Alright, so, since most of them are pretty close, I’ve divided the show into 5 tiers, rather than ranking them individually. From the bottom to the top:
“Heart of Gold,” “Trash,” “The Message”
I know these are all the unaired episodes, but that’s just how it worked out. I think since the scripts were written during a shorter period, they just didn’t quite have all the elements of the others. That said, please remember, these are still great episodes of television. They just aren’t AS great. These are the people who qualified for the Olympics but didn’t medal.
“Bushwhacked,” “Shindig,” “War Stories”
All of these episodes have really great moments in them, but also have some parts that just aren’t as memorable.
“Safe,” “Serenity (Pilot),” “The Train Job”
Similar to above, these are all episodes that really showcase the best elements of Firefly, but don’t quite carry it all the way through.
“Jaynestown,” “Ariel,” Serenity
These are gold. Everything about them really drives home what makes this franchise great, from Jaynestown’s humorous premise to Ariel’s heist and betrayal to the film’s grand finale of the series. Gold.
“Out of Gas,” “Objects in Space,” “Our Mrs. Reynolds”
These aren’t just great examples of Firefly, these are great examples of television as an art form. The storytelling in each one is so well-crafted that it sucks you into the world and leaves you eager to find out more.
Overall, if you disagree, just remember: This is only one man’s opinion and even the bottom of Firefly is still pretty damn good.
Thanks to everyone who read this. When someone first sent me the ridiculous request of “All of Firefly,” I thought that was more work than it was worth. But, I’ve enjoyed the hell out of this. This was one of my favorite series and being able to really explore it in depth one more time let me get things out of it I never thought I could. Plus, I got some great feedback from some of you. Hopefully, some of you have gotten something out of it, too.
Next week, Futurama Fridays starts and, given that it has 10 times the episode count of Firefly, probably will go until the sun burns out. If you want to be in on that one, follow me on here, Twitter, or Facebook. I think I also have a Tumblr. Also maybe Instagram soon.
If you have any requests, just go to the tab on the main page and submit them. This was one of them, so, clearly, I’m willing to put a lot of work in to these requests. Hell, this series ended up being 40,000 words.
Thanks again, Browncoats. Keep misbehavin’.
Also, just as a bonus, here’s a great clip of the dearly departed Ron Glass in one of my favorite shorts from the Twilight Zone.
So, a few months after Firefly got cancelled, Joss Whedon announced he was writing a Firefly movie. This is that movie and, except for the comics that I haven’t really read, the RPG I haven’t gotten a group to play, and the online video game that apparently will never be finished, this is the end of the line for the series. This is the Return of the Jedi of the ‘Verse… assuming that decades later someone doesn’t start adding to the official canon in ways that people constantly fight over.
The movie starts with a summary of the premise of humanity leaving for another solar system to terraform, then fighting the Unification War. From the beginning, it has a notably propagandistic tone, which makes sense when it is revealed to be a teacher (Tamara “there are no small parts, just great actresses” Taylor) at an Alliance school. The Alliance teacher asks the class why the Independents didn’t want to be “civilized,” to which a young River Tam (Hunter Ansley Wryn) responds that people don’t like to be meddled with. The teacher then counters that they aren’t trying to tell the Independents “what” to think, just trying to teach them “how.” Then stabs River.
This flashback is then revealed to be a dream that River is having while being experimented on by the Alliance. A young man is watching, asking about her, revealing himself to be Simon. The doctor, Mathias (Michael Hitchcock) doing the experiment explains to Simon that River is not just a psychic now, but a weapon. Simon then knocks out the lab and pulls river from the machines, freeing her. They escape the facility, but this entire sequence is revealed to be a hologram. So, yes, this opening is a flashback lesson inside a dream inside a hologram.
Quick side note: Yes, this opening directly conflicts with the show, including the fact that Simon is told she’s psychic from the beginning and that Simon paid others to break River out. Whedon explained that he changed it so people who didn’t watch the show could still enjoy the movie.
The person watching it is an unnamed Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who is tasked with retrieving the Tams. He’s taken over from the Hands of Blue from the series, due to A) their deaths in the Serenity comics and B) the fact that if you have the opportunity to put Chiwetel Ejiofor in a movie, you put Chiwetel Ejiofor in your f*cking movie. The Operative confronts Dr. Mathias about River’s treatment, pointing out that Mathias put key members of Parliament in the room with River, who not only CAN read minds but, within the series, CAN’T NOT read them until after Simon starts treating her. So, River now knows all the darkest secrets of the Alliance. The Operative attacks Mathias, paralyzing him, then letting him fall forward onto a sword, killing him.
On board Serenity, Wash is having issues with the ship falling apart, issues he describes as “oh God, oh God, we’re all gonna die.” Mal walks through the ship, giving every character a brief re-introduction: Jayne’s got a lot of guns and grenades and is prepared to shoot people, Zoë is the loyal number 2 who’s married to Wash, Kaylee is the gearhead who keeps the ship flying far past when it should, Simon is the doctor who is pissed at Mal for taking River on a job, and River is a 17-year-old (telling us the time-jump from the series to now is about 9 months, not the years it took to film) psychic. Concise and effective, if a bit of wonky exposition aside from Jayne and Kaylee’s intros. Inara and Book are now gone.
Well, it turns out the “job” that the crew is running is a bank robbery. Inside, River identifies a man about to pull a gun using her powers. While Mal and Zoë are emptying the vault, several ships worth of Reavers descend upon the town. The crew quickly grabs the money and gets on the “mule,” their transport hovercraft. A man tries to jump on to save himself, begging for mercy, but Mal points out that the mule can’t carry five and pushes him off. He’s immediately grabbed by Reavers who start to, apparently, eat him, so Mal mercy-kills the man. They flee, pursued by a Reaver craft. Jayne gets harpooned through the leg, but Mal manages to shoot the rope, freeing him before he can be captured. They’re almost caught, but at the last second, they’re able to do a “barn swallow” by momentarily landing Serenity on the ground, picking up the mule, and flying off.
Inside, a surviving Reaver attacks the crew, but is quickly killed. Simon punches Mal for endangering River, saying that he’s going to get off the ship. Mal and Zoë point out that River is perfectly fine and saved their lives, but Simon still wants to go. River observes the dead Reaver saying “he didn’t lie down,” because River gets all the good foreshadowing. Jayne and Kaylee clean up while talking about the Reavers, then the state of the ship, which Kaylee says Mal is slowly going to drive them all off of, like he did Inara.
On the next port planet, Beaumonde, Simon and River prepare to leave the ship. Simon asks River if she wants to stay, but River says it isn’t safe. After Simon leaves, she reveals that she’s willing to leave because it isn’t safe for the crew. At the meeting site for Mal’s employer on the bank robbery, Kaylee is complaining about Simon leaving, including more than just a loss of romantic contact, resulting in one of the most awkward and hilarious lines in the movie:
Kaylee: Goin’ on a year now I ain’t had nothin’ twixt my nethers weren’t run on batteries!
Mal: Oh, God! I can’t know that!
Jayne: I could stand to hear a little more.
Simon and River show up to collect River’s share of the payment for the job, but River sees a subliminal message in a commercial for Blue Sun products (addressed in this post) and begins to relentlessly attack everyone in the bar, including Mal and Jayne. Simon eventually recites a phrase in Russian (which, as far as I can find, literally translates to “That’s something chickens will laugh at that” or, idiomatically, “that’s ridiculous”), which causes River to pass out.
Back on the ship, Mal inquires about what happened and Simon explains that the Alliance had conditioned her to be a weapon. Mal is upset by Simon not disclosing this earlier but allows the Tams to remain. Wash suggests that they talk to Mr. Universe (David Krumholtz) for information. Mr. Universe essentially tracks every security and video feed in the ‘Verse. He watches the footage of River’s attack and finds that there is an Alliance message carried in the advertisement that triggered her, along with River saying the word “Miranda.” It’s also revealed that someone else has viewed the footage before them.
Simon and River talk on the ship, with River’s madness causing her obvious pain. Simon asks about Miranda, but River can’t articulate it because it’s not her memory. She says to Simon that she’d rather he kill her than put her to sleep again. Simon tells her that he won’t put her to sleep and never to talk about killing her again. A short jump cut shows the Operative approaching Inara.
The crew flees to “Haven,” a mining colony where Book is acting as Shepherd. After Mal says that he couldn’t bring himself to abandon the Tams. Book tells Mal that the only thing that can get him through this is belief. Mal says that he doesn’t believe in God, but Book asks why Mal assumes he’s talking about God. Book tells him that the man the Alliance will send after “believes hard. Kills and never asks why.”
River has another dream about the class, watching everyone lie down around her. Mal is awakened by a call from Inara, who asks her to come help her with a local problem. Mal immediately realizes it’s a trap, because Inara is careful not to provoke him. At her Companion House, Mal finds Inara and the Operative. The Operative calmly talks to Mal about surrendering River. In an odd moment of inaccuracy, the Operative calls her an albatross. Recognizing “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” correctly, Mal points out that the albatross was good luck until the Mariner killed it. On another level, the Mariner, who is forced to wear the albatross on his neck for his sin, is the only sailor to survive the story and is eventually freed from it after he finds his faith. So… overall, it’s not usually a bad sign for the guy who has the albatross, just everyone else. Either way, it’s not the best allegory for the Operative to use.
The Operative tries to reason with Mal, but also points out that he’s aware that Mal will try to find a way to justify fighting the Alliance. The Operative goes out of the way to say that he’s not going to get angry, that he’s there in good faith, and that he’s unarmed. To the last point, Mal responds “good” and shoots the Operative, who quickly puts Mal in a choke hold. Unarmed is not unarmored. Mal tries to fight the Operative, but is pretty easily outclassed, even with Inara’s help. Even worse, it’s obvious that the Operative is not even trying to kill them during the fight. However, Inara reveals that she booby-trapped the incense with a flashbang, allowing them to escape to the ship, which hides among a bunch of decoys to make an undetected getaway.
Back on the ship, Jayne challenges Mal’s decision to keep River on-board, but Mal stands firm on his decision. River has another vision, identifying Miranda as a planet on the Outer Rim. Jayne tries to capture River to deliver her to the Alliance and ensure the safety of the crew, but River easily knocks him out before knocking Simon out and taking over the bridge to look up the location of the planet.
It’s revealed that Miranda is listed as a non-terraformed rock, but there’s evidence to suggest that it was once populated. However, it’s surrounded by Reaver ships, so Mal opts to hide instead of investigate. They return to Haven, but find it in flames, filled with dead civilians, including all the children. Mal finds a mortally wounded Book, who destroyed the ship that killed the mining colony, who tells Mal that he doesn’t care what he believes, “just believe it.” He then passes on. Zoë realizes that this wasn’t just a random hit. It’s revealed that all of the crew’s allies have been murdered by the Alliance.
The Operative contacts Mal. The Operative admits that he’s evil, something that is more unnerving to Mal than if he denied it, but that the Operative believes in a better world that he is forming through his actions. He promises that more people will die, before accidentally giving Mal an idea. Mal has the crew outfit Serenity as a Reaver ship so that they can pass through Reaver space undetected and reach Miranda. Back on the ship, it’s obvious that Mal is at the end of his rope, emotionally and mentally. They manage to sneak through the lines and reach Miranda.
