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.
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.
So, this was the fourth episode aired, but it was also the first one after the show was pre-empted for baseball, something that definitely didn’t help with Fox’s reputation amongst the fanbase. But, whatever, on with the review!
In the beginning, Simon and Kaylee are talking about Simon’s language; specifically, that he doesn’t swear. Simon insists that he does, just only when appropriate. Inara passes by on her way out of the ship, to which Kaylee wishes her “good sex.” The pair are then interrupted by Jayne destroying the infirmary looking for tape so that he can conceal a gun on his person, only to be told by Mal that there will be no guns on the planet. Jayne mentions that he has enemies on the planet, which Simon sarcastically questions, but Mal insists on going in unarmed.
The ship lands in Canton, a town that harvests mud for manufacture of high-grade ceramics using indentured labor. In an attempt to spend more time with him, Kaylee suggests that Simon should come along. Mal agrees, saying that Simon could easily pass for a rich man looking to buy mud, which will divert attention. Book offers to watch after River while Simon’s off the ship.
The land-crew, consisting of Wash, Simon, Mal, Kaylee, and a disguised Jayne, wander into the Mudding Pits, only to find a statue of Jayne which people have clearly been treating as an altar, lighting votive candles and leaving gifts. Simon, proving his word, can only mutter “son of a bitch.”
Jayne says he has no idea what the statue is about, as the last time he was in Canton he committed a robbery that “went South,” which he imagines the Magistrate is still pissed about. At that same moment, Inara is meeting with the Magistrate (Gregory Itzin), who wants her to solve a problem for him.
Back on Serenity, River is “fixing” Book’s Bible. She’s attempting to solve the scientific impossibilities of the Garden of Eden by incorporating “non-progressional evolution” and Noah’s Ark with quantum-state phenomena. Book states that “you don’t fix faith, it fixes you.”
In a Canton Bar, the group is trying “Mudder’s Milk,” the single greatest alcoholic beverage ever created: It’s proteins, carbs, and vitamins, described as “your grandma’s best turkey dinner,” plus 15% alcohol. Why do I love this so much? IT’S BASICALLY VITAMEATAVEGAMIN!!!! Only with less alcohol. Simon points out that Mudder’s Milk is basically the same as the beer they gave slaves in Ancient Egypt to keep them from malnutrition, because why be subtle?
Mal finds out that the man they were supposed to meet was killed a few days prior, so they need another way to get the merchandise across town without being detected by the Magistrate. They’re then interrupted by a man playing a god-honest folk-song about Jayne called “The Hero of Canton.” The song explains the hero-worship, explaining that when he was here previously, Jayne robbed a large amount of money from the Magistrate, then dumped the money over all of the poor mudders of Canton. Jayne explains to the crew that when he stole the money, his ship got hit by a missile, and so he had to dump all of the money in order to escape. It was completely unintentional.
Back on Serenity, in one of the best short gag scenes in the series, River is trying to apologize to Book, saying that she “tore these [pages] out of your symbol and they turned into paper.” Book, who’s using the sink, turns around with his hair unbound from his usual ponytail, and reveals himself. I’m gonna put a picture in here, because I think the only verbal description is that he looks like a cross between that photo of Einstein sticking his tongue out, a man getting electrocuted, and John Legend in the year 2065. River, naturally, runs away screaming. Zoe comes to see what happened and is similarly taken aback by his hair.
As the crew leaves the bar they are confronted with a crowd who now recognizes Jayne as their hero. Jayne is quickly mobbed, while Mal tries to figure out how to use this to their advantage.
Inara is on her shuttle when the Magistrate brings in his “problem,” his son, who is 26 and a virgin. Inara, annoyed by the Magistrate’s attitude, convinces him to leave the pair alone.
At the bar, Simon and Kaylee are getting drunk and somewhat flirty. Mal tries to get them to leave, but Kaylee insists things are “going well,” which Mal correctly interprets and leaves them to their drinks.
