Welcome back to TV Timewarp, in which we spend Wednesdays revisiting each episode of a late, beloved series. We’re starting out with Joss Whedon’s short-lived space western Firefly, which aired on Fox in 2002-2003. Devin, Meredith and FYA’s Erin will cover three episodes every week, and we’d love for you to follow along with us! You can stream Firefly for free on Netflix or Amazon Instant Watch.
Read last week's installment, covering "Bushwhacked," "Safe" and "Shindig" here. We're discussing "Our Mrs. Reynolds," "Jaynestown" and "Out of Gas" below.
Guys! I liked all three of these episodes! We should have a parade or something!
I know that a couple of these episodes are considered all-timers by the Browncoats, but to me they’re just solid hours of episodic sci-fi that indicated Firefly might have something interesting in store for us if it hadn’t been canceled. “Our Mrs. Reynolds,” “Jaynestown” and “Out of Gas” are all good standalone episodes that use the show’s biggest strength: its charming core cast.
I’ve made my dislike for River, Simon and Inara known, but as much as I don’t like them I tend to like Mal, Zoe, Wash, Book, Kaylee and Jayne. I think it all comes down to the actors in the roles, and I suspect that had the show gone four or five seasons these would have become the core six, with the other three drifting away to the edges or being written out. Or so I’d like to believe.
The first two eps are nice examples of how to do single character-centric episodes in an ensemble cast. I think Firefly goes too far out of its way to include everybody in every episode (Inara could have easily been left out of "Jaynestown," for instance), but when the focus is on a specific character the show has wings. Mal’s complicated sense of honor and duty shines in “Our Mrs. Reynolds,” as he is seduced by the very alluring Christina Hendricks, long before Mad Men.
Written by Joss Whedon, “Our Mrs. Reynolds” tackles lots of interesting gender dynamics, and it shows how chivalry can be sort of chauvinistic at times. It also reveals that Mal hasn’t been laid in some time, which maybe explains some of his uptight attitudes in the pilot. The episode is well-structured, slowly revealing the levels of Saffron’s plan in a way that keeps reversing what we expect without feeling like cheap twists.
“Jaynestown” is quite good, even though it suffers again from jamming everybody into the episode for no good reason. I think Whedon and crew were spending a little too much time on season long character arcs and not always thinking about how they would impact the episode at hand. Thankfully the episode itself is funny and fun.
Finally “Out of Gas” is the first episode that feels like it’s really more than a charming diversion. That said, it’s a weird one because it should be airing in season three or something. It’s a backstory heavy episode that would have been better suited for episode 60, when the characters have been very, very established and when the universe is filled with little things that can be layered into the flashbacks. We’re still getting to know these people, and seeing their origins would be more exciting if we felt like we had them pegged.
Maybe Whedon and the crew suspected they wouldn’t get the time to fully tell their story, and that’s why they went deep history so early. I think it’s probably more because everybody was so aware of the universe they were creating, which paradoxically may be why I don’t like that universe so much. Let me explain:
We’re nine hours into the series, and while I like the six core actors and their characters, I feel nothing else about the universe at all. Or about Serenity for that matter, which meant the final shot of “Out of Gas” had no oomph for me. The Enterprise didn’t really become a fetish object for Star Trek until the movies, and with good reason - you gotta live on the ship a while before you begin to worship it.
But the larger Firefly universe holds no allure for me. By now we’ve visited well over half a dozen worlds and they all look and feel exactly the same. They’re all a bunch of dusty places that look like Los Angeles area parks and that feature faux Old West stuff happening. It’s all so flat and without variation and, frankly, boring. I like the show best when it’s stuck on the Serenity because at least then I’m not looking at the backside of the Burbank hills or whatever generic location the show is using.
