The Best and Worst of Firefly

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I did not originally intend to do Firefly (only intended to cover Serenity), but recently my situation had changed and was able to watch all the episodes. It is not the best show I have seen, nor the worst, just OK. Given I am particular towards several other works of Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, The Avengers, Avengers: Age of Ultron) – it seemed fitting to cover it. The show also features an array of actors I know from other shows:

The difference between this post, and Favorite Cancelled Shows, stems from that I did not watch this when it originally aired. According to Feminist Fiction‘s “Firefly in retrospect“:

Over the summer, I’ve been rewatching and reviewing Joss Whedon’s Fireflya fandom darling of a show, and one of my all-time favorite series as a teenager.

Rewatching anything you loved years ago is always a risk. There’s always the chance that you’ll notice flaws you never spotted before, or that it won’t live up to your adoring memories. Unfortunately,Firefly turned out to be something of a disappointment.

Is it a good show? Yes. Is it a great show? I’d say so. Is it unique and compelling with some great plotlines and characters? Definitely. But when looked at from an intersectional feminist perspective, it all starts to fall apart.

In short, Joss Whedon is amazing at creating varied, believable and wonderful female characters. But he’s not so good at creating stories for them. And he doesn’t seem to think through the implications of his work.

These problems are most clear when considering River. Although River touches on many familiar tropes, her background and potential as a character are compelling. She’s a child genius, talented at everything from physics to dance, who was kidnapped and tortured by the government in order to be turned into a psychic sleeper agent assassin. She was rescued by her brother and now has to recover from her experiences and the extreme mental instability she now suffers, while everyone else is keen to dismiss her. In theory, it’s a wonderful basis for a character. In reality, River ends up sidelined throughout most of the show, always presented through other’s eyes, left to mumble nonsense, make the occasional joke, and be rescued or fought over.

Inara presents a similar problem. She is a confident, glamorous and sophisticated woman with a very caring personality, some skill with a sword, and a staunch determination to say her peace and take nonsense from nobody. She presents herself as independent and in control of her life, but she is actually kept under the Alliance’s thumb. She is running from something, but what, we do not know. Oh, and she loves the Captain, despite the fact that it would never work. There’s so much material to build plots from here! But in episode after episode, she’s a side character, used for sensual soft-lens scenes or as a way to bring a male (or, once, female) character into the story for him to step up and save the day. And considering that the writers will proudly talk about their planned storyline for Inara, involving Mal developing respect for her after Reaver gang rape, her plots weren’t going to get better any time soon.

Kaylee is the female character who receives the most attention and development, and again, she’s a wonderfully three-dimensional character in theory. She’s the confident, talented mechanic who also happens to be rather adorable and caring and very, very girly. But again and again, her cuteness is used as a way to punch the viewer in the heart… and eventually, it becomes a bit cheap and predictable. Oh no, Kaylee has been shot! Oh no, a character is holding her hostage and threatening to shoot her! Oh no, someone has broken into Serenity and is threatening to rape her! Her niceness and sweetness makes her the perfect easy target for violence, and although that might be innocuously appealing from a storytelling perspective, it creates a pattern that is lazy writing at best, and makes Kaylee into an object in the story at worst.

On the bright side, Zoe seems pretty perfectly executed as a character. But she’s only one of four female crew members, and the result is frustrating to say the least.

Then we come to the racial elements of the show. Firefly is very clear that it’s based in a world that has been equally influenced by American and Chinese language and culture. Signs and instructions are in both languages. White characters use “Chinese” slang and swear words, and a lot of the fashions and entertainments they encounter are East Asian-inspired. But, as many people have commented before, there are no Chinese people. A few episodes have stereotypical-looking Chinese actors in the background, especially in crowd scenes. Only one episode has a Chinese (or at least East Asian) actress with a speaking part… Heart of Gold, where she plays a prostitute, and not even one of the two main ones in the story. The show is happy to use badly pronounced Chinese to get around the censors and add an element of futuristic-ness and “diversity,” but no members of the crew are part of this heritage. No recurring character is Chinese. No character-of-the-week is Chinese. None of Inara’s clients, no speaking-a-few-lines characters of authority, no one they take a job from or fight against. Just one woman with a few lines in one episode, and that in a role that could be considered quite a stereotype for Asian women in Western fiction.

It is possible (although it seems unlikely) that the fusion of Western and Chinese influences in the show came from a genuine desire for diversity, one that fell apart when casting and networks became involved. But as the show stands, without any East Asian figures playing a part in the world, that “diversity” becomes simple appropriation, taking elements of Chinese culture in order to add “coolness” to an otherwise Western world, rather than presenting it in an authentic and organic way. Firefly will take your Chinese characters, shadow puppets and swearwords unknown to most American viewers, but your Chinese people are not welcome along with them.

And that’s a shame, because as a show, Firefly is generally well-written and very enjoyable. It’s witty and engaging, with a wide range of loveable characters and some wonderfully written episodes. It’s definitely a show worth watching. But considering how much Joss Whedon talks up his diversity and “strong female characters,” and the amount of feminist street cred he’s earned as a result, Firefly just doesn’t pass muster.

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Of course, there is one element of the show that is of contention: Inara’s profession as a companion. According to The Mary Sue‘s article, “Reconsidering the Feminism of Joss Whedon“:

There’s a lot to like in Joss Whedon’s western-meets-space hybrid experiment. Zoe Washburne is possibly the strongest character that Whedon ever created. The fact, too, that she is a woman of color, does not go unnoticed or unappreciated by me, especially after the Magical Negro nonsense inherent in the Primitive Slayer storyline on Buffy. Zoe has the best relationship on the show as well, a push-and-pull with pilot “Wash” that is characterized by playfulness and a firm establishment of what Zoe will and won’t do as a wife (Won’t: cook Wash dinner. Will: stay in sexy bed all day during leave). Which is why the episode “War Stories” is such a travesty. Placing Zoe firmly back in the category of “woman” rather than “warrior,” “War Stories” forces Zoe to choose between her captain and her husband. Captain Mal and Wash have a thoroughly embarrassing fight over which of them Zoe will listen to most, making a mockery of the intense trust she places in both of them. Though the fight is portrayed as childish, it nevertheless elucidates a thread that shoots through the show at several points that wonders quietly and insidiously how Zoe can be a soldier before she can be a woman. The conclusion to this thread comes in the film Serenity, where Wash (spoiler alert!) is killed and Zoe permits herself not the slightest time to mourn, going into full battle mode – nor do we get any reaction, verbal or non-verbal, from her for the rest of the film. This places her decision to rescue Wash instead of Mal from torture in “War Stories” firmly in the strategy department of choices, creating a much harder and walled-off character than we’ve been prone to envision Zoe prior to this event – which also falls in line more easily in Whedon’s usual depiction of women of color: oblique, tough, and voiceless in the face of deep change.

I’ve mentioned why I think Kaylee is a bit of froth – she’s a tad try-too-hardy, existing to fulfill a male fantasy of a woman wonderfully rapacious and pursuant of men, who can also fix the car in a pinch. Nevertheless, neither she nor Zoe are the biggest problems I have with Firefly.

Can you guess? Why, it’s Inara. In Whedon’s future reality, prostitution is the a woman’s highest form of good. There’s no shortage of mentions inFirefly’s 14 episodes of how noble and prestigious Inara’s profession is. It’s a card the scavengers often play to get out of scrapes, in fact. In Serenity, the companions’ home is a glowing and sanctified temple. So, then: the most celebrated job a woman can have in the ‘verse is one that caters (almost) exclusively to pleasing a man in the most sumptuous and zealous way possible. I say almost, of course, in acknowledgement of Inara’s female client – a storyline that is presented wholly for male consumption. Take Jayne’s reaction – “I’ll be in my bunk” – and you get the winking point of Inara’s Sapphic diversion.

No matter how it’s dressed up in expensive clothes, no matter the nod to companions choosing their customers, what the positioning of this profession as noble suggests is that women’s highest role in the new order – and any new order –  is that of concubine.

It’s also worth it to note that the entity determining this apparent dignity is the Alliance, the new government. In the show, the Alliance is portrayed mostly as a bumbling authority; in the film, as an evil and pointed menace. Either way, the Alliance’s control and regulation of women is problematic. If we don’t sympathize with the Alliance, then we don’t sympathize with their regulation of prostitution – but the show makes it clear in its depiction of Inara and the other companions that they are to be regarded highly. In fact, the only time Inara’s profession is degraded is when a man – Mal – wants a more lasting claim put to her, his own, and asserts his arbitrary requirements and ownership over her. Think about it: every time Mal has a problem with Inara, he brings up their monetary arrangement for her leased shuttle – that’s Mal reasserting his dominance over her. Which is presented as romance.

Additionally, according to The Philosophy of Joss Whedon by Dean A. Kowalski and S. Evan Kreider, on the essay titled, “Companions, Dolls and Whores: Joss Whedon on Sex and Prostitution” by Tait Szabo,:

Companionship

The common picture of a contemporary prostitute is of a poor, unhealthy, victimized streetwalker. This could not be more different from the Companions of Firefly/Serenity. In “Bushwhacked,” an Alliance captain says to Inara, “It’s a curiosity – a woman of stature such as yourself falling in with these types.” Inara explains: “Not in the least. I rent the shuttle from Captain Reynolds, which allows me to expand my client base. And the Captain finds that having a Companion on board opens certain doors that might otherwise be closed to him.” In “Out of Gas,” we learn how Inara initially came aboard Serenity and the nature of her business arrangement with Mal. In a flashback, we see Mal showing Inara the shuttle that she would eventually rent. Inara makes it clear what their arrangement would be: “Were we to enter this arrangement, Captain Reynolds, there are a few things I’d require from you, the foremost being complete autonomy. This shuttle would be my home. No crew member, including yourself, would be allowed entrance without my express invitation…And just so we’re clear, under no circumstances will I be servicing you or anyone who is under your employ…The other thing I would insist upon is some measure of assurance that when I make an appointment with a client I’m in a position to keep that appointment, so far as assurances are possible in a vessel of this type.” Inara then explains to Mal that he will rent the shuttle to her without considering her application and at one-quarter of the asking price because “You want me. You want me on your ship…because I can bring something that your surveyor or any of the other fish you have on line can’t: a certain respectability. With what little I have seen of your operation, I suspect that’s something you could use.”

In the first episode of Firefly, “Serenity,” about eight months after Inara joins Serenity, the crew makes a stop to pick up Inara, who has been with a client. Mal is tense before the arrival of the “ambassador,” as he refers to Inara. He says, “Someone on this boat has to make an honest living,” and someone has to lend some “respectability” to the crew, as he puts it. He later refers to her as “a legitimate businesswoman.” Another passenger on Serenity, Derrial Book (Ron Glass), the shepherd (which is similar to a priest or a pastor), gladly greets the “ambassador” only to become the target of laughter from Mal, who then explains: “She is pretty much our ambassador. There’s plenty planets that wouldn’t let you dock without a descent Companion on board.” In “The Message,” Mal is having trouble fencing a stolen artifact. Inara tries to offer her help, but Mal refuses, saying: “I ain’t listening. Look, just because you helped out on the job don’t make you a crook. I will not have you jeopardize your career over this.” To call a contemporary prostitute a respectable, legitimate businessperson could only be done with tongue firmly planted in cheek. In Firefly/Serenity, on the other hand, it is reality.

Companions are more than businesspersons, however. In “The Train Job,” we find out a little more about life of a Companion. It doesn’t take long for the shepherd to understand Inara’s status. “I’m surprised a respectable Companion would said with this crew,” he notes. Kaylee asks Inara, “Have you ever had to service a really hideous client with boils and the like?” Inara answers: “A Companion chooses her own clients. That’s Guild law. But physical appearance doesn’t matter so terribly. You look for compatibility of spirit. There’s an energy about a person that’s difficult to hide. You try to feel that and-” She is interrupted by Mal, who informs them a job has come up. “Congratulations,” replies Inara. “This job wouldn’t be on a decently civilized planet where I could screen some respectable clients perhaps?'” When Mal and Zoe Alleyne (Gina Torres), pretending to be married partners, get caught on the job in the mining town Paradiso, the crew needs to rescue them but faces difficulty in doing so. Book suggests that someone respectable might be able to get to them, so they send Inara. She tells the local authority figure, Sheriff Bourne (Gregg Henry), that Mal is her “indentured man.” The people of the town are excited to see a “registered Companion,” probably for the first time, and the sheriff respects and trusts her. Mal and Zoe are relinquished to Inara without any difficulty. As a Companion, Inara is more than respectable, legitimate businesswoman. She holds a very high social status, more like that of a celebrity or a member of the nobility.

Companionship is about more than just the Companion, of course. “Jaynestown” offers further insight into companionship. As Inara leaves for a job, Kaylee, without irony, says, “Hey Inara, going off for some glamorous romance?” “Let’s hope so,” say Inara. Kaylee sends her off with, “Have good sex.” This particular job involves a father, Magistrate Higgins (Gregory Itzen), who has hired Inara to deal with the “particular problem” of his twenty-six year-old son’s virginity. When he sees Inara’s room, he complains, “I brought you here to bed my son, not throw him a tea party.” Inara explains, “Sir, the Companion greeting ceremony is a ritual with centuries of tradition,”and as he continues to complain, Inara shows him to the door and makes it clear who was in charge: “Mr. Higgins, you’re not allowed here…As I said, this room is a consecrated place of union. Only your son belongs here. Now why don’t you go and let us begin our work. Good night, Mr. Higgins.” Once the father is gone, Inara sits with his son, Fess Higgins (Zachary Kranzler). “This whole thing, it is embarrassing,” says Fess, sheepishly. “My father’s right again, I guess. We have to bring you here,” but Inara doesn’t let him finish. “You’re father isn’t right, Fess. It’s not embarrassing to be a virgin. It’s simply one state of being. As far as bringing me here, Companions choose the people they’re to be with carefully. For example, if your father had asked me to come here for him, I wouldn’t have…You’re different from him. The more you accept that, the stronger you become.” She takes off his glasses and kisses him. Later, when they’re in bed together, Inara explains: “Our time together, it’s a ritual, a symbol, it means something to your father. I hope it was not entirely forgettable for you. But it doesn’t make you a man. You do that yourself.” It is clear from this episode and others that companionship is not merely about sexual pleasure. Inara is the young man’s therapist or counselor. She empowers Fess and aids his development into a confident, independent adult.

The structure, quality, and status of companionship are guarded by the Guild. Companions are governed by Guild law. In “Ariel,” Inara is getting dropped off at a Core planet when Serenity‘s pilot, Hoban “Wash” Washburne (Alan Tudyk), remarks: “Big stop just to renew your licence to companion. Can you use ‘companion’ as a verb?” “It’s Guild law,” explains Inara; “All companions are required to undergo physical examination once a year.” Later in the same episode, Kaylee asks, “What’s the companion policy on dating?” “It’s complicated,” answers Inara. “Well that figures,” Kaylee responds. This is in stark contract to criminal, unregulated contemporary prostitution. This difference is actually present in Firefly/Serenity itself. Not all providers of sexual services choose to operate under Guild law. The result looks much more like contemporary prostitution,  thus highlighting how different companionship is. The next section juxtaposes Companionship with the other kind of sexual service providers in Firefly/Serenity.

Companions and Whores

Companions in Firefly/Serenity are contrasted with “whores,” who find themselves operating under conditions much closer to contemporary prostitution. In the Inara flashback of “Out of Gas,” when Inara responds to Mal’s query whether she has trouble with the Alliance by stating that she supported Unification, Mal replies, “Well, I don’t suppose you’re the only whore that did.” Without missing a beat, Inara adds: “Oh, one futhuer adendum: that’s the last time you call me whore.” “Absolutely. Never again,” Mal says, which by this episode, we all know is a lie. Later in the same episode, as Inara is approached by Book, she asks, “Would you like to lecture me on the wickedness of my ways?” “I brought you soms supper, but if you’d prefer a lecture, I have a few catchy ones prepped. Sin, hellfire, and one has lepers,” says Book with a smile. Book then tells her that it was unjust of Mal to call her a whore. “Believe me, I’ve called him worse.” In “Trash,” short on work, Inara implies to Mal that he may be deliberately keeping them in territories where she cannot find work. Mal responds, “How about I stay out of your whoring”-he is interrupted by Inara, who says, “Well, that didn’t take long-” She is cut off, too: “And you keep out of my thieving,” says Mal. A whore in Firefly/Serenity is clearly contrasted with a Companion, and not favorably. When Mal uses the word “whore,” it is not because he fails to acknowlegde the distinction. Book also knows it is inaccurate, and “unjust,” as he says, to refer to a Companion as a whore, and any discomfort or disapproval he has of companionship is due to his outdated and personal religous beliefs rather than to any common societal attitude.

As we saw in the previous section, Companions are legitamate businesspersons with high social standing and social power. Although they provide sexual services, they are not to be confused with mere whores. In “Shindig,” we see Inara in the process of selecting her clients, who apply for the “honor” of her company. She implies to Mal that it can be more difficult for a man to “attract” a Companion than a woman who is not a Companion. On the planet Persephone, during the titular party or shindig, her current chosen client, Atherton Wing, offers her a “life,” if she wants it: she could live on Persephone as his personal Companion. Mal, chasing a job, crashes the party. Inara asks him what he is doing there. Mal, more interested in Inara’s business, says: “Maybe I just want to see your profession work. Is this the hardest part, would you say, or does that come later?” “You have no call trying to make me ashamed of my work,” she replies. “What I do is legal. And how’s the smuggling coming?” “My work’s illegal,” answers Mal, “but at least it’s honest.” Mal’s complaint regarding Inara’s work has nothing to do with sex, but rather with dishonesty that he sees in it. He explains: “All this, the lie of it. The man parading you around on his arm as if he actually won you. As if he loves you. And everyone here going along with it.” Inara disagreed: “These people like me, and I like them. I like Atherton, too, by the way…And he likes me, whether you see it or not…He’s made me an offer. You may think he doesn’t honor me, but he wants me to live here. I’d be his personal Companion. I could live well here. Call me pretentious, but there is some appeal in that.” “You’re right,” said Mal. “I don’t have the call to stop you. You’ve got the right to a decent life.”

