Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Firefly: “Ariel”

Illustration for article titled Firefly: “Ariel”

“Ariel” (season 1, episode 9; originally aired 11/15/2002)

Noel Murray: One of the great misconceptions about freelancing is that those of us who fly solo for a living are actually “free,” with no boss, and no contracts. We can work as much or as little as we want, and don’t have to put in any vacation requests, or sit in any time-sucking meetings. The meeting part is true, I admit. And I also don’t have to commute, which is nice. But the rest? Not so much. Successful freelancers know that making a living means taking on a heavy load of assignments, most of which we can’t turn down because we don’t want to risk becoming the second or third person that an employer calls. Freelancers also learn quickly that there are repercussions if we shop ourselves around too openly. Assignments don’t just go to the skilled; they go to the reliable, and to the loyal.

Much of Firefly is about these kinds of questions: what “freedom” means, and whether it’s something that’s really all that desirable in its purest form. In “Out Of Gas,” we saw that the further into the black Serenity goes, the less margin for error they have when it comes to the very real possibility of a life-threatening mechanical breakdown. And throughout the series we’ve seen Captain Mal make choices that go against his own desires, because as much as he’s a rugged individualist, he also needs other people, which means accommodating those other people’s needs—as we all have to do in a civil society.

So now here’s “Ariel,” in which Jayne Cobb too learns that he may be less of a free man than he’d always figured. It’s a hard lesson for him, and costs dearly—both financially, and in terms of the respect and trust of someone he admires.

The episode is built around double-crosses. When Serenity lands on the core Alliance planet Ariel to drop off Inara for her annual examination and recertification, Jayne sees a chance to make some money by handing Simon and River over to the authorities. River has been dangerously unstable—at the start of the episode, she slashes Jayne in the galley, saying he “looks better in red”—and Simon has proposed an elaborate break-in/heist at an Ariel hospital, where the Serenity crew can steal expensive medicine and Simon can sneak River into a high-tech diagnostic wing. Jayne is assigned to be their muscle, in case anything goes wrong, but unbeknownst to all, he’s already called ahead to tell an Alliance goon that he’ll be bringing the Tams right to him.

Unbeknownst to Jayne, the goon has no plans to honor his end of the arrangement. He has Jayne arrested. And Simon, unaware of Jayne’s betrayal, sees only Jayne fighting alongside him as they work towards an escape. Later, back on the ship, Jayne is prepared to pretend that everything’s as it was—only with a modicum of new mutual respect between himself and Simon, who fought bravely—but Mal figures out what must’ve happened, and he stows Jayne in an ajar airlock as Serenity soars out of the atmosphere, getting Jayne to admit what he did and to understand that betraying anyone on Serenity is the same as betraying Mal, adding, “The next time you decide to stab me in the back, have the guts to do it to my face.”


That’s the end of the double-crosses in the chronology of this episode, but there’s one more I didn’t mention, from earlier: The blue-gloved weirdoes who come to retrieve River kill every Alliance agent who spoke with the Tams—which just goes to show that having an office, a salary, and a uniform won’t necessarily keep you safe.

But that’s enough of the heavy talk about trust and freedom and such. I’ve barely mentioned that “Ariel” features a space heist! In a space hospital! Donna, I know you’re a fan of heists, and space. Were you pondering the themes of “Ariel” much, or too busy grooving on all the capering?


Donna Bowman: You’ve got me pegged there: I do love capers and space. (Hospitals, not so much.) So the rehearsed medical jargon, unflattering disguises—who knew that in the galactic future baseball caps would still signal “invisible flunky”?—and relentless improvisation kept me grinning like a blissed-out space caper geek through the first several acts. If there is a more delightful running gag in Firefly than Jayne trying to get through his speech about the cortical electrodes, I haven’t met it yet. (Almost as good: Mal mangling his speech about the patient’s pupils into a description of them as “collapsed and dilapidated.”)

But what’s even better than the big heist, with all its attendant comedy and tension, is the terrific meditation on community and trust that’s woven throughout. The Alliance hospital is vulnerable because nobody knows each other, which means people are reduced to their roles as signaled by dress and demeanor. That makes the system easy to exploit, simply by adopting the correct codes and dress and demeanor. One of my favorite moments is when the doctor accosts Mal and Zoe for going the wrong way with their gurneys and body pods, then orders them to follow him. But Mal can’t stop questioning him, even though that’s not what an paramedic would do and even though that puts the operation at risk. He’s too independent to play the part.


Jayne’s betrayal—by which I mean both the betrayal he perpetrates, and the one perpetrated on him by his Fed contact—belong to the venerable “honor among thieves” theme that we’ve seen played out in almost every episode in one way or another. What I love about watching this version is the nakedness of Adam Baldwin’s emotions. Double-crossed, he’s angry, crestfallen, and embarrassed. Rescued by Mal and Zoe (and how wonderful is that little “of course I’m here, let’s go!” head tilt that Mal gives when he blasts through the back door?), he’s suddenly hopeful that nobody noticed his lapse, and somewhat comforted for the loss of Simon and River’s bounty money by the thought that there’s still the pharmaceutical haul to be divvied up.

