Firefly, Season 1, Episode 8, “Out of Gas”
Directed by David Solomon
Written by Tim Minear
Aired October 25th, 2002 on FOX
Given that at this point it was pretty obvious that Firefly would not last more than one season, and may indeed have already been canceled, it seems the perfect time for the show to try for a truly inventive installment. Written by MVP of the writing staff Tim Minear, “Out of Gas” succeeds in spades, and even manages to give some members of the crew something of substance to do that hadn’t had the opportunity to this point. The triple-timeline format—a combination of present day, the very near past, and the long ago past—is presented as straightforward to the audience as possible, when it would be just as easy to overcomplicate the entire thing for the sake of false profundity. Mal, clearly injured and struggling to survive for some unknown reason, crashing into the frame after moments of eerie silence serves as a signal that all is not okay, yet the show holds back from telling exactly what happened to Serenity until after things revert momentarily to happier times. It is a way to play with the audience’s expectations of what went down aboard the ship to leave Mal by his lonesome, yet also to work the origination of the ship’s crew into an episode instead of setting aside a full episode’s runtime for a series of illuminating flashbacks. At some points, the format slips just slightly, but overall it works better within the constraints of network episode lengths than expectations could have approximated.
The details “Out of Gas” unearths so well are moments like how the crew handles a crisis, both together and apart. Up until now everyone has been mostly chummy with each other through thick and thin despite a few speed bumps, so the events that unfurl after Serenity breaks down in the middle of space show exactly how various relationships crack under the pressure. The most obvious of these is Wash and Mal’s multiple showdowns over the decisions Mal makes to try and save all of their lives. Tensions between the two men have been simmering throughout the season due to their respective bonds with Zoë, and here it overflows into a series of spats that give Alan Tudyk something more to do than be comic relief and shows how these men really feel about each other when push comes to shove.
There is respect there, yet also insurmountable differences simply because the most important woman in each of their lives is the same person, despite that being for separate reasons. Wash has too long been the man who defers to Mal for orders, so when it finally comes down to him staying with his possibly-dying wife or following directions, it makes sense that he would at long last blow a gasket over the captain’s seemingly callous request for him to retreat to the bridge and try to fix things. Due to them being at each other’s throats, Jayne is thus allowed to slide into the comic relief slot that Wash usually occupies and start cracking jokes. The shift in roles opens up sides of the characters that are not usually at the forefront, even though they are still coming from a real place. Wash’s anger is latent feelings that have finally come forth, for the most part so is Jayne’s gallows humor and Kaylee’s guilt over the ship failing.
Kaylee is, by a decent margin, the crew member who makes out the best from the long ago flashbacks. Sure, Wash has his by now uncharacteristic mustache and lack of connection with Zoë, and Jayne is a shade more gruff than he is in the present, but Kaylee actually gets character details that have only been alluded to throughout the season. One of the most carefree and loving people aboard Serenity, Kaylee has moments of naïveté that sometimes make her seem more innocent than she actually is. Her love life has been limited on-screen to her flirtations with Simon, so her entrance as a random girl having sex with the ship’s original mechanic is truly a shock. It doesn’t seem out of the ordinary in a bad way, just that when her voice comes from offscreen the audience is caught off guard for it to be a pleasant surprise that Kaylee isn’t completely without experience in the romantic department and that even before she came aboard the ship she had some life experience. It allows her to be less of a childlike figure aboard the ship moving forward, which was the impression she gave off early on because of the depth of her good heartedness. After this episode, the show continues to veer into darker territory on a more frequent basis as it nears the finish line, and Kaylee getting some balance to her constant upbeat nature is helpful. She genuinely means it when she tells Mal things like how guilty she is for not taking better care of the ship (even if it’s not her fault in the least). It lands that much harder because the viewer now knows that she had enough life experience at home to want to get out and find some freedom, and Mal was the one to give her that chance.
Isn’t that what it’s all about in the end? The freedom to do whatever you want whenever you want without regrets? In so many words, that is how Mal sells Zoë on Serenity in the first place and everything he has done since that day has been in pursuit of attaining, and maintaining, that outlook on life. Serenity gave he and Zoë the means to forget the war and everything they went through together, it offered a new project to commit to as a pair with the hopes that at the end of the day every decision would be theirs and theirs alone. Even his initial decision on what ship to purchase was a decision stemming from the idea of freedom; no salesman could tear his eye from the hunk of beauty that was the broken down Serenity, even with flowery language and outlandish promises. It then follows that if Mal is happy, then his next priority should be making sure that his crew has the same freedoms and opportunities that he fought so hard to achieve. This core motivation single handedly explains why Mal forces them to leave the ship without him while he stays to monitor opportunities for rescue. Mal makes promises to his surrogate family that he then feels responsible for, so then he is the one to sacrifice personal safety to keep that promise and that dream of the open skies alive.
This also extends to why he doesn’t shoot the marauding scavengers that gravely wound him and attempt to take the ship. To mar the ship with multiple unnecessary deaths when he can simply threaten them off his side of the dock would compromise the spirit of Serenity and the grounding principles he sees as so integral to his captaincy. It’s the difference between his crew and that of the invaders, who have what seems like a very similar makeup and division of roles even if their outlook is dissimilar. Mal isn’t willing to shoot someone senselessly for greed because he saw what that did to his friends and his entire world during the war. It may be coming from his subconscious, but this decision is another way to protect that freedom. Which is then, of course, why the crew doesn’t hesitate to come back to save him under Zoë’s command; he gave them so much by protecting, teaching, and welcoming them aboard a ship that prioritizes its crew over its greed it is only right that they would repay him by risking their lives to save him. It’s a very “oh captain, my captain” moment and solidifies the fractured relationships again. There are not many gestures that say “we’re okay” than Wash giving Mal a blood transfusion the same day as they almost rip each other’s faces off. Because on Serenity everything is always a perfect mess until it isn’t, but it always comes back around to goodness again. Sometimes that’s just a hard thing to remember.
- The storytelling trick with the initial voiceover—leading the audience to believe the salesman is talking about Serenity then revealing at the end that is not the case—is another way the show toys with viewer expectations in a clever and rewarding way.
- Book’s fear over dying adds another layer to his beliefs and further establishes he and River as a friendship who will never see eye to eye but always say the right thing to each other.
- Inara and Simon’s heart to heart is one of the few throughout the episode that isn’t entirely necessary, but as it is Simon’s birthday when the explosion occurs, it makes sense that he should get some sort of emotional touch base.
- Some great directorial choices this episode from David Solomon include the way the flashbacks are closer to ghosts in Mal’s mind than hard and fast breaks in the story, and the transition from Simon stabbing Zoë with pure adrenaline to Mal wincing as he self-treats his gunshot wound.
- A kingdom for mini-episodes of the time the two shuttles spend away from the ship. Watching Simon, River, and Wash interact for even ten minutes would be worth the trouble.
Potential SPOILERS beyond this point:
- Wash and Mal end the episode on good terms, which lasts for less than two episodes before crumbling again in “War Stories”.