“Oh, I ain’t goin’ over there with them bodies. No rutting way. Not if Reavers messed with ’em.”
“Jayne – you’ll scare the women.”
The thing that’s always drawn me to episodic television is how the structure allows the rules of each individual episode to stand alone if you really want them to. You have your bottle episodes, your Halloween episodes, your paintball episodes; half the fun of Community is watching the cast play pretend with a genre for half an hour. Unlike Community or even Cowboy Bebop, Firefly takes its world too seriously to delve into full-on parody, but it does use the flexibility of its world to play with all different genre structures; after last week’s heist, this time we have some softcore horror.
The episode as a whole takes the scenario presented in the second scene of “Serenity” and stretches it out to episode-length; the crew stumble upon an abandoned ship, illegally search it for salvage, and get caught by an Alliance ship. This is not predictable or boring; the basic structure is shaded in with vivid details, from the opening showing the crew having fun playing a basketball-like game while Simon and Inara watch and discuss River, to the Marie Celeste-like study of the ship, to the scene where the entire crew stonewall the Alliance interrogator in different ways. Most importantly, it’s our most complex exploration of Reavers so far.
Reavers are the boogeymen of Firefly, drawing on a different aspect of the myth of the American pioneer: stories of men going insane on the edge of civilisation and, like, murdering and raping and eating each other. The show always takes a Gothic tone when it delves into the Reavers, and Mal’s speeches on them are as terrifying as anything we actually see of Reavers, outlining a step-by-step process into madness.
“Reavers might take issue with that philosophy…if they *had* a philosophy…and they weren’t too busy gnawing on your insides. Jayne’s right. Reavers ain’t men. Or they forgot how to be. Come to just nothin’. They got out to the edge of the galaxy, to that place of nothin’, and that’s what they became.”
“That poor bastard you took off my ship. He looked right into the face of it. Was made to stare.”
“The darkness. Kind of darkness you can’t even imagine. Blacker than the space it moves through.”
“They made him watch. He probably tried to turn away, and they wouldn’t let him. You call him a survivor? He’s not. A man comes up against that kind of will, the only way to deal with it, I suspect, is to become it.”
The other Gothic element of Firefly is the equally mad River. We’ve already seen she knows a few things she shouldn’t, and here she seems connected to Reavers, both in terms of sensing the awful deeds done on the derelict ship, and connected to the lone survivor of the attack. Interestingly, we don’t see in her head in any way – her powers are communicated entirely through edits and Summer Glau’s performance. A perfect balancing act is achieved: we know that River is sensing things and that she knows what they mean, we believe that she’s having serious trouble communicating them, and we believe that Simon would confuse River’s actions for childlike confusion. Sean Maher’s performance as the concerned older brother, trying very hard to get her to obey without setting her off, is equally amazing.
We also meet an Alliance officer for the first time, Commander Harkin (Doug Savant). Mal immediately pegs him as a guy on his first tour, and Savant projects a stiffness to him; this is a guy who’s just doing his job, who has little emotional attachment to what he’s doing and a general impatience with what’s happening around him. It’s a human, though not sympathetic face to the Alliance – naive when it comes to the Outer Rim and preoccupied with proper procedure. When Mal saves him from the proto-Reaver at the end, we get the sense he just had the naivete shaken out of him.
“Seems odd 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.”
The episode ends with a Cowboy Bebop-esque gesture, where our heroes are denied any of the money they had coming to them for the job, making the whole thing a waste of time for them financially. In this case, it’s a final lesson on the Alliance – they’re happy you saved their lives, they’ll listen to you when you tell them to blow up what Man Was Not Meant To Know, but they aren’t gonna let you run away with money you don’t deserve.
- The most effective moment of horror is when Zoe turns on a personal log, and we get half a second of screaming and static before cutting to River. The bodies we see attached to a roof are more morbid than terrifying, but they work too.
- Best part of the interrogations is Zoe refusing to confirm or deny whether or not she loves her husband, but Wash’s expression after “Have you ever been with a warrior woman?” is a very close second.
- We get a significant character beat for Mal this episode, when he tells Jayne to help Simon and Book give due to the dead, only to reveal to the others and us that there’s a bomb attached to the ship that needs to be disconnected, and he was getting them out of the way.
- There’s less ownage in this episode; the most powerful example is Mal hiding Simon and River from the Alliance by having them hang off the ship in space suits.