Atherton grows displeased as Mal and Inara dance and talk. He goes to them and roughly draws Inara away from Mal. “Woah now,” Mal says to Atherton, “Watch yourself. No need for hands on.” “Excuse me, she’s not here with you, Captain. She’s mine,” responds Atherton. Mal doesn’t like this response at all: “Yours? She don’t belong to nobody.” Atherton sees it differently: “Money changed hands, which makes her mine tonight. No matter how much you dress her up she’s still a -” Mal punches him, knocking him down. He cannot allow Atherton to refer to Inara as a whore. Mal appears to be correct about the dishonesty about Inara’s arrangement with Atherton, but it isn’t companionship that gives rise to the problem, but rather Atherton’s poor attitude and behavior. In fact, specifically, it was Atherton’s failure to recognize the distinction between Companions and whores that was the problem.

After he knocks Atherton down, it is explained to a surprised Mal that, according to local custom, Atherton and Mal are expected to duel to the death with swords the following morning. Before the duel, Inara visits Mal.”So, how come you’re still attached to him…Thought he made it clear he’s no regard for you,” says Mal. Inara replies: “You did manage to push him into saying something, yes. Made a nice justification for the punch.” “He insulted you,” says Mal. “I hit him. Seemed like the thing to do. Why’d this get so complicated?” Inara explains how he can flee, but Mal won’t: “I didn’t do this to prove a point to you. I actually thought I was defending your honor. I never back down from a fight.” As he won’t flee, Inara, being “an educated woman and all,” gives Mal a sword-fighting lesson. “They teach you that in a whore academy?” asks Mal. Inara, appearing stung, replies: “You have a strange sense of nobility, Captain. You’ll lay a man out for implying I’m a whore, but you keep calling me one to my face.” Mal explains: “I might not show respect to your job, but he didn’t respect you. That’s the difference. Inara, he doesn’t even see you.” They then have an exchange about following the rules of society, after which Mal says: “You think following the rules will buy you a nice life, even if the rules make you a slave. Don’t take his offer.” The way Mal sees it, remaining a Companion as she is means freedom, but becoming Atherton’s personal Companion would be the end of her freedom.

The next morning, Mal and Atherton duel. It looks at first as if Atherton is toying with Mal, letting him think he is doing well, and then Mal is injured. Just when it looks like Atherton is going to finish Mal, Inara call out: “Atherton, wait! I’ll stay here, exclusive to you. Just let him live.” This distracts Atherton, who is then surprised and beaten by Mal. Mal is informed that he is expected to “finish” his opponent; otherwise it would be humiliating for Atherton. Mal pokes him a few times, but let’s him live. Humiliated, but not done yet, Atherton yells to Inara: “You set this up, whore, after I bought and paid for you.” It is clear that by calling her “whore,” he is only showing his own low character. None of the bystanders seem to share in his opinion of Inara. He threatens her: “Get ready to starve,” he says, “I’ll see it you never work again.” It is not Mal that truly defeats Atherton; Inara provides the final blow: “Actually, that’s not how it works. You see, you’ve earned yourself a black mark in the client registry. No Companion is ever going to contract with you ever again.” A bystander quips to Atherton: “You’ll have to rely on your winning personality to get women. God help you.” “Mighty fine shindig,” says Mal, as he leaves with Inara holding him up.

In “Heart of Gold,” the Serenity crew aids an independent bordello after it’s madam, Nandi, contacts Inara for help. A dangerous gunslinger who impregnated a prostitute intends to collect the child against her will. When asking the Serenity crew for help, Inara explains: “They’re not Companions. They’re whores.” When Mal notes that Inara never cared for that word, she answers: “It applies. They’re not registered with the Guild.” They are independent, she explains. Inara used the word “whore” in a technical way, without any value judgement. Nandi was trained as a Companion, but found a Companions’ way of life too “restricting.” While Companions have to follow Guild law, as we’ve seen, Nandi’s greater freedom comes at a price. As she explains: “Half the girls are strung out on drugs. There’s no Guild out here, they let men run the houses, and they don’t ask for references.” The prostitutes in Nandi’s bordello, and presumably at other bordello’s not governed by the Guild, are treated in a degrading way. Nandi’s bordello provides us a glimpse at what prostitution looks like outside of legal regulation and Guild law. It isn’t pretty, and it is much closer to contemporary proposition.

Frankly, I do not have a specific problem with Inara’s government regulated profession (I take no position on the matter), but rather have a problem with her relationship with Mal.

In Our Mrs. Reynolds, when Mal is seduced by Saffron and succumbs to the narcotic, Inara then attempts to seduce Saffron given she has been very suspicious of her “Oh, you’re good”). Inara then rushes to Mal’s quarters and finds him unconscious, and kisses him, before succumbing to the narcotic herself. The key here is that she kisses him, shows caring for his welfare, when previously, Mal has outright called her a “whore,” purposely damseled her (see Feminist Frequency‘s Damsel in Distress series) against her agency (suggesting he has ownership of her) in Shindig, and had a habit of entering her shuttle without her permission on several occasions. That is where I have a problem.

Furthermore, in Trash, it is Inara who saves Mal from the duplicitous Saffron from a “million-square job” gone bad. Finally, after Mal hooks up with Inara’s friend, and brothel madame, Nandi, we see Inara become upset with this in Heart of Gold. What is there to feel upset about? Mal was clearly a hypocrite for criticizing Inara for the context of her profession, but then has no problem hooking up with a woman Inara outright says is a “whore.”

Finally, according to Mental Floss‘ article, “23 Fun Facts About ‘Firefly’“:

As any diehard fan will be quick to tell you, Firefly‘s run was far, far too short. Despite its truncated run, the show still offers a wealth of fun facts and hidden Easter eggs. As the cast teases the possibility of a return 13 years after being pulled from the airwaves, we’re looking back at the sci-fi series that kickstarted a Browncoat revolution.

1. A CIVIL WAR NOVEL INSPIRED THE FIREFLY UNIVERSE.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels from author Michael Shaara was Joss Whedon’s inspiration for creating Firefly. It follows Union and Confederate soldiers during four days at the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. Whedon modeled the series and world on the Reconstruction Era, but set in the future.

2. ORIGINALLY, FIREFLY’S CREW INCLUDED JUST FIVE MEMBERS.

When Joss Whedon first developed Firefly, he wanted Serenity to only have five crew members. However, throughout development and casting, Whedon increased the cast from five to nine.

3. REBECCA GAYHEART WAS ORIGINALLY CAST TO PLAY INARA.

Before Morena Baccarin was cast as Inara Serra, Rebecca Gayheart landed the role—but she was fired after one day of shooting because she lacked chemistry with the rest of the cast. Baccarin was cast two days later and started shooting that day.

4. NEIL PATRICK HARRIS AS DR. SIMON TAM?

Before it went to Sean Maher, Neil Patrick Harris auditioned for the role of Dr. Simon Tam.

5. JOSS WHEDON WROTE THE THEME SONG.

Whedon wrote the lyrics and music for Firefly’s opening theme song, “The Ballad of Serenity.”

6. STAR WARS SPACECRAFTS APPEAR IN FIREFLY.

Star Wars was a big influence on Firefly creator Joss Whedon. Captain Malcolm Reynolds somewhat resembles Han Solo, while Whedon used the Millennium Falcon as inspiration to create Serenity. In fact, you can spot a few spacecrafts from George Lucas’s magnum opus on the show.

When Inara’s shuttle docks with Serenity in the pilot episode, an Imperial Shuttle can be found flying in the background. In the episode “Shindig,” you can see a Starlight Intruder as the crew lands on the planet Persephone.

7. HAN SOLO FROZEN IN CARBONITE POPS UP THROUGHOUT FIREFLY.

Nathan Fillion is a big Han Solo fan, so the Firefly prop department made a 12-inch replica of Han Solo encased in Carbonite for the Canadian-born actor. You can see the prop in the background in a number of scenes.

8. ALIEN‘S WEYLAND-YUTANI MADE AN APPEARANCE.

In Firefly’s pilot episode, the opening scene features the legendary Battle of Serenity Valley between the Browncoats and The Union of Allied Planets. Captain Malcolm Reynolds takes control of a cannon with a Weyland-Yutani logo inside of its display. Weyland-Yutani is the large conglomerate corporation in the Alien film franchise. (Joss Whedon wrote Alien: Resurrectionin 1997.)

9. ZAC EFRON’S ACTING DEBUT WAS ON FIREFLY.

A 13-year-old Zac Efron made his acting debut in the episode “Safe” in 2002. He played Young Simon in a flashback.

10. CAPTAIN MALCOLM REYNOLDS’ HORSE IS A WESTERN TROPE.

At its core, Firefly is a sci-fi western—and Malcolm Reynolds rides the same horse on every planet (it’s named Fred).

11. FOX AIRED FIREFLY’S EPISODES OUT OF ORDER.

Fox didn’t feel Firefly’s two-hour pilot episode was strong enough to air as its first episode. Instead, “The Train Job” was broadcast first because it featured more action and excitement. The network continued to cherry-pick episodes based on broad appeal rather than story consistency, and eventually aired the pilot as the show’s final episode.

12. THE ALLIANCE’S ORIGINS ARE AMERICAN AND CHINESE.

The full name of The Alliance is The Anglo-Sino Alliance. Whedon envisioned The Alliance as a merger of American and Chinese government and corporate superpowers. The Union of Allied Planets’ flag is a blending of the American and Chinese national flags.

13. THE SERENITY LOUNGE SERVED AS AN ACTUAL LOUNGE.

Between set-ups and shots, the cast would hang out in the lounge on the Serenity set rather than trailers or green rooms.

14. INARA SERRA’S NAME IS MESOPOTAMIAN.

Inara Serra is named after the Mesopotamian Hittite goddess, the protector of all wild animals.

15. CHARACTERS SWORE (JUST NOT IN ENGLISH).

The Firefly universe is a mixture of American and Chinese culture, which made it easy for writers to get around censors by having characters swear in Chinese.

16. THE UNIFORMS ARE RECYCLED FROM STARSHIP TROOPERS.

The uniforms for Alliance officers and soldiers were the costumes from the 1997 science fiction film Starship Troopers. The same costumes were repurposed again for the Starship Troopers sequel.

17. BESTER’S NAME IS SCI-FI-INSPIRED.

Serenity’s original mechanic, Bester, is named after science fiction author Alfred Bester, who wrote The Demolished Man.

18. “SUMMER!” MEANS SOMEONE MESSED UP.

Every time a cast member flubbed one of his or her lines, they would yell Summer Glau’s name. This was a running gag among the cast after Glau forgot her lines in the episode “Objects In Space.”

19. BRISCO COUNTY’S GUNS WERE REPURPOSED FOR THE SHOW.

A prop replica of the Winchester Model 1892 Mare’s Leg rifle used on the short-lived The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. was also used on Firefly and Serenity as Zoe’s prop rifle. Whedon also reused a modified version of the sonic gun prop from the episode “Ariel” for Dr. Horrible’s death ray in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog in 2008. Speaking of repurposing, that was also Simon Tam’s lab coat that Neil Patrick Harris wore as Dr. Horrible.

20. THE SERENITY SPACESHIP WAS BUILT TO SCALE.

The interior of Serenity was built entirely to scale; rooms and sections were completely contiguous. The ship’s interior was split into two stages, one for the upper deck and one for the lower. Whedon showed off the Firefly set in one long take to open the Serenity movie.

21. FIREFLY COULD’VE LASTED FOR SEVEN SEASONS.

Joss Whedon designed Firefly with seven seasons in mind. Sadly, it was canceled after only 14 episodes.

22. “THE MESSAGE” SHOULD HAVE BEEN THE SHOW’S FAREWELL.

Although “The Message” was the twelfth episode, it was the last episode filmed during Firefly’s short run. Composer Greg Edmonson wrote a piece of music for a funeral scene in the episode, which served as a final farewell to the show. Sadly, it was one of three episodes (the other two were “Trash” and “Heart of Gold”) that didn’t air during Firefly’s original broadcast run on Fox.

23. FIREFLY AND SERENITY WERE SENT TO THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION.

American Astronaut Steven Ray Swanson is a big fan of Firefly, so when he was sent to the International Space Station for his first mission (STS-117) in 2007, he brought DVD copies ofFirefly and its feature film Serenity aboard with him. The DVDs are now a permanent part of the space station’s library.

 

The Best:

Serenity, Bushwhacked, Shindig, Safe, Our Mrs. Reynolds, Out of Gas, Ariel, Trash, and Objects in Space

On individual episodes:

  • Serenity introduces us to the premise of the series, and introduces the characters;
  • Bushwhacked brings us a little closer to understanding Reavers;
  • Shindig is a great episode written by Jane Espenson;
  • Safe is great in detailing flashbacks of Simon and River with present day events;
  • Our Mrs. Reynolds features a woman, Saffron, who is not what she appears to be;
  • Out of Gas has flashbacks detailing how Mal and Zoe acquired the ship, and crew;
  • Ariel has quite a fantastic ending;
  • Trash sees the return of Saffron; and,
  • Objects in Space is just a fantastic episode, beginning to end.

According to The A.V. Club review of Serenity:

Noel Murray: We begin with an ending. And why wouldn’t we? Because in Joss Whedon’s universe, nearly everyone has a past to reckon with. There are months/years/centuries/millennia of history behind every choice, every crisis. Often, Whedon’s characters are haunted by the moments long-gone: from back when they were carefree, or alternately, when they had more of a purpose. So what better way for Firefly to start than in the heat of battle—The Battle Of Serenity Valley, as it happens, in 2511, when “the browncoats” were overcome by Alliance forces and Sgt. Mal Reynolds and Cpl. Zoe Alleyne found themselves on the losing side on The Unification War, left without a cause.

But let’s back up a bit, because it’s not my intention to bum everybody out before we really get started on this project. That wouldn’t really be in keeping with the spirit of Firefly, which—in comparison to Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Angel and Dollhouse anyway—is practically a romp. Don’t get me wrong: Firefly is a Whedon show, so there’ll be angst a-plenty, and personality conflicts, and eventually death. And that’s not even taking into account crazy River Tam, and all of her issues—which are barely touched on in the show’s original double-length pilot, “Serenity.” But as we go through these episodes in the weeks to come, let’s never lose sight of what Firefly essentially is: a space western, about wisecracking thieves who zip around a distant star-system in a rocketship. Which means that while Firefly is undoubtedly deep—and while we intend to plumb those depths here—the show is also super-fun. As much as I enjoyed writing about Buffy and Angel over the last four years, I’ve really been looking forward to getting to Firefly. This is like my dessert.

I’ll be sharing this dessert with my wife, Donna Bowman, who’s never seen Firefly before. Me, I watched the show for the first time on Sci-Fi Channel in the summer of 2005, as a way of preparing for the film Serenity, which opened that fall. Firefly was my first Whedon experience, and an ideal one, I’d say. Even now, I know there are some people out there who love Firefly but aren’t especially keen on much else from the Buffyverse, and I can understand why that would be. Firefly brings together almost all of Whedon’s strengths, with very few of the weaknesses.

We’ll talk more about that in future reviews, and I’ll look forward to hearing what you all have to say, and to hear from Donna, who’s watched almost every episode of Buffy and Angel with me but hasn’t had the chance to pontificate about Whedon the way I have. I’m also looking forward just to watching the show again. I’ve seen every episode (plus the movie) only once, and I’ve been anxious to take a second pass through Firefly’s airspace, ever since I bought the series on Blu-ray a few years back.

I’ve been living with HD for so long that I can’t remember how Firefly looked and sounded when I watched it on non-HD Sci-Fi seven years ago. But I can vouch for the Blu-ray presentation, which has struck me as stunning so far, especially in the Serenity Valley prologue. It’s no “Blackwater,” mind you, but for a TV episode with a limited budget—depicting a battle largely fought in darkness—“Serenity” does an exceptional job of establishing how Mal and Zoe’s troops were outgunned, and does so with just with a few simple shots and effects. The brief glimpse of the Alliance ships descending, followed by the image of one of Mal’s best men getting shot and killed in slow-motion in the back of the frame, conveys a sense of loss and hopelessness in just under ten seconds. It tells us a lot about who Mal and Zoe are, such that when we catch up with them six years later—now commanding a small, speedy ship called Serenity, and committing crimes—we should be able to grasp exactly what’s made them so hard-bitten.

The opening battle isn’t the only moment when Firefly’s style impresses. Whedon—who wrote and directed “Serenity”—employs an unusually loose and docu-realistic mise-en-scene, with a lot of sudden zooms and pans, plus the occasional handheld shot, with the special effects usually seen more in passing than as the focal point of the frame. And in the exterior space scenes, Whedon emphasizes the quiet drift, contrasting that with the mayhem our heroes frequently encounter on the ground or inside their own ship.

“Serenity” has the thankless task of introducing the audience to a cast of characters and their exotic habitats, which it does effectively, if not always smoothly. We’re left to fend for ourselves a little when it comes to the odd language of the future: a mix of cowpoke lingo and Chinese, with familiar-yet-different slang words like “gorram” (instead of “goddamn”) and “shiny” (instead of “cool”). That part works fairly well, I think. Our first encounters with the crew of the Serenity and their passengers, however, relies on Whedon distilling these characters to their essences, which makes them seem less complex than they will eventually turn out to be. That’s okay though. That’s the nature of the pilot episode.

In addition to our captain, Mal (played by Nathan Fillion), and his second-in-command, Zoe (Gina Torres), Serenity houses Zoe’s husband, Hoban Washburne (Alan Tudyk), an ace pilot with a sardonic sense of humor and a childlike sense of play; the ship’s mechanic, Kaylee Frye (Jewel Staite), a loving spirit with an intuitive knack for repair; the mercenary Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin), a straight-talking brute who craves action and loot; and high-class prostitute Inara Serra (Morena Baccarin), who rents one of Serenity’s shuttles and uses it to entertain clients with her highly spiritual form of “companionship.” Early in “Serenity,” when Mal learns that their latest heist may not provide them with enough money for fuel—and when he realizes that the Alliance is on their tail—he decides to take on more passengers, for cover and for cash. On the planet Persephone, they pick up the aloof, shifty-looking Dr. Simon Tam (Sean Maher), who brings with him a mysterious crate that we later learn contains his insane, brilliant, super-powered sister River (Summer Glau). They also add a priest, Derrial Book (Ron Glass), and a doofus, Lawrence Dobson (Carlos Jacott).

