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June 23, 2011

Revisiting Firefly, Episode 9: “Ariel”

firefly ariel river simon brainscan

ScottP starting off the Big Damn Discussion this time, and it’s another good episode so I probably won’t have as much to say about it as I’d like. Also, this is another one that’s impossible to talk about without some major spoilage, so if you haven’t seen it, please watch it now. I’ll just sit here, it’s fine.

This time around we find the crew of Serenity sharing a little time as they prepare to set down on Ariel, a Core Planet, so Inara can undergo her yearly Companion evaluation (which probably sounds a lot dirtier than it is). Mal and most of the others aren’t very excited about being anywhere near a Core World because of heavy Alliance presence, and besides that, there’s no work worth taking. But when River flips out and slashes Jayne’s chest with a knife, Simon admits she’s getting worse and offers Mal and the crew an assignment: he wants them to get himself and River into a hospital where he can perform tests on his sister using some advanced equipment. In exchange, Simon will tell Mal what medicine to steal from the hospital to be sold on needier planets.

"We applied the cortical electrodes, but were unable to get a neural reaction from either patient!"

“Ariel” is an interesting episode in that it’s one of the few that really doesn’t carry much in the way of Western trappings (aside from the usual: costuming, some of the weaponry, etc.). In fact, I like to think of “Ariel” as the Mission: Impossible episode of Firefly, especially during the sequence where Simon is briefing everyone on the mission and we see cuts of them performing certain tasks. I really like that this particular job requires the involvement of every crew member and they have to work as a team — and against the proverbial ticking clock.

ScottD: I actually heard the Mission: Impossible music in my head during parts, especially when Wash and Kaylee are fixing up the ambulance, cutting and welding and such — more evidence that Wash-the-goof is very good at what he does when there’s need. Tanzi said he wanted more caper action, and this episode delivers. Nice to see the crew acting like a team.

Tanzi: Damn straight. All the relationship stuff is fine but I like some action in my space western.

"Well, let's see — we killed Simon and River, stole a bunch of medicine, and now the Captain and Zoe are off springin' the others got snatched by the Feds!"

ScottP: One thing I’m not crazy about is River slashing Jayne: I suppose it’s not entirely out of character for her to do something as nutso as that, but it feels phony to me, as if they felt they needed some kind of justification for Jayne’s later betrayal. The way his character has been portrayed up to this point (and, for that matter, throughout this episode), it’s just not necessary — Jayne is an opportunist and the chance at making some big money by selling out Simon and River is natural on its own; the incident with the knife just doesn’t ring true. I have no idea if it was the case or not but I suspect there may have been a little studio interference at work here…

Also, maybe it’s just me but River’s non-sequitur babbling never really works throughout the series, in my opinion. It’s rare that River speaks that I don’t picture the writer sitting there stringing words together in an attempt to write crazy.

Tanzi: Mal mentions something to Simon about how she’s getting worse but the slashing came out of nowhere. She’s been the same level of basket case since day one, until all of a sudden they need something to push Jayne over the edge.

"He looks better in red!"

ScottD: This episode got me thinking about how often Summer Glau’s task is thankless — when River isn’t uttering oddnesses, she is hovering around the edge of the “adult” action looking confused and unnecessary. There are several episodes where it is easy to forget that she is aboard, then she suddenly gets featured heavily — quite a challenge for an actor.

I got a new insight into River yesterday, or more particularly Simon’s role as River’s caretaker. A family was in the library and one of the kids was “special needs” — and I suddenly realized that the mother was watching that kid and speaking to him just the way Simon watches over River, warning her away from sharp things and carefully and clearly explaining things. River is the special needs kid or more accurately a brain trauma case, formerly familiar and intelligent but now unpredictable and rather alien, and Simon shows the mix of love and weariness that that mom had. At least, as a doctor, his feeling of helplessness is reduced — he has the possibility of helping her get better. But he has the care of someone just as difficult to deal with as an Alzheimer’s patient. (Simon’s reaction to her slashing Jayne? A mild, “River… No!” As one might speak to a child who is pulling a pet’s tail.)