Miranda is revealed to be an advanced colony, containing dozens of large cities, but no people. Eventually, the crew starts to stumble on a bunch of skeletons which all appeared to have died peacefully. When they find a sealed room full of preserved corpses, they observe that none of these people were killed, they just laid down and passed away. Finding a beacon, they play a recording by a Dr. Caron (Sarah Paulson), who reveals that the Alliance tested a chemical, Pax, on the planet that was designed to remove the violent tendencies of the population. Instead, it caused the population to lose any desire to perform daily functions, leading them to just lay down and starve to death. However, in 0.1% of the population, the drug had the opposite effect, making people violent and sadistic. Thus came the Reavers.
Mal then delivers the speech that I’m going to just paste verbatim, because summarizing it just doesn’t do it justice:
This report is maybe twelve years old. Parliament buried it, and it stayed buried till River dug it up. This is what they feared she knew. And they were right to fear, because there’s a whole universe of folk who are gonna know it, too. They’re gonna see it. Somebody has to speak for these people.
You all got on this boat for different reasons, but you all come to the same place. So now I’m asking more of you than I have before. Maybe all. Sure as I know anything I know this, they will try again. Maybe on another world, maybe on this very ground swept clean. A year from now, ten, they’ll swing back to the belief that they can make people…better. And I do not hold to that. So no more running. I aim to misbehave.
Earlier in the movie, Inara had told Mal she’s seen many versions of him, with Mal saying she’d see another if there was ever a real war. This is that Malcolm Reynolds. He’s not just a badass, he’s a badass with the knowledge that there is something that he can do to help the ‘Verse. I said in “War Stories” that, at his core, Mal really wants to punch some bad people in the face. Well, this is him with the opportunity to do it to all the bad people who’ve made him suffer since long before Serenity Valley. This is a man finally finding a way to fight the system. This is Malcolm Reynolds when he finally believes in something, and may God help you if you’re in his way.
The entire crew, even Jayne, agrees to help. They plan to get to Mr. Universe and have him broadcast Caron’s recording across the ‘Verse. Universe seems to agree to help, but it’s revealed that the Operative is there and kills him. As Serenity approaches the Operative’s position, the movie switches to the Operative’s perspective as he watches the tiny Firefly pass through the ion storm. Thinking it’s just a suicide run, the Operative prepares to fire, but is quickly distracted by the dozens of massive Reaver ships following in the wake of Serenity. One of the hallmarks of the show was that Serenity didn’t have any on-board weapons, so they figured out other solutions. This is the best one they ever come up with.
Wash pilots the ship through the space battle, despite the ludicrous amount of explosions and damage happening nearby and the general chaos of the two fleets. As Kaylee keeps the engine running, Wash makes a series of runs that no other pilot would ever consider, destroying Reaver and Alliance alike through guile. It’s truly a crowning achievement when he finally manages to right the ship after an EMP blast, landing the ship on nothing but partial backup power and basically no thrust.
And nothing bad happens to him afterwards.
That’s the sentence I wish I could write but, unfortunately, it just doesn’t happen that way. It’s a signature of Joss Whedon that any happy couple is eventually going to be divided or killed. I don’t want to speculate as to why, but Buffy, Angel, and even, to an extent, Avengers: Age of Ultron have examples of this. So, right as Wash has just managed to prove that he’s a pilot of nearly preternatural skill, he is hit by a harpoon fired from a Reaver ship. He dies instantly. It’s an amazingly powerful moment, but I really hate having to see it again.
Zoë, the stoic, immediately loses control and starts begging for him to be okay, not realizing that he is obviously dead. Mal has to save her from a different harpoon, after which she regains her head, ever the professional. The crew disembarks to find Mr. Universe. Mal goes ahead while the others cover Mal, creating a choke point for the Reaver insurgence coming after them. Jayne talks about how they’re going to survive before Zoë asks him darkly if he really thinks any of them will make it. Jayne meekly responds “I might.”
Mal heads to Universe’s control room only to find it wrecked. However, Universe left his sex-doll/wife, Lenore (Nectar Rose), with instructions for Mal, telling him that there’s a secret transmitter still operating. Mal heads for it. Back at the chokepoint, Kaylee and Simon finally express their mutual desires. Kaylee, now knowing Simon wants to bone her, resolves to live. The Operative sneaks past the crew and finds Lenore repeating the message for Mal, allowing him to find the hidden transmitter.
The Reavers burst into the room and attack the crew as the Operative finds Mal. The crew hold their own as Mal attempts to make it to the remaining transmitter with the recording. He and the Operative end up brawling on a series of platforms suspended over a rotating fan, because that imagery is awesome and is re-used for a reason. When the Reavers start to overwhelm the crew, they fall back down to another hallway, but everyone is pretty badly injured… except, it seems, Jayne, who only got grazed and River, who was hiding. Zoë has been slashed, Kaylee’s stabbed, and Simon gets shot in the gut. Upon seeing her brother lying there, River says that Simon has always taken care of her, but now, it’s her turn. River runs through the remaining doorway, attacking the Reavers, before throwing Simon his medical bag and sealing the crew off in the hallway. The Reavers can’t get to the crew, but River is now trapped with a f*ck-ton of Reavers.
Mal and the Operative are still fighting, with the Operative having the upper hand until Mal allows himself to be stabbed by the Operative’s sword to catch him off-guard and get a few solid hits in. However, the Operative recovers and hits Mal with the nerve strike that he used on Mathias earlier. As the Operative moves to execute him, Mal moves at the last second, hitting the Operative in the throat, crushing his windpipe. He tells the Operative that the nerve cluster got hit by shrapnel during the War, and they had to move it. So, losing to the Alliance once is what allows him to win here. Mal then dislocates both of the Operatives shoulders and pins him against the railing. Declining to kill him, Mal instead shows him the truth about the Alliance that he blindly obeys and transmits the recording.
It cuts back to River, who is shown to be holding her own against dozens of Reavers. Mal rejoins the crew, informing them of their success. When he asks about River, the door opens, revealing River, apparently unharmed, standing in a room full of corpses. The Alliance troops enter, but the Operative, no longer loyal to the Alliance, tells them to stand down.
The crew buries Wash, Book, and Mr. Universe on Haven, before fixing the ship. Kaylee and Simon finally have sex. Mal confronts the Operative one last time, with the Operative telling him that they’ll likely be pursued again. Inara decides to stay on the ship and River takes over as Co-pilot of the ship with Mal at the helm. As they leave atmosphere, a piece breaks off, mirroring the first appearance of the ship in the movie. The last line is Mal, asking “What was that?”
Alright, so, I put a lot more commentary into the summary than usual, so I’ll keep this short.
I hate that Wash dies. I will always hate that Wash dies. Book died, wasn’t that enough, dammit? I also refuse any continuity in which Zoë was not pregnant at the time, allowing her to finally have the baby with Wash that she wanted. I don’t care if Gina Torres buys infomercial time where she denies it over and over again, Zoë gets to have a child she wants with the man she loves, end of story.
The Operative is one of the best villains in the series, being simultaneously simple enough to understand and complex enough to be interesting. Having the villain be someone who knows he’s the villain doesn’t often work out great, but when it does, holy cow does it pay off. Here, it pays big.
I admire that Whedon didn’t try to rely on being able to get more movies later. This is a true finale. Sure, adventures can happen after this, but almost all of our questions have been answered. We get the background of why the Alliance wanted River, what the Reavers are, and we see the “they will” at the end of our “will they/won’t they” couples. The only thing that doesn’t really get answered is Book’s past and a few small plot threads from other episodes. However, for the most part, we got everything we needed, and that’s more than most.
As far as messages go, the movie’s message is pretty strong. Not the message about standing up to tyranny or big government or evil, but the message of belief. It’s not enough to just live in defiance of something, you need to have something to believe in. It doesn’t need to be God or Buddha or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but it does need to be something strong enough to be worth more than yourself. For Mal, it’s finally finding a way to prove to the ‘Verse what the Alliance has done. “But he already was trying to do that,” I hear you saying. Well, yes, when he fought in the war, Mal believed. But, as the opening scene to the Pilot shows, that belief died in Serenity Valley. Since then, he’s just been drifting, trying to keep flying. Remember, Book’s lines in “Jaynestown:”
It’s about believing in something and letting that belief be real enough to change your life. It’s about faith. You don’t fix faith…. It fixes you.
Now, the show wasn’t shy on showing you the other side of this. In “Safe,” the religious zealots believe River is a witch, despite witches famously weighing the same as ducks. In this film, the Operative is empowered by his belief in the better world promised by the Alliance. So, faith can be good or bad, just like people can be good or bad, but it’s still important to have it, because you need belief to help get you off your ass to do something bigger than yourself. Like, for example, make the movie of a TV Show that’s famous for getting cancelled.
So, that was Serenity. It’s still a little dependent on the series to really appreciate it, but, honestly, it’s a well done film even without that. It just never quite has the same “feel” as most regular movies. For the most part it feels like a really high-budget episode of the show, but that’s still damned good. And I am still glad we got it, even if Wash dies.
I’m posting the final Firefly Fridays entry in a few hours, containing my ultimate ranking of episodes. It’ll probably be up by the time most of you read this.
Already wrote this one once, because I consider this one of the ten best episodes of television. Some of my impressions are taken from that review, so, if it seems like I’m re-using stuff, that’s why. Except for the airing of the pilot, this was the last episode aired of the show, and is the last episode of the show in general.
The episode’s opening is told from River’s perspective and, credit to Joss Whedon, who wrote and directed it, it’s definitely different. Because River isn’t in control of her own mind, her reality is slightly altered. She can hear thoughts and emotions expressed as words or even other sounds. Objects are not necessarily what they are, but what she perceives them to be.
The first thing River hears is a man’s voice saying “we’re all just floating.” Which is both a great metaphor for the wandering nature of the people on-board and a magnificent statement about the nature of reality from a bigger perspective. We all pretend we’re on something, but whatever we’re on is just floating through space. You’ve never been not floating in your life. It’s just more obvious when you’re on a spaceship.
Now, the main thing about the next sequence is that no one reacts to River, at all, so it’s likely that she’s not physically walking through the ship. She’s probably just extending herself through it to hear all of the people psychically, until the very end.
River awakens to hear Kaylee and Simon talking, with Simon telling her a story about how during school he once ended up singing naked on a statue of Hippocrates because he drank too much saké. Then, randomly, River sees Simon turn to her and say that he’d be there right now. This is clearly Simon’s inner thought, as it’s not something Simon would ever say out loud and is not responded to by Kaylee.
She walks through the ship, encountering Jayne and Book. She sees a flash of Jayne saying that he got stupid and didn’t resist the money when he turned the Tams in, which isn’t surprising, but she also sees a flash of Book saying, in a threatening manner, that he doesn’t care if someone is innocent or not. This is one of the most direct hints we get to Book’s violent past, since he’s apparently just remembering something, not actually thinking this towards River.