Anyone who pays attention to the opening credits should be able to figure out who the odd one out is here. Dobson is actually undercover, sent by the Alliance to retrieve River, whom Simon busted out of an elite “academy,” where she’d been subjected to sensitive government experiments. After a cliffhanger end to the first half of “Serenity”—in which Dobson shoots Kaylee—the second half deals with Dobson trying to pressure Mal into giving up Simon and River, while Simon threatens to let Kaylee die unless Mal gets him and his sister to safety. Then there’s the matter of Serenity’s stolen cargo, which Mal wants to offload with an old enemy, Patience, who once shot Mal “a bit.”

There’s more to be said, about the Reavers, and the showdown with Patience on the dusty moon known as Whitefall, but now I’d like to pass the mic to Donna, and to start with a couple of questions. The first half of “Serenity” cleverly sets us up to believe that Simon is a villain, then twists a little to suggest that maybe Book is the bad guy instead, before revealing that it’s Dobson after all. Anyone who’s spent any time watching Whedon shows would’ve expected that kind of switcheroo. But Donna, having watched a lot of Buffy and Angel with me, and knowing that Whedon has no qualms about killing off characters, were you worried at all for Kaylee, or did you suspect she’d be okay? And based solely on this first episode and your past experiences with Whedon shows, was Firefly what you expected?

Donna Bowman: Worried for Kaylee? I was almost sure that her death would be the precipitating incident of the series, or the season, or the first long season arc, anyway. Mind, I got suspicious when her “death” scene—hand dropping out of Mal’s, head lolling to the side—was played so quickly. But I can forgive the fakeout for the way it resolves, with Kaylee piping up happily from the sickbay next time we visit. Classic Whedon, to let us know that we’re not going to be piling angst on top of angst here.

I don’t think you can know what to expect from Firefly even if you’re given the complete rundown of series elements ahead of time. “Space western” is a genre with a long pedigree, going back through Star Trek to John Carter of Mars. But who could expect Whedon to literalize it so liberally, yet so sincerely, with the horses, suspenders, chinoiserie, and frontier boom towns? I fell in love instantly with the show’s sense of style. Especially Zoe’s fitted leather vest (yowza!) and the shearling cover on Wash’s pilot’s chair. The touches that make a show with sci-fi or fantasy elements feel authentic don’t have to be expensive special effects. They just have to be thoroughly thought through.

Gene Roddenberry famously pitched Star Trek as “Wagon Train to the stars,” and I’ve always thought of that phrase as a touchstone for what makes television drama that can stand the test of time. You need an endless supply of stories to tell, and there are two ways you can get it: by setting your characters down in a place where stories come to them (police station, hospital, law firm) or by sending them out to the frontier where anything can happen. That’s the connection between science fiction and the western—people heading out to “the final frontier,” to coin a phrase. And so I got goose bumps watching the world of Persephone stroll by Serenity‘s open hatch, because it’s that oldest of story-generating devices: the crossroads. Combine it with the frontier, and you have everything you need to kickstart a million stories. Everybody’s there in bewildering diversity, from whores to missionaries, from the law to the outlaw, and everyone’s looking to redefine themselves. (“I’m a businessman, roots in the community,” as gangster Badger puts it while declining to follow through on a deal with Mal.)

The moment when it became clear that the “western” part of “space western” isn’t just a metaphor—that Whedon intends to indulge fully both halves of the descriptor—comes in the showdown with Patience in a Whitefall canyon. Has Jayne taken Dobson’s deal to betray Mal? And when it turns out he hasn’t, the question is why? Jayne says it’s because the money wasn’t good enough, implying that on some “interesting” day in the future, it will be. He’s the hired gun whose loyalty is always an open question: another western staple with the potential to ratchet up the anxiety level in any conflict.

And that leads me to the last element I found fascinating in “Serenity,” and that I can’t wait to see play out over the course of the series: love triangles. Maybe I should more accurately say “love polygons,” since there are so many sides and vertices. Wash and Zoe dote on each other, but Mal and Zoe are an essential leadership team. Mal clearly has feelings for Inara, who keeps him at arm’s length by invoking her occupation; Inara has a special bond with Kaylee that might be romantic, but Kaylee is swooning over Simon from the second he comes on board. Anybody else who crosses this ship’s path, be they friend, foe, or paying customer, has the potential to stress and disrupt those relationships.

I don’t have the slightest idea what’s going to happen, but already I can see an infinite number of paths emerging from this pilot episode. That’s what all TV pilots try to do, but how many times have you seen one that seems to chart a single, depressingly familiar course, leaving audiences only to hope for some good times along the way? The sense of possibility here doesn’t arise solely from the promise of adventure, but just as much from the ways any given adventure might upset the fragile, marginal living that these characters are eking out. That gives Firefly more than potential. It gives the show weight, from the very start.

Noel: Yeah, I certainly don’t mean to discount that weight when I call Firefly “super-fun.” Even in this opening two-parter, Whedon and company are sowing seeds for some of the series’ heavier themes. When we first meet Mal, he’s delivering an inspirational speech for the troops, saying, “We’ve done the impossible, and that makes us mighty,” before kissing the cross around his neck. When we see him again six years later, he answers Book’s request, “Mind if I say grace?” by snapping, “Only if you say it out loud.”

Donna: Mal as a character is just a terrific riff on the hazards of charisma, and having Fillion play him with such pulpy gusto is a constant delight. The charismatic leader tends to bluster his way through situations he can’t control; for example, when he’s making the case to approach Patience to buy their cargo, he has to dismiss their previous disagreement that ended with him being shot as “a legitimate conflict of interest.” Most of all, he has to infect his crew with hope when there’s something to be done (like in the pre-credits battle speech you quote), and with denial when there’s nothing to be done (like when he asserts that the Alliance “just won’t” find the secret compartment in the cargo hold).

Noel: And Book too isn’t entirely what he seems. He initially appears repelled by the presence of that harlot Inara on the ship, but he also shows himself to be more worldly (and handy in a fight) than he initially lets on, and when Inara braces herself for a lecture on morality at one point, Book jokes that he actually had a couple ready, with “sin and hellfire… one has lepers.” Then there’s Kaylee’s unconditional love for everybody, which might well be worrisome down the line; and Wash’s clearly longstanding frustration with how his wife acquiesces to Mal. There are quite a few pots a-simmering already. (I won’t tell you which of the potential “love polygons” you’re right about, though I will say that you’ve missed a big one. But that’s not a lapse; it’s not that obvious yet.)

“Serenity” also establishes early that the dialogue in Firefly is going to be more Whedon-like than highfalutin’ or flatly pulpy, the way it is in other sci-fi shows. There are so many memorable lines in this episode: Simon telling Wash not to worry about him and Wash shrugging, “Zoe’s out on a deal, I always worry; it’s not out of my way;” and Zoe telling Simon that if the hellacious, cannibalistic nomads known as The Reavers capture them, “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.”

Fillion is especially adroit with the Whedon-speak, as when Mal tells Zoe that if any of their passengers gets too nosy she should “just shoot ‘em… politely.” But Mal’s lightness of tone doesn’t preclude him or his crew from killin’. This episode sees the crew of Serenity humiliated by the petty crime boss, Badger (played by Mark Sheppard), and terrified by the The Reaver ship that flies by Serenity at one point but declines to seize it. That makes it all the more surprising when Patience and her posse attempt to swindle Mal and Zoe on Whitefall, only to have one gunmen get shot through the hat (and the head inside of it) by the lurking Jayne, after which Mal shoots Patience’s horse while she’s trying to hide behind the animal. Then Mal returns to Serenity and abruptly shoots Dobson, dumping the fed’s body overboard as our heroes flee the suddenly returning Reavers. These people aren’t cowards; and they’re not 100% “moral” either.

But we’ve got many weeks ahead to talk about all that, and to explore further the major theme that “Serenity” introduces: that what makes Mal and his crew “special” is that they’re losers. Not in the modern L-sign-on-the-forehead sense, but in a literal sense. Mal and Zoe lost the war, so they’re irrelevant—off the radar. That, plus their small, swift ship, gives them the freedom to maneuver in ways that the Alliance and the Reavers can’t. That may be changing, though. “You can’t take the sky from me” is how the show’s theme song goes. But more and more people are heading out to the frontier that Serenity calls home. As Mal notes, “It’s gettin’ awful crowded in my sky.”

According to The A.V. Club review of Bushwhacked:

Noel: “It’s impressive what ‘nothing’ can do to a man.” That’s Jayne Cobb, messing with the head of Simon Tam, as the skittish doctor checks out the thin layers of “Mylar and glass” that constitute Serenity’s spacesuits, and tries not to think too hard about how little separates a human body from the all-consuming void. That little exchange sets the tone for “Bushwhacked,” which follows the rollicking action of “The Train Job” with something much more spare and dark—almost like a deliberate undoing of all the, “No, really, this show is going to be fun!” overtures that Fox demanded of Firefly’s second pilot. The snappy dialogue has been dramatically diminished, replaced by tense scenes of our heroes walking slowly and cautiously through a ship full of corpses, keeping an eye out for the ferocious space-savages known as “Reavers.”

One possibly beneficial side effect of Joss Whedon being asked to start over on the Firefly pilot is that the show was then allowed to reintroduce elements from the original introductory episode, one-by-one, and with more purpose. This week we re-meet the Reavers, whom the crew narrowly escaped in “Serenity,” and whom they now encounter when they come across a ship that Reavers have ravaged. We’re told once again—or for the first time, for those who watched Firefly in its original broadcast run—that Reavers are believed to be human beings, driven mad by years spent in deep space. (Mylar and glass apparently weren’t enough for these poor souls.) Even the otherwise fearless Jayne is spooked by Reavers. He plays a mean trick on Simon by telling the doctor to suit up before boarding the ghost ship—which has breathable air—but the jokes stop once Jayne realizes what they may be up against.

“Bushwhacked” has an unusual structure, which reminded me a little of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel, in that it moves steadily in one direction for well over half its running time and then changes gears in the final 15 minutes or so. For a good long stretch, the episode is a little like a haunted-house movie. While the crew is salvaging whatever they can from the ship, they’re stumbling across dead bodies, and one feral-seeming survivor, whom Jayne shoots when he’s attacked from behind. (“He looked bigger when I couldn’t see him,” Jayne explains.) But then an Alliance ship shows up, and as its Commander Harken (played by Doug Savant) interrogates the crew, that wounded survivor begins to transform into a Reaver himself. So almost two-thirds of “Bushwhacked” is moody horror, and then the last third features more fast-paced, cross-cutting suspense, jumping from one scene to another. Intentionally or not, the construction of the episode itself is like the contrast between a life on the far edges of the frontier and a life in the fold of a bureaucracy.

This episode also continues to develop the ideological differences between Mal—a smuggler who likes his Firefly-class ship with its “troublesome little nooks”—and the authorities, who are tired of hearing “Reavers did it” as an excuse from the people who try to live outside Alliance law. But I especially like that “Bushwhacked” keeps re-connecting its action and themes to Simon and his very real anxiety of what’s just outside the barrier of a spacesuit, a spaceship, or a civilized society. It’s something that preoccupies Simon especially because of how far his sister River has drifted into insanity. Early in the episode, Jayne compares the Tams to the “space-trash” known to accumulate on the underside of the first large ship that passes. And later, while the Alliance ransacks Serenity in search of Simon and River, the brother and sister are literally holding on to the outside hull, perilously close to the wrong side of oblivion.

Donna: I’m glad we get to spend some unexpected time with the Alliance this week, because some commenters have been proposing theories about how we, the audience, should view them. From our brief glimpses of their personnel in action in “Serenity” (barring the opening battle) and “The Train Job,” I gathered that they weren’t supposed to be evil enemies of freedom, but functionaries of the imperialistic or colonial impulse. They have an argument to make about why order and central control is better than the messier bits of democracy and self-determination, and their officers seem to have accepted it as a legitimate rationale for the exercise of their power.

That view is largely confirmed by “Bushwhacked,” and I’m glad we have Doug Savant’s Alliance commander along for so much of the episode to embody it for us. “Civilization” is a key word in “Bushwhacked”—what it means to be civilized, what happens when one loses contact with civilization, how differing notions of civilization and its benefits might be negotiated, and how some people think a different form of civilization shouldn’t count as civilized at all. For Mal, the only reason the Alliance cares about its citizens is for the revenue they bring in. (“They’re going to run right out here lickety-split and make sure these taxpayers are okay,” he mutters when Serenity first encounters the ghost ship.) He sneers at the regulations and laws and policies that define the Alliance way of life. And we’re meant to sympathize with that point of view, to assume that in the same situation we would choose freedom over compliance (even over security!). But we’re also meant to understand that the Alliance representatives aren’t just doing their jobs; they believe in the importance of those jobs, and correctly identify people like Mal and Zoe as threats to the ends they’re trying to accomplish by doing those jobs. They’re “pirates” and “leeches”—parasites that couldn’t exist without the Alliance as a host. They falsely present themselves as a principled alternative, which can’t be tolerated, because from an Alliance perspective, any assertion of autonomy is a claim to be outside of any law’s reach.

And then there are the Reavers. The Alliance has twisted civilization into a mechanism for control: a way to marginalize dissent and deviance. But the Reavers have become isolated from civilization and have lost touch with something fundamental about it, something that the Alliance (for all its faults) still grasps firmly. Book thinks the Reavers have “forgotten” that something, and Mal—identifying the something as “a philosophy”—thinks they’ve just lost it entirely. The argument between Book and Mal here gets us closer to that discussion of religion you want us to have, Noel. But Book casts his net larger than Christianity in making the case for seeing the Reavers as redeemable. When he asserts his belief in a power greater than men, he’s saying that there is a master-narrative to which one can appeal to assign meaning beyond local and variable opinion. For Mal, there’s no recourse when people have philosophical differences; the only option is to fight it out, and even winning doesn’t make one side right and the other wrong. (“May have been the losing side,” he corrects the Alliance commander’s characterization of the Independents. “Still not convinced it was the wrong one.”)

Mal rejects a master narrative because the Alliance rests its claim to legitimacy on a master narrative: the narrative of universal law. Freedom can only be found outside of civilization, from Mal’s perspective. Only the outlaw is his own man; everyone else is playing out someone else’s version of life. And so Mal is contemptuous of civilization, joking that it “caught up with us” when the Alliance ship appears, and defining what the Reavers lack as a “philosophy” or code of conduct, rather than agreeing with Book that it’s civilization itself. After all, Mal thinks that the Serenity crew and the ongoing Independent movement, such as it is, stand in opposition to civilization; if he were to accept Book’s characterization, then the Reavers and the Browncoats would be in the same boat. But Book makes a claim that the Alliance law is under a larger master-narrative of moral or religious law. And even if Mal doesn’t believe in God (having been failed by angels), he believes in a code. He might cynically assert that his code is just his own choice, with no greater significance, but his actions (like last week having “no choice” but to return the medicine) belie that stance.

“Pirates with their own chaplain? That’s an oddity,” Commander Harken comments when interrogating Book. But the real oddity is that the Alliance, or any empire, can so easily form a symbiotic relationship with religion. Yes, the fact that both assert a universal truth and power gives them common ground. But when push comes to shove, the religious version will trump the secular, and its adherents will have an imperative to resist, dissent, and deviate. And although Mal’s love for freedom appears to have far less content as a behavioral imperative than Christianity, the two find common ground in resistance to power. I’m reminded of the charge leveled by Roman imperial persecutors against Christians: atheism. A rejection of the universal system that they considered civilization itself constituted a rejection of universal power itself. You might be interested to know that many scholars now read Revelation (the Apocalypse of John) as an extended argument against this assertion, and a call to early second-century Christians to reject the political legitimacy of the civilization in which they lived.

Noel: I am interested to know that! See folks, this is why it’s good to have a theologian handy, for a little historical and epistemological context and such. (I reckon even Mal might agree.)

Donna, you mention how the word “civilization” keeps popping up in this episode, right up to the final line, “Wouldn’t be civilized,” which Mal says in reference to the Alliance destroying the ghost ship and seizing its cargo rather than letting Serenity profit. This episode’s deck may be a little too heavily stacked against the Alliance’s idea of civilization, though. When Commander Harken spots Serenity, he demands that the ship be cited for its lack of “mandatory registration markings,” which is just the kind of piddly officiousness that keeps otherwise harmless citizens on the wrong side of the law—just in case those in charge need to flex their muscles and put people back in their place. Even more upsetting is Harken’s reaction when he hears that Simon and River are wanted fugitives, for classified reasons: He orders his men to shoot them, figuring it’s easier to deal with being chewed out by his superiors than risk getting killed by two potentially dangerous freaks. It’s been suggested in the comments that the Alliance isn’t really “bad,” just “other.” In “Bushwhacked” though, those two descriptors seem pretty interchangeable.

I want to say a little more about the style and tone of this episode, which was written and directed by Tim Minear. It’s not as funny as “Serenity” or “The Train Job,” but it’s hardly devoid of levity. Of course, most of it comes from Wash, who responds to an alarm at the start of the episode by exaggeratedly saying, “Oh my God! What can it be? We’re all doomed! Who’s flying this thing?” And there’s a very funny smash-cut when Zoe tells Commander Harken that she and Wash are very private people, and then Wash waxes rhapsodic about how he was first turned on by his wife’s legs. (“Her legs, and where her legs meet her back. Actually, that whole area. That, and above it.”)

Minear also directs the camera in interesting ways, switching to handheld for some scenes, and using zooms in a docu-realistic fashion. This approach is most prevalent in the opening scene where the crew is playing some kind of basketball-like game, with a lot of physical moves and not a lot of rules.

Donna: In my notes, I call it “spaceball,” so if it has a proper name in Firefly lore, I’m not sure I want to know it. The vertically oriented circular goal reminds me of the Mayan ball game. I guess we’ll never know if, like its model, spaceball is associated with ritual human sacrifice.

Noel: Anyway the style suits the action, and sets up the theme of the episode to boot. Remember what Simon says about all this, as he watches from above? Inara asks him who’s winning, and Dr. Tam answers, “I can’t tell. They don’t seem to be playing by any civilized rules that I know.”

According to The A.V. Club review of Shindig:

Donna Bowman: Ah, so here’s the fun everybody’s been talking about! Not that I haven’t had a terrific time with Firefly up until now, but “Shindig” is where Nathan Fillion becomes, well, the awesomeness that his reputation had promised me. And let me make the case that it’s all due to a character that I gather is not nearly as universally beloved: Inara.

