8)  Objects in Space (Firefly)

Firefly got fourteen episodes and a movie. Never really got the chance to show itself, thanks to the network. There have been attempts to expand it further, but, ultimately, there is relatively little to it beyond a season and a film. Despite that, it commands an amazingly dedicated fanbase, and is typically regarded as one of the greatest sci-fi shows ever made. If you want to hear how Fox screwed it over, this is the internet, there are thousands of pages on it from more dedicated angry fans. Personally, I don’t know if it would have maintained its quality in a longer run, but I will say this: It ended on an unbelievably high note, and had plenty more room to grow.

Rather than give you a meme, I just googled “Firefly cancelled meme.”
The New Math

Here’s the gist of the show: It’s a space western, and that is exactly what it sounds like. The crew of the “Firefly-class” spaceship Serenity travel from planet to planet, however, most of the places they land more strongly resemble the 19th or early 20th century than the future, due to the inhabitants having to rebuild civilization from almost no resources beyond a terraformed environment. There are some planets that are appropriately futuristic, but they’re only available to the social elite. So, most of the places they visit seem more like the set of Unforgiven with a few random holograms than the set of Blade Runner or Star Trek.

The crew of Serenity is more than a little eclectic. The Captain is Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan “The Lord Thy” Fillion), an honest thief and former sergeant for the Independent Planets during the Unification War. The Unification War takes place roughly 500 years in the future and ends about 6 years before the show’s start. It arose because while the same organization leaving the Earth That Was had terraformed almost all of the moons and planets in this new solar system, but had hoarded nearly all of the technology and resources in a few core planets, which formed an Alliance, and left the others to fend for themselves. Those planets that had been left on their own (where most of the show takes place), tried to negotiate for a more equitable distribution of resources. In response, the Alliance decided to force those planets under Alliance control, and succeeded. This leaves Mal with a slight distaste for authority.

His First Mate, and second-in-command during the war, is Zoë Washburne (Gina “Pick Warlock” Torres), who is extremely loyal, capable of killing almost anyone she feels like with almost anything she has handy, and perpetually stoic. Her husband is the childish, hilarious, and loving pilot of the ship Hoban “Wash” Washburne (Alan “I can make playing a chicken seem Oscar-worthy” Tudyk). The ship’s engineer is the mechanically gifted, wholesome, and occasionally overly blunt Kaylee Frye (Jewel “The second Amy Pond” Staite). The ship’s … I’m gonna go with “guy who shoots people,” since I don’t know his official title, is the mercenary Jayne Cobb (Adam “Don’t read my Twitter” Baldwin). The perpetual passengers of the ship are: Inara Serra (Morena “You should watch Gotham” Baccarin), a companion (sort of like an escort with high-ranking social status and a ton of additional skills) and the person Mal refuses to acknowledge is his love interest; Derrial Book (Ron “I played the Devil on The Twilight Zone” Glass), a shepherd (future version of a pastor); Dr. Simon Tam (Sean “Nightwing” Maher), a gifted doctor on the run from the Alliance for breaking out his sister and fellow passenger, River (Summer “I need more roles” Glau).

F*ck off, Clooney, I’ve got Fillion now. Also everyone else in the photo.

River Tam is brilliant. During a speech in the pilot episode, Simon indicates to the crew that he himself is an exceptionally bright person. He’s a genius, even among doctors in the far future. Despite this, and despite her being a few years younger, River constantly made him feel like the idiot child. At 14, she had gotten bored with graduate-level physics (and this is physics 500 years from now). She was a prodigy in basically every field, even dance and music. Then, the Alliance essentially abducted her and started to perform experiments on her with the goal of giving her psychic powers and turning her into the perfect assassin. Unfortunately, they also removed her amygdala, which left her unable to attempt to filter her emotions. More than that, by using that in tandem with her psychic abilities, it also makes her unable to filter the emotions of others around her. As you might guess, this makes her more or less insane.

She can kill you with her crazy brain. Maybe.

She seems to talk nonsense most of the time, but much of it actually is either semi-prophetic, psychic, or just an unusual observation that most people wouldn’t make out loud. Throughout the series up until this point, she has managed to demonstrate some unbelievable abilities, like memorizing a battlefield and then killing three people with three shots from a distance with her eyes closed (because she didn’t want to see the blood). Summer Glau somehow manages to portray her honestly, without ever having to really dive into hackneyed renditions of insanity or psychosis. River is River.

