“Safe” (season 1, episode 5; originally aired 11/8/2002)
Noel: “Safe” isn’t exactly my favorite episode of Firefly, but it does contain one of my favorite scenes of the series. I’m referring to the scene in the knick-knackery on Jiangyin, where Inara makes fun of how every supply store on ever backwater planet has the same five ragdolls and the same wood carving of a duck, and Kaylee stands up for the duck—actually a swan, she insists—saying that it looks like it was “made with longing.” Then Simon comes in with River, grumbling about the “ass-end” planet they’re on, and making fun of a decorative plate that Kaylee had been considering buying for him as a gift. Simon goes too far though when he disparages Serenity, which sets Kaylee off, making her snarl that if he doesn’t think much of this life that he’s been forced to lead, then he can’t think much of those—like Kaylee—who chose it.
The scene only lasts a few minutes, but it conveys a lot: How Inara appreciates Kaylee’s enthusiasm, even when she’s not simpatico with her; how even the sweet-natured Kaylee can be pushed too far when she feels like she’s been insulted; and mostly how Simon doesn’t really have a clue how to relate to people, because he’s spent most of his life relating to one increasingly crazy person.
“Safe” serves as a quasi-origin story for Simon and River, taking us back to when they were kids (and when Simon was played by Zac Efron!), and showing us their loving-but-demanding parents, who pushed Simon into becoming a doctor, and then warned him that his obsession with what might be happening to River at the academy was putting his career at risk. But to Simon, River is the one person who’s always loved him unconditionally, and who’s ever really understood him, so while she’s become a burden, it’s a burden he shoulders without question. Part of the reason why Simon absently aggravates Kaylee at that supply store is because he’s distracted by River, constantly worried that she’s going to break something. As Mal puts it before he shoos the Tams away from Serenity for the day, “When a man engages in clandestine dealings, he has a preference for things being smooth. She makes things not be smooth.”
And yet River can be amazing, too. While Simon is disappointing Kaylee, River wanders off, and a panicked Simon goes looking for her, eventually finding River at some kind of outdoor celebration, watching the locals dance. And then River starts to dance, and enchants both Simon and the people of Jiangyin with her exuberance and grace. If you’ll pardon a personal aside, I think that the way Simon both worries about and is delighted by his sister is something that will be familiar to parents everywhere—and especially to parents of a special-needs child, as we are. I’m constantly on edge to some degree when I’m out in public with our autistic son: Is he talking too loud? Will he absentmindedly stick his hand down his pants? What will he do if someone walks up and asks him a question? But then he’ll say something funny or smart that even people who don’t know him can appreciate, and I beam. That’s why I don’t hold it against Simon that he’s so obnoxious in the shop with Kaylee. I get why he’s distracted.
I’m less enthused about “Safe” as a whole, though, for a few reasons. For one, it’s an episode that really pushes the Chinese-studded slanguage of this time and place, to the point where at times it seems like half of any given line of dialogue is either incomprehensible or filled with so many “rutting”s and “gorram”s that it’s distracting. Also, the plot takes some jarring turns, as Simon gets kidnapped by a band of poor villagers who want him to be their new doctor. The situation poses a real dilemma for Simon, who can clearly see that these people need someone like him around, though he hates the way he was brought to this place, and is too much of a snob to want to stay. But any moral/ethical choice Simon might be compelled to make is wrested from him (too quickly and cheaply, in my opinion), when Rachel from Justified shows up and accuses the mind-reading River of being a witch.
This episode also divides the action a little too much. Book gets shot during a cattle deal gone awry, and Mal orders the crew of the Serenity to leave Jiangyin immediately, despite Simon and River’s absence. The action in space is exciting, as Mal is forced to dock with an Alliance cruiser to get Book medical attention—and as we learn that our good shepherd carries some kind of mysterious super-ID-card that gets him immediate and special attention from the Alliance doctors—but it’s so far removed from what’s happening with the Tams that it almost seems arbitrary at the end when Mal orders Serenity to return and rescue them. It’s not surprising, mind you; just not really supported, dramatically speaking.
