E35 -

Jennifer Huddleston, Julian Sanchez, and Trevor Burrus join the show to discuss the American space Western, Firefly.

Landry Ayres
Senior Producer

Jennifer Huddleston is the Director of Technology and Innovation Policy at the American Action Forum.

Trevor Burrus
Research Fellow, Constitutional Studies

Trevor Burrus is a research fellow at the Cato Institute’s Center for Constitutional Studies. His research interests include constitutional law, civil and criminal law, legal and political philosophy, and legal history. His work has appeared in the Vermont Law Review, the Syracuse Law Review, and the Jurist, as well as the Washington Times, Huffington Post, and the Daily Caller. He holds a BA in Philosophy from the University of Colorado at Boulder and a JD from the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.

Research fellow Julian Sanchez focuses primarily on issues at the busy intersection of technology, privacy, civil liberties, and new media — but also writes more broadly about political philosophy and social psychology. Before joining Cato, Sanchez served as the Washington Editor for the technology news site Ars Technica, where he covered surveillance, intellectual property, and telecom policy. Prior to that, he was an assistant editor for Reason magazine, where he remains a contributing editor. Sanchez’s writing has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The American Prospect, Reason, The Guardian, Techdirt, The American Spectator, and Hispanic, among others, and he blogs regularly forThe Economist’s Democracy in America. Sanchez studied philosophy and political science at New York University.


In the year 2157, on the outskirts of the system, far from alliance control, nine people look into the blackness of space and see nine different things. Joining us today are three people who see three different things in Joss Whedon’s cult classic series, Firefly, including; Julian Sanchez, Trevor Burrus, & Jennifer Huddleston.



0:00:03.6 Landry Ayres: Welcome to Pop & Locke. I’m Landry Ayres.

0:00:06.1 Natalie Dowzicky: And I’m Natalie Dowzicky.

0:00:08.1 Landry Ayres: In the year 2157, on the outskirts of the system, far from alliance control, nine people look into the blackness of space and see nine different things. Joining us today are four people who see four different things in Joss Whedon’s cult classic series, Firefly, including senior fellow at the Cato Institute, Julian Sanchez.

0:00:32.8 Julian Sanchez: Hey.

0:00:33.4 Landry Ayres: Research Fellow at Cato’s Robert A. Levy Center for Constitutional Studies, editor of the Cato Supreme Court Review and co‐​host of libertarianism.org’s own Free Thoughts Podcast, Trevor Burrus.

0:00:45.6 Trevor Burrus: Thanks for having me.

0:00:46.9 Landry Ayres: And a new guest to the show, Director of Technology and Innovation Policy at The American Action Forum, Jennifer Huddleston. Jennifer, thank you for joining us.

0:00:56.6 Jennifer Huddleston: Thanks for having me, guys.

0:00:58.6 Natalie Dowzicky: Ever since we started Pop & Locke, everyone has been saying, “Oh, you gotta do Firefly.” And I’m sitting here thinking to myself how I’ve never seen the show, knew literally nothing about it. So who wants to be the first one to enlighten me on why we’re discussing this show today because I’m still not so sure.

0:01:15.7 Trevor Burrus: I’ll weigh in on that, start. I have given libertarian lectures using Firefly as an example. In particular, one aspect, which I think we’ll get more into, which is the difference between centralisation and the Frontier, and so much of the show is defined by the extent of the Government and how… Its capabilities. It’s interesting because I remember when it came out, and when it did come out and they were putting commercials on Fox, I hadn’t watched Buffy yet, so the fact that Joss Whedon did Buffy meant nothing to me. And maybe Julian or Jennifer remembers this, but like… I remember the commercials being pretty bad because they really played up the space western aspect, and if you generally say like space western, you’re like, “That kinda sounds dumb.” But when you see it, you realise why it works and it’s the exact same reason the West was the West in American West, which is people moved before government, and when people move before a government, they had to figure out ways of ordering themselves, and so you get things like the Gold Rush in California and Alaska and the general Frontier, and that means that… It’s a point about… It’s a show about how we govern ourselves and what government does, especially on the Frontier.

0:02:28.0 Jennifer Huddleston: I kind of when friends initially told me about it, had the same reaction that Natalie did. You want me to watch a space western cowboy drama with this weird spaceship thing going on? It sounds like a very strange concept when you first hear about it. I came to the show after it had already all been released, so this came out in the early 2000s, only lasted a season at that and then we got the movie years later. And one thing I will say is because of the way the episodes and the stories are driven in this particular show, in some ways it was ahead of its time and that it’s an incredibly binge‐​watchable show. The first time… I remember watching the entire series in two days type of thing, and so it really builds this world and these characters and the philosophy behind it as well into its whole own universe in a way that really keeps you in trance and wanting more, and so it has that same tendency as other sci‐​fi like Star Wars or Star Trek, but once it catches your attention, you wanna go deeper, you wanna know more about the back stories and the other elements of this universe.