I’ve always felt protective of characters on television that get the short end of the coolness straw. When it came time to pick crushes from the Teen Beat magazine, I stubbornly professed love for Frank Hardy rather than Joe, and Jon Baker rather than Frank Poncherello. Later I transferred this solidarity to Deanna Troi on Star Trek: The Next Generation solely because everybody seemed to hate her. Now I feel that same contrarian defensiveness about Inara Serra, who has in common with Troi that her character is defined by her femininity, and that the show seeks a way to make strict gender roles and characteristics into strengths that allow the individual to be respected professionals. I’m in no way a living example of this—I got where I am in my field by embracing the masculine definitions of academic scholarship rather than making a virtue out of my otherness—yet at some level I dislike that these characters get slagged (I think) for being too womanly.

Surely you can’t hate on Inara and also deny that her character is the catalyst for this enormously entertaining episode. The Serenity crew is excited about spending some time on Persephone (the shopping! The diversity! The be-hatted crooks liable to kidnap you right in the street and frogmarch you to their shipping-container headquarters!), which for Inara means a chance to choose a high-society customer, wear a fabulous gown, and be the belle of the ball. She rejects an adorably tongue-tied suitor (“Then the honor you do me flatters my… my honor!”) and picks Atherton Wing, a regular whose attentions to Inara spark Mal’s jealousy. While at the elegant party, turning graceful figures under the floating chandelier, Atherton asks Inara to remain on Persephone as his personal Companion.

But Mal crashes the party thanks to a potential commission from Badger, who needs a more respectable-looking surrogate to propose cargo services to local bigwig Warrick Harrow. And with him is Kaylee, resplendent in a frothy wedding-cake of a pink dress over which she had sighed earlier in the street—an indulgence for a mechanic like herself that Mal oafishly mocked as “like a sheep walking on its hind legs.” I’m glad Kaylee winds up with the upper hand in “Shindig,” because it’s crushing when the society women cut her to ribbons over her enthusiasm for the buffet table. “It was better last year,” one informs her. “What’d they have last year?” Kaylee asks, all innocence. “Standards,” the rich bitch answers, as Kaylee’s face falls. But an older gallant escorts her to a group of machinery enthusiasts who make her the center of attention for her encyclopedic knowledge of spacecraft. Score one for the misfit girls.

Does Inara really want to join this snooty company? She moves confidently through them, and recognizes a few other Companions in attendance; here she doesn’t seem so defined by her profession. But leave it to entitled douche Atherton Wing to treat her like property, and then leave it to Mal to get distracted from his errand by her situation. The scene where Mal and Inara perform a complicated round dance together, weaving in and out of the figures without ever halting their intense conversation, reveals that Mal is far from the rough outlaw that it sometimes suits him to pretend to be; if it’s fine manners and elegance Inara wants, he’s not devoid of them. On the other hand, after Mal punches Atherton and thus commits himself to a duel, Inara turns out to have something he needs, too: basic knowledge of how to handle a sword.

Duels always remind me of one of my favorite scenes in all of cinema, the exceedingly rule-bound swordfight between Win Candy and Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff in The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp, from which director Michael Powell sends the camera floating away just as the action starts. And in their preparations the night before, rules become the point of contention between the life Inara is contemplating with Atherton, and the philosophy by which Mal lives. “You think following the rules will buy you a nice life, even if the rules make you a slave,” Mal accuses. For her part, Inara suggests Mal simply rejects all rules, no matter what society they form and protect, in a knee-jerk anti-authoritarian stance. But when Mal has Atherton at his mercy in the duel, he appeals to a universal rule: “Mercy is the mark of a great man.” Then he pokes Atherton a few more times with the pointy end and proclaims himself not great but just “all right.”

I’ve neglected the action back on the ship, with Jayne hard at work engineering a plan to overcome Badger and his goons, everyone playing some kind of space poker, and River providing a diversion that the crew is too shocked to take advantage of. Noel, what did you think was going on there, and how does it relate to the class and gender politics at work in Persephone’s toniest salons?

Noel: In a practical sense, what’s going on is that credited writer Jane Espenson is having some fun writing different kinds of dialogue. Down on Persephone, she gets to ape an Edwardian comedy of manners, with elevated language masking real hostility, while up on Serenity she gets to invent a crazy card game, where the players say things like “plums are tall” and “dealer forced to claim the tall” and everyone knows what everyone else means, even though those are words strung together in that way sound like nonsense. There’s a connection there, I’d say, between what’s happening on the ship and at the shindig. Even though the tone of the discourse differs, everyone knows what’s really being said.

Espenson also gets to spend a little more time with Wash and River than any other writer has to this point, helping to flesh out those characters. In the latter case, we see River at her freakiest, manically peeling labels off of tin cans in the pantry; and then we see her at her most strangely cogent, pretending to be a cockney lass for Badger. She strips away the identity of the foodstuffs, and then changes her own identity. (Okay, maybe that’s a little pretentious. And probably not an intended linkage. Still, that’s what happened.)

Even more illuminating is what “Shindig” does with Wash. Early in the episode, he’s in quip mode as always: talking about how he’s looking forward to a long layover and possibly going “land crazy” because he’s “been sane a long while now, and change is good”; explaining away the warning buzzers as he’s landing the ship by saying, “That’s just ’cuz I’m goin’ down too quick… likely crash and kill us all.” But after several episodes in which Wash’s love for his wife has been expressed mostly via his long-distance panic that she might be in trouble, it’s nice to see him begging Mal for money to buy Zoe a slinky dress, and to see him playfully urging her not to fall asleep in bed lest Jayne slit her throat and take command. (Though he says that if she does get killed, “I’ll read a nice poem at the funeral. Something with imagery.”) Donna, you asked about the class and gender politics on Serenity versus Persephone, and the main difference I see is in the intimate give-and-take of Wash and Zoe—what Kurt Vonnegut would’ve called “a nation of two”—as opposed to the complicated rules of etiquette in actual “society.”

As with the previous two Fireflys, “Shindig” serves as a re-introduction of elements previously introduced in the unaired pilot: Persephone, Badger, and Atherton Wing. But it also clarifies why Mal and his crew prefer not to spend much time in places where “you couldn’t buy an invite with a diamond the size of a testicle.” Even Inara, who is most at home among the elegant, seems to realize that much of what presents as “civilization” on Persephone is just an agreed-upon code of dress, currency and language, conveying baser human wants and needs. (She’s flustered, for example, when Atherton openly states that men admire her because they want to have sex with her.) It’s even harder for Mal, who looks at the floating chandelier at the ball and mutters, “I see how they did it; I just ain’t gettin’ the why.” No wonder then that all it takes are a few pro forma chivalrous gestures for Mal to end up in a life-or-death duel, all the while asking, “Why’d this get so complicated?”

Donna: I really like your contrast between the private mores of Wash and Zoe in bed and the public dance of Persephone’s ton. It exposes another ongoing theme Firefly takes from both its Western and more general pulp-adventure genre reference groups: Shooting from the hip versus careful preparation. Or, if you prefer (since you wrote about it earlier this week), improv versus scripting. The supposed virtue of most adventure heroes is that they can make it up as they go along. I see a lot of Indiana Jones in Mal, especially the parts where he’s surprised, dismayed, or otherwise temporarily knocked off his game. (“Use of a s’what?” Mal squints confusedly when swords first come up in discussion of the duel.)

But are the chaotic skills of improvisation, jury-rigging, seat-of-the-pants flying really the most admirable? Kaylee gets the attention of a host of men by revealing that the instruction manuals for spaceship engines don’t tell you the real story; that kind of inside knowledge, allowing one to cut through the bullshit and craft an intimate relationship with your environment, is justly lauded. How about Wash’s piloting, though, which (so far at least) hasn’t been presented as genius-level regulations-be-damned Right Stuff, but as occasionally skilled, usually serviceable, and occasionally sloppy? How about that Mal wasn’t about to make it out of the duel alive until Inara distracted his opponent—and that only after Atherton bent the rules himself by showing off with the behind-the-back stealth stab?

When spontaneity and presentism tend to sweep away superfluities and forge stronger connections, as with Wash and Zoe, that approach to life clearly has merit. As much as we love the rogues who run headlong into trouble without an exit strategy, and as much as they make for great stories, I appreciate a reminder every now and then that the Chaos Muppets aren’t an unequivocal force for good in the world, any more than the Order Muppets are unequivocal forces for evil. “You’ll do that once too often! It’s only flesh and blood!” says one of T.E. Lawrence’s map room colleagues upon seeing him roll the match flame into his fingers. And David Lean’s movie confirms it; Lawrence can move mountains with charm, charisma, and an utter disregard for How Things Are Done, but he can’t build a government on that foundation, and he can’t make his body motorcycle-crash-proof. Not only living life without a net, but also accepting that approach’s limitations and consequences (“Michael George Hartley, you’re a philosopher,” Lawrence replies to his critic in that scene)—that’s the mark of a mature hero.

According to The A.V. Club review of Safe:

Noel: “Safe” isn’t exactly my favorite episode of Firefly, but it does contain one of my favorite scenes of the series. I’m referring to the scene in the knick-knackery on Jiangyin, where Inara makes fun of how every supply store on ever backwater planet has the same five ragdolls and the same wood carving of a duck, and Kaylee stands up for the duck—actually a swan, she insists—saying that it looks like it was “made with longing.” Then Simon comes in with River, grumbling about the “ass-end” planet they’re on, and making fun of a decorative plate that Kaylee had been considering buying for him as a gift. Simon goes too far though when he disparages Serenity, which sets Kaylee off, making her snarl that if he doesn’t think much of this life that he’s been forced to lead, then he can’t think much of those—like Kaylee—who chose it.

The scene only lasts a few minutes, but it conveys a lot: How Inara appreciates Kaylee’s enthusiasm, even when she’s not simpatico with her; how even the sweet-natured Kaylee can be pushed too far when she feels like she’s been insulted; and mostly how Simon doesn’t really have a clue how to relate to people, because he’s spent most of his life relating to one increasingly crazy person.

“Safe” serves as a quasi-origin story for Simon and River, taking us back to when they were kids (and when Simon was played by Zac Efron!), and showing us their loving-but-demanding parents, who pushed Simon into becoming a doctor, and then warned him that his obsession with what might be happening to River at the academy was putting his career at risk. But to Simon, River is the one person who’s always loved him unconditionally, and who’s ever really understood him, so while she’s become a burden, it’s a burden he shoulders without question. Part of the reason why Simon absently aggravates Kaylee at that supply store is because he’s distracted by River, constantly worried that she’s going to break something. As Mal puts it before he shoos the Tams away from Serenity for the day, “When a man engages in clandestine dealings, he has a preference for things being smooth. She makes things not be smooth.”

And yet River can be amazing, too. While Simon is disappointing Kaylee, River wanders off, and a panicked Simon goes looking for her, eventually finding River at some kind of outdoor celebration, watching the locals dance. And then River starts to dance, and enchants both Simon and the people of Jiangyin with her exuberance and grace. If you’ll pardon a personal aside, I think that the way Simon both worries about and is delighted by his sister is something that will be familiar to parents everywhere—and especially to parents of a special-needs child, as we are. I’m constantly on edge to some degree when I’m out in public with our autistic son: Is he talking too loud? Will he absentmindedly stick his hand down his pants? What will he do if someone walks up and asks him a question? But then he’ll say something funny or smart that even people who don’t know him can appreciate, and I beam. That’s why I don’t hold it against Simon that he’s so obnoxious in the shop with Kaylee. I get why he’s distracted.

I’m less enthused about “Safe” as a whole, though, for a few reasons. For one, it’s an episode that really pushes the Chinese-studded slanguage of this time and place, to the point where at times it seems like half of any given line of dialogue is either incomprehensible or filled with so many “rutting”s and “gorram”s that it’s distracting. Also, the plot takes some jarring turns, as Simon gets kidnapped by a band of poor villagers who want him to be their new doctor. The situation poses a real dilemma for Simon, who can clearly see that these people need someone like him around, though he hates the way he was brought to this place, and is too much of a snob to want to stay. But any moral/ethical choice Simon might be compelled to make is wrested from him (too quickly and cheaply, in my opinion), when Rachel from Justified shows up and accuses the mind-reading River of being a witch.

This episode also divides the action a little too much. Book gets shot during a cattle deal gone awry, and Mal orders the crew of the Serenity to leave Jiangyin immediately, despite Simon and River’s absence. The action in space is exciting, as Mal is forced to dock with an Alliance cruiser to get Book medical attention—and as we learn that our good shepherd carries some kind of mysterious super-ID-card that gets him immediate and special attention from the Alliance doctors—but it’s so far removed from what’s happening with the Tams that it almost seems arbitrary at the end when Mal orders Serenity to return and rescue them. It’s not surprising, mind you; just not really supported, dramatically speaking.

That said, the rescue is very satisfying. Serenity descends just as the villagers are preparing to burn the Tams at the stake, and Zoe declares herself and Mal to be “big damn heroes” as they free Simon and River. And it’s nice to see the misfit Simon begin to accept that maybe he belongs somewhere. It may not be the high society that his parents would’ve chosen for him, but Serenity sure beats Jiangyin, even if the only reason that Mal can give for why he came back is, “You’re on my crew. Why we still talkin’ ’bout this? Chow’s in 10. No need to dress.”

Donna, do you have any opinions on why Mal returned, and whether it’s dramatically credible? Does it have something to do with all the talk about “the will of God” and people’s feelings about religious men?

Donna: I’m not quite ready to discourse on the particular brand(s) of Christianity we see on display in the series, although I’ll admit to being saddened that the kidnappin’ settlers are Old Testament thumpers. When Firefly descends on the burning-at-the-stake scene, what we really needed was Jed Bartlet striding out there to explain that one can’t just shout “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live!” really loud and ignore all the other stuff in Exodus22 that’s a little less convenient. (Although maybe I’ve misjudged these poor abductin’ villagers, and they conscientiously refrain from charging interest for their loans, and piously execute the herdsmen who are diddling the sheep.)

Instead, let’s be sure to highlight the theme of “home” that is uppermost in “Safe.” Is there a place that we belong? Is it the place we happened to be born into, or the place where fate has deposited us? When Simon’s father bails him out, he impatiently asks his son if he’s coming home. When Doralee (played by Erica N. Tazel, or “Rachel from Justified,” as you put it)shows Simon around their makeshift infirmary, she suggests that where your journey takes you is where you should make a home. And when Book returns to Serenity, he smiles and says that it’s good to be home.

Even though the repetition makes this all a bit heavy-handed, it’s still a potent word to explore. Doralee contends that home needs to be the end of wandering. But when Mal explains to Simon that he came back because Simon’s on his crew, the captain’s making the claim that home is where your family is: the people who have accepted you, and the ones you’ve cast your lot with. Simon has a choice between the family he was born into and the one he’s fallen into. In a way he’s just ended up on Serenity in the same way he just ended up in the Jiangyin hills, by chance (though less forcibly in the former case). But it’s not fate or blood or even people needing you that makes a home. It’s where you decide to park your identity.

I like River better and better with each passing episode, and she’s particularly astounding here (as is Summer Glau playing her, with moods winking in and out like clouds crossing the sun). She gets two lines that possibly tie into this theme of home. With the cattle off the ship and milling about their corral, she explains that they weren’t cows until they got back outside; “Now they see sky, they remember what they are.” It’s not that the cows are only home on their native soil, but that the universe is divided into places that disassociate them from themselves, and places that restore and reinforce their true nature. (When Simon slags Serenity and Kaylee takes it personal, she says the same thing from the opposite side, as you noted up top: that if you don’t think much of a place and the way of life that comes with it, then you can’t think much of those who make that place and way of life home.)

Even more evocative, because it’s less direct, is River’s happy observation to Simon when he joins her on the stake: “Post-holer, digging holes for posts.” Maybe it’s because I’ve seen my dad wield a post-holer (we called ’em post-hole-diggers) to put in fencing on our land. Post-holers are implements that make boundaries, and therefore contribute to making a home. They’re for partitioning off a place that you are choosing as the place that makes you you. And for keeping others out, if that’s what you want. Simon’s right to warn River away from the post-holer in the supply store. They’re dangerous and sharp. They can cut you away from the family that raised you, and seal you in with the one you’ve found.

Noel: So overall you’d say you probably liked “Safe” more than I did?

Donna: I found the way the characters were separated from each other quasi-artificially a bit frustrating. And I’m not sure the return to rescue Simon and River was well-motivated. But being new to this series, I almost feel like I don’t know enough to dislike it. I’d always like to think there’s more going on than I can see at first glance, especially in an episode where all the pieces don’t come together narratively. So I wouldn’t say I thought it was nearly as successful as the best I’ve seen of Firefly so far. But I would say that I’m willing to believe there’s more to what the episode presents than the episode itself is able to capitalize on.

Noel: Well, I certainly don’t want to give the impression that I dislike “Safe.” As is usually the case with these things, I’m talking about very minor matters of degree. Firefly was trying something different in the way it took the western elements that were often inherent in sci-fi and brought them to the surface, which is something I usually appreciate, and give the show a lot of leeway to explore. But it proves to be a problem here, because while the “leaving a man behind” plot would feel more natural if the heroes were just riding out to another town, seeing them jet off into outer space creates a greater feeling of distance between the two storylines. Throw in the witch-fearing rednecks and… yeah, this is episode is an odd duck. Or perhaps swan. (One made with longing, naturally.)

Again though, as always, there’s a lot to enjoy here, including the warm interactions between Young Simon and Young River, as the latter recounts an elaborate fantasy scenario involving the Independents using dinosaurs (!) to cut their supply lines, such that, “We need to resort to cannibalism.” We also get more of the casual references to the technology of the time, with Simon asking his dad if he got his “wave,” and then complaining that his “source box” keeps “shorting” because it’s not “dedicated,” while his dad says that he doesn’t want Simon to be able to access unacceptable stuff “filtered in from the cortex.” (No, I can’t account for why the excess of Chinese and slang rubbed me the wrong way but all the tech-speak didn’t. The ears just want what they want, I guess.)

“Safe” also serves up a heap o’ great Mal quotes, from him insisting that his herd of cattle consumed only “milk and hay, three times a day, fed to ’em by beautiful women” to him answering the wounded Book’s call for a preacher by saying, “That’s good, you lie there and be ironical.” Then there’s the best Mal quote of the episode, when he tells Simon, concerning River, “Morbid and creepifying I got no problem with, long as she does it quiet-like.”

