Firefly, Season 1, Episode 5, “Safe”
Written by Drew Z. Greenberg
Directed by Michael Grossman
Aired November 8th, 2002 on FOX
Welcome to Sound on Sight’s summer look back at Firefly, the beloved yet short-lived series that aired on FOX during the 2002-2003 TV season. Every Thursday, we will revisit an episode at a time of the show’s one and only season, in the order that they were meant to be seen. The correct sequence is accurately reflected on most, if not all, streaming services that currently have the show, but for those watching via other methods, the accurate order can be found here. Now, without further ado, time to spend some time with the most entertaining group of grifters in The ‘Verse.
After all of the build up and little moments between Simon and River Tam, the episode where their relationship is finally front and center arrives. Unfortunately, the episode doesn’t handle the large amount of material it attempts to fit in one hour with as much finesse as it could. “Safe”, while not a complete failure of an episode by any means, is a slight disappointment, simply because of the sheer amount of story it tries to fit in one installment. High expectations are set early on, and it quickly turns into too much to handle in the time allotted. The overall themes of the episode fit together well enough, yet the entire thing feels like it would come off much better if the Mal/Jayne/Shepherd parts of the episode were spun off into another hour altogether. Giving Simon and River the spotlight and not focusing the entirety of the story on them feels like a cheat and a way to keep Mal in the action when he doesn’t necessarily have to be.
Simon and River’s relationship is highlighted before the events of “Safe”, but not foregrounded the way it is here. The flashbacks serve as a more thorough basis on which to place the siblings’ relationship, and dive into what Simon sacrificed to save his sister besides his position as a respected doctor. Simon’s father Gabriel (William Converse-Roberts) and mother Regan (Isabella Hofmann) are benevolent but strict parents who want nothing but the best for their children. The Tams’ childhood is presented from a “tale as old as time” perspective, as both children are brilliant and loved but sheltered from spontaneity and adventure. They can have anything they wish, as long as it contributes to their future as successful members of society who completely fulfill their potential. That Gabriel would rather Simon remain a great doctor than see what is right in front of his face in regards to River’s detention not only says a lot about how many more obstacles Simon had to push through to rescue his sister, but also much about who Simon was before River went to The Academy, and who he could have grown up to be if he had never saved her or found himself aboard Serenity. The alternate-universe version of Simon is very clearly Gabriel Tam, and it underlines just how much the doctor being aboard a ship with Mal and the crew altered his outlook on the world.
The flashbacks don’t do much to flesh out any more of River’s background besides adding to her résumé of brilliance and, more specifically, detailing her efforts to be rescued. Most of the benefits of her flashbacks are to offer a direct tie to the happy girl she was before The Academy, so when the audience sees her dancing with the villagers on Jiangyin, they have a clear idea of how freed she is in that moment, and how close she is to being a normal teenager once again. That her period of joy, and Simon getting to watch her be carefree, is cut short by the kidnapping and detainment of the siblings is bittersweet and reflective of how quickly this episode moves from scene to scene. Each segment could use another two to three minutes to properly flesh out the emotional beats, but at this point in the season, it is a repeating motif that Firefly would rather bend to the whims of network episode lengths, with as much material shoved in as possible, than it would allow a scene to truly sit with the audience before moving on to the next thing.
The “River is a witch” pieces of the episode are particularly rushed, barely letting her bond with the townspeople and mute little girl before being accused and summarily sentenced to burn. There isn’t a truly effective way to accomplish a deeper emotional connection without it taking up the entire episode, but it is still a shame that perhaps the most interesting part is limited to a few short minutes. The decision to burn someone whom they just kidnapped is a fairly rote decision in the grand scheme of things, but it results in a few of the best pieces of the episode. That Simon would sacrifice himself alongside his sister is not exactly a shocking development, but it is a beautiful gesture nonetheless. The audience knows their relationship is one of immense sacrifice already, and this move by Simon only further cements the enormity of their connection. The second great part of River being nearly murdered by superstitious hill people is the heroic rescue by Mal and the crew at the last minute. Yes, it is an expected event, but doesn’t make it any less daring and enjoyable to watch. That Mal would put his crew further in danger to rescue these two fugitives finally makes Simon and River a permanent part of the Serenity family and no longer a separate pairing who happen to be riding along on various escapades.
That Mal and Zoë are able to tend to Shepherd Book’s wounds without Simon on board is also representative of the fact that Simon is not actually integral to the survival of the crew. It’s true that he is a better doctor than most of the crew, but Zoë and Mal have medic experience from the war, which is not anything to scoff at but hard to remember in the context of the show, because the audience saw so little of them fighting against The Alliance. With this in mind, it makes Mal’s willingness to go back for Simon and River that much more incredible, given that Simon isn’t a necessity on the ship and River is more of a problem than she is a solution. That, more than anything, is the biggest sign that the Tams nailed down their place as permanent members of the Serenity family, even if they are technically expendable passengers when it comes down to it. Mal, Jayne, and Book’s part of the episode is mostly fluff and fun, up to and including Book’s injury. It is so clearly too early in the season for anybody to be killed off that his wound is in service to other aspects of the story and it doesn’t feel like he’s ever truly in danger of dying. Mal’s interaction with the buyers of the cattle is pure, sarcastic fun until the guns come out. Mal and Jayne getting to be rugged cowboys while cracking jokes is the crux of what makes Firefly so beloved. Constantly being able to work in components of classic Western films and TV shows while in the thick of larger telepathic, science fiction, or technological stories is a unique skill, and “Safe” pulls this off once again with ease. Even if Mal’s presence is slightly shoehorned in alongside Simon and River’s plight, his flippant dismissal of danger and difficulties is always a welcome sight.
- It is always a nice treat to see a young Zac Efron as young Simon in this episode, and only gets more amusing as Efron’s profile alters and grows over the years.
- “They weren’t cows inside. They were waiting to be but they forgot. Then they saw sky and remembered who they are.” A beautiful and eloquent line that Summer Glau delivers with just a tinge of bittersweet in the mix.
- Inara and Kaylee’s back-and-forth about Simon and Kaylee’s attraction continues to be the sweetest thing.