Finally, an episode about River! Up until now River has been like a weird little sprite who wanders on set every once in a while to do something strange and then wanders off again. In “Safe” she finally gets some more screen time and even a little backstory. I do love a good backstory.
We start with a flashback to Simon and River’s childhood. It’s quite idyllic, Simon studying, River playing soldier and Dad coming in to be indulgent and encouraging. We see that River was different even when she was younger as she offhandedly remarks that she has memorized her dance already and disputes the conclusions in Simon’s textbook (her playing war with dinosaurs and possible cannibalism is actually kind of normal for a kid). Cut to the present with River being volatile and Mal coming in to chide Simon for not controlling her better and we get an idea of just how far the scary scientists brought her down.
After the credits everyone gets to go down to the planet of the week. In the general store Kaylee finally admits to Inara that she has a crush on Simon, then he comes in acting like a cranky jackass and hurts her feelings by insulting Serenity. While he tries unsuccessfully to save face, River wanders off to join a dance. Simon has to smile at seeing her happy and carefree for once.
Elsewhere, Mal’s cattle negotiations get complicated. There follows a back and forth with a shootout at the corral and River folk dancing which culminates in Shepherd Book getting shot and Simon getting kidnapped. As you can see, this particular episode starts with a bang. I’m doing my best to break it up, but in my head it is one really long run-on sentence. OK, Mal takes Book back to the ship and sends Wash out to find Simon. Simon is being hustled through the woods and gets cracked on the head. Wash comes back without him and says he found a warning about hill people kidnapping people with useful skills, like medical training. Simon panics when he sees River following him and she gets caught too, then they both see the ship take off without them. Somewhere in there was another flashback about Simon trying to convince his parents that River was sending secret distress calls from her new “school.” Done.
Things slow down a bit from here on out.
There is a very sweet scene with Zoe and Book where she checks his wounds and tries to convince him that he’ll be just fine. Her bedside manner is warm and confident – I know I’d want her by my side if I were ever shot. We really get to see how the group has come to care for each other in this episode. While Zoe is caring for Book, Mal actually agrees to go to the nearest Alliance ship for medical help for him. We also get a tantalizing hint that the Shepherd has a backstory we really want to learn more about. The Alliance representatives are all ready to kick them out with no assistance until Book shows them his ident card, at which point they spring into action. Mal later tries to find out just what that was all about, but Book ain’t talkin’.
Down with the hill people, Simon is conflicted. He is pissed about being abducted, but everyone is nice and they really do need a doctor. River even seems to relax, talking mostly lucidly about being sorry for making Simon give up his life. For a brief time everything seems nice. Then we find out that the hill people are religious zealots who think River is a witch who needs to be burned at the stake. Silly zealots. I find them both fascinating and repellant.
Simon tries to save his sister from the stake, and when that fails he joins her. As they steel themselves for the fire, Serenity swoops in to save the day making Mal and Zoe “big damn heros.” On the ship Simon tries to make sense of why they would come back and Mal answers simply “You’re on my crew,” end of story, no more argument, let’s go eat.