0:03:47.3 Julian Sanchez: We should maybe note, that it’s binge‐​watchable in part because this is a show that is episodic, each episode has a standalone story, but is really one continuous narrative that progresses over time in a way that was not actually that common in the early 2000s. Now, we take for granted that a drama will often be a sustained story over the arc of a season, as opposed to a series of interchangeable self‐​contained story capsules, but… If you think back to television of ‘80s and ‘90s, that was actually pretty rare because before streaming and easy access to everything and being able to look things up on a Wiki, something had to be capable of holding people’s interest if they were flipping through the channels, and came upon something and have not caught the last episode, and had no context for what was going on. So it was ahead of its time in that sense, although not very far ahead of its time.

0:04:51.6 Landry Ayres: Also… You’ve written about this, Julian, and I believe Trevor, like you said, you’ve used this as an example, in a lot of your libertarian lectures specifically about the West and the Frontier. Firefly is very beloved by people in the libertarian community and that movement. Is there anything beyond just the idea of the Wild West of people living without government, that is a part of the show or a major theme that you find has really garnered that following within this specific community?

0:05:24.8 Trevor Burrus: Well, even aside from the way that the people live on the Frontier and all the different communities that you see throughout the show, the government… The alliance is pretty crappy. We have… Think about our government as a surveillance system that is highly oppressive, it has done experiments on people for the purposes of augmenting its war‐​making powers like we did with Tuskegee and so many other things, it’s oppressive or tariffs, they’re always getting stopped and searched. There’s the one episode where they search their ship and it looks like a Fourth Amendment nightmare, they’re turning every single thing over looking under the table, and they have to submit to this all the time, and of course, there was a war for submission, which is the back story of the whole show. So all those themes together make it very libertarian, which is interesting to me because Joss Whedon is not at all libertarian, but he understands what oppressive government is.

0:06:22.8 Julian Sanchez: But he’s… Whedon has having said in interviews, “Well, I’m certainly no libertarian, but Mal Reynolds is.” More or less, and I don’t think it’s that mysterious what libertarians find attractive here. This is a show where the heroes are all smugglers, so they’re engaging in free trade in defiance of attempted regulation, and then one of the main characters is a sex worker in a time when this is now, despite the otherwise fairly oppressive regime, this is now a sort of respectable, legal profession. It’s not surprising what libertarians find interesting there. And also, I think… And this is something I’ve read about in an article for years and years and years ago, about the of existentialist libertarianism of Firefly… Joss Whedon is notoriously very fond of existentialism, existentialist philosophy, and has worked those themes into a lot of his shows, and it shows very strongly in Firefly.

0:07:20.9 Julian Sanchez: I don’t know that this is something that specifically libertarians are fond of, the existentialism specifically, but existentialist philosophy has some libertarian undercurrents or some resonances, let’s say. The two places where it comes out most strongly are in the last aired episode, Objects In Space, which is even from the title, this is a reference to the work of Jean‐​Paul Sartre, and in particular his book, Nausea. Let’s say, the plot, this deals with a bounty hunter who is prone to these kind of odd philosophical reveries and who, among other things, describes himself at one point as having a code and he doesn’t… He’s chasing River for the government, and has taken over the ship and handily disposed of most of the fighting members of the crew, threatens in a really harrowing and terrifying scene to rape the mechanic played by Jewel Staite, Kaylee. And he says, “Well, I don’t wanna hurt people. It’s just part of the job.” To which River, the empathic telepathic crew member responds, “It’s why you took the job.”

0:08:30.3 Julian Sanchez: And this is an encapsulation of Sartre’s idea of bad faith, the idea that in order to evade the terror of personal responsibility, the frightening dimension of free will, that really you could choose to drive off a cliff, you could choose to do anything, it is anxiety‐​inducing to have freedom and responsibility, and so Sartre’s idea of bad faith is the idea of trying to vanish into a role. “I didn’t make this choice. I did this because I’m a soldier, because I’m a police officer, because I had to do this for my client as an accountant or as a lawyer or whatever.” But the idea that we attempt to escape from the terror of freedom by trying to vanish into professional roles or social roles, as though we’re not responsible then for the things that arise from that. So Sartre is Objects in Space. And then the movie, Serenity, which wraps up the whole series is I think… And I really don’t think this is me reading crazy things into it… It’s a speculation that he’s read this stuff, he’s very into it.

0:09:45.5 Julian Sanchez: And if you’re familiar with those works, the resonances are so powerful as to be clearly intentional. Serenity is, I think, essentially based on Albert Camus’s essay, The Rebel or L’Homme Revolte, which is about, well rebellion in a lot of ways, but in particular is talking about… And this is in the context of the mid‐​20th century, where a lot of self‐​declared revolutionaries were essentially communists looking to impose a regime at the end of history, and they believe because this will be the kind of final, perfect utopian regime, justifies a lot of conduct in the here and now that most people would regard as pretty despicable. And so Camus’s essay is essentially about this puzzle of, “Well, what does it mean to wanna live as neither a victim nor an executioner, neither a slave nor a slave holder? Can you be a rebel, but not without descending into the kind of dark mirror of the thing you’re revolting against?” And so Camus… And this is what actually occasioned his personal split from the more traditionally left‐​wing Sartre… He was very critical of doctrinaire communists because of in part, this idea that justified by the perfection of the end of history that you’re working to achieve, you can commit these kind of atrocities in the present.

