So, after “Ariel,” which was the last of the original 9 episodes ordered by Fox, aired, the next week Fox pre-empted Firefly for a rerun of Happy Gilmore. I’ll remind you that Happy Gilmore was 6 years old at that point. The week after that, the show was pre-empted for the second made-for-TV sequel to The Brady Bunch Movie, The Brady Bunch in the White House. Then, they aired this episode and announced the cancellation of the show. Yes, let that sink in: In addition to putting this show in the “Friday Night Death Slot,” they pre-empted it two weeks in a row for an old movie and a crappy movie, then decided that, when this episode aired, it didn’t do well enough to save the show and cancelled it. This was after ordering more episodes a month before.
I can only assume that Nathan Fillion accidentally killed someone’s mother or Adam Baldwin kidnapped someone’s beloved pet, because it can’t be that network executives value immediate viewers for the purpose of raising ad revenue over trying to produce higher-quality television, right?
The episode begins with Simon looking over the brain scan he did during the last episode. Book looks over his shoulder and asks if he ever read the works of the dictator Shan Yu. Book recounts that Shan Yu claimed that you don’t really know anyone until you push them to the edge of human endurance. Simon questions the relevance. Book says he’s just thinking about the people who went into River’s brain and whether the point of the surgeries was to push her to her breaking point and see what happened. Simon disagrees. The work in River’s brain was too meticulous for it to be about torture, and the fact that she’s being pursued means it was something more valuable than that. In the meantime, River is doing slightly better, but Simon is still searching for a treatment.
On a space station, Crime Boss Adelei Niska (Michael Fairman) from “The Train Job” is torturing a man when he is told that they have located the Serenity. Niska orders the team to capture Mal, before turning to his torture victim and asking him if he is familiar with Shan Yu.
Back on the ship, Inara is awaiting a client who is very private. So private that they come to Inara, rather than Inara going to them. Inara requests that Mal leave her alone, but Mal says that nobody comes onboard Serenity without him meeting them. While they’re waiting, Kaylee and River run through, playing keep-away with an apple. Kaylee claims it, saying that “no power in the ‘Verse” can stop her. It’s revealed that the apples were bought for the crew by Jayne with his share of the heist from “Ariel,” though only Mal knows that it was out of guilt for his actions.
Back at the galley, Kaylee points out that Mal and Zoe both only eat apples by cutting them. Zoe explains that to be a leftover habit from the war, when a bunch of apples filled with grenades killed a bunch of her starving comrades. Mal enters and says that they have nearly gotten far enough to spend the money they got from the last heist. Wash remarks that they could have made more, but Mal counters that Wash’s plan to eliminate the middle-man on the sale would have angered some people. Wash seems surprised Mal even heard about his idea, since Zoe told him that she hadn’t been able to talk to Mal about it.
Wash angrily confronts Zoe about this, but she says that Mal turned it down, despite her attempts to tell him about it, but Wash points out that, if she really had fought for it, she would have told him about it. He asks Zoe if she thought his idea was good and she avoids answering, which leads him to imply that she doesn’t even have opinions of her own if Mal’s involved. Zoe responds that she thought it was a bad plan. Wash says that she should have told him, but she says she just didn’t want to put another fight in their relationship. He responds that the relationship needs “one less husband” and leaves.
Back in the Tams’ room, Simon asks River how she’s feeling, to which she states that sometimes she feels almost normal, but other times she completely loses track of herself. Also, she threw up on his bed. Side note: In the transcript I found for this conversation, Simon responds to the vomiting information by saying that she’s “definitely [his] sister.” That’s not much, but the line note says it should be delivered “fuckity.” I have a new favorite word.
Back at the cargo bay, Kaylee and Jayne are trying to catch a look at Mal meeting Inara’s client. Book chastises them playfully, but then gets up to get a look himself. A large man enters, and Mal moves to shake his hand, only to find out that he’s the security guard. Inara’s client follows, revealing herself to be a beautiful woman (Katherine Kendall), stunning everyone but Jayne, who just leaves saying he’ll “be in [his] bunk.”
Later, the crew prepares drop off the medical supplies they stole in the last episode but finds out that someone changed the ignition sequence. This is revealed to be Wash, who is using this as leverage to force Mal to take him along on the run instead of Zoe. Mal is frustrated by this, but agrees, since it’s going to be an easy run. He and Wash depart, leaving Zoe in charge of the ship. At the same time, Inara and the Councilor share a relaxing sexual vacation onboard.
