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Firefly: War Stories Ep. 10 November 16, 2007

Posted by Chris in Firefly.
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Mal and Wash:  Tortured for our Pleasure?

The premise for this episode is written into the dialog of it’s first scene — a conversation between Simon and Book, where they discuss the merits of a warrior-poet named Shan Yu.  Book quotes Shan Yu: “…live with a man 40 years…share his house, his meals, speak on every subject…then tie him up and hold him over the volcano’s edge.  On that day, you will finally meet the man.”

Simon:  “What if you don’t live near a volcano?”

Book:  “I expect he was being poetical.”

Simon:  “Sadistic crap legitimized by florid prose.  Tell me you’re not a fan.”

The conversation then veers towards a discussion of what purpose the Alliance had in mind when they experimented on River.  While this obviously sets us up for the plot to follow, I think it also asks fundamental questions about the premise of Firefly itself and the nature of entertainment in our society. 

In a nutshell, Niska — our favorite crime-lord from “The Train Job” — captures Mal and Wash and tortures them.  In the process, Niska reveals his admiration for Shan Yu’s poetry.  He is clearly bent on torturing our heroes, not only for the purpose of exacting revenge on them for defying him, not only as a means of sending a message to the rest of the criminal community that he is not to be disappointed, not only because he’s a vicious psychopath that enjoys torturing people, but also because he’s interested in seeing the “real” person that Shan Yu says is revealed by desperate circumstances. 

This is all well-and-good — it makes for a compelling plot, fraught with danger and suspense.  Clearly, the stakes are high.  It’s also fertile ground for the writers to explore some very dark humor — something this show does very well.  There are just oodles of great one-liners in this episode. 

But on watching this episode again (for the umpteenth time, and loving it still) I’m wondering if the writers aren’t also asking us to question whether we’re somewhat sadistic in our tastes for entertainment too — whether we’re not all fans of Shan Yu without even realizing it.  After-all, what makes this episode work so very well is the torture.  Aren’t we just as excited and thrilled at the prospect of finding out how our heroes will act under torture?  Mal’s ability to defy Niska — his ability to keep Wash from cracking under the pressure by using humor and taunting him — aren’t we thrilled at what we see from the “real” Mal?  As observers, aren’t we reveling in the torture nearly as much as Niska is, albeit, from a safe and comfortable distance?  To me, the writers are asking whether we are more like Niska than we even realize.  Are we too attracted by “sadistic crap,” legitimized here by snappy dialog and fascinating character development instead of florid prose?

Oh, but that dialogue is so very snappy indeed. 

Mal to Wash and Zoe:  “OK…I’m lost…I’m angry…and, I’m armed…”

Zoe to Niska in her “Sophie’s Choice” moment where she chooses to save Wash without hesitation:  “Him,” pointing at Wash, “I’m sorry, you we’re going to ask me to choose, right?  You wanna’ finish?”

Perhaps not so snappy, but nonetheless, damn funny is Jayne’s “I’ll be in my bunk…”

Mal to Niska when the Serenity crew starts it’s assault on Niska’s “skyplex”:  “Listen, if you’ve got guests, I can come back later.” 

All this and plenty more.  The great dialogue relieves us of the proximate discomfort we may feel at seeing all the torture, death, and destruction in this episode.  Without it, I’m sure the plot would be so dark as to turn most people off, perhaps resulting in them turning their TVs off as well.

That point made, this episode is also notable for showing us the cracks in our other favorite characters.  Wash gets into an argument with Zoe before he’s nabbed where he reveals just how jealous he is of Zoe and Mal’s friendship.  Zoe shows how torn she is between her loyalty to Mal and the love and responsibility she has for Wash as her husband.  River shows new depths to her craziness, but in the process, reveals that the insanity does indeed have an uber-purpose — to turn her into a killing machine.  Kaylee shows that she’s somewhat challenged in the bravery department, as she is unable to defend herself and the ship during Mal’s rescue.  Book the preacher completely blows off all pretense of religious pacifism, joining in the fight to save Mal and shooting (and killing?) many of the episode’s “extras” in the process.

In the end, it’s Jayne that has the last word with “Oh hey, free soup.”  Is it stretching the analogy too far by saying that we, as media consumers, are equally as disinterested in the suffering of others, as long as we get the “free soup” of TV entertainment?  Perhaps, but when it comes to the free soup offered in this episode, you know I’m the first in line.



1. Kym - November 16, 2007

That was brilliant analysis!!!!

Wow. I always enjoy your pieces but this was awesome!

I’ve always loved this episode (though sometimes Niska seems overblown to me. He doesn’t have any nuances to his character.) But your writing made me want to go watch it right now.

2. Chris - November 16, 2007

Thanks!!! Big smile right now! That was a fun one to write…it flowed out nicely…

3. Kym - November 16, 2007

Why is it the pieces I have to work at are not as good as the ones that just flow.

4. Chris - November 16, 2007

Strange, isn’t it? That’s the subconscious at work, for you. Perhaps we don’t feel the subconscious part of our minds working the way our conscious mind works — we don’t feel it exerting the effort — so when the subconscious is hitting on all cylinders, it feels effortless. When the subconscious is taking a nap or is stumped, the conscious part of our minds tries to step in and fill the void. But maybe, our subconscious minds are just plain better at writing/creating than our conscious minds.

By the way, I can see what you’re saying about Niska being overblown…he’s pretty much a two-dimensional character…he’s the “heavy”. I don’t give him too much more thought than that, and I think that he does a very good job filling that role. It’s kind of like frozen pizza…it can actually taste pretty good as long as you’re not expecting it to taste like real pizza.

5. Kym - November 16, 2007

I like the Niska/pizza analogy. And he does do a good job of acting the part. The writing of Niska is just a little bland but the rest is excellent.

Well except, I also think the writing for Inara and the councilor is stilted. The two actresses do the best they can but (since Inara,in my humble opinion, is the worst actress on the show-though still a pretty decent one) they don’t quite pull off those scenes. Although all the males in my house go disturbingly still when we watch that part so maybe I’m just jealous;>

6. Chris - November 16, 2007

I wouldn’t argue with you on the Inara/Councilor thing, although I’ve had moments of stillness myself during that episode. Fortunately for those who aren’t intrigued by the whole woman-on-woman thang, those scenes are a pretty small part of the episode’s story.

7. Firefly: Objects in Space Ep. 14 « Sci-Fi TV Geek - December 29, 2007

[…] dangerous River in a scene that echoes her display of frighteningly good gunfighting abilities in War Stories.  River finds picks up a pistol and she’s instantly surrounded by the rest of the crew […]

8. Male Socialization « Ta Aphrodisia - April 6, 2008

[…] a difficult social situation as a way of learning what he’s really like (although reminiscent of the writings of Shan Yu). I’m honestly developing a healthy respect for the other sex’s social […]

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