Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Firefly: Ariel Review

Simon Tam (better known in some circles as the old Zac Efron) and his sister River have been among Firefly's most intriguing characters. Not necessarily due to the chops of the actors that portray them but rather the recurring impact their histories have on the overarching plot of the show. While the back-stories for Firefly's supporting characters range from mysterious allusions (Shepard Book, for example) to entire episodes (Jaynestown, for example), the recurring impact of the Tams' suggests that theirs was meant to be one of the core drivers for the series.

In Ariel, the mystery behind what happened to River is deepened slightly as Simon employs the crew to help him sneak her into a state-of-the-art hospital on Ariel, a core planet in Alliance space. While there, Simon discovers that River has undergone multiple surgeries on her brain which, combined with the increasingly super-natural abilities of the young lady, is making this side story downright Fringe-ian. Where this will take us by the season's (and series') end is certainly addicting but I don't hold out hope for a satisfying conclusion given the premature nature of the show's demise.

Were Ariel focused purely on this discovery (and the attendant espionage fun involved in breaking the siblings into the hospital), it would be an enjoyable episode. But there is an additional arc revolving around Jayne's attempts to cash in on the Tam's reward that makes Ariel doubly engrossing. In Serenity, Jayne tells Mal that the day when the money is too good to pass up will be 'interesting' and boy is it ever. The reveal of his duplicity is shocking and his discovery by Mal is gut-wrenching. Adam Baldwin has managed to give Jayne's character enough nuance that we root for him despite his treason.

The episode starts with a job-less crew arriving at Ariel for Inara to have some sort of standard companion health check. (Sure hope she's been using the appropriate protection.) After some griping in the hold they are offered a job by Simon. In exchange for their assistance in breaking him and sister-dear into the Alliance hospital, he will give them information on the location and types of valuable medical supplies which can then be sold off for a profit. The 'stealing from the rich, selling to the poor' angle catches the crew's fancy and they sign on.

Disguised with scripts memorized.
A heist montage that would be at home in an Ocean's 11 movie then ensues with the juxtaposition of Simon's plan with the actual execution of it. The scenes of Zoe, Mal, and Jayne attempting to memorize their scripts are hilarious, particularly when we then see Jayne dutifully recite his lines despite not having to. While not as intricate as the gambits found in Mission Impossible or the aforementioned Ocean's movies, Ariel's infiltration is clever and well-paced, making Jayne's eventual betrayal all the more shocking.

Ariel also does a nice job of exposing us to a less bewildered Simon. Ariel is his world and his poise and resolve is refreshing after 8 episodes of him floundering on dust-ball planets and cowboy ships. The scene where he saves a dying patient (right place at the right time) is powerful and his courage in the face of his Alliance captor is exhilarating. For the first time since we met these characters in Serenity, it actually seems feasible that Simon was able to rescue his sister by himself.

In control.
By Ariel's climax, the episode has transformed from fun heist gig to a survival horror escape from the mysterious hands of blue, two by two. These villains teeter on the edge of campy absurdity but, thanks to good writing and tight directing (to say nothing of top-notch screaming), they are effectively scary. While not in the same league as the Reavers, these Alliance hit men are enough to keep the knuckles white through the eventual escape. And the teamwork required from Jayne and Simon to survive makes Jayne's regret feel more raw.

Jayne caught.
As mentioned above, the concluding showdown between Mal and Jayne in the ship's hold is the cherry on top of a strong episode. There is something breathtakingly noble about Mal's dedication to his crew and Nathan Fillion embodies this loyalty of leadership fully. While not intentionally a meta wink at the audience, the line between the ragtag crew and the ragtag show is increasingly blurred, making the emotional connections we feel for the characters easily transferable to the cast that portrays them. In this light, Firefly is something of a pop-culture anomaly: it is an unintentionally meta piece of entertainment. In an industry choking on smug knowing winks, Firefly is a breathe of fresh air, warts and all.

No comments:

Post a Comment