Once again, we're spending Tuesdays this summer revisiting Joss Whedon's sci-fi Western "Firefly," and even though I'm burnt out from Comic-Con and swamped with TV critics press tour prep, I couldn't push the schedule since this week's episode is my favorite of the series, "Out of Gas." A review coming up just as soon as I give you all my caveats and addendums...

"Mal, you don't have to die alone." -Inara
"Everybody dies alone." -Mal


Fox, for reasons still passing understanding, shelved the original "Firefly" pilot and therefore deprived Joss Whedon, Tim Minear and company the chance to start the series showing how Simon, River and Shepherd Book came to be traveling on Serenity. So while waiting for the network to finally get around to airing "Serenity," Minear decided to go further back in time to give us an origin story for how the other characters came together aboard this beautiful but unreliable little ship. And in the process of providing all this backstory, he put together an hour that captures everything that's great about the series, starting with the old-fashioned machismo of Mr. Nathan Fillion.

I'm happy that Fillion has found success with "Castle." It's a fun show and he's certainly fantastic with the banter and Unresolved Sexual Tension and mixture of charm and obnoxious behavior. But I watch an episode like this and it makes me realize how much more Fillion has to show that "Castle" doesn't take advantage of, and that the role of Mal Reynolds absolutely did.

As we've talked about before, Mal Reynolds is a hard man making his living in a very hard place. He's fast with the quips and will play the buffoon for Zoe or Inara, but he knows well how tough he has to be to survive out on the rim. And Fillion captures that toughness and resolution perfectly, spending a large chunk of the episode staggering around Serenity, bleeding from a bullet to the gut, trapped in an empty, dying ship with no recourse but to keep moving, lest he doom himself and, probably, his absent crew.

Watching Fillion do so much solo work in this episode, working with props, injecting himself with adrenaline, and even taking on the bandit crew of the other ship on his own, actually reminded me of Steve McQueen, who in many ways is the gold standard for Hollywood tough guys. McQueen wasn't nearly as big as Fillion is(*), but the way he carried himself, and how effective he was in silence and/or working alone (for instance, all his time in the cooler in "The Great Escape") always made it clear that he was the most rugged, dangerous man in any room. There's a belief in this business that America simply doesn't produce actors like McQueen anymore, which is why we so often have to reach out to Australia for tough guy leading men, but Fillion (UPDATE: who, as a reader reminded me, is Canadian) is McQueen-style tough, and that's about the highest compliment I can pay to an actor on a show like this.

(*) At a Comic-Con party, Adam Baldwin briefly introduced me to Fillion, and standing between those two guys was one of the few times that weekend I felt short.

But if Fillion spends the spine of "Out of Gas" working alone, the rest of the episode is all about showing how lucky Mal is to have this surrogate family traveling the rim with him, watching his back (and vice versa) and making sure this hard, solitary man is never quite as alone as he believes himself to be.

The three-timelines structure could be needlessly convoluted, but Minear's script, David Solomon's direction and the editing and camerawork flow seamlessly between them, as if Mal were moving through time while also moving through Serenity. He enters a room in the present, and the camera moves to show us that same room in the distant past, or even hours earlier. He raises his hands in surrender in the present and suddenly we see him and Zoe making the same gesture to Jayne on their first meeting. It's all one fluid story, feeling very much like the memories of a man convinced (with reasonable justification) that he's about to die alone and trying very hard not to.

The flashbacks to the formation of the crew show us different sides to the gang, and in some cases different looks. Wash has a mustache and a loud Hawaiian shirt, while Inara's wardrobe in the past is more Middle East than Far East. We also see relationships in a different state than now. Wash bothers Zoe, but that's just, I assume, her brain taking a while to realize how much she's attracted to him. Jayne is show to be more talented than he sometimes comes across as while working alongside Mal and Zoe, and Inara sets a series of groundrules that we've seen Mal repeatedly violate. And Kaylee's introduction - as the "prairie harpie" having sex in the engine room with Bester, then proving to be a better mechanic than him - completely reshaped my view of her interactions with Simon. It's not that she's this shy, fragile virgin who's afraid to talk to the cute boy; it's just that she's intimidated by the massive class difference.

And the more recent flashbacks to how Serenity came to be in this predicament(**) show how close the original crew, and the new passengers have become - hell, even Jayne is enjoying himself at Simon's impromptu birthday celebration - and therefore how much more Mal has to lose here. It's not just about this ship, or his own life, but the people he's chosen to spend it with, and who will likely die once the air on their short-range shuttles runs out. Mal has something to fight for besides himself, and that purpose helps drive him, and in turn drives the two shuttles to eventually turn around to save Mal once he's no longer in a condition to save himself.

(**)  Via the breakdown of a part that Kaylee complained about in the pilot.

Just a fantastic episode, from beginning to end (including the series' strongest musical score), and one I could watch over and over and over again.

A few other thoughts:

  • River and Book have the least plot utility both weeks, which means one or both are usually marginalized in any given episode, but this is the second ep in a row with a pricless exchange between them, here with River trying to reassure Book:  "You're afraid that we're going to run out of air. That we'll die gasping. But we won't. That's not going to happen... We'll freeze to death first."
  • Speaking of hilarity, I love how Wash and Mal's argument on the bridge has such momentum that Wash has to keep yelling at Mal even after he realizes Mal is right. It's a nice comic counterpoint to the earlier scene where Mal hurls Wash against the wall of the infirmary, which is itself a nice illustration of this rough world they live in where Mal has to be strong and do ugly things to survive.

Up next: The caper-style "Ariel," another series highlight. I hope press tour allows me a window to get that one done on time, but we shall see.

What did everybody else think?