0:11:28.6 Julian Sanchez: That is very much, of course, the attitude of the Operatives, the antagonist in Serenity, who at one point tells Mal, “I understand, I’m a monster. I’m not fit to live in the world I’m striving to create, but it’s going to be perfect, and that’s what entitles me to murder people and do all sorts of horrible things.” What Serenity shows us though is the attempt to create this kind of perfect end of history, here through a chemical designed to reduce human aggression, backfires completely. The government has been testing this on a population, hoping that you can dope people to make them less violent and more compliant and docile and peaceful, and what it ends up doing is half the population becomes so docile that they stop eating and drinking and breathing because they don’t care anymore, and then a very tiny percent becomes insanely aggressive and become kind of space cannibal pirates called Reavers. And Mal is very clear. They just say this outright, that people keep coming around to the idea that you can make people better, that you can fix human nature and make it fit a pattern that will make society more harmonious, and that this is invariably a recipe for disaster. So these are all in a way, I think, themes derived from Joss Whedon’s reading of existentialism, or works by existentialist philosophers, but it’s also, I think, obvious why the libertarians would find those themes resonant.

0:13:07.1 Jennifer Huddleston: I think libertarians have latched on to Firefly and found these themes, but I don’t necessarily know that the show is designed fully for this to be a “Libertarian show” of again, the same way of if someone said, “Let’s write a show about what a libertarian response would look like.” I’m not sure that people who go into Serenity and Firefly looking for that, I don’t think that’s exactly what you’re going to see. That being said, there are certainly these questions and themes that often get brought up in kind of libertarian political thought or questions around, how would a free society or a totalitarian society handle these different questions? What are the different philosophical issues that arise?

0:13:53.7 Jennifer Huddleston: We see this often coming up with the various incidents that happen when they’re out on a job of… When Jayne tries to betray River in the hospital and things like that, when you have these bounty hunters, a lot of these questions are about different ways people handle tough decisions, and different ways that we may see people in uncomfortable situations and how they handle those as well. You also have characters that may not be considered as libertarian as Captain Mal would be, so I think Book would be a good example of this, of he’s the priest, he clearly had ties to the Alliance, we find out because of when he was injured and they end up on a government ship, he’s able to get treatment. So I think the idea that this is only a libertarian show, or that the show is automatically advocating a libertarian philosophy at times, and some of the recent discourse gets a bit overblown, so certainly people can watch it and not be libertarians.

0:15:07.3 Trevor Burrus: And I wanna chime in on Julian’s point because it’s one of my favorite points, and again, going back, I used to give a lecture I haven’t given in a few years, called New Men for a New World, which discussed the relationship of concepts of human nature as they relate to different political philosophies, namely, as you have a political philosophy, what sort of people do you think need to be in that system? And pretty much actually as Aristotle said, “Man is a political animal.” Your first question in political philosophy is, “What is a man? What is the nature of human beings?” And that comes up in Communism, as Julian pointed out, that the idea that we could re‐​write human nature, we didn’t have to have homo sapiens with limited altruism, you could have homo sovieticus, which was this blank slate thesis. It came up in Jefferson’s thought on the kind of humans that should be living in his version of the United States, his vision for it, which was basically self‐​sustaining farmers who were virtuous. It comes up in the French Revolution. When you start trying to rewrite human nature, and that point in Serenity, that speech where Mal says, “They will come back to the idea of trying to make people better, and I know that they will do it again. They will not stop here.”

0:16:17.2 Trevor Burrus: Because that is for many people this question of whether or not, “Are the people choosing the government or creating the government, or is the government creating the people in some sense? Does the government need to have some hand in creating the people in a way that they can be governed?” And you could talk about a variety of things in that, drug control, public schools, or massive drugs put into the environment to make people more governable. It’s a fascinating question, and it should be thought of, and I agree that that to me is the most libertarian speech in the entire show, in Serenity, where he says, “They will not stop trying to make us better, because in their vision for a perfect world, we need to be a certain way.” And that doesn’t have to be libertarian. Resisting that isn’t libertarian, but revolutionaries have always done this. They’ve tried and recreated from the ground up and designed society, including the people who are involved in it. It’s one of my basic precepts I have is, don’t trust a revolution that resets the calendar. So that would be the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution would be the most prominent ones, where they’re actually thinking that they can build things from the bottom up, including the people, and that theme is throughout the entire show, but definitely in Serenity.

0:17:35.3 Julian Sanchez: And in Camus’s The Rebel, there’s this distinction really between the kind of rebel Camus is very sympathetic to who is in a sense very much preveological, or does not go theoretically much further than, “I am a human being, and there are ways that I and therefore any human being ought not to be treated, and so, offenses against human dignity and the human person has to be resisted.” As distinct from revolutionaries, that is people who are not just resisting a perceived opression, but who have a plan, have a vision of how the world ought to be, and want to impose that, want to create a kind of new and perfect society. And he’s far more skeptical about that and believes that it tends to lead to horrors. And I think we see very much in the crew of Serenity that sort of rebellion. In Camus’s sense, Mal Reynolds has libertarian instincts, but he’s not a political theorist. He says, “These are things that are unjust and wrong, and I’m going to resist them. I’m gonna misbehave.” But it’s not that he has some vision of, “Well, we ought to tear down the Alliance and replace it with my better form of interplanetary government.”

