‘Firefly’ Rewind – Episode 5: ‘Safe’

Senior Television Writer
07.06.10 44 Comments

Once again, we’re spending Tuesdays this summer going back through Joss Whedon’s sci-fi/Western mash-up “Firefly.” A review of episode five, “Safe,” coming up just as soon as I tip you off to my cunningly-concealed herd of cows…

“This isn’t our home.” -Simon
“If it isn’t here, where is it?” -Doralee

The “Firefly” pilot set up Mal and Simon as spiritual opposites: the outlaw vs. the city slicker, the fighter vs. the healer, the cynical wisecracker vs. the earnest straight man, etc. But what we learn in “Safe” is that, for all their surface differences, they share perhaps the most important thing in common: they have lost everything in the universe they care about except the people on that ship.

“Safe” is a fine example of the value of showing over telling. In both “Serenity” and “The Train Job,” there was a lot of talk about all Simon had sacrificed to save River from The Academy, but the flashbacks of “Safe” allow us to see it for ourselves. Young Simon(*) had an adoring sister/playmate, a doting mother and father, all of his needs attended to and a place in society’s elite. Now he’s a fugitive, stuck on a ship full of dirty pirates who don’t much like him, traveling to one backwards, superstitious, dangerous world after another, and all for what? To save the sister who’s just barely sane enough to recognize how crazy and “broken” she’s become.

(*) Played in the first flashback by, of all people, young Zac Efron, doing a fine impression of Sean Maher.

But as frustrated and miserable as Simon is on Serenity, or during his kidnapping misadventure, you also see that he has no regrets – that his love for River, even this version of River, is so strong that he would do it all over again.

Yet at the same time, that love for his sister is all he has left, so when it becomes clear that she’s going to be burned at the stake as a witch (and for knowing a little too much about how the community’s current leader came to be in charge), he gets up on the platform with her. At first it’s an attempt to save her, but when it becomes clear that he can’t, he stays. He’s her big brother, and he can’t let her die alone like that, and he also has nothing worth living for if she’s gone. It’s a really powerful moment, and well-played by Sean Maher.

In the end, though, Mal comes back in the nick of time to save the day, and he explains in simple, unsentimental language why he did it: “You’re on my crew.” He and Mal may not like each other, Jayne may be a shaved ape who steals his stuff when it looks like he’s not coming back alive, River may be a few sandwiches shy of a picnic and life may always be dangerous, but to the surprise of both Mal and Simon, he really is part of the crew now, which makes Serenity his home, and the rest of the crew his family. It’s nothing like the home and family he gave up for River’s sake, but it’s a start.

Some other thoughts on “Safe”:

  • River and Simon wind up in the hands of their kidnappers longer than expected because of the shooting of Shepherd Book, which reveals two interesting character points. First is that Mal’s hatred of the Alliance is so great that he would risk a man’s life rather than take him to an Alliance facility for help. Second is that whatever Book was in life before he became a man of the cloth, it was a position that still holds a lot of sway with the Alliance.  
  • Ron Glass, by the way, is very good as a clearly frightened Book responds to Zoe’s line about Simon not needing to hurry for such a small injury by saying, “He could… hurry a little.”
  • It speaks well of Simon that even while kidnapped, he recognizes the need for his services in the little mountain community and quickly gets to work in the makeshift hospital.
  • Like Kaylee’s “Captain Tightpants” line, Zoe’s “Big damn heroes, sir” became one of the series’ catchphrases that lived on among the fans long after the cancellation.
  • We’re getting to the point where the non-airing of “Serenity” was less of a big deal, but Kaylee does briefly reference how Book held her hand after she was shot, which Fox viewers of course had no idea about.
  • Mrs. Tam is played by Isabella Hoffman, the second alum of the Judd Hirsch sitcom to have a notable role on a Whedon show. (Harry Groener, of course, played Mayor Wilkins on “Buffy.”) I’m assuming this is a coincidence, but if Jere Burns gets cast on Joss’s next show, look out.
  • This is also two episodes in a row where Kaylee’s feelings are badly hurt by a man she admires, this time with Simon both insulting the plate she thought would be a gift for him (albeit with him ignorant to that fact) and then Serenity itself. It’s interesting to see the push-pull of the Kaylee/Simon relationship. Every Unresolved Sexual Tension scenario in TV needs some kind of artifical obstacle, and here it’s the huge difference in class – and given the inner vs. outer planets society that the show has established, it’s more plausible than a lot of excuses on other shows.
  • Jayne pretending to read aloud from Simon’s diary (“Today I was pompous and my sister was crazy”) is one of Adam Baldwin’s funnier moments so far on the series.
  • The show wasn’t around long enough to see if Whedon was going to take it in a more serialized direction, but it’s nice to see smaller bits of ongoing storytelling, like the cows from the end of “Shindig” being a key part of the plot here.

Coming up next: “Our Mrs. Reynolds,” featuring the always-marvelous Christina Hendricks as Saffron.

What did everybody else think?

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