“How come there’s a guy on board and how come you’re all of a sudden the ship?”
The thing that drives Whedon’s fiction more often than not is the desire to get the viewer to see things from his point of view. Even ignoring the literal manifestos he writes – beloved commentor ZoeZ once said her writing process starts with a moral idea she’s deeply conflicted about and finding some resolution, and I suspect Whedon’s process is the exact opposite, starting with an idea he finds either noble or vile and then finding nuances in expression of them – so many of his scenes have the sense that “this is the funny bit” or “this is the serious bit” or “this is a character beat” or “this is the bit where you think about humanity and junk”, and Whedon is generally smart enough to be able to pull them off.
Which is what makes “Objects In Space” and especially the opening scene of it so special. The episode was inspired by Whedon reading Sartre as a teenager and having his mind totally blown by the idea that objects only have the meaning people give them, and trying to pass on the mind-blowing revelation to his audience; what this means is that the opener, which follows River around the ship as she perceives everyone, must be how Whedon sees the world, and instead of trying to convince people that things are Right, Wrong, or Morally Grey, he’s simply providing a vivid sensation, something that’s a) cool and b) easier to sell to an audience wider than people who agree with you.
“She understands. She doesn’t comprehend.”
“Well I’m glad we made that distinction.”
What River and probably Whedon sees are people who say one thing but very clearly and distinctly mean another; I know I’m reaching a little bit here, but I think Whedon sees what people do and immediately sees what they actually want, which is what can lead to him writing compelling drama as simple, clearly defined characters find conflict between what they think they want and what they do want, or it can lead to him writing from a position of smug judgement (and on top of all this he’d never write someone as genuinely mysterious and complex as a Mad Men character can be).
(What we learn about the characters isn’t too surprising at this point, aside from Book’s shockingly violent thoughts)
It then shifts into a moment that’s beautiful purely for the sake of being beautiful, when River picks up a stick and is entranced by it, only for it to turn out to be a gun that the other characters gingerly take from her. Whedon reads this scene as a profound way of expressing the idea that objects only have the meaning we imbue in them, and I read it as an excellent way to establish River’s morality from her perspective; we’re both right. What makes it work for me is the way it’s rooted in a practical idea; River’s viewpoint is beautiful, but it makes her dangerous.
“Little River just gets more colorful by the moment. What’ll she do next?”
“Either blow us all up or rub soup in our hair. It’s a toss-up.”
“I hope she does the soup thing. It’s always a hoot, and we don’t all die from it.”
The other thing that’s great about the opening is how casually intimate it is. River wanders from one conversation to another, and all of them involve emotions the characters have slowly earned. Kaylee listens to Simon tell an embarrassing story from his doctorin’ days; the story itself is a pretty generic drinking story elevated by the performances, as Sean Maher shyly escalates and Jewel Staite eggs him on (I especially love her nudging his chin with her foot, a definite Real Person thing). Jayne and Book’s conversation is even better; they’ve been slowly working up a friendship in the background of the story, and Book’s endless patience for Jayne’s crudeness means they bounce off each other quite easily.
(There’s also the fact that Book, having a Violent Past, has presumably been friends with many men like Jayne)
The River/Gun Incident leads us into an equally intimate scene in which the whole crew gets together and, for the first time, compiles all the information on her, from her weird intuitiveness to her mysterious killing of three dudes in “War Stories”, and conclude she’s a psychic assassin. Just on a purely technical writing, acting, and directing level, this scene is amazing; not only is it an exposition scene, it is in fact a recap scene, retelling us information we already know, and the absolute dedication to character is what makes it fun and powerful, and no one character either dominates or falls to the background. If the opening scene was the show’s hangout vibe coming to the fore, this scene is a family meeting*, all the same level of intimacy with greater emotional purpose.
“Psychic, though? That sounds like something out of science-fiction.”
“We live in a spaceship, dear.”
When they go to sleep on it, a man named Jubal Early slips onto the ship. He’s a bounty hunter looking for River, and he handily dispatches the crew and enlists Simon into hunting down his sister, and he’s one of the strangest TV space bounty hunters this side of Cowboy Bebop. Whedon gives him the majority of the philosophical-just-for-the-sake-of-it dialogue, which makes sense from a genre perspective; if characters philosophising really bakes your potatoes like it does for me, it makes him really fun to watch, and if you hate that sort of thing, then you can identify with Simon taking the piss out of him all episode (I love Sean Maher mocking him with increasing confidence).
Early is a lot of fun to watch; Richard Brooks plays him as if he thinks about this kind of shit all the time and is enjoying having an audience for a change. In the commentary, Whedon says he was surprised and delighted by a lot of Brooks’ line deliveries, playing Early as totally sincere even when Whedon was being ironic – one line he highlights: “Maybe I’ve always been here”, which Brooks plays as if Early is seriously considering the idea that he’s always been a part of the ship. Just on a plot level, this is what makes him dangerous – in that, almost the opposite of Alan Tudyk, he can suddenly switch actions without actually switching objectives, thoughtfully considering the ship and then pulling a gun on Simon without missing a beat.
“Well I’ll be a son of a whore! You’re not in my gorram mind, you’re on my gorram ship!”
This turns into a game between River and Early, though it’s fair to say she wins it pretty much immediately and everything following, barring Simon getting shot, is just a victory lap. Having Early (and us) genuinely believe at first that she’s been incorporated into the ship is fantastically uncanny, and the reveal that she actually just slipped onto Early’s ship is brilliant; what makes it meaningful is River opening up to the crew about her mental instability. There’s a Marilyn Monroe quote, “If you can’t handle me at my worst, you don’t deserve me at my best”, which I’ve always fucking hated because people who use it tend to have no ‘best’; I think River manages to live out that quote this episode. If the crew can handle River having her episodes, they get the benefits of her absolute ownage protecting them.
“Welp. Here I am.”
*Fans of The Shield suddenly shudder.
- I don’t know how I feel about Early’s threats to rape Kaylee. On the one hand, it does actually make appropriate logistic and thematic sense, in that Early openly reduces her body to a thing; on the other hand, it kind of ruins the fun to have the cool warrior-poet be a rapist.
- I’m fairly sure it’s a coincidence, but Brooks also played a character called Judah Earl in The Crow: City Of Angels.
- “If I wanted a lot of medical jargon, I’d talk to a doctor.” “You are talking to a doctor.” I love Mal managing to spin that ownage back on Simon.
- Jayne takes a lot of shit from everyone this episode.
- I feel kind of bad for barely skimming over Whedon’s beloved Theme, but I just don’t have anything to say about it. I guess you really don’t get to decide how your audience reacts to your work.
- This isn’t over. Next week, I’ll finish off Firefly by writing about the film.