On Serenity, River is hiding under the stairs, saying “They say the snow on the roof was too heavy. They say the ceiling will cave in. His brains are in terrible danger.” I consider these lines nothing short of brilliant. Book asks her to come out, to which she explains: “I can’t. Too much hair.” Book tries to explain that it’s part of his vows, but Zoe just tells River that he’s putting the hair away. Wash and Mal return, explaining the Jayne situation to an incredulous Zoe. Mal plans on having Jayne be at a celebration in his honor in the town, which should distract everyone enough to transport the cargo.
That night, Inara and the Magistrate’s son, Fess (Zachary Kranzler), talk, with Inara insisting that he be more confident in himself. At the same time, the Magistrate releases the partner Jayne abandoned four years ago, sending him to attack Jayne.
The next morning, Jayne’s still basking in his own glory, and Simon and Kaylee wake up together, resulting in Simon saying something exceptionally stupid and offending her. She insists he stay in the bar, because “that’s the sort of thing that would be appropriate.” The “ya blew it” look Mal gives him after is perfect.
Inara wakes up with Fess, who explains that he’s going to be helping his father get revenge on a hero who thwarted him. Inara starts to defend Mal, only to find out that it’s actually Jayne, something that leaves her flabbergasted. God, I love an opportunity to use that word. Fess reveals that the Magistrate has grounded Serenity.
Jayne’s old partner, Stitch (Kevin Gage), attacks Simon and cuts his arm when he tries to avoid telling him where Jayne is. The crew transfers the cargo successfully. Jayne gives a short, somewhat decent, speech to the mudders before being confronted by Stitch who tells everyone the truth about what Jayne did. Stitch tries to kill Jayne, but one of the mudders who has been idolizing Jayne most jumps in front of him and is killed. Jayne proceeds to beat Stitch to death with the base of his own statue. Jayne tells the crowd that there are no heroes. There are just “people like [him].” With that, he destroys his statue.
With the help of Fess, the crew takes off. Book goes to talk to River who is highlighting a Bible. She tells him to “Just keep walking, Preacher man.” Simon and Kaylee flirt again, with Kaylee pointing out that his manners don’t mean anything in their position, but Simon insists that’s how he’s respectful. She then makes a joke about them sleeping together to mock him.
The episode ends with Mal and Jayne sitting together, and Jayne remarking that it’s stupid for the man who died for him to have done so, and that they’re probably putting the statue back up. Mal agrees, but tells Jayne:
“It’s my estimation that…every man ever got a statue made of him, was one kind of sumbitch or another. Ain’t about you, Jayne. About what they need.”
Jayne closes the episode saying, “Don’t make no sense.”
Alright, so, this episode again highlights a big theme of Firefly: The inequity of the system of government. In Canton, the Magistrate holds all of the workers in indentured servitude. It’s even a selling point for the mud. The Foreman flat-out says: “We have over 2000 workers, mostly indentured. We pay them next to nothing, that way we can pass the savings directly to you, the customer.” Basically, they’re advertising “hey, we force people to live in terrible conditions to enhance profits.” Now, many people might point out that this is similar to the business model of [insert almost any major corporation], but the difference in Canton is that the Magistrate is the one in charge of this and also the one who has legal right to enforce debts. It’s basically like if Wal-mart had a private army keeping their workers in the store… or if this were the railroad and mining conglomerates of the 1800s and early 1900s.
However, while watching this episode, one other aspect of the society in Firefly becomes apparent: There’s almost no automation within the series. While we know that computers are capable of auto-piloting spaceships, we don’t see some of the basic automated processes we see emerge in the present, like crop-sprayers or self-driving harvesters. The focus of this episode is on “mudders,” literally people who farm mud, something that lends itself readily to being done by machines.
And yet, somehow, slave-ish labor is apparently the way they choose to do things. There are only 3 ways this makes sense:
Option 1 is if indentured servitude is cheaper than automation. Given that the workers A) constantly are trying to undermine the Magistrate and B) appear to only work during the day, this seems unlikely. It’s not like it’d take a complicated mechanism to harvest mud and, as evidenced by the very existence of Serenity’s engine, near-limitless power is not particularly expensive in the future. I can’t imagine it costs less to feed, clothe, govern, etc. the mudders than to upkeep some machines. Since the Magistrate is rich and able to both import and manufacture goods (as shown by his home), there’s also no scarcity of materials issue.
