Still more lazy thoughts from this one…

Favorite Scene: Firefly

Firefly
Created by: Joss Whedon
Episode Title: War Stories
Episode #: 10
Production Code: 1AGE09
Season: Really? There was only one.
Original Air Date: December 6, 2002
Written by: Cheryl Cain
Directed by: James A. Contner

As I mentioned in a recent TMT, I came to the extraordinary science-fiction television series, Firefly, rather tardily. Like in almost three years late. I know what you’re thinking. Why show up at all, then? Well, it was worth it. The show, one that the Fox Network completely and utterly mishandled by screwing up the episode order and playing havoc with air dates, was unique in a way some stellar genre programs often are. It was original, well-written, and had a cast of obscure or little-known actors littering the show and showcasing unexpected talent or personality as the producers presented smart material. Of course, such programs usually pay a high price for being so creative and ahead of the curve: low ratings and early cancellation being their usual reward (Star Trek, Brimstone, Millennium, The Adventures of Bristol County Jr. anyone?).

Still, as much as this series is now looked upon as one the greatest shows cancelled before its time I’ve found I wasn’t alone in missing out on its initial run. Credit those who found, cherished, and went on to champion it online. For without them, along with its tireless creator Joss Whedon, the 2005 film Serenity never would have happened, and thus not spur my, and others, conversion as a latter-day dedicated fan. I think my colleague Jamie Helton from the Filmverse blog captured the essence of the show best in a comment offered up in that same TMT post:

“The thing about “Firefly” is that it’s essentially a western in a science fiction setting. Also, the characters are just so much fun to watch as they are very cleverly written. You never truly know where they stand or what they are likely to do, which is highly unusual for a TV show, which usually has extremely predictable characters and situations.”

Nailed it. Joss Whedon has a talent for delivering such things whether they’re successful on television/film (like Buffy The Vampire Slayer and contributing to the Toy Story script) or not exactly (Titan A.E. or Alien Resurrection — films friends and I continue to defend, often; J.D.’s for the former and me with the latter for its unique character development of the iconic Ripley). Even though the film hooked me to the characters, it was viewing the entire short series, all during one weekend after I picked it up on DVD, that infatuated me with the program. As I’ve a tendency to do, all of this can be crystallized in one particular episode and specific scene from Firefly.

Episode synopsis (War Stories): Marriage is a tightrope act. Nobody knows it more than Wash. Serenity’s pilot Hoban “Wash” Washburne (superbly played by Alan Tudyk) is feeling a tad insecure and jealous over his wife Zoe’s (Gina Torres, who forever has my sci-fi heart) close bond to their Firefly-class starship’s Captain, Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds (Nathan Fillion). All of this due to their previous wartime experiences together. And for that, he demands a shot at some action of field the crew regularly find themselves in. For his sins, he gets what he’s asking for. His timing being what it is though, this will be the exact moment a vicious crime lord will finally catch up with the Captain, and anybody with him, for some brutal retribution for a botched assignment.

“What this marriage needs is one less husband.”

More than half-way through the only season this group of characters would ever have together delivered an episode built on the personas now clearly delineated and a threat launched way back with the second installment of the show. That one was titled Train Job, and because of it this one in particular lands like some psychotic ex-girlfriend. I love a good story that takes you places you’ve seen and encountered before, but twists them in way that’s meaningful and unexpected. War Stories should be on the cover of any such compendium of like tales. I give Whedon in general, and especially writer Cheryl Cain specifically, props for delivering on this chapter, and doing so with a scene brimming with blood and testosterone, its established sense of humor, and cutting through it all from a strong and fiercely female slant.

The sequence I’m referring to isn’t anywhere near the climax either (and no we’re not talking about the super-hot Companion Inara, the gorgeous Morena Baccarin, and her female client escapade found here, as well). In point of fact, it is half-way through the episode, one where early on the tension between husband and wife tandem of Zoe and Wash quickly escalated due to the male’s fragile ego finding itself at risk from something negligible (not that it happens at all in my wonderful union; oh heavens, no). By this time, Mal and Wash have been captured and are gleefully being tortured by the sadistic crime lord Niska (Michael Farman reprising his role from the earlier episode as the thug who feels his rep has been damaged by Mal) at his space station.

