“Bushwhacked” (originally aired 9/27/2002)
Noel: “It’s impressive what ‘nothing’ can do to a man.” That’s Jayne Cobb, messing with the head of Simon Tam, as the skittish doctor checks out the thin layers of “Mylar and glass” that constitute Serenity’s spacesuits, and tries not to think too hard about how little separates a human body from the all-consuming void. That little exchange sets the tone for “Bushwhacked,” which follows the rollicking action of “The Train Job” with something much more spare and dark—almost like a deliberate undoing of all the, “No, really, this show is going to be fun!” overtures that Fox demanded of Firefly’s second pilot. The snappy dialogue has been dramatically diminished, replaced by tense scenes of our heroes walking slowly and cautiously through a ship full of corpses, keeping an eye out for the ferocious space-savages known as “Reavers.”
One possibly beneficial side effect of Joss Whedon being asked to start over on the Firefly pilot is that the show was then allowed to reintroduce elements from the original introductory episode, one-by-one, and with more purpose. This week we re-meet the Reavers, whom the crew narrowly escaped in “Serenity,” and whom they now encounter when they come across a ship that Reavers have ravaged. We’re told once again—or for the first time, for those who watched Firefly in its original broadcast run—that Reavers are believed to be human beings, driven mad by years spent in deep space. (Mylar and glass apparently weren’t enough for these poor souls.) Even the otherwise fearless Jayne is spooked by Reavers. He plays a mean trick on Simon by telling the doctor to suit up before boarding the ghost ship—which has breathable air—but the jokes stop once Jayne realizes what they may be up against.
“Bushwhacked” has an unusual structure, which reminded me a little of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel, in that it moves steadily in one direction for well over half its running time and then changes gears in the final 15 minutes or so. For a good long stretch, the episode is a little like a haunted-house movie. While the crew is salvaging whatever they can from the ship, they’re stumbling across dead bodies, and one feral-seeming survivor, whom Jayne shoots when he’s attacked from behind. (“He looked bigger when I couldn’t see him,” Jayne explains.) But then an Alliance ship shows up, and as its Commander Harken (played by Doug Savant) interrogates the crew, that wounded survivor begins to transform into a Reaver himself. So almost two-thirds of “Bushwhacked” is moody horror, and then the last third features more fast-paced, cross-cutting suspense, jumping from one scene to another. Intentionally or not, the construction of the episode itself is like the contrast between a life on the far edges of the frontier and a life in the fold of a bureaucracy.
This episode also continues to develop the ideological differences between Mal—a smuggler who likes his Firefly-class ship with its “troublesome little nooks”—and the authorities, who are tired of hearing “Reavers did it” as an excuse from the people who try to live outside Alliance law. But I especially like that “Bushwhacked” keeps re-connecting its action and themes to Simon and his very real anxiety of what’s just outside the barrier of a spacesuit, a spaceship, or a civilized society. It’s something that preoccupies Simon especially because of how far his sister River has drifted into insanity. Early in the episode, Jayne compares the Tams to the “space-trash” known to accumulate on the underside of the first large ship that passes. And later, while the Alliance ransacks Serenity in search of Simon and River, the brother and sister are literally holding on to the outside hull, perilously close to the wrong side of oblivion.
Donna: I’m glad we get to spend some unexpected time with the Alliance this week, because some commenters have been proposing theories about how we, the audience, should view them. From our brief glimpses of their personnel in action in “Serenity” (barring the opening battle) and “The Train Job,” I gathered that they weren’t supposed to be evil enemies of freedom, but functionaries of the imperialistic or colonial impulse. They have an argument to make about why order and central control is better than the messier bits of democracy and self-determination, and their officers seem to have accepted it as a legitimate rationale for the exercise of their power.
That view is largely confirmed by “Bushwhacked,” and I’m glad we have Doug Savant’s Alliance commander along for so much of the episode to embody it for us. “Civilization” is a key word in “Bushwhacked”—what it means to be civilized, what happens when one loses contact with civilization, how differing notions of civilization and its benefits might be negotiated, and how some people think a different form of civilization shouldn’t count as civilized at all. For Mal, the only reason the Alliance cares about its citizens is for the revenue they bring in. (“They’re going to run right out here lickety-split and make sure these taxpayers are okay,” he mutters when Serenity first encounters the ghost ship.) He sneers at the regulations and laws and policies that define the Alliance way of life. And we’re meant to sympathize with that point of view, to assume that in the same situation we would choose freedom over compliance (even over security!). But we’re also meant to understand that the Alliance representatives aren’t just doing their jobs; they believe in the importance of those jobs, and correctly identify people like Mal and Zoe as threats to the ends they’re trying to accomplish by doing those jobs. They’re “pirates” and “leeches”—parasites that couldn’t exist without the Alliance as a host. They falsely present themselves as a principled alternative, which can’t be tolerated, because from an Alliance perspective, any assertion of autonomy is a claim to be outside of any law’s reach.