Beyond being funny, that line speaks to what this episode is really about, as you noted, Donna. Mal really doesn’t have a problem with “morbid and creepifying,” so long as it doesn’t get in his way. He even admires Simon after a fashion, saying that the kid’s no coward. If Simon and River are looking for a home, where they can be “safe,” they could do a lot worse than a spaceship run by a captain who’s accepting of oddballs. “Life would be simpler us not carrying ’fugees,” Jayne says at one point. “Yeah… simpler,” Mal mutters, just before heading back to Jiangyin to retrieve the missing members of his crew.

According to The A.V. Club review of Our Mrs. Reynolds:

Donna Bowman: Sexy space grifters! Oh Firefly, you know me so well. The confidence racket makes for as delightful and rich a fictional milieu as, well, the Western. And the two often join forces, thanks to a landscape full of worthless scrub that can be represented as bounteous veins of precious metals, boomtowns full of just-off-the-turnip-truck yokels eager to believe in easy money, and the minimal presence of law enforcement. In a nice bit of serendipity, this week’s Summertime Roundtable pick (which I selected) is a con-man episode of the TV western The Big Valley. These stories often leave me with deeply divided loyalties; I love to see a well-executed caper, so part of me wants the scammer to pull it off, but on the other hand, I don’t want to see the characters I love get hurt.

Luckily, “Our Mrs. Reynolds” lets me have both. Saffron’s “maiden house” naïveté and creative scriptural improvisation are a joy to behold, even as the temptations of our heroes become too much to bear. Played by the ever-so-womanly Christina Hendricks, Saffron makes her way onto the ship as a stowaway—from the point of view of the crew. But the way she tells it, the elder of the rustic Triumph settlement gave her to Captain Reynolds in exchange for the service the Serenity gang performed ridding them of pesky bandits. At the drink-y, dance-y celebration, Saffron put a garland on Mal’s head and the elder renders Jayne nearly speechless with the gift of a rainstick. And thus, according to the Bible that the Triumph folks favor, Mal is married.

And also according to that Bible, she is to “do for” him. Cooking. And other wifely duties. “On the night of their betrothal, the wife shall open to the man as the furrow to the plow,” she quotes when Mal discovers that she prefers his bed to the quarters he provided elsewhere. “He shall work in her again and again, till she bring him to his full.” “Whoa… good Bible,” Mal murmurs. And despite his determination not to encourage her nuptial delusions before disembarking her in Beaumonde (despite Shepherd Book pointedly warning him that taking advantage will doom him to “the special hell… a level they reserve for child molesters and people who talk at the theater”) Mal succumbs at least to the point of a passionate kiss—which leaves him flat on the cabin floor, Saffron tossing a sardonic “Night, sweetie!” over her shoulder as she bolts.

This is where it’s fun being a first-time viewer. The revelation that Saffron’s a scammer not only twists the episode so far into a pretzel, but allows the next couple of scenes—with Wash on the bridge, and with Inara on the cargo deck—to play out both on the level of what the Serenity crew knows, and what we now know. Saffron’s seduction of Wash is a slightly more impatient version of her go at Mal, what with her facile recitation of the sexually charged myth of Earth-That-Was (“Whoa… good myth,” Wash admits) and her attempts to drive a wedge between Wash and Zoe (“I thought she didn’t seem to respect you,” Saffron says with wide, innocent eyes, referring to the grief Wash took over wanting some of Saffron’s cooking earlier). When she rolls her eyes before resorting to a swift kick in the head, then takes a crack at giving Inara the highly accelerated business, our delight comes from the theme and variations structure, from Hendricks’s shapeshifting, and from the lesson in worldly wisdom that we know our straight-arrow heroes, always threatening to be somewhat foolish in their principles and worldview, temporarily deserve.

My favorite moment in one of the most self-assuredly quotable hours of television I’ve ever seen comes after Saffron has escaped in the spare shuttle. “Inara found you here,” Book informs the recently awakened Mal, and Inara pipes up from her collapsed position, “Then I fell. My head got hurt like Wash.” Nobody cares about why she was unconscious, but she’s groggily determined to get a plausible narrative out there that doesn’t involve her lapse of control in kissing Mal. That’s part of what makes a Joss Whedon script (and Joss Whedon characters) so sparkling; even when nobody else is thinking about them, they’re thinking about themselves.

There’s a plot point I need you to get straight for me, Noel: Saffron runs quite a complicated con to get on the ship and point it at the scavengers’ net. But when we first see Corbin (Benito Martinez, better known to me as Aceveda on The Shield) and Breed discussing Serenity, they act like they’re learning about her for the first time and are debating whether she’s worth going after. Does the grift actually make sense as presented?

Noel Murray: I think they’re seeing the ship for the first time, but that Saffron already told them to expect her. My presumption is that Saffron saw Serenity and its crew, sent a wave to Corbin, and then commenced to connin’. Breed is skeptical, but Corbin knows Fireflies, and knows Saffron.

Anyway, the net’s just a metaphor, wouldn’t you say? Not in some kind of deep, heavy way, but just in the sense that our heroes like to avoid entanglements, including petty bureaucracy, matrimony, and, y’know, electronic spider webs. We get a good sense of what drives the Serenity crew this week when Wash—at long last, Wash!—talks about his home planet, where the pollution was so thick that he couldn’t see the stars. “Sometimes I think I entered flight school just to see what the hell everyone was talking about,” he tells Saffron. And now that he’s seen the stars, he’s happy to keep on seeing them, rather than being imprisoned—or worse.

That’s why I love the two big switcheroos in “Our Mrs. Reynolds.” The first comes early, as we see a happy montage of the crew dancing and drinking and donning flowers and smiling at each other in an “it doesn’t get any better than this” kind of way. And then: “Zoe, why do I have a wife?” Note the way that Zoe initially underestimates the threat that Saffron poses, seeing at as an opportunity to make fun of her Captain. (And Kaylee joins in too, winkingly reassuring a weepy Saffron that Mal “makes everybody cry… he’s like a monster.”) But note also that when Mal’s nuptials are announced to the crew, there’s a quick insert shot of Inara, looking distressed. It’s not just that she suspects Saffron’s no good—in fact, she probably suspects nothing at all at that moment—and it’s not even that she’s dismayed that another woman landed Mal before she could, necessarily. It’s more that there’s a lifestyle that she’s become accustomed to, and part of that lifestyle is having flirty arguments with Malcolm Reynolds. And now that’s all about to be destroyed.

And then there’s the Saffron switch, which is fun no matter how many times I’ve seen it. One minutes she’s modestly telling Mal, “I’ll not be anyone’s doxy,” and suggesting to Zoe in the kitchen that “everything’s laid out if you’d like to cook for your husband.” Then after we learn she’s a big fake, we get to see how she tries to play Wash the way she played Mal, ending up by rolling her eyes at his loyalty to Zoe and then kicking him hard in the head. So, so awesome. (Also awesome: Saffron answering Inara’s admiring, “You’re amazing; who are you?” with a curt, “Malcolm Reynolds’ widow.”)

In the end, Malcolm escapes Saffron’s clutches—and the electric net her confederates wield—because, “I got people with me.” (Shades of Buffy The Vampire Slayer there.) We even see that in this episode’s funny opening scene, where Mal wears a “pretty floral bonnet” in order to fool some highwaymen, and jokes with his “husband” Jayne, saying, “How can you shame me in front of new people?” He’s being quippy, but there’s an assumption there. “New people” are not “people” per se—at least not in the “I got people with me” sense.

DB: What makes “Our Mrs. Reynolds” such a superior episode is that it’s not just slam-bang quotable good fun. The contrast between Saffron (fiercely independent because, as a grifter, she knows no one can be trusted) and Mal lies in those “people” you mention. “Everybody plays each other; that’s all we do,” Saffron tells him. “We play parts.” But Mal triumphs (temporarily?) because he trusts that those who’ve yoked their lives to him aren’t playing a part. They won’t consider dropping one persona and picking up another as it might redound to their individual benefit. They’ll be there when he needs them. That’s a deep theme for a Western, the genre of outlaws, loners, drifters, and men without names. If the choice of how to live a life on the margins of society is represented by, say, The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre and The Magnificent Seven, Mal opts for the Seven and asserts that even though the Serenity crew has been thrown together from a bewildering muddle of tangled personal histories, they’re going to stick.

I’m glad you pointed out the effect Saffron’s spousal revelation has on Inara, because she seems to me to be at the heart of this episode’s conflict. She is playing a part, just as Saffron suggests; it’s her training and her comfort zone. Does that put her on the fringes of the Serenity family, along with Jayne who plays the part of the ally of convenience? Kaylee, Wash, Zoe, Simon, Book—they may have secrets (especially Book, to whom Mal comments “One day you’re going to tell us all how a preacher knows so damn much about crime”), but they basically wear their hearts on their sleeve. What you see is what you get. Can you have the kind of trust Mal boasts about to Saffron without that transparency?

I argued in our last installment that Inara is a more interesting character than some (I gather) give her credit for. Now she’s got me even more intrigued. “I guess we’ve lied enough,” she tells Saffron before their quick mutual admiration society. People who are professionally trained to inspire trust without ever having to resort to giving trust themselves are professional parasites. And that takes me back to The Big Valley and its cobbled-together family and to Heath’s determination not to take what isn’t his by right—not to even covet it. Because otherwise you’re just a con man, a barnacle, a locust in a drought-stricken landscape. You’re alone.

According to The A.V. Club review of Out of Gas:

Donna Bowman: After we wrote about “Jaynestown” last week and both, in our ways, expressed some disappointment that the whole episode wasn’t up to the standard of its most inspired plotline, I realized something about the way I approach television. For me, the best episodes are the most well-constructed episodes. I appreciate and enjoy a fantastic moment, scene, performance, act, or storyline. But I thrill to a complete episode that is structured creatively and executed with panache.

So I was over the moon for “Out Of Gas,” which manages to reinvent the whole “how the gang got together” episode by weaving it into an ode to the ship itself, the gang’s unlikely, adopted home. Throughout the hour we get beautiful juxtapositions between various pasts and the present, such as the pan down from Mal and Zoe walking through the hatch when Zoe is being shown the ship for the first time, their voices fading as Mal mentions he has the perfect name all picked out, to Mal in the present moment lying bleeding and alone on a grate. We see the basic plan of the episode all at once: While multiple flashbacks will take us through the origin story of our heroes, we’ll also discover what led to Mal’s and the ship’s present predicament.

This means that the flashbacks have to be multilayered. We won’t just be going back to the more distant past when the crew was assembled, but also to the immediate past when something went terribly awry. And at the same time, we’ll be moving forward to find out what happens to the stricken captain and his ship. Ambitious, to say the least. Yet “Out Of Gas” soars through the complexities of its structure without ever forgetting to deliver evocative moments, humor, and deeply affecting emotion. It’s a grand slam.

The predicament begins with a sudden fireball in the engine room, interrupting a family dinner where Simon doesn’t get a chance to tell what he claims are hilarious stories of medical hijinks. (Jayne, interrupting as Simon gears up: “Inara, she’s gotta have some funny whoring stories!”). After the crew gets behind the blast doors and opens the hatch, venting the fire out into space and starving it of oxygen, Kaylee discovers that the catalyzer is busted, and she can’t get it working and installed again. To make matters worse, the backup life support is gone, too, so without the engine running, there’ll be no air. “Sometimes a thing gets broke, can’t be fixed,” she whispers fatalistically. Mal sends off the two shuttles, loaded with four people each, on opposite courses in a last-ditch attempt to find help; he stays with the ship and monitors the distress signal he and Wash have managed to boost by rigging it to the navigation system.

And in the long-ago, Mal convinces Zoe to see beyond Serenity’s surface flaws to the freedom she represents. Wash (with giant mustache!) would be happy to accept the pilot’s job, if only Zoe can get past her reflexive dislike of him (“Somethin’ about him bothers me”). The genius mechanic that Mal has signed up turns out to be a serial womanizer and not exactly the hardest worker, but one of his “prairie harpy” conquests has the natural tinkerin’ ability to keep the rotors turning and the ship flying. Inara confidently predicts Mal will choose her as his shuttle’s tenant because she brings “a certain respectability… That’s something you can use.” And Jayne gets bought out from under the passel of bandits who are holding Mal and Zoe up, for the promise of a raise in pay and a private room.

All those slightly sepia-toned scenes from the past gain extra tragic oomph whenever we return to the events immediately preceding Mal’s injury, where the crew is gone and Mal is shivering in a blanket awaiting rescue. When a ship does pull alongside, it turns out to have a little too much in common to Serenity to be entirely helpful; it’s piloted by outlaws, too, and instead of passing along a spare catalyzer, they plan to take the entire ship. Mal gets the drop on them and sends ’em packing (“You woulda done the same,” they defend themselves; “We can already see I haven’t,” Mal contradicts them, pointing out that they’re getting out with their lives), replaces the part (after briefly and terrifyingly dropping it under the engine), then collapses before he can push the big red button Wash rigged up to recall the shuttles. But thanks to Zoe’s cussed insubordination, the shuttles come back anyway and Mal gets bundled off to sickbay to recover.

“Y’all gonna be here when I wake up?” Mal asks before getting some more rest in the now recovered Serenity. It’s a line that arises from the recurring shots of empty ship rooms and corridors that punctuate “Out Of Gas.” And we have our final flashback, all the way back this time to when Mal’s eye wanders off the ship the used-spaceship dealer is trying to sell him, and lights on that Firefly. It’s as if he started dreaming the whole series at that moment, complete with adventures and comrades and danger. It’s as if Serenity were the first recruit for his crew, or maybe the mate with whom he plans to start a new life. I love that finish, doubling back to Mal picking out the place where he’s going to become Captain Reynolds, caring more about the feeling of the moment than practicality; that’s also the way he recruits Kaylee and Jayne, you’ll notice. Noel, I know you’re a huge fan of this episode and I can see why. What impresses you more: the way it works as an episode of television, or the way it deepens and expands the history of these characters?

Noel Murray: Oh, the former, for sure. I already loved the characters by the time I saw “Out Of Gas” for the first time, and while I appreciated the expanded backstory, that alone wouldn’t have knocked me for a loop the way the structure of this episode did. As I’ve mentioned, Firefly was my first Joss Whedon experience, and after watching the preceding episodes, I was already sold on the wit, the heart, and the cast. But watching “Out Of Gas” was one of those, “Oh man, this is something special” moments. Just the ambition of it, and the confidence… I’m always impressed when writers come up with an original way to complete an assignment, and here credited writer Tim Minear goes next-level, using the ship itself to tell the story, shifting between past and present within the various spaces on-board. And director David Solomon doesn’t just keep the time periods clear with the expressionistic lighting, he also sets a mood. The opening shots of a silent, near-empty, drifting Serenity are heartbreaking, even before a bloody Mal falls.

Here’s the thing, though: It would’ve been easy to make this episode really heavy and pretentious, what with all the impending doom and structural complexity, but Minear and company seem to grasp that since one of the major ideas of this episode is that these people and this ship comprise a happy little community, it makes sense to show that. Sometimes the narrative trickery in “Out Of Gas” is just in service of a good gag, as when Mal talks about this “genius mechanic” he’s found and it turns out not to be Kaylee. From the moment Bester appears, we know that we’re being teased, and that before the episode is over we’ll find out how Bester got replaced. But it’s a fun kind of tease; it’s the “can’t wait to see how this plays out” kind.

And for all the life-or-death tension in “Out Of Gas,” it contains one of the funniest scenes in all of Fireflydom (which is saying something), in the “recruitment” of Jayne. The patter is so quick (“Which one you figure tracked us?” “The ugly one, sir.” “Could you be more specific?”) and so cool-in-the-face-of-danger (“Offering to shoot us might not work so well as an incentive as you might imagine.”), but it’s also telling that when Mal hears what Jayne gets paid and asks Zoe, “That seem low to you?” he’s both working an angle and speaking his mind. To Mal, it really is unfair that someone as skilled as Jayne should be working so cheap. There’s a subtle piece of parallel dialogue in this “Out Of Gas.” Jayne’s old boss Marco starts to give an order, saying, “I ain’t asking…” before Jayne shoots him; and earlier in the episode, Mal orders Wash to the bridge, saying, “I wasn’t askin’, I was tellin’.” Yet Mal’s crew isn’t going to shoot him for telling them what to do.

Beyond filling in backstory, “Out Of Gas” has a lot on its mind. It explores the limitations and short-sightedness of Mal’s grand dream of being “free.” Yes, he can use his ship to duck the Alliance, but when a crisis arises, Serenity is on a course so far from civilization that that they’re just about done for. And for all Mal’s promises of “autonomy” to Inara and others, whenever people gather, some accommodations have to be made. Nobody in a society is ever fully free. Even when Mal expects to die alone, Zoe won’t let him.

But this episode also highlights what makes Mal such a good leader: his generosity of spirit, and his imagination. He’s impressed by Kaylee because she’s a lot like him: She doesn’t think twice about ripping out a faulty engine part because it’s not really necessary. (“Just gums up the works.”) And while Zoe is bothered by “something” about Wash, Mal can tell that beneath the mustache, Wash is their man. This is his gift, to “try and see past what she is and see what she can be.”

Donna Bowman: You’re onto something there about Malcolm Reynolds’ gift, but one thing I’m discovering on my first pass through Firefly is that Whedon has tweaked the stock charismatic commander stereotype in ways I find both interesting and slightly disturbing. Compared to Captain Kirk (just for example), Captain Reynolds has the improvisational flourish without the outsized self-confidence. Sometimes—and this has never seemed more true than in the flashbacks here—he seems to be just playing captain. It’s a role he’s imagined for himself, but it’s not always a perfect fit. He responds to certain setbacks and challenges to his authority with bluff, bravado, or abashed uncertainty. And that’s both endearing (because it’s the way we might feel in his position) and troubling (because what we need in our big damn heroes is reliable heroics).

Just look at the way Mal and Wash snipe desperately at each other over the possibility of boosting the distress signal. Wash feels like his expertise has led him to a solid rationale for despair, and rails sarcastically against Mal’s insistence on pointless action—exactly the kind of insistence one would expect from an idealistic cowboy of a captain who’s used to the success of his crazy capers. “It’s a brilliant plan, I’m sure we’ll all be perfectly safe!” he mocks Mal. But then when the captain shows that he knows more about rewiring things than Wash expected, the pilot backs down not as the loyal soldier, but as the embarrassed friend (“Well, maybe I should do that then!”). That works one-on-one, but it forms quite a contrast to the rank Mal pulls when he orders Wash to the bridge in the first place, as you pointed out.

