Hathor Watch-Along – Firefly, S1 Ep5: “Safe”

Hello, fellow Firefly-watchers! This week our episode is “Safe,” which starts off with a flashback to Simon and River’s childhood, showing some of their family dynamic as kids. Throughout the rest of the episode we get flashbacks of Simon trying to convince his parents that River is in trouble and needs help, showing both his devotion to his sister and his parents’ relative lack of connection to their children.

The present-day plot of the episode splits off into two main branches: in one, Simon and River are captured by “hill folk” who want a doctor, then decide that River is a witch and needs to be burned at the stake; in the other, Book is shot during a deal gone bad – for once entirely unrelated to Mal and company’s doings – and, in the absence of Simon, the others on Serenity risk Alliance involvement in order to get medical attention for Book.

Once that’s taken care of, Mal and Zoe and Jayne go retrieve Simon and River – just in time – and we see that the people who call Serenity home have created a family of their own together.

There are lots of things to talk about going on in this episode! In the discussion last week, we talked a little bit about class. I think this is another episode that has a lot to examine in that arena. Jennifer’s email to me about “Safe” included some thoughts on that:

Kaylee tells Simon how hurtful his snobbery is to her with such grace. I really love that, because it makes her point (that if he thinks so little of her lifestyle, he must not think much of her) so powerful. Simon doesn’t realize the extent of his privilege, and Kaylee is the sort of person who, you know, genuinely loves the Clapper and cheap wine and that frilly dress from Shindig because it suits her taste, which hasn’t been “cultured” to match someone else’s. We really are cruel to talk about people having no taste, when what we mean is they have a different aesthetic from our own.

I think there’s also yet another class division to be seen in this episode. So far, we’ve seen people like most of Serenity‘s crew and some settlers on planets, and a kind of upper-class represented by the people at the party in “Shindig” and, in a higher bracket still, Simon’s family. In “Safe,” we see people who are so desperate for medical aid that they kidnap a doctor. We’ve talked a bit about the ways that the culture of the ‘Verse reflects Whedon’s real-life inspiration from the American Civil War, and I think there might be something worth examining in that regard in ways we see the haves and have-nots depicted in episodes like “Safe.”

There are interesting things going on in the interpersonal dynamics between various characters in this episode that might be fun to discuss, too. I remain a total sucker for Simon and River’s strong sibling bond, and I like the fondness and support for each other we see in Kaylee and Inara here, too, and the way most of the crew cares for Book. I also get a kick out of some of the less-loving stuff – Jayne’s reaction to Simon and River being left behind always cracks me the hell up. Oh, Jayne.

For me, the big hmmm thing in this episode is River’s mental state. Jennifer dislikes the way “River’s craziness steps up from ‘useless’ to ‘making trouble for everybody’,” which I can get behind, though I’d note that we do see some more of River’s mind-reading in evidence here, which does add a facet that isn’t all raving and throwing things. And we see her being genuinely happy about some things, which is nice.

The way River’s “crazy” is handled throughout the show in general is hella problematic, though, and this episode shows it pretty well. Simon is a doctor, but we see no evidence that he has any training in psychiatry or psychology. There are good plot reasons why he’s the only person treating River, and he certainly doesn’t claim that he’s an expert. But he states his diagnosis – the first and only specific diagnosis of River’s apparent mental illness in the show – paranoid schizophrenia, with certainty, and treats River entirely with drugs, also with apparent certainty that it’s the best and most effective response. There’s no evidence that he or anyone else on Serenity thinks she would benefit from therapy, or that there’s any way to treat or address mental illness beyond injections and pills, which is irritating.

Beyond that, paranoid schizophrenia doesn’t make sense as a diagnosis for River. For one, while she is apparently hallucinating and/or experiencing distorted thinking much of the time, she can hardly be described as suffering persecutory delusions. And people with paranoid schizophrenia don’t typically do the things River does. They don’t have the kinds of rapid shifts in affect and emotion that River does, and their behavior is not disruptive and television-crazy like hers. Also, it’s not caused by physical trauma to the brain. Paranoid schizophrenia is a for-real diagnosis; real life people have it. Inaccurately slapping that label on something as exaggerated and science-fictional as what’s going on with River is not cool. It’s one show, and one character, but its stuff like this that contributes to widespread cultural biases about the mentally ill.

