We're continuing our summer tour back through Joss Whedon's "Firefly" (at the end of this review I'll have links to the previous ones), this week with episode three, "Bushwhacked." A review coming up just as soon as I remind you of the story of the Good Samaritan...

"It's impressive what nothing can do to a man." -Jayne

"Firefly" is a Western in space, and few episodes combine the two elements as effectively, or disturbingly, as "Bushwhacked." It's essentially the "Firefly" version of those Western stories where the heroic cowboys come across the aftermath of an Indian massacre - with the Reavers standing in for the early pop culture conception of Native Americans as alien savages - but it's also about how the vast emptiness of space can dramatically, horribly change a person's personality.

Now, this latter point was also an element of Westerns themselves. In the 19th century, the wide open spaces west of the Mississippi brought the promise of new fortunes and reinventions, but there were often cowboy stories about men driven mad by the isolation and emptiness of the plains. Still, Tim Minear's script and direction make excellent use of the enormity and terror of outer space through Simon's fear of spacewalking. We're told that the Reavers were once men, and all sorts of things might have made them the way they are(*), but when Simon turns away from Serenity to look at what awaits him if he lets go of the handrail, it's pretty easy to imagine that view exploding the minds of some of the men looking at it.

(*) And I will remind you here, early on in the review, that we're trying to be friendly to people who are watching the series for the first time, and will therefore be vague at the absolute most about future stories about the Reavers, okay?

Doug Savant (in that fallow career period in between "Melrose Place" and "Desperate Housewives") was a good casting choice as the greenhorn Alliance commander, as his usual blandness quickly conveyed a man not used to life out on the frontier, where rules are less important than survival, and where the only rational response to a survivor-turned-Reaver is to snap the poor bastard's neck.(**)

(**) And we're now three-for-three on episodes that climax with Mal not messing around and choosing to quickly kill an opponent. Been a while since I went through the series, and I'm going to be curious to see how long the streak lasts, or if we get an episode soon where Mal doesn't add to his bodycount. (And remember the above note about spoilage here, as well.)

Minear also used the Savant character to fill in some of the backstory that was eliminated when Fox shelved the original pilot. The interrogations are in many ways even more baldly expositional than the eary scenes in "The Train Job," but interrogation scenes by design are expected to feature this kind of info-dump, and it goes down smoother here. It also offers good little comic showcases for characters like Wash (the immediate cut of him saying "her legs!" immediately after Zoe said her reasons for being with him were private) and Jayne (silently staring down the Alliance).

Minear also takes a different approach to reintroducing the Reavers than he and Whedon did with the rehashed material in "Train Job." (In fairness, he had more than a weekend to write his first draft.) Rather than try to recreate some version of Zoe's "and if we're very, very lucky, they'll do it in that order" speech, Minear finds a simpler, more effective bit of shorthand and shows us that Jayne is terrified of the Reavers. If the big muscle man is afraid of these guys, they're bad news, right?

For that matter, the only Reaver we actually see is the farmer who only turned into one as a coping mechanism from witnessing the slaughter of his friends and family. But that he's able to cause so much mayhem and destruction on his own suggests there's a much nastier danger out there on the edges than anything the Alliance can dish out. It's a place where Mal fits in much better than Doug Savant, but one where there are scarier things than even our man in the brown duster.

But getting back to that big black expanse of nothing for a second, it's interesting to see how differently the Tam siblings respond to it. Where Simon is terrified by it, River (given more of a showcase than the previous two episodes combined) absolutely delights at the sight, and wants to go out and do another spacewalk immediately after they go inside. Of course, from what we've seen so far of River, whatever the Alliance did to her has left her as cracked in her own way as the Reavers. Maybe the only sane response to the blackness is Simon's, where River's smile, while charming, is just another reminder of what's been done to her mind.

Some other thoughts:

  • This episode begins the show's Tarantino-esque obsession with Summer Glau's feet, which (commentary spoiler!) Joss will go on at length about in an audio track for an upcoming episode. Glau's a ballerina, so she's more used to expressing herself with her toes than some people are with their fingers, I guess.
  • One other pilot element slyly reintroduced: Jayne punks Simon by telling him to suit up on his way over to the other ship, when neither he nor the spacesuit are needed. It's not nearly as nasty as Mal telling Simon that Kaylee died, but if you look up "gullible" in a 26th century dictionary, you'd find a picture of Sean Maher.
  • In addition to the interrogation, Alan Tudyk gets some more comedy to play in the opening scene where Wash pretends to be horrified at the realization that nobody's driving the ship.
  • I like that Kaylee even finds an optimistic way to look at her attempt to defuse the booby-trap: "If I mess up, it's not like you'll be able to yell at me." She's tough, our little mechanic.

Coming up next week: "Shindig," in which the Mal/Inara sexual tension gets in the way of a job.

What did everybody else think?

Previous reviews: "Serenity" | "The Train Job"