Welcome to the third episode in the series, the second to air, and the second one that had to have awkward parts shoved in to account for “Serenity” not airing.
The episode starts with the crew of the Serenity playing a future version of Calvinball. If you don’t understand what that means, please go and read the entirety of Calvin and Hobbes. Or, just read the next sentence: It’s a game where the rules can change at almost any time, and you never play the same game twice. It’s a goofy childish game based around fun, rather than rules. Simon, naturally, doesn’t understand it at all.
Wash goes to check on a proximity alarm, and a corpse hits the windshield. They find an abandoned ship floating through space. Mal decides to investigate. When he asks what it is, River mutters “Ghosts.”
The crew determines that the ship was likely a group of colonists, but are suspicious that there is no emergency beacon coming from the ship. Mal and Zoe head over to the ship, finding signs that the ship was occupied normally immediately before whatever killed the crew happened. Food is out, someone was writing a log entry, the ship’s power was on, etc.
Jayne tells Simon to come over onto the ship, but then pranks him by telling him to wear a bulky spacesuit, something Simon fears, despite the ship now being filled with oxygen and connected to Serenity. The crew explores the ship, meanwhile, River sneaks onboard. They notice that the lifeboat is missing, but that the shuttle wouldn’t house even 1/3 of the passenger manifest. Despite this, no corpses.
Mal and Zoe find a sealed room and cut their way inside, with River following, but inside they find a group of corpses that have been hung from the ceiling and gutted. Mal says he knows what did this and orders Jayne to get everyone off of the ship, but Jayne is attacked by an unseen man. Jayne knocks him off, and the crew find a scared young man in the corner.
They bring the man back to the ship, where Mal reveals that the ship was attacked by Reavers, something that terrifies everyone on the ship that knows the word. Jayne wants to deny that it was Reavers, desperately, to the point of outright contradiction and rebellion. Book says it was just bad men, but Jayne says the famous line “Reavers ain’t men,” to which Mal agrees.
Mal allows Inara, Book, and Simon to go perform funeral rights for the ship, but it’s revealed that Mal just wants them to be out of the way while the rest of the crew disarms a booby trap left by the Reavers. Kaylee manages to disarm it. The crew starts to leave, but they are met by what looks like the Alliance cruiser from the first episode. There is an alert about the Tams issued to the cruiser, so Mal is forced to hide them at the cost of all of the goods that they just acquired. Simon is skeptical, but ends up hiding with River.
The crew is interrogated, and this sequence is pretty great, because they cut between the different characters mid-question which creates a lot of funny juxtapositions and suggestive questions. As the Alliance soldiers search, we’re finally shown where the Tams are hiding: They’re in spacesuits clinging to Serenity’s hull. While Simon is panicking, River keeps gazing at the stars, a smile of pure delight on her face.
As Mal is interrogated, the Commander of the Alliance, Harken (Doug Savant) accuses him of attacking the derelict ship. Mal tells him to ask the survivor, but Harken informs him that the man can’t speak due to his tongue being split down the middle, in contrast to how he was earlier. Mal quickly realizes something is wrong, and warns the Commander to look out, but we’re shown that the survivor is now killing the Alliance medics.
Harken doesn’t believe that Reavers are real, but Mal explains that the Reavers torture their victims sometimes to the point that the victims become Reavers themselves and start self-mutilating and turning to cannibalism.
Simon and River go back inside the ship, while Mal, Harken, and a group of soldiers go in from the other side, suspecting the survivor has returned to Serenity. Mal prevents Harken from seeing the Tams long enough for the survivor, now mostly Reaver, to attack the soldiers. Mal saves Harken’s life by strangling the Reaver-lite to death… or breaking his neck. I think it’s the latter, but I don’t get how.
Harken takes Mal’s cargo, despite saving his life, but Mal says that “He had to. Couldn’t let us profit. Wouldn’t be civilized.” Harken then follows Mal’s advice and blows up the derelict from space.
Alright, so, the problems that arose from adding things to try and help the audience catch up from missing the Pilot weren’t as bad in this episode as the last. Obviously, they have to basically re-establish the Reavers as being terrifying and inhuman, but they do a pretty good job of it in this episode without making it obvious the lines are for exposition. The lines about the Alliance that kind of re-address the anti-authoritarian messages in “Serenity” are also not over-the-top.
There are some decent recurring themes that stand out within this episode, too.
