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.
Well, this is it. The end of Firefly. Last week we covered "Ariel," "War Stories" and "Trash" and below we're discussing the final three episodes of the show, "The Message," "Heart of Gold" and "Objects in Space." You can follow along our discussion of the whole series here. Next Wednesday we'll Timewarp the crap out of Firefly's last stand, Whedon's 2005 film Serenity, which you can also stream on Netflix or Amazon. And then we'll move on to a new show! Suggestions in the comments?
Mal finally got laid!
That might be my big takeaway from the final three episodes of the series. Actually, Firefly seemed to be fully hitting its stride - I’ve enjoyed the past six or seven in a row. Even an episode like “The Message,” which is sort of filler, was well done and an interesting hour of TV.
I’m gonna get heretical here and say that “Objects in Space,” which is the episode everybody seems to use when they talk about the future possibilities of Firefly, didn’t do a lot for me. It’s certainly the best shot episode of the series - too many episodes have an aesthetic that was already a decade old by the time the show aired - and it’s certainly hyper Joss Whedony, but the center doesn’t hold for me.
Maybe it’s because we just watched Saffron also take over the whole ship in another episode that Jubal Early’s feat doesn’t resonate (and to be fair, he doesn’t even engage the most dangerous members of the crew). Maybe it’s because the episode is SO Joss Whedony that Jubal’s menace is expressed pretty much only by dialogue (the one time he seriously injures a crew member is AFTER Early’s gig is essentially up). It’s not a bad episode or anything, but there’s a level of awe in which it’s regarded that I don’t get.
Now, “Heart of Gold”... here’s a real filler episode that’s well done. The episode has some pacing problems, but the idea of doing a siege story on the show’s budget is brilliant. And the setting isn’t an industrial plant in Van Nuys! It’s an under construction model home in Sudden Valley!
“Heart of Gold” gives us a very good understanding of where Mal is coming from with Companions. He doesn’t have a problem with whores or whoring, it seems - what bugs him about Companions is the pretense that they’re something more than that. And he probably doesn’t like the restrictive Guild system, which is part of why he hits it off with Nandi, who also couldn’t take the structure of a Companion’s life. Mal respects those who go their own way and do their own thing.
Obviously “Heart of Gold” is Mal/Inara shipping, but I just liked getting the captain laid. I’ve never been a fan of his mopey celibacy; the character who should have been the ultimate mix of Captain Kirk and Han Solo instead felt like another variation on Angel. I always wanted Mal to be a bit more of a rake, less of a heartsick teenager. It always felt like a massive miscalculation on the part of the show.
Speaking of shipping, these episodes also give us movement in the Kaylee/Simon relationship. Which is whatever; I’ve always felt that the show gave us a very sexually liberated Kaylee in the “Out of Gas” flashback but never followed up on that. She seems hamstrung by Simon’s inability to woo a girl. Shouldn’t she be more forward with this obviously goonie goon? And by the way, Whedon regular Jonathan Woodward’s Tracey had great chemistry with Kaylee in “The Message” - I would have liked to have seen that actor playing Simon in an alternate universe version of the show.
I had a very rough go of it at the beginning of Firefly - the early episodes, frankly, suck - but the show was getting to its place by the time it was canceled. I still don’t see where the intense fandom comes from; there’s nothing in Firefly that tells me this show was ever going to transcend its unwieldy scifi/western mash-up qualities (by the time “Heart of Gold” rolls around even the characters are commenting on how goofily cowboyish some stuff is). And while the characters are strong, there’s nothing in them that speaks to me of anything beyond enjoyable weekly adventures. But who knows: Angel didn’t really establish itself as being in a universe worth caring about until the end of season two. Season one of Buffy is mostly a wash. Maybe Firefly could have gone places.
I definitely think it could have gone places, Devin, and moreover, was getting towards the going by the end of its short run. I can’t speak to Angel - I never warmed to the series - but you’re definitely right in that season one of Buffy was mostly excruciating. And, oh, sure, there were highlights in that season, but it wasn’t until mid-season two that it really started to find its place narratively. I actually think Firefly had a head start as compared to either Buffy or Angel (and most especially Dollhouse) in that it wasn’t afraid to throw a bunch of shit to the wall each week and work with what stuck. And that, in essence, is Firefly to me: a fearless piece of television. Not always great, and sometimes downright painful, but with a joyous recklessness to storytelling that I still find refreshing.