This episode is the first time she meets someone who, while not her equal, definitely serves as her dark reflection, and is the reason why I have to put this episode on this list:

Jubal. F*cking. Early.

He can kill you with his crazy brain. Via a gun.

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).

FireflyEarly2He’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 “Now everyone has a middle name joke” 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. Still, he made this one glorious.


It’s a gun, or is it?

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, evidenced most directly when she picks up a gun, but sees it only as a stick, saying “It’s just an object. Doesn’t mean what you think.”

The Dark Above, the Light Below

The crew then discuss whether River is dangerous, and the first parallel is made between Jubal and River: they both eavesdrop on the conversation, Jubal through the ship’s hull, River through the floor. After the crew turns in for the night, Jubal enters the ship and systematically takes out most of the crew, seeking the bounty on Simon and River. First, he defeats Mal with ease, before locking him and most of the crew in their rooms. 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.”


He 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.”

River’s New Body

Early then encounters Inara and 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. 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, but even he starts to believe that River might now be Serenity. Eventually, River, now revealed to actually be on Early’s ship, says that the ship and crew would be better off without her and tells Early that she’ll leave with him. 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. The last shot of the series is Jubal Early, floating out in the vastness of space, saying, calmly “Well, here I am.”



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.

FireflyEarly5Another 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. Part of the reason he’s able to do this is 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.

FireflyNauseaJoss Whedon cited Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel Nausea as his inspiration for this episode. Being a dedicated writer for the dozen people that read this, I purchased, and read, this 192-page novel… rather than, as someone pointed out after, 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 are both address the concept of “engaged agency” in existentialist terms, but in opposing ways. Avoiding “engaged agency” is wanting to disavow any responsibility for your actions. The most common example is, adapted from Sartre’s example of “bad faith” in Being and Nothingness, 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 believes he bears no responsibility for what he does. Both River and Early do this during the episode, in exactly the opposite way.

No offense.

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 says “what’s life without work,” indicating that he doesn’t see any point to his existence outside of performing the function. This is him denying his own agency, but he is being inauthentic. No one is forcing him to be a bounty hunter, so he is still acting in bad faith.

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.

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 beautiful garden, 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.

River’s Mind

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.

FireflyEarly6.jpgLastly, 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.

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. All of Firefly, from start to finish, takes about 15 hours to watch. If you have a weekend, this is a good use of it, if only because it will require you to see this episode.


NEXT – 7: The Honeymooners

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews

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13) The Body (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

And whatever Adam was.

There are terrible things in the world of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and they can make you tear your eyes out. Cry, scream, beg, they’re coming for you. Demons, dark gods, mummies, werewolves, the Gentlemen, and, of course, vampires. Running background gags and cold opens both involve random massacres. The world that it takes place in is a nightmare, to the extent that a sequence during Buffy’s senior prom has her receiving the “class protector award,” because they had the lowest mortality rate of any high school class in Sunnydale history. That’s perhaps why this episode is so impacting and so horrifying: Because it has basically none of that.

Quick Recap: Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is a teenager/twenty-something who has been tasked by fate as “The Slayer.” It gives her some superpowers, but it also makes most of her life revolve around demons, vampires, and worse. She knows the plural of apocalypse, because she’s had to deal with enough. With her as the “Scooby Gang” are: BuffyCastGiles (Anthony Stewart Head), her watcher and mentor; Willow (Alyson Hannigan), her witch best friend; Xander (Nicholas Brendon), who is the normal guy; Tara (Amber Benson), a witch and Willow’s girlfriend; Anya (Emma Caulfield), a former demon-turned-human who has difficulty coping with humanity; and Spike (James Marsters), a vampire and Sir-Not-Appearing-In-This-Episode. Buffy lives with her mother, Joyce (Kristine Sutherland) and her younger sister, and mystical creation, Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg).


This episode starts exactly where the last episode ended. Buffy arrives home, sees flowers from the guy dating her mom, and calls out asking if Dawn needs to be picked up. All routine. Then, she sees her mother on the couch, eyes wide, not breathing.

No one deserves to find this.

The next 10 minutes are difficult to describe. They’re intercut with flashbacks, fantasy sequences of potential happy miracles, odd exaggerations of distance and size, and they’re all intentionally jumbled with reality.