Mal and Wash arrive at the exchange, with Wash saying he wants to take a more active role in heisting instead of Zoe in the future, but they’re ambushed by Niska’s men and their contact is killed. They’re taken captive.
A few hours later, Jayne and Book are working out as the Councilor and Inara leave the ship. Jayne wants to retreat to his bunk, but is interrupted by Zoe telling him that Mal and Wash haven’t checked in. The three of them head to the drop-off and find the bodies of the buyers. Book identifies the bullets as sniper fire, which Jayne notes is not something a priest should know about. Book just says they shot rabbits at the abbey. Jayne identifies the vehicle that took them as part of a space station, leading Zoe to realize they’re with Niska.
On Niska’s space station, Mal and Wash are being held captive. Mal tries to calm a panicking Wash, but Wash finds it impossible to stop focusing on Zoe and Mal’s relationship, the fact that Mal has put her in dangerous situations, and Zoe’s deference to Mal. Mal responds that Zoe doesn’t always obey him… after all, he ordered her not to marry Wash. Niska appears, ending the argument.
Back on Serenity, the crew gathers up all their money to pay off Niska, with Zoe reasoning that Niska will ransom Wash and Mal. Meanwhile, Mal and Wash are being brutally tortured, but they keep fighting over their relationships with Zoe during the process. Mal says that shipboard romances cause divided loyalties. Wash says that Mal’s just compensating for his own emotional issues. Mal responds by saying that Wash is worried that Mal and Zoe are more than just army buddies. Wash says that the issue isn’t that Zoe and Mal were together, it’s that they weren’t and Zoe clearly keeps thinking about it. Mal says that when they get back, he’s going to sleep with Zoe just to spite Wash. Again, this is all while being repeatedly interrupted by electrocution.
Zoe arrives to deal with Niska and hands him all the money the crew had. Niska playfully states that the money is only enough to buy back one of them. He attempts to torture Zoe with having to choose between the two, but Zoe immediately picks Wash, surprising and disappointing Niska. In order to get a little more sadism in, however, Niska says that the money was more than enough for Wash, so he gives her a “refund:” Mal’s ear. As Wash and Zoe leave, Wash says that he realizes that Mal’s insults and attacks were just to distract Wash from the pain. Without it, Wash would have broken. Wash resolves to save Mal.
Zoe and Wash return to the ship and inform the crew of the situation. The two of them prepare for an assault on Niska’s station, eventually joined by Book, Simon, and Kaylee. When asked about how he can commit murder, Book merely says the Bible is fuzzy on whether or not kneecapping is a mortal sin. At first, Jayne indicates that he isn’t going to take part, reasoning that it’s suicide, but eventually joins him. At the same time, Niska, admiring Mal’s resolve and bravery, hooks him up to a special torture device that crawls inside him, causing what can only be assumed is near unimaginable pain. A few minutes later, he’s pronounced dead by Niska’s torturer. Mal is revived so that Niska’s torture can continue.
Wash uses an almost impossibly difficult piloting maneuver to get to the space station undetected. Kaylee, similarly, performs an extremely difficult override sequence on the station’s doors, allowing the crew to rush onto the station. They’re spotted quickly and the alarm goes off, but the team manages to make an inroad into the station through a combination of explosives, surprise, and sheer testicular and ovarian fortitude. As Niska monitors the situation, Mal plants the torture device on Niska’s torturer before escaping and punching Niska.
As Jayne, Book, Simon, and Kaylee are pinned down by fire, River comes down the ramp of the Serenity. Seeing the guards, River picks up the gun Kaylee dropped and looks around the corner. Not wanting to see blood, River fires around the corner blind and kills all 3 of the guards with one shot each. Jayne, Zoe, and Wash end up making it to Mal, only to find him still struggling with the torturer and Niska having escaped. Jayne tries to kill him, but Zoe stops Jayne, saying that it’s something Mal needs to do himself. Mal immediately says that no, it’s not, so they all shoot the torturer, saving Mal.
Back on the ship, Simon’s re-attaches Mal’s ear as Zoe and Wash make up. However, Mal returns to talk to Zoe, saying that Wash insisted that the two of them have sex. Zoe, completely dispassionately, tells Mal: “Take me, sir. Take me hard.” Her delivery is so non-sexual that even Jayne finds it unsettling. Wash then takes Zoe to bed, while Mal watches Jayne eat Wash’s leftover soup.
