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Greatest Series Finales: Firefly’s “Objects in Space” waxes philosophic and explores River Tam’s place on Serenity

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Firefly Season 1, Episode 14: “Objects in Space”
Written by Joss Whedon
Directed by Joss Whedon
Airs 12/13/2002 on Fox

River Tam (Summer Glau) is the last character introduced in the Firefly pilot, but she is the first character who appears in “Objects in Space”. Up to this point (with the exception of gunning down three baddies with her eyes closed in), River has been comic relief and a human MacGuffin for plot purposes. If Simon hadn’t rescued her, he wouldn’t have joined Serenity, and there would be no overarching story for Firefly. However, “Objects in Space” shows how important River is to the crew of Serenity and the show as a whole. There is a reason why she is the featured character of the Serenity film. But to showcase River, Joss Whedon introduces a new character the bounty hunter Jubal Early (played by a suitably manic Richard Brook), who drives the plot of “Objects in Space” and acts as a foil to her. His presence brings even more tension to the crew of Serenity, who have been engaging in a lot of interpersonal squabbling. However, the tension is offset by a lot of humor and sarcastic remarks, especially from Simon Tam (Sean Maher).
Before delving into the character relationships and conflicts, “Objects in Space” is probably Joss Whedon’s most cerebral and philosophical piece of writing. The concept of the disconnection between objects and their meanings comes from Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, which Whedon discusses in length on the DVD commentary for “Objects in Space”. This idea is a huge part of both River and Early’s character motivations. For example, River thinks she is holding a branch when it is really a gun. When Early threatens to rape the ship’s mechanic Kaylee (Jewel Staite) if she doesn’t tell him where River is, he remarks that she “ain’t nothing but a body to me.” The idea of existential meaninglessness that Jubal and River share isn’t a way for Whedon to show his cleverness, but to illuminate the connection between these characters.
However, this episode isn’t just about River and existentialism. It explores the theme of the crew of Serenity as family and the ship as home in a powerful manner. The cold open of the show demonstrates the characters’ relationships. Simon shares a ribald story about his medical school days with Kaylee, Wash (Alan Tudyk) and Zoe (Gina Torres) cuddle together, and Mal (Nathan Fillion) and Inara (Morena Baccarin) discuss her leaving the ship. River hears these conversations, but isn’t a part of them. After an incident with a gun, Mal wants to lock River in her quarters. She is being isolated from the “family”. However, she ends up saving the crew by “incorporeably possessing” Serenity while simultaneously encouraging them and traumatizing Early with anecdotes from his past. Whedon shows River joining the family when Mal hugs her after she leaves Early’s ship, and when she plays jacks with Kaylee. The final shot of the series in the Serenity in flight revealing how much of a home that this little smuggling craft has become to River, the crew, and definitely Firefly‘s rabid fanbase.
“Objects in Space” is a wonderful mix of the cerebral and personal. Even if the viewers don’t get the Sartre/existentialist reference, River’s conversation with Early at the end reveals their affinity toward each other. The episode also finds time to focus on different subplots, like the unresolved sexual tension between Kaylee and Simon and Inara leaving the ship. It doesn’t completely wrap up the hunt for the Tams story arc, but acts as an exploration of human relationships through the eyes of a psychic teenager who is clever enough to defeat one of the most feared bounty hunters in the galaxy.
– Logan Dalton

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