That said, the rescue is very satisfying. Serenity descends just as the villagers are preparing to burn the Tams at the stake, and Zoe declares herself and Mal to be “big damn heroes” as they free Simon and River. And it’s nice to see the misfit Simon begin to accept that maybe he belongs somewhere. It may not be the high society that his parents would’ve chosen for him, but Serenity sure beats Jiangyin, even if the only reason that Mal can give for why he came back is, “You’re on my crew. Why we still talkin’ ’bout this? Chow’s in 10. No need to dress.”
Donna, do you have any opinions on why Mal returned, and whether it’s dramatically credible? Does it have something to do with all the talk about “the will of God” and people’s feelings about religious men?
Donna: I’m not quite ready to discourse on the particular brand(s) of Christianity we see on display in the series, although I’ll admit to being saddened that the kidnappin’ settlers are Old Testament thumpers. When Firefly descends on the burning-at-the-stake scene, what we really needed was Jed Bartlet striding out there to explain that one can’t just shout “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live!” really loud and ignore all the other stuff in Exodus22 that’s a little less convenient. (Although maybe I’ve misjudged these poor abductin’ villagers, and they conscientiously refrain from charging interest for their loans, and piously execute the herdsmen who are diddling the sheep.)
Instead, let’s be sure to highlight the theme of “home” that is uppermost in “Safe.” Is there a place that we belong? Is it the place we happened to be born into, or the place where fate has deposited us? When Simon’s father bails him out, he impatiently asks his son if he’s coming home. When Doralee (played by Erica N. Tazel, or “Rachel from Justified,” as you put it)shows Simon around their makeshift infirmary, she suggests that where your journey takes you is where you should make a home. And when Book returns to Serenity, he smiles and says that it’s good to be home.
Even though the repetition makes this all a bit heavy-handed, it’s still a potent word to explore. Doralee contends that home needs to be the end of wandering. But when Mal explains to Simon that he came back because Simon’s on his crew, the captain’s making the claim that home is where your family is: the people who have accepted you, and the ones you’ve cast your lot with. Simon has a choice between the family he was born into and the one he’s fallen into. In a way he’s just ended up on Serenity in the same way he just ended up in the Jiangyin hills, by chance (though less forcibly in the former case). But it’s not fate or blood or even people needing you that makes a home. It’s where you decide to park your identity.
I like River better and better with each passing episode, and she’s particularly astounding here (as is Summer Glau playing her, with moods winking in and out like clouds crossing the sun). She gets two lines that possibly tie into this theme of home. With the cattle off the ship and milling about their corral, she explains that they weren’t cows until they got back outside; “Now they see sky, they remember what they are.” It’s not that the cows are only home on their native soil, but that the universe is divided into places that disassociate them from themselves, and places that restore and reinforce their true nature. (When Simon slags Serenity and Kaylee takes it personal, she says the same thing from the opposite side, as you noted up top: that if you don’t think much of a place and the way of life that comes with it, then you can’t think much of those who make that place and way of life home.)
Even more evocative, because it’s less direct, is River’s happy observation to Simon when he joins her on the stake: “Post-holer, digging holes for posts.” Maybe it’s because I’ve seen my dad wield a post-holer (we called ’em post-hole-diggers) to put in fencing on our land. Post-holers are implements that make boundaries, and therefore contribute to making a home. They’re for partitioning off a place that you are choosing as the place that makes you you. And for keeping others out, if that’s what you want. Simon’s right to warn River away from the post-holer in the supply store. They’re dangerous and sharp. They can cut you away from the family that raised you, and seal you in with the one you’ve found.
Noel: So overall you’d say you probably liked “Safe” more than I did?
