“War Stories” seems as good a place as any to take stock of the River character. She plays a small (in terms of screen time) role in that most action packed of Firefly’s episodes, but it is a crucial one, as she, without too much effort, kills three of Niska’s gun-wielding henchmen, saving (and horrifying) Kaylee in the process. The moment is a stunning swerve on the character, who thus far has been mostly portrayed as, by the “leaky brainpan” description, as incapable of really looking after herself. The moments where she actually has made an impact – the conversation with Badger in “Shindig”, or the escape from the hospital in “Ariel” – have been notably non-violent.
But the sudden outburst of precision death causing in “War Stories” suddenly puts River front and centre in the audience’s mind, in a way that she might not have completely been previously. We might have cause to look back over previous episodes, and think about the things that River is capable of doing.
First and foremost, she is remarkably intelligent, and demonstrates this on numerous occasions, not least in that conversation with Badger. As I said in my discussion on that episode here, the scene of Holmesian in the way that River, after only a few casual glances in Badger’s direction, is able to apparently deduce a lot of information about him, information she then uses to her advantage. Further, her random utterances contain a level of verbosity and cleverness, despite being lost in random mania, which belies a woman who is far smarter than she might initially appear.
But of course, it’s all tied into “reading”, though we won’t get into that for a little while yet (in fact, Firefly will really only go into properly in its last episode, where it is depicted in strange Satreian terms). We’ve seen glimpses of it so far in the series, most notably in “Safe”, when River is able to find out things about a mute girl that she could not possibly have found out otherwise. The episode seems to be dismissed in the aftermath, Simon not willing to look into further. But it shows that whatever the Alliance did to her in their “Academy” involved giving her the ability to read minds. The exact process of this will be looked into in “Objects In Space”, and is far from straightforward, but is seemingly connected to her lack of an amygdala, the section of the human brain that Simon describes as being a “filter” for emotions.
River’s apparent powers go beyond even that though. In “Bushwhacked” she appears to realise the derelict survivor – or Mal – is coming back on-board the ship before anyone else. In “Out Of Gas” she appears to know about the catastrophic engine failure just before it happens, a precognition that might be explained away with her simple higher awareness of everything going on around her, but is still oddly specific, going unremarked upon by the rest of the crew afterwards. Certainly, the way that she fights in Serenity, besting veritable hordes in unarmed combat, could be easily explained if she had even a limited knowledge of things that were about to happen before they did. Somewhat similarly, in “Bushwhacked” she forms a connection with the derelict vessel that borders on otherworldly in its depiction, as if she is aware of things that the rest of the crew is not aware of, like the deaths of its previous inhabitants. In “Ariel”, she seems to understand something innate about Jayne in the aftermath of his betrayal, something she will follow up on later in “Trash”, with that memorable line “Also, I can kill you with my brain”. It’s likely a bluffed threat more than a statement of fact, but it does make you wonder.
And then in “War Stories” she picks up a gun, looks away, and fires three shots, killing three goons, before acting in a manner that seems to indicate she doesn’t really know or understand what she has just done. It’s a tipping point for the character, when she stops being static and cared for by others, and jumps into the action properly, becoming a factor on the ship that is beyond a worry, and maybe a danger, something that will provide the backbone of the plot for Serenity. When River utters that haunting phrase “No power in the ‘verse can stop me”, with that slightly deranged smile, it makes the viewer question just how true that statement might be.
It’s clear enough that the Alliance had uses in mind for River: the common idea being the creation of a highly intelligent, mind-reading assassin/spy. Only the efforts to create this being went awry and ruined her sanity, or maybe that was the point. The film will get a bit clearer with it all (but not crystal clear) but this far into the series we are left with an enigma: the girl with the gun in her hand, smiling after committing an act of calculated violence that would be impossible for any other member of the crew.
So, on-board Serenity we have a troubled young girl, not fully in control of herself mentally or physically, with abilities that might include limited precognition, gun skills with mathematical precision and a way of reading the minds of others, not to mention an already existing high level of intelligence. The question to be asked is whether River is saveable: is she to be anything other than a weapon, or is she more human that she appears? Firefly never got the chance to fully elaborate on this potential plot idea, with the events depicted in Serenity essentially the quick version of a five season plan, which could have branched off into a myriad of different directions. If Firefly had been given a longer life, would River ever have gotten “better”? Would she have become the proficient marital artist in a different way? How would her growingly obvious talents have been used by the crew, and how would this have affected the interpersonal relationships on the ship? To what extent would she have become aware of her powers, or would she have remained, for some time to come, essentially a kid with a gun, uncomprehending of the things she can do and the effects they can cause? Serenity gives us a glimpse of this – a good glimpse, a very good glimpse – but in the context of a show that should have lasted several years more than it did, we might understand that a grander exploration of River and her abilities was missed out on.