Option 2 is if the Union of Allied Planets has banned robotics. This actually seems probable, since the only robot I remember from the series is Mr. Universe’s (presumably illegal) robot bride. The only problem is that banning AI or humanoid robotics wouldn’t likely prevent the kind of mechanisms required for harvesting mud. It’s not like you need to be able to process emotions or quantum physics to figure out “check how muddy this mud is. If it’s muddy enough, collect it. If not, muddy it more.” It’s at this point I should reveal that I’m not 100% sure what the mudders actually do, since they don’t actually make the ceramics, but I can assume it involves purifying the material and making it the appropriate chemical composition to be made into ceramic plating. Pretty much no matter what, it seems like a relatively simple set of algorithms could handle it, compared to the ones required for INTERPLANETARY TRAVEL. To those of you who would point out that interplanetary travel is not as complicated when you don’t have to account for fuel… yeah, okay, but it’s still a lot of math to figure out the closest routes based on orbitals and such, or routes that don’t intersect with certain territories, so shut up you pedants.
Option 3, and probably the actual reason, is that many of the members of the Alliance, like the Magistrate, thrive on preserving their status. For the Magistrate to be wealthy and authoritative on his moon, he has to make sure that no one else on the moon ever has any wealth or authority. Power only exists in relative terms, after all. Even though pseudo-slavery might not be the most economically viable model for the Magistrate to be rich and powerful on an Alliance-wide scale, it makes sure that he’s the most powerful man on his little moon. I’m sure there’s an analogy one could make to certain historical models of government or society where people were kept in an intentionally deprived state for the claimed purpose of easier economic exploitation but might instead have been based more heavily around preserving a power structure by suppression of a large group, but my slavish attempts to name one have been feudal.
And, really, this is somehow one of the most ridiculous and yet one of the most understandable aspects of the Firefly future: People have shitty lives entirely because the Alliance wants them to have shitty lives. This is the future. Energy is now post-scarcity (though not to the Star Trek level). Interplanetary shipping is part of life. Asteroid mining is stated to exist repeatedly. There are dozens of planets worth of resources and finding more is no longer a ridiculous concept. Everyone should basically have all of their base needs met at all times, just because it would be easy to provide them. The starting point in a future society with this level of resources should be above safety on the hierarchy of needs, and yet it’s often below physiological, with people dying from lack of medicine or adequate shelter, and a huge percentage of the population not being “burdened with an overabundance of schooling,” despite the fact that they have an interplanetary internet. Even without knowing that the government experimented on River in a completely unethical and immoral way, the state of the future speaks volumes as to their cruelty.
River and religion is just a very funny aside for me. It’s a perfect point-counterpoint when she’s trying to make the Bible into a scientifically viable, logical system, something that Book, accurately, states is not the point of faith. Faith is supposed to make you better through your interactions with something bigger than yourself.
Overall, I love this episode. It’s not in the top-tier for me, but it’s a damn good hour of television. The idea that Jayne, literally the LEAST moral member of the crew, becomes a folk hero through complete happenstance is hilarious, but the message at the end is really what makes the episode for me:
The truth of a person isn’t what people need. They need the idea.
Jayne himself even says that there aren’t really heroes in the world, that there are only people like him, who do good through failing at their own selfishness. But, in the end, the mudders need someone to believe in. They need something to unite them, so they can keep going. They even point out that the only things they’ve ever been able to beat the Magistrate on was to keep the money they believed that Jayne gave them and to keep up the statue of Jayne. Those were the two things that convinced them to have a riot serious enough to defeat the administration. And maybe one day they’ll believe in the story of Jayne enough to unite and change their circumstances again for the better. You’d think they’d realize they could do that based on the fact that their riots actually forced the Magistrate to change his mind, but history says people in oppressed groups often take a while to hit their breaking point. However, faith in a focal figure also helps, since interaction with something bigger than yourself can make you better… oh, wait, I said that already. Weird.