0:19:00.0 Trevor Burrus: On that point, the one thing that goes into this when we’re talking about what kind of people are we creating or what sort of vision do we have, Firefly also sits into a sci‐​fi trope, which you can put in Star Wars and many others, Moon is a Harsh Mistress, but probably not Star Trek to some extent, which is its theory of authenticity, which is something I think is super interesting. So the people on the Frontier are more authentic, and I think you see it visually that they live closer to the Earth, they dress in earthier sense, when you go more central, you see more metal, harder lines, more ornate outfits, you see this in Hunger Games too. The people living in Katniss’ province are perceived and shown to be more authentic people than the gas it up people in the central capital who are all beholden to something else, and I think that that’s a theme too that is existential in the way Julian was talking about.


0:20:00.9 Natalie Dowzicky: We’ve talked kind of a lot about Captain Reynolds and what his role is in the show, but while I was watching it, I was thinking to myself, I was wondering where his loyalties lie. So I feel like it was a little bit confusing, like he is very protective of his crew and looks out for his crew, but not always, and I’m remembering… [chuckle] I remember in the time when he found out he was getting back stabbed by… Like the other guy’s name right now.

0:20:27.9 Landry Ayres: Probably Jayne, I know it’s Jayne.

0:20:29.3 Natalie Dowzicky: Yeah, but then again, he was like, “Oh, don’t back stab me again.” It wasn’t like he just like made him go out into space, like he was gonna banish him from the ship, so I was kind of wondering where you guys think Captain Mal’s loyalties lie, and if Serenity, the movie, gave you any more insight to that?

0:20:47.0 Julian Sanchez: We see and we learn a lot about Mal Reynolds in the two‐​part pilot Serenity, that’s distinct from the movie Serenity, which for unfortunate reasons, was aired later in the run, really should have come first, but this is someone who actually was a kind of an ideologue in a sense first. He was a person who fought for causes, he was a commander in this war of independence, a brown code resisting the formation and extension of power of the alliance, and sees that cause lose. And we also see interesting that he’s a religious person at the time. He’s got a crucifix that he kisses before going off to fight and then watches most of his comrades just being utterly wiped out by an aerial bombardment and learns that the reinforcements that have been expected aren’t coming. And I think the sense you get from that is that this is someone who we see, for example, when Shepherd Book, the preacher shows up, the Mal that greets him says, “Well, you’re welcome on my ship if you’re paying, but God ain’t.” So very much in about faith. And this is also, again, someone who does the right thing at the local level in pretty clear instances, but he’s kind of done with grand causes until perhaps ultimately in the movie Serenity…

0:22:13.0 Trevor Burrus: There’s a line in Serenity, a line where he says… Oh, I think it’s in Serenity, where… About the alliance, he’s like, “I have no need to beat them, I just wanna go my own way.” Like that seems to be, for most of it, the depth of his ideology.

0:22:24.3 Jennifer Huddleston: But at the same time, I do think he is incredibly loyal to the people on the ship, even if he at times may make comments that indicate otherwise. If you look at the end of the day, he’s going to do the right thing by his friends, by the people he cares about, even if it means risk to himself at times, and I think that is where you do see that that loyalty does lie to the people who he feels he’s responsible for in some way, whether it’s because they are paying customers or because of his bond with Zoe from having been kind of comrades in the war, you really do see that while he may talk about these kind of, Jayne back stabbing him or whatever, or be concerned about the risk associated with different actions, at the end of the day, he does feel that he has a responsibility to this kind of society he has created amongst these people.

0:23:29.8 Julian Sanchez: Yeah, I think the scene where he faces off with Jayne. Jayne, he… Has clocked out that Jayne was trying to sell out the new arrivals on the ship who are kind of fugitives from the government, and so he decides to… He can make a little cash by tipping off the government, Mal discovers this after the fact, and cracks him over the head and puts him in an airlock ready to dump him out, and they have this exchange, where Jayne says, “Well, I understand. It’s not like I… We just met these people, it’s not like I did this to you, I wouldn’t have sold you out.” And Mal says, “You did it to me. That’s what you don’t understand. These people are part of the crew now, so you did this to me.” I think the sense we get here, this is a guy who no longer has a nation or a cause, no longer has a kind of faith community, he’s got the family he’s chosen on this ship, these nine people, but that loyalty is intensely fierce.

0:24:33.0 Landry Ayres: So Jennifer had mentioned and sort of pushed back on some readings of Firefly as a libertarian show, and we sort of came to the understanding that it has a lot of libertarian themes, things that speak to libertarians, but it wasn’t intended to be that way, even if Mal as a character was. And this made me think of another question that Jennifer had sort of mentioned as we were preparing for this episode, which is the sort of dystopian view of the future that seems to be inherent in a lot of sci‐​fi, which obviously has huge ties to western… Westerns as a genre.

