Oh what would you do if my catalyzer blew?
Would you turn off life support on me?
Lend me your eyes, and I’ll show you a tale,
Of how the crew got aboard Serenity.
Oh we get by with a little help from a friend,
And we know that there are spoilers below.
The Firefly re-watch begins again,
It sure is a shiny ol’ show!
Serenity is dead in space. No lights, no one aboard as far as we can see. Then Mal, stumbling and gasping for breath in the cargo hold, falls down and hears the voice of the salesman who sold him Serenity. Light crosses his face, and a younger Mal and Zoe walk into the ship, where Mal is proud of what he sees and Zoe is skeptical.
MAL: She is solid. Ship like this: be with you ‘til the day you die.
ZOE: ‘Cause it’s a death trap.
Mal continues to press the case for becoming an independent privateer, mainly the freedom to be their own masters. Back in the present, Mal struggles to move, and we see that he is bleeding from a gut wound.
Mal does manage to get up, though, and he grabs an engine part and struggles towards the lounge. The screen pans to earlier, when the crew is at dinner and laughing over a story Book is telling about another shepherd. Wash shows up late, where he complains about being left out while he works, but at least Zoe saved him some food. Mal inquires if they have their course set, and Wash confirms that, with some creative navigating, he has them going to their next stop as far from anyone as possible, even though it has turned an eighteen hour trip into a week-long mosey.
Kaylee gets up to do something in the kitchen, and Simon starts to get up to help, but she stops him, saying he has to tell them a funny story about being a doctor. He tries to oblige but fails miserably. Before he can even get into the meat of his story, Jayne cuts him off, saying he bets that Inara has some “funny whoring stories.” She taunts Jayne, saying she does, but declines to tell any, claiming client confidentiality. Zoe interrupts, getting Simon to look behind him, where Kaylee has brought a birthday cake out for him. Simon is moved and asks how they knew, and Mal reveals that a fresh bulletin for his arrest came out and had his birthday on it. That dampens the mood a bit, but Simon picks back up and starts to blow out the candles. As he does, the power on the ship flutters and there is an odd sound. Kaylee goes to look at the engine while Wash goes to the helm. River calmly says “Fire,” and Simon leans back to blow out the candles. At that moment, the engine explodes.
Zoe barely manages to push Kaylee out of the way but is knocked unconscious by the blast. Wash rushes back to help Zoe, and Mal closes the hatch to engineering. He then orders Jayne to seal off everything that leads below decks and remotely pops the main cargo bay door, sucking all the air out of that part of the ship and extinguishing the fire.
Back in the blue present, Mal struggles along into the lounge and goes into the infirmary, one hand to his gut wound and the other firmly holding the part. Back in the flashback, the crew hurries Zoe into the infirmary and Simon looks for damage. There is no burning, so it is probably an internal injury. Kaylee is nervously watching outside, worried over Zoe and feeling guilty, and Mal gives her firm but semi-gentle encouragement to go up to the engine and get it back up and running.
Mal then orders Wash to the bridge. Wash balks at the order, demanding that he stay by his wife, but Mal is much rougher than he was with Kaylee, and he manhandles Wash. Wash, very put out, goes to the bridge.
In a flashback, Wash, who has a rockin’ 70’s porn ‘stache, is looking over the helm of Serenity and commenting about how he’ll be able to get the ship up and running. Mal is excited that Wash agrees to be the pilot, but Zoe is not pleased, stating that she doesn’t like him. Mal tries to allay her dislike about “something,” saying Wash has a list of recommendations as long as his leg. In the discussion, Mal comments they have a genius mechanic, and some scrawny California surfer stereotype appears from no where and basks in the praise.
Back in the past, Simon has to inject Zoe’s heart with pure adrenaline to get it beating again, and then in the present Mal is bandaging his gut wound as best he can then injects adrenaline into his own heart.
In the past, Kaylee shows up in the infirmary to talk to Mal, who is alone and looking over Zoe. They go back out to the lounge, where Kaylee reveals what happened:
KAYLEE: Catalyzer on the port compression coil blew. That’s where the trouble started.
MAL: OK, I need that in captain dummy talk, Kaylee.
KAYLEE: We’re dead in the water.
Mal again gives her encouraging words, but Kaylee gives him a look and then reveals just how much worse it actually is. Main life support is down, and the explosion blew out the auxiliary. The aren’t getting any more air than what they have in the cabin right now, and they blew a lot of that to put out the fire. At most, they have a couple hours.
