Revisiting Firefly, Episode 11: “Trash”

In TV by ScottD4 Comments

ScottD: Rolling again on the home stretch of the Big Damn Discussion of the Firefly TV series, and I take full responsibility for the delay in the previous installment getting done. It seems my bask of alligators got irradiated and all started laying eggs, even the male ones, and if you think ‘gators are normally cranky just try a male who has suddenly starting laying glowing eggs and I’ll show you a new concept of cranky. Some might call it an act of God but hey, I was the one who released the radiation so mea culpa.

Oh — Comicon might have had something to do with the delay too.

Anyway, this time out the episode is “Trash” and it’s a right entertaining one, though it is an instance where the show is starting to look a trifle schizophrenic, more on which later.

The return of Christina Hendricks is part of what makes this episode entertaining, this time calling herself “Bridget” as she seeks to play yet another ship captain but still the same brilliant sociopath that we came to know and drool over as Saffron. Mal outs her to war buddy Monty, resulting in her being stranded upon the inhospitable little moon they had chosen to conduct an exchange of contraband.

"So -- you guys have met."

“Bridget” begs a ride, and Mal tells her to start walking.

"Oh yeah -- just like old times!"

"But face it, hubby -- I'm really hot!"

But of course she worms her way onto Serenity, dangling the bait of a big job, one with a guaranteed huge payoff.

The caper involves stealing a near-priceless artifact, one of only a few existing examples of a Lassiter, the first portable laser weapon. The owner is a wealthy collector who lives on a fancy floating-in-the-sky estate — a man whom Saffron characterizes as a ruthless and vicious war profiteer. So between the promise of a big payoff and a chance at revenge upon an Alliance type, Mal sells her plan to the rest of the crew.

Which is where the aforementioned schizophrenia comes up, in several directions at once.

We’ve discussed how Serenity the series is a western through and through. We’ve also talked about how FOX was uneasy with the obviously western aspects of the show, horses and wagons and suchlike, and encouraged scripts that were more evidently futuristic and “space-y”. The early episodes were largely frontier stories, set on the hardscrabble Rim of the ‘verse, stories about scavenging from wrecks and smuggling and rustling and fights between rival gangs and fighting off oh-so-hostile savages. But the later episodes, most notably “Ariel” but also “Shindig”, are set closer to the Core, in the bright and shiny-clean worlds of the Alliance itself. And here we are in the expensive suburbs, the Beverly Hills, the Hamptons, of the Alliance, pulling a theft.

Disconnect.

Mal has stated many times that he likes to run under Alliance radar.  But the action on Ariel would have put Serenity and crew all over that radar, in big flashing lights. Alliance facilities are famously covered with cameras and sensors, and Mal, Zoe, Simon and River would be on numerous security tapes. Not to mention Jayne, who would have also been recorded when he contacted the Feds to arrange his betrayal of the Tams. And most of all not to mention the mysterious and ultra-scary Men With Blue Hands who came specifically to pick up the Tams. Everyone now knows that River and Simon are hangin’ with Mal et al.

And here we are, back in the affluent suburbs of the Alliance, among the fabulous and security-patrolled estates of the “rich and paranoid”, as Wash puts it. Sure, Saffron/Bridget says she has all of the security codes, but our crew would still stand out amongst all that polish.

Or, more accurately, I should say our ship. Rich people are notorious for ignoring the actions of service people around them, so Mal and Saffron can pose as delivery people. But security people are notorious for noticing exceptions to routines, and grungy ugly (by Alliance standards — *I* think she’s beautiful!) Serenity hovering under an estate would be like seeing a big ol’ moving van parked in your neighbor’s driveway when you knew they weren’t home. You could argue that Saffron’s collection of security codes might include the equivalent of a pass for maintenance work, but even that pass could not disguise what Serenity is: a small freighter, and not a service vehicle. It jarred the first time I saw this episode, and it gets harder to swallow each time I watch it again.

Tanzi: I had the same reaction. In one breath they’re talking about this gated community with security up the ying yang, then a few minutes later they’re sidling up to the waste container and changing the coordinates. If security is that lax why not just have the Serenity drop the container into the cargo deck?

ScottP: Not to make this about myself, but that’s exactly what I’m gonna do for a moment. On my initial viewing of the series, I never noticed any of this schizophrenia. Never caught a whiff of it on my second run-through, either. But once we started writing these posts about the show and really digging into the workings of each episode, I started to catch it, among other little things that bug me or break the suspension of disbelief. I realize that’s all part of the game of critiquing something but I have to admit, it’s beginning to take the fun out of the series for me. I think that’s one reason why, when I review movies, I tend to review cheesy, so-bad-they’re-good types of movies rather than aiming to be an honest-to-pete reviewer in the traditional sense: I have a hell of a lot more fun being a fan than I do being a critic. I like to share stuff I enjoy with other fans, and that’s the point behind my reviews. And I’m really hoping that once we’re done with the Big Damn Discussion I can just go back to having a good time with Firefly instead of picking at its guts.

