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Joss Whedon, Existentialist

December 27th, 2003 · No Comments

Among various gifts I was delighted to receive this Festivus (including a badass chess set to replace one destroyed by rampaging kittens) was the full run (on DVD) of Joss Whedon‘s fantastic sci-fi western Firefly, which was cancelled last year by shortsighted Fox executives in what historians will doubtless regard as the biggest cultural travesty since the razing of the library at Alexandria.

Later that evening, after checking out one of the unaired episodes included in the set on my laptop, I started up my favorite episode, “Objects in Space” (script). It’s the episode in which the mercurial (and more than a bit disturbed) River is really integrated into the crew of Serenity during a battle of wits with an enigmatic (and talkative) Boba Fett–inspired bounty hunter. (The bounty hunter, Jubal Early, is brilliantly portrayed by Richard Brooks, most recognizable from his very different role as Asst. DA Paul Robinette on Law and Order.)

Then I noticed that the episode had a running comentary audio-track by Whedon and, since I was still pretty awake, I decided to check it out. I was both pleased and astonished to see that, in fact, the episode had an existentialist subtext that I’d missed. (In retrospect, there are plenty of almost heavy-handed hints at this, but it hadn’t occured to me to be looking for it in a TV show, even one of Firefly‘s caliber.) As it turns out, Whedon had been inspired by Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea—readers of which will, I expect, suddenly see the title “Objects in Space” in a new light. He also cites Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus as an influence. And both the commentary and the episode suggest that Whedon’s grasp of existentialist thinking is quite good—and not all of it is discussed in the commentary.

For instance, Whedon says that both the plot and visuals of the episode are intended to set up River and Early as reflections of each other: Both are, in a sense, outsiders who observe the crew with a detatchment that gives each a special sort of insight. But Whedon leaves out a bit.

Sartre, for example, had plenty to say about the objectifying gaze of the “other”—River and Early eavesdropping on the crew from above and below simultaneously—a link Whedon doesn’t explicitly make. Neither does he mention the contrast, which I must believe he had in mind, between Sartre’s twin corruptions of love, sadism and masochism. Early, rather obviously, embodies the former, exulting in the infliction of pain as he seeks to possess his quarry as an object. River, perhaps less obviously, fits the latter, claiming at one point to have literally disolved into the ship, and later offering herself up to the mercenary, saying: “I’ll be your bounty, Jubal Early. And I’ll just fade away.”

I’m tempted to go back and read Nausea and Sisyphus again, then give it another viewing. I’m not exactly steeped in Sartre, so there’s probably other things I’ve missed that Whedon didn’t call attention to in his commentary. Philosophy profs looking for something a bit fun to show their classes: Here’s an excuse to pick up the Firefly set.

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