SMG was perfect in this episode

 When a tragedy strikes suddenly, the mind can be overwhelmed, and few episodes of television have ever played it as straightforwardly as this episode. This is a character who has punched world-eaters in the face, struck dumb at the thought that she’s lost her mom to a stroke. When the EMTs arrive, and determine that Joyce is dead, they do so with professional detachment, while Buffy is left in the corner to struggle to grasp reality. They leave, telling Buffy not to move her mother before someone collects her. When Giles arrives, Buffy herself calls her mother “the body,” which causes her to break down again at the realization that the thing in her house is no longer her mother.

At Dawn’s school, she’s pulled out of class to be told by Buffy. We don’t hear the conversation, only the reaction as she breaks down. We are shown Willow panicking over trying to find the right outfit for seeing Buffy and Dawn, before pointing out that she can’t stop thinking about clothing and how that’s stupid and childish, before she starts crying and is comforted by Tara.

First onscreen kiss

Xander just keeps finding things to be angry at, from the doctors, to the walls, to the Dark God they’re supposed to be fighting this season. Giles mourns privately. Anya, meanwhile, is scared because she doesn’t know what she’s supposed to do. Demons don’t really care when other demons die, and she was previously immortal.

At the hospital, the Doctor tells Buffy that Joyce died painlessly. Tara then tells Buffy of losing her own mother, but it isn’t of great comfort. Dawn then visits the morgue, and is attacked by a vampire. Buffy arrives and quickly and unceremoniously kills the vampire, but in the process, the sheet falls off Joyce’s face. Dawn can only cry and touch her mother’s face, asking where she went as the episode ends.BuffyFreezer


Okay, the summary isn’t going to do much for why this episode is amazing, because it’s mostly the audio-visuals and the acting. Everything in the episode is disorienting. Sounds are exaggerated, camera angles are abnormal, silences are more pronounced, and there is absolutely no music within the episode. Perhaps most disorienting is that many parts of the episode just drift away from the main characters and feature normal sounds and activities. Children are heard playing outside as Buffy vomits when they take the body.

One of the most brilliant shots in TV

Wind chimes are gently ringing as the paramedics come. Xander is shown getting a parking ticket through the window. Life goes on, despite everything that is happening at that moment. When the doctor tells Buffy that her mother died painlessly, the line “I have to lie to you to make you feel better” is spoken at the same time. The camera was often hand-held during the episode to encourage the drifting feeling around the characters.

The characters, too, are shown at their most out-of-character. Buffy, who is typically the hero, repeatedly appears to be constructing her own narrative that this is all her own fault for not being there when it happened. Every time someone appears to say that there was nothing she could have done, she clearly doubts it. Again, she’s a superhero. She isn’t used to a problem she can’t out-punch. At points during the episode, she even starts to imagine alternate realities where this isn’t happening, but they are all destroyed by reality. It’s also noticeable that, contrary to how TV usually is forced to work, Buffy isn’t wearing her usual make-up and hair during the episode. She looks weary, tired, and like she’s been crying.

As for the other characters, they all have different reactions. Willow, who is literally capable of moving large vehicles with her mind, feels so powerless that she’s stuck trying to focus on the one thing that she can control at that moment: Her clothing. Xander wants to hurt everything and everyone, even punching a wall, which, contrary to most tv shows, both hurts him a lot, but also makes him feel better. It let him hurt something, BuffyXandereven if it’s him. Anya, despite being the oldest character, responds much the way that a child does. She doesn’t really get “natural death.” Demons don’t have to deal with that. Children don’t have to deal with that (please, just let me have this one. I know it’s a lie, but I hate how much I’ve seen the truth). It’s so hard to explain to people why such a thing even happens, because it doesn’t have a real “reason” for something so devastating. Dawn just wants her mother back. It’s important to note that Joyce had been a parental figure not just for Buffy and Dawn, but also for Xander, whose homelife was shown to be alcoholic and abusive, Willow, whose parents are strict but often absent, and Anya, who hadn’t really had a mother figure before. To Giles, who is shown reacting more reasonably and calmly throughout the episode, but still shown to be deeply saddened by her passing, Joyce was a close friend and someone he’d once had sex with on the hood of a police car. Twice. Tara, however, is the outsider, as she didn’t really know Joyce. She just knows that she was very important to her friends and the woman she loves, and she tries to help however she can. Having all of these different levels of grief shown throughout the episode allows the audience to see all of the emotions, direct and indirect, that can come from dealing with the void.