Mix that with how I think Joss wants us to perceive River, as some sort of esoteric Sybil spouting mystical pronouncements the import of which no one else is clever enough to figure out, and you’ve got a challenging role for any actor. And a challenge for the writers — they’re supposed to keep us interested in her, without revealing too much too soon.

As far as Jayne’s betrayal, I read something that Adam Baldwin said about this episode. He felt that Jayne did not so much consider it a betrayal as he thought that he was doing everyone a favor by getting the complication of the Tams out of their hair, making up for what he saw as Mal’s irrational emotional attachment to them. If he could make some coin off it, all the better. But he really thought it was his “duty”. Which is why part of his reaction at the end is genuine confusion mixed in with his attempts to lie.

Tanzi: Eh, I don’t know if I buy that. We’ve already seen Jayne will sell out his crew for a few coins, it’s not much of a stretch that he’d do it again. The Serenity crew is more like a family but that just means it takes a few more coins. Then again, he is dumb enough to think he’s doing the right thing. He was certainly dumb enough to think the Alliance would actually pay out the reward.

ScottP: I’d never heard that Baldwin felt Jayne was doing the right thing and trying to help, but I actually felt like that was the case during the episode. His reaction when Mal confronts him at the end seems more surprised than “caught” to me, as if he’s astonished that Mal doesn’t get it.

ScottD: I’ve spent most of the last few days wielding a chainsaw and a machete and I feel especially close to Jayne just now, so I’m going to pursue this a bit further. I don’t know if he would ever convince himself he was doing the “right thing” in terms of general morality, but I think Jayne was sure it was the smart thing. And Jayne so seldom feels righteously smart that when he does, he goes with it.

As Tanzi points out, we have seen several times where Jayne approaches selling out Mal. In “The Train Job” he tries to convince the rest of the crew to leave Mal and Zoe after they get caught — only Simon’s doping of Jayne prevents his taking over. (“Do you know what the chain of command is? It’s the chain I get and beat you with until you realize who’s in ruttin’ command.”) And of course the Alliance agent Dobson tried to buy Jayne’s cooperation. Mal later asks him: “Why didn’t you sell me out, Jayne?” “Money wasn’t good enough.” “What’ll happen when it is?” “Well — that’ll be an interesting day.”

And he did turn on his former crew, as we saw in “Out of Gas”. But I would argue that he didn’t just turn on them for a greater share of the profits, but also for a higher quality of life — “How big a room?” — and a greater measure of respect. And a better pack to run with. He wasn’t just selling out his former gang, he was trading up.

This is the episode that says the most about the relationship between Jayne and Mal. I sometimes think of Jayne as a Klingon, only raised without the Klingon code of honor. But mostly I think of Jayne as a wolf, raised without a pack so a lone wolf. Once he found a better wolf pack, Mal’s, he had to start learning how to be part of a pack as Mal’s Beta. Part of the job of a Beta is not only to back up the Alpha while hunting but also to challenge him, to always remind the Alpha that he has to be in top form or he will be pulled down and replaced. We have seen Beta Jayne challenging Alpha Mal throughout the series — they growl at each other, but Mal has always managed to make Jayne back down — and it comes to a head here. Mal’s reaction is very Alpha-wolf — he is reminding a member of the pack that disobeying the Alpha can result in exile or death.

But Jayne believes he is right, and it is hard to argue against his reasoning. Other than having a doctor on board, there is no good practical reason to keep Simon and River around. And several reasons not to. In fact, the Tams are the biggest threat yet to Serenity and her crew (and not just because River is now wielding a knife). Jayne sees this, and has said so very clearly. At first he thinks that maybe Mal is just biding his time before claiming the reward, but as things stretch on he gets increasingly disgusted with how foolish Mal seems to be acting — so far as Jayne is concerned Mal is being soft-hearted, which in Jayne lingo means soft-headed. Jayne knows that Mal can be hard, has seen him kill, but he has also seen him do some things out of his sense of nobility or honor, some Robin Hood stylings that leave Jayne utterly perplexed. And the Tams seem to be another instance of this.

