[Blogged by Jeremy Grayson]
Well, it’s that time of year again – the time for me to do another multi-week project as a thrilling climax for all the work this site has doled out since the beginning of the year.
If you’ve been reading my West Wing episode reviews (and I’ve no doubt that you have, because not only are they some of the best-written reviews on the Internet, they’ve actually gotten better over time), you may recall this little tidbit I snuck into my take on “17 People”:
By definition, “17 People” is a bottle episode. And that branding alone grants it excellent company: Firefly resonated marvelously in the tightly-contained atmosphere of “Objects in Space”, while Breaking Bad found both pathos and humor in the simplistic setting of “Fly”. Mad Men‘s expert technique for subtle storytelling was on full display in “The Suitcase”, and Homicide‘s “Three Men and Adena” may be the greatest episode of any drama in the 90s.
Anything strike you as particularly interesting about the above quote? Well, you may correctly point out that it’s incredibly well-written, but I mean interesting in a sense that differentiates it from my other writing. Here’s a hint: That paragraph represents a little something we folks around here call “foreshadowing”.
Welcome to Bottle Month, my year-end Critically Touched project for 2015. As many of you may recall, last year’s year-end project involved something called a “lustrum”, and how, you may ask, can I top a month-long project that allowed me to repeatedly use the word “lustrum”? Well, I plan to try by focusing on every television fan’s favorite cost-saving network restriction: Bottle episodes!
For those unfamiliar with the term, a bottle episode refers to an episode of television in which all (or at least most) of the action takes place in a single, confined space. Bottle episodes allow for honing of tension and more concentrated emotion than episodes that feature developments in several areas at once. And many of them, as I’ve alluded to in the quote above, are quite good.
So for the next four weeks, I’m going to be looking at the four bottle episodes listed in that quote, which – not too coincidentally – make up four of my favorite bottle episodes of the “genre”. (I’ve already said my piece on “17 People”, which would round out the Top Five.) In each piece, I will attempt to examine what the episode does with the bottle structure and why it succeeds so well. Note that these articles are not meant to be full-fledged, in-depth episode reviews – merely examinations of the episodes in general, and how they play with their wonderful format. By the time this little project is over, you may have gained a greater appreciation of the ingenuity that goes in to crafting a seemingly simple and often low-budget episode of television.
So, without further ado…
[Objects in Space]
Written and directed by Joss Whedon
Original Airdate: December 13, 2002
Straight out of the gate, Firefly was Joss Whedon’s most ambitious series. This is fine on one level, as the show grips us with its clear sense of direction and nuanced characters, but retroactively harmful on another, since the show never got to fully capitalize on its potential. Instead, we’re left with 14 episodes (and later, a movie) standing freely on their own, never to form a larger picture. You might say, in fact, that these episodes are simply objects… in space.
(I will make the obligatory pause while you appreciate the sublimity of that segue.)
“Objects in Space”, the last and best episode of Firefly‘s tragically short run, is perhaps the first true sign that the series was at last beginning to grow out of its buildup stage. It’s a unique episode by any means – confined to the protagonists’ spaceship for the duration of its run, it’s as bottled as a bottle episode can be.
At least, that’s the initial pull of the story. Serenity is a large ship, but it’s infinitesimally small in comparison to the vastness of outer space. This is a comfort to Mal Reynolds and crew – when setting foot on other planets, they’re constantly on the alert for danger, but on Serenity, everything is peaceful, shut off from the remainder of the universe. Or so they think.
Enter Jubal Early, the show’s most instantly memorable one-off villain. As played by Richard Brooks (of the first few Law & Order seasons), Early is quiet, reserved, and incredibly creepy. He’s a bounty hunter out to capture River, and before he even finds his way onboard the ship, he already knows a great deal about our characters, as well as how to deal with them.
Early exudes confidence, thanks in great part to the matter-of-fact nature with which he accepts every aspect of his mission. He admires Serenity for its structural architecture, taking special note of how delicate and mechanical its “beating heart” is. Early sees things for their physicality, appreciating their natural structure without acknowledging anything beyond the surface. This leads to a few coldly disturbing moments between him and Serenity‘s crew, most of which are confounding on some emotional level, but none which come close to the horror of his encounter with Kaylee.