She sees Zoe and Wash on the bridge kissing passionately and appears to be somewhat overwhelmed by the emotions coming off of them, signified by the sound of rolling waves crashing until she cannot bear it any more. She moves away with an almost sick look.
She sees Mal and Inara arguing, and this scene was actually filmed twice, because one way doesn’t make sense given that “Heart of Gold” hadn’t aired. In the original airing, Inara is threatening to leave if she doesn’t get more opportunities. In the “real” version, Inara is talking about leaving soon, but it’s revealed she hasn’t told the crew yet. In both versions, however, their inner thoughts are the same: Inara wants Mal to tell her his feelings and Mal feels like her behavior has rendered all his feelings pointless.
River hears the ocean again and stumbles away looking uncomfortable. She steps on a stick and picks it up, seeing a version of the cargo bay filled with leaves and branches, looking like an autumn park. She says “it’s just an object, it doesn’t mean what you think.” It then jump cuts to all of the characters approaching her, revealing that the stick was actually a gun. Mal disarms her, saying that she shouldn’t have a gun. River leaves, upset. Mal asks Simon about River’s condition, but Simon says it’s hard to figure out how to medicate her. Outside, a ship is shown approaching Serenity. The man onboard it, Jubal Early (Richard Brooks), is shown to have conducted thermal scans of the ship, matched its trajectory, and is reviewing wanted posters for the Tams.
The crew then discuss whether River is dangerous, and the first parallel is made between Early and River: they both eavesdrop on the conversation, Early through the ship’s hull, River through the floor. Jayne recounts when she cut him with a knife during “Ariel” and Kaylee tells the crew about River shooting Niska’s men in “War Stories.” They go back and forth, but the message is pretty clear: River can be extremely dangerous, even if she doesn’t mean to be. It’s also brought up to the entire crew that River is likely psychic. In a great exchange, Wash points out that sounds like ridiculous science-fiction, only to be reminded that he lives on a spaceship. Wash only responds “So?” On the one hand, he has a point that spaceships don’t mean that psychic powers exist. On the other hand, she’s right in that they currently use multiple technologies that would basically be just as implausible as mind-reading to anyone in the past. This is why I love them.
The crew turns in for the night, with Kaylee following Simon and trying to apologize. Simon is angry because River really loves the ship, though he admits that he preferred helping people at the hospital, showing the wish that he was back there from River’s psychic reading. He has to fight against blaming River, because he knows that it’s not her fault, but that of the people that did this to her. Still, on some level, he resents her a little. Kaylee and Simon almost share a moment, but then part ways, heading to bed.
Early enters the ship and systematically takes out most of the crew. First, he defeats Mal with ease before locking him and most of the crew in their rooms using the control panel. Then, he intimidates Kaylee through a combination of insane philosophical speculation coupled with threats to rape her if she doesn’t cooperate. This exchange is only about 30 lines, and it is nothing short of horrifying, including Early telling Kaylee “You throw a monkey wrench into my dealings in any way, your body is forfeit. Ain’t nothing but a body to me. And I can find all unseemly manner of use for it.” I’m genuinely a little scared of Joss Whedon for writing that line.
Early then disables Book, again without any effort, and confronts Simon. This conversation, similar to that with Kaylee, is a combination of threateningly insane and insanely threatening. A notable line, however, is that when he is taken to River’s room, he asks “So is it still her room when it’s empty? Does the room, the thing, have purpose? Or do we — what’s the word?… The plan is to take your sister. Get the reward, which is substantial. (beat) ‘Imbue.’ That’s the word.” Another is that he mishears Simon ask if he’s Alliance and responds “Am I a lion?… I don’t think of myself as a lion. You may as well, though: I have a mighty roar.” After they don’t find River in her room, the pair begin going throughout the ship looking for her and, honestly, everything about Simon and Early’s exchange while they’re searching the ship for River is pretty much perfect, start to finish. It cannot be done justice in a review.
Early and Simon then encounter Inara in her shuttle. Inara tries to convince Early to stop searching for River, but he pistol whips her for trying to manipulate his emotions with her Companion skills. Early seals her in her shuttle. Running low on patience, Early uses the communications system to tell River to show herself, or Simon dies. To his surprise, River responds, saying that she is no longer on the ship. She knew the crew didn’t want her anymore, but she couldn’t leave, so she has bonded with the ship. There is no River, there is only Serenity.
River, as Serenity, then begins to toy with Early, while sabotaging his plans indirectly through seeming omnipresence throughout the ship. She first remotely contacts Kaylee and comforts her while saying that she’s going to free her and then needs her to be brave and do something for her. She starts to mock Early with her laughter, which Early outright states is “somewhat unsettling,” then by going into his past and his motivations for being a bounty hunter. In the battle of crazy-brilliant, even Jubal Early is outmatched here, something that has clearly never happened before. Despite initially being unwilling to accept that River is now a ship, eventually even he starts to believe that River might now be Serenity.
River contacts Mal the way she’d contacted Kaylee and tells him they need to work quickly, seemingly being able to see his every move. Kaylee, meanwhile, has followed River’s instructions and freed herself. She manages to get to the control panel and unseal the rooms. River contacts Wash and Zoë. Zoë wants to face Early, but River flatly states that Early would win. River messes with the ship’s electrics, allowing Mal to sneak around the ship. River mocks Early more until he realizes where she’s getting her info: She’s on his ship.
Early, aware of how powerful his ship’s weapons are, is now even more afraid of her. However, River surprises him by saying that she’s going to go with him, feeling that she’s not wanted on the ship. Early appears ready to leave until Simon attacks him, and Early shoots Simon in the leg. Early is then ambushed by Mal near the airlock and is thrown out into space in a spacesuit. River comes back onboard, seeming more normal than she’s been in the series up until now. As the rest of the crew recovers from the attack, River joins Kaylee for a game of jacks.
The last shot of the series is Jubal Early, floating out in the vastness of space, saying, calmly “Well, here I am.”
So, the main reason I consider this such a great episode is that it’s the first time River meets someone who, while not her equal, definitely serves as her dark reflection:
Jubal. F*cking. Early.
If that isn’t his middle name, I don’t want to know what it is (though, if he’s named after the Confederate General, his middle name would be Anderson… and apparently would be an ancestor of Nathan Fillion).
He’s the bounty hunter Boba Fett wishes he could be. He’s an evil Samus Aran with what appear to be severe emotional problems. Basically every line he says is amazing, and actor Richard Brooks manages to not only sell the craziness, but to convey subtle menace, curiosity, and insecurity all throughout the episode. Yes, he gets the benefit of only having to fill a limited amount of screen time, but the fact that this character never got a second episode is a travesty.
So, a large part of this episode is the dialogue, and I cannot convey it here. I’m currently reviewing the episode’s script after having just watched it, and I don’t know that Early has any bad lines. There are no lines he delivers where I go “I think that was pointless.” Considering how absolutely nonsensical some of them come off out of context, that seems impossible, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t feel that way.
Another part is that Early is not just a new threat, he’s THE threat. People make jokes about the tendency in television to have the new enemy take out the strongest good guy in order to establish the new enemy as being “real.” This episode both does and does not do that. Early takes out Mal, a more than competent fighter, in a few seconds. Then, rather than deal with any other problems, just seals the rest of the potential threats in. He doesn’t fight Book, he just brutally knocks him out by surprise. He isn’t someone puffing his chest up and proclaiming his greatness, he is a calm, methodical, professional bounty hunter, and that makes him infinitely more dangerous than any typical enemy. If it weren’t for River, the entire Serenity crew, who we’ve seen in this show are each capable of handling themselves in serious situations, would be helpless to stop him. After having two straight episodes of crappy villains, this is even more amazing.
Part of the reason he’s able to be so great is also why he’s River’s counterpart: Jubal does not consider people to be people. They are only objects to him, devoid of any greater meaning than their use to him. Joss Whedon cited Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel Nausea as his inspiration for this episode. Being a dedicated writer for the people who read this, I purchased, and read, this 192-page novel… rather than, as someone pointed out, just buying a book on Firefly and Philosophy. I’m not smart, guys. However, having read Nausea, I will confirm that, yes, there are ideas within the novel that are reflected there, and since you made me read an existentialist treatise in narrative form, I’m going to go ahead and address them. Enjoy.
Jubal Early and River both address the concept of “bad faith” in existentialist terms, but in opposing ways. “Bad faith” is wanting to disavow any responsibility for your actions or your agency. The most common example, and the one most explicit within Nausea, is that of a waiter who does not wish to be a man who is a waiter, so the man dissolves into the role and becomes a waiter. He is no longer a true human, he is only the function he performs, and therefore bears no responsibility for what he does. Both River and Early do this during the episode, in exactly the opposite way.
Early tells River that he hurts people “only when the job requires it.” River, knowing the true him, says that he’s lying, and that he likes to hurt people. Early says “It’s part of the job,” to which River responds “it’s why you took the job.” Early likes to hurt people, but society and ethics frowns on it, so Early picked a career in which he would be permitted to hurt people by saying that it wasn’t him, it was just “part of the job.” He believes that he isn’t a bad person, he isn’t even a “person,” he is only a “function” that necessitates bad acts. He even asks “what’s life without work,” indicating that he doesn’t see any point to his existence outside of performing the function. This is true existential “bad faith.” No one is forcing him to be a bounty hunter, so he is still acting in “bad faith,” and disclaiming any fault.
To contrast this, River tells Early that she has “dissolved” into Serenity, thereby becoming Serenity. Now, this would seem to be “bad faith,” but it is actually a twisted mirror of it. By being Serenity, the thing which is actually responsible for keeping all of the people she loves alive, she isn’t disclaiming responsibility. She is actually taking on responsibility beyond her normal self. She is saying that she will keep these people safe, because they are now a part of her. In the end, that is exactly what she does, as she destroys Early’s plans and ends up having him kicked out into the void by Mal.
Another parallel of the characters is how each one addresses a gun. River sees it just as an object, in fact, she sees it as a stick within a nature scene, removed of any meaning that we imbue within it. When Early addresses the gun, he also says it is “very pretty,” but he points out that the design is part of the function, that the beauty is derived from the gun’s capacity to shoot someone. River sees it as just what it is, an object. Early sees it only as its function.
While River doesn’t really have a direct equivalent, there is also Early’s statement to Kaylee that she “[a]in’t nothing but a body to [him]… [a]nd I can find all unseemly manner of use for it.” Once again, we see that Early is already considering the value of Kaylee only in terms of how he can use her. The closest parallel is when River, later, asks Kaylee to do something for her, but addressing her as a person with the ability to choose to act, not a tool.
Lastly, I’m going to address Jubal Early’s catchphrase “does that seem right to you?” Early asks that three times during the episode. They are: “Man is stronger by far than woman, yet only woman can create a child. Does that seem right to you?”; “You know… this girl is the smallest cargo I’ve ever had to transport. Yet by far the most troublesome. Does that seem right to you?”; and “They make psychiatrists get psychoanalyzed before they can get certified, but they don’t make a surgeon get cut on. That seem right to you?” Now, look at the common theme here: It’s just something that he finds as being grotesque, in the existentialist sense, because all three have some wrong relation to their function. It’s also bizarre, because on some level, Richard Brooks says the lines with such sincerity that you almost want to nod in agreement.
