Firefly, Season 1, Episode 3, “Bushwhacked”
Written by Tim Minear
Directed by Tim Minear
Aired September 27th, 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.
Where the first two episodes of Firefly are very much tinged with Western themes and focused on world building, the third installment is content with more small scale storytelling that is geared towards space-age horror. It still builds towards episodes to come, but everything from the plot to the direction is focused on the immediacy of the situation and how the crew of Serenity processes each obstacle they face. After the sheer amount of character details dumped on the audience at the beginning of the season, however necessary that was, “Bushwhacked” lets everyone settle into their own corners and tell a good old fashioned space story. Because the action moves so quickly from one level of trouble to the next, the feature that actually stands out most starkly is Tim Minear’s direction. When the crew walks through the abandoned transport in their full space suits, it has the distinct feel of an ’80s-era space thriller. All of the suspense of Alien while still allowing all of the main cast to live through the day.
Specifically, the tight shots on the flashlight beams reflecting off the helmet glass force the audience to steel themselves for what they can’t see in the corner of the frame. Tight shots of this style on the small screen are few and far between. Usually, directors opt for wide shots, medium shots from the shoulders up, or a standard two shot for conversational scenes. Zooming in on scared or worried faces behind the relative safety of a space suit barrier places the audience in the same claustrophobic shoes as those on board the ship. One particularly memorable shot towards the middle of the episode, just before Mal and Zoë discover the bodies, starts as a wide shot and quickly zooms up to Mal’s face before he delivers the line that alerts everyone to the issue at hand. It is a horror film standard, but works due to how well Minear deploys the effect. By keeping important events slightly out of frame until the last moment every time – the most effective of which is the reveal of the hanging bodies – Minear ratchets up the suspense while still coloring inside the lines of television standards. The cliffhanger of Jayne’s walkie talkie on the floor as he is attacked by an unknown assailant wouldn’t work nearly as well without a commercial break right at that instant. Alternately, one of the more gorgeous shots is the awestruck look on River’s face as she gazes out at the expanse of space while gripping the side of Serenity. It has all been done before and it will all be done again, but Minear’s expert touch here largely contributes to the rewatchability of the hour.
The story itself moves a half step too fast at all times to truly have a major impact. The ghost ship/Reaver plot may be too slight to fill an entire episode on its own, but adding in River’s increasingly supernatural sense of her surroundings and The Alliance boarding the ship and Kaylee having to disarm a boobytrap so they all don’t die makes things more overloaded than is optimal. If Mal’s decision to kill the survivor and distract the rest of the team with a turn in his demeanor was the center of the episode, it would have turned it into a meditation on morality on the edge of space. Not that going this route is the best decision in the third (but second to air) episode of your series, but simply imagining the crew meditating on what Reavers do to vulnerable travelers while Mal convinces them to kill a technically innocent young man is an incredibly interesting prospect. As it stands the episode cycles through three near-death experiences and a salvage mission in quick succession, then moves right into the threat of The Alliance and their interrogation of the crew without stopping to breathe or let any of these individual pieces really sink in. Kaylee’s mechanic skills are much lauded and her optimism could really be used in a situation such as this, yet her apparently expert disabling skills are more or less a footnote to the rest of the action. It all builds quickly and then dissipates into a generally happy ending, all things considered.
Even with the cramped nature of the proceedings, the interrogation scenes at the hands of Commander Harken are a chance for the ensemble to stand out individually. Gina Torres’ clipped and annoyed responses are a highlight, as is Wash’s description of Zoë’s legs and behind. The impatience that all of these people have for The Alliance at all times, nonetheless when being detained and interrogated for no reason, is made flesh here in the unique style of each personality and as such, is a highlight of the episode. The other highlight is quick, but one of the most memorable ways that the show uses its setting for maximum awe, that being the previously mentioned shot of River and Simon strapped to the outside of Serenity. If this was the first time the Tam siblings were being introduced, this shot would impart all of the character traits necessary. River’s childlike amazement at the stars is the exact opposite of Simon’s nerves at being one mistake away from capture or death. Yet when he realizes how happy it is making her to witness the wonder of space after all the horror she has been through, his visage softens and he appreciates that moment with his sister as any big brother would. Suffice to say, as a whole “Bushwhacked” doesn’t necessarily mesh, but the disparate segments each have their own specific strengths and memorable set pieces that help the episode make up for its few missteps.
- “Who’s flying this thing?! Oh right, that would be me.” Wash is still mostly comic relief thus far, but Alan Tudyk is such consistently enjoyable comic relief it’s hard to complain.
- The survivor’s mangled, disfigured face is so grossly horrifying it’s a small wonder they got it past network Standards and Practices in 2002.
- “Interesting that you’d name your ship after a battle you were on the wrong side of.” “May have been the losing side, still not convinced it was the wrong one.”
(POTENTIAL SPOILERS FOR FUTURE EPISODES PAST THIS POINT)
- Besides the obvious answer (that the show needed a reason for him to board Serenity without a full dossier information) why doesn’t Captain Harken have access to the identity, if not the specific crimes, of Simon and River? Each time an Alliance soldier or bounty hunter looks them up in the future it is readily available.
- Technically not a spoiler for a future episode, but for the follow up film Serenity. Firefly’s dispensation of more and more details about Reaver activity each time they come up is one of the better roll outs the show accomplishes before revealing the truth about them and their connection to The Alliance.
- River’s vaguely supernatural connection gets its first big confirmation here, setting up the more central role it will play in “Safe”.