“The Message” is a really solid hour of television for me, in spite of it being a filler episode. I feel like it gives a bit of closure to Mal and Zoe’s war story and involves the rest of the crew in the closure as well, so that they all now own a piece of that history. It’s a lovely send-off for the series, watching the cast solemnly lay to rest their friend in the blanket of snow. And I love Firefly enough and miss it enough to still well up at that scene. That said, they’re all maybe a bit nicer to Tracey than I’d be, considering the man first used them to smuggle organs and then later, you know, tried to shoot them.
I sometimes feel like “Heart of Gold” is Firefly’s attempt at being an edgy HBO show, because Lord, is Rance Burgess an uber-dick. He’s the misogynist version of a drooling Klansman dangling a noose; it’s just a laughable portrayal. This is actually the only episode I never watched more than once (except for now, obviously) and I think it’s just because I can’t force myself to care about Mal and Inara’s relationship and I care even less about the Hooker With a Heart of Gold cliche. And Inara’s attempt to make Mal feel better by thanking him for fucking Julie Cooper before she died is, frankly, just gross. Unrequited love is always going to be shaky ground, because these people are adults and should have already figured out how to get laid by the boy/girl they like, but Mal and Inara are worse than most. I have no tolerance for their navel-gazing and foot-shuffling.
But I can’t believe that you don’t like “Objects in Space,” Devin! It is exceedingly Whedonesque, but, hey, I like Whedon’s writing. Jubal Early is, for me, the kind of villain that Whedon does so well (and the kind of villain he failed at with Niska). Equitable and complacent, he nonetheless threatens to rape Kaylee with the same emotionless voice as one might use to order tap water instead of sparkling. Early is an early prototype of The Operative, and I think I actually like him better, since he isn’t quite so trapped down by honor. I enjoy the way he reads people and dispatches them according to their personality. His insight into the crew of Serenity is keen and unsettling and a hell of a lot more entertaining than River’s bare-foot wanders into the minds of her crewmembers.
It’s certainly not a plot-driven episode and, hell, maybe it was a little early in the show to attempt a “Restless”-type episode, but I think it’s brilliantly shot and deeply compelling.
I like that we all have three different opinions about this run of episodes, because I mostly dislike “The Message,” absolutely love “Heart of Gold” and very much enjoy “Objects in Space.” I’ve never been a diehard Firefly fanperson, but I do think it’s a solidly entertaining show that was headed in a very compelling direction. Simon and River aren’t bothering me so much by the end of the show’s run, Mal and Inara’s relationship is headed someplace definitive (to a believable hiatus, as she plans to leave the ship for more respectable employment), and the adventures of the week are growing less pointless. I think season two of Firefly would have been really cool. I think season three would have been incredible, and by season four I think they would have run out of steam.
I think it’s interesting that you both like “The Message,” because I find it almost entirely tedious. There are some good moments - for instance the chemistry Kaylee and Tracey share that you mentioned, Devin - but generally I find the pace lagging and the sentimental moments lacking. As much as I love the relationship between Mal and Zoe created by their time in the war together, I never feel moved when I actually see that war time. I care about the aftermath of the war; I do find the bitter hatred between Rebel and loyal Alliance factions very interesting, as well as the disparate prosperity between The Core planets and The Rim. But every time Firefly shows an actual flashback to the war, I find myself tuning out.
I don’t care about Tracey’s fake death, real death or betrayal because who the hell is that guy, anyway? Someone we met in a 90 second flashback who was a total weenie when the stakes were high. And if I don’t care about Tracey (his cute scenes with Kaylee aside, but all credit there is due to the magical Jewel Staite), then I can’t care about “The Message.” So the slow-mo snow-covered funeral with the voice-over repeating a patch of dialogue we’ve now heard three times does absolutely nothing for me.
But takeaways from that episode: I want all of Kaylee’s outfits. She and Simon need to just bang already instead of flirting ineptly in front of mutated cow fetuses. Also, it’s funny that in a world with spaceships and hovercrafts and laser guns, carnival barkers are still touting “Proof of alien life!” And finally and most importantly: JAYNE’S MOTHERFUCKING HAT. I will give “The Message” and any other episode a pass for that “pretty cunning” hat. Oh shit! It’s my birthday next month, everyone.
