playing out a dance. Both stories here go wrong simultaneously: the deal is interrupted by Alliance feds starting a gunfight, causing Shepard Book to get shot, and Simon is kidnapped by hill people.
“‘Fraid I might be needin’ a preacher.”
“That’s good. You lie there and be ironical.”
From there, the episode is split in half as Mal and co are preoccupied with helping Book, and Simon finds himself and River living in a border town. Its here that the point of the episode becomes clear: the teacher of the town tries to argue Simon into accepting his new situation, and all his wonderful sarcasm and valid observations that he’s been kidnapped can’t deflect her overall point that home is where the stuff you care about is. Interspersed with the episode are flashbacks to Simon’s past, showing him slowly realising what happened to River and failing to convince his parents that something is wrong, until he destroys their relationship to save her.
Back on the ship, Mal is forced to take Book to an Alliance cruiser to save his life, and is shocked when Book produces an ident card that causes the Alliance dudes to completely shut up and help. When he confronts Book, though, all he gets is the most polite “fuck off” anyone has ever gotten.
We then get the strangest and most offputting choice in the show: River reveals her psychic powers when she picks up on the backstory of a traumatised mute kid, which causes the locals to believe she’s a goddamned witch. I will fully confess this might be both genre snobbery and naivete on my part, but I cannot put together in my head the idea that humanity can spread to the stars, terraform planets as a matter of course, and still believe burning witches at the stake is accepted practice; I think I’d be able to buy into it if it simply barreled through the idea, but instead not only does it linger, it doubles down by having the leader come out and try and bring reason, only to turn on River when she does the psychic thing again and reveals he killed the old leader.
But it does, at least, pay off in the two most important scenes of the episode: firstly, when Simon tries to sacrifice himself for River, then chooses to be burned alongside her. This isn’t my favourite Simon moment, but it is one of his most iconic, when he fully affirms for us that he loves his sister more than anything, that her safety is his number one priority, and that life is simply not worth living without her. This is followed by one of Mal’s iconic moments of ownage, when Serenity drops him and Zoe down, he walks right up, and threatens to start murdering if they don’t cut down River right the hell now.
“Well, look at this! Appears we got here in the nick of time. What does that make us?”
“Big damn heroes, sir.”
“Ain’t we just?”
This is not the conclusion. The journey of the episode, between Simon’s misadventures on the planet, River’s cow speech, and the flashbacks, is us learning Simon’s deep love for his sister and willingness to place her safety before everything else, and all he needs is a place where that love can most fully express itself. When Mal brings him back to the ship, Simon awkwardly jokes about missing out on the only good wound since he got here, and then asks that big question:
“Why did you come back for us?”
“You’re on my crew.”
“Yeah, but you don’t even like me. Why’d you come back?”
“You’re on my crew. Why we still talkin’ about this?”
At the start of the episode, Simon complained about feeling out-of-place; what he realises is he fits in better here than he ever did anywhere else, because all he needs is his sister’s safety, and there’s nowhere safer for her than Serenity. Simon is free here.
- Fans of Justified will recognise the teacher as Erica Tazel, who played Rachel Brooks. There’s also Zac Efron, of all people, as Young Simon.
- The guns, despite looking like normal service revolvers, sound like corny space lasers.
- It’s an extremely small part of the episode, but seeing Inara and Kaylee bond in the souvenir shop and discuss Kaylee’s crush on Simon is adorable.
- “I like smackin’ ’em!” – Jayne is a giant child.