The episode starts out with a typical day on the ship. The crew is on their way to a core planet called Ariel, where Inara is going to get a checkup as part of the requirements of her Companion guild. Shepherd Book is absent from this episode, spending time with his monastery. All of a sudden, River grabs a knife slashes at Jayne’s chest. Once again, Blue Sun Corporation is to blame here (Jayne was wearing a Blue Sun t-shirt), but again, nobody knows that yet. Jayne gets major paranoid that River could go after any one of them. Mal, however, insists that Simon and River are part of the crew. He decides to put River on lockdown and reminds Simon to keep his sister in check.
Once the crew of Serenity lands on Ariel, Simon comes up with the idea for a job. Simon informs them of the types of medicines they can steal from the hospital, medicine that can be easily restocked, in exchange for getting access to a diagnostic ward that has a 3D neuro-imager. Simon basically figures he can kill 2 birds with one stone: find out what’s wrong with River and actually contribute to the crew outside of just being a medic.
Simon lays out the plan for smuggling him and his sister into the hospital. Jayne, Zoe, Mal, and Wash disguise themselves as EMTs and rehearse an elaborate emergency situation in which Simon and River pretend to be dead. When Simon explains the plan to River, she’s scared, but Simon reassures her that everything will be okay.
Mal, Zoe, and Jayne make it to the hospital and are able to take River and Simon to the morgue without anyone asking questions. Jayne is in charge of making sure that Simon and River are okay, but Jayne takes advantage of the situation to call the feds to turn Simon and River in. The three of them pass through the recovery ward and Simon takes care of a patient on the brink of death due to a bad medication mix. He calls out the doctor on making a rookie mistake while River smiles at her brother with pride.
Mal and Zoe are able to get to the medical supply room without too much trouble while Jayne, River, and Simon make it to the 3D neuro-imager. Simon takes a look at River’s brain and realizes that the Academy attempted to lobotomize River and cut her amygdala out. For those who didn’t pay attention in biology class, the amygdala is that part of the brain that suppresses emotions. This means that River feels everything without any self control. Add to the fact that she can read minds and has some slight clairvoyance and you basically have a soup full of crazy and wrong trapped inside of the body of a 17-year-old girl. Even Jayne is horrified, but still plans on turning traitor. So when River gets a panic attack, you realize it’s because she knows what Jayne is gonna do and is fearing the worst. And her premonition turns out to be correct: Jayne leads them out of the hospital to get the reward money only for the federal marshal to turn traitor on Jayne in return.
Mal and Zoe make it back to the refurbished space ambulance with Wash and realize that something is wrong. Kaylee checks the space version of the police scanner and finds out that Jayne, Simon, and River are captured. Jayne and Simon fight off the marshals while Mal and Zoe go looking for them. Unfortunately, reinforcements come in. Remember the two men wearing blue gloves AKA the Hands of Blue from an earlier episodes? They’re back and they’re armed with sonic transmitters that have the power of literally blowing people’s brains out from the inside. Jayne, River, and Simon make a run for it, with River leading the two men to an exit, where Mal and Zoe are on the other side waiting for them.
The team makes it back to Serenity with some minor scratches. Simon thanks Jayne for helping them escape the feds. However, Mal is smart enough to realize that Jayne was the reason that Simon and River got flagged by the feds in the first place and knocks Jayne out, leaving him in the cargo bay airlock in the sci-fi version of what is called “keel hauling.” Jayne confesses to Mal and asks Mal why he’s taking it so personally. Mal reminds Jayne that if anyone turns on the crew, it’s considered a mutiny for him. Jayne begs Mal for mercy and Mal thankfully does so, telling Jayne that the next time he decides to turn traitor to not act as a coward. The episode ends with Simon giving River medicine.
There are 3 major themes in this episode: the concepts of loyalty, justice, and mercy. Simon wants to prove his loyalty to the crew of Serenity by giving them a mission that has a big payoff. Jayne learns how there is no honor among thieves, or in this case within the Alliance. He also learns that loyalty isn’t an individual thing.
That end scene with Jayne getting “keel hauled” by Mal is a perfect example of justice and mercy working together. Some people might think that Jayne got off too easy, staying alive and all. But he has to live with Mal constantly questioning his loyalty and the fact that he betrayed a man who’s trying to figure out what’s wrong with his sister, who is not in full control of her actions. It was right for Mal to warn Jayne not to do what he did again and it was also right not to let Jayne suffocate. It’s also interesting that Shepherd Book wasn’t in the episode because he and Jayne have an odd friendship and if anyone has the right to absolve Jayne of his sins, it’s the good Shepherd.
Justice is rendering to someone what they’re due and mercy, as pointed out by Mal earlier, is the mark of a great man. Mal showed to Jayne why he’s the captain of the ship. Since Shepherd Book is absent, it’s up to Mal to distribute the justice and the mercy that Jayne deserves and needs.