Sunday, December 29, 2013

Cult-TV Blogging: Firefly (2002): "Objects in Space" (December 13, 2002)

In “Objects in Space,” the crew of Serenity runs afoul of a unique and dangerous bounty hunter: Jubal Early (Richard Brooks).

Early has been secretly shadowing the ship for some time, and plans to acquire River (Summer Glau) and return her to the Alliance for a big pay day.

Early sandbags much of the crew in short order, including Captain Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), but finds that River isn’t the easy mark she appears to be. 

In fact, River unnerves Early by claiming to be “one” with Serenity, and revealing personal secrets about him that she couldn’t possibly know.

But Early only grows more dangerous as River grows craftier…

An argument can be made that “Objects in Space” is the most complex, and also the very best episode of Firefly (2002), as well as a perfect distillation of the series’ overall aesthetic values. 

The episode’s central villain, Jubal Early is named for a Confederate General in the Civil War, and thus revives the series’ exploration of that milieu, although in a future/outer-space setting. 

In particular, the real Jubal Early (1816 -1894) was a man who served General Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson in the Civil War, but not before making known his point-of-view that secession and war were the wrong courses of action.

In some way, the Early we meet here seems similarly conflicted.  The man boasts a singular intelligence, and a unique manner of expressing himself, yet he also seems captive to his baser instincts…to his sadistic side.  

It seems like anyone as smart as Early should know better, and it is clear that he has come to deceive himself about why he acts as he does (“it’s my job,” he notes). 

But River cuts through the lies. She “sees” Early for what he really is: a monster.

There’s a great and totally odd-ball Jubal Early moment mid-way through the show in which Simon (Sean Maher) asks the bounty hunter if he is working for “the Alliance.”  Jubal mishears the term, and thinks that Simon has asked him if he is “a lion.” 

This description gives Early reason to pause and reflect, and he actually contemplates if he is, in fact, symbolically “a lion.” 

It’s a crazy, weird, inventive, out-of-the-norm moment but it exposes to crucial aspects of Early’s psychological gestalt. The first thing to consider is that he is a vainglorious narcissist.  The second is that, as base and monstrous as he is, is Early wicked smart, and a philosopher even. 

The question of whether or not Early is “a lion” adheres to the overall approach to the hour, which stresses existentialism, and the idea that we are “just floating in space,” and thus objects without meaning…at least until we imbue ourselves with meaning.   We could all be lions, or even a spaceship, if that is how we choose to regard ourselves, the episode intimates.

Jubal Early stops to consider if, metaphorically, he could be considered “a lion” (a fierce and cunning animal), and that odd reckoning emerges from his ability to philosophize and rationalize away “meaning” in his own life.  He hurts, maims, and kills people for a living, but Early contextualizes those acts as merely being part of a “job.”

Similarly, River wishes to vanish from existence itself, to become one with “Serenity” because she feels unloved and unwanted by the crew.

What “is” River? 

A danger to the crew? A sister? A crazy woman? A psychic “reader?”  Is she something with independent, objective meaning, or is River actually only the “thing” that others view her as?

River grapples with this idea, perhaps, because of her mental aberrations.  At one point during the episode, she holds up a gun, but importantly, she views it as a tree branch.  Again, we asked to consider the meaning of this “object in space.”  A gun is designed expressly for killing.  Contrarily, a branch is a stick or part of a tree that grows out from a central bough or trunk.  It is an extension of something, an outgrowth from a hearth.

In grabbing hold of the branch, is River actually contextualizing herself (and the gun) as an outgrowth of Serenity (presumably the tree in this metaphor)?  Is her act of holding the gun, actually the action of protecting the hearth, or reaching out to the others?

What’s important, perhaps, is the “boundary transgression” River undergoes in this particular episode, at least according to scholar Karin Beeler in her essay “The Transformation of River Tam.”  Beeler notes (in Seers, Witchs and Psychics on Screen; 2008, page 47) that “Objects in Space” showcases River’s essential other-ness by moving from being human to being part of the machine (as part of Serenity, during her ruse).  Then she becomes human again, and finally another machine, in the form of Early’s spaceship.  As J.P. Telotte notes in The Essential Science Fiction Television Reader, River comes to identify herself “more closely with the intert technology of the ship than the crew.”

On a more basic level, River is able to put herself into the “experience” of reading and sympathizing with others.  She takes over the sheltering/protective duties of Serenity, and also sits in Early’s chair, and comes to see him as he really is.

“People don’t appreciate the substance of things,” Jubal Early says in “Objects in Space,” and perhaps that phraseology is a way of noting that the crew can’t appreciate the substance of River, because she is so different from the other humans. 

Ironically, Early is guilty of the same transgression.  He doesn’t see -- until it is far too late -- the substance of River.  His misreading of her -- his misinterpretation of the “substance” of her -- is what leads to his downfall.  Early and River are both dangerous, and both cunning, but River can “become” something else, becoming something outside her psyche so that she can see and appreciate the substance of things.  Early can’t escape his ego and narcissism enough to see that perspective.

This episode is very cleverly constructed and brilliant executed, but ultimately, one need not ponder any of this material to enjoy “Objects in Space.”  The episode is tense, the conflict is direct and urgent, and Early is an unforgettable villain.   

Accordingly, Firefly ends its TV run on a high note, and perhaps even the highest note of the series

1 comment:

  1. I agree this is one of my favorite episodes of the entire series. Early is a great villain and one I kinda wish they could have explored a bit further.

    I also had a feeling that Whedon was giving us a real bounty hunter vs smuggler confrontation. One that us Star Wars fans had wanted between Boba Fett and Han Solo. :) But maybe that's just me.