Brief sidebar on torture

The infliction of pain and torment upon human beings is an age-old practice, right along with killing one another, for Homo sapiens. In fact, it’s one of the few things where people would actually prefer the latter, especially if given the choice of quick versus a slow, gruesomely painful demise. Considering we are sensation-oriented, it’s why the empathetic among physicians or emergency personnel will go out of their way to tell family members that their loved one didn’t suffer when their end came (even if it’s a lie). For almost as long, authors, filmmakers, and TV writers/producers have tortured their characters with a distinctly opposite approach. That’s because applying such suffering just raises the stakes in a story and garners sympathy from the audience. Plus, as Stephen King deduced long ago, it feeds those dark little corners in our collective being with the blood and anguish it so craves. [now back to our programming]

The Scene

Zoe has surmised, through the help of Jayne (Adam Baldwin) and Shepherd (Ron Glass), her men are in the hands of a truly barbarous bastard she’s well aware of and makes plans to buy them back, alone. Easily, the thing I adore about the character of Zoe is that by this time you know she’s far from being the weak sister in this group, even if the “strong” female character is now a hackneyed trope these days (as the Wordy one and I now agree). Too many hack writers/producers handle this like a badge to show how progressive they are. Not here. As with Whedon’s stuff, she’s organic and matter-of-fact in a way others are not. Additionally, this story takes advantage of the episode order. Had it aired early in the series, it’d have fallen flat and trite with viewers because they wouldn’t have been as invested with the crew.

Naturally, Niska (veteran character actor Farman relishing the role), being the cruel and despicable gangster dickweed he is (pleased with himself while personally directing the scourging in his own torture chamber), only wants to increase his perverse pleasure. He proffers that overworked standby, the ‘tough choice’, to the woman standing before him seeking the release of her loved ones. It’s a ploy used how many times by bad guys on television? At least a dozen times per season, going all the way back to radio tube days, I think.

Zoe: “Should be enough to buy back my men.”
Niska: “This is your opinion, is it?”
Zoe: “It is.”
Niska: “They are perhaps damaged now. Are they worth so much to you?”
Zoe: “Yes.”
Niska: “And to me, they are worth more. I think this is not enough. Not enough for two, but sufficient perhaps for one. Ah, you now have…”

Him.”, Zoe says succinctly as she jumps in, not letting him finish and thus cutting Niska’s play (and delight) off as she selects her husband. She even has gumption to add, turning her beautifully passive face back to Niska, “I’m sorry, you were going to ask me to choose, right? Do you want to finish?” And it’s this very moment that sealed the deal for me with Firefly as a series, and of course Gina, in my heart.

There’s no other way to say it that conveys as well what Zoe does to the villain on this episode and stage other than a little crudely. She supremely and verbally cock-blocks the contemptible prick as only a woman can. She’s blue steel, and all heart, and no man can touch her (especially this a**hole). It’s the best scene for an episode (and series) loaded with them, in my eyes because of that standpoint and who delivers it. Just about anyone else making such a segment, let’s give James A. Contner kudos for direction here, by not milking a time-worn scenario beyond the smart change-up they ultimately crafted. It’s entirely in keeping with the way Whedon framed the show and his characters’ make-up.

Damn it all. Re-watching this particular show again only irks to a greater extent, and leaves me wishing for more that sadly will never be. Nothing in Firefly, as is usual with great science-fiction, was commonplace. Even what followed the scene was above grade: Niska’s brutal attempt at a comeback (think Reservoir Dogs, without the catchy 70s song), Zoe calming and fortifying her wounded and almost hysterical husband, and bringing the tough ugly truth that with Mal’s continuing torture, while bad for him as that bastard Niska will keep him alive for agony’s sake, is their tactical break. That thing most would choose against for a loved one, in this case the stalwart Zoe has the strength to let it continue, while she gathers her crew to the task at hand of bringing their Captain back to them alive. The essence of soldiering on like a Browncoat, if there ever was one. Lastly, the episode’s action-packed climax hints at things to come, especially in the Serenity film that Joss Whedon would deliver on a couple of years later. I can’t think of better domestic bliss than that.

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23 Responses to “Favorite Scene: Firefly”

  1. Jamie Helton

    Thanks for the shout-out!

    I’m glad you pointed out Whedon’s “Alien Resurrection,” a much-maligned film that had a lot of interesting concepts that was bizarrely executed. I read his screenplay before seeing the movie and enjoyed it a lot. It was a great adventure that fit into the series, but felt like its own story with its own tone (a trademark of the “Alien” series). However, when I saw the movie, I was confounded by the changes made and the weirdness of the characters. The director, Jean Pierre Jeunet, put his own stamp on it and is responsible for the elements that are highly criticized.

    You know, if it wasn’t for “Firefly” and then “Serenity,” we wouldn’t have his version of “The Avengers” coming out soon!

