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Heart of Firefly

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Objects and Outsiders

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First aired: The Signal: Season 6, Episode 11
Credits
Written by Helen Eaton
Read by Helen Eaton
Edited by Helen Eaton
EARLY
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.

Objects in Space is an episode which contrasts two characters – River, and Jubal Early – and the different ways that they “appreciate the substance of things”. This is one facet of a theme that runs through the heart of the episode - the idea that ultimately objects only have the meaning that we bring to them. A second theme in the episode is the idea of what it means to be an outsider. The two characters which can be compared in relation to this theme are, again, River and Early.

River is the first of these characters to have her say on the theme of objects, as she picks up a gun, which she sees instead as a branch:

RIVER
It’s just an object. It doesn't mean what you think.

River looks at the world differently from those around her, which is part of what makes her an outsider. She is able to see beyond the gun’s function as a means of causing injury and instead sees it as something natural and harmless. Jubal Early, in contrast, though able to appreciate its beauty, still sees a gun in terms of its originally intended function:

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.

For Early, the function of a gun is to kill and that is therefore key to the meaning a gun has for him. His attitude to guns is very much the opposite to River’s, who takes to heart Mal’s “no touching guns” injunction at the start of the episode and devises a plan to rid Serenity of Early without the need for any guns whatsoever.

Early makes a further comment on the functions of objects as he searches Serenity for River:

EARLY
This is her room.
SIMON
Yes.
EARLY
It's empty.
SIMON
I know.
EARLY
So is it still her room when it's empty? Does the room, the thing have purpose? Or do 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.

Simon is understandably confused by Early’s musings on the meaning of River’s room. Like River with the gun, Early seems able to distance himself from the conventional meanings associated with a room and look at it as an object in space, to which different meanings can be brought.

Early’s ability to imbue objects with his own meaning extends beyond inanimate objects. In one of the most shocking scenes of the series, he ties up Kaylee in the engine room and casually threatens to treat her body as an object:

EARLY
You throw a monkey wrench into my dealings in any way, your body is forfeit. Ain't nothing but a body to me, and I can find all unseemly manner of use for it. Do you understand?

River and Early are similar then, in that they do not look on objects in the conventional ways that others do. This is not only seen in their words, but also in the way they move around the ship, as Joss Whedon notes in his DVD commentary for the episode. Both characters use parts of the ship in unexpected ways that are contrary to their original purpose. River stands with her feet on railings that were designed for hands, for example, and Early lies in wait for Simon by suspending himself between two ladders. River and Early are also both very tactile in their interaction with Serenity, as River walks around barefoot and Early licks a part of the ship.

This similarity in the way the two characters treat the ship serves also to emphasise by contrast how different their motivations and intentions are. At the start of the episode, for instance, River moves through Serenity listening to the interactions between the crew members. Early later moves through the ship in order to capture his bounty and deals violently with any crew member that gets in his way. He treats each crew member differently, according to how he “reads” them, using logic with Simon and fear with Kaylee, for example. River is similarly able to read the crew and knows that Kaylee needs to be reassured before she is able to play her role in the plan to get rid of Early.

Another similarity between River and Early is that both have to some extent been designed for killing, like the gun that Early comments on in conversation with Simon. Both also seem to be damaged mentally. In River’s case, this damage is because of what was done to her to turn her into a “psychic assassin”. River’s comments about Early “doing things” to the neighbours’ pets and his mother seeing darkness in him suggest that perhaps in his case the damage to his mind was there before he became a bounty hunter.

For all their similarities though, there is a fundamental difference between the two characters in that Early imbues everything he does with malice, whereas River selflessly only wants good for the rest of the crew:

RIVER
It's okay, Early. I'm going with you.
SIMON
River, what are you—
RIVER
Don't belong. Dangerous. Like you.
RIVER (V.O.)
Can't be controlled. Can't be trusted. Everyone could just go on without me, and not have to worry. People could be what they wanted to be, could be with the people they wanted... could live simple. No secrets.
SIMON
No...
RIVER
I'll be fine. I'll be your bounty, Jubal Early. And I'll just fade away.

Here River also perceives a similarity between herself and Early in that they both “don’t belong”. The status of both characters as outsiders is illustrated visually early in the episode when Kaylee tells the rest of the crew about how River saved the day by killing three men in the assault on Niska’s skyplex. Early looks down on the crew from above as he lies on top of the ship and River listens in from below as she stands on the railings.

By the end of the episode, however, Early and River no longer have equal status as outsiders. Early has been ejected from Serenity and is “just floating” in space, literally completely disconnected from anyone or anything. In contrast, River becomes connected to Serenity and her crew in a new way:

RIVER
Permission to come aboard?
MAL
You know, you ain't quite right.
RIVER
It's the popular theory.

Mal’s words mirror River’s from earlier in the episode, when she tells Early, “You’re not right”. The difference between River and Early though is that Early, in River’s view, was not right in the sense of “not righteous”. His intentions were not honourable. River might not have the most stable mind – through no fault of her own – and be consequently potentially dangerous, but her intentions are honourable. If objects ultimately only mean whatever meaning we bring to them, then our intentions are everything.

In contrast to how Early “crawls inside” Serenity uninvited at the start of the episode, River rejoins the ship at the end with the captain’s permission. The penultimate shot of the episode links all the characters aboard Serenity together and ends on River, now for the first time properly connected to the rest of the crew and no longer an outsider.


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