Inara shows up to talk to Simon, inquiring after Zoe, and Simon says she is stable, and will likely outlive everyone else as she is using the least oxygen. Simon laments about their predicament and not wanting to die on the ship, and Inara reveals how she loved Serenity from the moment she first stepped foot on it. Simon continues to be a Debbie Downer, depressed about how it is his birthday.
In Book’s cabin, he is reading the Bible, and River shows up. She comments about how the Bible says to not be afraid, then that Book is afraid nonetheless. She continues, saying that he is afraid that they will run out of air and die gasping, then assures him that it won’t happen. He looks up at her with hope, and she says that they will freeze to death first. Book’s hope is extinguished.
Mal appears on the bridge and asks Wash if they got the beacon running. Wash confirms, then rants about how it is useless because of the remote course he plotted them. Mal takes the attitude poorly and tries to be optimistic. Wash continues to be pessimistic, and they get into an argument where Mal suggests something Wash could be doing to make the signal go further, and even after Wash realizes that it’s a good idea, they yell at each other in an agreeing argument. Jayne shows up and calls them on the stupidity of arguing during a crisis, although his true motive is that they are wasting oxygen with their yelling.
Back in the present, Mal struggles up stairs and towards the engine room. A voice announces the immanent failure of the life support due to low oxygen levels. Back in a flashback, Mal marches into the engine room yelling at Bester (the surfer mechanic) about another delay. As it happens, he walks in on Bester being intimate with a local girl. Bester finally hears Mal’s calls and gets his pants up, and when Mal drills him about the delay in getting the engine running, Bester makes lame excuses. The girl, who turns out to be Kaylee, completely shows Bester up, fixing the engine with a small touch when Bester was claiming the thing was completely inoperable. Mal offers her the mechanic job for as long as she wants and can keep the ship in the sky. He fires Bester.
Back in the past, Kaylee is in engineering, looking at the busted part and lamenting how she can’t fix it. Mal tries to pep talk her and has her show him where the broken part is supposed to go. He keeps telling her to just “fix it” and she insists that it is beyond repair.
Back in the present, Mal takes the new part and stumbles into the engine room, desperately trying to hook it into place. His oxygen deprivation and wound have made him clumsy, though, and he butterfingers it into the space below the engine.
In the past, Mal addresses the crew, who has put on extra clothing to stay warm. He reveals his plan to have them split into the two shuttles and go opposite directions in hope of finding someone and living longer on the limited life support functionality in them. He will stay behind and wait for the hopeful answer to the distress signal. Wash rigs up a recall signal for Mal to send to the shuttles if someone comes along.
Inara follows after Mal as the others prep and begs him to not “go down with his ship.” Mal protests that the ship won’t go down, then gives Inara pointers for dealing with Jayne and talks to her about the lease on the shuttle, ignoring her protests.
In a flashback, Mal opens the shuttle to let Inara look at it for the first time. She is less than impressed. Mal tries to bargain with her, even using another potentially interested party. She then makes her “caveats” of leasing known: complete autonomy and privacy, she won’t service the crew, she will be able to keep her appointments. Mal tries to be business savvy, saying he’ll let her know, and she flat out tells him to not be ridiculous because he will rent her the shuttle and at less than he is asking. In exchange, he gets the prestige of having a companion on board. Mal tries to call her out for picking a ship like Serenity, as it seems suspicious, but to no avail, although he drops a “whore” insult. She then adds that he doesn’t get to call her a “whore” to her caveats. He agrees.
Back in the present, Mal tries to make his goodbyes, and but Inara makes a final plea for him to come along.
INARA: Mal, you don’t have to die alone.
MAL: Everybody dies alone.
On the bridge, Wash explains to Mal how to bring the shuttles back. Mal gives him leave to go tend to Zoe, and they part without saying goodbye. In the cargo hold, Jayne advises Mal of some survival tricks, and also says that he’s prepped a suit for Mal to give him a little extra time. Again, they part without saying goodbye. The shuttles take off, and Mal walks up to the bridge, closing the doors behind him to try and buy some time. He sits down at the helm, wraps up in a blanket, and waits.
Some time later, Mal is woken up by an answer to his signal but misses it. Outside, a salvage ship pulls up, and Mal fully wakes up. He talks to the other captain, who says that he can’t give Mal a ride, as he doesn’t know him. Mal asks after the part he needs, and the captain doubts that is the problem, but Mal explains how the part is important when you don’t have one. Still, the captain is suspicious, thinking this might be a ruse. Mal details all the signs that show he’s telling the truth, and the captain finally relents and they decide they can do business.
