Revisiting Firefly, Episode 10: “War Stories”

In TV by Tanzi9 Comments

Tanzi: Well unlike last week I think we’ll have some things to talk about this time.

The episode begins with Book and Simon discussing the writings of Shan Yu, a man who believed that torture reveals the true nature of a man. Book posits that this may have been behind River’s treatment at the hands of the Alliance; Simon thinks it’s poppycock. In a not-too-subtle transition we then cut to our old pal Niska (Michael Fairman), who just-so-happens at that very moment to be torturing some poor soul and spouting the same words of Shan Yu. I’m starting to get the feeling that the idea of torture revealing a man’s true character is going to play a role in this week’s episode.

After the credits we have another nice domestic scene as Kaylee and River chase each other around like little kids, Mal and Inara discuss her latest client and Zoe, Wash and Jayne enjoy some apples in the dining room. One nice touch is the continuity from last episode: the extra medicine is mentioned and Jayne is generous with his share of the spoils. We don’t see too much of that in the series, probably because of the way Fox messed around with the show.

So far everything is going well; Zoe even tells a war story to Kaylee which elicits some typical Wash wisecracks. Inara’s client is revealed to be a woman, inspiring Jayne to utter his legendary “I’ll be in my bunk”. The writers knew they had a good line here because they repeated it two more times in the episode.

"Huh."

” “I knew she took female clients…”

"... they just look so glamorous together."

"I'll be in my bunk."

As an aside, I thought gay relationships would be commonplace in the enlightened future of The ‘Verse. I guess it doesn’t matter how enlightened people are, two hot women getting it on is always going to be sexy.

For me the episode really took a wrong step with Wash’s out-of-the-blue petulance over Zoe and Mal’s relationship, even more so than River’s slashing of Jayne last episode. It smacks of the writers needing a catalyst for getting Wash to go out with Mal rather than a believable reaction.

"Okay -- I'm lost, I'm angry, and I'm armed."

Wash has been a part of the crew since before he married Zoe; any issues he had over their relationship would have been settled long ago. You can make the argument that things like this bubble up in any marriage and OK, maybe I can buy that. But I can’t buy Wash tinkering with the shuttle just so he can force his way into the mission. He knows his wife is far more of a badass than he’ll ever be and his argument wasn’t that he could be a tough guy too, it was that Zoe was choosing Mal over him. Displaying his courage by going on the mission doesn’t prove anything.

ScottP: I have to admit, reading Tanzi’s stuff on this episode — one of my favorites, by the way — made me look at it a little differently. I agree with Tanzi that Wash’s blow-up does seem a little overwrought — although it never seemed that way to me until Tanzi pointed it out. I know I’ve experienced that same sort of insecurity over a male friend of a woman I was seeing, however, so maybe what seems out of the blue to Tanzi seems fairly reasonable to me, and as such, I think the argument scene is played very realistically and drives home the jealousy Wash harbors over the battle-forged relationship between his wife and the Captain.

As for Wash displaying his courage by going on the mission — I’m not sure that was necessarily Wash’s point; more than anything, I think he wanted to get between Mal and Zoe for a moment and make himself feel more useful. As the episode plays out, of course, Wash is reminded of what makes him an important member of the team, as well as “a real man.”

ScottD: Things do “bubble up” in marriages — marriage counselors generally assume that what was happening when there’s a blowup/argument is not necessarily related to the ongoing issue that gets expressed. If there’s something that hasn’t been properly addressed, anything can stir it up. It’s debatable how much of Wash’s motivation is caused by feeling left out of the chain of command, and how much he wants to be tested the way Zoe and Mal have. They share the experience of being battle-hardened; Wash has been through some danger in their capers, but it’s nothing like the day-in day-out peril of frontline service.

I think what Wash is really looking for is respect. The rest of the crew respects him for his technical and piloting abilities. But that is not the same as the man-respect that Mal, Jayne, and his wife tote around every day. I believe we actually saw the roots of his motivations in one of the first episodes: after a close escape from the Alliance, Wash indicates his relief, Jayne scoffs at Wash because he wasn’t part of the dangerous action, and Wash says, “Oh, yeah — like they wouldn’t arrest me, I’m only the pilot!” In another episode, Wash throws one of his digs at Jayne who replies, “You wanna go, little man?” To which Wash replies, “Only if it’s someplace with candlelight.”

Wash uses wits and humor to deal with life, but in the testosterone-heavy environment of the crew’s capers he ranks below Zoe and even Simon for “manliness” — at least Simon gets to be protective of his sister, but Wash is unable to protect Zoe when she’s on a caper. By forcing his way onto the mission, Wash gets to prove himself and protect Zoe at the same time, by taking her place.

