We're at the final regular stop on our summer trip through Joss Whedon's outer space Western "Firefly," but not the last stop, period, since I'll have at least a few things to say about the movie a week from today. In the meantime, a review of the final episode of the TV show itself coming up just as soon as I rub soup in my hair...

"Permission to come aboard?" -River

"Objects in Space" wasn't the last episode of "Firefly" produced, nor the final one aired (remember, FOX decided to save "Serenity" for last), but it works well as the much-too-soon series finale in the DVD order Whedon settled on. Though the first and only season was largely telling standalone stories about the jobs Mal and the crew hired on to do, the most prominent ongoing element was River's presence on the ship and the trouble it caused. So it feels right for the series to close on an episode where the hunt for River finally extends inside the walls of Serenity, and where River is finally accepted as part of the crew, in a lovely tracking shot that connects her to all the other characters.

On Whedon's DVD commentary track for this episode - one of the few DVD commentaries I've ever listened to more than once, and one I recommend if you care about the show and somehow haven't heard it yet - he talks about how the episode's roots were born in his teenage crisis of faith and discovery of existentialism, and the idea of morality in a world without God, which he previously summed up in a line from "Angel": "If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do."

Again, I highly endorse listening to Joss monologue for 40+ minutes on that subject, on the importance of Summer Glau's feet and on Tim Minear's inability to pronounce "Boba Fett" correctly. It's an interesting, entertaining(*) glimpse into the mind of one of the most creative writers in the business, and it neatly illustrates the themes of the episode, and the bond between Summer and bounty hunter Jubal Early, and explains why (beyond the fact that she's crazy) River looks at a gun and sees a tree branch on the Serenity cargo bay floor.

(*) I used to listen to DVD commentaries far more than I do now, just due to time constraints, and one of the things that always bugged me was when the participants would just pause for long stretches to watch the movie or show. Then a couple of weeks ago, I was invited to appear on a commentary track for a "Treme" episode written by my friend, the late David Mills. Though I vowed that I would try to keep the conversation going at all times, it's a lot harder than it looks from the outside, and there were definitely spots where the actors and I weren't as talkative as we should have been. That experience only increased my appreciation for guys like Joss and Kevin Smith who can talk endlessly about the experience. And because Joss doesn't let up for almost all of it, it stands out when he finally does acknowledge that he's pausing just because he wants to enjoy the exchange Simon and Jubal Early have about the arsonist dwarf. That's a bit that amused me when I watched the episode sans commentary, but when Joss shuts up and says it's one of his favorite scenes he's ever written, I pay extra notice.

But even without the commentary, "Objects in Space" stands out as one of the most memorable, and (intentionally) weirdest, episodes of the series.

Because River's mind was cracked open and not put back together properly by the Alliance, it seems only fair that the man who should finally come for her be not all there himself. Richard Brooks, best known for being the stiffest (and least supermodel-y) of all the prosecutorial sidekicks on the original "Law & Order"(**), might have seemed an unlikely choice to play Early, but he's fantastic: so cool and creepy and dangerous and mad. Some of the latter wasn't originally on the page, but when Brooks read the "Maybe I've always been here?" line to Kaylee as if Early wasn't entirely sure himself, Whedon was inspired to have him keep pushing the performance in that direction.

(**) He was less surprising to me, since I'd already had my "Wow, Richard Brooks is a lot of fun when he gets to loosen up" epiphany when watching him on a short-lived USA series called "G Vs. E," where Brooks got to wear an afro, sing along to the Commodores and generally be awesome.

Only a madman could find River Tam, but only a madman could be distracted as long as Early was by her claim that she had become part of the ship. The episode wisely keeps Glau off-screen for the middle portion, and because we still don't entirely understand what River's powers are beyond mind-reading and blind marksmanship, it's not entirely out of the realm of possibility that she could have merged with Serenity. Stranger things have happened on Whedon shows, and the focus on River and Early made this feel like a bizarre enough hour where it could have happened.

Instead, River singlehandedly frees Mal, inspires Kaylee to be brave, and tricks Early into coming back out onto the hull so that Mal can punch him off into space. River becomes a full part of the crew - Nathan Fillion playing Mal's joy at greeting her after the plan works out is wonderful to behold - while Early is left tumbling endlessly in the void, saying a line that, given the cancellation, feels like a sadly appropriate farewell:

"Well... here I am."

And "Firefly" appeared destined to remain an object in space, floating forever in the minds of its fans without ever getting a chance to move forward.

The fans, though, had other ideas. About which we'll get to next week.

Some other thoughts:

-Jewel Staite never fails to give me the chills in the scene where Early warns Kaylee that he'll rape her if she gives him any trouble. As Joss puts it in the commentary, it's the sort of thing you write and then wonder about your goodness as a person, but there's no questioning how great Staite is at playing Kaylee's terror.

-Note how quickly and decisively Early chooses to take out Book, and then how he dismisses him to Simon by saying, "That ain't a shepherd." Once again, Book was much more dangerous than he let on.

-Book earns his concussion, I suppose, by stepping in on the closest Simon and Kaylee have yet come to a kiss. It's interesting, though, to see how physically close and affectionate they are earlier in the episode when he's telling her a story from his surgical days.

-Early's red pleather space-suit is bad-ass. Just sayin'.

-The scene in the galley where Kaylee tells the others about River's shooting exploits while River listens from below and Early from above (because they are the same) is like some kind of crazy The Quotable Jayne Cobb's greatest hits segment. I have a hard time picking my favorite dumb thing he says there, but it's probably the mangled, "If wishes were horses, we'd all be eating steak" line.

Coming up next: The franchise began with a movie-length TV episode called "Serenity." It ends with a genuine movie of the same name.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com