Despite all of this, Early ends the episode, defeated, with the ultimate statement of existential acceptance: “Here I am.” He isn’t performing any function at this moment, he is just existing, since that’s all that’s left to him in the void. An object in space.
This episode is, appropriately, the perfect blend of form and function. The philosophical images and concepts are woven flawlessly into the narrative. While I didn’t address it much here, the sounds effects, the camera work, and the acting are all high-caliber, even for Firefly. Within the series, I simply don’t think there’s much better, from the surreal opening to Jubal’s existential closing. This is a top-tier episode, without a doubt. However, you’re about to notice that I don’t rate it the perfect episode in Firefly, even though I think it’s one of the best episodes of TV. That’s because, despite how much I think this episode is amazing and insightful and unique and creative, it’s also a little too surreal and odd to really represent everything that’s good about Firefly. So, I give it just a little knock down.
Well, this was the end of the series, but I’m pretty sure most of you realize that I am going to have to do Serenity the movie, so that’s next week. At the end, I’ll post my personal ranking of Firefly media.
The last of the unaired episodes, but not the last produced. Weirdly, it contains the most scenes in the shooting script that were cut from the episode of any episode I’ve seen while following along on this re-watch, and some of them are pretty solid, though unnecessary to the plot. I’ve picked two to mention in the review summary, though I can’t find videos of them online and don’t have my copy of the DVD box set (and don’t remember them being on there).
The episode starts at the Heart of Gold brothel in the middle of what appears to be a wasteland. A group of thugs approach on horseback, followed by their leader in a hovercraft. They’re met by Nandi (Melinda Clarke), the madam. The leader, Rance Burgess (Fredric Lehne), says he’s come for what is his. Nandi states that Burgess isn’t welcome, but he ignores her and tells his men to find a girl inside. Nandi says the girl is gone, but Rance’s men drag a girl named Petaline (Tracy Ryan) out of the brothel. Rance says she’s carrying his baby, which Petaline denies. Rance takes a DNA sample and promises to take the baby back, even if he has to cut it out of her, before departing. Nandi tells the other girls that she’s going to call in some help. They state that nobody would help them against Rance.
Inara approaches Mal in the dining room as he’s cleaning his guns, spooking him in a hilarious manner that I cannot convey properly in words. The closest I have is shocklarious. They talk briefly, with Inara accidentally calling Mal a “petty crook” again, irking him. Wash enters, telling the pair there’s an emergency call, but it’s for Inara.
Inara tells Nandi that she’s confident the crew will help her. Nandi mentions that Inara was ordered by her Companion Guild House to shun her after Nandi left, but Inara says that she never cared about that. Nandi thanks her and signs off. Mal, who was eavesdropping, tells her that it sounds like the Companions on the planet need help, but Inara responds that they’re whores. Mal questions her use of the term, but Inara says that it’s the truth, because they’re independent of the government system. Mal agrees to help out of principle, but Inara tells him that he’s going to be paid, because she wants to keep it professional. This clearly hurts Mal, but he still agrees.
Everyone seems on board with helping except Jayne, who comes around instantly when he finds out that they’d be helping prostitutes. At the whorehouse, Inara introduces Mal to Nandi, who seems to deduce that Mal has a crush on Inara from the way he verbally jabs at her. Jayne immediately enters and starts asking about getting “sexed,” which Mal finds repugnant.
In the shooting script, there’s an additional scene where, after being told that Jayne is great in a fight, Nandi tells one of the girls to show Jayne what a “Palestinian Somersault” is. Much like Jayne, I was confused as to what a “Palestinian Somersault” is, so I checked online and found no definition of this term, even on Urban Dictionary, so I can only assume it’s an act so perverted that humans won’t figure it out for centuries and that couldn’t be referenced on network TV. Either way, Jayne seems excited.
Zoë, Mal, Inara, and Nandi go off to discuss business, leaving the rest of the crew in the bordello. Simon goes to tend to Petaline with River, while Kaylee looks at the male whores and Jayne goes off to get sexed. Wash asks Kaylee if she would actually sleep with a prostitute and Kaylee responds that it’s not like anyone else wants her. Two girls approach Book, which he immediately rejects, but it’s revealed they just want a prayer meeting. Kaylee, seeing this, remarks that everyone has someone, before asking Wash if she’s pretty. Wash responds with one of my favorite Wash lines in the series:
“Were I unwed, I would take you in a manly fashion.”
Such a weirdly sweet compliment.
Mal asks about the odds of Burgess being the father of Petaline’s baby. Nandi says 50:50, but also that it’s irrelevant, Petaline shouldn’t have to give her baby up. Burgess is revealed to be so wealthy that he could actually independently fund a modern city on the planet, but that he declines to so that he can continue to act like a cowboy. Basically, he owns WestWorld, but with poor people as victims instead of robots. He’s an asshole is pretty much the takeaway. Inara and Mal decide to go meet Burgess that evening at the theatre.
Mal and Inara meet Burgess in the middle of an anecdote about forcing a boy to marry a woman he slept with, because she was “clean.” Mal uses this to compliment Burgess on his “old-fashioned values” as a way to get into the conversation. Mal inspects Burgess’s laser pistol, which has an auto-targeting correct that isn’t legal for civilians. Mrs. Burgess (Sandy Mulvihill) responds that her husband doesn’t equate legality and morality, something Mal agrees with. Mal and Inara depart, with Mal telling her that his plan is now to get everyone off the moon ASAP. Burgess receives a call and tells his wife that the child is his.
Back at the bordello, Mal tells everyone that they’re going to run. Burgess has too many guns and believes he’s in the right, which means that, even if they were to beat him, he’d just come back with more men until he won. Everyone would die, eventually. Nandi calmly accepts this, then says that she’s not leaving. Mal admires this and the crew agrees to stay. Book offers to help reinforce the windows and doors while Kaylee helps secure a solid water supply for the house. Just then, Petaline goes into labor.
Everyone prepares for the assault while Simon helps Petaline through her contractions. Much like in the last episode, everyone is dealing with the impending likelihood of death differently. Book reassures the girls that everything will be alright, Jayne accepts that people are going to die and gets laid, and Wash and Zoë discuss having children. Wash doesn’t want kids, due to their lifestyle, but Zoë does.
Later that evening, Mal and Nandi are talking, with Nandi mentioning that Jayne is the only one sleeping with any of the girls. Mal points out that Jayne’s pretty much the only man on the ship that would, since the others are a shepherd, a married man, and Simon. Nandi points out that Mal didn’t mention himself. Mal says that he’ll get around to sex later, but Nandi says that she hasn’t seen Mal looking at any of them. Nandi brings up Inara, implying that Mal is too focused on her to consider the prostitutes. Nandi says that she’s surprised that Inara chose to leave her base planet, since she was focused on being a head priestess.
Simon, Inara, and River are helping Petaline deliver, but Simon determines that it’s going to be a long delivery, due to her not being fully dilated yet. Petaline says she knows it’s time, but the other three prepare to wait. Back in Nandi’s room, she and Mal are drinking and discussing the incident with a dulcimer that caused Nandi to leave the Companion Guild and found the brothel. Her devotion to it came from years of working hard to build it up. Mal calls her remarkable, leading to some heavy flirtation… then some really corny flirtation, then some clever flirtation, then finally some very TV-friendly but sensual fornication.
In another deleted scene, Book gives a sermon to two prostitutes, who then try to seduce him. Book resists, laughing it off, though he does, apparently, seem to at least consider the offer for a half-second.
Burgess meets with one of the prostitutes, Chari (Kimberly McCullough), who has told him about Mal and the crew being at the brothel. Burgess jokes to his men about calling the assault off, before revealing that his forces number in the dozens. Burgess thanks Chari, before going off on a rant about a “woman’s place” and forcing her to get on her knees to “do some chores.” It’s creepy as hell.
The next morning, Inara catches Mal leaving Nandi’s room, dressing. Mal tries to cover up, but Inara says she’s happy for them and is not concerned about who Mal sleeps with because unlike him, she’s not Puritanical. Mal seems pleased she’s okay with the situation, until Inara finally digs at him by saying that she’s disappointed in Nandi’s taste, leaving him speechless. We then see her openly crying in a corner. Mal focuses on the fight, calling Wash and Kaylee en route to Serenity, telling them to provide air cover using the ship’s engines. Inara goes to check on Petaline’s progress before Nandi finds her. Inara and Nandi communicate wordlessly, before Nandi realizes her mistake: She’d thought that Mal was in love with Inara, but she didn’t realize that Inara was also in love with Mal. She tries to apologize, but Inara says it’s okay.
Nandi confronts Mal about not telling her that Inara had feelings for him, but Mal starts to say that he didn’t know what those feelings were, before the bad guys arrive and interrupt. Everyone seems shocked at the number of people and the quality of weapons they’ve brought. Mal calls Wash and Kaylee about air support, but the pair are ambushed by Burgess’s men. Back at Heart of Gold, the bad guys start unleashing hell, but the crew and the hookers unleash it right back.
A firefight ensues, with Burgess’s men bringing in some heavy weapon after another, which the crew deals with using their superior planning and experience. Petaline finally gives birth in the middle of the assault, while Chari lets Burgess into the building through a hidden passage. Back on Serenity, Wash and Kaylee manage to trap the mercenaries in a hallway, but it results in Wash being trapped in the engine room.
Burgess comes into Petaline’s room to claim his son and grabs the baby. Nandi confronts him, before Inara puts a knife to his throat from behind. Burgess surrenders the child, but then elbows Inara and shoots Nandi, killing her. Mal arrives and grieves for a moment over Nandi’s body with Inara, before running off to kill Burgess. Mal kills a mercenary and steals his horse to pursue Burgess’s hovercraft. He pulls the man off the craft and pistol-whips him rather than killing him.
Mal drags Burgess back to the Heart of Gold, where Petaline introduces him to his son before shooting him dead. The remainder of his men leave. The Heart of Gold buries Nandi, and Mal and Inara talk onboard. She says she was glad that Mal gave Nandi a night of comfort. Mal says that life’s too short not to act on your feelings, clearly about to tell her how he feels. Inara tells him that she realized from Nandi that when you have a family like the brothel, then you never want to stop being part of it. She then tells him there’s something she should have done long ago and she’s sorry she took so long to say: She’s leaving.
She walks past a stunned Mal.
Well, this was the Mal and Inara episode that we had kind of been waiting for this entire season, except for the part where everything goes to shit.
Well, let’s look at the positives:
First, I love that Mal sees himself in Nandi. In some ways, her refusal to obey the Companion Guild rules is basically a mirror of Mal’s refusal to obey the Alliance. When Inara is describing them, Mal supplies the word “independents.” This really explains why Mal is so eager to help them, aside from his usual charitable nature, and why he bonds so quickly to Nandi. Also, Melinda Clarke’s performance is so powerful you really do find her entrancing even if she’s playing a stock character (the hooker with a heart of gold). The comparison between Mal’s position to Nandi’s is a bit problematic in the sense that this makes the Alliance Companions while the Independents are whores, but I guess that still works.
