Firefly Rewatch

Firefly Re-watch: “War Stories”

Yeah, I can tell you about what it was like back in the war. It was horrible! People forgot how to be people back then, and never knew how to look at the past. No, they were just looking to a future that wasn’t there, full of spoilers and perhaps SciFi series that have satisfying endings, if they have them at all. What, bitter about Lost? Whatever do you mean? This is the Firefly Re-watch! Get off my lawn, you durn kid!

Episode Summary:
In the infirmary, Simon looks over the neural-scan information he acquired on Ariel while Book chats with him. Book asks if he has ever read the works of Shan Yu, who Simon recognizes as a psychotic dictator, but Book reveals was also a philosopher, if a demented one. In particular, he comments about how only by bringing a man to the edge of death could you truly meet him. Simon wonders why Book even knows about this Shan Yu’s writing, and hopes he isn’t a fan. Book says that he isn’t, but he wonders if the people who cut into River might have been. Simon turns to him.

SIMON: The government did this to her.
BOOK: A government is a body of people usually notably ungoverned.
SIMON: Now you’re quoting the captain.

Simon assures Book that the damage speaks to a specific purpose, not just to push River to her limits. Book asks if she is doing better, and Simon says that she is sleeping better, but nothing really stable. At least, though, he has a large store of medicine on hand now. Book is less than pleased with how the medicine was obtained and asks Simon if he has his next heist planned. Simon’s response is less than apologetic.

An external shot of the ship zips around the moon they are orbiting to a familiar skyplex. Inside, Niska is torturing a man, mentions Shun Yu, and then is informed that Serenity is in orbit. He dispatches a team to intercept.

Back on the ship, Kaylee chases River, who is holding an apple, and both of them are laughing in girlish glee. Above, Inara is grilling Mal to stay out of her business as an important guest, a counselor, will be coming to the ship instead of having Inara fly there. As they talk, Mal plays the hands-off dad, yelling at River and Kaylee to be quiet and not trip cause he doesn’t want to have to clean up the mess.

In the galley, Wash watches them pass as he enjoys his own apple in front of a large basket of them that Jayne apparently bought for the crew. Kaylee finally catches River and says “No power in the ‘verse can stop me.” Wash and Zoe go back to eating apples, and they ponder over why Jayne is being so generous. Kaylee then asks Zoe why she always cuts her apples, same as Mal, and she is told about hidden grenades that were used in the war. During the story, Wash tries to make light-hearted jokes, but Zoe is not impressed as she is talking about the untimely deaths of people she knew.

Mal marches in and informs them that they are almost to their last drop. Wash grumbles to Zoe that they could have made more money, and Mal interjects that it wasn’t a bad idea, but that cutting out the middleman in deals like these tends to make bad ideas. Wash is surprised that Mal heard about the idea and glares at Zoe.

As the ship lands planetside, Wash and Zoe have a fight. Wash had pitched his idea to Zoe, and she apparently reported that she hadn’t talked to Mal about it, when in truth she had and Mal had rejected it out of hand. What irks Wash the most, though, is the lying part. She pleads that she didn’t want to upset him, so he asks her what she thought of the idea. She continues to hide behind Mal’s excuse, which sets Wash off even more. In particular, he accuses her of not having her own opinion and always kowtowing to old-war-buddy Mal. This, of course, puts her back up and she tells him exactly what she thought of his plan, which aligns with Mal’s opinion. Wash insists that she should just tell him, then.

ZOE: Right, ‘cause what this marriage needs is one more shouting match.
WASH: No, what this marriage needs is one less husband. Right now, it’s kind of crowded.

Meanwhile, Simon checks on River in her room, and she is looking rather wan and says that she threw up. He apologizes for the side effect, but assures her they will find the right treatment. He asks how she is feeling now, and she says she feels like she is back at the academy, in not so many words. But, this morning, she played with Kaylee and was happy and “functioned like a girl.” Remembering this, though, upsets her. She hates it because she knows it’s temporary. Simon consoles her.

Out in the lounge, the crew hunkers down and peeks out into the hold to see who this mysterious client is. In the hold, Mal and Inara wait and a man in shades and suit walk aboard and completely ignores Mal when greeted. Mal looks put out, but then the man signals an all-clear Secret Service style, and the counselor, a rather attractive woman, boards and kisses her hellos with Inara. Back in the lounge, the crew is rather shocked, and Jayne excuses himself.

