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]
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?”
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.