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.”