“Ship like this? Be with you til the day you die.”
“Because it’s a deathtrap.”
Of all the Firefly episodes we have, this one is the most structurally ambitious, juxtaposing three timelines: a disaster afflicting Serenity, when the compression coil Kaylee has been complaining about all series finally gives way, a lone Mal wandering around Serenity, and flashbacks to Mal first bringing each member of the crew onto the ship. A lot of this story is, on paper, a retread – the flashbacks, by design, are jokes about things that we already know, and many of the emotional beats, from Wash’s love for Zoe to Mal’s big brother relationship with Kaylee, are a kind of greatest hits thing. But this episode is much like “Safe”, in that it’s all building to a theme and a specific emotional reaction, and it’s even a similar theme: that Serenity is a wonderful place to be. The structural tricks, rather than just being a game played for its own sake, mean that the action underscores the theme rather than fights against it.
The main action of the story is the disaster, beginning with the crew celebrating Simon’s birthday – the joy is undercut slightly by the fact that they figured it out based on a renewed warrant for his arrest, but it’s still pretty joyful – as it’s kicked off in the middle of an already happy meal, Simon is touched by their thoughtfulness, and even Jayne gets in a good joke that makes the crew laugh. Mal causes the disaster in part when he chooses to take the long and lonely way to their destination, trying to avoid Alliance crew but leaving them out in the lurch when Serenity breaks down.
“‘Day’ is a vestigial mode of time measurement based on solar cycles. It’s not applicable. I didn’t get you anything.”
One of the main emotional arcs is the conflict between Wash and Mal. We’ve seen before that Wash prioritises Zoe above everything else and resents the Captain’s authority over him, and without Zoe to mediate, that escalates into confrontation and physical violence. This leads up to one of the funniest moments of the episode: when Wash, having truly had enough and blaming Mal (a little rightly and a little wrongly) for everything, realises mid-sentence that Mal actually has a perfectly reasonable idea that will get them out of this mess, and with great embarrassment acknowledges that Mal’s right while still kinda holding onto his anger.
But the real meat of the episode is in those flashbacks, which as said serve as an ironic contrast to the main action – a specific example being going from Mal in flashback meeting Kaylee, to Mal during the disaster talking to Kaylee about what needs to be done to fix the ship, to Mal post-disaster doing exactly what she told him to do with a working part. This feels like an elegant and satisfying way to communicate the actual idea, which is what Serenity means to each individual crew member.
“You got much experience with a vessel like this?”
“I never even been up in one before.”
For Zoe and Wash, it’s pretty straightforward – Serenity is how they met, and Zoe happens to like working with Mal. Kaylee simply loves ships, and loves working on Serenity in particular. Jayne, of course, is in it for the money and the perks. Inara is a little harder to figure, because she simply says she loves the ship and always has, and of course there’s the minor sexual tension with Mal, but the implication is that she’s also running from something. Mal is the most complicated – he lays out his vision of freedom to Zoe in the first scene, and obviously that’s sincere, but throughout the episode he gets to play all the sides of being Dad of the ship, delivering both punishment and encouragement, and it’s with both the end of the action and the final flashback that we get a little more.
Mal ultimately decides to send everyone off in opposite directions in the two shuttles while he waits on Serenity for a passing ship,and it’s a rare case where Mal gets to be practical and heroic – as he points out, having three ships makes it more likely one of them will find somebody, splitting up the group perfectly in half means nobody gets more air than anyone else, and somebody’s gotta stay behind. The fact that he gets to go down with the ship is just a huge bonus. Unfortunately, this leaves Mal open to raiders, which is exactly what unfolds; Mal only just manages to own his way out of the situation with a gunshot wound and a replacement part for his trouble.
He replaces the part, but fails to get off a signal to the shuttles in time, but it doesn’t matter; when Zoe came to, she wasn’t going to let the Captain die alone, and the crew on the other half changed their minds as well. It’s an obvious and straightforward point: Mal is not going to die alone. This leads us into the final flashback: the revelation that the sales pitch we’ve been hearing all episode was for a completely different ship, that Mal saw Serenity and fell in love with her immediately (and presumably had to fight the salesman for her), and that there’s no reason whatsoever for Mal to love Serenity other than she’s Serenity.
“I thought I ordered you all off the ship. I call you back?”
“No, Mal, you didn’t.”
“I take full responsibility, Cap’n.”
“The decision saved your life.”
“Won’t happen again, sir.”
“Good. And, thanks, I’m grateful.”
- David Solomon’s direction is fantastic all through the episode. My favourite part is how the disaster sequence has no music, meaning we cut from the violently loud scenes inside the ship to the eerily silent outside, because of course Firefly has no sound effects in space.
- Wash has a moustache in the flashback, and there’s an outtake where he stands up only to reveal Zoe and Mal are wearing moustaches too.
- In terms of genre-flipping, this episode is a submarine story. Ihaven’t seen enough submarine stories to comment on what’s unique or not about it.
- When help seems to arrive, Nathan Fillion somehow manages to beg for help without actually begging.
- There are a few moments of ownage throughout this episode, but my favourite is Mal firing Bester.