Mal is starting to realize just how big a threat the Tams are to the freedoms that he holds dear, but he is in denial because he has the whole hard man/savior conflict going on. Jayne sees the threat clearly, and figures he has to step in to counter Mal’s lack of clarity. Sure, Jayne is always working the angles, always ready to cut a better deal, without much thought of anyone other than himself. And he doesn’t always think things through. And it could be Adam Baldwin’s wanting to re-vision Jayne in a way where he is not an utter shit. But I really do think that Baldwin came up with the reasoning behind Jayne’s actions before the scene was shot, and that his chosen approach shows in how it plays. Jayne knows Mal won’t be pleased at the deception, but he is genuinely confused that Mal wouldn’t be relieved to have the Tams gone.

"What're you takin' this so personal for? It ain't like I ratted you out to the Feds!"

I think deep down Mal understands this — his own emotionality concerns him, even as he denies it — which is part of the reason he lets Jayne live. (I love the way Mal uses a big ol’ spanner to clock Jayne — he knows how hard it is to take him down, he isn’t taking any chances.) Jayne also proves to Mal that he could someday be a full member of the pack when he shows concern for what the others might think about him after he’s gone. Having almost-literally gotten his teeth around Jayne’s throat and forced his admission/submission, Mal gives him the benefit of the doubt. But reminds him that he is on probation.

This wolf dynamic goes both directions. Since the beginning Jayne has challenged Simon in wolf-fashion, bumping into him, making him step aside — the sort of physical domination that canines (and primates, for that matter) use to establish pecking order. In the earlier episodes, when Simon is unsure of his position and worried about being given over to the Alliance, he reacts in classic submission, actually lowering his eyes and his head and doing everything but baring his throat to a superior male. (Sean Maher has a nice grasp of this, and uses a bit of it in the scene where he is suturing Jayne’s wound while Mal and Jayne talk past him.) But as the series progresses and Simon becomes more secure in his position he starts to meet Jayne’s gaze and even growl back at him a bit. This coincides with his increasing involvement in the capers, culminating in him actually putting together this one.

In some ways this is Simon’s episode, not only because he plans the caper but because we finally see him in his natural element where he is the Alpha. Aboard Serenity and out on the Rim he is painfully and obviously out of place, but back in a Core hospital he knows the moves. The scene where he steps in (after River’s prompting) to save a patient from malpractice reminds us that he is a top doctor, but also shows us that Simon can play the dominance games he grew up with, very well. I like River’s glowing honest pride in her brother’s abilities. There’s also a nice contrast — Simon confident, Jayne out-of-place and increasingly ill-at-ease. partly because he is seeing Simon in a new light.

"Your patient should be dead! Send the award to Dr. John Smith."

Tanzi: It was good to see Simon demonstrate that he’s not just a doctor but a really competent one, someone who could be heading a department in a hospital like this one. He really is slumming it with the Serenity bunch but, like the rest of the crew, he seems to have found a family and a home. I honestly thought they were setting it up for Jayne to have a change of heart. I was genuinely shocked when he went through with his betrayal after seeing Simon’s talent.

And this isn’t any kind of great insight but I have to say the ambulance that Kaylee and Wash cobble together was just stupid looking. Of all the things they could have used, why did they use some kind of Soviet looking helicopter and pretend it was a space ship? It just looked silly.

ScottD: I suspect this was a prop they found somewhere and used ready-made. There’s a great little blooper associated with the ambulance. When it touches down outside the hospital, we clearly see (in CGI) the landing gear come down and lock out on the landing pad. But in the very next shot the whole vehicle is sitting on a big ol’ vehicle dolly that they rolled the prop in on — it is clearly visible in all of the following shots, so they probably figured it was too much trouble to offload the prop and just hoped no one would notice.

ScottP: Just a dorky aside here, but I love Kaylee griping about digging through a junkyard — until she finds a particular part that gets her all excited.