In the second shuttle, Zoe tries to prep it for takeoff, but it isn’t responding. She tells this to Mal, and Wash then appears and reveals he has changed the launch sequence and won’t tell them what it is nor change it back. The reason: he is going, not Zoe. The real reason: he doesn’t want Mal and Zoe to be off bonding and doing war-buddy stuff, all jealous husband like. Mal’s response?

MAL: OK, I’m lost. Uh, I’m angry, and I’m armed.

Zoe disarms the situation by saying that she’d rather Wash go, as it should be easy. Mal lets it slide, but as Wash continues his digging comments, his mood stays obviously sour. They take off, and we zoom to the other shuttle.

Inara gives the counselor a back rub, and they have girl-time on many levels.

Back on shuttle-2, Mal tries to talk to Wash about the issue, but Wash doesn’t want to talk about it. Mal asserts that he only is letting this slide because it is a “milk run” but that if it were real Zoe would be there. Wash tries rather lamely to defend his capability, and the two meet with the middlemen they are selling to. Things go smoothly, but then the thugs are shot by snipers and Wash and Mal are captured.

On the ship, Book is doing bench presses and Jayne is spotting him as Inara and the Counselor come down and kiss their goodbyes. This, of course, completely distracts Jayne and nearly ends up with Book being hurt. Jayne saves Book at the end and excuses himself again. Before he can leave, though, Zoe tells him to get a gun because there might be trouble: Wash and Mal are late. Book insists on coming as well.

At the deal-site, they find the dead thugs and Book quickly and precisely identifies the kind of sniper rifles that killed them. Jayne questions the knowledge and Book deflects, then Zoe notes that the job wasn’t for the goods or the money. They see a blast-trail from a very short-range transport, and quickly surmise that it came from a nearby skyplex. Zoe puts it together.

Meanwhile, on the skyplex, Wash and Mal are put into a holding cell blindfolded and bound. Wash starts to freak out, insisting that Mal share information like he would with Zoe, but Mal ignores him and tries to get his bearings. The discussion eventually turns to Wash admitting to his jealousy of the bond Mal and Zoe have. Mal insists that Zoe isn’t a blind follower, and when Wash presses for orders she disobeyed, Mal screams out “She married you!” The door then opens, Niska comes in, walks to Mal, and takes off the blindfold. Mal swears.

On the ship, the crew pools all their money, a not insubstantial sum at the time, and give it to Zoe, who is planning to waltz in and try to buy the men back. Book questions the advisedness of doing that, and she assures him that Niska has honor, if a twisted sense of it.

Back in the torture chamber, Mal and Wash are being electrocuted, but during the lulls they continue to fight and bicker at each other over Zoe. Mal alludes that he has slept with Zoe in the past, but Wash vehemently says he knows it isn’t true because the way she acts is for “the guy she never slept with”. Mal then offers to sleep with her. As the torture continues, Wash starts to lose lucidness, and Mal makes his insults and jeers worse.

Zoe takes a shuttle to the skyplex and calmly walks out and demands to see Niska. The thugs take her there, where she presents him with the money. He says that it is only enough money to buy one, but before he can tell her she has to choose, she picks Wash. Niska then takes it a step further, saying she overpaid, and cuts off Mal’s ear as a refund. On the shuttle, Wash confides a new-found respect for Mal, acknowledging that Mal’s taunts were the only thing that kept Wash from breaking. He says that Niska is going to kill Mal, and Zoe says that it will last as long as possible, days if possible. The thought steels Wash to action, and he rushes to the shuttle’s helm and takes them back to Serenity. Back on the ship, Zoe gives the ear to Simon to put on ice. She and Wash then march away, and she calls back to the crew that they are going to get Mal back.

Meanwhile, Niska continues to torture Mal and again mentions Shan Yu. Mal presents a strong face, and Niska shows some respect for his strength, but at the same time, calls Mal outdated for the current day. He then reveals a “special machine” that apparently causes extreme pain. As the machine digs in to Mal’s skin, he gives a soul-shaking screech.

Back on the ship, Zoe and Wash pack as many guns as possible on their persons while Zoe gives Wash a crash-course on how to wage a fire-fight. Jayne watches and comments that they are going on a suicide run. Kaylee shows up and says that Inara has had no luck with the counselor, and then shows some confusion over what Zoe and Wash are doing. Despite the pessimism, they finish gearing up and start to move out. In the cargo hold, they find the rest of the crew armed to the teeth and willing to go after Mal, even Jayne.

Back on the skyplex, Mal is pronounced dead. So, Niska’s torturer revives him, and Niska goes on about how his reputation was hurt when Mal crossed him, so he is going to make an example of Mal.

Back on the ship, they are powered down and on a momentum-driven course for the skyplex’s airlock. Because of this, the skyplex is unlike to even see them coming, and the crew prepares for a hard dock and rig the mule to be an explosive start to the fight. They land hard and start with a bang, and Zoe and Jayne take the point. Book, Kaylee and Simon come in to hold the air-lock, and Jayne, Wash, and Zoe go after Mal.

Niska tries to find out what is going on, and then Mal manages to get his hands on the “special machine” and attaches it to the torture’s back. He then, despite being bloodied and mostly dead, starts to beat the snot out of Niska.

Things start to get sticky, and Book and Simon go to help the front, leaving Kaylee, who has spent the entire fight kind of cowering, alone to guard the airlock. She falls back into the cargo hold and drops her gun, and River walks up to her. River pokes her head out briefly and sees the three men shooting at them, then takes Kaylee’s gun and pops out again, killing the men with one bullet each with not even a pause to aim, or even look. She then smiles at Kaylee and says “No power in the ‘verse can stop me.” Kaylee can only look at River in pure terror.

Before Mal can get too far into beating Niska up, the torturer comes back and wrestles with Mal, breaking out into the crazy factory area behind Niska’s office. The crew barges in, and Jayne is about to shoot the torturer in the back. Zoe stops him, saying Mal needs to win the fight on his own, but Mal contradicts her, and they all open fire and blow the thug to kingdom-come.

Back on the ship, Simon packs up some fancy medical equipment, and Mal walks out, wondering if his ear is going to stay on. Simon assures him it will. Mal then tells Inara to thank the counselor for the equipment loan, and Inara says she just wishes that Mal had killed Niska, which Mal wishes himself as well. Mal then plays post-ops therapist, asking how Simon is faring with having taken up arms. Simon is unsure, but Book assures him that, as a first-person witness, Simon has yet to actually kill anyone. Mal has a good laugh over it and walks up past Kaylee. Kaylee then sees River and has an awkward, frightened moment.

In the galley, Zoe makes Wash some “wife soup.” Mal shows up and asks Wash if he “told her”. Wash is confused, and Mal mentions the torture-conversation where Wash said he wanted Mal to sleep with Zoe. Wash protests, and Mal and Zoe tease him by playing it out a bit, and Jayne walks in just in time to see them with their hands awkwardly on each other, which he finds “downright unsettling.” Wash, fed up, grabs Zoe and excuses both of them.

Commentary:

OK, lessee if I can put two cognizant thoughts together after Lost’s finale. GAH! OK, I’m better now. Honest. Maybe….

Right, let’s start with the big hitter: Love Triangle! I’ll be honest (when am I not?), I really enjoy the Mal-Zoe-Wash love triangle because it is so unconventional. It isn’t two guys/gals vying for the love of a single gal/guy, or anything really like that. Wash and Zoe are very assuredly together. I feel, even with how this episode opens, that I can unequivocally say that. But, the triangle comes in that Mal and Zoe have a bond that Wash can never be a part of, and perhaps there is some fear in him that Zoe and Mal could have Wash’s bond with her. So yeah, the whole “two husbands” thing I never thought of as a matter of “You secretly love him, gar!” so much as “I wish I could know all of you and you respected me the way you respect him”.

And the torture conversation? Yeah, that was the torture talking. Perhaps on an animal level Wash was thinking about it all in relationships and sex, but I want to, perhaps have to, believe that there was a much stronger, more human, more emotional component to the tension. Of course, Wash being Wash and Mal being Mal made it comedy gold while working through the high drama.

Next up on the menu is a rather minor theme in the show, which was the bit with Inara and the Counselor. Plot and theme wise, I really feel let down by this part of the show. Yes it gave us some good one-liners, but it underplays the emphasis on this episode with a stronger theme, which isn’t just marital relationships and trust, but gender interactions in general. Of note: I don’t think we have ever nor will we ever see Zoe interact in strictly female company. Her and Kaylee don’t really have girl time, not like Kaylee and Inara do, and nor does Zoe interact much with Inara. Perhaps her war past makes her feel too much like “one of the guys”, but she seems to fit better and be more comfortable around the male side of the ship. It makes me wonder: what would a girl’s night out be like with Zoe? And I don’t mean wonder in a Jayne-esque way.

And speaking of girls, River! It was so nice to see River having fun and just getting to be a hyper late-teen-early-twenty-something-whatever-she-is-supposed-to-be. Especially with Kaylee. The “River goes psycho and scares Kaylee” moment actually kind of tugged my heart-strings, because it was almost like “Guess what, River never gets to be normal!” Which also resounds in her moment of insane lucidity with Simon. When she is remembering her good feelings of playing with Kaylee and the sheer loathing she has for it out of despair that she knows it will go away . . . wow. Just punched me in the gut.

So, back to heavy hitting things: ah, the nature of torture. This episode hit about the middle ground with it, I think. Star Trek: The Next Generation hit it very well with “Four Lights” (or whatever that episode was named), and the new Star Trek movie did it poorly where Captain Pike was just tortured to prove he was a bad-ass and put him in the wheelchair. Here, we have some interesting looks into the mind during torture. I really like how they focused on the need to keep your mind separated away from what is going on with the banter between Mal and Wash. I also like Wash’s moment of realization on the shuttle over how strong Mal was to know that and to carry Wash through. What I don’t like so much is that while Mal comes close in his facial expressions to breaking (and Nathan Fillion verified this was the intent during the commentary), he then gets the heroic comeback and kind of doesn’t need to be saved at the end. Granted, he did have the crew shoot the guy, and he wouldn’t have had the opportunity to break free had the crew not mounted the assault, but still.

And this tears me up story-telling wise, because it is two modes of thought. In one, we don’t want Mal to be the Damsel in Distress that has to be saved. On the other, it cheapens the torture by having him overcoming. I would have, personally, been a little happier with more of a Picard take, where he mentally perseveres, but just barely, and the crew still physically has to save him. But that is just me, and that has been done on a much more serious sci-fi show, so I guess it was alright.

Now, humorous observations. One was Wash’s tiny gun on his “leave no man behind” line. Apparently that was very intentional this time, as opposed to Mal’s small gun in “Out of Gas”. Also, this is apparently the only time ever that Book speaks Chinese. The moment in particular is when Zoe reveals Mal’s severed ear. I wonder if this same font of emotion brought him to out his skill a little bit more than usual with the long-barrel and the “kneecaps” that seemed to oddly be at chest-level more often than not. My final question is: how did the crew ever think that it was a good idea to go to the planet that Niska orbits? Did they really think he wasn’t going to be holding a grudge? Really? Did they just forget? Fer Chrissake.

Factoids:
Originally Aired: 6 December 2002
Original Position: Episode 9
Richard’s Favorite Line: Three Way Tie (and I bet all of you thought I’d forgotten to quote these!)

JAYNE: I’ll be in my bunk.

And

JAYNE: I’ll be in my bunk.

And

WASH: We’ll be in our bunk.

Fun Goof: Two, one from the IMDB, one from the commentary. The first is that when the guard is applying the torture-pet-thing to Mal, his wrong ear is “cut off”. The other is that when Wash is on the shuttle just after Zoe rescues him, he is in remarkably better looking shape (not sweaty, at least) as compared to what he was only moments before in the torture chamber. This was due to the order in which they filmed the scenes. The shuttle was first; the torture chamber was second.

And that is all I have. I am so proud of myself, I didn’t derail the entire thing into a premature Lost discussion. Although, if any of you really want to see my thoughts on that, I’m going to have a lot to say over in the Round-table thread when it goes up. Join me next week for “Trash”, where we have another call-back from earlier, and this one is a little bit easier on the eyes.


Richard Fife is a blogger, writer, and keeps managing to push the writings of Shan Yu down on his reading list somewhere around Twilight. You can read more of his ramblings and some of his short stories at http://RichardFife.com.

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