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    • le0pard13

      Glad to do it, Jamie. Loved your description when I first read it (and naturally wanted to re-use and re-task your comment). Fit in beautifully.

      Yeah, all the good parts in ‘Alien Resurrection’ seemed to come from that distinct Whedon way of things. Criminy, I really wished they’d have gone full-bore with Whedon’s ideas and left Jean Pierre Jeunet’s stamp off of it. I re-watch it on occasion purely for Sigourney’s Ripley and Whedon’s dialogue and characterization.

      You know, if it wasn’t for “Firefly” and then “Serenity,” we wouldn’t have his version of “The Avengers” coming out soon!

      May 4th can’t come fast enough ;-). Thanks, my friend.

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  2. fogsmoviereviews

    Yeah, I love this series too… Nice post Le0p. Wish I had time to get back and dig into some old episodes… I remember this one clearly. It was great, with Tudyk and Fillion bickering back and forth. Hysterical. Just an awesome episode.

    It did get cancelled too early, but that happens to a lot of shows. At least this one wound up with the benefit of a movie – an awesome movie that put a great cap on the series for fans!

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    • le0pard13

      Thanks very much, Fogs. Yeah, Tudyk and Fillion bickering and byplay were another highlight handled with unexpected flair (given the gruesome nature going on).

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  3. Marianne

    I’ve been putting off watching this series due to the fact I have yet to meet ANYONE who isn’t addicted to it. I’m not sure I can handle loving one more series that ended before it’s time…

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    • Jamie Helton

      At least with the “Firefly”/”Serenity” combo, a complete story is told so you’re not left hanging wondering what happens next. Plus, the series has so few episodes that you can get through it in a relatively short amount of time.

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    • le0pard13

      I completely understand, Marianne. But as Jamie replied, the whole series and movie can be done fairly quickly and still be satisfying, and maybe a bit rewarding. Thank you very much, Marianne.

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  4. John DuMond

    Nice analysis of a great episode. Farman did such a great job, he made me want to pull an Elvis and shoot my TV. 😉

    Also, I like your list of great shows that were cancelled too early, fantastic shows all. (Although I’d add Vengeance Unlimited to the list.)

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    • le0pard13

      Yep, I wanted to kill Farman’s Niska, or least have Mal do it! I’m sure Whedon and staff had future plans for him. Ah, well. Thanks very much, John.

      p.s., I missed ‘Vengeance Unlimited’ entirely and never even heard of it. Thanks for cluing me in.

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  5. The Sci-Fi Fanatic

    An absolutely fantastic series with a fantastic episode. Gosh, so many to love. Out Of Gas is another favorite.

    Splendid look back at a classic for all the reasons you mention.

    I have to respectfully disagree with you and Jamie. TO this day, I remain in the minority who really loved Alien Resurrection. I certainly enjoy Whedon a great deal, but I loved Jeunet’s weird stamp on the series. I really thought it was something wildly original and I really enjoy each installment for different reasons.

    Anyway, I think Jeunet gets a raw deal, but as I said, I’m in the minority on this one. Cheers as always L13.

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    • le0pard13

      Great to have you jump in on this, SFF. I think it’s great you loved Jeunet’s weird stamp on this franchise. I’m all for those who don’t automatically dump on the beleaguered film, and especially those who appreciate it in whatever degree. We vary on extent, but that matters little in that we continue to uphold the film’s strengths. I love it for the things I’ve mention, along with the one and only Sigourney Weaver and always favorite of ours, Ron Perlman. If we could put it together, I’d love to sit down with you, start up the Blu-ray player and tee this one up and enjoy it with you. Love the comment, my friend. Many thanks.

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  6. J.D.

    Nice analysis of what makes this episode work so well. I find many of the torture scenes hard to watch and Fillion and Tudyk really sell just how awful it is for their characters.

    Also, thanks for the shout out, my friend!

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    • le0pard13

      Yeah, having Mal and Wash tortured was tough to watch. The producers certainly sold it well, and their dialogue so in keeping with their personalities even as we winced at what was going on. I’m glad to have included your fine post on Titan, A.E. Many thanks, J.D.

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  7. ruth

    I’ve only seen some episodes of Firefly so I haven’t seen this one but oh my!! I could see why this is your favorite, I love both Fillion and Tudyk.

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    • le0pard13

      Well, if you’re interested, you can borrow my Firefly DVD complete series set to catch you up. We’ll make a Browncoat out of you, yet ;-). Thanks, Ruth.

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