But Mal also isn’t one of those captains who can pound on the side of the engine and get it going, Fonzarelli-like. He doesn’t have a throw-dilithium-crystals-at-it, reverse-the-polarity, so-crazy-it-just-might-work solution for the missing part, and has to accept that all his begging Kaylee for one won’t do any good. Their mechanical problem becomes a management and strategic problem, and that’s when he shows his true commitment to the role of captain: By taking sole responsibility for its implementation, including going down with his ship (as seems likely). The fact that he’s glad Zoe disobeyed orders and rescued him from that suicidal playacting says to me that he’s still aware of the gap between his swashbuckling dreams and his human needs.

According to The A.V. Club review of Ariel:

Noel Murray: One of the great misconceptions about freelancing is that those of us who fly solo for a living are actually “free,” with no boss, and no contracts. We can work as much or as little as we want, and don’t have to put in any vacation requests, or sit in any time-sucking meetings. The meeting part is true, I admit. And I also don’t have to commute, which is nice. But the rest? Not so much. Successful freelancers know that making a living means taking on a heavy load of assignments, most of which we can’t turn down because we don’t want to risk becoming the second or third person that an employer calls. Freelancers also learn quickly that there are repercussions if we shop ourselves around too openly. Assignments don’t just go to the skilled; they go to the reliable, and to the loyal.

Much of Firefly is about these kinds of questions: what “freedom” means, and whether it’s something that’s really all that desirable in its purest form. In “Out Of Gas,” we saw that the further into the black Serenity goes, the less margin for error they have when it comes to the very real possibility of a life-threatening mechanical breakdown. And throughout the series we’ve seen Captain Mal make choices that go against his own desires, because as much as he’s a rugged individualist, he also needs other people, which means accommodating those other people’s needs—as we all have to do in a civil society.

So now here’s “Ariel,” in which Jayne Cobb too learns that he may be less of a free man than he’d always figured. It’s a hard lesson for him, and costs dearly—both financially, and in terms of the respect and trust of someone he admires.

The episode is built around double-crosses. When Serenity lands on the core Alliance planet Ariel to drop off Inara for her annual examination and recertification, Jayne sees a chance to make some money by handing Simon and River over to the authorities. River has been dangerously unstable—at the start of the episode, she slashes Jayne in the galley, saying he “looks better in red”—and Simon has proposed an elaborate break-in/heist at an Ariel hospital, where the Serenity crew can steal expensive medicine and Simon can sneak River into a high-tech diagnostic wing. Jayne is assigned to be their muscle, in case anything goes wrong, but unbeknownst to all, he’s already called ahead to tell an Alliance goon that he’ll be bringing the Tams right to him.

Unbeknownst to Jayne, the goon has no plans to honor his end of the arrangement. He has Jayne arrested. And Simon, unaware of Jayne’s betrayal, sees only Jayne fighting alongside him as they work towards an escape. Later, back on the ship, Jayne is prepared to pretend that everything’s as it was—only with a modicum of new mutual respect between himself and Simon, who fought bravely—but Mal figures out what must’ve happened, and he stows Jayne in an ajar airlock as Serenity soars out of the atmosphere, getting Jayne to admit what he did and to understand that betraying anyone on Serenity is the same as betraying Mal, adding, “The next time you decide to stab me in the back, have the guts to do it to my face.”

That’s the end of the double-crosses in the chronology of this episode, but there’s one more I didn’t mention, from earlier: The blue-gloved weirdoes who come to retrieve River kill every Alliance agent who spoke with the Tams—which just goes to show that having an office, a salary, and a uniform won’t necessarily keep you safe.

But that’s enough of the heavy talk about trust and freedom and such. I’ve barely mentioned that “Ariel” features a space heist! In a space hospital! Donna, I know you’re a fan of heists, and space. Were you pondering the themes of “Ariel” much, or too busy grooving on all the capering?

Donna Bowman: You’ve got me pegged there: I do love capers and space. (Hospitals, not so much.) So the rehearsed medical jargon, unflattering disguises—who knew that in the galactic future baseball caps would still signal “invisible flunky”?—and relentless improvisation kept me grinning like a blissed-out space caper geek through the first several acts. If there is a more delightful running gag in Firefly than Jayne trying to get through his speech about the cortical electrodes, I haven’t met it yet. (Almost as good: Mal mangling his speech about the patient’s pupils into a description of them as “collapsed and dilapidated.”)

But what’s even better than the big heist, with all its attendant comedy and tension, is the terrific meditation on community and trust that’s woven throughout. The Alliance hospital is vulnerable because nobody knows each other, which means people are reduced to their roles as signaled by dress and demeanor. That makes the system easy to exploit, simply by adopting the correct codes and dress and demeanor. One of my favorite moments is when the doctor accosts Mal and Zoe for going the wrong way with their gurneys and body pods, then orders them to follow him. But Mal can’t stop questioning him, even though that’s not what an paramedic would do and even though that puts the operation at risk. He’s too independent to play the part.

Jayne’s betrayal—by which I mean both the betrayal he perpetrates, and the one perpetrated on him by his Fed contact—belong to the venerable “honor among thieves” theme that we’ve seen played out in almost every episode in one way or another. What I love about watching this version is the nakedness of Adam Baldwin’s emotions. Double-crossed, he’s angry, crestfallen, and embarrassed. Rescued by Mal and Zoe (and how wonderful is that little “of course I’m here, let’s go!” head tilt that Mal gives when he blasts through the back door?), he’s suddenly hopeful that nobody noticed his lapse, and somewhat comforted for the loss of Simon and River’s bounty money by the thought that there’s still the pharmaceutical haul to be divvied up.

And then Mal, in a terrifyingly chilly exchange through the cargo-bay door, makes it clear that the only thing this crew has going for them, in contrast to the people they’re trying to do crimes to, is their commitment to each other, a moral obligation incurred by their having to face each other and give an account. Jayne doesn’t get a free pass on that because he considers himself a freelancer, as you very astutely point out. He’s joined the crew, and now he’s responsible to something bigger than himself. Everybody on the boat has something like that. For Inara, it’s the requirements of her profession; for the absent Book, a spiritual discipline. For Simon, it’s the Hippocratic oath that won’t let him pass a dying man without helping, even at the risk of his cover and, perhaps, his dream of helping River. A larger responsibility than kith and kin—now that’s some high-minded greater-good thinking. It’s the notion that community works only if people recognize limits to their self-interested pursuits.

For Mal, that bigger-than-himself thing to which he is responsible is the freedom that he’s promised not simply to seize on his own, but deliver to his community as well. Once upon a time, that community was a people, a potential political entity; now it’s down to a handful of wanderers. And in the end, as craven and desperate as Jayne’s explanations and apologies are, he acknowledges that he doesn’t want to face that community as a traitor. “Make sumpin’ up,” he begs Mal. “Don’t tell ’em what I did.” If he cares enough about how they see him, maybe there’s some hope for Jayne. Because he’s saying that he isn’t free of caring about their judgment, of how they see him. Even though he’s abused their trust, he still wants their good opinion even more than his own life. And he can give back to the community too, as when he opines that “It’s a good plan… Doc did good comin’ up with the job,” before reverting to type by claiming (falsely, I think) to care only about the money.

That’s the thing with Jayne. His opportunism means you’re never sure what’s a breakthrough and what’s a ruse. “Well hey, you’re part of my crew,” he brazenly tells Simon after the latter’s glowing report of Jayne’s heroism, and you almost get the sense he could talk himself into believing his own press, mentally dressing himself in Mal’s brown coat and finding an adequate fit. Can you rely on someone like that to be swayed by moral principle, no matter how stripped down, no matter how Hobbesian?

NM: Firefly never had the chance to become the serialized show that it probably would’ve been had it lasted longer, but I still tend to think of this episode as pivotal in defining Jayne’s story arc. You’re absolutely right to zero in on that “Don’t tell ’em what I did” from Jayne: It’s a signal that he doesn’t want to be thought of as a low-down dirty deceiver (so to speak). He’s been cultivating the image of an amoral bad-ass, but there’s a core of responsibility there, as was evident in “Jaynestown,” where he began to wish he really were The Hero Of Canton.

But while Jayne is seemingly embracing Mal’s principles, I’m not so sure the rest of the crew is as onboard as Mal may presume. This episode features several scenes of River flashing her precognitive abilities, including one where she foresees a man dying in the hospital, leading to that moment you mentioned where Simon intervenes and saves the man’s life. Yet it doesn’t take a psychic to see what River sees: that Simon belongs in this world, barking orders at other “civilized” folk.

And it’s telling that so much of Serenity’s crew—save for Mal and Zoe—is eager to see more of Ariel than its spaceport. Mal mocks the core planets, saying that he and Zoe should smile a lot as part of their disguise because, “Everyone’s rich and happy here.” But Inara raves about the museums and restaurants on Ariel, and Wash tells Zoe that there’s lots for them to do together on the planet (stuff that’s “not boring like [Inara] made it sound”). And when Simon asks for volunteers to leave the ship and gather supplies on Ariel, he doesn’t even finish his sentence before Kaylee, Jayne, and Wash raise their hands.

That’s the shameful little secret of freelancers: While people in cubicles dream of working from home, those of us who actually spend our days alone on our couches can’t wait to get out of the house and into the places where the people are.

According to The A.V. Club review of Trash:

Noel Murray: A couple of episodes ago, when the subject of the Serenity crew’s under-employment came up, Jayne had a few choice words about the matter, saying, “My pop always said anyone who can’t find work ain’t lookin’ hard enough.” And now in “Trash,” Inara makes the point even plainer to Mal. They’re all barely scraping by, and she in particular is having a hard time maintaining her client base, and all because of Mal’s near-pathological aversion to anything resembling civilization—y’know, those planets and moons where the jobs are. It looks like everything’s set up for some kind of philosophical showdown between Mal and his crew, who are clearly a lot more comfortable working around the Core than their captain is. This is a discussion that’s been a long time coming—one that needs to be had.

And then Saffron shows up, and disrupts everything, as she is wont to do.

Well, technically she arrives at the start of the episode. After a shot of Mal sitting naked on a rock—more on that later—we flash back 72 hours, to Mal at a drop with an old war buddy, Monty. Then he meets Monty’s new wife, “Bridget,” who is in fact Mal’s old wife, Saffron. Monty abandons Saffron/Bridget, and Mal is preparing to do the same, when she mentions a job that he can help her pull: a heist of a rare laser gun, The Lassiter, being held by a man that Saffron describes as genocidal, war-profiteerin’ bastard named Durran Haymer.

I’ll be honest: Maybe it just suffers from the close proximity to “Ariel,” but I don’t think the big heist scene in “Trash” works as well as the one in “Ariel,” even though there’s a lot of similarity in the way they’re built into their respective episodes, with the plan being explained in voiceover while we see it play out. I also don’t think Saffron’s presence as a whole is as much fun as it is in “Our Mrs. Reynolds.” And I’m always a little disappointed when I watch “Trash” that it doesn’t do more with this conflict that’s been quietly intensifying over the past couple of episodes, between Mal’s vision of freedom and his colleagues’.

Or does it? We’ll talk more about where this episode lands later, and whether the ending makes sense either in terms of the plot or the theme, but there’s a big twist in “Trash”—similar to the reveal of Saffron’s true nature in “Our Mrs. Reynolds”—that I think is more than just a nifty surprise. When Mal and Saffron arrive at Haymer’s luxury apartment on the planet of Bellerophon, Saffron is able to get them inside because she’s acquired the access code. While they’re preparing to grab The Lassiter, Mal learns why Saffron knows the code: She used to live in that apartment, as the wife of Durran Haymer, who arrives mid-heist, gives her a hug, and calls her “Yolanda.”

Later, after “YoSaffBridge” double-crosses Durran and rockets off with Mal to retrieve The Lassiter from the place where it’s been spirited away, Mal grills her about who she really is, and Our Mrs. Reynolds admits that Mal’s intuition is right, and that she did try to reform and settle down with Durran, only to find the old restlessness and dissatisfaction creeping in, at which point she fled. Of course, this whole sob-story of Saffron’s is her way of getting Mal to let his guard down, so that she can swipe his gun. But I personally don’t think she was lying. I think Saffron’s a reflection of Mal in a lot of ways: someone who doesn’t fit in polite society and doesn’t care to. The difference is that Saffron is an agent of chaos, who’ll do her damage wherever she lands, while Mal is partial to order, so long as it’s on his own terms and “out of the world.”

Chaos can be predictable in its own way though, which is how we end up where we end up in “Trash,” with Inara getting the drop on Saffron and revealing that they’ve been working a sting on her. Sure, Saffron forced Mal to strip and then abandoned him in a desert, which wasn’t strictly part of the plan. But when we see him at the start of the episode saying, “Yep, that went well,” he’s not being ironical. He rode the whirlwind that is Saffron yet again, and made it through safely.

This is as good a place as any to turn it over to you, Donna. Do you buy the ending, and Inara’s place in it? And while I won’t embarrass you by asking you to comment on the allure of the naked Nathan Fillion, I do wonder if it read to you as sexy or silly?

Donna Bowman: I love the ending both as a comeuppance for YoSaffBridge and as a revelation of Inara’s centrality to the Serenity gang’s operations after all. No, it’s not believable that anybody would be able to see that many twists and turns ahead to position Inara there in the desert as the last line of defense. But then, it’s not believable when Saffron exploits Mal’s gloating over reducing her to tears to steal his gun. Believability ain’t the point. Keeping us all off balance and two steps behind the action is the point, because that’s fun. And who cares if the coincidences and triple-crosses strain credulity, when the script is so carefully crafted to bring back Inara for a well-deserved “I told you so,” long after we’ve forgotten the argument that opened the episode?

Color me thrilled about naked Nathan Fillion too, and no, not for reasons of cheap titillation. Often, and I feel certain you’ll back me up on this, nakedness destroys suspension of disbelief because we are thrown back into too-conscious awareness that this is what Actor X or Actress Y looks like without their clothes on, instead of remaining focused on the character’s behavior. In my opinion, the cold open allows us to get that problem out of the way before the story even starts, and when we return to the naked man in the desert, it’s naked Mal Reynolds instead of naked Nathan Fillion.

And I’d also argue that naked Mal Reynolds makes a very important point in the epilogue. He’s been stripped in order to shame him, but when rescued, he makes an enthusiastic—and successful—show of not being embarrassed or shamed in the least. It’s the behavior of a man with nothing to hide, and it’s couched as a counterpoint to duplicitous Saffron on the one hand, who never said or did anything that wasn’t a calculated ploy, and to Jayne on the other, who lies trussed up on Simon’s table hearing the chilling news that he’s utterly safe there. (“Also? I can kill you with my brain,” River murmurs to her erstwhile betrayer.) Jayne’s a simpler sort than Saffron; knowing he’s being watched, knowing his secret is out, does tend to tamp down his villainy. And Mal’s a simpler sort, too. Watch me all you want, his nude entrance into Serenity’s cargo bay says. You can’t change the man I am.

Now as I throw it back to you, Noel, let me mention something that did eat away at my suspension of disbelief. I’m not one to nitpick details of the big heist, but I couldn’t ignore the lax security in the airspace around (as opposed to the buildings on) Haymer’s private floaty island. We’ve been so conditioned by space stations having sensors ‘n’ such that detect ships in the vicinity, that I couldn’t imagine how Serenity could lumber around the underside of the platform reprogramming trash bins without being detected, and it bugged the crap out of me because the whole trash-bin premise was otherwise so cleverly presented. Did anything in this episode—naked people, multiple betrayals, compound security, etc.—trip your credulity circuit breakers and make it hard to maintain the right level of audience involvement?

NM: It did occur to me briefly that Serenity was sure to be seen, hovering around the ass-end of the trash chute, especially after Wash characterizes Bellerophon as the “home to the rich and paranoid.” But then I think that’s part of the point of this episode, that as “trash”—at least by the standards of those tryin’ to get by with the barest necessities of a private floaty island—the crew of the Serenity is easily ignored. I loved watching Mal and Saffron make their way around Durran’s building, which looked not unlike a 21st-century luxury hotel and/or shopping mall. But I also loved that Mal ends up tossed-aside and bare-assed in the middle of nowhere, like some hunk of junk. (Or hunk holding his junk. Whatever.)

No, I’m still thrown by the Inara thing, not because I don’t think Inara would back Mal or that she couldn’t show up in the nick of time, but because the timeline is so confusing. One minute Inara is coaxing Mal into looking for work on a civilized planet—prompting Mal to sarcastically say, “Let’s set a course for the planet of the lonely, rich, yet appropriately hygienic men!”—and the next, Saffron is popping out of the crate where Mal has stowed her. Presumably, before Mal reveals Saffron and her plan to the crew, he tells Inara, “Hey, guess what, that thing you want me to do is already in the works! And you have a secret part to play!” It’s just a little awkward the way it plays out. I felt a little like Wash: “We’re in space! How’d she get here? I don’t recall pullin’ over!” (Also, Mal already having The Lassiter job in play means that the argument between him and Inara isn’t really about anything, which is frustrating because, like I said, this is an argument I think they should be having.)

But you’re right: I don’t want to undersell the fun of “Trash,” even if I don’t think it’s as fun as “Our Mrs. Reynolds” (or “Ariel”). The episode is worth it just for the banter between Mal and Saffron after Monty bails, as in the following:

Mal (while frisking Saffron): I just don’t want you pulling a pistol out of… anywhere.
Saffron: Mmmm. You missed a spot.
Mal: Can’t miss a place you’ve never been.
Saffron: Marriage is hard work, Mal.

It’s also worth it for Simon’s speech to an immobile Jayne about trust, which is shoehorned into the episode a little awkwardly, but serves a purpose nonetheless. Simon clearly has bought into Mal’s philosophy that a crew is its own thing, sharing boons and sharing woes, and that a crew can’t function if one member fears retribution from another. So they must proceed as though Jayne didn’t try to sell them out. And so they work Mal’s petty jobs deep in the black. And so they fill they’re assigned roles, even if that means that some of them get to have thrilling chases on floaty islands, and some of them get to muck about in a dumpster, and some of them get to enjoy an “exciting adventure in sitting.”

According to The A.V. Club review of Objects in Space:

Donna Bowman: By this point in our Firefly saga, I’m not a newbie anymore. Yes, it’s still my first time through; I haven’t seen before what I’m about to watch. But from another perspective, I know too much. I know it’s almost over, and over for good. And that makes me jumpy. Y’all keep talking about a leaf in the wind, and even though I’m skipping over the spoilers, I catch the drift. Something very sad is going to happen. Being a newbie, I don’t know exactly when. But being a viewer after the fact, I know there aren’t many more chances for that something very sad to happen, and I’m bracing myself every single second.

