Firefly Episode 9: "Ariel"
I love the understated title, which suggests just a run-of-the-mill episode that you only find out at the end plans to deliver a bang. In some ways, it reminds me of Babylon 5's "Objects at Rest," though here the relationship-altering drama was quietly woven throughout the episode rather than brought out suddenly at the end, and it took place in the middle of a season rather than in a planned penultimate episode, which changes the expectations game. It's a title that says simply, "Let's hear about what happened at Ariel," with no clue as to the actual situation.
The early chatting among the crew gives us a good idea of what the core worlds are like, fleshing out earlier vague statements and the flashbacks in "Safe" with discussions of the concrete attractions found on the inner planets, as well as what Zoe at least perceives as over-regulation by the authorities. Normally we are out on the frontier; here is the world of plenty, and we understand a bit of how much Mal and those like him value their independence by the fact they fought not to become part of it.
River's stabbing Jayne across his "Blue Sun" T-shirt is a nice arc-related visual, one to which our attention is called verbally by her "He looks better in red." It also helps take the edge off Jayne's decision to turn them in for a reward, as in his mind she has clearly become dangerous. Jayne is loyal to himself, not the crew, and when he thinks the crew is starting to slip off the rails of a sensible, profitable life, he feels little compunction about starting to go his own way.
Simon's hiring of the crew is well scripted, and he lays out his plan in the time-tested manner in which capers are cinematically laid out. All these scenes were simply fun, though the brief concern about stealing medicine seemed too forced, an obvious concession to the network's concern for not drifting into glorifying crime. I mean, couldn't people hypothetically need most of the stuff they steal or smuggle? Simon is also clearly becoming more comfortable in the world in which he has found himself, earning a bit of respect even from Jayne.
Jayne's attitude toward the siblings is something I watched the show three times trying to pin down. There are three places - when Simon is saving the patient in the hospital, when they learn what happened to River's brain, and when Simon confronts McGinnis, when Adam Baldwin has to convey something entirely without words, and his success was mixed. What I caught in the first of those scenes was concern over whether they would be followed, though the simple fact the scene exists makes me suspect there was supposed to be more. In the second he seemed bothered and disgusted by what had been done to River, though he's amoral enough that it didn't deflect his plans any. It's when Simon confronts McGinnis that I think he showed a clear respect.
The plot holes, or at the very least, the parts where the plot seems badly stretched, are those which involved Jayne's betrayal plot. Why wouldn't the authorities want to nab the fugitives at the earliest possible opportunity? I can see Jayne wanting to keep them away from Mal and the others, which explains why they weren't waiting at the entrance. However, why wouldn't they be ready to just come to the recovery room, or the room with the brain scanner? The most important reason, of course, is that the plot needs Simon to get the scans; given that, we're left filling in the blanks on our own.
Those blanks can probably be filled in several different ways, but there is a bigger problem in how Jayne avoids detection by the crew afterwards. Mal knows they went out the back entrance - that's how he knows Jayne betrayed them. In fact, putting such a move into the betrayal plan may have been done by the writer just to give Mal something to go on. In any case, this means that on the way back to the ship, they went over how they were captured. Jayne had told a lie about Mal allegedly ordering a change in plans. How does this not come up? Even if it doesn't come up then, why not in the next day or so? I just don't buy it.
One forgives those flaws, though, because of the good character drama, which comes to a head at the end when Mal confronts Jayne about what he did. This, too, isn't as strong as it could have been, as for some reason the writer felt compelled to make Simon look like a naive fool right beforehand. In any case, Jayne thinks he got away with it when Mal, whose earlier comment about the payday was clearly loaded strikes him. The keelhauling scene shows a lot of who Mal is, and in the end, a bit of who Jayne is. Mal values loyalty above all, and both gives it to and expects it from his crew. This is the opposite of Jayne's attitude. At the very end, though, he begs Mal to hide his treachery from the others, showing when pressed a sense of shame and remorse that moves Mal to give him another chance. This is great stuff.
We also got our first extended look at the Hands of Blue, who kill a number of people just for having spoken with Simon and River. Their slightly off way of moving is well conceived, and the fact of their existence as well as their actions shows how important the River's secrets must be. It's too bad we didn't get to see the original resolution to all of this, though Serenity was awesome in its own right.
As you can tell, I liked this episode, despite some plausibility issues. Those issues are the only reason I can't go higher than an 8/10.
Jayne: "What are you taking this so personal for? It ain't like I ratted you out to the feds!"
Mal: "Oh, but you did. You turn on any of my crew, you turn on me! But since that's a concept you can't seem to wrap your head around then you got no place here! You did it to me, Jayne, and that's a fact."
UPDATE: After considering "Trash," I've decided to revise this rating to 10/10.