0:25:19.0 Landry Ayres: Why do you think that sort of dystopian view is so prevalent in sci‐​fi stories like Firefly, and would a sci‐​fi story that existed in a more libertarian Utopia be an interesting sci‐​fi series? Would it be an interesting series if it wasn’t science fiction? And is that to do with sci‐​fi, or is that to do with libertarianism and its goals?

0:25:50.2 Jennifer Huddleston: Yeah, I kinda wanna jump in on this, from the tech policy point of view, I think this is really interesting that most of our views of the future have technology as a bad thing, whether it’s the Alliance using mind control and facial recognition as a form of surveillance, or whether it’s Terminator and killer robots. That’s the most logical extension, or Minority Report and the ability to use AI to pre‐​know when somebody’s gonna commit a crime, we tend to, in our fiction, classify these technological advancements by what’s the worst possible outcome. Because oftentimes, that can create this kind of friction for the good guys to fight against, but I do think it’s concerning in some ways that that’s our default in sci‐​fi, is what can go wrong with technology rather than what can go right, because that can spill over to our view of technology in general and lead to us taking a much more precautionary approach, because if our concern is that robots will devolve into Terminator, that facial recognition will devolve into an Alliance‐​style surveillance state, or that AI will lead to the Minority Report scenario, we aren’t necessarily going to focus on the benefits of those technologies.

0:27:15.3 Jennifer Huddleston: The fact that there are a lot of positive uses and that that really is a worst‐​case scenario kind of thinking that it’s probably unlikely to happen. It’s fiction for a reason. On the other hand, it seems that the idea of where the technology all goes right and improves everyone’s lives, and gradually, we see societal changes, doesn’t make for as interesting television and film. There are some kind of exceptions. One of my go‐​to kind of positive view of technology and innovation movies is actually a Disney movie that no one else seems to have watched called Meet the Robinsons, where it’s a young inventor who, through a series of event, gets to travel to the future where he actually sees his future self and the improvements that he’s made, and there’s a villain trying to, in some ways, stop this positive feature from happening, rather than the technology leading to a negative future instead. And just like in… When we look at sci‐​fi, we don’t always see a negative view, we do see really cool technology being used by the good guys as well, whether it’s Firefly or Star Wars or Star Trek, in general, there’s this kind of unease that the bad guys got this technology that gave them the superpower that the good guys are now having to fight back against.

0:28:49.2 Trevor Burrus: I think, plotting is, I think, a big part… There’s obviously a tendency of dystopian sci‐​fi, but it kind of depends on perspective, right? Plotting is a huge part of this, as Jennifer pointed out, if you’re gonna have people fighting against something, then that’s part of the plotting. And you could tell a story in the Firefly universe of someone working at an office building in an Alliance territory who just has an awesome life, and doesn’t really think about what’s happening on the outer rim of the galaxy… You could tell a story in the Hunger Games with the same thing. So it’s more about how they plot these things, I think.

0:29:23.0 Julian Sanchez: Well, in Star Trek, the Federation is at least sort of pre Picard and some of the more recent shows, was traditionally a lesser depicted as basically utopian. We’ve overcome inequality and hunger and hardship, and disease all these things, but that’s not where the show is set, ’cause that’s… Utopia is boring. So the show is set out on the fringes on the ship that’s exploring new territories on the space station that’s in the contested region with a hostile power just over the horizon. That’s what makes for more interesting television. The same thing in Iain Banks’ wonderful Culture novels, the Culture, the sort of post‐​human, galaxy‐​wide civilization that’s sort of managed by AIs, friendly AIs, is basically utopian within the Culture, but the novels are basically all about special circumstances, which is their CIA that goes out and does liaisons with other cultures. That makes for, as a rule, more interesting stories.

0:30:27.6 Julian Sanchez: There’s definitionally no serious conflicts in Utopia. But if drama is… One definition of drama is, someone wants something badly and either gets it or doesn’t, and if there’s nothing you want because all your needs are satisfied, there’s not a lot of dramatic potential there. Although, I will say in a sense, you could read Firefly as a kind of picture of a utopian community where you have these very different people, all kind of living bumpily, but ultimately harmoniously. The last, in fact, the last, my favorite episode of the series and the last one, Object in Space, ends with… It is about, ultimately, the integration of River who is neuroatypical because of experimentation by the Alliance, and always served, in a sense, acts somewhat of a distance from the rest of the crew who are frankly a little bit frightened of her. Kaylee, in an earlier episode has seen her basically blind‐​firing, take out three soldiers with headshots, and so actually finds her kind of frightening. So we start with River…

0:31:42.4 Julian Sanchez: Somewhat disconnected from the rest of the crew. She picks up something she sees as a branch, but it turns out it’s a gun, and there are a lot of jumpy cuts, showing how she’s distant from the rest. And then the final shot of the episode and the series is this long continuous shot that tracks through the entire ship and passes by and shows us all of the crew. So now no more jump cuts, everyone is connected, in this really beautiful single fluid shot. So in a sense, like all of Joss Whedon’s shows, and I think he’s said this himself, “Firefly is about found family more than whatever political themes might have made their way in.” And it is in that sense, utopian in that it imagines this community of quite disparate people you might not expect to cohabit successfully have found a community together on this ship, and maybe that is as close to a utopia as they’re gonna get in this verse.


