In the fourteenth (and final) episode of Firefly, Whedon tackles the complicated and sometimes disturbing implications of a world of existentialist absurdism as a bounty hunter brings his particularly frightening brand of terror onboard Serenity in order to collect the reward on River and Simon. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Firefly.
We are all just objects in space.
I have a long, single quote tattooed on my left arm. “For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate.” It’s the final line of Albert Camus’s The Stranger, a book I read my senior year in high school that has, quite literally, changed my entire life.
I’ve written pretty extensively about what happened that led me to challenge my own thoughts about God, from my Mormon experience during Twilight and how that pervasive ideology disturbed me, to my rejection from the Catholic church. The truth is that religion never really deserved to be the source of my ire and anger. Religion can be a problem to oppressed groups and what’s happened in politics here in America has demonstrated how righteous, religious anger can effect legislation in our country. Still, reading The Stranger unseated a new thought in my mind: What if my problem isn’t with religion or ideology, but with how religion attempts to explain the world? Why can’t religion satisfy the vacancy inside my chest, despite that I was trying so hard?
The Stranger (which I highly recommend everyone read, and then follow it up with The Plague) was the book that finally seemed to explain why I felt so strange in the world and why these pillars of society made no sense to me.
I’m explaining this because it’s important to acknowledge that an existential episode of Firefly is like intellectual porn to me. It’s done brilliantly, so I understand how incredibly biased I am in my love of “Objects in Space,” so I welcome people to rap me on the head and yell at me if they think they have another perspective on this I should listen to.
It’s clear that this episode was not meant to end the series, but Whedon wrote one powerful episode to go out on. It was sort of inevitable that we’d have to deal with River and Simon in the end, so “Objects in Space” opens on River herself, as she walks through Serenity. For the first time, we get a complete look at her perspective, of how the people around her “speak” to her. It’s a visual explanation for her ability to read minds and it’s frightening because it’s so jarring. Unfortunately for her, she sees how she’s affected the crew, specifically her brother. She sees Jayne confessing his betrayal again; and she sees Book confess that his past is not at all what it seems. (Jesus, WHO IS BOOK. I really hope Serenity answers this.)
As she moves through the ship, reading the people inside and learning what they’re really thinking, she moves down to the cargo bay, and Whedon’s first inclinations towards existentialist thought appear: River finds a a branch on the ground. “It’s just an object. Doesn’t mean what you think.”
River divorces the physical world from the meaning it’s been given and it was my first sign that this episode wasn’t going to be anything like the past thirteen. The crew is upset that River was holding a loaded weapon, but I couldn’t help but feel that she was simply an easy target for them. She always has been. We know why she slashed Jayne’s chest in “Ariel” and we know that she’s been written off as “crazy” far too often. I wanted the vindication this episode brings for River, because she’s discarded too many times.
Thus begins the suspense. This episode is incredibly hard to watch; the claustrophobic silence is unsettling. When the camera pans up to the bounty hunter, Jubal Early, watching the ship, we are entirely unprepared for who he is. He is much more than just a local bounty hunter. For Whedon, he is the polar opposite to River. Both recognize the inherent absurdity in the universe. (Now, looking back, River’s scenes with Book make even more sense, especially when she tears up his Bible.) River chooses to appreciate the world around her, whereas as Early accepts the absurdity of the universe, but chooses to act out his life to a fatalistic, amoral end.
Before we get to Early, though, I love the scene between Simon and Kaylee, where we see him speak the exact words she “read” earlier that episode. So she can not only read their minds but predict the future. I know we knew this, but adding this detail in was a nice bit of symmetry.
Jubal Early. I know quite a few of you said that Niska was the most terrifying villain in the series, but you’re all wrong. Early is. His frank confidence, combined with his absurdism (that lends itself easily to nihilism), is the scariest thing in the entire series.
A moment of criticism: My brain immediately shut off when he threatened to rape Kaylee. I wish that wasn’t there. Not only is it distracting, it’s just too disturbing to me. I understand that it’s the logical extension of his nihilism. The only thing that Early seems to exist on is power and there is no greater display of male power than the act of rape. Even further, they’re all just “objects in space” to Early, and his line (“Ain’t nothing but a body to me”) is evidence of that. I get that. Still, I just didn’t want to see the scene at all.
Early’s true purpose (for Whedon, at least) comes after he’s disabled Book and confronts Simon. Their conversation takes a turn for the strange when Early sees that River is not in her room.
EARLY: So is it still he room when it’s empty? Does the room, the thing have purpose? Or are we…what’s the word…
SIMON: I really can’t help you.