"Oooh — synchronizers!"

ScottD: Is there anything that Kaylee’s glowing spirit can’t make enjoyable? And that’s even before the thought of vigorous giggly bunktime.

Something they don’t address is where all the money for this caper came from. Sure, the promised payoff is substantial, but they had to front money for fake IDs and such, and even though they work up stuff from junk they still had to buy the junk, and even a scrapped aircraft is still pricey. I guess we’re not supposed to think about it.

It’s interesting to wonder what the crew dynamics would have been like down the line, with Simon taking a bigger part in the capers. Simon actually thinks bigger than Mal, bigger and more calculatingly — Mal himself admits that “the boy’s got a decent criminal mind”. The really interesting thing is that, in the long run, Simon is more of a threat to the Alliance than Mal is. Not because of his association with his sister, but because of his background as an Alliance golden boy. Simon understands the Alliance in ways that Mal never can, and what’s more has experienced a disillusionment that leaves him questioning the value of everything he once believed. Simon saw the gold plating of the Core lifestyle ripped away, first from his family and then the rest of his life, and he now sees the ugly and grimy innards that had been concealed. He is uniquely prepared to use the Alliance’s procedures and prejudices as weapons against it.

In the book Finding Serenity that we have mentioned several times, there is an essay entitled “Serenity and Bobby McGee”. The piece is by Mercedes Lackey, and she has some involving points to make about the freedoms of our crew, and how some of these freedoms are actually illusory. One strong point that she makes is that the Alliance actually relies upon people like Mal to keep in operation.

This sounds startling, and counterintuitive. And it is certainly not something Mal would agree with. But she makes the point well. Her reasoning is that the Alliance is unable to oversee or service the fringe areas, but they are also afraid of more attempts at rebellion such as they had to expensively deal with in the Independents. So they let people like Mal operate as a pressure release valve. Gray market / black market / smuggling such as Mal pursues gets goods out to the Border worlds at no expense to the Alliance, the criminal class stays involved with these operations rather than planning rebellion, the folks on the fringe stay poor by paying black market prices, and seeing people like Mal “defying” the Alliance gives the common man a daily dose of satisfying hope that keeps them subdued. (Just as with “Jaynestown” — the Mudders are more docile when they think they are winning points off of The Man.) The ridiculously high tariffs that apparently are in place serve to keep the whole system working.

So, while Mal prides himself on thumbing his nose at the Alliance and working for the good of the common man — when Simon proposes the theft of medicine, Mal chimes in with “folks out on the Rim sure could use it” — in this view he is actually allowed to pursue his criminality. Just so long as he sticks to plain old smuggling and doesn’t get too big for his britches. But taking in the Tams has broken this pattern, raised his profile, put him on the Alliance radar.

Which brings us back, full-circle, to Jayne’s motivations for selling out the Tams. Jayne’s whole life has taught him that you can get by all right in the shadows. Mal’s keeping the fugitives on board puts Serenity in the spotlight, and Jayne finally decides to do something about it. It was promised long before that it would be “an interesting day”.

And there’s a Big Damn Question here: where is Zoe while all of this power struggle is going on? She is after all First Mate, Mal’s second-in-command — and noticeably absent from any of their “negotiations.” But that is a whole ‘nother discussion which will come up in an approaching episode.

About the Author

Writes movies, books, TV. Loves Star Trek.


  1. “Ariel” is very possibly my favorite episode, although I go back and forth between this one and “War Stories”. I love the classic heist movie trappings of this one, I love what it says about the characters, I’ve never noticed the dolly under the ambulance’s landing struts – so I guess they got away with it as far as I’m concerned. The only thing in the episode that kind of makes me raise an eyebrow is right after that, when they roll the body-tubes into the front receiving area of the hostipal, and for some reason all the lights are off. I get that lighting the scene through the front windows makes it look more dramatic, but I always notice that the fluorescent lights in the area are unaccountably off, which seems very odd to me.

    Oh, and I sometimes wonder why the hospital has a network of totally empty industrial warehouse-looking rooms in the back, but whatever.

