River Tam (Summer Glau) lies in bed, listening to barely audible voices. She rises and walks barefoot through the ship. Her brother Simon (Sean Maher) is talking with Kaylee (Jewel Staite). To River, Simon is blaming River for ruining his medical career with her problems. Jayne (Adam Baldwin) and Shepherd Book (Ron Glass) are talking. To River, Jayne is confessing he betrayed the Tams. Zoe (Gina Torres) and Wash (Alan Tudyk) are kissing on the bridge to the sound of ocean waves. Mal (Jason Fillion) and Inara (Morena Baccarin) speak of the latter’s pending departure, but River hears their love for one another.
In the empty cargo bay, River picks up a tree-branch, only recognizing it as one of Jayne’s pistols when the crew surrounds her in a panic. Mal takes the gun away and she runs off, in tears. A small vessel approaches. Aboard is a man reading wanted posters for Simon and River. The Serenity crew discusses River’s possible danger to the ship. Kaylee tells them of the incident when River killed three invaders with three shots, with her eyes closed. They are beginning to realize she has dangerous powers. Outside the hull of the ship, a bounty hunter named Jubal Early (Richard Brooks) is listening through the hull, and River is listening to the crew through the floor plating.
The bounty hunter boards the ship as everyone sleeps. He knocks Mal unconscious and locks everyone in their cabins. He finds Kaylee in the engine room, ties her up, and threatens rape to keep her quiet. He disables Book with a surprise attack. He attacks Simon, calling him by name. He philosophizes about the nature of things as he demands to know where River is. Simon refuses, but Early threatens to rape Kaylee and he gives in.
With Simon, Early searches the cargo bay and shuttles. He pistol-whips Inara and locks her in her shuttle. On the bridge, Early announces to the ship that he will kill Simon if River does not reveal herself. River responds, telling him she is not wanted by the crew, so she has melted into the ship. In the engine room, Kaylee hears her over the intercom, asking for help. River speaks to Early, revealing extensive knowledge about him. Early is beginning to believe she is part of the ship. Kaylee frees herself and River sends her to unlock the cabins.
River needles Early about his past. He now realizes River is on his ship. She agrees to go with him because she is not wanted by the others, but only if he leaves Simon alone. Simon tries to stop him and is shot in the leg. Jayne wakes up, pulls down the curtain to reveal all his guns, covers himself with the curtain, and goes back to sleep. The bounty hunter exits the ship in his suit, but finds Mal outside, who shoves him into space and welcomes River home. Later, Simon instructs Zoe in treating his leg-wound, Jayne mocks Book for being unable to defeat Early despite his priest training, and Kaylee and River play jacks. River picks up the swirling ball and is lost in its depths.
The story was influenced by Boba Fett and Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist novel Nausea. Both River and Jubal Early are not quite all there. They seem to move the same way in the ship, touching the bulkheads as if not certain they exist. When River chides him for hurting people, he says, “It’s part of the job.” She replies, “It’s why you took the job.” Accidentally, it is a nice final episode before the movie, which takes place a few months later. Incidentally, Jubal Early was the name of a general who died in 1894, a distant relative of Nathan Fillion. He was a Southern Brigadier General who somehow survived almost every significant battle of the Civil War.