Everyone loves a heist, and TV is full of heist episodes, from sci-fi to other genres. In Firefly, already, we have had two in “The Train Job” and “Ariel” and a third is added to the mix with “Trash”, featuring the return of Saffron, some more Mal/Inara stuff and a follow-up on the changed state of the relationship between Jayne and the Tam siblings.
But all of that is built around the actual heist. I’ve already said I wasn’t too impressed with aspects of “Ariel”, and the titular scheme in “The Train Job” really only made up a small part of the plot, concluded by the end of the first act. But “Trash” is dominated by the mission to relieve Durran Haymer of the “Lassiter” and I feel that it is a very strong example of the heist plot in action, from the basic structure, through to the roles played by the cast of characters and on into its conclusion and what it paints for the future.
The episode does go through the heist motions, with the cliché elements that anyone with even a passing knowledge of, say, Oceans 11, will be aware of. The job is put in front of the crew, and a montage follows of the various strands of how it is going to work being put into place, with the principal people involved narrating it. Firefly did this in “Ariel” too, but I prefer it here: the added sci-fi kick with the floating island helps and there is that added dimension of tension in the involvement of Saffron, who we all know is going to pulling her own kind of scheme before the episode ends (I mean, Mal is naked in the desert at the conclusion of “Trash” for some reason, and it doesn’t point towards success).
But moving beyond the cliché, one of the great strengths of the heist plot in “Trash” is that everybody on the crew – bar Book, who is absent again as he was in “Ariel” – gets something active to do in the course of the episode, even if it might not have all that much impact on the unfolding action. Too often in plots of this kind you see seemingly important people relegated to minor things or shunted out completely, with the Ocean franchise replete with minor characters who seem to be involved just to tick some demographic boxes more than anything else. But in “Trash”, everyone gets a bit of spotlight.
Mal obviously takes the lead on actually retrieving the laser pistol with Saffron, and most of the episode revolves around his relationship with her in contrast to his relationship with Inara. Zoe takes command back at the ship, but gets a powerful moment of authority in her own right when she lays out Saffron early on. Wash pilots the ship during the heist, in some exceedingly perilous circumstances. Jayne and Kaylee need to actually get out onto the top of the ship in mid-flight to get the drone bin to go to where they want it to go, joined later by Zoe. Simon has to take care of the wounded Jayne later, and River aids him in his effort to resolve the conflict between the three, in her own unique way.
And there is peril in so much of that, which helps to raise the episodes stakes and add something to the heist, to make it seem as if there could be consequences and that our motley crew are risking their lives in the effort. Mal has to deal with both Saffron’s double dealings and the sudden arrival of the law. Jayne gets bonked in the course of reprogramming the drone, and Kaylee later nearly gets crushed to death doing the same thing. Wash struggles to keep Serenity from crashing into the drone, and later has to land the ship after Saffron’s sabotage.
Add in the expected double cross of Saffron and the slightly less expected double-double cross of Inara (drawing the usually neutral companion into the crew’s travails properly), and you have yourself a damn fine heist episode. These are all just little moments here and there, but too many shows and films treat them as discardable afterthoughts. By generating greater cast involvement and creating more peril, it helps to get the audience drawn into the heist, its methods, its potential consequences and its aftermath.
And, like so many other things when it comes to visual fiction, the episode is not actually about the heist. The heist is the backbone, that which all other things branch off of. But the episode is actually about, like “Our Mrs Reynolds”, Mal’s relationships with women and the contrast between the unity of the Serenity’s crew and Saffron’s steadfast insistence on going it alone and rejecting any kind of help/charity/pity from anybody else, all tied up in a bow by the appearance of Inara at the end, making a mockery of her apparent dispute with Mal to leave Saffron, quite literally, in the trash. The episode goes back and forth repeatedly on Saffron, asking the question as to whether she really is as much of a lone wolf as she seems, or if she, at any point in her life, was capable of being more than somebody who played a role and played others constantly.
I’ve stated before that I believed Saffron would inevitably have become a regular player on Firefly, in the same manner that Anya did on Buffy The Vampire Slayer: “Trash” was the episode that fixed this idea in my head more than “Our Mrs Reynolds”, because it was the episode that showed that more vulnerable side of Saffron, and further showed how she and Mal could actually get along and, shock horror, be friendly towards each other, even if it always had that tinge of spite. You could easily imagine Saffron hitching a more permanent ride on Serenity, maybe because she’s running from trouble, maybe because she has something that Serenity needs. She was a character rife for a lengthy journey through multiple seasons, from seductive charlatan with intense personal issues to a more well-rounded figure with healthier relationships.
But, we will have to be satisfied with our own imaginations on that score.