The episode opens with River wandering in a daze through the ship after awakening. She passes the members of the crew, but perceives what appear to be their inner thoughts and glimpses of their past (such as Simon wishing he was back home, Jayne saying that the money to betray the Tams was "too good", and Book gleefully threatening someone) and stumbles into the cargo bay. She appears to see the cargo bay full of leaves and picks up a stick, but tells herself, "It's just an object. It doesn't mean what you think." She suddenly returns to lucidity and finds the terrified crew surrounding her, as she holds one of Jayne's pistols that he left lying around. Mal takes the gun from her, and River panics and flees.After this the crew holds a council. Kaylee reveals that River had handled a gun at the assault on Niska's stronghold with disturbing effectiveness. Mal speculates that she may have psychic powers, because of her knowledge of things that she could never know, and they wonder how much of a threat she is (unknowingly with River eavesdropping). The group is unable to come to any consensus on what to do with River and they break to go to sleep. Simon and Kaylee talk about how much River loves the ship and are about to kiss, only for Book to interrupt them.As the crew settles in for the night, the bounty hunter Jubal Early, who had apparently been following them, slips aboard. He knocks out Mal and Book with ease, locks all of the bunks, and sneaks up on Kaylee in the engine room. With disturbing calmness, he ties her up and threatens to rape and kill her if she ruins his plans to capture River. He then locates Simon and forces him to help him capture River, on the threat of raping Kaylee if he refuses.During the search, Simon and Jubal verbally spar with each other. It becomes immediately apparent that Jubal is insane, with odd quirks and philosophies that Simon effortlessly responds to. They search Inara's shuttle, but no trace of River comes up and Jubal very calmly hits her for suggesting that he'll walk away from the bounty.Jubal and Simon reach the bridge and Jubal prepares to shoot Simon if they can't find River. She suddenly begins speaking over the intercom, telling Jubal that she's "melted into the ship" and is now Serenity herself. She taunts him with knowledge of his past and intentions, revealing Jubal to be a psychopath who took up bounty hunting to give him a way to act out his violent and abusive impulses. In between forcing the bounty hunter into a breakdown, she contacts the other members of the crew to set her plan for a breakout in motion—Kaylee cuts herself loose and releases the locks on the crew quarters, allowing Mal to sneak off somewhere. (Zoe and Wash are told to stay put, while Jayne sleeps through the whole thing.) Jubal suddenly realizes that River took a spacesuit and snuck aboard his ship, which is how he's communicating with them. Finally, River states that she plans on leaving with Jubal (sensing great similarity between them as mentally disturbed outcasts) and saving the Serenity crew the trouble of dealing with her. Simon attempts to stop Jubal, only to take a bullet to the leg.Jubal fights his way back through the ship and outside, and he stands on the outer hull of Serenity. Before he can float over to his own ship, however, Mal appears behind him and kicks him off into deep space. River exits Jubal's spaceship (sending it off on autopilot) and asks Mal for permission to come aboard, revealing that her supposed attempt to abandon the crew with the bounty hunter was all part of her plan to stop him, and Simon took a bullet for nothing. Back aboard the ship, Simon guides Zoe in patching him up before he passes out. Kaylee and River play jacks on the floor of the cargo bay, showing that their friendship has been rekindled.The episode ends with a shot of Jubal Early floating through space, air running out. He simply says "Well... here I am."
Tropes seen in this episode include:
- A Day in the Limelight: The episode is entirely based around River.
- Author Tract: Everything philosophical out of Early's mouth is pretty much Whedon's Existentialist views, though Early's Existentialism is the Shallow Parody version. He comes up with random and pointless analyses of basic ideas and doesn't consider any of them in any further depth than "huh, that's weird". It's the philosophical version of Attention Deficit... Ooh, Shiny!.
- Batman Gambit: Luring Jubal into Mal's ambush.
- Also, when Early forces Simon to help him. Bonus points because he explains his gambit to Simon, and it still works. To wit, Simon has to choose between unspeakable things happening to River or Kaylee. His only hope is to stall for time and hope to get the drop on Early. Early calmly explains that this is why Simon is going to help him look for River, and that's exactly what Simon does.
- Beware the Nice Ones: Both Tams. But especially River.
- Bounty Hunter: Jubal Early took up hunting to appease his psychopathic tendencies.
- Brother-Sister Team: Simon and River; this time River is taking the lead.
- Break the Cutie: What Early threatens to do to Kaylee and is trying to do to River; as it happens Kaylee escapes and Early is broken by the other cutie.
- Call Back: Kaylee slowly backing away from a gun-wielding River, referencing the scene in "[[War Stories" when River shot Niska's men. She tells the crew the story later.