The Heart of Gold just wants the freedom to conduct their business as they see fit, while the Companions require a large amount of training and have to obey strict rules. The problem is that the Heart of Gold has no one to turn to when things go wrong except the kindness of strangers, while Companions have a huge amount of punitive authority and legal force to keep them safe. It’s really the best metaphor for libertarianism and authoritarianism on film: Both have their positives and negatives, but in the end, they’re just about screwing people to get money. I assume communism is just a free orgy where everyone starves to death. (Okay, that’s not an accurate representation of Marxism… or really any of them, but I thought it was funny, and it’s my blog).
Rance’s moon sort of supports my theory about the planet from “Jaynestown,” although I maintain that the lack of automation is still dumb. Non-AI robots are a fine servile class, since they, you know, aren’t capable of suffering. Rance intentionally keeps the planet poor so that he can do whatever he wants with it. The episode ends the same way it eventually does for all such people: They get killed by the people they kept trying to screw over.
Except for, maybe, “The Train Job,” this is the most Western episode of the show, since both episodes are just futuristic interpretations of Western tropes. In this case, it’s the Alamo-style last stand, but with machine guns, air support, and lasers. The part where Mal sizes up the enemy beforehand, but also kind of sees a little bit of himself in him, is also a Western tradition. He and Burgess both don’t tend to obey laws, it’s just that Mal has a seemingly higher moral code than the law, whereas Burgess has a much lower one. The problem is, they could just as easily be the other way around when measured by a different society, something that legality usually ameliorates to an extent (though, history doesn’t look kindly upon fundamental immorality, even when it was legal). This clearly impacts Inara a bit, since, as a Companion and a supporter of Unification, she tends to favor rules and laws.
Wash and Zoë talking about kids is great, especially since they take the opposite points that characters with their emotional profiles usually take. Wash, who is so open and loving, doesn’t want to bring a kid into such a crazy world, but Zoë, who is usually a stoic, wants to have a family with the man she loves. It’s a great juxtaposition that really makes me feel how much they love each other.
Also, everything about Jayne’s interaction with the hookers is hilarious. Literally every line.
Now for the negatives:
Rance, like Womack in the last episode, is just a poorly-written villain. He’s so over-the-top that it basically extends into generic anime bad guy status. When he’s been beaten at the end, he’s still demanding the obedience of the people present, showing no recognition of his position. His statements on the position of women and the “correct behavior of whores” would be backwards in the 1950s, let alone the 2500s. I couldn’t believe anyone would realistically hold those positions, except that there was a guy shouting it in front of the sandwich place near my apartment the day after I finished writing this, so I had to update it. Apparently, God wanted to tell me that Rance isn’t quite as unbelievable as I thought. Still, he’s not a great villain.
The sci-fi elements of this episode are… not good. The Heart of Gold looks awful. They justify it as “solar sheeting,” but 1) you have a much bigger surface area nearby to catch the sun and 2) you’re telling me we can’t make aesthetically pleasing solar panels 500 years from now? Also, there are other power sources that seem commonplace that would blow solar out of the water, so why have it? Rance’s hovercraft looks okay for long-distance shots, but in the close-up looks cheap. Also, it can’t outrun a horse. We have interplanetary engines everywhere, but you can’t build a hovercraft faster than a car? The laser, similarly, appears to fail when trying to shoot Mal from like 10 feet, despite having an auto-targeting system. Then, three shots later, we find out that the battery’s dead. That’s not a great weapon, future.
The battle sequence is just too long and too many quick cuts. There are some neat points, but, for the most part, the whole thing just seems to be too much of a stock battle scene to kill time.
Kaylee and Simon continue to be an issue… solely because they just won’t communicate, even though they do actually try a lot. I like that Jewel Staite, who is gorgeous, still portrays someone insecure about her appearance, reminding us that insecurity is not about objective beauty, but about state of mind. On the other hand, my god, just talk to the boy, you know he likes you.
I hate what happens with Mal and Inara in this episode, because they basically are just driving each other apart. I realize that it was probably building up to the arc of Inara leaving and some other stuff happening that we never got, but it still feels like she and Mal are just a little too unreasonable to each other in this episode, even compared to others. It’s like watching a pair of kids who like each other acting out on the playground, they’re just hurting each other as a way to avoid confronting their feelings.
When Mal sleeps with Nandi, I can understand Inara being hurt by it, but Inara knows Mal has feelings for her, has told him she won’t sleep with him, doesn’t ever talk about her feelings with him, isn’t in a relationship with him, and she has sex with people all the time for money. She doesn’t exactly have the grounds to get THAT mad at either of them, but it really seems like if Nandi hadn’t died, this would have been a grudge. After Nandi dies, Inara does actually seem to realize what that night together meant: They both just needed someone and they were there for each other. Granted, Mal did know Inara has feelings for him, which does make it a little worse on his part, but, again, she stated she can’t be with him and he doesn’t question that until Nandi’s killed. That’s always sort of the problem with emotions, both in writing and in real life. You can logically justify your actions all you want, even to the point that you think you’re doing the right thing, but if a person you care about is hurt by it, you still feel like an asshole.
The first time I saw this, when Inara says that she’s not Puritanical, I actually had hope that this relationship wasn’t going to run through the clichés that usually accompany this kind of situation, but instead it’s immediately undercut by her insult and breakdown. Other fans I’ve talked to thought that Inara’s crying and emotional honesty was refreshing, but I went the other way. I think it’s just playing into a trope we’ve seen too many times and, frankly, doesn’t fit into the relationship they’ve built here. Inara’s so much stronger than to be so broken by this, and portraying it as just a small wound on her that she doesn’t want to admit is there would have been better than her openly weeping for 3 minutes. Then, it ends with her realizing that if she stays with Mal, she wouldn’t leave, so… she leaves. That doesn’t really speak well for her belief in a future as Mrs. Reynolds and becomes INCREDIBLY frustrating during a scene in the next episode when she is apparently just wanting him to tell her how he feels so she can stay. HE WAS OBVIOUSLY 3 SECONDS FROM DOING THAT, INARA! If we hadn’t gotten the movie Serenity, this sh*t might have bugged me forever.
And, generally, I almost feel like the episode kind of takes women down a notch. Inara’s completely broken by Mal’s actions, Kaylee needs Wash to tell her she’s pretty, Mrs. Burgess appears not to be anything more than arm candy who doesn’t care that her husband abuses prostitutes, a house full of women who have sex for a living doesn’t have anyone who knows anything about pregnancy, and Chari stabs everyone in the back. Her betrayal seems even dumber because she still goes through with it after he forces her to blow him in front of his men and tells her she’s shit. I mean, damn, this really doesn’t feel as empowering as Nandi’s speech suggested the episode would be. But I might be reading too much into that.
Also, the pun in the title bugs me so much I try to suppress it every time. Yes, the phrase “Hooker with a Heart of Gold” exists and relates to Nandi and most of her girls, but it has no other meaning, so it just ends up feeling like a wink to people who are aware of the phrase. If it were just the title, I’d let it go, but they also name the brothel after it. I can almost hear the author nudging me going “Did you get it? You get it? You got it, right?” Yes, I got it, did you have something else to talk about? No? Then let’s move on.
Ultimately, this is another upside/downside episode, but it’s more downside. Some people seem to really love it, but a lot of it just rubs me the wrong way. Still, a bad episode of a great series is better than a good episode of most, so this is really only a weak episode in comparison to the rest of the series.
Next week, the only episode I’d already done when I started, but I wrote a new review just for you guys.
Once again, I don’t have to go through the history of how this aired, because it didn’t. What I can say is that this episode is the only one filmed after Firefly was cancelled, because they axed the show the day after filming began.
The episode starts in a carnival side show in a space station bazaar, where Simon takes Kaylee to see the “irrefutable proof of alien life,” which Simon immediately points out is just an upside-down cow fetus. Kaylee tries to flirt a little, but Simon naturally shoves his foot deep down his throat to the point of kneeing himself in the uvula. I hope this isn’t a new lesson for anyone, but don’t ever describe your date as “the only option.” It doesn’t end well here or in real life. Kaylee leaves in what is described as a “huff,” and Wash and Zoë show up to mock both Simon and the “alien.”
Mal and Inara walk through the bazaar, with Mal revealing that he’s been unable to fence the Lassiter since stealing it in the last episode. The gun is just too famous to sell, since no one can display it and everyone knows it’s stolen. Inara offers to help find a buyer, but Mal insists that she stay out of crime. Mal goes to pick up the ship’s mail and is joined by Book, River, and Jayne. Mal receives a package addressed to him and Zoë, while Jayne receives a package from his mom. Jayne’s package is a sweet letter and the greatest hat not worn by Indiana Jones. Zoë and Mal open the package they received to find a corpse inside.
Flashback to 7 years previously, during the war, where Zoë saves a youth named Tracey (Jonathan M. Woodward) from being killed while he eats. She lectures him on stealth, only for Mal to comically defy her teachings by running into the base screaming and firing wildly. Mal, in his typical style, jokes about wanting Tracey’s beans as he reveals that the Alliance is about to roll through with “every damn thing.” The lieutenant in charge is now suffering from trauma and delusional, so Mal gives the command to retreat and regroup. Tracey declares that it isn’t worth dying for the rock they’re on, but Mal says:
“Everybody dies, Tracey. Someone’s carrying a bullet for you right now, doesn’t even know it. The trick is, die of old age before it finds you.”
A missile hits their hiding place, wounding Mal and Tracey. Mal pulls Tracey up to escape, when it cuts back to the present. Mal and Zoë are told by the mail clerk to take the body out of the bazaar. Back on Serenity, Simon offers to do an autopsy, but Mal declines. Zoë finds a tape recorder with Tracey’s last testament. Tracey apparently crossed the wrong people and expected to be killed. His last request is that Mal and Zoë, the two people who carried him through the war, will take him back to his parents to be buried. The crew agrees to help them take him back.
Back on the station, an Alliance officer named Lieutenant Womack (Richard Burgi) interrogates and threatens the mail clerk, Amnon (Al Pugliese), about the body that was in the mail earlier. Amnon denies knowing about any body, but does say that a package big enough to house one was picked up by Mal earlier. Womack thanks him, then tells his men to light him on fire. After dousing him with lighter fluid, Womack spares him on the condition that he doesn’t warn Mal.
On the ship, Jayne and Book have a conversation on mortality, with Book being solemn, but Jayne stating that death usually leads him to be active and alive. They talk about how everyone handles death differently, only to find River laying on top of the coffin. They try to move her, but she insists she’s “comfortable.”
In the Dining Room, Mal and Zoë are telling stories about Tracey, particularly one about him snipping off a senior officer’s mustache and then wearing it, when an explosion rocks the ship. Womack has caught up to Serenity. Mal’s worried that he wants the Lassiter, but Womack quickly says it’s about the crate. Mal stalls for time so they can figure out what the Alliance is looking for. A search of the crate turns up nothing, so Mal orders an autopsy. When Simon gets him on the table, he notices that Tracey has been cut open before. When he tries to cut him, Tracey wakes up, screaming.