That said, I do agree with ScottD’s assessment of the schizophrenia the series displays. It seems like any number of shows take a little while to find their footing but I can only imagine how hard that is when the network is constantly screwing with you behind the scenes.

ScottD: Don’t get me wrong — there’s a lot to like about this episode. Once again we see the crew working together as a team; I really like how they dive in to plan the caper (cue the Mission: Impossible music again), especially Kaylee who is first to jump on it and figures out how to make it work. (I also like feelings-evident Jayne expressing dismay when Saffron pooh-poohs the idea of sending the goods out in the garbage, then his proud grin when Kaylee counters her objection.) I just have to ask: is this a series about life “on the raggedy edge”? Or is it a slick crime show?

Tanzi: I enjoy these caper episodes, even if they don’t feel as intricate or well constructed as a good Mission: Impossible episode. It’s fun to watch the crew working as a team, even when they don’t all have a role. Saffron is a fun character, it would have been nice to see her pop up once or twice a season if the show had a longer run. Christina Hendricks did a great job or portraying her sort of like a crazy, manipulative girlfriend, the type of woman that you’re never sure when she’s being genuine and when she’s faking it.

ScottP: I know absolutely nothing about what went on in the decision-making process but I do suspect Fox got all excited about turning Firefly into a spacefaring, crime-pulling Mission: Impossible type of thing and less of a Western. Obviously when your show is about a bunch of space bandits then you’re gonna want to see them pulling jobs, and that happens all throughout the series. And maybe this is that element of nit-picking that comes with really gazing into the workings of a series like we’re doing, but it does seem like there was a little stretch where we fell out of the smaller — I hesitate to say more believable — capers and started getting into these more complicated M:I-type jobs. But even as I say that I’m trying to remember how many times we actually did see those kinds of capers? Was it just twice, in “Ariel” and again in this episode?

ScottD: Sergeant-in-the-war Malcolm Reynolds sure does a competent job on the security system around the Lassiter, casually disabling it while exchanging barbs with Saffron. Where did he get those skills? Sure, there may be periods in his life not yet hinted at, but it is still jarring. Especially as he is displaying skills that we might expect from Saffron, who has the background and had the time to figure out how to do it.

Tanzi: This one was really jarring for me as well. Have we seen Mal do anything like this so far? His strength has been in setting up the capers, gaining the tactical advantage and bluffing his way in a tight spot. I suppose there wasn’t anyone else who could have done it and they needed Saffron free for her encounter with the rich guy.

ScottD: There’s another disconnect here. The Lassiter is not inherently valuable; it only has value as an antique, to wealthy collectors.  In “Ariel” Wash quips that they are “stealing from the rich to sell to the poor”, but here they are stealing from one ultra-wealthy guy to sell to another one. Saffron tells Mal that the owner is a despicable war profiteer who got the Lassiter by using bioweapons to wipe out whole neighborhoods so that he might take what he wanted — but YoSaffBridge is a compulsive liar who will say anything to play a mark, and she most certainly sees Mal as a mark. You could argue (I’m sure Jayne would) that money is money, and so what if they take money from one rich Alliance guy for something they stole from another rich Alliance guy? But with this caper, the crew is in danger of losing the moral high ground in their crime. A show can change and grow, but this change is a bit sudden. Perhaps production under the threat of cancellation brought these changes into play sooner than planned, but the show is looking unsure of its footing.

Tanzi: Perhaps I missed it but wouldn’t they need a rich yet shady buyer for this rare artifact? It’s like stealing the Mona Lisa: sure it’s unique but it’s not like you can show it off to your friends.

ScottD: Book, while present on the ship — he is seen briefly, responding to Mal’s damage when he returns from the moonlet where he picks up Saffron — is notably absent from this episode. Which signals to me that the crime has no “Browncoat merit” at all. Salvage of food, smuggling of cattle, theft of drugs can all be rationalized as getting things to those who need them out on the Border planets. But this straightup heist-for-profit can in no way be condoned by our preacher, so he is conveniently absent. Which also plays up again that it is becoming harder to ignore that he has no real role on the ship, other than to present a spiritual mirror to Mal’s loss of faith. He doesn’t get involved in the crimes that are so often how the crew earns their bread, so — what does he do on the ship?

