Any episode that begins with Mal sitting naked on a rock is going to get some serious attention. Note, however, that it comes immediately after the episode where Inara and the Councilor have a lesbian scene in “War Stories”. This is the episode that serves as a balance to the apparent sexism that many felt the lesbian scene represented. In all fairness, Inara is the Companion, and thus has a character-driven reason for the naked; Mal’s situation is the one that feels more contrived in comparison. Despite that, there’s a theme at work, so Mal’s bare ass is justified. One thing that comes into play more and more in the “complication” phase of the first season (fated to end before any of the plot/character threads could be resolved) is the repeated appearance of acquaintances from Mal’s time in the war. In fact, Mal’s time in the war becomes a matter of central importance, since it begins to explore the depth of his loss of faith in humanity. This comes into play far more in “The Message”, but the teaser shows Mal putting up quite the front for his old war buddy. Mal is never that cheerful. Bringing back Saffron was a very good idea. For one thing, Christina Hendricks has an insane ability to switch from sultry to devious to lethal on a dime. It doesn’t hurt that she’s incredibly hot. Check out the scene where Mal is frisking her for weapons; she gets that little hip thing going that made millions fall in lust with her at the end of “Our Mrs. Reynolds”. Mal knows her tricks, of course, but that makes all the more fun to watch him resist her charms, ample as they are. Mal is all ready to send Saffron out into the middle of nowhere, where she desperately belongs, until she mentions her perfect little crime. Thus begins a clever series of double crosses that plays to the strength of Mal’s little band of thieves. As much as Mal might not be the perfect criminal mastermind, his team is top notch, and they prove it by outfoxing the fox. Saffron, after all, has made a fool out of dozens (if not hundreds) of men (and possibly women). It’s no small thing for Mal’s crew to pull together a successful caper against her. As much as Inara and Mal later use it as a basis for their back-up plan against Saffron, it’s not at all clear whether or not their conversation was part of the ruse. It’s far more likely that it was a legitimate argument that they used when it was convenient. This would actually play well into Mal’s psychology; he would be likely to reclassify the conversation, unpleasant and uncomfortable as it was, as a resource, rather than face the possibilities and emotions behind the words. Speaking of, this is a scene that builds on everything that happened in the first part of the season, where Mal and Inara continually revealed their feelings for one another. Inara continues to represent a kind of redemption in Mal’s eyes; his objections to her profession seem to be more concerned with the “impurity” it lends to his idealized vision of her than an actual disdain for prostitution. It’s an easy place for him to go when her disapproval puts him on the defensive. Inara might have legitimate business reasons for her questions, but if so, why go to all the trouble to use those feminine wiles on Mal? It’s suggested, though far from certain, that Inara suspects that Mal is trying to keep her to himself, arranging jobs in such a way to keep her out of the arms of other, more wealthy and “respectable” men. And she may be right. The question is whether or not Mal is aware of it. Equally, Inara may or may not be fully aware of her own reasons for wanting to get back to “civilization”. Inara bemoans the kind of work that Mal has been doing of late, which has been less than inspiring. But it’s also the kind of work that Mal is likely to get in the space he wants to roam, where he’s free of the demands of the Alliance. Metaphorically, Inara is trying to pull him away from the dangers of too much freedom (expressed by Jayne and the Reavers) towards something closer to the “middle path”. Not Alliance sympathy, of course; just something with less of a negative effect on Mal’s overall outlook on humanity. This is what places the two of them at odds, however postponed: Inara, as a major part of Mal’s redemption, needs to bring him closer to the rest of humanity and its current version of civilization. His current lack of faith in others, beyond his crew, continues to drive him further outside of human civilization. Each is trying, consciously or otherwise, to pull the other into their ideal version of the world. What they both need (and by extension, what the human ‘verse needs) is something in between. Looking at that from a more expansive view, in terms of where the series might have been going, this could have been a sign of Mal’s role with respect to River. River is dangerous because she’s very likely the culmination of everything the Alliance wanted to create as a means of ultimate control. As such, in the hands of agents of change (like a revived Independent movement), River represents a powerful weapon. Mal has the network of old war buddies and criminal elements, as well as a developing reputation; with River (and perhaps others from the Academy) as a resource, he could begin a new movement with relative ease. But for that to result in a better world, Mal would have to resist the urge to go too far, to slip humanity into the madness of the Reavers. This is where his crew comes in: they humanize Mal and represents a means of restoring his faith in people. Inara, Kaylee, Zoe…they all give him a reason to remain moral and decent, even loving. Seeing that struggle play out over several seasons would have been a fascinating and provocative commentary on the human condition. In terms of the episode, of course, it becomes part of Mal’s master plan to outwit and outlast Saffron. Certainly the negative emotions between Mal and Inara are realistic enough. Watching the episode the first time around, it’s easy to sit back and wonder why the crew would go along with the caper with such relative ease. There’s just enough resistance to make it seem plausible, but the scene works much better in retrospect, once it’s clear that the crew is playing along with an elaborate ruse. The ensuing scene between Jayne, Simon, and River picks up on the threads left on the table after “Ariel”. Jayne was conspicuously generous at the beginning of “War Stories”, but he’s not fooling the psychic