Firefly (Flashback) recap: 'Absence of Conscience'
- TV Show
Since the beginning of these Firefly Flashback recaps, I’ve harshed on the show for its depiction of religious faith as embodied by Book, the preacher with the mysterious Alliance past. In Firefly’s ninth episode, “Ariel,” which Science aired on Easter evening, Team Whedon* found an entirely new way to marginalize its Shepherd by cutting him out of the narrative altogether. With a brief bit of cough-and-you-might-miss-it dialogue, Mal explained that Book was on a spiritual retreat elsewhere in the galaxy.
And yet, strangely enough, the episode generated an interesting effect by giving Book some shore-leave, to the point that I wonder if the writers* deliberately put him on the sideline for the purpose of making us think about… something. Many things, maybe. Why we do what we do. How we manage our thoughts and feelings and desires. What we use for a moral compass, if we use one at all. How well we know our mind. The story had Mal and his crew putting on their black hats and playing the role of criminals by robbing meds from an Alliance hospital on the highly civilized inner Core planet of Ariel. Their intention: To sell the drugs at a discount to outer rim colonists who needed them but couldn’t otherwise afford it. If Book had been there, he would have opposed the plan, for sure. Ditto Inara, Serenity’s other high-minded principality; the haughty hottie was off screen for most of the affair getting her Companion’s license renewed.
In other words, “Ariel” neutralized the members of the Serenity family most likely to serve as its prudish inhibitors and filters – a conspicuous choice in an episode that also had Simon Tam discovering that River’s deteriorating mental state was due to the butchery of her limbic system, which Simon characterized (a bit reductively) as the part of the brain that allows us to willfully suppress our fears and worries. While the Superegos were way, Serenity’s criminal Ids ran wild. Chaos and catastrophe should have ensued — and they almost did. But no: “Ariel” was one of the few Firefly episodes in which Mal’s rag-tag band of lovable losers got to score a clear, emphatic win. Almost everyone got what they wanted, and some of those things were very good — and they did so by being bad. Or maybe wantonly Utilitarian. But who cares? In a corrupt, hypocritical, fixed-game culture, principles don’t count for much, and in fact, get you nowhere. Right? For an episode that was basically a funtime sci-fi heist-flick in space – Ocean’s 11 in space – “Ariel” had a lot on its mind.
*UPDATE AT 11:07 PM: For the record, “Ariel” was written by Jose Molina. In my experience covering TV, I know that individual episodes often owe their stories and words to groups of writer-producers working in collaboration, regardless of whose name is on the screen. Hence, my tendency in recaps to give authorship to “the writers” or “the producers.” Maybe that’s a flawed approach. I probably won’t be changing it, though.
ABSENCE OF CONSCIENCE
While you here do snoring lie,
His time doth take.
If of life you keep a care,
Shake off slumber, and beware.
Ariel, The Tempest*
“It’s time to wake up.”
*Yep, you’re right. Never read it.
With Book and Inara out of the picture, maybe the only one aboard Serenity who might have been counted on to play schoolmarm was Simon. After all, the good doctor was a member of respectable society. He was also on the run, trying to keep River safe from the agents pursuing her — gaunt and pasty sociopaths in saggy undertaker suits and blue latex gloves. But it was Simon who pitched Mal and Co. on the risky business of robbing the hospital — his way of paying them for helping him get inside the facility to use its fancy MRI machines. River had just slashed Jayne across the chest with a kitchen knife – see: that limbic system malfunction – and he needed to use the “3-D neuroimager” to properly diagnose her and hopefully even fix her.
NEXT: Why the Serenity galley usually smells like your laundry hamper.
Simon’s not-so-simple proposal was readily embraced. Objections were immediately run over by rationalizations. (Zoe: “It’s a government-run facility. They’d have it restocked in a matter of hours.” Wash: “It’s very sweet, stealing from the rich and selling to the poor…”) No one relished the prospect of remaining cooped up aboard Serenity during their stay on Ariel; Mal and Zoe – fearful of Alliance entanglements — had forbidden the crew from leaving the ship for R&R. (Interesting that suggested activities were things like visiting museums or swimming in bioluminescent lakes– head-clearing, soul-refining pursuits that might inspire one to healthy, higher order living instead of the lowlife hustling of Drugstore Cowboy criminality.) But the prospect of a huge score despite extreme risks was enough to short-circuit any fear of running afoul with the authorities. When you’re a wannabe Han Solo, always on the make and always-on-the-move, nothing is more motivating than the promise of a big reward – and boredom. Staying still was a one-way ticket to introspection – for a protracted staycation with the voices you’re your head — and who the hell wanted to do that? Certainly not Jayne:
JAYNE: What’s the point of coming to the Core if I can’t even get off the boat?