Erin, I’m surprised you don’t like “Heart of Gold,” not least because Julie Cooper! Melinda Clarke is wonderful here (as she is everywhere), and although I’m apparently the only person who does care about Mal and Inara’s relationship, I also love seeing Mal get laid. I think his connection with Nandi is very well realized, and even though they do that TV-thing I hate where they spend half an hour whispering saucy jokes to each other in between slow kisses instead of just getting to the sex already, I really like the scenes and chemistry they share.
Ultimately, I want Mal and Inara to be together. I think they’re great together. But I don’t ever need to see it in this short series; it’s enough for me to think it will happen one day in the imaginary future. I do think the show puts up too many stupid roadblocks to their macking, and I really like Devin’s theory that Mal should have been a sexy rake instead of a mopey monk. That would make for great dramatic tension between Mal and Inara: every time she’s boning for bucks, he’s boning for fun. As is, it’s nice to see Inara ding Mal for his puritanical views on sex.
But oh man, the scene where Inara sits on the floor and weeps gets me every time. I don’t know, I guess I’m a sap. Like I said, I don’t actually want to see Mal and Inara together yet, and I think her leaving the ship makes a lot of sense and is an interesting direction for their relationship that doesn’t feel like wheel-spinning. But yeah, I like the characters together. Still, please don’t call me a shipper. I don’t care that much.
But aside from all the relationship stuff, I just think “Heart of Gold” works as a great action episode, with one of the only action sequences in the entire series that works for me. The siege is great, all the preparation stuff is fun to watch, and I think the stakes are high and make sense. Burgess wants his baby; Petaline wants her baby. I can buy that. I can’t buy Burgess’ idiotic hovercraft and goggles, however.
Also Kaylee and Wash get some fun scenes in this episode, and I always wish those two had more lines together. I guess Joss likes to spread the fun characters around, but I love their exchanges. “Wash, tell me I’m pretty.” “Were I unwed, I’d take you in a manly fashion.” “Because I’m pretty?” “Because you’re pretty.” I also always laugh at: “Oh Kaylee. We all know I’m the funny one!”
Actually, “Heart of Gold” has tons of great lines. Some other faves: “They’re whores.” “I’m in.” Also, “Well lady, I must say you’re my kinda stupid.”
Other takeaways from the episode: actual Asian ladies! Not all of them are Chinese, I don’t think, and none of them appear to have SAG cards, but still. Asians! Zoe and Wash’s baby discussion is intriguing and I would have liked to see that explored further. Finally, two episodes in a row end in slow-mo funerals, but I think the one in “Heart of Gold” actually works, because Julie Cooper deserves an honorable burial, dammit.
Finally, “Objects in Space.” I think the art direction in this episode is tremendous, the best of the series. The flash of golden leaves covering the floor of Serenity is stunning.
And I think Richard Brooks provides Firefly’s only truly sinister villain in Jubal Early. I love all his weird dialogue and quirky insights. His scene with Kaylee is terrifying; both actors are incredible in that exchange. Kaylee’s the Willow here - if the writers put her in a threatening situation, everybody cares.
I don’t think it’s the best episode of the series, despite the fact that I think Early is certainly the best villain. It’s too River-heavy, and her little guilt-inducing monologue at the end about how she’s going to go away so everyone can live a normal life when she never actually intended to leave is pretty obnoxious. I mean, she stabbed Jayne and almost shot Mal. They have a reason to distrust her.
I do wish Early had interacted more with the stronger characters - it’s no big deal seeing him menace Simon and Inara as Mal and Jayne are stowed safely away. And I could do without Early’s head-whipping !CRAZY EDIT! as River details his emotional issues, but anyway, it’s a strong episode that looks great. And River’s pretty cute at the end in her little spacesuit, giggling with Mal. I wish it weren't the finale for several reasons, not least of which is that this show deserves more episodes, but also it's just a weird place to end things.
It isn’t that I don’t like “Objects in Space,” Erin, it’s just that I haven’t totally fallen for it. I DO love Joss Whedon’s writing, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t put the episode in the wrong place. Or maybe he didn’t introduce Jubal Early early enough. See, “Objects in Space” sort of reminds me of the Buffy episode “Conversations With Dead People” in that it’s an episode where the villain monologues a bunch. There are a couple of things that make “Conversations” effective, and one of them is that the First Evil has already been presented as a threat. I think Jubal needed to have killed the shit out of somebody (not necessarily the crew, just a secondary character) to establish his villain bona fides. Getting the jump on the crew of the Serenity is no great feat, and once he does get the jump he mostly yaps at them.