For some reason I got it into my head that the leaf was going to float on the wind in “Objects In Space,” and I was dreading this hour as a result. Right up to the end, where River drifts back to Serenity, Wash stands ready to assist Zoe with the “fearsome brow mopping” as she takes out Simon’s bullet, Jayne and Book hit the weights, and Kaylee starts a game of jacks—I was waiting for the sucker punch. That wariness probably prevented me from enjoying the episode nearly as much as it deserves. But it also heightened my attention to the many pleasures to be found in this rather audacious little “the call is coming from inside the spaceship!” tale of space invasion, as I savored each one thinking it might be the last.

And there is so much to savor. The contrast with “Heart Of Gold” couldn’t be more sharp; if you need a case study for your thesis about what Joss Whedon brings to the table as a writer, just consider the ridiculous wealth of ideas and entertainment in “Objects In Space.” There should be a word for it—ideotainment? Epistetheater? Jubal Early, the bounty hunter who sneaks aboard the ship to snatch River, is a character straight out of Sartre, asserting his right to transform the crew from autonomous humans to simple objects he can direct toward his end, gratifyingly flummoxed when those objects turn the tables and trap him in their gaze. River’s plight and power are starkly poignant, as she accepts her friends’ contention that she’s dangerous but also seizes the chance to craft a meaning for her own existence. The dialogue veers from terrifyingly out of control (Early asking Kaylee if she’s ever been raped) to shockingly amusing (Early misunderstanding Kaylee’s “Are you Alliance?” for “Are you a lion?” and musing “Might as well be, though; I’ve got a mighty roar”).

The backdrop for this philosoventure is a thought experiment. What would happen to our freedom if someone had the psychic power to discern our true selves? Sartre knew his Kierkegaard well. We might decide to feel trapped by the existence of such a power, he says, but in actuality we wouldn’t be—because no matter what message came across those spooky wires, it would still need to be interpreted. It means what you think it means, no more (there’s no permanent, eternal, involuntary meaning to a life), but also no less (there’s no getting away from the necessity of choosing a meaning moment by moment). When she decides to go with Early, River says that she’s leaving so that “people can go on without me, be with the people they want to be with.” Without her there knowing too much, she thinks, her friends will be free.

But Early knows better, in his groping, questioning way. “Is it still her room when it’s empty?” he asks Simon about River’s abandoned sleeping quarters. “Does the room, the thing, have purpose?” Only a mind can attribute purpose to a thing, and that includes the person-things that surround us, who stubbornly, intermittently insist on attributing their own purposes to themselves rather than accepting ours. “If there’s no girl, then the plan is like the room!” Early fumes, finding that his whole reason for being here (perhaps reason for being, full stop) becomes absurdist nonsense without people staying put on the shelves where he’s placed them.

I could fill this whole column with an analysis of existential quotations, mostly from Early. “That ain’t a shepherd,” he says confidently about Book, as if he’s in charge of delineating the species. “People don’t appreciate the substance of things,” he rhapsodizes about the cargo hold. “Does that seem right to you?” he repeats on multiple occasions, a sign that he’d like to appoint himself God and set all those niggling contradictions of the ’verse to rights. But I’ll allow as there might be a few things to say about “Objects In Space” from a perspective other than the philosophy professor’s. Noel, maybe you can lighten the mood with some funny Wash lines about soup and such.

Noel Murray: Well it is always a hoot when River rubs soup in her hair; less so when she tries to blow everybody up. But I’ll save most of the other comical material for the stray observations, where they’ll fit more comfortably. (Or do they fit wherever they’re placed? Does the shape of where I put them change to conform to what they are? Strains the mind a bit, don’t it?)

I will though leave (most of) the philosophizin’ to you, so I can take a moment to admire the audacity of “Objects In Space.” Maybe it’s because I recently watched Joss Whedon’s black-and-white, modern-dress version of Much Ado About Nothing at the Toronto International Film Festival, but this time through “Objects In Space” I was more impressed than ever by Whedon’s resourcefulness, and his willingness to use what he has at his disposal to make something that pleases him. Think about it: After all the new locations and sets and props in “Heart Of Gold,” here’s an episode that’s mostly confined to Serenity, save for one dream sequence and a couple of shots of Early’s ship. And yet it feels much grander. “Objects In Space” is—what’s the word?—imbued with meaning, as Whedon uses this little space show he’s created to ponder the ideas that preoccupy him.

In some ways, this episode is a sequel to—or perhaps a redo of—“The Message,” in that it deals in part with how much we’re responsible for our own actions and the actions of those we influence. When River gets her hands on one of Jayne’s guns at the start of the episode, he’s quick to excuse himself, saying, “Let’s move this conversation in a ‘not-Jayne’s-fault’ direction: I didn’t make her crazy.” And when Kaylee describes how River handled firearms like a pro during the rescue of Wash and Mal a few episodes back, she nervously notes that River acted like she was playing a physics game. (“She just did the math,” Kaylee says.)

But River, to her credit, seems far more willing to own who she is and what she does than any of her friends or enemies are. She knows she’s to blame for Simon’s career being off-track, for example, and she knows the problems she causes Mal and company. Even Early seems to use philosophical remove to let himself off the hook, as he muses about how an engine will die if only one part is removed, and uses “it’s my job” as a justification for hurting people. River, on the other hand, reminds Early that he took this job so that he could exercise his sadism, and that while he may be the sum of all of his influences, he’s still fundamentally what he is. Remove any one part, and Early would still be an engine—just maybe a less effective one.

As for the object that is “Objects In Space,” it’s like Jubal Early’s gun: It has a very pretty design, and it’s functional. (Plus, I like the weight of it.) For all its ponderousness, the episode is still tense and dramatic, with an effective score and some haunting imagery, such as the shot of Early walking along the outside of the ship. It’s also very wry, with funny little asides like Wash’s comment that River’s possible psychic abilities are “like something out of science fiction.” (“You live on a spaceship, dear,” Zoe reminds him.) And maybe it’s because Early and River’s pontifications had me overly aware of everything, but when Jayne woke up in the middle of the action and pulled the blanket away from his armory—only to snuggle up beneath it and go back to sleep—the moment seemed like more than a gag. Sometimes a blanket serves as an armory-cover. And sometimes, it’s a Jayne-cover.

DB: I want to backtrack to the middle of your response, Noel, to pick up a bit of dialogue that resonated much differently after the episode was over. “Nobody can shoot like that who’s a person,” Kaylee says while recounting her experience in “War Stories.” That’s chilling enough when River overhears it; on the basis of freaky abilities she has, personhood might be denied her. What’s left? Objecthood. “We’re all just floating,” in the words of the disembodied voice that starts the episode; “It’s just an object, it doesn’t mean what you think,” in the words echoing in River’s head when she picks up the branch from the cargo bay floor.

Objects aren’t persons because they don’t have decision-making and meaning-making imperatives. But we turn people into objects all the time, whenever we act like their meaning for us is their true and only meaning. That’s how the crew debates treating River (as a dangerous impediment to their lives and mission) and how Early actually treats River (as a treasure somebody wants and is willing to pay for). But objectification doesn’t necessarily translate into a lack of appreciation for the object’s beautiful and functional qualities; just look at how characters throughout the series, Early included, appreciate their guns to the point of fetishization.

Which brings us around to the object that’s most consistently floating in space in this series: Serenity herself. Various members of the crew, and most especially Mal, let their appreciation for the ship shade into personification (the opposite of objectification). When River asserts that she is Serenity “and Serenity’s very unhappy,” she’s revealing an untapped, unappreciated power of persons and objects together: that they can become one. Not a user and his tool, but a user-tool hybrid where the intentionality flows freely throughout. I love the thought that Mal and his crew have so thoroughly inhabited this home that it has taken on their mission. It’s not an object to be repurposed by whoever takes the reins. It’s not just a person-support system, all mechanical and functional. It’s not a design to be appreciated and savored by a connoisseur. She’s imbued.

Oh crap. That’s going to make next week a lot harder to take, isn’t it?

 

The Worst:

The Train Job, War Stories, and Heart of Gold

In little bits:

  • The Train Job wasn’t that eventful;
  • War Stories, though character driven, had it’s initiation in jealousy; and,
  • Heart of Gold really didn’t jive with me too well, as Mal is largely shown to be a total hypocrite.

According to The A.V. Club review of The Train Job:

Noel: Last week’s Firefly review sparked some good discussion in the comments about whether the show is “libertarian” or not, as well as whether it can be read as an unfortunate apologia for the Confederacy. I tend to side with those who think that the show isn’t overtly political in either of those ways, but that it’s merely riffing on genre archetypes that may have had some political implications in the past. Specifically, I like the idea that some of you mentioned of Firefly as a kind of reverse-Star Trek, tracking the lives of the people who weren’t all that pleased when The United Federation Of Planets took over. Ultimately, I think Joss Whedon’s interest in underdogs—combined with his willingness to subvert conventions—means that he and his writers are primarily trying to be true to these characters’ experiences and attitudes. And these characters haven’t been given any reason to respect the feds, any more than Clint Eastwood was given any reason to respect the Union in The Outlaw Josey Wales.

That said, as much as Firefly may be trying to flip Star Trek’s script (affectionately, mind you), the two shows do have at least one thing in common: Star Trekcouldn’t get its original pilot episode on the air right away either.

First episodes of any series can be tricky to finesse. Creators are trying to introduce concepts and establish a tone, while giving the viewers just enough information to entice them to return—without spilling so much that there’s nothing more to say in the weeks to come. (Writing these weekly reviews can be similarly challenging; I could’ve easily penned 10,000 words on Firefly last week, but then I would’ve had to spend the next few months saying, “See column one.”) In the case of Star Trek, NBC rejected the original pilot “The Cage” for having a tone the network felt was too dry, snooty, and potentially off-putting to TV viewers; so creator Gene Roddenberry retooled and came back with something more action-packed (and with some major casting changes, mostly necessitated by the long layoff between shooting the two pilots). Firefly received the same kind of “notes” on its pilot from Fox, so Whedon and his top Firefly henchman Tim Minear quickly wrote a new script to satisfy the network’s demands for more derring-do and less woe-is-me.

Certainly it’d be hard to argue that “The Train Job” lacks action, on balance anyway. The episode’s big setpiece is a grand cargo heist, which sees Serenityracing alongside a speeding locomotive. Frankly, the scene is so thrilling that it throws the rest of the episode out of whack. Once you’ve seen Jayne dangling from a grappling hook in a funny hat—“Time for some thrilling heroics,” he boasts—it’s hard to adjust expectations once “The Train Job” then settles into a much calmer story about Mal and Zoe being detained in the sad little mining town of Paradiso.

That said, it helps a bunch that Paradiso’s Sheriff Bourne is played by one of my favorite character actors, Gregg Henry. (Anyone who’s in Brian De Palma’s stock company is okay by me.) And it helps too that the episode pivots on Mal’s crisis of conscience, as he realizes that the cargo Serenity stole from the hovertrain is actually medicine, needed by the people of the unnaturally terraformed Pardadiso to fight the resultant bone-and-muscle-destroying disease known as Bowden’s Malady. So while the captain and his second are pretending to be innocent newlyweds looking for work, they’re also trying to find a way to get back to Serenity before it takes off without them, so that they can offload the medicine to the people who need it. Mal may be a thief, but he’s not a villain.

Because I watched Firefly originally in its Sci-Fi Channel run, I saw the series in its intended order, so I have no idea how “The Train Job” would’ve played for me if it had been the first episode I’d seen. From my perspective, it’s a pretty impressive salvage job, and even moreso when you factor in how quickly it was written. “The Train Job” does effectively reintroduce Firefly’s characters and premise, while throwing us directly into a story that does combine western motifs with science fiction. This kind of “in medias res” is so rare with TV pilots that I don’t think Whedon’s compromise with Fox was to the show’s detriment. This episode works as a “chapter two,” and it works as a very different kind of pilot. I still prefer thereal first episode, but I do wish more shows would jump right into the action the way that “The Train Job” does.

Donna, what do you think?

Donna: “The Train Job” does suffer from reintroduction disease in places (“Hey, your coat is kind of a brownish color!”). At the risk of heresy, however, I like that we don’t have another flashback to The Battle Of Serenity Valley, or worse, a soliloquy where Mal stares into the bottom of a shot glass and recounts its significance. The in medias res approach of “The Train Job” as a series opener probably works better for those of us who’ve seen the prequel, as it were; we’re getting to have our cake and eat it too. But I’ve always liked stories that plunk me down in a narrative in progress and trust me to figure out what’s going on while it’s going on. That’s the way we all experience life, after all. None of us get to see the back-story before we begin.

And so the need to establish Mal and Inara’s sexual tension leads to a much funnier scene than the equivalent one in “Serenity:” “What did I say to you about barging into my shuttle?” Inara demands, and Mal croons, “That it was manly and impulsive?” The relationship pays off in “The Train Job,” too, in a way it doesn’t in “Serenity,” with Inara showing up in Paradiso and throwing her Companion prestige around both to save Mal and put him in his place. It’s impossible to give all the character bits as much heft as they got in the two-hour pilot, though, so we barely get any sense of Wash and Zoe’s connection (other than the former shouting to Jayne that they’re not leaving his wife behind). Nor is the relationship between Kaylee and Inara, not to mention Kaylee’s crush on Simon, as well handled in this shorter format.

But River comes off a lot better than the shivering former occupant of the box that she had to be in “Serenity.” We see an intriguing combination of trauma, gibberish (that will inevitably turn out to be more meaningful than it seems to her shipmates currently), and lucidity. And Jayne gets an even better showcase than the glowerfest in which he indulged in “Serenity,” partly because for most of the episode he’s not being brought to heel by his captain. Instead he gets to assert a different, more pragmatic, less sentimental version of Serenity’s mission and of its band of misfits. I respect that, and I think it makes him a better series antagonist (or maybe loyal opposition) than the “is he a villain or isn’t he?” plotline of “Serenity.”

I have a hard time believing that one of those network notes was “make the political analogues with classic Westerns more explicit,” and yet “The Train Job” makes a far better case for that libertarianism or Confederate “states’ rights” position than “Serenity” did. “I’m thinking we will rise again?” “Unite all the planets under one rule so they can all be interfered with equally?” Lines like that give a lot of ammunition to folks who might want to find a Stars-And-Bars hidden in the cargo hold.

But these aren’t proof texts for some kind of racist or survivalist agenda—not by a long shot. They’re references to the passion for self-determination and economic freedom that motivated acknowledged heroes of the wrong side of The War Between The States and the outlawed loners who fled west to escape its aftermath. Now, you and I happen to be Southerners born and bred, and although our families never cottoned to resentful anti-Yankee rhetoric, we grew up respecting Robert E. Lee as one of America’s great tragic heroes, and believing that although the cause was not just, many of the men who fought for it were. Maybe that’s why I think it’s entirely possible to see Captain Reynolds in that same light. Or am I imagining distinctions where none exist?

Noel: No, I see the distinctions too. The individualism that Firefly celebrates is both a callback to a certain type of historical and cultural hero and an extension of Whedon’s interest in characters who forge their own path in societies that keep trying to distract them with busywork. In “Serenity,” Captain Mal warns, “You depend on luck, you end up on the drift,” but he could’ve just as easily put “the established order” or “religious faith” in the place of “luck,” given his worldview.

One of the questions then that Firefly raises is whether a personal philosophy is as reliably righteous as an organized, shared code of values and behavior. One of the other ways that “The Train Job” is so effective at reintroducing the show’s premise is in the way it keeps teasing out Mal’s roguishness, along with that of his crew. When Book starts appealing to Mal’s softheartedness regarding River Tam, Mal grumbles, “Shouldn’t you be off bringing religiosity to the fuzzy-wuzzies or some such?” Meanwhile, Jayne is convinced that Mal’s whole sheltering of the Tams is part of a larger, strictly self-serving “move.” Then there’s the matter of the heist. The crew talks so casually about their wickedness.“Take us out of the world, Wash,” Mal says. “Got us some crime to be done.” And even Kaylee cheerfully answers, “Oh, crime!” when Simon asks, “What are we doing?” during the hovertrain caper. Yet Book eventually does push Mal to admit that he’s looking after the Tams because, “It’s the right thing to do.” And when he finds out about the medicine that Paradiso needs, Mal doesn’t even entertain Sheriff Bourne’s suggestion that a man has a choice to make in such a situation.“I don’t believe he does,” Mal says. Is that just his lapsed Christianity maintaining a hold? Or can Mal really be a crook and a hero?

So again, while I personally don’t think that Firefly needed a second first episode, I do admire how much of the show’s depth and quirks “The Train Job” is able to put across. Heck, a lot of it is there just in the opening scene, in which Mal, Zoe, and Jayne are playing Chinese checkers on Unification Day, and apparently waiting for any staunch Alliance supporter to mouth off so that they honor the anniversary with a brawl. When the fisticuffs inevitably occur, they’re both funny (as when Mal baits his prey while Zoe maneuvers behind him) and telling about who these characters are (as when Jayne asks, “What month is it?” and refuses to fight because he had any personal stake in either side of the war). Add in the digital window that Mal gets thrown through, and the planets on the horizon, and the first five minutes of “The Train Job” really sets up this universe, on a big and small scale.

The episode is well-plotted too: with the introduction of the cruel crime boss Adelei Niska, whom we know won’t take kindly to Mal backing down from the job he was hired to do; and with the way that Simon has to drug Jayne to prevent the bruiser from commandeering the ship and jetting off in Mal and Zoe’s absence; and the way that Inara’s lie to Sheriff Bourne that Mal is her man-slave gets him free, but at the cost of some dignity. The story then culminates in a showdown with Niska’s hulking enforcer “Crow,” who gets shot by a woozy Jayne and then kicked into an engine by Mal when he refuses to cooperate. (Cut immediately to: Another henchman, who acquiesces to whatever Mal asks.)

Donna: Let’s take a moment to appreciate the Whedon wit that’s exemplified in that “cut immediately to.” What makes Whedon’s work special is the way stuff that matters gets leavened with characters who are genuinely fun to be around, not just because they’re quip machines, but because the creator lets them be as amused by their circumstances as we are. I love the ever-so-slightly meta touch of having characters talk about space-this and space-that, as if they were in a B-movie from the 1950s, but with ironic awareness that seems to come from a culture that hasn’t been thoroughly lived in and figured out yet: “Tragic space dementia, all paranoid and crotchety,” Mal tsk-tsks.