0:32:57.0 Natalie Dowzicky: This is kind of a related question, but I was thinking, watching the show, and now that I know the movie’s named after this, what is the significance of the name Serenity? ‘Cause to me, serenity means tranquility, and I don’t know, for some reason I think of a day spa when I hear the word serenity [chuckle] but was there a significance to that, ’cause obviously it’s the name of the space ship, and then later the movie that followed quite a few years later?

0:33:22.3 Trevor Burrus: It’s the battle. It’s the battle.

0:33:23.1 Jennifer Huddleston: It’s the battle.

0:33:23.9 Julian Sanchez: Yeah.

0:33:24.1 Natalie Dowzicky: It is the battle? Okay.

0:33:25.4 Jennifer Huddleston: Which is kind of…

0:33:26.5 Trevor Burrus: Serenity Valley.

0:33:28.7 Jennifer Huddleston: An irony in an of itself that…

0:33:29.1 Natalie Dowzicky: ‘Cause he… Wait, he lost that battle, though, right?

0:33:31.3 Trevor Burrus: Yes. The Battle of Serenity Valley, yeah.

0:33:33.5 Jennifer Huddleston: But there’s also this irony of the Serenity, which is a term that would normally be thought of as peaceful, and the kind of logical conclusion would be, “Oh, he has found peace with this found family on this ship.” Which is one way to kind of read the use of the term. It’s also associated with something that’s the opposite of peaceful, with a battle, and not only with a battle, with a battle that he lost as well. So there is this kind of interesting juxtaposition in the way that that name is used throughout the series.

0:34:08.8 Julian Sanchez: I think there is a little bit of studio intervention perhaps in the character of Mal Reynolds. If you look at the character we see in the two part pilot, Serenity, it does not seem like the kind of guy who’s making jokes about terrifying space monkeys that we see in the aired first episode, The Train Job. This is a much harder edged, more bitter, less affable jokey guy than we get for the rest of the show. I think maybe the original impression of Mal is that this is really a guy who is still living in that defeat, that loss, and not just of the war but of the lives of his comrades. This has really profoundly embittered him, left him angry at the universe, at God, and I think maybe… This is me hypothesizing… There’s a distinct enough difference in the character in those first two episodes and the rest of the series that you have to suspect maybe some Fox executive said, “Could you make your protagonist a little bit more likeable, because this is not a guy people are gonna wanna put on posters on their walls if he’s so bitter.” And the character as he played out I think is fantastic, but I think maybe the original image of him was someone who is trapped in that battle and shaped by that.

0:35:54.0 Natalie Dowzicky: I had mentioned earlier that we were gonna have everyone tell us what their favorite episode was and give us their thesis statement to why that may be. And Julian already gave us his favorite, so, Jennifer, do you have a favorite?

0:36:05.2 Jennifer Huddleston: Well, and I think that’s an interesting question because the one that I think is best and the one that I think is perhaps the most enjoyable watch, a fun thing, are two different things. I would say for the most watchable, the one that I would probably re‐​watch most, would be either Our Miss Reynolds, where our lovely Captain Mal finds himself accidentally married as a result of one of their excursions, or Jaynestown, which is kind of an interesting contrast of this character, Jayne, who has always been seen as the kind of… He’s not the captain, he’s the one who tries to sell out River and Simon earlier on.

0:37:00.3 Jennifer Huddleston: They end up on this planet, and it turns out he’s the hero. He’s the one who is respected as saving them all, for something that he thinks was a bad action, or something that he did not expect to be appreciated, and so he gets to have his hero moment as well. In terms of one of the best‐​written, best‐​plotted, I would say Out of Gas. It is an incredibly heart‐​wrenching episode where they think the ship is going to go down and that they are all going to perish with it, and so some of the question there is, when you think the end is near, what does that mean? What do you do both to try and save the ship and save the people you love, but also kind of what are some of those conversations they could have. So I wouldn’t call it my favorite episode, but I think it’s one of the best written out of them.

0:38:00.9 Trevor Burrus: Yeah, and that would remind of Objects and Spaces. I think clearly the best in Out of Gas is probably be the second for all the reasons Jennifer said. And as I talked about before we started recording, I am a huge fan of the movie. I actually think it’s a masterpiece in all the context of what he had to do to introduce these characters to people who had knew them very well, people who had never seen them before. It’s just a really fun movie. I invite everyone. Just even the first 10 minutes are absolutely brilliant the way that he puts forth a really compelling plot and explains everything very quickly, so if I choose, the movie is my favorite episode, is that cheating?

0:38:39.2 Natalie Dowzicky: I’m sad because no one shows my favorite episode. I liked… So it’s episode 12, which I don’t know if it was the original episode 12, but it’s the one where it’s the guy that’s smuggling human organs.

