Firefly, Season 1, Episode 14, “Objects in Space”
Written by Joss Whedon
Directed by Joss Whedon
Aired on December 13, 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.
“Objects in Space”, the last episode (but not the last episode aired) of Firefly’s first and only season, more or less ends right back where the show started way back in “Serenity”, only by the end of this episode River and Simon are finally, firmly, part of the crew family as well. After over a dozen episodes of the Tams flip-flopping in and out of favor with some of the crew members, Mal and the rest finally make the ultimate decision to officially accept them as unquestioned family in this motley crew of travelers. Old frustrations and betrayals resurface, most of it in the long debate about whether River is dangerous or just damaged, including Jayne’s opinion on the siblings and Wash’s continued flabbergasted state when discussing River and her abilities. The difference, of course, is that the first time the siblings were part of the crew and danger befell their newfound compatriots they were outsiders trying to prove themselves. This time River is a familiar entity to Mal and the rest and it is only the outside chance that she could turn on them that prevents them from closing that last gap of acceptance.
The permanence of the Tams on the ship seems mostly resolved at the beginning of the episode, but of course for the finale there has to be one more obstacle to overcome before the crew can be happy at last. Credit where it’s due, having the big bad wolf in this episode be an individual bounty hunter rather than the intimidating mass of The Alliance is a welcome change of pace after so many run-ins with Blue Hands and the feds, but the execution of bounty hunter Jubal Early is one of the weakest in the show’s run. His presence on Serenity is barely explained beyond the fact that he is a rogue bounty hunter that has been following the crew for some time, and his boarding of the ship ignores many of the show’s own rules about space. How can he bounce from one ship to the other without a tether? Why do the clearly visible wind gusts in space not knock him off Serenity’s hull completely? Should it really be that easy to crack the ship’s porthole open and hop right inside? The simplicity with which Early accomplishes getting on Serenity, a heretofore pretty tightly sealed smuggling ship, is convenience for storytelling’s sake and a sign that Whedon fell into the familiar trap of prioritizing character moments over plot sensibility. It’s not that those character moments aren’t entirely worth it when saying goodbye (for now) to these people, but for a final episode the antagonist is more of a shorthand of a villain than anything impactful.
Nowhere is this more apparent than the climactic “showdown” between River and Early. After his dispatching of half the crew and abduction of Simon, River’s simple takedown of Early by breaking him down mentally comes about without the necessary leg work. It all reads as if Whedon found out the show wasn’t coming back so was forced to rush the “River is a psychic” revelation and incorporate it fully into the story before time ran out. This may very well be true, but it doesn’t excuse the thin characterization of Early and lack of a real threat, especially considering the crew doesn’t leave the ship throughout the hour. His menace is signaled via lazily written rape threats towards Kaylee, a slightly too-easy fight with Mal, and the briefly mentioned fact that he had anger issues as a child and was violent from a young age. These are all things that could be tossed onto any enemy throughout the season and it wouldn’t move the dial in the slightest for any of those characters. Early is an amalgam of Sci-Fi villain cliches yet none of them land as they should, leaving the only real entertainment from the hour in Summer Glau’s hands.
Glau puts forth an incredible performance throughout the episode, something she has clearly been building up to all season. The audience has been presented snippets of her talent in almost every episode but here she breaks out in magnificent fashion by managing to be tragic, sincere, humorous, and whimsical in a short span of time. This is the first episode that truly shows how River’s mind works after the damage inflicted by The Alliance, between her hallucinations about the crew wishing she wasn’t there and the swapping out of a gun for a tree branch. Glau’s near-dizzy wanderings through the ship as she observes different conversations is the first time the viewer is directly inside her brain for an extended period of time instead of having to watch her instability from the perspective of her brother or other members of the crew. The camera work, especially the intense closeups, serve to show how realistic River’s visions are as well as how disorienting her day-to-day maneuverings can be. As previously mentioned, the psychic abilities are a slightly rushed bit of storytelling based on how slowly her perceptiveness has been building up all season but that can be forgiven giving the rushed timetable so close to the end. Even though the audience’s view of River’s brain only comes in the last hour of the show, it works to put so much of her prior behavior into context that it doesn’t only explain why River does the things she does, but it serves to make re-watches of Firefly more satisfying and interesting down the line.