- Can't Spit It Out: what River "reads" when she gets into Mal and Inara's argument.
- Catch Phrase: Jubal: "Does that seem right to you?"
- Creepy Child: River. A good variant on Creepy Child, but certainly creepy.
- Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass: Kind of; the crew knew River was this, they just didn't realize how much of one she was until now.
- Damsel in Distress: Kaylee is held prisoner more by her own fear than Early's restraints, seeing as he left her in an engine room with plenty of sharp things. River helps her get past her fear enough to escape.
- Dissonant Serenity:
- Heh. River as "Serenity" is rather even-keeled for having a dangerous man holding her brother at gunpoint. It's all part of her plan to screw with Early.
- Early's (presumably) last words drifting in space are a calm "Well... here I am."
- Does Not Like Shoes: River is barefoot the entire episode.
- Failed a Spot Check:
- Audio version. Early manages to misunderstand several clearly-stated sentences in bizarre and non-sequitury ways.
- He somehow fails to notice Mal right behind him, when he heard Simon move half a step behind him earlier. Possibly justified by the lack of Sound In Space.
- Less excusable is Jayne's failure to recognize the fistfight going on right outside his quarters.
- Gentleman Snarker: Simon. "Come on out, River, the nice man wants to kidnap you."
- Heroic Resolve: A 140-pound doctor knocking down Early twice out of sheer Heroic Spirit certainly qualifies even if it is unsuccessful, and unnecessary as it turns out. He might even have got up a third time and tried again if River hadn't reassured him.
- Heroic Sacrifice: Subverted; River is only pretending. However, the communications breakdown pushes Simon's Berserk Button.
- Honor Before Reason: Only partially:Simon: I'd rather die standing.
Early: The intention is not for you to die, Doctor.
- Hypocritical Humor: River.River: [Simon] takes so much looking after...
River: You're not right, Early. You're not righteous. You got issues.
- Insane Equals Violent: Early's definitely violent, but his not-quite-right-ness manifests in other weird behaviors, like randomly licking surfaces.
- Kick the Dog: Executed literally, as young Jubal's Start of Darkness.
- Let's Get Dangerous:
- Simon's attack on Jubal.
- Humorously subverted with Jayne. He angrily wakes up during the ruckus, looks up at the fighting with a scowl, takes the blanket off his weapon cache, heroic music plays... and he goes back to sleep with it as another blanket.
- A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Read: River is terrified by her ability to hear what people are really thinking (including how they actually feel about her).
- Noodle Incident:
- Early makes a vague reference to one of his previous bounties: a midget arsonist.Early: You know, with the exception of one deadly and unpredictable midget, this girl is the smallest cargo I've ever had to transport, yet by far the most troublesome. Does that seem right to you?
Simon: What'd he do?
Simon: The midget.
Early: Arson. Little man looooved fire.
- During River's mind-reading of the crew, she comes across Book having a very un-preacher-like moment.
- It's never made clear how that gun got there, though a hint is dropped when Jayne claims that he left it in a safe with a combination lock, implying that River pulled the passcode out of his mind.
- Early makes a vague reference to one of his previous bounties: a midget arsonist.
- Papa Wolf: Simon and Mal.
- Psycho for Hire: Early is bugfuck crazy.
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: River gives one to Early. Through her telepathy we see his mental armor crack a bit.
- Sadistic Choice:
- Simon. Help Early find his sister or get shot and let unspeakable things happen to Kaylee. He chooses the former to stall for time.
- Early does this to Kaylee as well: surrender without warning her shipmates, or get raped to death.
- Shame If Something Happened: Subverted. He starts talking about Serenity's engine like he's setting up for this before asking Kaylee if she's ever been raped with zero transition.
- Shirtless Scene: Simon is ripped.
- Shout-Out: Jubal Early is named after a Confederate general who may just be related to Nathan Fillion.
- Spaceship Girl: Subverted; River is just pretending to be this.
- The Spartan Way: Early's "suggestion" to Simon about possible "innovative improvements" in medical training—specifically, that surgeons ought to be shot or dismembered so they know what it feels like to go under the knife.
- Stiff Upper Lip: Simon exchanging banter with Jubal.
- Telepathy: The possibility that River is a "reader" is brought up for the first time among the crew. Quick cuts are used to show the audience River's perceptions, including hearing what people are thinking as if they were talking out loud.
- Took a Level in Badass: River uses her powers consistently for the first time, maintaining lucidity for long enough to drive Early into a mental breakdown and set a trap for him at the same time.
- Worthy Opponent: One-sided—Early seems to respect Simon. Simon only regards Early as a threat to Kaylee and River. River states clearly she does not respect Early.
- Your Mom: River begins screwing with Early with this. He claims he's not fazed but of course she knows better.