Beyond that I’m not yet caught up in anything larger than enjoying when Mal cracks wise/acts like a badass. If the show won’t give me a sense of discovery - if every week it’s going to be go back to yet another dustball world - it needs to give me a larger sense of story to keep me tuning in. I either need to feel like next week will give me a strange new world or will tell me a new part of a captivating story. Firefly does neither. Which means that while these three episodes were all good, if the series had ended after “Out of Gas,” I wouldn’t have much cared.
A parade! Streamers! Confetti!
It's funny; if you'd asked me before this rewatch which Firefly episode was my favorite, I'd have said "Jaynestown" without blinking. And it still holds up - I love Jayne's puzzled attempt at embracing a moral center, even if it mostly means trading in his hero cachet for a bounce with a local Mudder (while singing a song written in his honor). And Simon is vaguely likable in this ep, even if Sean Maher studied at the High School Senior School of Acting Intoxicated, though that may be due to increased screen time with Jewel Staite, who causes rainbows and kittens to bloom in every scene she's in. Even Ron Glass, who is wasted on this show and in this ep in particular, has a few moments of cheeky fun. But, when watched between "Our Mrs Reynolds" and "Out of Gas," I can't help but think that my favorite episode just doesn't stack up.
"Our Mrs Reynolds" is, I think, an excellent way to involve the whole cast while still focusing on one character in particular. The opening scene is dutifully hilarious (and Zoe looks like a badass John Woo-ing her way off the covered wagon) and the scene of Saffron's discovery onboard is pitch perfect in terms of cast chemistry. Actually, the plot and the dialogue really allow everyone to shine, as most of the cast members rattle off hilarious Whedon one-liners. Jayne introduces us to Vera, his very favorite gun. Even Inara cracks me up with her "I wish you many fat children" line (though her obvious jealousy about the situation is just dumb) and of course, Book summarizes the entire Don't Talk; Don't Text credo with his bit about a Special Hell being reserved for child molesters and people who talk at the theatre.
The only part of "Our Mrs Reynolds" which drags for me is Saffron's Big Evil Plan. Not the Death Kiss or her failed deductions of Wash and Inara - that part's hilarious. But the whole To Catch a Firefly b-plot and resolution is, frankly, forgettable. I wish Saffron's big plan had been a bit more deviant or didn't involve off-ship bad guys. But it's a minor quibble in an otherwise fantastic episode.
I have to disagree with you on the placement of "Out of Gas," Devin. I think that the episode is truly the litmus test of whether a person will love this series or not. If your heart doesn't swell at the site of Serenity, dusty and grounded, at the end of this episode, then the series just isn't for you. For me, this episode comes at the perfect time in the season- when I really do want to learn more about the crew and how they came to be floating on this banged-up vessel. The introductions to Kaylee, Wash and Jayne give you even more insight into their characters and endear the viewer to them even more ("saw it plain as day when I was on my back just now."). And Inara's intro really highlights this weird flaw in Mal's character - he seemed perfectly fine with her job until she challenged his charm. Then he started treating her in a most unbecoming manner.
And from a storytelling point of view, "Out of Gas" really shines. The three timelines working within each other do a great job of balancing the tension of Mal's dying heroics, the crew's response to the emergency and the lighthearted flashbacks to each crewmember's introduction to Serenity. If I have any criticism of the episode at all, it's minor: boy, does that fire look cheap-ass as it's barreling out the cargo doors. Yikes.
I love this run of episodes. I feel they all work separately and together to further the charm and character dynamics of Firefly. And the reason I think they work is that they all utterly ignore the weak and tedious mytharc of the show - all of the River/Simon/Alliance stuff - in favor of solid, compelling standalone stories. I think the mythology of Firefly was introduced too early for anyone to care. The best modern science fiction and fantasy shows (The X-Files, Fringe, Supernatural, etc) start out as story-of-the-week jobs for at least the first half of the first season before introducing heavy mytharc business, because that gives the audience a chance to grow enamored of the characters and the universe before becoming bogged down with a huge mythology that doesn’t mean much to them yet.
