“In the end you’re just a drop of paint waiting to be painted.”
Jaynestown is a story about symbols, which potentially makes it one of the more interesting Firefly episodes. Our Heroes touch down on yet another poverty-stricken planet, this one home to a clay mining operation, where the indentured workers have made Jayne a folk hero for an apparently altruistic act which actually turns out to have been one of self-interest.
This sets up a theme of misreading symbol which repeats across a couple of subplots which are for the most part actually more interesting than the main plot. Book, left alone with River aboard Serenity, finds that his perception of the Bible as a symbolic text completely bypasses River’s more literal understanding: she’s determined to “fix” the text so that it makes a kind of mathematical sense. Kaylee is confused by Simon’s awkward politeness, which he sees as a symbol of civilization which becomes all the more important in the merciless depths of space. (Kaylee and Simon are adorable, by the way.) And in what feels like an utterly gratuitous piece of convenient plotting, Inara is hired by an aristocrat on the clay planet to sleep with his son and make a man of him – a symbol for the father which is reread by the son as a sign that he ought to defy his father and (completely coincidentally, of course) get Serenity out of a spot of trouble.
As I said, then, Jaynestown is potentially one of the most interesting episodes of Firefly, except that it doesn’t seem to come to any kind of conclusion about the fracturing of symbol. If one man’s crook is another man’s folk hero – if symbols are non-universal – what does this actually say about meaning and truth? Or are there as many truths as there are people? At the end of the episode, Jayne, angry and ashamed at the miners’ adulation of him, pushes down the statue they’ve erected to him: it would have been interesting to see the aftermath for the miners, to see them as people rather than as handy ciphers for the advancement of plot. The same problem plagues the Inara subplot: it feels rushed, and dovetails too neatly with the end of the main plot; it’s a mechanical cipher to get the crew of Serenity where they need to be rather than a meaningful continuation of the main theme.
Actually, though, I feel a lot more well-disposed towards the episode now than I did when I first watched it. It’s a clever way of using the show’s ensemble cast to think about a fracturation of culture, even if it doesn’t quite come off in execution. As always, the dialogue is sharp and funny, the main characters are complex and interesting (it’s nice to see Jayne spotlighted, as we tend not to see much of him), and the setting feels immediate and real. Also, the miners’ song about Jayne is really catchy.