Noel: This week’s Firefly episode isn’t too coy about what it’s getting at. Book puts it into plain words, when he’s talking with River about the particulars of his faith and his Bible: “It’s not about making sense,” he says. “It’s about believing in something.” Dingdingding! Theme alert! “Jaynestown” is all about the power of symbols. And in keeping with that theme, the episode is thick-lined and plain. But you know what? It also has a little song. And that makes it A-OK, as far as I’m concerned.
It’s not especially meaningful to say that “Jaynestown” is a Firefly fan favorite, because there are so few Fireflys, and they’re all pretty much good-to-great, so I’d say maybe two-thirds of the Firefly episodes are fan-favorites. But “Jaynestown” is especially beloved, for two reasons: The premise is hilarious, and the big musical number is catchy as hell.
The idea behind “Jaynestown” is that years ago, our Jayne Cobb pulled a heist in a foul-smelling, largely impoverished community knows as the Canton Factory Settlement, and that while hightailing it off the planet, his craft faltered and needed to be lightened. First, Jayne tossed over his partner, Stitch Hessian, who’s been rotting in prison ever since. And then he tossed over the loot, which landed in a mud pit among Canton’s oppressed working class. So while Jayne returns to Canton expecting to be in hot water with the authorities (and maybe even Stitch), instead he finds that the locals have built a statue to the man they believe robbed from the rich and gave to the poor. They’ve even composed a beloved ballad about “the hero of Canton… the man they call Jayne.”
Credited scripter Ben Edlund is one of the most reliably funny writers in the Whedon stable—as anyone who’s seen Angel’s “Smile Time” can attest—and “Jaynestown” doesn’t waste the comic potential of positioning the rascally, amoral Jayne as a folk hero, even if most of the jokes early on involve the crew of Serenity doing double-takes at Jayne allowing himself to be embraced by “his people.” But this episode also follows a classic western arc, as the irredeemable rogue begins to believe that he can be a better man, thanks to faith of some good people. (I’m sure it’s no accident that “Jayne” rhymes with Shane.) When Mal wants to exploit the adulation to provide cover while they sneak some illegal goods off the planet, Jayne says, “You think we should be using my fame to hoodwink folks?” Not until Stitch shows up to spill Jayne’s secrets to the community—and not until a good kid takes a bullet meant for Jayne—does Jayne realize that he has no business playing the noble savior.
At the risk of expressing a heresy, I have to say that I don’t think that “Jaynestown” is a top-tier Firefly episode—or at least not in my top tier. It’s too blunt about its message, as I noted above. And I’m not crazy about the subplot, which sees Inara helping Fess, the timid son of Canton’s prickish magistrate, to lose his virginity, which the magistrate believes will help Fess learn what it means to be a man. That whole storyline struck me as way too corny, right up to the way it ends, with the son standing up to his father—and presumably giving him “what for”—to help Serenity escape.
Did any of that bother you, Donna? Or were you too busy humming, “The heee-roooo of Cannnn-tonnnn…?”
Donna: Oh, that song—and the whole wonderful idea of Jayne dealing with his unexpected legend—is absolutely top-drawer. It’s presented with such a beguiling go-for-broke energy, as if writers and performers and crew are just as delighted by the the concept as they expect us to be, and can’t wait to draw back the curtain for the big reveal. But I’m in complete agreement with your hesitation to declare “Jaynestown” an unconditional success, Noel. Although I would argue that the ending, in which Jayne wonders why anyone would die for a symbol that’s been shown to be a lie, redeems all the ham-fisted Bible stuff between Book and River, surely there was a more graceful way of getting there.
In my view, the episode has too much going on. I’m really interested in Inara’s professional ministrations toward Fess, because I enjoy learning more about her guild and the way she goes about her job. I like seeing people do things well, exercise skill. But there’s no conflict there. Everything goes as planned. And one could credibly accuse the whole subplot of being a deus ex machina to get Serenity off the planet after the magistrate has been hoodwinked for the second time. And I’m equally interested in River’s pragmatic attitude toward Book’s Bible (naturally, since it’s in my field). But Book’s response that the Bible isn’t about making sense, but about “believing in something and letting that belief be real enough to change your life … it’s about faith, and you don’t fix faith, River; it fixes you,” I find facile. A more meaty subplot exploring these issues, a longer conversation, a better-argued opposing viewpoint to Book’s, and we’d be onto something. Instead, there’s barely time to rush the idea out onto the marketplace of the episode, as it were, in order to have it play its useful role in the third act.
Adam Baldwin’s performance as the at-first reluctant hero elevates the episode, though, and renders its failings forgettable (sadly, for me, since I wish those ideas hadn’t been wasted on an episode where they couldn’t be developed). Watching Jayne’s anxieties slowly transform into opportunism (“To the mudders!” he at first responds when a toast in his name goes up, and then, happily, “To me!”) and then into a dawning sense of responsibility (“I think I really made a difference in their lives … me, Jayne Cobb!”) couldn’t be more delightful.
Speaking of too much going on, though, there’s yet another subplot in this episode we haven’t even mentioned: Kaylee and Simon and their long flirtation at the mudder bar. It’s the occasion for some good fun (I especially like the moment when Kaylee tries to ward off Mal with broad hints: “But things are going so well!”), but I can’t quite figure whether it really fits with either the themes or the rest of the action. What’s your take?