    One thing I’d like to comment on is the idea of Jayne being the rational one in this episode. Whedon says something interesting about Jayne in the director’s commentary for Serenity, something along the lines of Jayne being the voice of common sense. I don’t remember exactly what he said but the idea was that the protagonists we identify with and feel the most sympathy for are also the most emotional, who make decisions that drive the plot based on what they feel rather than rationally. Because, of course, if your characters always did the most rational things, you wouldn’t have much of a story. But a “bad guy” who isn’t a sympathetic character can be completely rational.

    I also gotta mention that this episode is only the second (third?) appearance of the Hands of Blue guys, who I thought were totally wicked antagonists that I couldn’t wait to see developed further. Although it strikes me as a little extreme to go around killing everyone who ever talks to River, the idea that they had both official government sanction to do whatever they wanted, some kinda weird sonic weapon thingy that they themselves were immune to, and creepy blue gloves worked well to establish them as a force to be reckoned with. I know they came up with a resolution for those guys up in one of the follow-up comics, but it wasn’t all that satisfying and watching this episode always makes me wonder what kind of crazy sinister psychic assassins they might have turned out to be if the series had lasted.

  2. FarStrider

    It’s interesting to wonder what the crew dynamics would have been like down the line, with Simon taking a bigger part in the capers. Simon actually thinks bigger than Mal, bigger and more calculatingly — Mal himself admits that “the boy’s got a decent criminal mind”. The really interesting thing is that, in the long run, Simon is more of a threat to the Alliance than Mal is. Not because of his association with his sister, but because of his background as an Alliance golden boy. Simon understands the Alliance in ways that Mal never can, and what’s more has experienced a disillusionment that leaves him questioning the value of everything he once believed. Simon saw the gold plating of the Core lifestyle ripped away, first from his family and then the rest of his life, and he now sees the ugly and grimy innards that had been concealed. He is uniquely prepared to use the Alliance’s procedures and prejudices as weapons against it.

    YES! One of the major disappointments of the show being cancelled after only 14 episodes for me was the fact that we only got the broadest hint of where the writers were taking Simon’s character. . . and I’ll go you one better. . not only is Simon more of a threat to the Alliance than Mal, Simon is also a direct threat to Mal’s command. You might be saying: ‘That’s crazy talk, FarStrider.’ but let’s talk crazy for a few minutes. If you think about it, after Mal, Simon is the most developed character in the show, and the writers left clues as to where they were going to take him, but,.because the payoffs were going to be at the end of the season, or in the 2nd season or beyond, most people come away with the feeling that Simon is “boring” “dull” or “wimpy”. . .which is sad, since in his own way, Simon is just as much of an alpha-male as Mal, but because he is totally out of his element, and relying on people who operate by rules he doesn’t understand for his and River’s lives, he instinctively has to be submissive, meek and mild; and even while he is being submissive, most people miss the fact that he questions Mal’s authority more than anyone else on the ship.

    The foreshadowing is fascinating: from the pilot episode, Simon is positioned as Mal’s mirror and foil. We see those two standing on opposite sides of the screen facing each other at least three times: when they first meet, when Mal tells Simon that he should be the one taking care of Dobson but doesn’t have the guts, and at the end when Mal says he’s had a good day (heck, that whole piece of dialogue is foreshadowing that Mal and Simon were going to be on the opposite sides of something major): Simon: How do I know you won’t kill me in my sleep?
    Mal: You don’t know me, son, so let me explain this to you once: If I ever kill you, you’ll be awake. You’ll be facing me, and you’ll be armed.

    Another hint that Simon and Mal are going to be on opposite sides of something that divides the crew: in Ariel, when River slashes Jayne, the crew unconsciously picks sides, Mal, Zoe and Kaylee going to aid Jayne, and Simon, Wash and Inara going aid River. . . not only is the crew split in the middle, but everyone’s significant other is on the opposite side. . .the placing is too deliberate to be chance. . .this is a hint of something to come.