The most important part of River’s visions is that she is not wrong, and this certainty in her hallucinations informs such a large part of how she interacts with her surroundings. The crew really does have second thoughts about her stability on the ship, even though they don’t always admit their concerns. Her presumptions about them not wanting her are not completely unfounded, which makes it all the harder for the crew to deny it or stay quiet when the issue is brought to the table at the group meeting. (Although the part she doesn’t see is their genuine concern for her wellbeing and safety, between Inara’s concern and Kaylee’s reluctance to tell the story about Niska’s ship.) And what is the big difference between a stick and a loaded gun? Jayne’s mind may find the beauty in the latter while River’s chooses to see it as the former, as a remnant from the life she once knew before moving to Serenity. They are, after all, just objects in space. It is what people choose to do with them that makes a difference. As Early reflects, everything is an object drifting through the great expanse of the universe and unless somebody or something is appreciated for more than they appear to be, or used for a greater purpose, than what is the difference between a twig and a pistol or between a fugitive and a captain? It is the meaning that the human race infuses in their surroundings that has a lasting effect on life.
Which brings things back to the familial bond between the Serenity crew, even if they might not click together as perfectly as possible. Whomever people are surrounded by, it is only as good a group as they make it and the ways in which they value one another. River is unstable, yes, but in different ways so are Wash and Mal and Jayne and even Kaylee. After all, they are smugglers and traders traveling in a beat up ship that sometimes doesn’t even get them from Point A to Point B. Nobody is perfect, but together they form the best version of a family unit as possible and the Tams are a deserving part of that bond as well, fugitives or not. River may be an assassin, psychic, and child genius, but she is also a loving, caring, supportive member of the crew who will defend her friends with the utmost ferocity when warranted. If that’s the mark of a dangerous and unwelcome person, then who hasn’t been one of those at some point in their lives? Certainly Mal and Zöe fit that bill on some level, of course Jayne does too, and even Book surely has some incidents along those lines in his past. The uniqueness of the crew is the gateway to acceptance of new “family members” and it is also what made Firefly so beloved over a decade ago and the reason it remains so relevant now. Spending time with this group of people is to spend time immersed in the caring, supportive, loving, and protective circle of the Serenity crew. So, sure, the final villain may not be the most memorable threat in a long line of them, but when it comes down to it that shouldn’t have been the focus of this episode anyway. It is all about the opportunity to join Mal, Zöe, Wash, Jayne, Kaylee, Book, Simon, and River on one more adventure as they float through the ‘Verse. If, when it comes down to it, we are all really just objects, it is always better to have other objects by your side as you travel through space.
- The chemistry between Jewel Staite and Sean Maher has been fabulous all season but even better here. There are few times when it is necessary to be angry at Book, and him interrupting Simon and Kaylee’s almost-kiss is absolutely one of them.
- The shot of River kneeling down in a sea of branches and leaves on the cargo floor of Serenity is beautifully composed by Whedon, one of the most memorable stills from the series.
- Wash: “A psychic though? Seems a little too science fiction.” Zöe: “You live on a spaceship darling.” This exchange is not only classic banter between these two but a hint at the perceptions of this universe on “futuristic” thinking. Living on a spaceship is now normal, but reading minds is decidedly not.
- “I’m not on the ship. I’m in the ship. I am the ship.” What more meaningful way to impart what Serenity means to River as a safe haven than her intermingling thoughts culminating in this line?
- “I don’t think your intentions are honorable.” “I’m a bounty hunter! It’s not generally considered honorable!”
- “Well, my sister’s a ship. We had a very complicated childhood.”
- Mal gets to have one more heroic act by kicking Early out into space, and Simon gets to have one more semi-deluded one when he tries to overpower Early and gets shot in the leg.
- Jayne not getting to be part of the fight is humorous because of how much he enjoys the heat of battle, but a nice bit of karma for once again wanting River off the ship.
- At this point, since there was no way to know that a movie would eventual tie up loose ends and give fans one more go-around with this crew, it is slightly disappointing that the show ends with Early floating through space. As existential as this choice may be, which Whedon readily admits, the face of a fairly one-note villain being the final thing the audience sees is unfortunate.
- I would like to take this space to say how much I enjoyed looking back at Firefly for this series. More than a decade after its initial run, and almost 6 years after I first devoured all 14 episodes (and then did so again), it was a lot of fun to not just be around these characters again but get to write about them. Thank You to all who read, commented, shared, and enjoyed these posts. Come back again soon now, ya hear?