It’s a good episode! I’m just being a bit nitpicky because I always see it as the episode that people say is the proof that Firefly had true greatness in its future.
Meredith, I think what makes “The Message” work for me is that it’s just a strong bit of filler. It’s not a great episode, but it takes time to focus in on the show’s best relationship: Mal and Zoe. And you’re right that Tracey’s betrayal/death are not a big deal to us, but the point is that they’re a big deal to Mal and Zoe. The episode is about letting Tracey’s actions reflect on them, and I thought the way they held his hand as he died was touching. What’s more, it’s the first time the show feels like it addresses the war in a real way - ie, Tracey is a metaphor for the whole war experience, and it turns out that he’s not a good guy. And maybe their side of the war wasn’t so good either.
That’s important because in a real western the cowboy would be the disillusioned Confederate soldier. He’s the guy wandering the West because not only did his side lose, but there’s a sense of being on the actual wrong side. Firefly is weird in the way it deals with its ‘western in space’ concept - ie, it’s totally fucking on the nose all the time, as if the Civil War and the aftermath played out exactly again in space 600 years later - but it’s kept its Confederates as generic rebels. Until now. I would have loved for the show, going forward, to have really explored the rebels’ side and to have shown that what Mal and Zoe were fighting for wasn’t so pure after all.
That would have been interesting, Devin, and I’m thinking too bold for a show in that time and on that network. You’re right, though; Confederate sentimentalities are always displayed as either A) fodder for laughs or B) some sort of fictionalized noblesse and neither are true or particularly useful stereotypes. Growing up as I did in the South, the Civil War (which, yeah, took me until the age of 7 to realize was actually the same thing as the War of Northern Aggression, which is what I grew up hearing it referred to as. Then again, I was 12 when I learned that Texas actually lost the Battle of the Alamo, so more than likely I’m just shitty at history. Though, really, can you blame me? We are damn proud of a battle we got our asses kicked at.) is obviously a shadow cast over the states below the Mason-Dixon, and it behooves us all to have an honest and accurate conversation about it. Whedon wasted that opportunity with Firefly, but then again, I have the feeling he was clinging more to the romance of the lonesome and embattled Confederate soldier without spending too much energy worrying about the politics of same.
And, as much as we never got to see enough of the Browncoats’ side to understand where they're coming from, we can say the same for the Alliance. I mean, okay, they imprison telepathic kids, but that doesn’t mean they’re all bad. Maybe they saw corruption on the outer planets that they wanted to fix? Maybe, but we don’t know. We don’t know how noble their cause is, because now they’re just carpetbaggers in space.
As for Jubal Early being introduced earlier, I actually would have really loved that. Early, to me, is probably second only to The Mayor on my list of Top Whedon Bad Guys, and I would have loved to see more of him. If he had been a background presence throughout the show, given that same sympathetic treatment that The Mayor was given in Buffy, we’d have felt truly conflicted and, because of that, more inclined to see our heroes triumph. Jubal for President, I guess is what I’m saying.
Holy shit, Erin, you were taught the Civil War was called the War of Northern Aggression? I grew up in Texas, but damn. That is wack. Not wack: Jubal for President. I can definitely get behind that. I really wish he'd been featured in Serenity. I just love the performance, character and actor so much.
That is a really fascinating idea, Devin, the idea that perhaps Mal and Zoe were on the wrong side. Or the misguided side, at least. When put in terms of the Civil War, it's hard to see it any other way. I love Gone With the Wind as much as or far more than the next person, but I think we can all agree that slavery is bad.
Sure, The Alliance are oppressive assholes, but also, their planets are really clean. Everyone looks nice. They have buffet tables. People aren't constantly being threatened with rape and burglary and having babies cut out of them. Alliance = bad, okay, but I'm pretty sure I'd rather live on a Core planet. Does that make me the worst?
Questions to leave you with, dear readers!
1. Mal and Inara - does anyone but Meredith care?
2. How do you feel about the idea that the Rebels may have been just as misguided as the Alliance forces?
3. Jubal Early - too talky or ultimately badass?
4. Since the three of us have such differing opinions on the quality of these episodes, I'm curious: how would you rank "The Message," "Heart of Gold" and "Objects in Space"?
Join us next Wednesday as we talk about Serenity, the theatrical follow-up to Firefly.
Some comment etiquette: spoil away! Even newbies have presumably seen the entire series for now. But mark any Serenity spoiler comments appropriately, please.