“Hey, I’ve been in a firefight before! Well, I was in a fire. Actually I was fired. From a frycook opportunity.”
If any episode of Firefly shows what we could have had, it’s “War Stories”. We are now far enough into the series that this episode is built out of things that have already happened and relationships that have slowly developed; but at the same time track is being laid down for where we’re gonna go next. If “Ariel” was a typical heist plot that allowed character revelation and worldbuilding to come out, “War Stories” is the reverse, a dramatic plot building out character and worldbuilding we already know; everything that happens in this episode could only have happened here, on this show, at this point.
Two things have come to a boil here: firstly, and again this is building off a scene form the pilot, Wash has finally gotten sick to death of Zoe kowtowing to Mal, and decided to sabotage the shuttle specifically so he can go on a mission with Mal and they can have words. Secondly, Serenity has flown within a planet’s distance of Niska, who’s still sore about the death of his man way back. In the middle of what’s supposed to be a milk run, Niska’s men grab Mal and Wash and start torturing the shit out of them. What’s great about all of this is that it follows not genre formula but character logic – plot and character are integrated rather than arbitrarily separated.
“Okay, um, I’m lost, uh, I’m angry, and I’m armed.”
That dedication to plot-as-character makes it hard to nail down exactly what the episode’s about, thematically speaking. There are three significant emotional highs: Zoe unhesitatingly choosing her husband over Mal when the choice has to be made, Wash babbling about Mal keeping him alive and choosing to return the favour, and the crew joining Wash and Zoe’s assault on Precinct Niska. I read somewhere that the Golden Rule isn’t just a popular moral thought, it’s an actual basis of human psychology – it’s a basic human instinct to treat someone they treated you.
I think this episode shows that Mal’s unerring and unquenchable belief in “you turn on my crew, you turn on me!” is so powerful that it both draws likeminded individuals and shapes the people around him, bringing out their own loyalty. And if you like, Zoe shows what Wash will* look like a few years down the road, someone who learned the lesson he learns and came to peace with it a long time ago. I sometimes used to think Zoe wasn’t as well-developed as everyone else, but this rewatch it’s clear that she’s simply less insecure, and Gina Torres sells us on the idea that there’s a history and personality behind all of Zoe’s actions.
“So, I’m Zoe. Now, what do I do?”
“Probably not talk quite so much.”
“Right. Less talking. She’s terse – I can be terse. Once, in flight school, I was laconic.”
Alan Tudyk, meanwhile, follows Wash all through the journey he goes on this episode; he generally plays Wash as if he starts his sentences without planning on how he’s gonna finish them, which in this episode lets him hilariously flip from one objective to another (“Zoe and you. Together in a tricky… Mal, she’s my wife!“). And when Wash finally figures out who Mal really is and what he really means to Zoe, it’s as if he becomes an entirely different person – he’s still, calm, and singleminded.
Our other characters are pushed to the background, but again this only seems to make them even stronger – this episode has my all-time favourite Book quote (“Preacher, don’t the Bible have some pretty specific things to say about killin’?” “Quite specific. It is, however, somewhat fuzzier on the subject of kneecaps.”), and during the assault, we get his surprising professionalism with a gun, Simon’s well-meaning uselessness, Kaylee’s absolute uselessness, and best of all River’s near-magical abilities with a gun.
“I never – never shot anyone before.”
“I was there, son. I’m fair sure you haven’t shot anyone yet.”
Bubbling below all of this is an increased familiarity between all the crew. Jayne, apparently motivated by the guilt of “Ariel”, has bought the whole crew a fresh box of apples (remember: Kaylee went nuts for strawberries in the pilot, fresh fruit is hard to come by), the episode kicks off with a casual conversation between Simon and Book over River’s brain scans, and my favourite of all is Zoe initially assuming River was the cause of the sabotage, because that implies that River and her strangeness has just become an everyday factor for the characters.
(The other thing I like about that opening conversation is that it implies via editing a connection between Shepard Book and Niska, who also quotes Shan Yu. I doubt there are any specific connections, but they presumably have the same capacity for violence and respect for what it does to a person)
The only bum note this episode is the infamous female client Inara takes on. I’ve seen more than one queer woman roll her eyes at the romanticised image of lesbian sex as platonic massages; for my part, I find the scene confusingly pointless from both a plot and character perspective – aside from definitively establishing that Inara likes the occasional woman, there’s not really much to it. And of course, while the show can be hardly blamed for revolting men using ‘I’ll be in my bunk’ inappropriately, having what’s basically an extended “queer women are hot” scene in the first place was probably unnecessary.
“Oh, hey! Free soup.”
- There’s a lot of ownage this episode, but my favourite is River taking down those three guys without even looking, for demonstrating the awesome nature of ownage in both the colloquial and archaic senses of the term. I was this close to having that be the featured image.
- The torture scene verges on too cute (which isn’t a sentence you generally write all that often), with Niska letting the domestic scene play out without comment. His puzzled reaction is what sells it.
- “I am a large, semi-muscular man!”
- *SPOILERS would have END SPOILERS