When River tells Simon, “You gave up everything you had to find me. You found me broken,” and Simon responds that everything he has is right there, I tear up every time. And later, when Simon says, “Light it,” I pretty often actually cry. There is so much about River’s storyline that’s amazingly affecting…which just makes me madder about how I grind my teeth so much of the rest of the time over the way River’s “brokenness” is handled in the show.

So what do you think about this episode?

Next week, it’ll be time for “Our Mrs. Reynolds.”

Comments

  1. Gabriella says

    I actually liked how even though she had the hots for him, Kaylee didn’t just let go of Simon’s comments. Though I never thought it so articulately as saying someone has no taste is just a curle way of saying they have *different* taste to yours. (I’m sure by now some of you have realised that a background in media and library studies gives me a privlidge that inclines towards intellectual snobbery.)

  2. Gabriella says

    And yeah, I don’t remember Simon actually doing it, but I HATE it when people bandy around mental illness terms when tehy aren’t qualified to and/or get it grossly wrong. My sister has bipolar so this is a personal issue for me. Or when mental illness is used to descibed something that has nothing to do with mental illness, like ‘the weather is bipolar’.

  3. Clay Mechanic says

    Does any of the behind-the-scenes commentary reveal when the writers chose a canonical backstory for River? It seems as if they avoided spoilers by not making up their own minds until “War Stories”. Until that point, there doesn’t seem to be any consistency in either her behavior or the psychobabble Simon uses to explain it.

    Alternative character interpretation: Simon is way out of his depth dealing with River, and knows it. He fears that River will evicted if he’s not seen as in control, so he fabricates diagnoses. When he’s alone with River he’s visibly uncertain and experimental, but when discussing her condition with others he blusters and babbles. River’s reactions are consistent with her being aware that Simon doesn’t have a clue.

    Race portrayal failure: the darkest-skinned woman in this episode did not have to be an ignorant evangelist.

    Cultural diversity failure: musical development in the ‘Verse has apparently stagnated. In the previous episode a classical string quartet played Beethoven, and here an Irish Band plays an Irish Jig. Admittedly, the optimal solution (inventing convincing new instruments, music and dances) would be expensive but awesome. Still, why not find an existing band that plays traditional Celtic music on traditional Chinese instruments, or traditional South African music on string quartet instruments, or some other fusion? Those particular bands may be hard to hire, but in California alone there must be ensembles superior to those appearing in these two episodes.

  4. Korva says

    What is “television-crazy”? I rarely watch any TV except for documentaries so I’m cheerfully unaware of it, but I guess it can’t be good. Is it a matter of mental illness played for laughs, or raving lunatic mode, or how do the writers tend to portray “us”? As someone who has a couple of mental “issues” myself I’m not overly optimistic that they “get” what it’s like, or really care compared to making something that will sell.

  5. Keith says

    Korva,

    There are several ways that film and TV get it wrong. One is throwing together a bunch of symptoms with little regard as to whether they make sense as a diagnosis, or that may all make sense on their own, but would never all be found in one person. Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man is a good example of this one. Nobody with autism displays all the symptoms he did. Another is symptoms that don’t actually exist, or that or amazingly rare, yet somehow always seem to show up in at least one person on a psychiatric ward. In six years working in the psych. field, I never once met someone who believed he or she was some major historical figure, or really anyone other than themselves. Yet I remember “he thinks he’s Napoleon” being used in several shows as shorthand for “crazy”.

    The vast majority of actors massively over-act mental illness as well. It’s as thought they think that if they aren’t displaying some symptom or other every moment, people will forget that their character is defined by their mental illness.

