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 "Serenity" Parts I and II and "The Train Job" here. Below, we're discussing "Bushwhacked," "Safe" and "Shindig."
I hate River Tam. I don’t hate her in the way I hate a good villain, where I can’t wait to see the character get comeuppance. I hate her in the way I hate terribly written, shittily acted characters. I groan every time she shows up onscreen in Firefly.
I hate the gibberish dialogue she is given. I hate the pitch at which Summer Glau plays her every scene. I hate her stringy hair. I hate the way the character is a drag on the show for no good reason. I hate every scene she’s in.
This hate has led to me having problems with a couple of this week’s episodes. She infects the otherwise banal “Bushwhacked,” and she utterly ruins the structurally suspect “Safe.” She’s okay in “Shindig,” but only because her whole storyline is simply filler - a joke.
I liked elements of “Bushwhacked,” but there’s something about the show’s aesthetic that keeps it from being truly effective. Maybe it’s the overwhelming silliness of the close-up shots of the wannabe-Reaver’s face at the end as he’s strangling the Alliance captain. Speaking of the Alliance: what’s even the point of them being in the episode? Too many episodes of Firefly feel like they’re loaded with filler, and this is one of them. The idea of the dangerous Reaver wannabe loose on the ship is good, but all the stuff with the Alliance feels like wheel-spinning. Or like somebody had a good idea for an interrogation montage and just crammed it into the episode.
“Shindig” is better, and it opens with my absolute favorite scene so far... but favorite in an ironic way. It’s where Mal and Jayne are playing pool in a bar on Persephone, but since the show is sci-fi the balls are holograms and the stick makes bloop and bleep noises when it hits the balls. I was howling.
This episode works because it focuses on Mal; everybody else is sidelined in a total filler subplot (returning gangster Badger holds them hostage while they make ineffectual escape plans) except for Kaylee, who gets some nice moments of wounded sweetness. It’s worth noting that this episode highlights my other least favorite character, the wooden prostitute Inara. Morena Baccarin is gorgeous, but her delivery is slightly less lively than a dead person’s. But what I like is that Mal perfectly straddles the charming rogue thing here, being sort of a dick but then foolishly risking his life in a very romantic way.
It’s one of the most Star Trekky episodes yet, but that’s not a good thing to me. All of the Civil War-era high society stuff feels forced, like the Western aspect hasn’t been fully integrated with the sci-fi aspect here (I think the Western stuff works elsewhere in the show). The episode feels like the ship landed on Old West Planet, and maybe next week they’ll visit Gangster Planet and then Mal will get into a joust on Medieval Planet.
Finally we have “Safe,” which I abhorred. First of all it has all this excruciating River Tam content. Second of all, it’s split into two stories and neither are interesting. The River/Simon story is so poorly paced, so terribly executed, that when the villagers want to burn River as a witch at the end it feels like everybody has just wandered into a different TV show. Meanwhile, Book has been shot and we’re subjected to yet more dicking around on an Alliance vessel.
The episode is a mess. Simon is the ship’s doctor, and he gets kidnapped planetside just when Book needs healing. Rather than find Simon, Mal opts to fly hours out to an Alliance vessel to get help, then goes back to the planet and - within seconds - finds Simon and River and rescues them. The ease with which he finds the missing characters renders everything else stupid and a waste of time. What’s more, there’s no sense of real urgency to either storyline because none of the impacted characters are core crew. If Zoe or Wash had been injured it might have lent some weight to Mal’s decision to fly away, but as it plays out it feels like an excuse to ditch River and Simon.
To me “Safe” and “Bushwhacked” suffer from the same problem, which is trying to service too many characters and leaning on the Alliance as stock Empire-like baddies to prop up a weak, tension-free B story. “Bushwhacked” would have been more effective as a more straightforward stalker episode and “Safe” would have been better if the sloppy B story didn’t allow Mal to have his cake and eat it too.
In summation: “Safe” is simply bad television, “Bushwhacked” is a missed opportunity rendered boring and “Shindig” has some fun moments but shows the seams in the show’s very conceit.
Oh, “Bushwacked.” “Bushwacked” is just boring and my least favorite episode of the bunch. I feel like the interrogation scenes - which were amusing if only for Wash’s gleeful explanation of Zoe’s assets and Jayne’s reverse-interrogation strategy - would have been better served even earlier in the season, because they very succinctly explain our main crew and the way they found themselves to Serenity. But the Birth of a Reaver plotline? It’s totally lost that early on in the season. As a viewer, I’m still trying to figure out what exactly Reavers do - I don’t care much for the psychology behind them at this point. Maybe if the camera had done a bit more focusing on the gruesome bodies of the victims and a little less on the weird Reaver boobytrap, the episode would have worked better. But as it is, it just feels out of place and out of time, with the added problem of the weird directorial choices. (Seriously, what is with those jerky close ups of the boobytrap? It’s as if someone borrowed their parents’ camcorder and tried to film a video project for their sophomore science class.)