I’ve got no problem with the believability of Wash’s actions. It may have been a sudden boilover of the problem, but the problem had been simmering for a long time. (He states his position very clearly, in the heat of argument: “What this marriage needs is one less husband!”) It seems to me that Wash felt he was being seen and treated as less manly than his wife — for his own self-respect, he wants to gain everyone’s respect.

Tanzi: Of course this all leads to Mal and Wash getting captured by Niska’s men. Another problem I have with this episode: do they ever have a successful payday? It seems like every time they meet for an exchange someone gets the drop on them. Mal and Wash are then tied up and tortured by Niska, something that’s played for laughs, something that I think falls flat.

Sure it’s a very Whedon moment when they first start trading barbs while being tortured but it goes on too long and robs the scene of any real impact. I get that Mal is taunting Wash to keep him from giving in to the torture but I just felt the scene tried to walk the line between funny and horrifying and fell short on both accounts.

ScottP: Personally, I like the torture sequence but not so much for the scene on its own but what follows, as Wash realizes what Mal was doing during their ordeal.

Tanzi: Zoe then shows up with a bag of money, hoping to ransom the two men. Niska starts in with a Bond villain soliloquy, intending to force Zoe into an agonizing decision but she shuts him up by choosing her husband without any hesitation. Wash would like to think it’s due to Zoe’s love for her husband but I suspect Zoe is just as pragmatic as Mal: she knows Mal could withstand torture far better than Wash. If Wash thought it through perhaps he’d feel even more jealous, knowing that his wife thinks he’s weak. But ah ha, let’s take it another step: she loves him despite (or because of?) his relative weakness. Not all women are drawn to the alpha male hero. Sometimes a strong woman just wants a good man who will always be there for her. Mal may have many positive qualities but he’ll never be a model husband.

Zoe and the now-free Wash decide they’re going to storm Niska’s space station and get Mal back, surely a suicide mission for the two. Perhaps this is where we see the true nature of the man revealed by torture as Wash is gearing up right alongside Zoe and ready to sacrifice his life to get back the man he was so jealous of earlier. We already know the Serenity crew is a family so it’s no surprise when they all (minus Inara) join in to rescue Mal, even Shepherd Book, who’s made a few references in this episode that lead us to believe there’s more to him than just a quiet preacher.

"Grenades?" "Yes, thank you dear."

ScottD: (In the commentary for this episode, Alan Tudyk bemoans the fact that his big manly speech about going to get Mal, though he’s all manlied out and showing arm muscles, is punctuated by him working the slide on a dinky little holdout automatic and not some whompin’ big gun.)

Tanzi: The rest of the episode is an extended kick-ass action sequence showing the consequences of crossing this close knit crew. Zoe is a killing machine with her lever-action rifle and dual pistols, Jayne is a badass, even Wash gets in some licks with the shotgun.

Book is a crack shot, capping fools in the knees with his high-tech rifle while Simon fires wildly.

Kaylee is useless with a gun, retreating to the Serenity until River picks up her pistol and gets three one-shot kills with her eyes closed. Finally, we get to see River do something besides dance around and spout gibberish. They would have been well served to uncover this aspect of her much earlier in the series.

"No power in the 'verse can stop me."

ScottP: The rescue scene is terrific stuff in terms of showing the crew working as a team — even Kaylee’s uselessness with a gun is dead-on in character for her; I wouldn’t have liked it if she’d opened fire and started dropping bad guys. I like Jayne’s initial reluctance (“It’s suicide”), which later turns to the matter-of-fact business of shooting people.

What?

And it’s great to see Book in action — and Ron Glass is freakin’ buff; when we see him in his long-sleeved but snug shirt, it’s kind of startling to note the muscles on the guy.

I think River — and Summer Glau as an actress — has one of her best moments earlier in the episode, when she’s telling Simon she threw up her apple. It’s one of the few times her scatterbrained, stream-of-consciousness dialogue really works and seems to get under the surface instead of just sounding crazy. As much as I like watching River get all ass-kicky, it’s that earlier scene that really makes the character work, and I wish they could’ve hit that target more often than they did.

I also really enjoy the bit when Zoe hands Simon the rag with Mal’s severed ear in it — mostly for the expression of delight on Jayne’s face. He looks like a big kid who just found a really cool bug.

Tanzi: The end result of all this is Mal is rescued but Niska escapes, presumably to come back and menace the crew at a later date. The episode ends on an ominous note as everyone is happy except Kaylee, who eyes River with something like fear in her eyes.

ScottD: I think it’s clever the way they showed River and Kaylee playing like children at the beginning of the episode, to add extra punch to the way Kaylee regards River at the end of it. It also played up the family aspect of the crew, and set the stage for the family pulling together to get Mal back.