An airlock is extended, and the other crew shows the engine part through the door before Mal opens it. Of course, soon as he does, he is held at gunpoint. The captain puts a shoot-to-kill order for anyone else on the ship, and Mal says he thought they were going to be reasonable about it.
In a flashback, a thug is holding Mal and Zoe at gunpoint and laughing at the concept of being reasonable. To the thug’s side is Jayne, also holding a gun. Jayne makes some rather pathetic attempts at clever remarks to Mal and Zoe, and Mal then talks him into switching sides for a better deal on Mal’s crew. Oddly, a room to himself seems more inviting than a large cut of the job.
Back in the past, the other crew verifies that it is only that part that is needed to fix the ship, but for some reason don’t actually put it in themselves. Mal tells them to take whatever they want as “fair payment” for the part, and they shoot Mal, saying they are taking the ship. He struggles his way over to where he has hidden a gun and manages to force them off the ship while leaving the part. The captain says Mal would have done the same thing, and Mal says it is already obvious that he has not. Mal then falls over back to the opening scene, and the salvage ship flies away.
Mal struggles to retrieve the fallen part, and then desperately works to get it in the engine. This time he manages and turns the engine back on, restoring life support. He stumbles towards the bridge, trying for the recall button Wash installed, but before he can make it, he succumbs to his wound and collapses.
Mal hears the voice of the salesman again then he awakens and finds his crew worrying over him in the infirmary, including Zoe, although she is still laid up too. He tries to figure out what happened, saying that he ordered them all off and wondering if he managed to call them back. They reveal that was not the case, but that Zoe had come to in the shuttle and ordered it to turn around. Simon shoos everyone out, and Mal agrees, but he asks to make sure they will be there when he wakes up. Book assures him they will, and Mal passes out again.
In a flashback, a salesman is pitching some huge rocket-looking vessel to Mal, but Mal is hardly listening and looking up at a derelict old Firefly over alone on a hill.
OK, so here is one heck of a good episode, sitting about at half way through our little shindig here (if you count the movie and go by hourage). I have no problem seeing why this is so many people’s favorite episode, what with all of the back story and also the very interesting three-time-frame presentation. From the dream-like flashbacks to the blue and gloomy present. Also, as the “past” catches up to the present, I loved how it slowly got bluer and bluer.
So, this episode is really all about Mal and his relationship with his main crew and his ship, although there is some nice hidden exposition buried in there. In particular, the scene early on where everyone is at dinner is fraught with hidden exposition of introducing the characters that is much more subtle than the awkward attempts in “The Train Job.” Also, and perhaps it is just me, but the laughing, rip-roaring good time at the table really sells me on the depth of the characters, even Jayne, much more than any other single scene that has come before it. One thing in it that really hit home for me, in fact, is Mal’s snide comment about “Oh, so there’s kissing” after Inara refuses to “kiss and tell.” Yes, it is a cutting comment like his usual “whore” comments, but then there is a moment where he hides a smile that only she can see behind his glass. Boom, we see that Mal is not all hard and mean and has a bit of a thing for Inara.
On the rest of the relationships, I’ll go in show-order. First is Kaylee, who Mal obviously knows needs a pep talk as she is going to take the whole thing as her fault and shut down. While his first and second conversations with her, both in the lounge, speak to this very well, I was less than impressed with the third one in the engine room. It is subtle, but his insistence that she should be able to just “fix it” really seems like him bearing down on her unfairly. Surely Mal understands the concept that sometimes things are just done-broke. I also kind of personally hold Mal responsible due to his refusal to buy her parts that she has said numerous times are wearing down (the compression coil comment from the pilot?). Then his guilt tripping about how if she doesn’t fix it they will all die is a horrible thing to cut away from. I would have been much happier if there would have been some line of “Well, you’ve done well, but don’t stop thinking.” Something, anything! Mal, you meanie! Leave my Kaylee alone!
Next is Wash. Wash needs a much more macho and firm hand than Kaylee, which is not surprising considering what he is going through. If the love of my life was possibly dying, I’d be snippy too, even though he tries to cover it as the entire situation. I don’t buy that, though. Wash is calm, a leaf on the wind, and peril to his own life doesn’t necessarily worry him. But when his wife is hurt and there is nothing he can do, yeah. Still, Wash does finally get behind Mal and his plan, but only after it involves leaving Mal behind and trying to save Zoe, at least for a little longer.
