Firefly and Western Literature
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The Man They Call Jayne

I’ve returned recently to my DVD set of Firefly, hoping to finish out the rest of the series before too much longer, and watched an episode that I hadn’t seen in quite awhile, “Jaynestown.” I remembered the episode as being entertaining but slight, but, I discovered after a more attentive viewing that it is really quite cleverly scripted as well as being entertaining, with even most of the asides reflecting on the main theme, which, surprisingly, turns out to be about faith, about the different strategies the characters use to hang on to their identities, their humanity, and to stay in touch with what keeps them civilized, even if the things they have faith in (as Kaylee puts it) “don’t mean nothing out here in the black.”

     As we’ve noted in earlier posts, the network was concerned about the western elements of Firefly, sometimes insisting on changes to eradicate western tropes. As a result, the western sometimes appears more as subtext than text in Firefly. In some cases, like the episode “Bushwhacked,” the western narrative is transformed into a general meditation on civilization and savagery, exploring a theme common to the western without using such explicit western motifs as cattle drives, train robberies, etc.

     “Jaynestown” is another episode that underplays the western elements of the series, at least in terms of the explicit use of western motifs that we see in episodes like “Heart of Gold.” Like “Bushwhacked,” “Jaynestown” is a meditation on civilization and savagery, a frontier story wearing clothing that is more science fiction than western, but, beneath the clothing is a story structure and situation that is identifiably western. The setting is a mining camp, a familiar enough western setting, but the commodity being mined here is not gold or silver but mud. The exploited workers are called “mudders,” and their hero, as revealed in a folk song, is a man who “robbed from the rich and gave to the poor,” like Robin Hood or Jesse James, but this hero is “The man they call Jayne.” That the poor mudders regard Jayne a hero is such a shock that it drives Simon to do three uncharacteristic things, curse, drink too much, and flirt with Kaylee.

     The structure of this episode comes from revisionist westerns such as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which essentially reveal the story in reverse, presenting us up front with a legendary character and a legendary event (the shooting of Liberty Valance), and then slowly revealing the truth behind the legend. In this case, Jayne’s legendary selfless act of giving to the poor is eventually revealed to be unintentional. His craft damaged, he had to jettison weight just to make his escape, including the money he’d stolen (after he had first ejected his partner in crime from the craft). That the money wound up in the hands of the mudders was an accident transformed in retrospect into an heroic act—and thus the unlikely elevation of Jayne Cobb to the status of outlaw hero.

     However, the point of the episode is that sometimes the legend is more important than the facts, and the mudders’ belief in “The man they call Jayne” inspires other heroic acts, including one man who throws himself in front of Jayne to save him from the shot fired by Jayne’s old partner (who survived the fall and who is not happy with his partner). To Jayne’s horror, the mudder dies to protect him, and despite all that has happened and been said to tarnish the legend of Jayne, it’s clear that the mudders will continue to believe in that legend.

     Earlier in the episode, Rev. Book comes across River, who is in the process of rewriting the Bible (using his personal Bible for the task) so that it will make logical and scientific sense (a process that involves additions about quantum mechanics—how else to possibly get all the animals into Noah’s ark?). “It’s not about making sense,” Rev. Book tells her, “It’s about believing in something and letting that belief change you.”

     Faith, as Rev. Book has pointed out before, is what keeps you human, even on the farthest outskirts of civilization. When Kaylee asks Simon, “What’s so important about being proper?” she echoes River’s questions about the Bible. After all, neither Simon’s proper behavior nor the stories in the Bible make sense “out here in the black.” Simon responds, “It means more out here. It’s all I have.” Simon’s proper behavior is his faith, that thing from his former life that he must hang onto. “You don’t fix faith,” Rev. Book tells River, “Faith fixes you.” Faith also “fixes” in the sense of holds in place, stabilizes, keeps a fragile identity from completely fracturing.

     In the final scene, a conversation between Jayne and Mal echoes the earlier one between Book and River, with Mal making a point fairly similar to Rev. Book’s. “Don’t make no sense,” Jayne comments, “Why’d that mudder have to go and do that?” As Mal points out, it’s not about making sense, it’s about faith, and about the necessity of faith: “It ain’t about you, Jayne. It’s about what they need.”

     In addition to being a well-constructed meditation on faith and keeping the faith (whatever it may be that you believe in) out on the frontier, this episode also contains one of my favorite scenes in the whole series, when River walks in on Rev. Book with his hair loose rather than pulled back. The sight of Book’s wild hair terrifies River, who screams and runs off and hides. Zoe tells her that it’s okay, “He’s putting the hair away,” to which River responds, “It’ll still be there. . . . Waiting.” For River, when it comes to Rev. Book’s hair, it’s not about believing—it’s about knowing!


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