Noel: It fits, though it’s a loose fit, I think. But that’s okay, because the dynamic between Simon and Kaylee is so aptly drawn. You know what these two are like? They’re like college kids who enjoy talking to each other in the few minutes they have to themselves before and after class, but who are both too timid to do anything about this obvious attraction. And so they keep hope alive in these little stolen moments, or when they run into each other at a party—always thinking that if they talk fast enough or get drunk enough, they’ll stumble past this psychological barrier. (I’m not saying I speak from personal experience, but… okay, yeah, I do speak from personal experience.)
As for that loose fit I mentioned, I see it in the running joke about Simon never cussing. (That is, until he sees Jayne’s statue, at which point he mutters, “Son of a bitch!”) At the end of the episode, Kaylee says that Simon’s attempts to be proper are silly given that they’re flying through space, “in the black,” far from civilization. And Simon counters, “It means more out here,” because it proves he likes and respects Kaylee. The symbolism of the gesture matters to Simon and, he hopes, to Kaylee, even though it too “don’t make no sense” (if I may quote The Hero Of Canton).
So I guess there’s some of that subtlety I was looking for from “Jaynestown.” And there’s still more in the way that the episode handles Magistrate Higgins (played by Gregory Itzin). In some ways, the magistrate is a simpleton, with the way he boasts about his slaves in front of the clearly offended Inara, and in the way he disrespects her companion ceremony. (“I brought you here to bed my son, not throw him a tea party.”) But he may be more savvy than we’re led to believe, given the way he allows the “mudders” to keep Jayne’s abandoned money and to build a statue to him. One of the mudders tells Jayne that that there’s too many of them for Higgins to fight, when they’re united behind a principle. Maybe Higgins decided to let the mudders be united behind worshipping an absent messiah, rather than getting the bright idea to take matters into their own hands.
I don’t want to give the wrong impression here. I like “Jaynestown” a lot, because it’s funny, and it has something to say. But like you, I feel like it’s just a few tweaks away from being really great—from making a complicated case for and against blind faith. In other words, this here’s a spectacle might warrant more than a moment’s consideration.
Or maybe I’m just eagerly waiting for Firefly to deal with a question raised in the very first episode. As of now, Jayne is still being shown as something of galoot with a sentimental streak, and is still following Mal’s orders, even when he doesn’t want to. (“Why you still arguing what’s already been decided?” Mal says decisively to Jayne at the start of this episode, and Jayne does not buck.) But back in “Serenity,” Jayne ducked a chance to betray his shipmates because he said the money wasn’t good enough, and Mal asked him what would happen when the price was right. “That’ll be an interesting day,” Jayne said with a smile.
It will indeed. And without giving too much away, Donna, I’ll just tell you that Firefly is about to get interesting.
- I’m inordinately glad to see Serenity actually get away with their cargo. After the last several episodes, I’d started to worry that they’re not successfully completing any transactions due to one attack of conscience or another. How are they going to keep the operation going?
- Mal asks that Simon help them pose as buyers, saying that the doctor’s soft hands and lily-white, pasty appearance should be enough to fool the management. (“I’ll go,” Simon says. “Just… stop describing me.”) Despite Mal’s plans though, Simon proves to be terrible at undercover work. As he fumbles his way through his conversation with the mudders’ foreman, Wash says sarcastically, “Who is this diabolical master of disguise?”
- Spoiler-free foreshadowing of episodes to come in the lyrics to “The Ballad Of Jayne Cobb,” which includes the line, “Jayne strapped on his hat.”
- Kaylee in her way is as classless as Magistrate Higgins; she just doesn’t have any malice in her heart. No matter how much Inara tries to elevate her job as a companion, Kaylee sends her off to a gig chirping, “Bye now… Have good sex!”
- As disappointingly attenuated as the Inara subplot is, it does give her a great comedic moment when she assumes Fess’s talk of the hero of Canton is a reference to Mal: “He just has this idiotic sense of nobility, you know?”
- And as disappointing as River’s religious conversation with Book is, it’s worth it for the way she grunts, “Bible’s broken.”
- Another loose but subtle expression of the episode’s theme: The way River freaks out when she sees Book’s hair out of its ponytail. He doesn’t look right, so he loses some authority.
- Inara suggests another angle to the symbol/faith theme when she tells Fess that their time together is “just a symbol, a ritual … it means something to your father.” Is she implying that we should go through the motions of doing things the way someone else wants them done—bolstering their faith or their sense of propriety with our time and actions? Is alleviating the magistrate’s annoying embarrassment about Fess’s virginity a community-minded act? Does it perpetuate a way of thinking that doesn’t make sense (the way River feels Book’s Bible does), or is it a way of allowing those others to keep faith in what they think is important by passing up the chance to challenge it?
- On top of everything else, there’s a disturbing political subtext to “Jaynestown.” The dialogue keeps reminding us that these people are virtually slaves, like the ones who built the pyramids in Egypt, but the Serenity crew doesn’t show any interest in freeing them—only in giving them hope and a couple of small victories. Is that a kind of false consciousness in and of itself? (Boy, Karl Marx would have a field day with this episode, wouldn’t he?)
- From the “Here’s where society is at in the early 2500s” department: The mudders drink a version of the protein-packed, intoxicating “liquid bread” that the aforementioned Egyptian slaves were fed.
- From the “You don’t pay Jayne Cobb to talk pretty” department: When they come across the Jayne statue, Kaylee is disturbed that the eyes seem to follow her, and Mal is bothered that it’s “lookin’ at me like I owe him somethin’,” which prompts Jayne to grumble, “Instead of us hanging
around playing art critic ‘til I get pinched by The Man, how’s about we move away from this eerie-ass piece of work and get on with our increasingly eerie-ass day?”
Next week: We’re all “Out Of Gas.”