Jayne is sort of next, and it starts with only a “to the side” thing we see. That thing is when Mal slams Wash against the wall, and Jayne, big bad Jayne, flinches and backs away. I know I have typically said in not so many words that I don’t care for Jayne’s use as the “if it scares Jayne, it must be scary,” but here it worked for me. We then get Jayne having a much deeper, roughly caring character, from him being the one to ask if Zoe will pull through to his advice and awkward goodbye to Mal. They are professionals, and Jayne looks up to Mal. And while there may be some small bit of Jayne that thinks it is better Mal stay behind than himself, I think there is also a part of Jayne that is in awe of Mal for being able to stay behind.
Inara, of all the people, probably has the least “enlightening” of the moments with Mal. They have been playing up the Inara-Mal love awkwardness for so long already that nothing in their interaction feels fresh, although the lines themselves are delivered with amazing power. Mal’s “Everybody dies alone” should have just been cheesy and melodramatic. Instead, the power and loneliness of it with the mixture of acceptance is moving. The “goodbye” they had where they just silently stood in the shuttle door sealed it.
Zoe is the least used in this episode, but that was because during filming, Gina Torres had just married Laurence Fishburne, so she was away on the honeymoon. Her few lines to Mal at the end though, with the snide yet friendly comment about being sorry she had to disobey an order to save his life, at least continued to cement her loyalty to him. Her interaction in the flashbacks, though, did show a much more ready-to-disagree Zoe than we typically have seen. Although, in the past couple episodes, we have been seeing it more and more. I guess I’ll lay off calling Zoe a yes-woman. For now.
Then of course is Mal’s connection to the ship. From the used spaceship salesman’s words we hear at the beginning and Mal’s repeating of them, to the way Mal touches the ship as he tells the crew of the plan to escape on the shuttles, to us finding out that the salesman was trying to sell Mal a different ship and he sold himself on Serenity. All of this tells us exactly how much the ship and what it represents: how much this freedom from the woes and worries of a past to an unlimited future means to Mal. Not to mention, we have already been told how sturdy and hard to knock down fireflies are, so it really does fit Mal, and the crew knows it too. Notice how not a single one of them actually said goodbye or good luck to him. Part was that I think they were too choked up to, but part was also that they still hadn’t given up hope on Mal. He is an everlasting and undefeatable force in their lives now, and nothing like a silly failed life support system is going to take him out of it.
So now that I’ve extolled on Mal, let me shift focus to Inara for a bit. In the commentary, Tim Minear comments about two scenes where there are hints about the planned Inara-arc, but then he refuses to even say what lines in particular were those hints. Now, I think I have said before (but am too lazy to look it up) that I have a friend who supposedly has some inside dirt on Firefly and the planned character arcs. As I discussed this with him, he used Inara as the primary example and stated that part of her arc is that she is much older than she looks. Like, she’s “older than Book” older. The two scenes that Tim pointed out contained the following lines: “I don’t want to die at all” and “I prefer something with a few miles on it.” I’ll admit, I had first dismissed the concept, but I think I can see that. As I recall, “Heart of Gold” also has a line to this effect, where Inara’s friend says she doesn’t look like she’s aged a day.
So there’s that loony theory that might not be so loony. Perhaps the reason Inara is “on the run” is because she had stayed too long in one place and people were starting to notice that she didn’t age. Thus, she had to disappear and let her identity lapse out of memory. I wonder if she has to constantly go back through Companion school with her new identity to get new papers, or if she was only a Companion in this iteration. Might explain some of her occasional clandestine knowledge.
Originally Aired: 25 October, 2002
Original Position: Episode 5
Richard’s Favorite Line: (why is River always here?)
RIVER: A day is a vestigial mode of time measurement based on solar cycles. It’s not applicable . . . I didn’t get you anything.
Fun Goof: This isn’t on IMDB, and I’m surprised by that. The debris from the explosion that is surrounding Serenity is just staying stationary in a field through the episode as we get exterior shots. In actual space, it would have drifted back to the ship and clung to the hull. Gravity, ya know.
And thus we enter the second half of our big damn re-watch. Sorry for the small filk up there to “With a Little Help From My Friends.” Something about the flashbacky nature of this one makes me think of the opening to The Wonder Years. Anyway, next week, “Ariel,” where Simon really should have grown a goatee, he was so much an evil genius.
Richard Fife is a blogger, writer, and does have a goatee, although he denies being an evil genius, which is just what an evil genius would say. You can read more of his rambling and some of his short stories at http://RichardFife.com.