Also, the “Ballad of Jayne Cobb” should have gotten certified gold.
Alright, some a-hole, who will likely share this and identify himself in the process, has asked me to review all of the episodes of Firefly. Since one of the episodes made it into my personal top 10, and because I love this series, I’m going to grant this request. I’m going by the DVD episode order, not the production order or airing order. If you have a problem with that, take it up with the rest of the internet, there are plenty of people who will care. However, you can freely yell at me over what I will put at the end, as I rank the episodes using the time-honored “Serenity Scale” to create a solid determination of what is the best and worst of this series. While most of you might think that “Objects in Space” is already my number 1, that is on an objective basis, while this ranking will be on how well I think the episode is representative of what is good about the series, so that might change. I can tell you it won’t be at the bottom, however.
This’ll be the longest review, because this episode is the length of a movie, and because it’s our intro to the world of Firefly.
The beginning of this episode is in the middle of the Unification War. Specifically, at the Battle of Serenity Valley. For a show that doesn’t really rely too heavily on battle scenes (though they do appear), this starts literally mid-explosion, filled with open-air action and chaos. It really stands as a contrast to how much of the show is spent in a small spaceship. Granted, that’s because this was originally a much different scene to the series, but Fox wanted it to be more “action packed.” Despite that, it’s really a solid hook.
Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and Zoe Alleyne (later Washburne) (Gina Torres) are in the middle of the fight, trying to hold off the Alliance forces. This traditional struggling hero image is immediately undercut as the two find out that their air support has abandoned them after claiming that it’s too risky to come in. The camera holds on Fillion as he realizes that the battle is lost, and the war is as well. We’re now 5 minutes into this show, and we’ve already established two of our main protagonists, as well as their general character traits: Zoe is a stoic badass, Mal is a wisecracking rogue who is clearly in charge because he can turn some great phrases (“We have done the impossible, and that makes us mighty”).
It then cuts to six years later and it immediately shows our cast floating in space trying to salvage a wreck. As is typical in a pilot episode, we get little intros to each of the characters who crew the ship Serenity (a Firefly-Class transport ship). As is typical in a good pilot episode, these intros are mostly done without exposition. Wash (Alan Tudyk), the pilot, is introduced to us childishly playing with plastic dinosaurs, giving us the unforgettable and over-meme’d line “curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal.” Kaylee (Jewel Staite) is the engineer who comes off as a bit of a farmgirl. Jayne (Adam Baldwin) is the muscle, working with Mal and Zoe on the salvage. An alert goes off that an Alliance ship is near, resulting in them having to deploy a fake distress call so that they can get away. Despite Jayne’s optimism about the bounty, Mal is clearly unhappy with the current situation.
Then, we’re introduced to the theme song, and few shows have ever nailed a theme song like this. Okay, that’s a lie, a ton of shows have epic theme songs that perfectly represent the show, but this one does convey the show’s status as a “space western” by having the lyrics imply freedom is found in the sky, but doing so in a western-style ballad with a mix of blues brought by Sonny Rhodes’s performance.
After a brief fight between Wash and Zoe to establish that they’re married and Wash isn’t happy that Zoe has so much loyalty towards Mal, we’re introduced to Inara (Morena Baccarin). Given what we’ll learn about Mal’s opinion of Inara’s profession in the future, Mal describing her as earning “an honest living” really drives home how dissatisfied Mal is right now. Inara is then shown having sex with a client, because Whedon wants you to understand irony. However, we later learn that she’s a “companion,” which is like a geisha mixed with a psychologist, a philosopher, and a legal prostitute. While her position is considered to be honorable, the client offends her before leaving, which leads to Inara expressing dissatisfaction with the status quo similar to Mal, before leaving in her shuttle to rendezvous with Serenity.