“Shindig,” while definitely more fun, highlights my only real problem with Mal Reynolds, and that is his problem with Inara’s job. He just can’t manage to get over it, can he? Listen, Mal, her job - which is a hell of a lot more stable and fruitful than yours - is to fuck people for money. Story, end of. Now, I can go on and on here about prostitution and the damaging effects of same, but you guys aren’t my boyfriend and so you don’t have to pay attention to me when I start winding myself up about the inherent problems in a society that enforces the idea that vaginas can be monetized. Lucky you guys. But in this worldview, prostitution is presented as a perfectly respectable, egalitarian, gender-neutral profession and Mal needs to climb a stepladder and get the fuck over himself already. I don’t have a lot of patience for tortured love stories in which one or both parties can’t see past their own pride in order to tell the other person that they like like them and want to smush body parts together, and it’s even more ridiculous in this case, because Mal’s reluctance in proclaiming his love for Inara isn’t due to shyness or the fact that she’s way prettier than he is. His reluctance stems from his feeling that she’s spoiled somehow, that what she does with her genitalia in some way informs who she is. That having sex with other people for monetary gain is somehow cheating on Mal, because, what? She isn’t keeping herself pure enough for him?
Inara and her storylines always seem like a proclamation of how cool we should all be with prostitution... just as long as we all know that it’s not actually an acceptable profession. Joss never actually spends any time examining prostitution; he never makes any nod to the idea that maybe there are some companions without Inara’s background or security. And of course, he makes sure that Inara’s client Atherton is a total dick who tries to Phil Stuckey her, so we can all know that Mal’s the good guy in this fight. Ugh.
That said, all of the parts of “Shindig” that don’t focus on Mal/Inara are pretty great. Kaylee, a vision in her shepherd dress, has a great run-in with Persephone’s Mean Girls and then charms everyone with her mechanics prowess. Jayne, Simon and Book playing poker for chores is kind of adorable. Wash and Zoe’s sex break is fun and one of the most authentic romantic moments on a Whedon show. And the ridiculous society of rich people with their frippery, intricate dances and stupid duels is exactly the type of bizarre behavior I like to see in sci-fi shows. (A floating chandelier!)
“Safe,” I think, is pretty innocuous. I enjoy seeing the Tams’ past (hey, Zac Efron. How’s it going?) and the whole “burn her as a witch” storyline is another example of the ridiculous fringe societies that I enjoy so much in this series. But in watching this episode on repeat, it just angers me even more that we haven’t learned anything of Book’s back story. Why is he so important? Who is he, really? Ex-Alliance mastermind? Former blues musician? Why did we spend so much time on River when we could have been talking about Book?
Oh man, first things first. I love Inara. I really, really love her. I find her placidity of delivery serene rather than wooden. Baccarin probably couldn’t do a whole hell of a lot at any other pitch, but I think tranquil suits her just fine - particularly in contrast to Mal’s rough edges and fiery temper. I love their love story, even though I agree with Erin that Mal’s jealous, petty, judgmental view of Inara’s profession is the worst thing about him. But he’s a terrifically imperfect fella, and I like that. I like how insurmountably far Mal is from honorable or gentlemanly, and I like that Inara loves him anyway. I appreciate that the obstacle keeping them apart is one that could be easily overcome if Mal weren’t such a self-righteous idiot. I find that very compelling.
But yeah, it would be more compelling if Joss had taken a stance one way or the other on the prostitution issue. How much more interesting would “Shindig” be if Atherton weren’t a sleazy jerk? If he were a decent man harboring legitimate regard for Inara? That would make the issue of Mal’s misbehavior, his later treatment of Inara (calling her a whore and then maintaining that he respects her, not her occupation) and the duel with Atherton far more nuanced. As is, the right and wrong of the situation is too easily established. Of course, I certainly don’t mind watching Mal stick Atherton twice once he’s on the ground. “Guess I’m just a good man. Well, I’m all right.”
All that said, I love “Shindig.” It’s one of my favorite episodes of the series. It’s so fun! I love seeing Kaylee and Captain Tightpants (“It shows off your backside.”) all dressed up, and Kaylee’s entire episode arc - the dress, the buffet table, the Mean Girls, the way she charms all the fun men at the party, the dress again - is so sweet and enjoyable. The episode offers a great deal of development on the Mal and Inara front, as well, and I really enjoy watching her tutor him in swordsmanship. Their whole exchange is both entertaining and revealing: “I never back down from a fight.” “Yes you do! You do it all the time!”
And the action with the rest of the crew on Serenity is just so cute - I enjoy the poker game and especially Zoe and Wash’s adorable scene: “Here lies Zoe, my autumn flower, somewhat less attractive now that she’s all corpse-ified and gross.” And I quite enjoy their ineffectual attempts to rescue Mal, despite Jayne’s assurance that they had a “complicated escape and rescue op” in place. The only part of “Shindig” I don’t love is Summer Glau’s abysmal Cockney accent. I seriously doubt Badger would buy that.