For me, even though there aren’t any of the western trappings of some of the other episodes, this is an episode that really nails down that the series truly is a western. How? Because while it’s ostensibly about “war stories”, it is simply dripping with issues about sex roles in the Firefly ‘verse.

At the end of the previous review, for “Ariel”, I rattled on a while about ranking within wolf packs, Jayne vs. Mal, Jayne vs. Simon, and raised the question as to where Zoe fell in the whole picture. She is after all Second In Command, Mal’s right hand. But when the male dominance struggles were taking place, she was conspicuously absent.

Why? Because Firefly is a western, through and through. And in westerns women, while they may be important, are never truly in the command structure. So Zoe, kick-ass capable Zoe — able to shoot a gun out of a man’s hand at 100 yards, able to keep her cool when the caper goes south, able to stare down Jayne — could never command Serenity. Not in this ‘verse.

In the book Finding Serenity about half of the essays seem to be about the sex roles in the ‘verse. Of these, most are written by women and most celebrate the strong women of the Firefly ‘verse. But while the individual characters are indeed wonderful and each powerful in her own way, it is still a man’s verse — none of them can ever attain the power the men have. Nancy Holder’s essay “I Want Your Sex: Gender and Power in Joss Whedon’s Dystopian Future World”, while sounding rather academic, does a good job of examining this idea and reinforcing the idea that the sex roles in the series are firmly western in nature.

One of the things several of the essays bring up is Joss Whedon’s reputation as a feminist. I never watched Buffy (I didn’t enjoy high school the first time around, don’t see how it would be better with vampires) and am not knowledgeable about the WhedonVerse in general, so I will take their word for it — evidently he is a big supporter of feminist causes. (Me, I used to call myself a feminist then met one too many ardent feminists, so started calling myself a humanist then met one too many humans. So now I don’t call myself anything in particular.) But once he planted Firefly in western soil, Joss had to foresake a certain amount of power for his female characters. As dynamic and wonderful as they are.

Tanzi: I’m glad you brought up Whedon’s alleged feminism and treatment of women. I think I’ve mentioned before that I’ve never really watched any of his other shows so I’m hardly qualified to make any broad statements but I won’t let that stop me. My general impression of Whedon’s writing is that he likes the powerful, beautiful young woman character but there are still always men in charge. And one could argue the stereotype of the beautiful kick ass woman is just as sexist as the beautiful helpless woman. What about a burly butch kick ass woman? Or plain woman who’s sexy despite (or because of) a big nose or crooked smile? I’m sure there have been volumes written about this, and far more eloquently than I ever could, but the whole defense of Whedon’s feminism always struck me as a bit much.

ScottD: The situation here is sort of like the criticisms leveled against Robert Heinlein’s later works. Some people say that, based upon these works, Heinlein was a male chauvinist. True Believers, shocked and enraged, reply, “What?! He’s written some of the best, brightest, most interesting female characters ever! How does that make him a chauvinist?” To which the critics reply: “Yes — and every one of them ends up dominated by a man. The fact that the women are so exceptional makes it all the worse.”

Tanzi: This reminds of people arguing that Abraham Lincoln was racist because he didn’t adhere to the standards of today. You have to judge people by their era and not many people were writing women the way Heinlein did back then. I know he was a huge influence on me personally when it comes to women. Unlike my non-sci fi reading peers I never thought a woman was a slut if she enjoyed sex or a dyke if she enjoyed mechanical things. Cut the guy some slack, he was writing in the 50s and 60s, things were a lot different back then.

ScottD: Regarding this episode in particular: while Wash and Mal are fighting over control of some aspect of Zoe she is not involved in the discussion, or the decision. The bonding-during-torture scene drives this home — by yanking Wash’s chain about any possible jealousy, Mal is actually reassuring Wash that Zoe is his. The final bit, where Mal confronts Zoe and announces that they have to “do it”, while played humorously, is still a serious reinforcement of the sex roles involved. Zoe does not say, “All right, let’s get to it, always wanted to.” She says, “Take me, Sir. Take me hard.” By saying that she is there to be taken she removes herself from any responsibility for the action, reminding all that she is not part of the decision, not part of the command structure. (The “sir” is played for laughs, but is also a serious reminder that men are in charge.) The fact that Wash intercedes and takes her out to take her — with a possessive swat on the butt — just nails down that that he is her “sir” and she is not part of the decision. It’s between the boys. She is the attractive prize, but the decision is up to them.

"Take me, Sir. Take me hard."

During this final scene Zoe is shown as more feminine than we have ever seen her — her hair is down, she is wearing softer clothing, and she is cooking for Wash. (Remember Zoe’s reaction, including a threat of withholding sex, when Wash expressed pleasure that Saffron was cooking for Mal?) Wash has won manliness points that Zoe, for all her military prowess, can never win.

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