Mal and the crew go to sell their salvaged parts to Badger (Mark Sheppard), who breaks the deal he made with them and refuses to buy after delivering a series of put-downs on Mal. This forces Mal to try to sell the goods to Patience (Bonnie “I’m married to Mr. Feeny” Bartlett), a crimelord who shot Mal the last time she saw him. At the same time, Book (Ron Glass), a Shepherd, which is the preacher of tomorrow, joins the crew as a passenger. Following him are Dobson (Carlos Jacott), a man with no obvious personality traits whatsoever, and Simon Tam (Sean Maher), an aristocratic doctor with a large cargo crate in tow.
During the introductory dinner, we get a bunch of one-liners and quick asides to establish Mal’s dislike of religion, Kaylee’s crush on Simon, that Mal is defensive of his crew (even if it’s Jayne being a dick), and that Book is not a conventional Shepherd, but more tolerant.
In the middle of the flight, Wash discovers that someone has sent a coded message to the Alliance. Mal immediately assumes it’s Simon, but it turns out to be Dobson, who is not after Mal, but Simon. Mal offers to help turn Simon in, but Dobson, stupidly, states that he is going to take in everyone on the ship. The situation escalates until Dobson accidentally shoots Kaylee when she enters, before being skillfully disarmed and knocked-out by Book, who then prevents Jayne from killing Dobson. Kaylee is brought to sick bay, but Simon refuses to treat her unless Mal refuses to hand him over to the Alliance.
After Simon stabilizes Kaylee, Mal opens Simon’s crate, which contains a young woman in stasis. The woman wakes up panicked and speaking nonsense. She’s revealed to be Simon’s sister, River Tam (Summer Glau). Simon tells the crew that River is an unmatched prodigy, but she was sent to an Alliance academy where she was experimented on. She got a message to him, but it took him more than 2 years to get her out. Oddly, his account says that she was rescued by others who snuck her out in cryo-sleep, which contradicts the events we’re shown in the movie Serenity. But, only an asshole would point that out. Like the kind of asshole that points out that a few lines from Scotty’s appearance in Star Trek: TNG makes the opening sequence and plot of the movie Star Trek: Generations nonsensical without some bullshit ret-con (teleportation disorientation, my ass). Basically, nerds.
Mal decides to dump the Tams, and Inara says that she’ll leave if he does. Simon asks Mal why he’s so afraid of the Alliance, then calls Mal out, resulting in Mal punching him. Jayne interrogates Dobson skillfully (immediately knowing the truth behind Dobson’s lies, which upsets Jayne, who wanted to torture him). Dobson offers Jayne money to help him.
Wash and Mal discover a non-Alliance ship nearby which is operating without radiation shielding (essentially guaranteeing a slow, poisonous death to everyone onboard). This means Reavers. Reavers aren’t explained at this point, except that Zoe tells Simon “If they take the ship, they’ll rape us to death, eat our flesh and sew our skins into their clothing. And if we’re very, very lucky, they’ll do it in that order.” Which, for the record, is one of the scariest f*cking descriptions in history, perhaps second only to “Nobody f*cks with the Jesus” from The Big Lebowski. Fortunately, the Reavers don’t attack.
Mal contacts Patience to deliver the goods, but immediately suspects that Patience is planning on double crossing them. He sets up a counter-ambush. Meanwhile, Book goes to talk to Dobson, who knocks him unconscious and fairly brutally keeps attacking him. Dobson captures River, while Mal and Zoe get into a firefight with Patience and her henchmen, with Jayne providing cover fire. Mal ends up taking his money, but declines to kill Patience, telling her “I do the job. I get paid.”
Unfortunately, the Reavers have followed them, apparently now hungry enough to attack. Mal, Zoe, and Jayne head back to the ship, only to find Dobson holding River hostage. Mal shoots Dobson dead without a second thought and they take off, the Reavers now in hot pursuit. The crew manages to escape by igniting the atmosphere behind them with the main engine. Mal asks Jayne why he didn’t turn on him, and Jayne says that “the money wasn’t good enough.” Mal then offers Simon and River a position on the ship. When Simon asks how he knows Mal won’t kill him in his sleep, Mal says “If I ever kill you, you’ll be awake, you’ll be facing me, and you’ll be armed.” He then decides it was a good day, because they’re still flying, and that’s enough.