Tracey attacks Simon but is quickly subdued. Tracey explains that he took a drug to simulate death in order to get away from the people he robbed. Mal asks what he stole, but Simon interrupts to tell Mal that Simon is having a medical emergency. Tracey explains that he isn’t, he’s just carrying some extra organs around. That’s what he stole. The story is that Tracey was supposed to carry an entire body-full of experimental organs to Ariel, where they would be removed and his original organs would be put in. However, he received a better offer, so he decided to take it, only to find out that his former clients killed his new buyer and are now pursuing him. He faked his death, believing that would throw them off the trail. In the meantime, he and Kaylee exchange some glances indicating that they would like to engage in some “organ donation.” That’s the worst metaphor for sex ever, but I refuse to change it.
Womack fires another warning shot, reminding Mal that he’s nearby. Mal claims that the shot disabled the docking, so he tells Womack that they’ll have to meet on the planet below, St. Albans, where Tracey’s family lives. Kaylee hides Tracey in her bunk, where they clearly show further attraction. The two ships enter atmosphere, but Mal tells Wash not to land. Book notes that Womack didn’t contact the local Alliance authorities when he entered atmosphere, and Wash pilots the ship into some tight canyons, making it difficult for the Alliance ship to follow. In response, Womack’s ship just goes higher, something that Wash somehow didn’t consider.
Womack begins firing at Serenity, but Wash manages to keep her safe. Wash hides the ship in a tunnel, but the Alliance drops explosives to triangulate their position. They appear to be sunk when Book says he knows another way, but it’ll require letting the Alliance board. Mal eventually agrees, trusting Book. Tracey overhears this, however, and pulls a gun on the crew, telling them that they have to run. When Mal tells Wash to radio anyway, Tracy fires at the radio and the ricochet wings Wash, but Zoë uses the opportunity to shoot Tracey in the chest. Wounded, but still very much alive, Tracey takes Kaylee hostage.
Mal confronts Tracey, pointing out that Tracey brought all of this on himself. Tracey accuses Mal of being hypocritical, but Mal says that he’s never killed someone who was trying to help him. Tracey mocks Mal and Zoë for their code of honor. The bombing stops, signaling that Wash has told Womack they’re surrendering. Jayne sneaks up behind Tracey and distracts him, resulting in Kaylee getting free and Mal shooting Tracey in the chest again. This time, he’s not going to make it. Mal tells Tracey that Tracey killed himself, Mal just carried the bullet.
Womack boards and finds a dying Tracey. Womack threatens the crew with arrest, but Book appears and tells Womack that he’s aware that Womack isn’t in his jurisdiction. In fact, Womack is quite a distance from his jurisdiction just to avoid any risk of being found out for his illegal activities. So, Book reasons, there’s no reason the Alliance will notice if the crew kills them all. Womack, realizing he’s cornered, backs down and leaves, insulting Jayne’s hat on the way because he’s an asshole.
Tracey realizes that Mal had planned to save him all along, meaning he’s literally dying from his own stupidity. Tracey asks Mal and Zoë to take him home like he’d originally asked them, so his parents can bury him, before passing away. The crew brings his body to his family, where Kaylee hands them Tracey’s last testament, ending with the line:
“When you can’t run anymore, you crawl, and when you can’t do that, well, yeah, you know the rest…”
Mal remembers how the phrase goes… when you can’t crawl, you find someone to carry you.
Well, this was the last episode filmed, and the last scene filmed was turning over the body of Tracey to his parents. In some ways, that’s pretty fitting, since it’s a somber moment signifying the wasted potential of someone killed through greed and stupidity. The only difference is that Tracey was killed by his own stupidity, whereas Firefly was killed by someone else’s… and also the tendency for the American viewing audience to not want to watch network stuff on Friday night.
The first thing about this episode is that it solidifies the “alien” question within series, establishing that humanity has not yet found life on other planets. The closest we have is the Reavers, which are just mutant humans. Granted, when you consider that we only inhabit like 5-6 solar systems at this point (per the Map of the ‘Verse) and there are 200 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy alone, it’s not like we’ve looked that far. However, I love the reveal that a mutant cow fetus, the same thing people used in sideshows for years to fake as monsters, is still being used on people 500 years in the future. I also love that Simon immediately gets pissed that he’s been scammed, whereas Wash plays along with it because he thinks it’s fun.
This definitely is an upside/downside episode, for me. Let’s start with the upsides: Jayne’s hat is amazing, and I love it, and I would never wear it in a million years, but it brings out an entirely new side of Jayne in such a short period. Really, adding the details that he’s providing for his family who loves him adds a nice level to the character, especially since we tend to think of the tough guy types like him to be orphans or loners. Instead, it turns out Jayne’s kind of a mama’s boy and, well, it works for the character.
The scenes of Mal and Zoë remembering Tracey, either in flashback or in the dining room, really flesh out some of the Unification War’s story, even though they’re short. It’s a lot of show-don’t-tell about how rough the war was and what kind of people were fighting it. It also makes it clear that not every Browncoat really was fighting on principle, some of them were just people who picked a side based on convenience or heritage, like happens in every war. It’s a level of simple reality added to a nebulous background event that makes it more tangible.
Showing how the crew reacts to death makes for a very good series of character moments, from Simon’s clinical detachment to Book’s quiet contemplation to Kaylee’s sentimentality to Mal and Zoë’s fond remembrances, it really kind of shows how they all deal with mortality. River, on the other hand, can hear his dreams of his family, and probably lays on the coffin to listen to the happy thoughts and feelings coming out of his head.
The ending is so well done that it still makes me cry a little. It doesn’t surprise me that Kaylee had a crush on Tracey just from hearing his message, because it’s a powerful message whose meaning changes a little every time we hear it, ranging from sounding like a foolish kid admitting that made bad choices to sounding like a manipulative scumbag. But it’s always the same recording, only the context changes, and that’s such a great device for an episode to use. The last playing, however, is a man regretting what he did to the people he should have treated better. Luckily, Mal and Zoë are the better people and, when Tracey couldn’t crawl, they carried him home. The score to this is possibly the best in the series.
Kaylee’s crush on Tracey also gives her a little bit of a chance to show that she isn’t blindly hung up on Simon. However, ultimately, Tracey betrays that trust. Simon wouldn’t. That’s why he eventually gets to sleep with her… in a few months (or years, in reality).
And that’s a good segue to the downsides, because the Simon/Kaylee thing is only 12 episodes old and it’s starting to get repetitive. One of them needs to learn something. Either Simon needs to work on thinking before he speaks and emotional expression, or Kaylee needs to accept that those aren’t his strong points and Simon cares for her deeply even if he doesn’t express it right. I know that it’s the show’s “will they/won’t they” set-up, but this isn’t a sitcom, you can resolve it through character development and we won’t care as long as it’s natural. Besides, you have a better one going between Mal and Inara, where they actually have reasons not to be together that are logically justified, not farcical.
The villain in this episode is the worst, and not in the sense of “the most evil.” Womack is just barely a real threat at any point. Mal out-maneuvers him for half the episode without really having to do anything but provide lip-service, and he’s ultimately thwarted by Book just pointing out that he’s doing something illegal. Yes, the bad guy is thwarted by someone telling him they know he’s the bad guy. That’s just not a good resolution, I’m sorry. Also, his constant warning shots and waiting kind of stand in contrast to his first action of threatening to burn a man alive. I know he doesn’t want to blow up Tracey’s body, but you cannot portray someone as both ruthless and easily deterred.
Tracey is too stupid to live and even the fact that he dies from it doesn’t make me feel better. Even in the flashbacks, Tracey only survives because Mal and Zoë save him from his own stupidity, and he expects that again during a deal gone wrong that was always going to go wrong. Look, the idea of finding a better buyer is a time-honored tradition among smugglers, but that idea needs to go to the wayside when you need your buyer to PUT YOUR F*CKING ORGANS BACK IN. You take the offer you have, since they have your small intestine. Then, when his new buyer is dead, he decides to go on the run, but Simon implies that the organs cannot stay in him forever (he’s only an incubator), so, how’s he going to get the organs out and get new ones that work? Then, he chooses to hold the ship hostage rather than listen to the plan, only for the plan to work perfectly. I also don’t like that Mal shoots him, because Mal doesn’t really try to explain the plan well to Tracey, which might have defused the situation. Oh, and Tracey’s accent sucks.
The theme of the episode, that you need someone to carry on after you die, is great. Really, it’s a great idea that’s portrayed simultaneously literally and metaphorically in the episode, but the fact that I just kind of feel like Tracey was a shitwiggen, which is a word I think I made up just now, lessens any desire I have to see his memory carried. He held Kaylee hostage, for goodness’ sake, he deserves to be dumped out an airlock and a kind lie to be told to his family so they might think he was less of a f*ckbucket. I think it really does speak to the quality of the writing of the message that it still makes me empathize with him during the last scene, even though I don’t think he deserves it.
Ultimately, this episode, for me, is in the bottom-tier. It’s just so hard to recover from a bad villain and an unsympathetic emotional focus of the episode. Again, it’s not bad compared to most of television, it’s just bad compared to the good episodes of this series.
Score: 2 Fireflies (or 1 Cow Fetus in Wash’s Eyes)
Welcome to the last of the originally approved episodes of Firefly’s run, and it’s easily one of the top-tier episodes from the first group. Obviously, there were more ordered, but this was the last of the first wave. It’s also the last episode to air before Fox just started pre-empting it for whatever they felt like, but we’ll cover that next week.
The episode starts with Serenity heading towards Ariel, one of the central worlds of the Union of Allied Planets, so that Inara can renew her Companion License. Everyone else is to stay on the ship so that they can avoid any trouble with the Alliance. Jayne makes a snide comment about Simon, to which River seems to respond by cutting him across the chest with a knife. Creepily, River says he looks “better in red.” Simon patches up Jayne and tries to apologize, but Jayne responds by requesting that Mal leave the Tams on Ariel. Mal tells Simon to confine River to her room, before telling Simon that River is getting worse, something Simon sadly admits.
Simon then presents the team with an offer of a job: Sneaking River into a futuristic fMRI in an Alliance hospital so that he can do a full brain-scan of her to figure out what’s wrong. As payment, Simon will help them raid the hospital’s medical cabinets to steal high-grade pharmaceuticals. Kaylee expresses hesitation about stealing medicine, particularly after they already backed out of that in “The Train Job,” but Zoe points out that, unlike the poor Outer Rim planets, inner planets can replenish their medical supplies almost instantaneously. Just to drive home that these are good people, Mal says that the poor on the Outer Rim could really use those meds.
Simon poses a two-part plan. First, the crew will use a refurbished abandoned medical shuttle and fake IDs to bring Simon and River in as cadavers so they won’t have to be scanned. After they’re in, Mal and Zoe will go and get the meds while Simon takes River to the scanner and Jayne stands guard. They’ll fill the empty coffins with meds and bring them back out.
