At the conclusion of his unlikely odyssey through the adulation of Canton’s “mudder” community, Jayne Cobb is left standing in Serenity’s cargo bay, wistfully staring at nothing and pondering “It don’t make no sense…” Not even Malcolm Reynolds’ comforting words, usually reserved for other members of the crew, can really ease his turmoil (As an aside, I’ve always appreciated that moment, with Mal recognising, ahead of any other member of the crew, the kind of internal crisis Jayne must be going through, and wanting, as a Captain, to try and help him through it).
“Jaynestown” is an episode, in its main plot and three sub-plots, which revolves around characters making sense of things that don’t seem to make any sense at all. The man they call Jayne and his heroic reputation with the mudders, Simon’s continued keeping of refined airs out in the rim, Fess facing up to what really makes a man a man and River’s interactions with Book and his “broken” faith, they all deal with things that characters aren’t able to approach easily.
Jayne of course, is the furthest thing from a hero on the ship. He’s crude, he’s quick to choose violence as an option, he treats women appallingly, he values material possessions over people and he openly tells Mal that he might betray him if the offer was ever right: a reality that will lead to Jayne’s most unheroic moment later in the shows run in “Ariel”, which is also foreshadowed with the story of his, ahem, falling out with Stitch in this episode. And, most importantly, he is completely satisfied with this, seeing nothing wrong in his attitude or life.
And then he has to confront that statue of him in a place where he expected to only find enemies. Staring that nonsensical vision in the face, and then having to deal with the open hero worship of the mudders, is at first an uncomfortable experience for Jayne. But then, in typical fashion, he learns to embrace it, in a familiar quest for his own self-gratification, through free alcohol, loose women, and the chance for his fame to cover over the nefarious dealings of the ship’s crew, an aspect of the plot that is basically just a sideshow.
But things can’t continue in that vein forever, as the situation in Canton eventually forms into a mirror that Jayne has to peer into, comparing who he really is with the man that Canton thinks he is. The first person gets a rude wakeup call thanks to the intervention of Stitch, a reminder that Jayne is really no hero. Disgusted with this reality being foisted back upon him, and unable to deal with the hero worship any longer, Jayne snaps and violently rejects his heroic persona, incapable of making any sense of how he was turned into such a figure in the first place. Mal’s logical declaration that it has basically nothing to do with Jayne at all rings true, but Jayne doesn’t have the intelligence or the empathy to really understand that the mudders need a hero more than Jayne deserves to be one: in other words, Jayne is the hero they need, not the hero they deserve.
Much of the episode’s humour comes from Simon and Kaylee’s interaction, the first firm signs of their road to romantic entanglement after a few hints here and there in “Serenity” and “Safe”. The episode is almost bookended by quiet moments between the two in the ship, with the topic of discussion being Simon’s continued air of civility, even in a part of the ‘verse where it no longer really fits. Kaylee can’t quite make sense of that, and it’s easy to understand why: she views Simon as an attractive, intelligent guy, but the kind of manners and clothes he puts on are so far outside of her experience with men that they seem almost comical, like a satire. The episode engineers a situation where Simon gets out of that role, through the medium of alcohol, and slurred words between the two at Jayne’s piss-up are some of the most adorable in the shows run: your heart has to be cold indeed to not melt at Jewel Statie’s wonderfully inflected “Hamsters is nice”.
But Simon is still that core gentlemen, even when it results in him insulting Kaylee, again, though this time I think I’m not only in considering her reaction to be a little over the top. But Kaylee almost seems more annoyed at Simon getting himself beat up by Stitch, asking, in a scolding tone, “You couldn’t have hit him back?” (again, a little unfair, Simon smashed him with a bottle). Kaylee, echoing one of Mal’s lines in the pilot, knows Simon “ain’t weak”, but is confounded about his “being proper”. But the explanation, and Kaylee’s understanding of it, is also sweet: while Kaylee might not quite grasp it, Simon’s civility and refinement are his identity, and letting go of them is beyond him, anymore than Kaylee could stop being the most cheerful person in the universe. He only knows one way to treat women and in order to make sense of that, Kaylee has to consider things from his point of view, and accept that Simon’s politeness, even distance, is actually a compliment to her.
Inara’s visit to the Higgins household is a bit of an abnormal one within the episode, her own refinement’s at the whim of the sociopathic magistrate of the moon, who views his son’s virginity as mortifying, making him “not yet a man”. Watching this episode for the first time, I figured Fess would turn out to be a closet homosexual or something like that, but writer Ben Edlund was confident enough to have his virginity be more of a choice, a “state of being” as Inara puts it.
Fess loses his virginity to Inara, but is somewhat disappointed to find that he feels no different, neither more a man nor less of a one. It’s for Inara to explain that her purpose wasn’t to make him one, anymore than the act of intercourse increases masculinity. “A man is just a boy old enough to ask that question”. In order to prove his manhood – his authority, his capability, his confidence and ability to think for himself and act accordingly – Fess will have to stand up to his bullying father and be his own person, making sense of what it really takes to “be a man”. And that doesn’t really include sex as a prerequisite. It does include standing up for others and doing the right thing, which Fess does by allowing Serenity to leave the moon.
Lastly, there is River and Book back on the ship. Poor River hasn’t gotten all that much to do in the show thus far, bar her jaunt into the hills in “Safe”, and has often been relegated to the ship while the other crewmembers have their adventures. But here at least the exercise is not a wasted one. River, the extremely intelligent but fractured girl, finds herself drawn to “fix” the Bible of Shepherd Book, unable to tolerate the many glaring errors in logic and plot holes that the book contains. Book is aghast and not just at the property destruction: as he explains to River, the book isn’t meant to be an ironclad account of fact, but a guide to faith, something that fixes people as opposed to the other way round (one might well wonder if there isn’t a certain jab also being made at the nitpickers of sci-fi plotholes)..
River can’t quite get a handle on that, the idea making little sense to her, and the truly terrifying vision of Book’s out of control hair is enough to send her over the edge. On a larger level, River having to confront the idea of something that cannot be “fixed” but that you should still have faith in, might be seen as a veiled reference to her herself, and the things that, while mentally broken, she will be able to accomplish in the future.
With Mal, Zoe and Wash taking a backseat in terms of driving plot, “Jaynestown” finds plenty for the rest of the cast to do, in four branching plot threads that show the crew (and one other) confronting things that make little sense and trying to make sense of them. Sometimes the answers are unwelcome, sometimes they are. Sometimes they are an epiphany, and sometimes they muddy already muddied water. But the act of getting to the answers helped grow characters and relationships in Firefly, as we reach the halfway point of the season.