Donna: I found the way the characters were separated from each other quasi-artificially a bit frustrating. And I’m not sure the return to rescue Simon and River was well-motivated. But being new to this series, I almost feel like I don’t know enough to dislike it. I’d always like to think there’s more going on than I can see at first glance, especially in an episode where all the pieces don’t come together narratively. So I wouldn’t say I thought it was nearly as successful as the best I’ve seen of Firefly so far. But I would say that I’m willing to believe there’s more to what the episode presents than the episode itself is able to capitalize on.
Noel: Well, I certainly don’t want to give the impression that I dislike “Safe.” As is usually the case with these things, I’m talking about very minor matters of degree. Firefly was trying something different in the way it took the western elements that were often inherent in sci-fi and brought them to the surface, which is something I usually appreciate, and give the show a lot of leeway to explore. But it proves to be a problem here, because while the “leaving a man behind” plot would feel more natural if the heroes were just riding out to another town, seeing them jet off into outer space creates a greater feeling of distance between the two storylines. Throw in the witch-fearing rednecks and… yeah, this is episode is an odd duck. Or perhaps swan. (One made with longing, naturally.)
Again though, as always, there’s a lot to enjoy here, including the warm interactions between Young Simon and Young River, as the latter recounts an elaborate fantasy scenario involving the Independents using dinosaurs (!) to cut their supply lines, such that, “We need to resort to cannibalism.” We also get more of the casual references to the technology of the time, with Simon asking his dad if he got his “wave,” and then complaining that his “source box” keeps “shorting” because it’s not “dedicated,” while his dad says that he doesn’t want Simon to be able to access unacceptable stuff “filtered in from the cortex.” (No, I can’t account for why the excess of Chinese and slang rubbed me the wrong way but all the tech-speak didn’t. The ears just want what they want, I guess.)
“Safe” also serves up a heap o’ great Mal quotes, from him insisting that his herd of cattle consumed only “milk and hay, three times a day, fed to ’em by beautiful women” to him answering the wounded Book’s call for a preacher by saying, “That’s good, you lie there and be ironical.” Then there’s the best Mal quote of the episode, when he tells Simon, concerning River, “Morbid and creepifying I got no problem with, long as she does it quiet-like.”
Beyond being funny, that line speaks to what this episode is really about, as you noted, Donna. Mal really doesn’t have a problem with “morbid and creepifying,” so long as it doesn’t get in his way. He even admires Simon after a fashion, saying that the kid’s no coward. If Simon and River are looking for a home, where they can be “safe,” they could do a lot worse than a spaceship run by a captain who’s accepting of oddballs. “Life would be simpler us not carrying ’fugees,” Jayne says at one point. “Yeah… simpler,” Mal mutters, just before heading back to Jiangyin to retrieve the missing members of his crew.
- Wash suggests that for their next load, they could skip the cows and ship some black-market beagles. (“They have smallish droppings?” Mal asks.)
- Mal’s not the only one throwing around memorable quotes in this episode. In addition to Zoe’s “big damn heroes” line (“Ain’t we just?” Mal adds), she also alerts Mal when it’s time to make his cattle deal, saying, “Your disreputable men are here.”
- Zoe also gets to tell a short but memorable story to Book, all about a man she knew who had a hole in his shoulder big enough to keep a “spare hanky in there.”
- There may or may not be a God, but know this: It’s a bad idea to try and thwart Jayne’s will.
- Some fine examples of Jayne being amoral and jerky in this episode, as he asks Mal, “You get the cash?” after their cattle deal leaves Book in critical condition; and as he loots the Tams’ belongings and mock-reads Simon’s diary. (“Dear Diary, today I was pompous and my sister was crazy.”)
- From the “You don’t pay Jayne Cobb to talk pretty” department: When Mal tells Jayne that the cows will move along just fine with gentle urging, Jayne says, “I like smackin’ ’em.”
- From the “Here’s where society is at in the early 2500s” department: Well, there are post-holers.
- Next: We’re taking two weeks off, then we’ll be back on July 20th with “Our Mrs. Reynolds,” a.k.a. “Hellooooo, Space Joan!”