Objects in Space is the Last Ever Firefly Episode. Thematically, it follows the format set out by the previous episode, Heart of Gold, as well as episodes like Trash, The Message and War Stories: the close-knit community on board Serenity is threatened by the disruptive individualism of the capitalist Alliance.
In this case, disruptive individualism comes in the form of Jubal Early, a bounty hunter come to recapture River for the Alliance.
What distinguishes this episode, I think, is that it turns its focus back onto the disruptor, looking at the kind of disenfranchisement that could produce someone like Jubal Early: cold-bloodedly, and yet excessively, violent, threatening murder and molestation to Serenity’s crew in exactly the right pressure points one moment and drifting into philosophical speculation the next. “Normal” society others him: yet his murderous impulses are useful to it, and so it doesn’t bother enfranchising him. What choice does he have?
The episode, in fact, provides an answer to that very question in River. Like Jubal (and these are parallels the episode makes explicitly) River is simultaneously disenfranchised (by her mental instability and her precocious intelligence) and yet desirable to the very body that created that disenfranchisement (as is evident in the Alliance’s ferocious attempts to get her back). Like Jubal, River feels profoundly unwelcome; like Jubal, she is also highly dangerous.
But, of course, the episode’s thesis lies in the difference between these characters, and it’s a thesis that, to my mind, wraps up the themes of the series rather neatly. Jubal uses his disenfranchisement to perpetuate disenfranchisement. River uses hers to protect against it: to guard her own small community against fragmentation and destruction, playing a clever trick on Jubal that gets rid of him pretty summarily. And in this way she becomes, in a small sense, re-enfranchised: the crew of the Serenity, who for much of the episode have feared her destructive potential (in War Stories, we remember, she shot three soldiers with her eyes closed), welcome her worth as someone who is different but who also has a place in their small community.
Objects in Space is a curious episode; or, rather, a curious last episode. It wraps up few of the loose ends the series gives us: the mystery of River and the experimentation she was subjected to; the tension between Mal and Inara; Simon and Kaylee’s budding relationship. Instead, and like its direct predecessor Heart of Gold, it presents us with a small and contingent victory against the forces of individualism, a precarious knife-edge, an anti-ending. That feels right for this series, I think: the idea that all we can ever really achieve is small victories, and that the disenfranchisement all Firefly‘s characters to some extent feel is in part a disenfranchisement from traditional narrative structure. (I can’t help thinking of Wash playing with the dinosaurs in the very first episode – Whedon signalling a knowingness of narrative cliches that’s persisted throughout the series.)
In summary, then, I liked this episode, in itself and as an end to Firefly. Its bittersweetness feels fitting for a series ended by the capitalist impulse it criticizes so often.