0:38:51.4 Trevor Burrus: Oh yeah, yeah, Tracy…

0:38:55.9 Natalie Dowzicky: And he said he’s like an incubator to keep the organs alive, so he can sell them to the highest bidder basically. I just thought… I thought it was interesting partially ’cause the scenes… The episode started with them getting delivered a dead body, right? [chuckle] So I mean, that caught me and I also… There was a strong quote in that episode that was like, “We went to war looking to never come back and it turns out it’s the real world that I can’t survive.” So they said that quite a few times throughout the episode and it kind of resonated, so I thought that one was the most interesting, but I guess now I have to watch the movie, so you guys did a good job of selling it. [laughter]

0:39:36.4 Landry Ayres: Yeah, I’m a fan of Out of Gas as well. I think that’s one of my favorites and sort of putting characters in a situation where their back is really, really up against a wall and they have to function in a way that they wouldn’t normally get to use their strengths and get out of situations in ways that they are normal and more predictable. I think that… And there are parts that it almost reminds me of a bottle episode in that way and that they’re all isolated and it’s very stripped‐​down production. And I just kind of love those as sort of separate little avenues that shows can go off on that allow you to sit down and really focus on relationships between characters that you wouldn’t normally have the time to really get. So I think that one is probably my favorite, but I also, because it’s so… It reminds me of watching it for the first time and really love it. I love the train job. I think it’s fun.

0:40:34.4 Julian Sanchez: So do I, sure.

0:40:36.1 Landry Ayres: Yeah. It’s I could see why people were like, this is kind of a weird one and why it may have not actually been what the premier probably should have been after watching them in the order that they were intended to be released in. Because I also did not watch it when it was on the air. I watched… I binge‐​watched it later, but I do… I love a good heist story. I think it’s one of my favorite genres of episode or movie or something like that. I love it when a plan comes together. I also love it when a plan falls apart, so that’s probably…

0:41:11.9 Jennifer Huddleston: And I’m just gonna jump in and say, perhaps one of the, the blessing and the curse of this being such a short series is I do not think there is a bad episode. I think that they all…

0:41:23.3 Landry Ayres: True.

0:41:23.8 Jennifer Huddleston: Have their own advantages and their own moments, and then where… There’s not one I can point to and be like, “Oh, skip that one.”


0:41:34.6 Landry Ayres: And now for the time in the show where we get to share all of the other things that we’ve been enjoying with our time at home, this is locked in. Julian, Jennifer, Trevor, what else have you been enjoying with your time at home now, just about a year that we’ve done at home, locked in?

0:41:52.5 Julian Sanchez: Well, like everyone else I know, I’ve been watching WandaVision, which I think is absolutely fantastic and is in a way it’s not the first picture of Meta TV Show in a sense of being a show. It’s about TV and its forms, but it may be the first show that is about television in a world of networked audiences. So it’s not just about TV itself as a medium, it’s about how we engage with television in a world where it’s not just you sit down and you watch the show, and you wait for the next episode, but where you have people going on boards and making reaction videos and having theories about what’s gonna happen next. And where you can look up characters so you can actually have these incredibly complicated interconnections with this whole rest of the semantic universe because you can go on Wikipedia and figure that out.

0:42:51.5 Julian Sanchez: There’s a point in one episode where a character who was last seen as a little girl in the film Captain Marvel is having a heated exchange about where her mother is with a nurse and it’s done in reverse shot. And she’s saying, “Where’s my mother? She must be here. I just fell asleep for a few minutes.” And then she turns to a nurse and says, “My mother is Monica Rambeau, look her up.” And it’s a very deliberate choice to cut there. She’s telling the audience, “Look, do you not remember who Maria Rambeau is? Well, go to a Wiki and look her up because you should know how this person fits in the series.” It’s an incredibly smart show that way.

0:43:34.7 Julian Sanchez: I’ve been reading. I read the most recent Emily St. John Mandel novel, The Glass Hotel, which is impossible to summarize really. I’ll just say, I think it’s very good and look it up and if it sounds like it would be interesting to you, check it out, but it’s insignificant part about the collapse of a financial fraud of the Bernie Madoff style. But it’s about a lot more than that and it’s more interesting than that sounds, and gaming actually… Usually, I said there’s some computer game, a video game I’m playing. My partner and I just looking for ways to fill time in doors that are not just watching something on a screen and are closed, have actually rediscovered a game we both played in high school and hadn’t really touched in 20 years, Magic: The Gathering, which is a game where you construct a deck of cards that have very different effects, and you look for interesting interactions and you try and defeat your opponent through this simulated war between two powerful wizards, and it’s just a lot of fun. It has enormous variety because there’s tens of thousands of cards, and you can find all these interesting synergies and strategies to try out, and if you don’t wanna build your own deck, a lot of online stores will have these pre‐​built little decks, so you can just get a whole stack of pre‐​made decks to start with, and get quite a lot of enjoyment out of that.