The example to which you point, the second henchman who is only too eager to carry Mal’s message back to Niska, shows Whedon’s commitment to the button of a scene—carrying it one or two steps beyond both the plot point and the dramatic emotion, giving us character information by showing how everyone reacts to the moment and maybe changing the meaning of it in the process. “So… would his job be open?” Mal queries the sheriff who has just exploded his cover story by explaining that the man he’s supposedly come to see for work died several months ago. Commitment to the bit on Mal’s part, a release from the tension of the moment on ours, but also a view of Mal’s modus operandi: never say die, make a way out of no way, throw everything you’ve got at the situation and see what sticks. The fun I’m anticipating from Firefly is seeing how this downmarket, wrong-side-of-the-law version of Captain Kirk gets his five-year mission accomplished when the rules exist largely in his head instead of in a prime directive.

Noel: Even more than “Serentity,” “The Train Job” ends with a lot still at stake. Simon has annoyed Jayne. Mal has infuriated Niska. River’s still a ticking time bomb, with two blue-handed government agents on her trail. The crew has a good deal of success in this episodes, but the repercussions for their actions have been merely delayed, not defused. There will come a reckoning.

According to The A.V. Club review of War Stories:

Donna Bowman: All the best science fiction understands that genre trappings are not at the heart of the stories being told. Science fiction is about human relationships, just like all fiction, whether any recognizable humans appear in it or not. I’m impressed by the way “War Stories” embodies this truth. Despite the gory spectacle of Niska torturing our heroes, and the action beats of the space station shootout, the episode remains firmly focused on the way Wash perceives the unstable triangle of himself, his wife, and their captain. Another reason to love “War Stories,” of course, is that the proper noun in that last clause is “Wash.” It’s exhilarating to see that character and the inestimable Alan Tudyk getting a big showcase.

We last saw the sadistic gangster Niska getting bested by the Serenity crew in “The Train Job.” Now his minions have detected evidence of a Firefly-class vessel hiding on the other side of the planet from Niska’s space station, and even though he’s annoyed at being interrupted in the middle of carving up somebody who skimmed from his protection fund, he’s thrilled by the prospect of revenge on Mal Reynolds for tossing one of his employees into a spaceship engine. For their part, the Serenity crew came to this planet to convert some of their stolen medical supplies into cash, and Mal insists that they not try any funny stuff to cut out middlemen and try to make a bigger killing: “We got enemies enough as it is.”

But Wash grumbles that his scheme of going directly to doctors never made it to Mal’s ears, Zoe shutting it down while using the captain’s position as an excuse. And he’s fuming about the things Mal and Zoe share—the camaraderie of the trenches, the intimacy of dangerous missions—that he never can. So he rigs the shuttle so that Zoe can’t fly it, and substitutes himself on the trip to meet the buyers. Which would be a milk run if not for Niska’s commandos who kill the buyers and snatch Mal and Wash for a session of painful electric shocks.

Wash acts out his jealousy in a wonderfully backward way. Instead of trying to replace Mal in Zoe’s life, he tries to replace Zoe in Mal’s life! Envious of the “wacky stories with rib cages in them” that Zoe and Mal share, he could have come back with some inside jokes and meaningful memories stemming from their marriage bond. But since he “can’t stand the thought of something happening that will cause the two of you to come back with another thrilling tale of bonding and adventure,” he sends Zoe back to the ship and sets off to have his own adventure with the captain. One might question with which relationship he’s most concerned—his marriage, or his chain of command.

Both sides of the equation are satisfied with an impeccable comic touch. Zoe unhesitatingly chooses to save her husband rather than her captain (Niska is just gearing up for his Sophie’s-choice speech when she interrupts by pointing at Wash: “Him… I’m sorry, you were going to ask me to choose, you wanna finish?”). And Wash falls head over heels in love with Mal because of the captain’s “crazy” commitment to keep the pilot from breaking under torture by pressing the argument over Zoe between electric shocks. Niska’s devotion to the methods of Shan Yu (“Tie him up and hold him over the volcano’s edge, and on that day, you will finally meet the man”) ends up revealing Mal to Wash instead of to the gangster—and Wash finally meets the Mal that earned Zoe’s undying loyalty under fire.

And that’s only the main plot! Elsewhere in this episode, Kaylee learns something new about River, Inara spends quality time with an unusual client, and questions arise about why there are so many apples in the galley. I might ask the same question of you, Noel: Why are there so many apples in this episode?

Noel Murray: Why are there so many apples in this episode? They, and the ribs in Zoe’s story, are symbolic of the Edenic innocence of… nah, I’m just yankin’ ya. The apples are there because fresh fruit is precious in this time and place—and “healthsome” to boot—and Jayne feels guilty, so he buys a crate for the galley, to alleviate his conscience a bit. It’s a simple as that.

There is something interesting going on in this episode though, in regard to gender roles. I can’t say that I’ve ever been that wild about the Inara subplot in this episode, which sees her entertaining a politician who turns out to be—gasp!—a woman. I don’t have a problem with the titillation factor there; I just find the scenes between Inara and The Councillor boring. That said, it does tie in with the rest of “War Stories,” given that the fluid sexuality of the 2500s—and the acceptance thereof—may go hand-in-hand with the willingness of men and women to take on different responsibilities than they generally do in our society. (“One cannot always be oneself in the company of men,” Inara admits to The Councillor.)

I could go further and say there’s a bit of thematic meaning to the Kaylee/River scenes you mention. At the start of the episode, Kaylee and River are running around like little girls, with Kaylee snatching an apple back that River stole from her, saying, “No power in the ’verse can stop me.” At the end of the episode, the ladies have gone to war alongside Zoe, Wash, Jayne, Book, and Simon, storming Niska’s skyplex to free Mal, and during the melee, River grabs Kaylee’s gun and shoots three guards dead with three shots—without even really looking. (“No power in the ’verse can stop me,” she smiles.) She’s taken on a new role: from skittish, silly kid to warrior-woman.

Obviously though this episode mainly means us to take the measure of Wash and Mal, as “men” in the traditional sense of the word. The plot of this episode kicks in after Wash says to Zoe, “What this marriage needs is one less husband,” and it ends with her feeding him what he calls “wife soup,” after he spearheads the big raid. In between he refers to himself as a “large, semi-muscular man,” and talks about how “there’s a certain motto… a creed among folks like us,” like he’s some kind of big damn hero. But Wash also pesters Mal on their trip like the dopey little brother that their mom has insisted has to tag along. “Are we gonna sing Army songs or somethin’?” he asks, like some kind of a smart-ass; and later, after saying that he’ll learn Zoe’s job as he goes, Wash whines, “So now I’m learning about carrying,” and then, “Now I’m learning about scary.” He’s a work in progress, our Wash, is all I’m saying, daring raid or not.

But as mentioned, Mal’s “maleness” is under scrutiny here too. In addition to the Inara scenes, I’ve never much liked the scene in “War Stories” where Mal and Wash snipe at each other about Zoe while Niska is electrocuting them, because it goes on for a long time and is painful to watch. But the payoff for the scene is deeply moving. Mal’s baiting Wash to give him something else to focus on besides the pain of torture, and after Zoe buys Wash’s freedom, he tells her what Mal did, choking up a little. Zoe, of course, is not a bit surprised. She knows Mal’s a good dude; and he’s a practical dude, who knows what makes sense in a crisis. (When Zoe tells Jayne to let Mal fight his way free, saying it’s something he needs to do for himself, a panicked Mal says, “No! No it’s not!”)

The real question is: Which version of Manly Mal do we like best? The big brother who’s watching out for us? The rakish romantic who promises Inara that he’s over his sword-fighting phase? Or the suburban TV dad who snaps at River and Kaylee, “One of you is gonna fall and die and I’m not cleanin’ it up!”?

DB: There’s at least one more Mal: The terrifying and violent force of nature who growls “You wanna meet the real me now?” before taking his revenge on Niska. I agree with you that the torture is lengthy and difficult to watch, but I’d argue that it’s necessary to give sufficient weight and consequence to the marital and quasi-marital spats. Niska admits that Mal is a remarkable person, but doesn’t have any clue how remarkable, because he’s never met (and would never have imagined the existence of) a person who prioritizes principle over self-preservation. Usually we see that kind of person in heroic or self-sacrificial settings, and we’ve been there with Mal in previous episodes. But here we witness it in extremis: What happens to that person when their slimy, oily opposite is at their mercy, and when the anger of being misjudged and taken advantage of has had a chance to boil over?

We had a discussion in the comments last week about this same phenomenon, asking whether Mal really intended to blow Jayne out the airlock. I confess that I never thought he did, that he was hoping to hear something that could trigger mercy. But here we are looking at the “real Mal,” unrelenting in his murderous anger, and the cause seems similar (if far, far slimier), making me rethink that assessment. I hadn’t thought it was particularly praiseworthy of Mal to be fed up with Jayne, no matter what the aggravating factors of personal and community betrayal. The question at this extreme, though, may not be what’s principled—it’s what one is pushed to.

That said, this bloodthirsty “real Mal” almost immediately ceases to conform to heroic-outlaw stereotypes when he welcomes Zoe’s intervention in his fight to the death with Niska’s torture master. A scene later, he’s admitting that he has “regrets” about not killing Niska, and we don’t know if they’re practical (Niska escaped) or principled (they didn’t pursue him). Fascinating character, this “real man.” Shan Yu’s dictum implies that underneath our layers of civilization, routine, history, and cognition, there is something simple: an animal fighting to survive. Niska says that he’s met the extraordinary man out of time that is Malcolm Reynolds, but expects to find something far more basic and real with one more layer of suffering. All the evidence we see, though, is that the real Mal has many facets, not just one; that he’s complex, not simple.

There’s another past comment of mine that I have to rethink: the one about Mal “playing captain.” The grim torture scenes could have been designed to illustrate that there’s no playacting about it. Yet fast-forward to the epilogue, and there’s another Mal making a show of taking Wash at his word by steeling himself to take Zoe to bed: “I know it’s a difficult mission, but you and I have to get it on.” And that brings us around full circle to our Zoe, who’s surely never been more kickass and charming than in this episode where she’s unfairly relegated to “other woman” status: “I understand. We have no choice. Take me, sir. Take me hard.”

According to The A.V. Club review of Heart of Gold:

Noel Murray: Outside of “The Train Job,” “Heart Of Gold” may be the most Western-y of Firefly’s little Space Westerns, to such a degree that the science-fiction elements almost seem superfluous. Sure, the crew of Serenity arrive on a remote planet in their spaceship, where they offer to help a pregnant woman whose baby’s parentage has been determined by futuristic technology; and sure, the baby’s father leads a siege on the pregnant women’s home with laser guns. But everything else about this story—that the woman is a prostitute, that the house is a brothel, and that the epic gunfight takes place on a dusty landscape—could be transported almost verbatim to a movie or TV show set in the American frontier in the 1870s or some such.

It’s apt though to talk about how to define Firefly—western or sci-fi?—in the context of an episode that to a degree is about definitions. It’s Inara who asks for Mal’s help with the pregnant prostitute, Petaline (played by Tracy Leah Ryan), because Petaline works for Inara’s old friend Nandi (Melinda Clarke); and it’s Inara who tells Mal plainly that Nandi and Petaline are “whores,” not “companions.” They’re not part of The Guild; they’re out on the frontier, doing their own thing, and as a result they’re vulnerable to the pressures of men like Rance Burgess, the wealthy brute who wants to claim the kid he made with Petaline.

Nandi’s outlaw status also makes her more compatible with Mal, at least in comparison to the prissy Inara, who accepts Nandi’s distress call and then gives Mal a withering look when he says, “This distress wouldn’t happen to be taking place in someone’s pants, would it?” Later, back in Big Damn Hero mode, Mal says that he’ll help Petaline out and won’t charge a penny, though Inara insists on covering the costs, so that it won’t muddy up their business relationship. (There’s that concern with definitions again.) So the crew descends on the bordello—with Jayne all duded up and ready for sexing—and while Simon attends to Petaline, everyone else fortifies the establishment and prepares for a shootout with Burgess. And while they wait, Mal and Nandi draw closer, and enjoy a night of passion together, even though she can see that he’s smitten with Inara. What Nandi doesn’t realize is that the feelings are reciprocated, and when Inara sees Mal sneaking out of Nandi’s room in the morning, she tells him she approves of their dalliance, and then slips off to a private corner to weep.

Superficially at least, the main action in “Heart Of Gold” comes next, as the episode cross-cuts between Petaline giving birth, Wash and Kaylee dealing with some of Burgess’ men aboard Serenity, and Mal and company blasting away at Burgess from Nandi’s windows. But the real action occurs at the end, after Nandi gets killed, and an emotional Mal decides that life’s too short not to tell Inara how he feels. But before he can blurt it out, Inara cuts him off and announces that she’s come to realize—through Nandi’s cautionary example—that close relationships can be a trap. And so she’s leaving.

This undoubtedly would’ve been a more important moment in the history ofFirefly had the show not ended after only one more episode (plus the movie). But even though the originally intended arc of this love story is now left mostly to the fans’ imagination—and even though I have some qualms about this episode that I’ll table for a moment—I do like how this one decision from Inara crystallizes who she is. Mal, like Burgess, “makes a distinction between legality and morality.” But Inara needs rules, and rituals, especially to do what she does for a living. I commented casually last week that I thought Inara’s clients were getting shortchanged by her constantly being thrown off schedule by Serenity’s adventures. I had forgotten that this was actually a key part of Inara’s character arc, her deciding to leave the crew because her sentimental attachments were bad for business.

Donna Bowman: I’m going to have to go right for those qualms, I’m afraid. My reaction to “Heart Of Gold” was pure schizophrenia. Loved the setup. Hated the interminable gun battle. (It’s like writer Brett Matthews and director Thomas J. Wright forgot that genre clichés are to be invoked in order to elevate or transform them, not to methodically and wearily reenact them.) Was shocked into alertness when Mal succumbed to Nandi’s invitation. Found the actual soft-focus night-of-passion stuff disappointingly cloying and predictable. Then, finally, was moved by the epilogue’s twist when Mal almost confesses and Inara decides to flee.

That epilogue feels like it belongs to a completely different episode. There’s a rawness and honesty to it that contrasts sharply with all the business that buries the rest of the hour. What bothers me most about “Heart Of Gold” is how big it tries to be, and how small it therefore ends up seeming. The camera lingers on the hovercar effect as if to say “see what a sophisticated science-fiction show we’ve got here!”, and the whores’ solar-powered house is such a point of pride for the creative team that the many establishing shots of it are buttressed by defensive dialogue about how it’s not silly at all. But it is silly—all of it. The house looks like it’s been covered with space aluminum foil. The hovercar is show-offy at a distance, cheap plywood close up. (I do like Reese’s sheepskin seat cover, though; that’s a nice touch.) The villain’s laser gun is such a prop-tastic mess than even the “Check Batteries” joke thuds. And the straining isn’t just limited to the set dressing and effects. All the slow-motion stunt photography of guys being shot off horses seemed like a boring concession to inevitability rather than a loving homage to the grand tradition of frontier last stands.

I can’t not feel for Inara and Mal in that epilogue, though; they’ve earned their emotional crisis over the whole season. Good thing, because they didn’t earn it here, and it would have been crushing for a scene like that to come off as false. When Inara runs away after congratulating Mal on taking advantage of Nandi, I can tell that the creative team wants me to see that she’s devastated. But her weepy collapse is so inelegant, so by-the-numbers, that I couldn’t help wondering in the moment whether there was some other cause of her distress that I had missed. Inara melting down because Mal had a fling with her whore-friend? It doesn’t seem in character, for one thing; she’s supposed to have control of her emotions, so wouldn’t a crack in the armor be so much more effective than a full-scale swoon? And I love Morena Baccarin, bless her heart, but she can’t sell it. Not that I blame her. She should never have been asked to.

I’m not upset about these failures of imagination on aesthetic principle. I’m angry that the next-to-last episode of this scant, abbreviated, wonderful series is so marred by pedestrian conceptualizing. I’m not trying to hate on “Heart Of Gold”; there are plenty of wonderful moments I’d never trade, like Wash reassuring Kaylee about her prettiness as if he’s had to fulfill this role many times before: “Were I unwed, I’d take you in a manly fashion.” But this close to the end, its substitution of the expected for the ambitious kinda breaks my heart.

NM: Oh, I hear you, honey. I all but checked out during the long shootout. And you didn’t even mention the birth scene, which… well, has there ever been a good birth scene on a TV show? I do take issue though with your beefs about the pretensions of grandeur in “Heart Of Gold.” I was thinking to myself throughout this episode that after so many budget-conscious stories set largely aboardSerenity, it was nice to see so many different locations, many of them dressed up with pieces of technology and bits of local color.

I also think you’re shortchanging the Mal/Nandi scenes, however blandly Red Shoe Diaries-esque the actual consummation is. Prior to the whoopee, their long conversation is full of funny exchanges: Her asking, “You’re not sly, are ya?;” him wondering if she was kicked out of the companion profession because she killed a dulcimer in a terrible passion; her describing how she “trucked out to the border, learned to say ‘ain’t;’” him pausing after they kiss, saying, “Just waitin’ to see if I pass out.” Like I said, I find it interesting how much more compatible Mal and Nandi are than Mal and Inara. But the heart wants what it wants, as they say.

There’s more to the Wash/Kaylee chemistry too than just the “‘cause you’re pretty” scene. Though the bordello standoff is fairly flat, the simultaneous defense of Serenity is a lot of fun, both because we see how the now-battle-tested Wash responds to a crisis, and because of the little gag where he mistakenly ends up in the engine room rather than the bridge. (Though I did roll my eyes at Wash trying to bait Burgess’ men and drawing fire in the process. The poor aim of bad guys in situations like that is even more played-out than birth scenes.)

But I’m not going to pretend that “Heart Of Gold” is top-tier Firefly. It’s not that bad overall, but it is probably the series’ weakest episode. If nothing else, it’s bothersome that this is the second episode in a row where the “old friend” ends up getting killed. (The pain is calling, oh, Nandi.) If the series had continued, would the “old friend” have become Firefly’s version of the “red shirt?”

Anyway, I mainly just don’t want you to despair. Because we’re through the rough skies. Our remaining two weeks—“Objects In Space” and Serenity—are going to be beautiful.

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5 thoughts on “The Best and Worst of Firefly

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