MAL: Could’ve gotten off with Shepherd Book at Bathgate Abbey. You could be meditating over the wonders of you rock garden right not.
JAYNE: Better than just sitting!
WASH: It is just sitting!
It was a good Jayne episode, and not just because the tactless merc got to deliver one of my favorite Firefly lines ever. Of his supper of gruel:
JAYNE: Smells like crotch.
FUN FACT! Turns out the limbic system does more than help keep your fears at bay. It’s also supports your olfaction – your sense of smell. At least Jayne’s limbic system worked…
Or did it? While at the hospital, Jayne had the job of, yes, pulling an Adam Baldwin and playing My Bodyguard to Simon and River. Instead of fulfilling his mission, he betrayed it and secretly sold the fugitive siblings out to the Feds for the bounty on their heads. Greedy much? Sure. Self-preservation? After all, Crazy Girl did try to disembowel him. Which also suggests: Revenge? All possible. We could also chalk up his actions to a lack of empathy, poor impulse control, and flawed decision making ability — all of which, by the way, falls under the auspices of the limbic system. I love the idea that River and Jayne were analogous; perhaps he, too, was brain-broken and mind-scarred, but for different reasons or causes.
Regardless, Jayne’s treachery blew up in his face. First, he was double-crossed by an Alliance stooge. Then, he and River and Simon were nearly killed when the episode’s “hell for breakfast” baddies, the Hands of Blue dudes (“two by two… hands of blue… two by two… hands of blue…”), arrived and began slaughtering everyone with cool reptilian efficiency using retractable chopsticks that emitted aneurism-inducing supersonic frequencies. Were the Hands of Blue a peek at River’s Academy destiny? Or was the Academy trying to improve upon their killing machine formula with River and couldn’t? [“Ariel” was one of the few episodes of Firefly that I watched during its original run on Fox in 2002, I recall being instantly engaged by these chilling ghouls and wanting more of them. In general, I think Firefly might have been helped if it had been more aggressive about doling out the River/Blue Hands “mythology” from the start.]
NEXT: Mal the (dirty) dog whisperer brings Jayne to heel
Back aboard Serenity, the Tams — oblivious to Jayne’s betrayal — praised the thug’s courage and commitment to their safety. But Simon’s plan was foolproof – even Jayne had said so – and while everyone got what they wanted, there were hitches where shouldn’t have been hitches, and Mal knew who made them. Alone with Jayne, Mal whacked the hired gun across his mug, dragged him into the airlock and threatened to throw him overboard into space. At the beginning of the episode, Mal had made it clear to Simon that he’d cut both he and his sister loose if the doctor couldn’t keep River on leash. Simon rallied; his River-remedying plan benefited all the members of his makeshift Serenity family/society, and not just financially. Simon made them feel safer, and more, affirmed Mal’s all-for-one/one-for-all ethos. At the end of the episode, Mal needed to make a similar impression on Jayne. He needed to inspire the dimwitted brute to change. Like a parent teaching a petulant child via discipline. Like a pet owner training his dog not to do his business in the house by rubbing his nose in it. Or something like that. Jayne got the message. He confessed and apologized and even seemed to accept his fate. He begged Mal to not tell the Tams how he had betrayed them. Then Mal issued a reprieve:
MAL: Next time you stab me in the back, have the balls to do it to my face.
THEORY! Serenity is a metaphor for the mind of man. Jayne is a metaphor for debilitating fear and angst. Mal shoving Jayne to the rear of the ship and nearly off the boat is a metaphor for the limbic system.* Yes?
*Everything I know from the limbic system I know from Wikipedia. And based on what I know from about the limbic system from Wikipedia… I’m not terribly convinced Team Firefly knew much more.
The episode ended with Simon again proving his brilliance — and his commitment to rehabbing his sister’s life and mind — by preparing a serum designed to help repair her limbic system and restore her some control over her choices and feelings, to help her reintegrate the fragmented components of her psyche. Here, perhaps, we see the episode’s link to Sylvia Path’s classic poem “Ariel” — the cry of a scattered, overwhelmed, damaged woman yearning for coherence and healing. Here, perhaps we get the link to the Ariel of The Tempest, the trapped spirit seeking liberation and renewed life.
RIVER: Is it time to go asleep again?
SIMON: No, it’s time to wake up.
A kinda-sorta resurrection miracle. On Easter, even. Go figure.