    Another one that really bothers me is that the mentally ill are so often depicted as unpredictably violent towards others. The fact of the matter is that someone with a mental illness is no more likely to be violent towards others as anyone chosen at random from the population. This stereotype really bothers me, because if you see a friend or neighbor acting in a way that seems irrational to you and you’ve believed that stereotype, you’ll be afraid and withdraw. One of the strongest predictors for the long-term outlook for people with a chronic mental illness is whether they have friends. The more friends you’ll have, the better off you’ll be ten or fifteen years down the road. So a stereotype that causes the people around you to isolate you actively hurts you.

    A film that I think gets it right? Benny and Joon.

  6. Gabriella says

    Keith:
    Korva,
    The vast majority of actors massively over-act mental illness as well. It’s as thought they think that if they aren’t displaying some symptom or other every moment, people will forget that their character is defined by their mental illness.

    God, I hated this about Aus show All Saints. Rose was bipolar, and for most of her run she was played as being ultra-paranoid and underhanded – the underhanded bit of which is NOT a symptom.

  7. says

    Adding to what Keith said, crazy people in TV are typically plot devices, not real characters. That’s what’s bothering me with River. We see flashbacks to when she “was” a real person, but the current River is mostly unreachable. And I concur with others – her symptoms don’t match any diagnosis I know of. It’s a generic “crazy” portrayal that goes back to gothic novels. It isolates crazy characters so that they can’t get therapy or any sort of human interaction – which is convenient when it’s their plot device value that interests you, and not their humanness.

    Keith: One of the strongest predictors for the long-term outlook for people with a chronic mental illness is whether they have friends. The more friends you’ll have, the better off you’ll be ten or fifteen years down the road. So a stereotype that causes the people around you to isolate you actively hurts you.

    My first psychiatrist advised me to seek friends who had never experienced chronic depression, so I could “learn” how to live without depression. He also advised me this would be hard, because people who’ve never been depressed instinctively avoid people who have been. So we’re already dealing with the problem of needing to attract people who can’t relate to us in order to help ourselves, and media stereotypes are reinforcing the idea that people with mental illness are trouble. (And I’d say depression is one of the better understood and more, er, sympathetic of the chronic mental illnesses, because it’s perfectly healthy for anyone to experience it after trauma or when grieving, so many people can relate a little.)

    Clay Mechanic: Race portrayal failure: the darkest-skinned woman in this episode did not have to be an ignorant evangelist.

    Yep, I second this.

    I think the classism in this ‘verse is entirely based on pre-Civil War US. You have settlers (equivalent to the people pushing west) who are just struggling to make ends meet. You have the sort of middle class – the snobs at the ball in Shindig, comparable to plantation owners. And then you have the truly wealthy, like the Tams, comparable to the sort of American Aristocrat who can tell you which ancestor came over on the Mayflower and which block of nobles they’re connected to in the home country. It’s not a bad model for a (space) pioneering society, but there are a few things that don’t translate for me:

    –Classism uses other forms of bigotry to further its goals (that a very few should live wonderfully at the expense of many others).
    –A society that’s really vested in classism isn’t going to give up a weapon like racism without replacing it with something else. If this ‘verse is neatly color-blind, what’s the replacement for racism? Well, an interesting choice, given where Serenity takes things, would have been mental illness. What if instead of bigots analyzing last names and nose shapes for a hint that someone’s not descended from the right sort, they were analyzing personalities for signs of mental illness, and discriminating accordingly?

    Instead, we just sort of get these Western elements transplanted without a lot of thought to how it would fit together in a society 500 years from now with significant Chinese influence.

  8. Robin says

    Jayne’s reaction to Simon and River being left behind always cracks me the hell up. Oh, Jayne.

    The thing I love about Jayne’s attitude toward Simon and River is that, from a purely practical stance, he’s not wrong. It may not be the morally right thing to do when he suggests abandoning the Tams to their fate, but it most certainly would make the lives of the rest of Serenity‘s crew much less stressful.