assassin at all. River communicates, in her own special way, that Jayne is trying to hide his complicity in their capture. This adds a bit of tension to the end of the episode, but also an opportunity to explore Simon’s morality. Jayne is the one person he can’t stand, and the one person he has every reason to hate. If there is one moment where the crew almost breaks the ruse, it’s the critical scene between Inara and Zoe. They simply smile at each other too much while Inara dumps out the all-too-honest opinion about Mal’s decision to trust Saffron. At the same time, it’s important to wrap a lie in a mesh of truths, to make it easier to believe; in that respect, the fact that Zoe and Inara are having a relatively normal conversation before Inara rails against Mal helps to paint the right picture for Saffron. Like with “Ariel”, the caper is fun to watch, especially since they avoid the downside of exposition by showing the highlights while explaining what everyone is supposed to do. While Saffron looks hot leading Mal around the estate, the CGI team gets to show off while Jayne and Kaylee attempt to reprogram the garbage removal bin to drop into a remote location. The writers quickly jump through the hoops to get to the part where things go “not so smooth”. Jayne zaps himself, which drops him right into the waiting hands of Simon, the now very-unhappy medic. The mark, Durran Haymer, walks in on Mal and Saffron in the act of thievery, but sure enough, Durran only has eyes for Saffron. Or Yolanda, in this case. Mal is stunned, at least for a moment, at how quickly Saffron slips into the role of the pleasant and devoted wife, happy as peaches to be back in hubby’s arms. Mal’s attempt to keep on Durran’s good side, despite the fact that he’s robbing the man seconds earlier, is one of the better moments of the episode. Durran, thankfully, is not an idiot. The episode wouldn’t play out nearly so well if he were. Because Durran doesn’t believe Saffron, and because Saffron has gone to great lengths to avoid direct contact with Durran, her emotional response to getting caught is entirely sincere. It’s as if she’s fooled herself into believing that she can come back, when she’s ready, and have the relationship she wanted to have with him. She just about loses her mind when she realizes that it’s over. Even while Kaylee and Zoe manage to complete their part of the plan (if only barely), Mal is forced to keep Saffron on the mission, despite her meltdown. The escape from the estate is almost an afterthought. The real fireworks take place once they get past the pathetic security guards, on the way to the drop point. More than a few conversations in this episode are more revealing than the characters are willing to admit; a better title for this episode might have been “Naked”. Saffron certainly plays Mal for a fool, but she uses real emotion to make it happen. What separates Saffron, a woman who is about as human as Jayne (but a lot more clever and driven), from Mal is her ability to take her emotions and render them meaningless. She has feelings of deep regret, obvious attractions, wants and desires, but she dismisses them as irrelevant as soon as it becomes convenient. Scenes like the one with Durron in the estate show how easily Saffron could lose her sanity and become truly dangerous. While Mal also denies his emotions, he never truly escapes their effect. They continue to inform his decisions, even when he would prefer that they didn’t. For just a moment, the writers leave the audience wondering if Saffron got away with the scheme. The misdirection is that well done. It’s not until Inara shows up in her fetching veiled outfit that the scope of the plan comes together for everyone involved. Saffron is left to be captured, though of course, she would have gotten away eventually. Saffron would have made an interesting recurring villain, if only to see how hot she would be the next time. (If “Kevin Hill” were a better show, it would be worth watching just to see a weekly dose of Christina in action!) Back on Serenity, Jayne awakes to find himself unable to move, completely at Simon’s mercy. As mentioned, this is a pivotal moment in Simon’s characterization. He’s already shown the capacity for criminal mastery in “Ariel”, but no desire to inflict harm on those who deserve it in “War Stories”. This episode confirms his devious character turn, as he speaks very pretty words about not hurting Jayne, all the while giving Jayne a very different impression. River’s parting shot aside, Jayne had to be aware that Simon had ways, other than psychical torture or harm, to get his point across. It’s very unlikely that Jayne will be stupid enough to betray them again. Rounding out the episode’s theme of self-deception, Mal won’t admit for a second that he was actually fooled and beaten by Saffron. After all, since Inara managed to win the day, he doesn’t have to acknowledge his own mistakes at all. The final images are a nice metaphor in that regard: Mal acts like everything is fine, even though he’s walking around naked. The writers don’t take it too far, since it plays better as a concept and joke than something more serious, but there’s a definite vibe regarding an emperor and his new clothes. While it’s a lot more dense in terms of character exploration and hidden meaning than one would expect, given the straightforward nature of the plot, it’s not quite as strong as the episodes that came before it. Part of the problem is that “Out of Gas”, “Ariel”, and “War Stories” are some of the best episodes of the series. Even with the major added bonus that Saffron represents, this episode doesn’t quite delve as deeply into the complex interweaving of plot threads covered in “Ariel” and “War Stories”. This episode is really just a sequel to “Our Mrs. Reynolds”, which itself was not the deepest of episodes. But as with any “Firefly” episode, substantial layers are hidden beneath the surface. The confrontation between Mal and Inara suggests where that relationship (and possibly the series) might have been going. The interaction between Simon and Jayne reveals the changes in Simon’s character since boarding Serenity. For that matter, even the conversation between Zoe and Inara about Wash and his perceptiveness touches on the main theme: deception. It’s the extra layers that give this episode the kick that the writers intended.
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