Firefly Episode 5: "Safe"
I can say the latter with some confidence, as Whedon has said that everything he does is ultimately about family. This is quite literal in the case of Simon and River, the brother who has given up everything to save his sister. Through flashbacks throughout this episode, we found out just how much that was, but also why a dedicated and sincere person such as Simon felt no other options. It's striking how he is more attuned to his sister than their parents are, picking up on clues in the letters that they simply cannot bring themselves to see.
It was also good to see the contrast between their lives in Alliance territory and their current situation on Serenity. A minor lead-in to this was River playing war on the side of the Alliance rather than the Independents favored by their crewmates, but it's also visible in the different levels of technology and general infrastructure and security we see on the inner planets, which I'm pretty sure are presented here for the first time. Simon's stress quite naturally focuses on that when he boils over and rants to Kaylee about his situation, alienating her by demeaning the life she chose and loves.
Simon, however, isn't the only one who gets to show some stress, and Mal is clearly frayed by hauling a herd of cattle and worried about River's effects on them. With characteristic bluntness he orders Simon to keep her quiet, and then to take her away from the area during the sale to their contacts on Jinyiang. That the latter decision leads directly to their kidnapping is a nice touch, one that the show addresses by showing a brief look of self-recrimination on Mal's part before he decisively moves forward, intent on finding a medical facility to save Book's life.
Summer Glau does some of her best work of the series in this episode, shifting between the highly disturbed girl she usually is and the happy teenager of the village dance, as well as the caring and anguished younger sister when she tells Simon she understands what his concern for her has cost him. When Simon tried to stop the hill folk from burning her, his attempts are true to his character and perfectly ineffective, for this is no more his world than Serenity. He is a brilliant doctor, but cannot communicate in the local fashion. Finally, we get yet another sign, this one very clear, that Book is more than just a Shepherd, though sadly that thread was never developed.
The ending undoubtedly merits some comparison with that in "Objects in Space," the final episode. Whedon said in the commentary track for the pilot that the acceptance of River by the crew allowed the series to become an arc of sorts, with that as its denouement. It was this episode, however, when Mal fully acted as if they were part of his crew - even calling Simon that at the end - and not just refugees whom he was sheltering, as in "Bushwhacked." This is a thread to watch in the rest of the show's run.
Altogether, this was a solid character outing which probably made for one of the show's best installments. I'm giving it 8/10.
Zoe: "You sanguine about the kind of reception we're apt to receive on an Alliance ship, captain?"
Mal: "Absolutely. What's 'sanguine' mean?"
Zoe: "Sanguine. Hopeful. Plus, point of interest, it also means 'bloody'."
Mal: "Well, that pretty much covers all the options, don't it?"