Another thing that happens here is a tantalizing glimpse at something our crew never seems to get: friends. Monty and his crew are visibly similar to Serenity‘s (though they seem more prosperous), and it would be nice to see what kind of people Mal does get along with — he has, after all, already left a string of enemies (alive) behind him. Badger is more of a strange bedfellow than an enemy, a necessary relationship for getting work, but most of the others our crew have encountered would gladly turn them in for the bounty if they didn’t want personal revenge more. (As with Niska — who has already returned and escaped so that he could return again.) And once word gets around more about the Alliance’s interest in Serenity, you can be sure that these old enemies will be out to get Mal, and even old colleagues will start thinking about that bounty…

Joss set things up in the show so that our crew would be ever pursued, all hands turned against them. The “regular” Alliance wants them for their criminality, the Men With Blue Hands want the Tams, and various criminals want payback. As Mal’s radar signature gets hotter, this will only get worse. And he is going to need friends, people to work with, places to hide out. Our crew won’t get through this alone, not with forces both official and illegal turned against them, and it would be nice to see more about the other people out there they might work with. The show might have started developing this further along — I think, to up the drama, any possibility of “fellow travelers” was deliberately kept to a minimum in the early episodes. But in 11 episodes we’ve already had recurring villains — how about some recurring friends?

Tanzi: Good point. I think it would have been entertaining for Mal to run into old war buddies in a position to help, or perhaps some who sold out and went to the Alliance but still felt an obligation to help the Serenity crew. You’re absolutely right, they couldn’t evade all their enemies without some help.

ScottD: This episode does bring up an interesting aspect of Mal’s character. Even while he knows she is doing it, he lets Saffron play him. But when Inara seeks to do a very genteel version of the same thing, he accuses her of using her “wiles” and rebuffs and insults her, calling her a whore.

"You're using your wiles!"

(Plaudits again for the excellent use of lighting to accentuate profound cleavage in this scene.)

ScottP: In Mal’s defense, he actually mentions to Inara that he’s had enough Companion-style “wiles” for one day, referring of course to dealing with Saffron’s manipulations, and the fact that Inara has asked him aboard her shuttle and offered him tea, two things that don’t happen — which sets off Mal’s radar. He doesn’t have to pretend he’s going along with it where Inara is concerned, where the whole point with Saffron is to make her believe she’s calling the shots.

ScottD: Of course, Inara calls Mal a “petty criminal”, the “petty” part rankling him mightily and causing him to reveal the presence of Saffron, who represents the promise of A Big Score. Which means that Mal turns away from Inara (who was trying to play him with her training) and sides with Saffron (who is playing him with the contempt she uses on all men). What’s more, when Saffron leaves him naked in the desert the insult he throws after her is “dirty, dirty whore!” This is especially interesting in light of an upcoming episode. What’s Mal’s problem, anyway?

The above-mentioned naked-in-the-desert scene, played for laughs, gives the Captain a chance to show what’s in his Tightpants.

"Yeah -- that went well."

ScottP: And what exactly is that tattoo on Mal’s right hip? Anyone know?

 

"All according to plan!"

ScottD: Wash almost breaks his face, resisting a comment:

But Kaylee is utterly casual and straightforward, a great moment:

 

"Good work, Cap'n!" "Thank you, Kaylee."

This is also the episode where Simon confronts Jayne about his betrayal (clued in by River’s psychic eavesdropping).

"That's crazy talk."

"Then let's talk crazy."

Simon is very controlled and reasonable, treating the whole thing more like a corporate negotiation than a threat. Even though he has Jayne helpless, he assures him that he takes his oath as a medic seriously and will never do harm to Jayne, no matter what. He also delivers a little speech that nicely corroborates the wolf-pack dynamics that we’ve discussed previously:

"Now we could circle each other and growl, or sleep with one eye open, but that thought wearies me."

Simon is cool, confident, and dominant, and there is no doubt that he has impressed Jayne with what he said.

Plus, of course:

"I can kill you with my brain."

ScottP: I love this scene. Not only do we get a befuddled, word-slurring Jayne (“Pine okay?”), but Sean Maher finally gets to cut loose and be something other than slightly awkward and nervous (the only times we’ve really seen him otherwise is when he’s doing his job as a doctor). His pointed-yet-subtle threat about Jayne’s dangerous line of work and how he’s sure to be under Simon’s knife again — many times — is not only great writing, Maher does a terrific job with it, actually managing to be frightening in a freakishly soothing way.

[divider]

Cheese bits:

The Lassiter, the collectible prototype for all handheld lasers, happens to share a name with Friend o’ the Cheese Robert Vardeman, who uses for one of his Western pen names Karl Lassiter. Go check out his writings. Good stuff.

And of course, there’s John Lasseter, chief creative officer at Pixar, where Joss Whedon wrote Toy Story.

The Bellerophon Estates, home to the floating mansions that our crew raids, is probably not a reference to the Greek of mythology who captured Pegasus and slew the Chimera, but rather a reference to Forbidden Planet (1959). In that classic film, the Bellerophon was the ship that brought the people to Altair IV, but was vaporized when most of them sought to leave again. Joss Whedon is obviously a fan of the film — in the Serenity movie the spacecraft at the end has the number C57-D on it, the vessel designation of the cruiser that comes to Altair IV to effect a rescue.

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