0:45:04.3 Jennifer Huddleston: So I will echo and say WandaVision has definitely been the most, the most recent, and we are recording this on the evening that the final episode will be released. I will also say I cried in episode seven in a way I have not cried since the infamous phrase, “I’m a leaf on the wind.”


0:45:26.6 Jennifer Huddleston: For everyone listening to this who does know Firefly, that will have meaning to them. So that, definitely. The Mandalorian, of course, earlier on in quarantine, but then to take us out of the sci‐​fi realm, also Bridgerton, and yeah, as I say and The Crown. So those… And I’ll even admit to Emily in Paris as a guilty pleasure, if nothing else, just for the scenery and the travel envy these days when we’re all stuck at home. In terms of reading, I actually find that I tend to read more non‐​fiction these days, just as a way to explore different places and different things. Not philosophical, but I have actually enjoyed reading a lot of sports‐​related books recently, so the last book I read was Win At All Cost about the Alberto Salazer scandal at Nike Running. And then I’m not a big video game player actually. It’s one of the few nerdy things that I have never fully gotten into. I’m a marathon runner, so I more tend to listen to podcasts on long runs than have video game marathons, but I think they certainly are an art form, and it’s fascinating to think about the growing eSports industry as well during all of this.

0:47:01.9 Trevor Burrus: I’ve been revisiting some old classics, re‐​reading the Sandman comic series, which if you have not read that is pretty much the pinnacle of comic storytelling. I reread for probably the sixth or seventh time, what is probably my favorite novel, which was Anathem by Neal Stephenson. I highly suggest that if you’re into Western philosophy or just really, really good storytelling and creating a world that makes the familiar seem strange, and of course, WandaVision, I will third that. And gaming, cyberpunk, of course, and I’ve been going through the Metro 2033 series, which is excellent. It’s sort of sci‐​fi, very good game play.

0:47:44.1 Natalie Dowzicky: I guess I’m the only one who hasn’t seen WandaVision yet, so I should get on that train. [chuckle] So I recently started Band of Brothers. It’s an HBO show. I don’t know how that one slipped through the cracks, but so far it’s good. I’m like two episodes in. And then on the book front, I just started reading The Invisible Bridge, which I think, Trevor, you recommended that to me?

0:48:05.5 Trevor Burrus: I recommended that. I love that book, yes.

0:48:07.9 Natalie Dowzicky: Yeah. So I’m really into World War Two fiction books. I’ve read a ton of them, and that’s another World War Two fiction book. On the gaming side, I usually don’t say anything here, but the [0:48:18.8] ____ team just started a Sherlock Holmes mystery game yesterday that we haven’t been able to finish, so hopefully we can find out who killed the two kids in London. [chuckle] So that’ll be the only gaming I’m doing right now.

0:48:37.7 Landry Ayres: I will piggyback off what Natalie said and say specifically, I’m the one. I have the case book that I’ve been reading to the group as we play remotely Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective, which I think I discovered during quarantine. So I think I recommended it very early on during one of the episodes. I will say, if you’re curious about Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective, all of them are fun. The best box that I would recommend is the one that I think came out the most recently, which is The Baker Street Irregulars. They’ve streamlined a lot of the mechanics for it and reduced some of the complexities, and I also think it is the most well‐​written set of cases that they have released. So also the podcast, Good Christian Fun, Christian pop culture phenomena from a sort of funny, not quite critical lens, but they’re not there to convert you or tell you to go to church, but they’re also there to laugh and make fun of stuff, so it’s basically taking religious movies and TV shows and music and walking through them with famous guests who have some sort of experience with the evangelical community, either growing up or still currently, and they’re very funny.

0:50:00.2 Landry Ayres: So if you understand references to things like Adventures in Odyssey or Mark Lowry or Reliant K or anything like that, you might enjoy Good Christian Fun, because I know I put my head to my hands multiple times every episode, ’cause it speaks to me in a way that a lot of media does not. [chuckle] And the last two things I’ll say. Two novellas that I’ve really, really enjoyed and blew through super quickly, Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark, which is a sort of magical historical fiction where in the history of the world, the film Birth of a Nation is actually part of an incantation that summons a bunch of demons that turn klansmen into monsters, and a bunch of these heroes basically are sort of trying to fight and kill all of these murderous Ku Klux monsters in Macon, Georgia at the time, and they go to Stone Mountain where they’re screening the film, and there’s weird cosmic horror fantasy elements, and it’s really easy to read. It’s great. And This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El‐​Mohtar and Max Gladstone. So good. Two warring time traveling spies from different factions that start communicating throughout time with one another and building this relationship, and it’s so well written. It’s beautiful, complex, surprising, super easy to read. Highly recommend This is How You Lose the Time War.


0:51:44.4 Landry Ayres: Thanks for listening. As always, the best way to get more Pop & Locke‐​related content and to connect with us is to follow us on Twitter. You can find us at the handle @PopnLockePod That’s Pop, the letter N, Locke with an E like the philosopher, Pod. Make sure to follow us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. We look forward to unraveling your favorite show or movie next time.


0:52:14.5 Landry Ayres: Pop & Locke is produced by me, Landry Ayres as a project of lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org To learn more, visit us on the web at www​.lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org.