The scene where Early casually explains to Kaylee that he will rape her if she doesn’t follow his orders is among the most emotionally disturbing things I’ve ever seen on television. Beyond its basic implicative horror, the scene paints Early as a foe vastly more formidable than the occasionally goofy likes of Badger or Niska – he views people as simple bodies, unhindered by the thoughts of emotional souls within them. Early tells Kaylee that he will “take no pleasure” is carrying out his threat to her, but we never get the sense that he’ll take any pain in it, either.
From room to room, shipman to shipman – Kaylee, Simon, Inara – Early continually displays his knowledge of the physical and intolerance for the spiritual. His philosophizing speeches may at times sound silly, but it speaks to his unflinching belief in his own values, keying us into just how frighteningly fanatical about the material world he really is.
But when all seems lost, we have River. And River has a feel for Serenity that Early does not.
Put plainly, Early and River are two sides of the same platinum. They both have a keen understanding for the Firefly ship, but on completely different levels. To Early, Serenity is simply a large chunk of metal, devoid of soul or deeper meaning. But to River, the ship is something far more, something to be felt and cherished on a purely emotional level.
“It’s just an object,” River says about a gun she mistakes for a tree branch. “It doesn’t mean what you think.” To her, guns and branches are interchangeable on a physical level, and physicality is never something that’s interested her. (The teaser sequence features her observing each regular character in turn, registering not their surface words or expressions, but the ones they keep underneath.) Her dialogue throughout the series has often brimmed with non-sequiters, lines that underscore how she is attuned to a different wavelength than anyone else around her.
This is why the climax to “Objects in Space” – to the series in general – works so well. When an unseen River tells Early that she “is” Serenity, we believe her. River is an almost spiritual character in her own right, and we can totally buy that she has some kind of strange psychic link with the ship she’s inhabited these last 14 episodes.
And here’s where the bottle element of “Objects in Space” comes into play. With the entire episode confined to Serenity, we gain just as much a feel for the ship as River apparently does. We observe every room at some point in the episode, from the cargo bay to the kitchen to every character’s private quarters, and the camera lingers and pans over many shots with careful, loving detail. “Out of Gas” may have given us the backstory of Serenity, but no episode gives the ship itself as royal a treatment as “Objects in Space”.
Experiencing Serenity as grandly as we do, we no longer think of it as merely a space-situated object. It is, as Joss Whedon has stated on at least one or two occasions, the tenth character of the series, as crucial to understanding the messages of the show as Mal or Jayne or Zoe. And now, that tenth character has a voice: The omniscient, commanding voice of its strangest passenger, who completely throws the ship’s intruder for a loop.
Early looks panicked for the first time in the episode upon hearing Serenity‘s “voice”. But it’s not to last, as he quickly deduces her ploy with his cold logic: “You ain’t in my gorram mind,” he yells. “You’re on my gorram ship!” Early is in control again, but not for long – a blow from Mal on the ship’s outer hull sends him off Serenity forever, as insignificant an object as any he professed to have perfect comprehension of.
Faced with the vastness of space against the singularity of his human vessel, Early can conjure up nothing more than a single passive statement: “Well… here I am.” Still incapable of seeing objects past their surface value, he has no comprehensive emotional reaction to the prospect of his impending death, merely somersaulting through space with blithe and detached indifference.
On Serenity itself, though? Life crackles once again. In one long, sweeping take, the camera captures every crewmember, simultaneously reminding us of the vastness of the ship’s architecture and the intimacy it provides to each of its passengers. It stops on River, playing jacks with Kaylee, and takes an extra moment to focus on the ball she bounces. For a moment, that ball is airborne, and unattached to any fixture. It is – as you’ve probably guessed – an object in space.
But that space is not the bitter coldness of the outer cosmos. Rather, it is the warm, wonderful space of Serenity.
Next Week: Join me as we take a swat at Breaking Bad‘s “Fly”.