I really enjoy “Our Mrs. Reynolds.” Ten minutes into the pilot of Mad Men I gasped, “That’s Saffron!” and it took some time for me to start thinking of Christina Hendricks as Joan instead. She just does such great things with the role, playing the naive object of exploitation and the cunning con person with equal assurance. I also think it’s interesting that we’re discussing this episode the week that Film Crit Hulk wrote this terrific examination of Mad Men’s most recent episode “The Other Woman.” Suffice it to say that Mal’s treatment of Saffron is precisely what Hulk observes in the male audience comments after this week’s Mad Men: Mal believes it is up to him to keep Saffron pure, despite her very clear proclamation of desire. Sure, at first Mal is doing the right thing by not taking advantage of their inopportune marriage, but once Saffron makes it clear that she wants to have sex with him, it’s gross presumption of him to continue trying to preserve her virginity. Although I do laugh when Mal says “Oh, I’m going to the special hell,” the thing to remember is that Book said “If you take sexual advantage of her.” Mal wouldn’t be taking sexual advantage of a grown woman giving her articulate and unqualified consent. Presuming that he would be because she just doesn’t know any better is, as Devin states, chauvinism disguised as chivalry.
It’s all moot anyway because Saffron is a lowdown...dirty...deceiver, as Jayne might claim with a certain kind of poetry. There are few scenes in Firefly I enjoy as much as Inara and Saffron’s showdown. “You’re good.” “You’re amazing!” I think Morena Baccarin shows a lot of personality in this episode, from the great fat babies quote Erin mentioned above, to the confrontation with Saffron to her mush-mouthed desperation to convince everyone she fell instead of kissed Mal.
Honestly, all of the core cast members are delightful in this episode. Book, Zoe, Kaylee and especially Wash bring in the laughs: “Captain, don’t you know kissing girls makes you sleepy?” Great stuff.
“Jaynestown” is definitely a classic, and it brings the first - only? - legitimate Simon laugh: “I’ll go. Just...stop describing me.” This episode is the first sign that Adam Baldwin can play more than just the buffoon - although his goofy disguise and befuddled honor are played pitch perfectly. But that final scene with Jayne and Mal on the ship is a truly moving moment, one that proves that Mal knows how to reach just about anyone, and that Jayne, heretofore unrelentingly corrupt, somewhere has a sense of right and wrong. But again with the likable buffoonery: I love when Jayne says earnestly, “Me, Jayne Cobb.” and Mal snaps, “I know your name, jackass!”
Kaylee plays drunk better than anyone else on the show (we get a chance to see nearly all of them try it at one point or another) and gives my favorite line delivery of the episode with “Hamsters is nice.” Wash and Zoe’s untempered delight in Jayne’s folk hero status always entertains, as does Zoe’s reaction to Wash’s drunkenness. She gives him a look that just made me guffaw. And River’s actually relatively unannoying in “Jaynestown,” with more sensical-sounding gibberish than usual and her dismayed reaction to Book’s Einstein hair. It’s simply a really fun episode, and the show needs more simple fun at this point.
Finally we have “Out of Gas,” an episode that manages to be both fun and meaningful. It does feel like a later season episode, but I’m glad Whedon, Minear and Edlund had the foresight to include it early enough for us to actually see it. The episode does so much to establish this world and this ragtag family. In one simple line in the first few minutes of the episode, we learn Mal’s entire philosophy in harboring these troublemakers: “Live like real people. A small crew - they must feel the need to be free. Take jobs as they come. They never have to be under the heel of nobody ever again.” He wants that for himself and for others, and he never stops fighting for it.
I love every flashback introduction. They all work so well and make great sense despite the fact that we still don’t know that much about these characters. Engines make Kaylee hot and she has a natural talent for them. Wash has a mustache, a goofy enthusiasm and there’s “something” about him that Zoe doesn’t like - that something being that she’s drawn to him in a way that makes her nervous. Inara’s loved Serenity from the first day she saw her. Jayne betrayed one group before joining this one - and yet he seems reluctant to betray the crew of Serenity only a short time later.