And then Mal, in a terrifyingly chilly exchange through the cargo-bay door, makes it clear that the only thing this crew has going for them, in contrast to the people they’re trying to do crimes to, is their commitment to each other, a moral obligation incurred by their having to face each other and give an account. Jayne doesn’t get a free pass on that because he considers himself a freelancer, as you very astutely point out. He’s joined the crew, and now he’s responsible to something bigger than himself. Everybody on the boat has something like that. For Inara, it’s the requirements of her profession; for the absent Book, a spiritual discipline. For Simon, it’s the Hippocratic oath that won’t let him pass a dying man without helping, even at the risk of his cover and, perhaps, his dream of helping River. A larger responsibility than kith and kin—now that’s some high-minded greater-good thinking. It’s the notion that community works only if people recognize limits to their self-interested pursuits.


For Mal, that bigger-than-himself thing to which he is responsible is the freedom that he’s promised not simply to seize on his own, but deliver to his community as well. Once upon a time, that community was a people, a potential political entity; now it’s down to a handful of wanderers. And in the end, as craven and desperate as Jayne’s explanations and apologies are, he acknowledges that he doesn’t want to face that community as a traitor. “Make sumpin’ up,” he begs Mal. “Don’t tell ’em what I did.” If he cares enough about how they see him, maybe there’s some hope for Jayne. Because he’s saying that he isn’t free of caring about their judgment, of how they see him. Even though he’s abused their trust, he still wants their good opinion even more than his own life. And he can give back to the community too, as when he opines that “It’s a good plan… Doc did good comin’ up with the job,” before reverting to type by claiming (falsely, I think) to care only about the money.

That’s the thing with Jayne. His opportunism means you’re never sure what’s a breakthrough and what’s a ruse. “Well hey, you’re part of my crew,” he brazenly tells Simon after the latter’s glowing report of Jayne’s heroism, and you almost get the sense he could talk himself into believing his own press, mentally dressing himself in Mal’s brown coat and finding an adequate fit. Can you rely on someone like that to be swayed by moral principle, no matter how stripped down, no matter how Hobbesian?


NM: Firefly never had the chance to become the serialized show that it probably would’ve been had it lasted longer, but I still tend to think of this episode as pivotal in defining Jayne’s story arc. You’re absolutely right to zero in on that “Don’t tell ’em what I did” from Jayne: It’s a signal that he doesn’t want to be thought of as a low-down dirty deceiver (so to speak). He’s been cultivating the image of an amoral bad-ass, but there’s a core of responsibility there, as was evident in “Jaynestown,” where he began to wish he really were The Hero Of Canton.

But while Jayne is seemingly embracing Mal’s principles, I’m not so sure the rest of the crew is as onboard as Mal may presume. This episode features several scenes of River flashing her precognitive abilities, including one where she foresees a man dying in the hospital, leading to that moment you mentioned where Simon intervenes and saves the man’s life. Yet it doesn’t take a psychic to see what River sees: that Simon belongs in this world, barking orders at other “civilized” folk.


And it’s telling that so much of Serenity’s crew—save for Mal and Zoe—is eager to see more of Ariel than its spaceport. Mal mocks the core planets, saying that he and Zoe should smile a lot as part of their disguise because, “Everyone’s rich and happy here.” But Inara raves about the museums and restaurants on Ariel, and Wash tells Zoe that there’s lots for them to do together on the planet (stuff that’s “not boring like [Inara] made it sound”). And when Simon asks for volunteers to leave the ship and gather supplies on Ariel, he doesn’t even finish his sentence before Kaylee, Jayne, and Wash raise their hands.

That’s the shameful little secret of freelancers: While people in cubicles dream of working from home, those of us who actually spend our days alone on our couches can’t wait to get out of the house and into the places where the people are.


Stray observations:

  • Points to ponder: Did River slash Jayne because she had a precognitive flash of what he was going to do later? Would Jayne had turned River in if she hadn’t slashed him? Did River create a self-fulfilling prophecy?
  • Simon is annoyed by Jayne spitting at the galley table: “Can you not do that while we’re… ever.”
  • “Ariel” goes all-in with the heist structure, right down to having Simon describe the plan in voiceover while we see images of the plan playing out. Super cool.
  • The computer graphics during the scene of River’s body scan are quite good, but in an earlier scene where Wash and Kaylee pick through a trash heap for materials, the set looks very artificial (or perhaps that was just a subtle homage to Star Trek).
  • Zoe has been largely underused in recent episodes, but she does get one of the best moments in “Ariel,” when she uses defibrillator paddles to shock the doctor detaining her and Mal, and then says, “Clear.”
  • From the “Here’s where society is at in the early 2500s” department: Apparently, Christmas hasn’t changed much, judging by the following River reverie: “Came downstairs for the shiny presents. They took the tree and the stockings. Nothing left but coal. Don’t look in the closet, either. It’s greedy. It’s not in the spirit of the holiday.”
  • From the “You don’t pay Jayne Cobb to talk pretty” department: Catching a whiff of the mush Simon prepared for River, he grunts, “Smells like crotch.”