    Another strong foreshadowing about Simon: he all but invites the Gods to screw with his life when he declares in the first episode: “I don’t kill people!” which becomes a plot point in several episodes: He can’t bring himself to shoot Dobson, he doesn’t kill the guard in Ariel, Book reassures him and us that he still hasn’t killed anyone in War Stories, his insistence that Jayne is safe on his table. . . nothing comes up in a show that often unless the writers are going to deal with it in some way. So, what would have happened if Simon Tam had to deliberately, with malice of forethought, kill someone? This probably would have been the last thing of his old life that was ripped away, the last vestige of who he thought he was. . .after that, watch out Alliance. . .my conjecture is that is what would split the crew: Simon is ready to start the 2nd Civil War, while Mal and Zoe, who should be his natural allies in this, just wants to fly under the Alliance radar. . .

    If the writers were setting up anyone on Serenity to put on the “black leather pants of evil” and the “red sunglasses of moral ambiguity,” it was Simon. . . and it is a shame that we didn’t get to see it unspool over several seasons. . .


    • ScottD

      Great points, FarStrider! Especially about the several instances of Mal and Simon being at polar extremes on the screen, nice direction there and as you say a visual reminder of their opposition.

      Reading your insights, another division point occurred to me: the Ariel hospital caper promises to be the first truly successful job we have seen the crew involved in. We have seen the results of their hand-to-mouth existence (the lack of spare parts that causes the disaster in “Out of Gas”) and a promise of a bigger payoff and a more comfortable/reliable lifestyle can start to sway loyalties. (Interestingly, it would probably be Jayne “I Need Coin” Cobb who would first swing over to Simon’s side. Though it might be a close finish with Kaylee.)

      Simon has also proven that he can put aside class differences and work with criminals — something Mal is very shaky about since he doesn’t like to think of himself as a criminal. Simon worked first with the underground to get River out of Alliance hands, and is now proving that he can work with Mal’s catch-all group. In this, he is actually more “successful” than Mal in a life of crime, since Mal’s specialty seems to be aggravating other criminals and leaving a string of enemies at his back.

  3. JC

    The part with River slashing Jayne made some sense to me. When creating a world you are creating all the details and Whedon has dropped alot of hints. In the pilot episode, while the crew is walking around Persephone, on every single storage crate there is a Blue Sun logo. Also that is the official logo on the Crybaby used in that very same episode. This episode, Jayne gets slashed right across his Blue Sun shirt. And one could never forget “Two by two, hands blue”

  4. HyperboreanTom

    Loving this review series, especially since there’s not too much fan-gushing (and that’s coming from a gushing fan himself).

    Thanks to JC for pointing out the Blue Sun shirt in question! I also think her remark ‘He looks better in red’ is deliberately pointing out the logo and its eponymous colour.

    I liked the wolfpack dynamic discussion, and I wanted to add an element of Jayne that I believe is very subtle (although perhaps I am reading too much into small touches). I believe Jayne is actually quite taken with Mal, both loving and fearing him in a way he may not fully understand.

    This could be an alternate explanation for the line in the pilot ‘Does [letting Dobson free] mean turnin’ on the Captain?’ We assume that Jayne is eager to do so after seeing him dig at Mal for losing the payday and that he didn’t do so because the money wasn’t good enough. But that is our assumptions and Jayne’s excuse. What if the question was meant to delineate the line Jayne won’t cross – betraying Mal? This would then be echoed in the thug’s anguished plea ‘”What’re you takin’ this so personal for? It ain’t like I ratted you out to the Feds!”

    In ‘Out of Gas’ there is a scene where Mal must physically force Wash to go back to work on the ship rather than staying by Zoe’s side. The quiet fierceness with which he does this is a marvelous echo of Mal’s non-com military career, but the performance to watch during this scene (as it often is) is Adam Baldwin’s. Jayne’s face is a mask of fear. To cross the Captain is to face that iron will, and Jayne only works up the courage to do so once or twice, most noticeably in the Serenity film.

    Am I crazy?

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