I like the three simultaneous timelines, as well, and that isn’t a narrative trick I usually enjoy. There are some clever transitions, but I like it more for thematic reasons - the structure shows the way that each character (except, of course, for the Tams, who have little place in this episode) is so deeply ingrained in the world of Serenity and the life of Mal. They all need each other and they are inextricably intertwined. And that’s a beautiful thing.
There is one moment in “Out of Gas” that bothers me - when Mal calls Inara a whore, and she replies, “That’s the last time you get to call me ‘whore’.” Mal says jovially, “Absolutely. Never again,” and the show plays it like he’s this rapscallion that we know gets away with doing exactly that over and over again. And the tone of this one brief scene is sort of celebratory, like we should all be high-fiving Mal for getting away with calling Inara a whore multiple times despite her very reasonable demand that he not do so. And you know what? I’m not high-fiving him for that shit.
I hate this scene especially because it taints what I feel like is such a wonderful episode for Mal. We learn the strongest thing about Mal is that he gets ‘er done regardless of the obstacles or stakes. As everyone falls apart in the face of this catastrophe, he stays focused and in charge. He’s encouraging when he needs to be. He’s heartless when he needs to be. And he’s heroic when he needs to be. And at the end of this episode when Nathan Fillion gives that boozy, sleepy delivery of “You all gonna be here when I wake up?” - as he’s just about to nod off, and then his eyes open in panic - I cry every damn time.
To me, Serenity the ship isn’t iconic, and she isn’t meant to be. That last scene of Serenity sitting on the ground isn’t important to me because of Serenity herself - it’s important because I believe that she means something to Mal. And to Kaylee. And to everyone on the boat. They’re the family and she’s the home, and that’s what counts.
Looking at the credits I feel like it’s no coincidence these episodes feature a murderer’s row of writers: Whedon, Edlund and Minear.
And Erin, I may agree with you about “Out of Gas” as a litmus test. I revisited Firefly in a post-Avengers glow (while also revisiting Angel for my own fun) of Joss Whedon love. I’ve never been more open to this show, but it still feels like a TV casualty I can’t mourn.
Yeah, Edlund and Minear definitely get this show in a way that some of the other writers in Whedon's group just didn't, I think. (Or maybe they just get Whedon - theirs were the only episodes of Angel I found palatable.) This is just a solid, fun set of episodes, and consistently the favorite of most fans - hell, maybe I should just start with this block when I try to recruit new Browncoats.
No kidding: Ben Edlund and Tim Minear are two stellar television writers, and their particular sensibilities fuse so well with Whedon’s. Even when they’re working on totally separate shows, like Supernatural or Wonderfalls, you can get a glimpse of those Joss-friendly sensibilities.
Which reminds me! I’m covering the ATX Television Festival this weekend, and Ben Edlund will be participating in several panels, as will Whedon regular (and regular badass on her own) Jane Espenson. Check back next week to hear what these geniuses have to say about Women on Television, Fantasy TV Gone Mainstream and other juicy topics.
Questions to leave you with, dear readers:
1) Do you believe Mal is being chivalrous or oppressively presumptive in his treatment of Saffron at the beginning of "Our Mrs. Reynolds"? Or his typical, frustratingly charming combination of both?
2) Did the Tams grow on you at all after "Jaynestown"? Or did you like them to begin with?
3) How do you feel about these character backstories being revealed so early in the show in "Out of Gas"?
4) Do you feel that Serenity the ship has an iconic place in television history, or is it just another set?
Some comment etiquette: many people are visiting Firefly for the first time with us, so please mark all series-spoilery comments appropriately.
NEXT WEEK: join us next Wednesday as we Timewarp the following episodes: "Ariel," "War Stories" and "Trash."