Firefly: The First Seven Episodes (review)

Episodes 1 through 7

If you missed my introduction to Firefly, click here to catch up.
For episodes 8 through 14, click here.
For my review of Serenity, click here.

See Firefly before you read on, though. It’s nuthin’ but spoilers.
How powerful can silence be? I think I knew I was gonna love Firefly when Mal (Nathan Fillion: Saving Private Ryan) and Co. blow that hatch on the ship they’re illegally salvaging and there’s no sound of the explosion. And then Serenity makes an engine burn to flee the scene, and there’s no roar of engines. Perhaps of all the other choices Whedon made, the decision to treat the vacuum space like it really treats us — it’s cold as hell, it doesn’t transmit sound waves, it’s really really dizzyingly big — grounds this series in reality and sets it apart from almost every other damn movie or show set in space.

I love how Whedon lets the privation and hardships of the lives of most of the people we meet — and all the teeming masses in the background — bubble up from context. No one stands around and says crap like, “Boy, fresh food really is at a premium, and some people are so hungry that even totally bland but nutritional foodstuff is worth heisting.” No: Kaylee (Jewel Staite) goes orgasmic over the strawberries with which Shepherd Book (Ron Glass) pays part of his passage. And that salvaged cargo, which gets treated like gold? We don’t learn till the end of the episode that it isn’t money but food bars, and pretty unappetizing stuff at that. Powerful, to let important points go all but uncommented on. It makes you a part of this world, as if you’re already in on the joke. Except, of course, it’s no joke: it’s cruel fact.

The language! The language! Whedon has invented a whole new idiomatic English — “The last two jobs we had were weak tea,” says Mal; no one today would speak that way, and yet we grasp instantly what he means. “See ya in the world.” And how rich and steeped in history must a culture be (even if its speakers don’t realize it) for a character to say, “And I’d like to be the king of all Londinium and wear a shiny hat” to mean “You are a crazy person for wishing for something so outrageous” (like Kaylee, hoping for replacement parts for her engines). Do people today even know what “Londinium” refers to? Where did Mal get that? And how does Whedon manage to make it seem natural? How does the cast get through the dialogue without stumbling over it? How much can I worship at the feet of their brilliance?

If the no-sound-in-space thing didn’t seal my devotion to Firefly, then it certainly came when Mal shot the Federal agent, without warning and in cold blood. I loved Mal then, and was a little afraid of him, of what he might do. There’s an unpredictability about him that keeps you on edge — he really might do almost anything to protect his ship and his crew and his own freedom…

Great quotes:
“Gettin’ awful crowded in my sky.” –Mal
“That’s what government’s are for: get in a man’s way.” –Mal

The Train Job
…Like kick an cooperative mob soldier into an engine. Jesus fuck. Whedon really has thrown out the clichés of traditional narrative.

The mix of old and new technology — and old and new cultures — gets a real workout in this episode. Mal flying through the holo window of the bar during the fight? Hilarious. The woman on the train wearing the burka? Not so much. I love that Mal is wearing what looks like jeans and denim jacket, because of course Levis will be one of the enduring legacies of humanity, and I’m not even being facetious. And I love that Whedon acknowledges the fact that no matter how advanced the most advanced technology is, it’s never gonna be available to everyone. Hell, even today, most of the population of Earth doesn’t have regular access to technology that was state-of-the-art at the turn of the 20th century, never mind the turn of the 21st (you know, clean water, reliable telephone service, that kind of thing). Why wouldn’t people still be using projectile weapons and riding horses on a just-settled planet? There’s no call to be wasting power and fuel on laser guns and internal combustion engines when gunpowder and hay-eating horses do the job just as well.

Great quotes:
“You know, they tell ya never hit a man with a closed fist, but it is on occasion hilarious.” –Mal

Reavers! Hey, that half-Reaver guy is Boone, from Lost.

Great quotes:
“Jayne, you’ll scare the women.” –Zoe (Gina Torres: The Matrix Revolutions)
“Have you ever been with a warrior woman?” –Wash (Alan Tudyk: I, Robot)

It’d be hard to pick a favorite episode, but if Mal put a gun to my head, I might choose this one. The humor is so smart and so perfectly emerges from the characters: Kaylee’s sweet naivete, Mal’s recklessness, Jayne’s (Adam Baldwin: The Patriot) cluelessness. And again with the expectation-defying surprise: The secret cargo to be smuggled? Cattle.

Great quotes:
“Here lies my beloved Zoe, my autumn flower, somewhat less attractive now that she’s all corpsified and gross.” –Wash
“My work’s illegal, but at least it’s honest.” –Mal

It is unbelievable how often someone is shot, stabbed, or otherwise seriously injured on this show. No one is safe… which really ups the ante for the viewer, when you can never really be sure whose number might come up.

How desperate must people be in the ‘verse, when the only way to get some medical attention is to kidnap a doctor? Cripes, even Simon (Sean Maher) seems to feel sorry for his captors… until they decide to burn River (Summer Glau) as a witch. I’m guessing Whedon doesn’t have a lot of use for religion…

Great quotes:
“Morbid and creepifying I got no problem with, as long as she does it quiet like.” –Mal, about River

Our Mrs. Reynolds
No, wait, this might be my favorite episode. That final scene, with Mal finally, it seems, acknowledging his feelings for Inara (Morena Baccarin)… Man. Mal’s final line to her is perhaps the most hilarious and most perfect example of male emotional cluelessness in the history of humanity, particularly in light of the macho confidence with which Fillion delivers it.

Great quotes:
“Don’t feel bad — he makes everybody cry. He’s like a monster.” Kaylee to “Saffron,” about Mal
“If you take sexual advantage of her, you’re going to burn in a very special level of hell, a level they reserve for child molesters and people who talk at the theater.” –Book to Mal, about “Saffron”

In which we discover that Jayne has hidden depths — hell, even Jayne discovers it. I find myself singing “The Hero of Canton,” sometimes.

If there was any doubt that Whedon understands myth and fable and storytelling, the purposes they serve and the meanings they acquire beyond any semblance of the force behind their creation, this episode slays that. The people of Canton, with their unthinking embracing of a pleasant fantasy, could well be the typical TV audience — those who see TV as a drug instead of a challenge, who don’t want truth but an intoxicant. And yet, Whedon can’t entirely condemn them, either.

Gotta love Kaylee — she’s such an elemental creature. Her farewell to Inara — “Have good sex!” — bursts with a kind of healthy sexuality that our culture, never mind our entertainment, rarely recognizes. And of course, Whedon’s whole concept of “registered companions” is refreshingly frank.

Great quotes:
“Noah’s Ark is a problem. We’ll have to call it early quantum state phenomenon. Only way to fit 5,000 species of mammals on the same boat.” –River on the Bible
“You guys had a riot on account of me? My very own riot?” –Jayne

a Firefly overview
episodes 8 through 14
see also:
my review of Serenity

share and enjoy