EARLY: The plan is to take your sister, get the reward, which is substantial. “Imbue.” That’s the word.
Early knows that we imbue meanings in a meaningless world. In fact, that is all we really can do in this world; what frightens us is that Early chooses to act his meanings in the most destructive way possible. In the end, to Early, none of this matters. The universe will go on without him. He exists, he gives his own life meaning, and that’s it.
Whedon briefly contrasts Early’s nihilism with River when Early comments on his gun:
EARLY: I think this is very pretty. I like the weight of it.
SIMON: I thought the intention was not to kill me.
EARLY: You’re missing the point. The design. Of the thing. It’s functional.
Again, River sees a gun and imbues a meaning of natural beauty; Early sees a gun and imbues a function of death, destruction, and pain.
He uses this power, this certainty, to convince Simon to help him find his sister. As he walks about Serenity, he makes an important statement about the physicality of the ship:
I like the way the walls go out. Gives you an open feeling. Firefly’s a good design. People don’t appreciate the substance of things. Objects in space. People miss out on what’s solid.
We are all just objects in space. Do we miss out on the substance of it all?
The problem is that Early acts out his appreciation of the substance of these objects in the worst way possible, hitting Inara and then upping the misogyny by saying it isn’t right for the “weaker” gender to be able to have children. Again, Early divorces meaning when it’s convenient for him and when it comes to women, River included, they mean nothing to him. They’re obstacles, inconveniences, things to defeat and overpower.
But Early’s personal philosophy is directly challenged when he announces to the entire ship that if River doesn’t show herself, he will shoot Simon in the head.
River replies: “You’re wrong, Early.”
In perhaps the most perplexing and creepy scene in the entire show, River explains exactly what happened:
Wrong about River. River’s not on the ship. They didn’t want her here, but she couldn’t make herself leave, so she melted. Melted away. They didn’t know she could do that…but she did.
I have goosebumps just typing this. I sincerely believed we were being shown River’s true power: her ability to transform her own physical properties. It’s not that far-fetched, considering what else she can do, but the poetic reality of it is almost better than if she had actually done so. For River, Serenity is imbued with a meaning that Early can never take from her: it is her home. Functionally and emotionally, it is where she belongs.
River begins to visit the crew, her only friends, telling them exactly what they need to do. She sets these chess pieces in order for her final move. Her power to “read” minds proves infinitely valuable, as she begins to get right to the problem of Early: he has a darkness in him. That darkness, his fatalistic existentialism, has motivated him to pursue the darkest corners of the human condition.
Brutal. I love you, River. Oh, by the way, River never became Serenity. She’s actually sitting in Early’s ship. BOOYAH, YOU ASSHOLE.
But this victorious moment is overshadowed when River says that she is going to solve this problem by staying on Early’s ship. She’s going to go with him.
Don’t belong. Dangerous. Like you. Can’t be controlled. Can’t be trusted. Everybody could just go on without me, not have to worry. People could be who they wanted to be, could be with the people they wanted…could live simple. No secrets.
Her ability to read people has shown her that for the entire time she’s been on Serenity, she’s inherently contributed to nearly every problem or complication they’ve seen thus far. In a moment of supreme, depressing understanding, she decides to give herself up.
Simon isn’t having it and, like River, he decides he’d rather sacrifice himself than lose his sister. He attacks Early, who shoots him in the leg. Using this opportunity to escape, he leaves Serenity, only to discover that Mal’s part of the plan was to wait until Early left and then…well, he boots him into space. Literally.
Even if River never intended to leave Serenity, her lines still hold a poignant reality to them. I’m not sure they should be discounted as a mere con. She knows she’s been difficult, but when Mal invites her back on board, she also knows that she’s found a home, flaws and all.
Early has found his home floating in space; his finally statement seems to suggest his acceptance of his fate. “Well….here I am…” he says. It’s a statement of reality and a statement of identity. His nihilism has followed to its logical extension and his death ratifies it all.
We are all just objects in space.
- “That ain’t a Shepherd.” WELL THEN JESUS FUCKING CHRIST, WHO IS HE. I HATE YOU FOREVER, FOX.
- “I can’t keep track of her when she’s NOT incorporeally possessing a spaceship, don’t look at me–”
- “Well, my sister’s a ship, we had a complicated childhood.”
- “What about his face? Is his face wearing armor?”
- “Can I mop your brow? I’m at the ready with the fearsome brow mopping.”
- I seriously cannot believe this is almost over. It’s goddamn depressing to think about.
The Serenity liveblog takes place tomorrow at 11am PST. I’ll post the actually blog later today with instructions.
Ugh. Please never end.