Firefly, Season 1, Episode 9, “Ariel”
Directed by Allan Kroeker
Written by José Molina
Aired November 15th, 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.
For the majority of the first season, Firefly is content to steer clear of the more overtly futuristic qualities of the world it inhabits. The planets Serenity lands on to conduct business are in the outlying areas of the universe, and even the more modern locations are still very behind the times due to their rural settings. This makes sense, as the main conceit of the show is that this crew is willing to take on any job for money and that they specialize in work on outer planets to avoid detection and capture. The futuristic Western vibe fits so well for the show and these characters for a reason, yet to set a show far into the future without actually showing any stereotypical science fiction elements would be a missed opportunity. So it is nice, nine episodes in, to finally get what is usually a clichéd representation of the future that “Ariel” offers up. Fortunately, because of the previous backdrops used for each adventure, what is normally a boring white and chrome “future” palette is instead a refreshing change of pace from the dirt, dust and poverty that the team encounters.
The central mission, to guide Simon and River Tam to the diagnostic bay at an Ariel City medical center, is unique in the scope of the season in that the dangerous job comes from a request from within the crew. Simon’s desire to diagnose River’s specific issues cannot have been a spur of the moment request—he does, after all, come with an itemized list and well thought out plan in hand—but Sean Maher portrays the need for a medical scan for River with such quiet desperation that it brings all the early conflict between the Tams and the crew back to the surface. With a few episodes between the last time Simon and River were in direct danger (or putting the crew in direct danger due to their fugitive status), it is easy to forget just how much early strife went into the eventual decision for them to stay. Simon’s tentative wish for the crew to steal medical supplies and get him in to the medical bay reflects the still touchy position they are in with the crew. After all, their fugitive status hasn’t lessened since the last time Blue Hands came calling, even if there have been more than a few expeditions in between then and now.
It’s a character moment that should not be ignored despite its relative subtlety; this is Simon’s last best chance to help his sister, and he understands the risk everyone is taking to help regardless of what other financial benefits the job will bring. Mal, and by extension Nathan Fillion, deftly walks the fine line between concern for the crew he considers long term family and commitment to the crew he has only recently “adopted.” Many other shows would have the captain descend into a crisis of conscience when one clearly mentally ill crew member slashes someone across the chest with a butcher knife, but here he carefully weighs the options and clearly presents them to Simon in an understanding but firm manner. It isn’t his most heroic moment, but it is as important an act as captain as any of the more explosive ones, and is a major building block for the cult of Mal.
Putting aside the danger involved, the heist and break in themselves are a lot of fun. Using a voiceover as various characters carry out the tasks currently being described is a method that has been used in heist films and TV shows many times over, but that doesn’t make it any less entertaining or enthralling. When done well, there are few better things in the world of visual media than the unfurling of a heist plot. At some points, the details of the plan stretch logic a bit, such as just how new the ambulance ship looked after being rejuvenated by Wash and Kaylee, and that it only took a day to accomplish, but those moments don’t matter in the long run because the entertainment value balances inaccuracies out enough that they are easy to ignore. Case in point, the intercutting scenes of half the team building the Trojan Ambulance while the other half suffers through Simon’s School of Medical Jargon. It’s a method of bulleted storytelling that, once again, has been used time and time again at various levels of success, yet here the cast sells the pace and urgency of the scenes while still having a lot of fun so it doesn’t seem at all tired. Of course, after all the struggle and missteps, they don’t even end up needing to use their newfound knowledge of resuscitation and Hydrozapam. Jayne awkwardly delivering the lines anyway is a nice bit of levity before he starts stabbing people in the back for cash.
River’s diagnosis, that her brain was cut into over and over again so The Alliance could study her genius, is tragic but expected. Simon’s commitment to healing her seems impossible after that reveal, yet serves as one more reminder of how close and devoted the two are to each other. If Simon can hop into an emergency situation in a random hospital and save a patient from the brink of death, than he surely must be able to cure River’s pain in the long run. Jayne’s betrayal of Simon and River doesn’t completely work in the confines of the episode, but when considered with everything else the Tams have put him through, it fits slightly better. The major hole is that Jayne, although not the sharpest of all the crew, is smart enough in regards to outlaw strategies that he of all people should know The Alliance would not pay him the expected rewards. He’s distrusting of The Alliance and everything on core planets, yet will jump at the chance to hop in to bed with them without thinking twice about the consequences? It makes sense that he would be blinded by his desire to get River off the ship once she attacked him, but it still comes off as trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Regardless of the rough reasoning, where it takes the story is the important part and that area of the episode works like gangbusters. Simon not realizing Jayne is the one who got them caught and nearly killed is heartbreaking for the audience and for Jayne. It is the conflicting emotions of “Jaynestown”, of being recognized as a hero even though he is not, on a larger scale and in more painful terms.
Even though he tried to save them from Blue Hands in the end, the guilt over giving them up in the first place eats at him in a way that he hasn’t shown before. Previously, Jayne may as well have been a guilt-free machine from job to job, so it is refreshing to see Adam Baldwin flex his acting muscles in that way. The moment just before Mal spares his life in the airlock, when Jayne tells him to hide his betrayal from the crew, is touching not just because it means Jayne actually cares about these people but because these feelings are one of the last things he admits before possibly getting ejected into the blackness of space. Given that his loyalty can never be completely assured, this is as close to confirmation that Jayne will protect Serenity’s crew as much as possible. All part of The Cult of Mal and the way his intense protection of friends is not just for show. Naturally the audience knows this already, but Jayne gets the reminder in a bone chilling manner. It’s a nice show of power from Mal in advance of the next episode, where he will have basically none.
- Inara and Book are all but absent from this episode, but Inara’s trip to Ariel does give more insight about the business of being a Companion, which is more than welcome.
- The Mal and Jayne session of indoor horseshoes adds another game to the list of crew pastimes while aboard. Another web series that would have been great had the show aired in the era of detailed online extras.
- Zoe Is The Best: Volume No. 239 – Knocking out the suspicious doctor (hi Tom Virtue!) with one touch of the paddles.
- “She feels everything, she can’t not” is perhaps one of the most gut wrenching lines of the series, if only because of the audience’s imagination taking it to natural extremes and dark places. Poor River.
- “Next time you decide to stab me in the back, have the guts to do it to my face.”
Possible future SPOILERS after this point:
- River’s proficiency with the kitchen knife is the first real glimpse of her physical skills, which will play a much great role going forward and in Serenity.