The obvious central theme and allusion in “Safe” is that of contrasting families, both traditional and non-traditional. Five episodes in was a good time to do such an episode, as its clear the cast was getting more comfortable with one another, and with their roles on the ship. “Safe” is about presenting Serenity’s crew as more than just individual elements interacting with one another, but as something more congealed.
Writer Drew Z. Greenberg and director Michael Grossman hit the nail dead on in the contrast between Simon and River’s present day situation and their past life at home with their socialite parents. We move from an idyllic scene of the two siblings as children (Zac Efron grew up a lot huh?) to more heartbreaking stuff, as Simon’s drive to discover what is happening to River flies in the face of his father and mothers desire to simply let things be. It culminates in a moment where the elder Tam essentially threatens to disown Simon if he doesn’t stray from his current course, placing the family name and its reputation above everything else, even evidence that his daughter is being abused. “I will not come for you” he states bluntly, to the idea of having to bail his son out of jail again.
The contrast with the present day events of “Safe” is clear. Simon’s father was willing to abandon his son over the apparent social embarrassment of a brush with the law. When River is threatened by an angry mob looking to burn her to death, Simon voluntarily joins her on the stake. Nothing will make him leave his sister, and that’s what marks him out from his father. For Simon, family is that blood tie, and not just the name. They are close in a way that they never were with their parents, as we see repeatedly in “Safe”, especially in the hodgeberries scene. It’s actually one of the first scenes – maybe after the “You’re a dummy” scene in “Serenity” – where we really do understand that these two are brother and sister, with a closeness that makes Simon’s desire to protect and care for River completely understandable, important to show as a bookend to an episode where River’s mental problems seem initially to be an unbreakable barrier in their relationship.
And of course, Simon and River get saved by their new found family, their figurative father, mother and angry big brother or uncle, bursting into the scene guns ready, willing to risk their own safety to come to the rescue. Later Simon is somewhat bewildered by what happened, asking Mal why he came for him, perhaps remembering how his father, who has that blood tie, threatened not to over something comparatively trivial. Mal is confused, even slightly irritated, at the question, stating simply “You’re on my crew. Why are we still talking about this?” We can read between the lines easily enough, though not so easily that it becomes a blunt hammer of symbolism. Simon might still be new to this world and to Serenity, but he has a place on the ship, and that makes him – and his sister – family. Mal will come for Simon, and River, because they are family, even if it is in such a way that stands apart from the usual definition of the term.
But there are many other aspects to “Safe” that make it an episode about family. Because the crew of Serenity are a family, or at least are becoming one, in a lot of different ways. This is especially clear with the three “additions” to the established crew.
Families have their squabbles, as we see between Simon and Kaylee in this episode. A stressed and barely coping Simon thoughtlessly insults Serenity and, by extension, Kaylee, and Kaylee gives him the cold shoulder, much to Simon’s embarrassment. It’s a very minor tiff, but it adds something to that familial dimension, that it is so affecting (and yes, it’s obviously a romantic relationship in the works, I’m using the word “family“ in a loose non-literal sense here). It has a nice simple resolution too, as Simon, showcasing some of the more positive side of his civilised upbringing, holds Kaylee’s chair out for her in the final dinner scene and she smiles. No words are spoken, but it is clear that forgiveness has occurred.
Families have their concerns. Mal started out not especially liking the presence of Book on his ship, and in “The Train Job” he has only moved to a sort of tolerance, albeit a good natured one. In “Safe”, Book gets badly wounded in a shoot out, and the episode takes the time to show that Mal’s concern for the preacher’s fate is clearly more than that of losing a reliable fare, its genuine worry over somebody that he has started to become attached to.
Families have their understandings of each other. Mal knows well enough not to push Book on some surprising aspects of his recovery. He knows well enough that Simon could do with some fresh air and to get away from the ship. And he’s even starting to get River a bit more (“Is it weird that what she said made perfect sense to me?”).
Families have their understandings of how things work in the home. When Simon and River appear to be gone for good, Jayne wastes no time in pilfering their belongings. You can understand why if you take a look at the larger reality: if the sibling pair really are off the ship permanently, then it only follows that what they had left on Serenity wouldn’t go to waste. But when Simon and River are recovered intact, Jayne wastes zero time in putting the stuff he took back, covering up his transgression. You might wonder why, since Jayne is so amoral in so much of the show. But it makes sense: Simon and River are crew now, are part of this unlikely family, and that means that their belongings are theirs. Jayne wouldn’t last very long if he was stealing things off others onboard, and we can well imagine Malcolm “You’re on my crew” Reynolds, who has been shown to have a power over Jayne, not tolerating such things. Just like, say, a parent dealing with filching children. Later in the shows run, Jayne will break that covenant, and will nearly pay for that transgression with his life.
And families have their secrets. Book gets his life saved by the Alliance in mysterious circumstances, much to Mal’s curiosity. But Book refuses to tell all, and Mal respects that, in a way that might surprise. After all, this is the same guy who wouldn’t dare put up with a passenger keeping secrets from him in “Serenity”, in the form of Simon, but by “Safe” his mood seems to have mellowed, and Book’s secrets are honoured: to the extent that we will never find out, in the series or the film, what it was.
Book sums up the new way of things onboard in his last lines of the episode. He, Simon and River were outsiders to begin with, but they have, in the course of only a few episodes, melded into the already existing closeness and connection of the other crew members, to the extent that it feels perfectly OK when Book declares simply that “It’s good to be home”. And that’s one of the key strengths of Firefly/Serenity, in the way that it captures the audience’s heart. Because this ship really does feel like a home by now, far more than the sleek nuance-less likes of the Enterprise or the military functionality of a Galactica. And the people that inhabit it really do feel like a family, something depicted in no better way than in the final moments of “Safe”, as all nine crewmembers sit down for a meal together, bathed in a warming light.