“Ariel”, one of my personal favourites, is nominally a Simon/River episode, emphasis on the Simon. They drive the action, Simon dominates proceedings, and the whole goal of the heist that forms the bulk of the episode is about getting something that they need. But really, the episode is more about Jayne.
There are so many fascinating things about Jayne in this episode, but they can be boiled down to answering three questions:
Why does Jayne decide, now, to turn Simon and River in to “the Feds”?
The first question has a myriad of answers. Jayne’s never been too crazy about the siblings, and has openly talked about selling them down the river before, most notably in “The Train Job”. But there have also been friendlier moments, like in “Shindig” and even someone as unintelligent as Jayne can recognise the advantage of having a genius doctor on the ship (something that will be made very blunt to him in a few episodes time). There is an adversarial nature to their back and forth, borne by the simple fact that the two are such opposites: Jayne the boorish mercenary type, and Simon the polite, civilised upper-middle class doctor. Their first interaction was that nastiness over Kaylee, and they are back to clashing in the early moments of “Ariel”, this time over Simon’s cooking skills and Jayne’s table manners.
Then River gets all knifey and things have gotten drastically more serious. There is both panic and anger in Jayne’s insistence that Simon and River be kicked off the ship and, in a strange way, a righteous fury when Mal basically tells him to go jump. Because, as Mal acknowledges once Jayne is gone, it is a very dangerous situation: who knows who River may attack next? But Mal still tells Jayne to back off, essentially, and we can understand why this might infuriate Jayne. He and Mal have butted heads on matters of authority before, and Jayne has even flat-out told him that his allegiance has a price that might be met one day.
I think here, Mal continuing to pushback on Jayne after Jayne has been physically assaulted, is a very important breaking point. It’s too much for Jayne to handle. For a man like him, whose whole identity is based around his physical power and authority, to be reprimanded like this, in front of others repeatedly, must be very damaging to basic self-esteem. And, in “Ariel”, Jayne is pushed over the edge. Sure, Jayne might claim later that “the money was just too good”, but that really doesn’t stick with me. The money, for fugitives like Simon and River, must always have been too good. No, I think that Jayne, like a rebellious teenager going against the dictates of Dad, decides to take matters into his own hands and strike out for his own revenge and his own self-gratification.
Does Jayne change his mind about the two through the course of the episode?
Watching “Ariel” this time, I was struck by the hints that Jayne changes his mind about the Tam’s, or at least about Simon. You could argue this doesn’t really matter to the episode, Jayne still tries to sell them to the Alliance and only turns against that deal for his own self-preservation. But, on a character level, I think it does matter a bit. By the time Simon and River wake-up in the hospital, Jayne is already looking nervous and a bit remorseful, perhaps only then confronted by the magnitude of what he is about to do. After all, he could just have called the Feds and told them where Serenity was, but he apparently didn’t want to get the rest of the crew in trouble, so he isn’t totally without sentiment. When River wakes up and talks, Jayne is terrified for a moment, and I thought it less a jump scare, and more a potent vision of the person – not just a thing – that Jayne is about to betray, something replicated in his reaction to River’s babbling about Christmas presents later on.
When Simon saves the unfortunate patient in the hands of a moron on the ward, we’re supposed to be more focused on River’s reaction, but Jayne is also surprised and, if I might analyse, unwillingly impressed. Jayne’s a simple guy, and talk of Simon’s intelligence must mean nothing to him (“If I’d wanted schoolin’ I would have gone to school”). But a demonstration of Simon’s immense medical ability, not to mention the sudden authority he displays in dressing down the incompetent boob who nearly killed the patient in the first place, must leave an impression.
By the time Jayne, Simon and River run into the feds, I think that Jayne has regrets, that are made doubly so when it becomes clear that the Alliance are perfectly willing to screw him over. Jayne is left dumb and awkward in the face of Simon’s repeated praise for his efforts to free them later, which doesn’t match with a guy who is beyond any sort of attachment or remorse. And I mention all this because it is important for the last question.
Why does Mal spare Jayne at the conclusion?
In the penultimate scene Mal, who has figured it all out ahead of everyone else (though I’d wager the likes of Zoe aren’t too stupid not to see it either), has Jayne at his mercy, in the cargo airlock not too far from being spaced. Mal reiterates the same thing he’s said earlier, and to others in previous episode: that Simon and River are crew, and any blow to them is a blow to him, something he cannot tolerate. Jayne, beaten down, admits to what he did, and a furious Mal leaves him to his fate. It’s logical from what we have seen of Mal so far: Jayne is a backstabber, totally untrustworthy, and is clearly a danger to the ship and the crew if he is willing to betray Simon and River like this.
But Mal lets Jayne off the hook after Jayne inquires as to what Mal will tell the others. Jayne’s last concern here is for his own reputation and memory: “Make something up…Don’t tell them what I did”. Jayne is depicted throughout the episode, more so the early stages, as a man who is incredibly selfish, only out to get as much money as he can. But here, he meekly accepts that what he did was wrong, accepts that he is about to die, forgoes any additional pleading for his life and asks only that the people he cares about, Serenity’s crew, that he went out of his way to protect during his scams, do not hear about the kind of person he really is. It won’t save him, but he stills wants to be thought of fondly. We might remember his watch over Kaylee in “Serenity”, his general reaction to events in “Jaynestown”, his prepping of a suit for Mal in “Out Of Gas”. And Jayne isn’t smart enough to be trying to emotionally manipulate Mal. He’s come to realise before he wound up in the airlock, that what he did was wrong and that Simon and River deserved more from him. Now, all he wants is for that sin to be left locked in Mal’s mind, and for no one else to know his shame.
Maybe Mal was always going to press that button and save Jayne. Maybe letting the merc live is still a bad idea (Jayne will move to betray River again, briefly, in Serenity, but the film did have all sorts of soft reboots on relationship aspects). Regardless, Mal recognises that, for Jayne, this kind of thinking is the sort of mea culpa that is gigantic for him. Mal see’s something in Jayne – he has from their first introduction in “Out Of Gas”, all the way through to his recognition of Jayne’s turmoil in “Jaynestown” – and while Firefly won’t last long enough for Mal to ever expand on what that is, it’s clearly something. Mal’s no idiot. Even Jayne, for all of his flaws and tendency to do stupid things, is on his crew too.
For Jayne, his reprieve is both a blessing and a warning. Essentially on probation for the rest of the series, his actions here will still have additional consequences. But he is alive and, we can hope, a better person for the experience.