    The way River’s mental problems are handled in the series is very problematic, but I like Clay Mechanic‘s suggestion that Simon is just making stuff up to appease the rest of the crew. It’s made pretty clear in the opening sequence of Serenity (the feature film) that he lied to them in ‘Serenity’ (the pilot episode) when he said that he paid people to get River out of the Academy. So the idea that Simon is lying his ass off to ensure their continued presence on the ship makes sense to me. It also explains why his diagnosis is so far off base. Plus, a trauma surgeon who was fast-tracked through his residency (“eight months” according to his speech in the pilot) probably wouldn’t have very strong knowledge of psychology / psychiatry.

    I think my favorite parts of this episode will forever be the scene where River brings Simon a pocketful of berries, and the burning-at-the-stake scene. “Light it” always makes me tear up, too, and that scene also gave birth to the moniker “Big Damn Heroes” that the fanbase has attached to the cast and crew who gave us the series.

  9. SunlessNick says

    Well, an interesting choice, given where Serenity takes things, would have been mental illness. What if instead of bigots analyzing last names and nose shapes for a hint that someone’s not descended from the right sort, they were analyzing personalities for signs of mental illness, and discriminating accordingly?

    Are you thinking about the Reavers there? Because it’s also an interesting choice in relation to the in-series suggestion of what the Reavers are – they’re regarded essentially as contagious psycho-killers. Such a thing might feed back into a societal idea of mental illness as a creeping taint (back to the gothic).

  10. Korva says

    Thanks for the explanation, everyone. That really sounds like a mess. In some article about Dragon Age 2 (was it here or on Border House, don’t remember) I also saw the complaint that mental illness too-frequently equals violence and sadism in entertainment. It does bother me for exactly the reason Keith mentioned: support is crucial and the last thing we need is that kind of media-spawned prejudice. If we’re not told to “get over” ourselves and stop pretending something’s wrong, we’re thought of as time bombs waiting to go off? Ugh.

  11. Clay Mechanic says

    Jennifer Kesler:

    I think the classism in this ‘verse is entirely based on pre-Civil War US. You have settlers (equivalent to the people pushing west) who are just struggling to make ends meet. You have the sort of middle class – the snobs at the ball in Shindig, comparable to plantation owners. And then you have the truly wealthy, like the Tams, comparable to the sort of American Aristocrat who can tell you which ancestor came over on the Mayflower and which block of nobles they’re connected to in the home country.

    Well, this is interesting. My interpretation was reversed: that the snobs at the ball are ‘old money’ aristocrats, while the Tams are middle class professionals. The way the senior Tams expect Simon to surpass them, and permit ‘The Academy’ to take River away, reeks of middle class parents hoping that their children will move up the ladder.

    I come from a Commonwealth country. I seem to be reading Firefly like Victorian England, where the middle classes obsessed over culture, manners and reputation in the (incorrect) belief that these were what separated them from the aristocracy. I’m also wondering how Sir Warwick Harrow from “Shindig” gained his title.

    Of course, most Firefly writers presumably grew up on US history, so any historical parallels (conscious or otherwise) would tend towards the examples you cite, not mine.

    If this ‘verse is neatly color-blind, what’s the replacement for racism? Well, an interesting choice, given where Serenity takes things, would have been mental illness.

    This is logical, especially given the panic over ‘witchcraft’ in this episode.

  12. says

    Clay Mechanic,

    That’s also a valid interpretation (the Tams being the middle classers). But interestingly, your description of the Victorian English middle class sounds exactly like the party I named as middle class – fixated on manners and titles and so on. It’s also possible the Tams are equivalent to the people in Shindig, just living on a different planet with a little bit different culture.

  13. SunlessNick says

    I’m also wondering how Sir Warwick Harrow from “Shindig” gained his title.

    If you stick with the comparison with Victorian Britain, there’s an option besides knighthood, which is baronetcy. Baronets could be considered the lowest rank of nobility, though you could be promoted to it from any class for enough achievement or bribery (there’s a bit more to it than that, but there always is when you get into noble ranks). Once got, it’s hereditary.

    I don’t know how well that fits into the ‘verse, although it seems like an easy form of nobility to slot into a culture based on outward expansion, and one that ranks class by wealth as much as ancestry.

    (Famous fictional example: Sir Charles and Sir Henry Baskerville)

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