So yeah, Devin, River sucks. I agree - I honestly can’t stand almost any scene she’s in, and the show suffers by making her the focal point. Unlike Devin, I don’t think she’s badly written; I simply don’t think Summer Glau is a good actress. I believe River has the potential to be fascinating on the page. But she comes across as only whiny and haphazardly nuts. I have often found Joss’ casting - particularly of his lead women - to be suspect. Summer Glau, Eliza Dushku, even Sarah Michelle Gellar were chosen for huge, juicy roles over much stronger actresses. I know saying that about SMG is blasphemy, and I do think she gave some amazing performances on Buffy, but I think a lot of that was hard-earned after many years of work with Joss. Her performance didn’t necessarily come naturally.
But yes, I love “Shindig.” The other two episodes, however, are pretty uneven. “Bushwhacked” is boring for half of the running time. I actually really like the interrogation montage for all the reasons Erin listed, but the entire first half of the episode moves at a snail’s pace. I don’t mind the Reaver psychology being introduced so early, however. In fact, I quite like it. But I agree with Devin - the aesthetic of the newly made Reaver at the end of the episode fails tremendously. He looks silly instead of scary, and Mal sure made him sound scary. That reveal would have been best served with a less is more approach.
“Safe” is similarly lopsided. I quite like the little Tams; they’re well-cast (Zac Efron!) and they succeed in making me care about the characters in a way the adult Tams never manage. But the latter half of the episode is so rushed - River’s kidnapped, Book’s shot, now wait, River’s being burned as a witch?! If the River and Simon storyline hadn’t been shoehorned into the episode, we could have spent more time on the far more intriguing plot of Book’s Alliance ties. I don’t want the answer yet, but I do want the show to spend more time on the question.
Three things I enjoyed about “Safe”: I love watching Kaylee give Simon what for. Also, “Dear diary, today I was pompous and my sister was crazy” is a line that never fails to crack me up. And when River says the following to Simon, I find my first and possibly last spark of sympathy for this uptight, vacant character: “You gave up everything you had to find me, and you found me broken.” That’s a pretty good summary of the tragedy of the Tams, and while I still find it hard to care, it’s slightly easier after that line.
I am fascinated by how “Companionship” works. Space hookers are pretty choosy, it turns out - which is a probably a bummer for a lot of guys whose only hope for some space sex is space hookers.
I’m pro-sex work in real life (I don’t think the government has any right to tell a woman what she does with her body in any situation), so it would have been interesting, as Meredith says, to have Atherton actually be a nice guy. This would have lent some real tension to the episode, and it would have made Inara’s decision to stick by Mal have real meaning.
Guys, these three episodes were real trials for me. Mal, Jayne, Book, Kaylee, Wash and Zoe - these characters I like. But they sometimes feel outnumbered, especially as it becomes clear that River is the real central point of the show’s mythology.
I agree with you there, Devin. Does anyone but me watch the show Revenge? Probably not, if the ratings can be believed. I only ask because Revenge focuses on a bunch of shit that no one in the entire world cares about, but also there’s Nolan. Nolan’s this adorable fop, with a sarcastic quip for every situation and more color-coordinated plaid Tommy Hilfiger outfits than any one person should own. And he’s the best part of the show, because he’s layered and hilarious and a good friend, but more because he just has fun with his role.
And I mentioned Nolan because of this: it seems like there is a very distinct number of cast members in Firefly that are truly having fun with their role. Nathon Fillion (Mal), definitely. Adam Baldwin (Jayne), Alan Tudyk (Wash), Gina Torres (Zoe), Ron Glass (Book) and Jewel Staite (Kaylee)? Absolutely. They‘re almost gleeful with their roles - they embrace the silliness and the jokes and the inherent ridiculousness of a show about cowboys in space. And that, in turn, makes them watchable; it makes them the characters that you’re always going to root for. For better or worse, Inara and the Tams have to play it straight, and “Bushwhacked” is actually a great example of that. Everyone’s having fun playing no-rules basketball, and where are those three? On the sidelines, looking on and slightly confused. How are we supposed to bond with these three? At what point are we supposed to care about their struggles or triumphs? Meredith, you love Inara, and I can see that, because she’s serene and unfettered and, let’s face it, fucking gorgeous - the kind of pretty you see in art and never on a person’s face. But apart from her mothering tendencies towards Kaylee, are we really given any reason to adore her? She does her job competently, she occasionally argues with Mal in a cute way, and... what else? What does she or the Tams give us?
I think Inara offers quite a lot. I love her friendship with Kaylee, how supportive and kind she is. I love the moments that she bonds with Book and spars with Mal and remains loyal to the Serenity crew despite her access to the wider world. I just can’t lump her with the Tams, who have so far only offered a whole bunch of trouble and a pile of complaints (Simon) or gibberish (River).
Questions to leave you with, dear readers:
1. How do you feel about River the character and Summer Glau’s performance in particular?
2. Same question: Inara/Morena Baccarin?
3. What do you make of the Companionship system as presented in Firefly?
4. For those of you who are watching for the first time ONLY: what are your theories on Book’s ties to the Alliance?
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: “Our Mrs. Reynolds” (yay!), “Jaynestown,” (yay!) and “Out of Gas” (yay!).