It's time for another review of Joss Whedon's outer space Western "Firefly." My thoughts on "War Stories" coming up just as soon as I'm fired from a fry cook opportunity...

"What this marriage needs is one more shouting match." -Zoe
"No, what this marriage needs is one less husband." -Wash


Joss Whedon shows often deal with the tension between alpha males and beta males, between the guys who want the heroines vs. the guys the heroines want. (Think Xander/Buffy/Angel in the early days of that show.) "Firefly" offers a twist on that arrangement. There's a tough heroine in Zoe, and a strapping alpha Mal and a goofy beta Wash, but Zoe's with Wash, not Mal. Her love of the captain has always been platonic/professional in nature, and her heart belongs to the semi-muscular man in the loud shirts. But because their marriage exists on a ship where Mal is in charge, and where Wash is daily exposed to his wife having an intimate bond with a man who intimidates him, the tension still exists, and "War Stories" confronts it head on.

Alan Tudyk has to this point been largely asked to play comic relief. There's still a lot of that in this one as Wash makes a nuisance of himself on the mission to unload the last of the medical supplies. But Tudyk finally gets to do some very strong dramatic work as Wash loses his patience with Zoe and Mal, and particularly as Wash comes to recognize during his shared ordeal of torture just what it is that his wife worships in the captain. He recognizes that Mal was being strong enough for the both of them, trying to distract Wash from the electro-shocks by taunting him with hints about a wartime affair with Zoe. And having started the episode so eager to get his wife away from Captain Tightpants, Wash becomes determined to risk his life to save Mal's. Zoe and Jayne are still the ones who do the bulk of the killing, but Wash finds his inner alpha male for the day, and the Serenity crew lives to fly another day.

Michael Fairman makes a welcome return as Niska, here even more obsessed with torture, to the point where he begins to resemble Christopher Guest's Count Rugen from "The Princess Bride." (And as we learned in "Out of Gas," Mal is one tough hombre, so it's cool but not surprising to see him capable of standing and fighting even after being the victim of Niska's special machine.) Niska escapes through means that aren't entirely clear in the editing, and had the show lasted longer, he would have made an excellent recurring villain. At least "Firefly" was around long enough to give him an encore, in a much stronger overall episode than "The Train Job."

And Niska is at the center of another of those wonderful "Firefly" moments where Joss and company are determined to subvert the cliches of action movies and thrillers. Mal is a man who will shoot someone in the head rather than waste time negotiating, and Zoe is a woman who will not hesitate in choosing her husband over her captain, rather than agonize over the decision the way Niska (and the audience) might expect her to.

(There's a similar, very funny beat in the climax, when Zoe assumes it's important to Mal that he kill the torturer himself, only for Mal to call out, "No it's not!" so that Zoe, Jayne and Wash can all take the guy out.)

The episode ends with everything mended in the Zoe/Wash marriage, but not before Mal and Zoe share a hilariously wooden embrace as Mal teases Wash about his suggestion that their problems would be solved if the captain and his first mate had sex already.

"War Stories" is the last of a four-episode run that's the creative peak of "Firefly." There will be plenty of goodness to come, but these four, together, showed just how great the series was capable of being, and made the inevitable cancellation sting that much more.

Some other thoughts:

  • Simon and Book open the episode wondering what the Alliance was doing to River, and we get a big clue in the climax, when River picks up the gun dropped by a terrified Kaylee and, with her eyes closed, shoots three of Niska's men dead. At the start of the episode, Kaylee and River are playfully chasing each other like sisters - with Mal as the dad warning the kids to cool it with the rough-housing - but at the end, Kaylee's clearly spooked to be around her.
  • And I also thought it was a good character moment for Kaylee that she simply couldn't participate in the gunfight, much as she wanted to. Not everyone in the 'verse is going to be a willing and capable fighter - least of all a sunny, optimistic mechanic - and the show has enough other strong women that I have no problem showing Kaylee as someone who doesn't have it in her. (It's not like Simon was much more helpful, anyway.) 
  • Shepherd Book, meanwhile, shows off more non-priestly skills as he breaks down the murder scene like a trained CSI, then proves an expert marksman in kneecapping Niska's men during the space station raid. He may be a preacher now, but clearly there was so much more there.
  • Note that Jayne is still feeling guilty about his "Ariel" shenanigans. He buys apples for the crew with his share, and though he criticizes Wash's plan as a suicide mission, he goes along to help and takes a bullet for his trouble. (And is later rewarded with Wash's abandoned soup because he's still capable of moving faster than Mal.)
  • Jayne still ain't all that smart, though, and gets the line of the episode when he studies Mal's severed ear and asks, "What are we gonna do? Clone him?"
  • After Inara briefly pretended to be open to Saffron's charms back in "Our Mrs. Reynolds," the show gives her the first female client that we've seen. The story doesn't add much other than a scene where Morena Baccarin gives a hot oil massage to an attractive blonde and then makes out with her, and while I'm sure certain segments of the audience would say "That's more than enough!," it does come across as a fairly transparent ratings ploy (albeit one that didn't work).

Coming up next: "Trash," featuring the return of another old frenemy.

What did everybody else think?