First, Mal and Book have another dust-up about the nature of Mal’s atheism, which has an interesting message about morality. When they see the ship, Book brings up the parable of the Good Samaritan. For those of you who aren’t familiar, the parable concerns a man who was attacked by robbers, beaten, and left bleeding on the side of the road. A priest and a Levite both pass the man by without helping him. A Samaritan then passes by, sees the man, and carries him into town and pays for him to be healed. The parable ends with Jesus saying that all of his followers should go and do likewise.
This parable is also appropriately said by Book, a black man, because the last major speech given by Martin Luther King, Jr., was his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech the day before his murder. In it, King said:
And you know, it’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it’s possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking. And he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt, in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure. And so, the first question that the priest asked — the first question that the Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”
That is exactly what Book is doing here. He knows that there is danger in coming up to the station. It could be (and, ultimately, IS) a trap. However, Book unquestionably advises them to try and help anyway. Mal, though he stops Book from reciting the parable, still agrees with the principle behind it, even if he justifies it (particularly to Jayne) by saying that they can steal from the derelict if no one is alive. Despite Mal’s distaste for overt religion, he still has a strong sense of morality which involves accepting risk for himself.
Later, he allows Book to perform a funeral for the victims of the Reaver attack, something that seems like a concession on Mal’s part, but, in reality, Mal is hiding the fact that their good deed is about to be punished by the Reaver’s booby trap. It’s not overt, but I think on some level this is Mal trying not to hurt Book’s faith in charitable acts. Or maybe he just wants to avoid worrying the most innocent of his charges. Either way, despite his lack of religion, Mal still has some moral compass, even if other episodes suggest that it’s a different one than Book. Book, meanwhile, is best summarized by his quote: “I don’t care what you believe in, just believe in it.”
There’s one other element of the show that’s really brought up in this episode, and that’s the emptiness of space. Now, Firefly has always been really good at portraying space a bit more realistically than other shows. There’s no sound in space, for example, which is a huge element. This episode, though, also addresses another aspect of the setting: The crushing vastness of the universe. We’re presented with two contrasting impressions of it, as a source of despair and as a source of wonder.
Jayne teases it first as the former when he describes it as “nothing.” He says “It’s impressive what ‘nothing’ can do to a man” when Simon mentions that he’s uncomfortable being separated from space by a suit. Later, the camera plays through a sequence of Simon petrified that he’s so close to the infinite nothingness, only for it to be Jayne’s prank. Then, it gets brought up by Mal later: “…Reavers ain’t men. Or they forgot how to be. Now they’re just nothing. They got out to the edge of the galaxy, to that place of nothing, and that’s what they became.” Basically, it’s the ultimate extension of “the abyss gazes also.” By being confronted with the void of space, Reavers responded by becoming cruel, unfeeling monsters. Of course, we later find out that isn’t the case, but the fact that Mal believes that looking out into the blackness could create them is telling.
However, we’re also shown the opposite. When River looks into the vastness of space, she focuses not on the blackness but on the stars twinkling in the distance. It’s one of the only truly happy moments River gets during the series. When she looks out, she doesn’t see emptiness, but beauty. Also, since we later find out that she’s essentially a punching bag for the minds and emotions of others, the isolation provides one of the least vulnerable positions she can be in, even though she’s just a spacesuit away from nothingness.
The Reavers are, naturally, also a big part of this episode. Unfortunately, we don’t get that much information about them. We find out that most of the Alliance doesn’t believe they’re real, that the Reavers enjoy torturing people to the point that those people become Reavers out of desperation, and that the booby-trap their prey. However, whether they’re human, where they come from, what they really look like, none of these things are addressed for certain in the episode. This was really a sampler for things that didn’t get answered until the movie Serenity. Unfortunately, since the series got cancelled without addressing this much, this episode really stands out as being a tease. It seems like we’re supposed to just view them as the opposite of the Alliance, the chaos to their oppressive order, but all we get is one guy going nuts for like 3 minutes. The fact that Mal literally sneaks behind him and kills him in 10 seconds doesn’t allow him to feel like a threat. It just doesn’t land.
Ultimately, this episode has one huge weakness: It just doesn’t have that much in it. It has some great lines, but so does every episode of the show. It portrays the Alliance as being oppressive, but other episodes do it better. It tries to introduce us to the Reavers, but it really doesn’t. And, honestly, it sometimes feels like it’s two ideas (finding the wreck, being captured by the Alliance) that are just mashed together, rather than one whole story. Still, not the worst episode.
Score: 2.5 Fireflies (or 1 Alliance Cruiser)
See you next Friday, Browncoats.
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