If you wanted to talk about Firefly’s flaws as a series, I do think that one of the things you could talk about would be some of the antagonists. Patience in “Serenity” wasn’t super-fleshed out. Niska of “The Train Job” and “War Stories” was little more than a creepy old Nazi with an accent, marked out more by the philosophy he espoused than he himself. The Reavers of “Serenity” and “Bushwhacked” were effective in their way, but also unseen and made no impact beyond those episodes. I’ve talked about the problems with the “Hill People” of “Safe” already. Womack of “The Message” isn’t all that great either. Characters like Dobson, Atherton Wing, Saffron, Magistrate Higgins, the Hands of Blue and Rance Burgess are better efforts for sure, but Firefly has its share of antagonists who aren’t especially memorable.
But then along comes “Objects In Space” and Jubal Early. If Firefly has any kind of stand-out antagonist, one that you could spend a long time talking about, it is this strange demented bounty hunter.
His origins do not point to such a character. Whedon was apparently stuck for a bad guy to wrap his initial ideas for “Objects In Space” – based more on a desire to do some kind of episode related to existentialism – around, and settled on a bounty hunter on the suggestion of Tim Minear, who vaguely talked about the kind of character that Boba Fett was. Giving him the name of a famed Confederate general was the next step, though there appears to be little connection being drawn between the two in any way. And then Whedon went off the deep end, aiming to create the kind of villain that would stick in the mind, with an almost fairy-tale vibe, elements of which are more obvious than others, like Early’s agreement that he might be a lion alright, because he has “a mighty roar”.
What to say about Early? His demeanour is bizarre and unsettling, creepy and random. He threatens violence with a casual air, like it is just some afterthought to him. He commits violence just as randomly. He talks about sexual assault to Kaylee as if it is just another tool in his arsenal, and nothing to get too bothered about, later using the same threat to Simon. While he sometimes talks about such things as if they don’t mean that much to him – his question of “Have you ever been raped?” to Kaylee is probably the single most terrifying way that question could be asked – you have absolutely no doubt, long before River exposes Jubal’s pleasure in inflicting pain, that he will do as he says.
Then there are other things, strange things. The “lion” conversation with Simon, the licking of the pole, the talk of midget bounties, or the quick cuts of deranged facial expressions as the face starts to crack. Jubal is odd, very odd, and his antics and personality are one of the reasons why you can imagine “Objects In Space” being inaccessible to some.
But all of this would mean nothing if Jubal wasn’t capable, wasn’t really threatening in the way that all good antagonists simply have to be. Much is made of the way that Jubal deals with different members of the crew, the ones that he actually encounters in person as opposed to just locking them in their quarters. Mal gets brutally taken care of quickly, before he can raise an alarm or properly fight back. The same happens to Book, Early’s declaration that “That ain’t a Shepherd” the last tantalising hint that a viewer of Firefly will get about Book’s true identity within the show. Kaylee is browbeaten with terror and the stated possibilities of sexual assault. Inara gets just threats of physical violence, but a strange respect that she won’t actually do anything to interfere with Jubal’s plans. And Simon, because of his connection with River and his lack of physical threat, gets a colder logical approach, and a lack of violence. Jubal has an intelligence to him then: he knows just the right way to deal with people, employing physical and mental means as it suits him best.
Until he gets to River of course. Jubal in the course of “Objects In Space” comes across almost as extranormal, very much in the same vein as River, just twisted and evil. Plenty theorise that Jubal might be a “reader” himself, and it would kind of fit. When River claims to “be” Serenity late on, we might recall Early’s first line: “Maybe I’ve always been here”. Like River, he draws a connection to static non-living things, and imbues them with a purpose that eludes other people. But River is smarter than him. Better than him. Jubal is an extranormal threat for an extranormal girl, but he isn’t the one to beat her.
Much like so many of the other antagonists in the course of Firefly’s run, Early, the lone wolf, is defeated by the unity of the Serenity crew, who have flirted with the idea of breaking up their bond earlier in the episode, but come together by its conclusion, with River pulling the strings this time. The last thing that really marks Early out is more open to different interpretations I suppose, but it is a humdinger, this antagonist getting to be one of the bookends to the show total. It is to Jubal, whether appropriate or not, that the final lines of the series go to, as he floats in space, likely facing a very imminent death:
“Well. Here I am.”
For Jubal, who has that connection with certain objects – his gun, the metal parts of Serenity, Serenity as a whole in a certain sense – it is just a continuation of the theme of analysing the purpose of objects, with Early essentially declaring that, absent any kind of future or means of saving himself, he has become just another object.
But, in a larger sense than that, with “Objects In Space” being that last episode, it is almost like the show itself is talking to its audience. Firefly declares that it has run its course and can do no more, no more than present the 14 episodes that it manages to produce. Well. Here they are. Here it is. And that’s all there ever will be.
At least, for a little while, as it turned out.