Holy hell, a lot happens in this episode, and it’s one of the most continuity-dependent episodes in the series. Probably the most, honestly. Despite that, it just never quite came together for me as much as many of the other episodes. It just has too many disparate plotlines running that don’t really come together in any meaningful way like some of the better episodes. Inara and the Councilor, for example, provides a hilarious set-up and almost seems like some character development for Inara, but it really doesn’t go beyond stating that “women feel compelled to keep their guard up around men.” Don’t get me wrong, that’s a good message to explore, but putting it in the middle of a lesbian sex scene that is used multiple times just to give Jayne a punchline kind of undercuts it. That plotline eats up like 10 minutes but seems completely disconnected from the rest of the episode. But, the rest of the episode is more than enough to make up for any of that.
The central focus of this episode is on the relationship between Wash, Zoe, and Mal. It starts off with the traditional trope of the husband jealous of the wife’s work relationship but, in this case, it’s a little more justified than most examples. Zoe is an interesting character, in that she is herself a one-woman wrecking crew and extremely intelligent, but still defers to Mal for reasons that weren’t quite as obvious before this episode. While she loves Wash deeply, and is most her true self when around him, she treats him as an equal, not as a superior… because it’s a marriage in the future, not in 1900. So, it’s natural that Wash is a little irked that there is someone who he believes his wife respects and defers to more, especially because that respect and deference is built from years of close friendship.
Normally, this kind of episode would end with the jealous husband learning to trust his wife more, but it really isn’t that Wash thinks that Zoe is ever going to go for Mal, he just doesn’t quite understand why she obeys him so strictly and risks her life for him willingly. So, rather than having Wash learn a lesson about trust, the show instead has Wash replace Zoe temporarily and witness firsthand why she respects Mal so much: Because under all the swagger and sarcasm HE’S FUCKING AMAZING.
When Mal and Wash are there together in the torture chamber, Mal doesn’t think about himself; instead, he focuses on how to keep Wash from being broken. He chooses to use Wash’s own insecurities, but that’s because anger seems like the thing that can most easily distract him from the pain. Mal can only do this, because Mal doesn’t break easily. In fact, it appears that Mal’s real starting point for torture is actually past when he’s dead. After Wash is released, he can only be awed by what Mal has just done for him, and the sheer strength of will that he possesses. Basically, now that Wash has been in Zoe’s position, he completely understands why she feels the way she does towards the captain. Thus, situation defused.
The other thing about this episode is that it brings up the concept of human nature and how much of it is hidden by society. Book and Niska both bring it up through the works of Shan Yu and his famous quote: ” Live with a man forty years. Share his house, his meals, speak on every subject. Then tie him up and hold him over the volcano’s edge, and on that day, you will finally meet the man.” Basically, within all of us is a true self which is only going to be revealed when confronted by imminent and painful death. Some people who seem brave may break down and cry. Others who seem weak may show a resolve that no one would ever believe possible. But, the only person we really see pushed to his limit is Mal whose “real” him is just a force of violence waiting to beat the hell out of all the bad people in the ‘Verse. This is later reflected in his statement to the Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in the film Serenity when a heavily injured and outmatched Mal is asked if he knew what his sin was: “Aw, hell, I’m a fan of all seven. But right now, I’m gonna have to go with Wrath.” Underneath all of Mal’s clever planning and jovial exterior, he really just wants to hit some people in the face.
Arguably the only other characters we see that are similarly pushed to their limits are River and Jayne. River, because of what the Alliance did to her, is basically unable to form social behaviors as a way of hiding her true self; fortunately, her true self is kind, loving, and loyal, so it works out okay. Jayne, unsurprisingly, hits his limit when he is threatened with a painful death by Mal in the previous episode. However, Jayne doesn’t reveal himself to be violent or monstrous or overly macho. Instead, he’s just concerned of being thought of badly by his crew, because he knows what he did was weak and stupid. It’s that revelation that shows Mal that Jayne really is capable of realizing what he did was wrong.
Ultimately, this is a good episode, but I still don’t put it in the top tier: It relies a little more heavily on continuity than the rest of the series, it has a plotline that doesn’t really tie into the episode, it seems to show lesbian sex just for the sake of having lesbian sex on screen, and, while it has pretty good dialogue, it drags at a few points. Still, it never really leaves you hanging.
Score: 3.2 Fireflies (or 1 Night with Wash… yep)
See you next Friday, Browncoats.
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