Life is loss. You can’t have one without the other. But, no one deals with loss in the same way. This episode covers a huge range of those responses and, by filming it in an uncomfortable manner, makes sure the audience is as vulnerable to them as possible. Ultimately, this is less a viewing, and more an experience. Joss Whedon noted that a number of people wrote in telling him that this episode helped them cope with losing someone, and I fully believe this episode might help the grieving. It requires almost no knowledge of the show, so, even if you aren’t familiar with it, you should check it out.

PREVIOUS – 14: Breaking Bad

NEXT – 12: Seinfeld

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews

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52) Once More, with Feeling/ Hush (Buffy, The Vampire Slayer)

This is the latter of the two combined episodes. The truth is, these two episodes each deserve to be on this list, and very well could have been, but I consider them to be two halves of the same coin. They’re both episodes about honesty and communication, and they both have devastating results on the characters in the series.

And how could you devastate such a beautiful crowd? You monsters.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer  worked because it presented everyday problems, but represented them with supernatural villains and demons. This created a show where everyone could simultaneously relate to the cast, while being entertained by the alien natures of their problems.

Though, sometimes it missed the mark. “Beer Bad” ironically requires a lot of alcohol to watch.


“Hush” was the result of writer and creator Joss Whedon hearing that the key to the success of Buffy was its dialogue. In response, he wrote the story of a group of demons, called “The Gentlemen,” who steal the voices of the townspeople in order to carve the hearts out of their victims without anyone hearing them.

Usually this is metaphorical. Oh, wait…

The Gentlemen are among the creepiest things ever allowed on television. I recommend finding a picture of them if you haven’t seen them, because the fact that they are perfectly silent and elegantly dressed only makes them that much more unnerving. Also, they surgically remove your heart while you’re alive, which probably is the most horrifying way to die that an episode could directly imply, if not outright depict. They seem to be a metaphor for Buffy’s (Sarah Michelle Gellar) own hesitance to engage in physical intimacy with her new paramour Reilly, after her last two encounters resulted in A) her boyfriend losing his soul (literally) and B) a boy using her as a conquest. They’re male figures who carve out hearts and are only shown to be killed by a woman’s scream. Nobody said the analogy was subtle.

Congratulations, you’re going to die enlightened.

The entire episode has only 17 minutes of dialogue, and it features the cast communicating solely through their actions, which, surprisingly both to the characters and the audience, is much more effective than their attempts to talk to one another. Three different couples finally connect because they stop talking their way into bad places and instead act on their hearts. In this episode, honesty brings people together.

See? They found out they share hobbies.

“Once More, with Feeling,” on the other hand, is all about honesty driving people apart. Best of all, it’s about honesty driving people apart in song. Yes, “Once More, with Feeling” was one of the first musical episodes by a non-musical show, and it is still the best, in my opinion (though, following the original writing of this, the episode “Duet” of the Flash is damned good, including a song sung by Jesse L. Martin, Victor Garber, and John “I’m so amazing” Barrowman, and if it weren’t for all the great original songs in this episode, that one would be better).

Best thing on UPN.

The plot is that there is a demon named Sweet (Hinton Battle), who, when summoned, makes people sing and dance until they combust, and then leaves with a bride. In the meantime, all of the songs people sing will expose their innermost secrets, often to the very people from whom they’re hiding them. It’s because of this modus operandi, that Sweet is the only villain who ever really beats the Slayer and the Scooby Gang (her friends), even though he chooses to waive the bridal clause of his summoning (upon finding out that it would be a guy). He ruins their relationships, then leaves, having killed at least 3 people in the process. Nothing happens to him at all, except for the loss of his dancing minions.

Literally ends with a chorus line asking “where do we go from here?”

“Once More, with Feeling” and “Hush” tell the story that honesty can be a force for great good or for great evil, it just depends on how it is conveyed.

PREVIOUS – 53: The Honeymooners

NEXT – 51: Mystery Science Theater 3000

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

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Here’s my favorite part of Once More With Feeling:

And here’s an incipient nightmare: