Firefly, Season 1, Episode 10, “War Stories”
Directed by James Contner
Written by Cheryl Cain
Aired December 6th, 2002 on FOX
Welcome to Sound on Sight’s summer look back at Firefly, the beloved yet short-lived series that aired on FOX during the 2002-2003 TV season. Every Thursday, we will revisit an episode at a time of the show’s one and only season, in the order that they were meant to be seen. The correct sequence is accurately reflected on most, if not all, streaming services that currently have the show, but for those watching via other methods, the accurate order can be found here. Now, without further ado, time to spend some time with the most entertaining group of grifters in The ‘Verse.
No matter how small the fault lines in a relationship, any stress on a friendship or partnership will eventually cause enough pressure to do some serious damage. Even if it’s only temporary issues, it is hard to go through life without one close friendship blowing up because of some unspoken concerns and grudges. This is never more true than in pop culture, where a caustic fight usually manages to become more than that by the end of the episode or season. Friends become enemies, lovers become estranged, so on and so forth. Given that most of the season has been dropping hints about Mal and Wash’s friction regarding each other’s relationship with Zoë, it was only a matter of time before all of that barely repressed tension blew up into something more. Of course, Firefly plays out this fairly common storyline better than most other shows would by not only staging a fight between Mal and Wash, but by doing it when they are both being mercilessly tortured. Both men are vulnerable physically and emotionally, bringing things to a headier breaking point than if they were just bare knuckle brawling in the kitchen.
One stealthy strength of this episode is the way it establishes the main conflict and the danger to the crew without any undue exposition, then lets things play out without any major storytelling interventions. The main focus is on the interactions between Wash and Mal, or Zoë and Wash, or Kaylee and River. It isn’t necessary for any additional complications to ensue because most of the season has been setting up this conflict in little ways. The audience already knows who Niska is and the threat he represents to his captives, as well as how easy it is for traders to get ambushed unexpectedly in the middle of the desert, and the way that the Serenity crew will stick up for each other. Most of Inara’s story is told in shorthand, but has no less of an impact because of it. This episode is probably the closest the show comes to embodying a format that would have been common in a second or third season. Everything necessary to the story is clearly established, and it allows the relationship and action beats flow organically from scene to scene.
The fight between Wash and Mal, about and/or over Zoë, works on so many levels that as soon as the audience is on the same page as one side of the argument it shifts ever so slightly to work in a different way. Initially, Wash is angry because Zoë sides with Mal over him without even consulting her husband, therefore he grounds the ship. Then it tilts towards Mal’s point of view when he reluctantly brings his pilot to the deal with him. Before that beat has a chance to settle, the two are in Niska’s clutches and battling over the danger they are in, at which point it hits an even deeper level. Instead of simply fighting over a woman, something all too common on television, they are fighting over how the other one treats said woman. Since both are very aware she has her own agency and takes orders from no one, it comes down to Mal putting her in danger and Wash caring too much that she does what she wants and thinks how she likes. Furthermore, their fight also has the wrinkle of Mal using it to keep Wash alert and motivated to stay alive, therefore tipping the latter off to how valuable Mal and Zoë’s support of each other was during the war. Not only do both men get all of their extra testosterone out of their systems, but both leave the experience by learning more about the other’s view. The “warrior poet” Shan Yu’s opinion that torture is the best way to learn the truth about someone, brought up at multiple points in the episode, may be a heavy handed reference, but it ties in so well that that can be overlooked. The entire argument is a refreshing change of pace from other pop culture instances of male egos clashing, one that acknowledges how amazing Zoë is all day every day at the same time as they deal with their own emotional issues.
Then, after all of the discussion of Zoë’s worth throughout the painful and gruesome torture, the episode actually shows how incredible a warrior she can be for the first time. She’s had brief moments of action prior to this episode, but without Mal available to run the show she can take over the rescue fully and embody the incredible warrior woman that the audience keeps hearing about yet only glimpsing. It begins with the heaviness of her “apples as grenades” story, re-establishing the pain of war via one small anecdote, and culminates with her war experience paying off during the siege of Niska’s ship. Her utter confidence when strolling up to Niska to deliver the ransom is powerful in its certainty, as is her immediate choice to save Wash instead of Mal. She loves him more and knows Mal can last longer in those conditions, so her snark about letting Niska finish his offer for her to choose offers some nice levity in the middle of a gory episode. The rescue itself upends action movie stereotypes, what with Zoë being the one to spearhead the mission and Mal the one needing to be rescued instead of a damsel in distress. This role flip isn’t any more clear than when Zoë tells Jayne that Mal needs to kill Niska himself, as if to achieve some sort of revenge-therapy ideal, and Mal immediately shouts “No it’s not!”. It is a brief, hilarious, yet incredibly accurate satire of the types of over the top action sequences that make no real emotional sense and instead focus only on visual flair.
River’s contribution therefore fits in perfectly with the final scenes, as she is yet another woman that can hold her own when in danger. Breadcrumbs about her abilities with a weapon have been dropped throughout the season, but this is the first time the audience sees her become the automated killing machine she is when blindly shooting the guards. It gives some insight as to what the government may have wanted her for, as well as more evidence that she will never be the same regardless of what Simon is able to solve with medicine and his loving support. Even though this episode puts the Serenity family through the ringer, it also mostly returns them to the status quo. River is still shaky at best, they spent the rest of their heist money on the ransom so they are broke again, and Mal makes it back more or less healthy. Besides the heightened levels of respect and awareness between the captain and the pilot, everything more or less goes back to normal for the time being. Even that intensity is lifted a bit with Mal and Zoë’s faux-rendevous in the kitchen (“That was the torture talking!”). When considered as an emotional bottle episode for the series, it stands out that much more as a highlight of the show’s run.
- Shepherd Book’s performance with a gun during the raid sheds further light on his backstory, even if it doesn’t offer any actual specifics. He doesn’t think twice about gunning down a guard when necessary.
- Inara’s “very important counselor” guest being a women is another nod towards gender roles and expectations. Kaylee’s reaction of knowing Inara has female clients but still being surprised is just as telling about her mindset as Jayne being turned on by the interaction is about his.
- “What this marriage needs is one less husband. Right now it’s kind of crowded.” Tudyk’s delivery of this line is so cutting and real and hurt, it is by far one of his series highlights.
- “There’s plenty of orders of mine that she didn’t obey” “Name one” “She married you!”
- “If it moves, shoot it.” “Unless it’s the captain!” “Unless it’s the captain.”
- “Fairly certain I’ve never shot anyone before.” “I was there son. Fairly certain you haven’t shot anyone yet.”