Alright, so, this is the intro to the Firefly universe (or at least it SHOULD HAVE BEEN, FOX!!!), there’s a lot to unpack here.
I’ve decided to split up some of the signature effects, universe rules, and themes (Government v. Freedom, lack of sound in space, Chinese language, lack of FTL travel, Reavers, etc.) within the show into other episode reviews so that this particular entry isn’t another 10 pages. So, I’ll stick to the things that really stood out within this episode in particular.
First, Whedon loves repetition on his jokes. The ones that I most remember within this episode are: When people call Book “grandpa,” he responds “I never married;” people repeatedly asking Mal “didn’t she shoot you?” in reference to Patience; and calling Mal “psychotic.” There probably were others. What’s interesting is that the number of times the gag is repeated is inconsistent, which is something most writers don’t do. For example, in James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy films, almost every repeated gag is going to be done according to the “rule of three.” That’s just Gunn’s level of adherence to the comedy guidelines. Whedon, not so much. Having re-watched the show, this appears to be the episode with the most repeated lines for joke purposes. Other times in the series, repetition is used for more serious lines, such as Jubal Early’s “Does that seem right to you?”
Second, the pettiness of the Alliance is a little more over-the-top here than it is in other episodes. Usually, within the series, the Alliance is the ultimate in overreaching government with shadowy qualities, but, in this episode, the “petty and bureaucratic” aspect seems played up. I think the main contrast here is between Dobson and the Operative from the Serenity movie or the blue-gloved men. While the Operative is ruthless and efficient, while the men are mysterious and amoral, befitting a shadowy government, Dobson is mostly incompetent and irrational. Most notably, when Book comes to warn him, he not only knocks Book unconscious, but then kicks him several times out of, apparently, anger over Book punching him earlier, despite the fact that Book was also the thing keeping Jayne from killing him. Oh, and HE’S A PREACHER. Generally, kicking an unconscious holy man is frowned upon.
Third, I do appreciate the real-ish physics they use in this episode with Serenity’s flight. The “Crazy Ivan” that Wash pulls in the movie is actually a real technique, named for a hard u-turn by a Soviet submarine that enables the sub to clear its baffles (the area directly behind a submarine that cannot usually be detected), then put itself in firing position on a following ship. Essentially, you reverse one of the two engines, which allows for a very quick turn, often so quick it wrecks everything inside the ship. Since Serenity doesn’t have weapons, instead of firing on the Reaver ship, Wash pilots Serenity under the other ship, then they activate the main engine to ignite the atmosphere behind them. Since Serenity’s main engine appears to be driven by high-energy emissions (though not exactly radiation emissions, since apparently that was what they used for Firefly Series 1 engines, and Serenity is Series 3), it makes sense that these could be concentrated to burn up the atmosphere. This energy emission drive might be relatively useless in gravity, but in 0 g, this basically allows for infinite acceleration when you have their mystical engine core through conservation of momentum.
Last, Mal and Inara. At the beginning of the episode, both of them seem to have a higher level of dissatisfaction with their lifestyles than they do for the rest of the series. If I had to guess, it’s because they’ve lost a sense of purpose, and appear to just be trying to keep going. When Inara threatens to leave if Mal doesn’t help Simon and, later, when Mal welcomes Simon onto the ship, this actually provides them with the level of purpose: They’re rebelling again. Mal against the Alliance, and Inara against the expectations of her position. While Mal was a criminal at the beginning, he wasn’t really fighting the Alliance anymore. He was just running from the law. Now, he’s actively working against them by sheltering the Tams. It gives him back his spirit.
Alright, that’s one episode down. We’ve met the characters, and, unlike most pilots, they’re pretty consistent with their characterizations for the rest of the series. Inara has a few scenes that are awkward, but that’s probably because those scenes were re-shoots from the original scenes with Inara’s first actress Rebecca Gayheart. Fortunately, Whedon was smart enough to shoot those scenes in singles, allowing them to be more easily re-shot, and even these scenes don’t really detract from the character in any noticeable way. Solid start.