The preparation for this particular heist is pretty hilarious. Simon writes a script that is technically accurate and contains a bunch of medical jargon, which the rest of the crew, particularly Jayne, cannot quite get right. Meanwhile, Kaylee and Wash find a wrecked medical transport (as well as a catalyzer that he just ignores), which they fix up until it looks believable. Jayne bribes a guard for IDs, uniforms, and keycards. Simon convinces River, who is terrified of going into a coma again, that this is the only way to help fix her head. He injects both of them with drugs to become corpses temporarily.
The crew lands on Ariel in the fake medical shuttle and, just as they start to relate their backstory, are allowed straight in without any questions. Humorously, Jayne, who either just can’t adjust to changes or was too proud of memorizing his line to not say it, still delivers his prepared speech rather than just going through the door. Mal revives the Tams in the morgue, then takes off with Zoe to collect the drugs. While the Tams are rousing, Jayne puts a call in to an Alliance officer, revealing that he’s reached an agreement to sell the Tams. Simon and River then wake up, nauseous, before getting dressed as a doctor and patient.
As they’re going through the hospital, River insists to Simon that he help a patient who is being killed by his doctor. Simon insists that’s not what’s happening, but when the patient codes, Simon saves the patient then berates the doctor for making a very basic mistake that would have killed him, impressing both River and Jayne with his medical knowledge and authority. It really serves to drive home how much Simon would have had if he hadn’t given it up for River, but Simon never seems to second-guess it.
Mal and Zoe get accosted by a doctor with a severe complex about his authority and, while Mal really does try to be as polite as possible while dealing with a complete douchenozzle, Zoe takes the more direct approach by knocking him unconscious. Using the doctor’s ID, the pair raid the medical supply closet, stealing everything that Simon told them was valuable, necessary, and easily replaceable.
In the future brain scanning machine, Simon finds out that River has had multiple brain surgeries which have removed her amygdalae, preventing her from being able to suppress or regulate her emotions. As Simon puts it: “She feels everything. She can’t not.” The further implication within the show, later confirmed in the movie, is that not being able to prevent herself from feeling has enhanced her ability to feel other people’s emotions from her natural low-grade empathic abilities all the way to full-on telepathy. Jayne then leads the pair to a different backdoor than originally planned, despite River’s objections. All three are arrested.
Jayne discovers quickly that the Alliance commander, Agent McGinnis (Blake Robbins) has no interest whatsoever in doing business with him, instead choosing to collect the reward himself. Mal and Zoe get back to the shuttle, but Zoe recognizes a radio broadcast as a code for arresting criminals. As Jayne and the Tams are moved through the hospital, Simon thanks Jayne for trying to help him and River, not knowing that Jayne is the one that ratted them out. River’s nonsensical chatter in this scene is pretty brilliant: It simultaneously can be an implication that she knows that Jayne and the Alliance Commander did while also being a metaphor for what has done to her brain by the Alliance. It’s also about Christmas. Jayne and the Tams get put into holding, but Simon and Jayne disable the guards. As they yell about which way to get out of the hospital, River says “Doesn’t matter. They’re here.”
At that moment, it’s revealed that the two blue-gloved men in dark suits from “The Train Job” have arrived at the hospital and are talking with Agent McGinnis. However, upon finding out that he and his team spoke with the prisoners, specifically River, the Hands of Blue pull out a blue cylinder that causes Agent McGinnis to hemorrhage everywhere, quickly killing him. Presumably, they kill the rest of the team later, as screams are heard coming down the corridors, causing Jayne, Simon, and River to try to escape. They reach a locked door that they can’t force open, but, at the last second, Mal and Zoe open it from the other side. By the time the Hands of Blue reach the room, the crew has escaped.
Inara returns to the ship, where Kaylee fills her in on the events in an intentionally confusing way. Mal and the rest arrive, telling Wash to get them out of Ariel. Mal tells Jayne to hang back for a second, then knocks him unconscious.
Jayne awakens in the airlock in the cargo hold, with the inside door sealed and a radio on the floor. Mal, on the other side of the airlock, shows him that he has the other radio, then cracks the outside door a little, revealing that Serenity is leaving the atmosphere. Mal tells Jayne that Simon’s plan was good. Too good for them to have gotten caught at the back exit, where they weren’t supposed to be, unless Jayne called the Alliance. Jayne denies it, but Mal just opens the outside door more and tells Jayne they’ll be leaving atmosphere in 2 minutes, at which point Jayne will be sucked out. Jayne begs for his life, then for a more honorable death, before finally admitting that he did betray Simon and River, but says that it wasn’t betraying Mal. Mal responds that:
“Oh, but you did. You turn on any of my crew, you turn on me. But since that’s a concept you can’t seem to wrap your head around, then you got no place here. You did it to me, Jayne. And that’s a fact.”
Jayne, accepting what he’s done, just asks Mal to not tell the crew what he did. Mal, seeing Jayne’s regret, changes his mind and allows Jayne to live. Meanwhile, Simon gives River a shot based on his findings in the brain scan. River worries that it’ll put her to sleep, but Simon insists it’ll help her to wake up.
Alright, so, this episode always kind of reminds me of “The Train Job.” Both are heist stories involving medical supplies, both feature the hands of blue, both involve the team getting separated with one half being captured (in the former, it’s Mal and Zoe that get captured, in this one, they’re the ones that get away), both involve Mal threatening to execute someone using Serenity. The former takes place on a colony that’s been abused by the Alliance by being overcharged and undersupplied with medicine to treat a condition which was caused by mining for the benefit of the Alliance. The latter takes place on an elite planet which has most of the futuristic technologies appropriate for the time, where medicine is plentiful enough that the crew has no worry about their theft impacting the hospital. I’m not saying it’s meant to be a reflection of “The Train Job,” I’m just saying I think of them as being a pair. They both kind of show different sides of being a noble thief.
The big Firefly thing I’m going to address in this episode is the Blue Sun and the Alliance and what they did to River. This episode finally starts to really tell the story of what was done to River’s mind and how valuable she is to the Alliance. River has no amygdala, because, after multiple surgeries, the Alliance ended up removing one or both of them… somehow. The episode seems to imply that it’s only one that gets “stripped,” since Simon speaks of it in the singular, there being two of them in the human brain, and Simon in an excellent doctor proficient in multiple fields (including, apparently, neurology). This definitely makes more sense than losing both, since it seems River wouldn’t even be able to function at all without either of them, even if there are sophisticated future treatments. Since the amygdalae play a role in emotional response, decision-making, and memory, it also seems to make sense with River’s odd quirks.
Now, this isn’t really fully explained until the movie Serenity, but the Alliance tried to make River into the ultimate weapon by enhancing her brain to the point that she can read the minds of anyone in her proximity. However, she’s not capable of reading anyone, she HAS to read EVERYONE, which explains why she has more trouble when in larger groups unless the group is focused on something singular and happy. This episode, though, is our first hint that River has additional secrets, to the point that the Hands of Blue have to kill anyone who speaks with her. In the movie, it’s revealed that River was exposed to a room of the highest-ranking members of the Alliance, meaning she knows every secret of the Alliance, including that *Spoiler for a 10 year old movie* the Alliance created the Reavers.
What is not fully expanded on within the series is that the Blue Sun Corporation clearly had a huge part in both River’s treatment and in the higher-levels of the Alliance. Throughout the series, River responds negatively to any image of the Blue Sun logo. In “Shindig,” she tears off the food labels that have the logo and, in this episode, she slashes Jayne’s shirt because it bears the logo.
We see the Blue Sun logo on products throughout the series like coffee cans, food cans, shirts, cola products, breakfast bars, and alcohol bottles. These don’t really seem out of the ordinary for a single company. They’re like Coca-Cola or General Mills: They just have a lot of fingers in a lot of pies, and that’s not innuendo… or maybe it is, I don’t really know what they’re into. But, this episode has a product that is completely out of the ordinary: The brain scanner itself has the Blue Sun logo on it.
So, what exactly is the Blue Sun’s role in the whole saga of River Tam? Well, we didn’t really get the full reveal, but it seems pretty obvious that Blue Sun is owned or in partnerships with the Alliance at the highest levels, because River’s reactions indicate that they were behind at least some of her torture. This makes sense if they’re the company that manufactures the complicated medical equipment that would be used to perform the surgeries. Additionally, they had enough clout and ubiquity to be able to embed messages for River in advertisements around the ‘Verse. In the movie, the message that “triggers” River to remember Miranda is in an ad for Fruity Oat Bars, a Blue Sun product.
Sadly, we didn’t get to really see the full extent of this, but it was a great plot point to have a massive and seemingly harmless corporation being tied into the Alliance’s shadowy workings. It’d be like finding out that Monsanto entered into a government contract to manufacture Agent Orang-oh, right.
This is one of my favorite episodes in the show. It’s a solid heist with a great prep montage, it finally gives a semi-explanation for River’s condition, it has Jayne’s hatred and resentment of Simon and River come to a head, it has Mal showing his willingness both to be brutal and also to forgive, and it also finally gives us a real shot of how the “other half” lives in this heavily classist future. The only downsides are 1) it doesn’t have Book. At all., 2) it does have elements that seem to be shared by “The Train Job,” 3) the dialogue isn’t bad, but it also doesn’t have some of the signature great lines of other episodes, and 4) it doesn’t quite give us enough forward motion on the River Tam mystery for an episode dedicated to it.
Fifth episode to air, seventh in production order, and the first to air after Fox actually ordered 3 additional episodes based on the success of the show, bringing the expected season up to 16 episodes.
This episode starts in medias res and flashes back for most of the story, so I’m gonna summarize it the way it’s presented. Besides, Dan Harmon’s opinions notwithstanding, the structure has worked since The Odyssey.
The episode begins with the ship empty, except for a very wounded Malcolm Reynolds struggling through her. As he looks around, he flashes back to when he first bought Serenity, which the salesman, now seemingly more-accurately, says will be with him the rest of his life. When Zoe first sees the ship, she believes that it’s a waste, but Mal says the ship’s not the point: The point is that it gives them freedom.
No matter how long the arm of the Alliance might get, we’ll just get ourselves a little further.
Mal grabs an engine part and continues to make his way through the ship as he flashes back to how they got in this situation.
The crew is at dinner while Wash sets a course that takes them to their destination without running into any Alliance patrols. He points out that it actually makes it unlikely they’ll run into anyone and what should take a day is now taking a week, but Mal seems content. Since this is space, I assume this means Wash searched for “almost anywhere.” Space is big, kids.
Kaylee then comes in to surprise Simon with a cake for his birthday. River naturally points out that there can’t be a birthday because there are no days in space, but nobody else seems to mind. Surprisingly, there’s not really any issues with time dilation in the show, since Serenity’s top speed is never shown, but probably wouldn’t be faster than 100,000 meters/second (just spitballing based on the ship’s range of 400 AU and travel times), so, even accounting for orbital velocities, my usual complaint about sci-fi birthdays is averted because the ship’s just not fast enough. Bless you, Joss Whedon.
