THE SAFETY DANCE
RIVER: They weren't cows inside. They were waiting to be, but they forgot. Now they see sky and they remember what they are.
MAL: Is it bad that what she just said makes perfect sense to me?
“Safe” picked up where “Shindig” left off, with the crew of Serenity delivering an illicit cargo of cattle to a frontier planet called Jiangyin. I liked the continuity. It helped bring to life Mal’s high-stakes, hand-to-mouth quasi-criminal business. Later, when the deal to sell the black market bovines to some “disreputable men” went south when the law came blasting in to apprehend Mal’s wanted customers, I felt his frustration and desperation: “It never goes smooth! How come it never goes smooth?!”
On their way to the meet, River spooked the cows with her babbling brook mutterings. Mal barked at Simon to better manage his sister, with a tetchy tone that suggested that if forced to choose between the troublesome Tams and the livestock that was about to put food on his galley table, Serenity’s captain would choose the heifers. I loved this line:
MAL: Morbid and creepifying, I have no problem with, as long as she does it quiet like.
Simon winced. He might have been reminded of his father, whom we got to know in flashbacks. Gabriel Tam seemed to be all Ward Cleaver-good guyish when Simon and River were young, a winning mix of rectitude and grace. But later, when Simon became convinced that bad things were happening to River at her “boarding school,” and he became obsessed with saving her, his father made it clear that there was a limit to parental affections, that keeping his high society sash and his IdentCard record clean were more important to him than his kids. Gabriel Tam: A portrait of conditional love. Aboard the Serenity, where Simon thought he had found a homey safe haven for himself and his sister, the dynamic seemed to be repeating, with Mal playing the role of perturbed patrician, unwilling to renegotiate his proud attachment to a well-ordered life that could make no accommodation for the siblings’ chaotic humanity. By episode’s end, Simon would come to see – and feel -- the surprising depth of Mal’s brand of tough love.
Part of the point of “Safe” seemed to be that social structures should exist to serve individuals, not vise versa, and that they should be flexible enough to be reconfigured when they begin to subvert if not squelch individual flourishing. The visual metaphor for this ideal: Serenity’s temporary cattle pen, built from easy-to-assemble (and disassemble) component parts, whose shape and size could be customized to the herd’s shape and size and adjusted as needed to the changing shape and size of the herd itself, as well the changing needs of its individual members. I know, I know: Me with the quasi-intellectual blah blah blah. Maybe I’m not articulating it all very well. But I love thinking about the deep thoughts – even the ones I don’t agree with – steeped in the drama. Even now, Firefly is such a rich entertainment experience -- more so than most current dramas.
I also love the humanist idealism of the show, as expressed via the core characters and their relationships. Case-in-point: Simon, the son of privilege, born to be a doctor, but willing to sacrifice his social standing and individual purpose for the sake of his sister. I loved the moment when Simon’s doctor heart clicked and engaged doctor after arriving at the village and seeing their need – River’s Parable of Regained Identity, applied here to humans instead of cattle. You got the sense that the crisis at hand was a blessing inasmuch as it allowed him an opportunity to live out his calling, to express his bliss. But when the villagers accused River of being a witch, and when the town’s husky, shark-pale Patron ordered her incineration after River exposed the fact that he had murdered his predecessor to gain his office, Simon voluntarily joined her at the stake, prepared to go up in flames with her.
NEXT: Mal, The Just All Right Shepherd