Firefly (Flashback) recap: 'Absence of Conscience'

See River slash Jayne. See Jayne betray River. See Mal and co. go 'Ocean's 11' in 'Ariel' 
Ep. 09 | Aired Apr 24, 2011

DIAGNOSIS: CRAZY! Simon Tam (Sean Maher) tells his increasingly psychotic sister River (Summer Glau) that she's certifiably brain damaged. But  he can fix her. Maybe. Probably not. Look! Hands of Blue! Run!

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,
Open-ey'd Conspiracy
His time doth take.
If of life you keep a care,
Shake off slumber, and beware.
Awake, awake!

 Ariel, The Tempest*

"It's time to wake up."

Simon Tam

*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.

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