However, as Simon blows out the candle, the ship’s power dims. As Kaylee goes to check on it, a huge explosion occurs, sending a wall of flame hurtling down the corridor towards the room. Zoe pushes Kaylee out of the way and is blown backwards by the force of the fireball, severely injuring her. They seal off the ship to contain the fire then vent it into space.
As Simon looks after Zoe, Kaylee looks after Serenity. Mal forces Wash, who wants to stay by Zoe’s side, to go to the bridge, angering him.
We flashback within the flashback to see when Wash first came on the boat, wearing a mustache, flat hair, and a Hawaiian shirt. Normally, I’d make a pedophile comment, but it’s Wash, so I will abstain. Wash, who is apparently a very sought-after pilot, decides he likes the ship. Zoe, however, says that she doesn’t particularly care for Wash, because of course that’s how they started, have you met them? After Mal states that he’s going to take Wash if Wash will take the job, they run into the “genius” mechanic, Bester (Dax Griffin), who apparently is getting Serenity ready to fly.
Back at the main flashback, Zoe is not doing well, mostly because Gina Torres was filming something else at the time. Simon gives her an adrenaline shot to keep her going. In the present, Mal gives himself one to keep going despite the pain and bloodloss. In the flashback, Mal takes Kaylee to the engine room to figure out what’s wrong, and the answer is the catalyzer in the port compression coil blew. What’s both great, and tragic, about this is that Kaylee had, in two separate earlier episodes, pointed out that the compression coil needed to be replaced. In fact, in the pilot, Kaylee said that if the coil busts, they’re drifting. The reality, it seems, is actually worse: when the coil exploded, it destroyed the back-up life support. I assume this is based on CO2 scrubbers like in current space shuttles, which wouldn’t really help with the “we vented a ton of the oxygen into the void and probably shouldn’t be able to get enough O2 into our lungs with each breath” problem, but I guess there was enough for everyone to breathe until they get to the next planet if the life support worked, and maybe they had a mechanism that reduced the volume of the inside of the ship to keep the pressure from dropping rapidly and giving everyone some super case of the bends.
As the crew contemplates their apparently inevitable suffocation, River and Book talk briefly, with River saying that his Bible says “Don’t be afraid.” I consider this to be one of the best commentaries on the benefits of faith in film. River then comforts Book by telling him that they won’t suffocate… because they’ll freeze to death first. This one I haven’t actually figured out, since most spaceships, now, can withstand being powerless in space for hours at a time without it causing the inside temperature to change that much. Granted, they’re much smaller and heat dissipation is a matter of surface area, but still, spaceships usually have to be pretty well thermally insulated to deal with re-entry (and the vacuum of space), something that Serenity does regularly. My best guess is that the sheer amount of heat that the engine power source produces might need to be regularly vented out all around the ship, so maybe ships in the future are actually built to constantly be dispersing heat by design, including mechanical dispersal that still operates without power. Or maybe it’s an error based on speculative writing. I assume that River Tam is correct, though, because she’s River Tam.
Mal and Wash manage to set up a beacon broadcasting a help request. In another flashback, we’re shown that Kaylee’s entrance to the ship was less professional than Wash’s. Kaylee was sleeping with Bester, the former mechanic, because engines “get her hot.” When Bester tells Mal about the problems on the ship, Kaylee quickly fixes it while demonstrating a natural aptitude towards understanding machines. Mal offers her a job and kicks Bester out. In the main flashback, Kaylee tells Mal that the ship is broken beyond even her skills and, without a new catalyzer, just can’t fly. In the present, it’s revealed that the engine part Mal is carrying is a new catalyzer, he attempts to put it back in the engines, but slips.
In the flashback, Mal sends the crew off in the shuttles, one in each direction, while he stays on the ship. Wash, optimistically, sets up a mechanism to recall the shuttles once the beacon gets someone’s attention. Mal and Inara share a moment as he sends her off in the shuttle with Book, Jayne, and Kaylee. It then flashes back to when Inara first arrived on the ship. Mal tries to feign disinterest in having her on board, but Inara quickly points out that he needs her more than she needs them, because she gives him “respectability” and the ability to deal with the Alliance. She negotiates a lower price and a set of rules for conduct (which Mal has regularly broken since), before telling him that she will never call him “whore” again, because easy dramatic irony is easy and dramatic. In the main flashback, Inara asks Mal to come with her, but he refuses, saying he’s going to stay with his ship. Mal and Wash part, with Mal telling him to go to his wife, and then Jayne and Mal part in a humorous sequence consisting of Jayne basically walking off to avoid any emotional contact. Mal, alone, goes to the bridge and sits, waiting for someone. Eventually, with Mal almost out of oxygen, a ship finds him.
The captain of the other ship, hesitant to trust Mal, coincidentally has a spare catalyzer on board. Unfortunately, they’ve decided that the price of the part will be everything on board Serenity and ambush Mal. This causes Mal to flash back to when he first met Jayne, who had once similarly ambushed him and Zoe along with two other bandits. Impressed by Jayne’s skills at tracking, Mal negotiates for Jayne to switch sides after promising him a bigger cut and his own bunk, because Jayne is a simple man with simple needs. Back at the more-recent ambush, the captain of the other ship shoots Mal, who grabs a hidden gun and forces the other men off his ship, putting us at the start of the episode.
The computer klaxon keeps blaring, warning about the low oxygen levels, which, honestly, makes no sense, since the ship just got a huge influx of oxygen a few minutes ago when the other ship docked with them, and the other ship’s atmo-scrubber should have reduced the CO2 levels for the time the ships were connected, which, while not too long, was at least long enough to search the ship. Dammit, stop thinking about this. Mal finally manages to get the catalyzer installed but passes out from his injuries before he can recall the shuttles.
Mal wakes up a few hours later, in the infirmary, having found out that everyone in the crew is now back. When Zoe awoke, she demanded that they return, resulting in them finding out that Mal had fixed it. Wash donates some blood to Mal, and everything seems back to normal. As Mal passes out again, we’re treated to one last flashback where Mal first sees Serenity, despite the salesman talking to him about another ship. It’s clearly love at first sight.
Alright, so, this episode has two purposes. First, it gives us the backstories for all the characters we didn’t have yet.
We find out Kaylee has no formal schooling in engines, she just has a natural aptitude, something that seems extremely ridiculous for a modern spaceship, but makes sense when you realize that, for her, a spaceship is no more complicated than a car is now. Some people can just visualize the entire structure and make it work. We also learn that Kaylee’s a little more sexually free than we had previously been shown, but, let’s be honest, we all kinda guessed that. We find out that Zoe originally didn’t care for Wash, which, I imagine, was because of the mustache. Grow a beard or don’t grow anything, man. Wash, meanwhile, has always been unusual, which is probably why he took a job on Serenity in the first place, despite having so many better offers. Zoe, too, is even colder in the flashbacks than she is in the present, something that speaks to how her marriage has been good for her. The fact that they’re the cutest couple ever in the future is all the better for having this inauspicious start.
Jayne’s backstory is especially interesting, since Jayne is shown swapping loyalties for money, though in the present day it seems he would never consider betraying Mal, at least in his own mind, for any amount of money. It makes his earlier refusal in the Pilot seem a bit more meaningful, and later actions a little more tragic.
Mal and Inara’s first encounter is also noteworthy, because the smooth-talking Mal is pretty much completely outmaneuvered by Inara’s bargaining chips. It’s also revealed that Inara supported the Alliance, something that Mal naturally is more than a little irked by. It also shows that they did, at one point, have some formalities in their relationship.
Mal’s interaction with Serenity speaks to Mal’s character. Rather than the ship he came to see, Mal’s attention is drawn to the beat-up Firefly. He sees in the ship a desire to prove herself still worth something despite how the rest of the world has treated her. So, basically, he sees himself.
The second point of the story is to show the reality of how risky space travel really is. When something goes wrong in space, as Mal says, you can’t just go get another part, and every part matters. It’s almost comical when Mal explains that the entire problem is a broken catalyzer and the other captain says “that’s a nothing part.” It’s also true that the catalyzer probably shouldn’t have been such a big issue, except that the compression coil really need to be replaced, as Kaylee said. I’m speculating here, but I’d have to wager that anything called a “compression coil,” probably compresses something, and that a catalyzer probably is something that catalyzes, or greatly accelerates a chemical process.
Now, we don’t currently have the capacity to do this in an energy-efficient way, but you can create a nuclear fusion reaction through a combination of compressing the atoms close enough together while forcing surrounding materials to “shoot” the atoms closer together through rapid chemical processes emitting heat and particles, resulting in a fusion reaction of the original atoms and a massive energy, and particle, release which could be directed to create acceleration in 0 gravity (or essentially 0 gravity). In fact, you can do this currently for about $5,000 if you’re interested, but it won’t create more energy than the reaction requires. However, if the surrounding reactions were stopped, then just compressing the atoms together will not be enough to invoke the strong and weak nuclear forces, meaning that fusion won’t occur and you don’t have an engine. What you do have is a highly compressed material (probably deuterium), that’s now not being fused… and likely going to explode when you try to use it to move the ship if the compression coil isn’t capable of expanding rapidly to avoid it. “Nothing part” my ass, out of which I just pulled that explanation.
Then, once you have a problem, you run into the second really risky aspect of space travel we already discussed: The void wants to kill you. Nature abhors a vacuum, but a vacuum also abhors nature, and you’re nature. Any interaction with the outside of the ship is prone to killing humans. And, without oxygen scrubbers and the ability to produce clean water, the inside of the ship isn’t going to be any better. It’s fairly comparable to being on a regular seafaring ship: If there’s a hole in the bottom, and you can’t patch it, you die. If you’re stuck in the middle of the ocean with no propulsion, you’re either going to get found, or you die. However, when you’re in space, there’s a lot more volume for people to search without them seeing you, so you’re even more likely to be screwed. Space is big, kids.
This also shows exactly how hard it is to keep Serenity flying. She was already beaten to hell when she started with Mal, and since then Kaylee’s used every jury-rig that she can thing of to keep the ship flying. At this point, she’s likely more string and duct tape than she is metal, which makes sense when you consider how expensive spaceship parts likely are, especially for a ship like Serenity which isn’t even the most recent model of Firefly, and there were only 28,000 of them made. We don’t know anything about standardized parts in the future, but I’m wagering that there isn’t a huge amount of backwards-compatibility in the engines. The Allied Spacecraft company likely doesn’t have a huge amount of sympathy towards the poor space-pilot who can’t afford to replace their models and I’m sure Mal doesn’t have insurance. Mal may say the ship represents “freedom,” but oh how fleeting is freedom when you’re choking to death in it.
This episode is the highest-rated episode of Firefly on IMDB. It’s not my favorite, but it’s definitely a top-tier episode, and it’s easy to see why: It’s got a lot of great moments in the flashbacks, the episode really makes great use of the show’s space setting, the framing device of Mal painfully struggling through the ship is both wonderfully shot and extremely tense, a lot of solid dialogue that is too fast and clever to really have stand-out lines (this isn’t a bad thing), and it manages to flesh out essentially all of the characters in a short amount of time. Very impressive.