And then there are the Reavers. The Alliance has twisted civilization into a mechanism for control: a way to marginalize dissent and deviance. But the Reavers have become isolated from civilization and have lost touch with something fundamental about it, something that the Alliance (for all its faults) still grasps firmly. Book thinks the Reavers have “forgotten” that something, and Mal—identifying the something as “a philosophy”—thinks they’ve just lost it entirely. The argument between Book and Mal here gets us closer to that discussion of religion you want us to have, Noel. But Book casts his net larger than Christianity in making the case for seeing the Reavers as redeemable. When he asserts his belief in a power greater than men, he’s saying that there is a master-narrative to which one can appeal to assign meaning beyond local and variable opinion. For Mal, there’s no recourse when people have philosophical differences; the only option is to fight it out, and even winning doesn’t make one side right and the other wrong. (“May have been the losing side,” he corrects the Alliance commander's characterization of the Independents. “Still not convinced it was the wrong one.”)
Mal rejects a master narrative because the Alliance rests its claim to legitimacy on a master narrative: the narrative of universal law. Freedom can only be found outside of civilization, from Mal’s perspective. Only the outlaw is his own man; everyone else is playing out someone else’s version of life. And so Mal is contemptuous of civilization, joking that it “caught up with us” when the Alliance ship appears, and defining what the Reavers lack as a “philosophy” or code of conduct, rather than agreeing with Book that it’s civilization itself. After all, Mal thinks that the Serenity crew and the ongoing Independent movement, such as it is, stand in opposition to civilization; if he were to accept Book’s characterization, then the Reavers and the Browncoats would be in the same boat. But Book makes a claim that the Alliance law is under a larger master-narrative of moral or religious law. And even if Mal doesn’t believe in God (having been failed by angels), he believes in a code. He might cynically assert that his code is just his own choice, with no greater significance, but his actions (like last week having “no choice” but to return the medicine) belie that stance.
“Pirates with their own chaplain? That’s an oddity,” Commander Harken comments when interrogating Book. But the real oddity is that the Alliance, or any empire, can so easily form a symbiotic relationship with religion. Yes, the fact that both assert a universal truth and power gives them common ground. But when push comes to shove, the religious version will trump the secular, and its adherents will have an imperative to resist, dissent, and deviate. And although Mal’s love for freedom appears to have far less content as a behavioral imperative than Christianity, the two find common ground in resistance to power. I’m reminded of the charge leveled by Roman imperial persecutors against Christians: atheism. A rejection of the universal system that they considered civilization itself constituted a rejection of universal power itself. You might be interested to know that many scholars now read Revelation (the Apocalypse of John) as an extended argument against this assertion, and a call to early second-century Christians to reject the political legitimacy of the civilization in which they lived.
Noel: I am interested to know that! See folks, this is why it’s good to have a theologian handy, for a little historical and epistemological context and such. (I reckon even Mal might agree.)
Donna, you mention how the word “civilization” keeps popping up in this episode, right up to the final line, “Wouldn’t be civilized,” which Mal says in reference to the Alliance destroying the ghost ship and seizing its cargo rather than letting Serenity profit. This episode’s deck may be a little too heavily stacked against the Alliance’s idea of civilization, though. When Commander Harken spots Serenity, he demands that the ship be cited for its lack of “mandatory registration markings,” which is just the kind of piddly officiousness that keeps otherwise harmless citizens on the wrong side of the law—just in case those in charge need to flex their muscles and put people back in their place. Even more upsetting is Harken’s reaction when he hears that Simon and River are wanted fugitives, for classified reasons: He orders his men to shoot them, figuring it’s easier to deal with being chewed out by his superiors than risk getting killed by two potentially dangerous freaks. It’s been suggested in the comments that the Alliance isn’t really “bad,” just “other.” In “Bushwhacked” though, those two descriptors seem pretty interchangeable.
I want to say a little more about the style and tone of this episode, which was written and directed by Tim Minear. It’s not as funny as “Serenity” or “The Train Job,” but it’s hardly devoid of levity. Of course, most of it comes from Wash, who responds to an alarm at the start of the episode by exaggeratedly saying, “Oh my God! What can it be? We’re all doomed! Who’s flying this thing?” And there’s a very funny smash-cut when Zoe tells Commander Harken that she and Wash are very private people, and then Wash waxes rhapsodic about how he was first turned on by his wife’s legs. (“Her legs, and where her legs meet her back. Actually, that whole area. That, and above it.”)
Minear also directs the camera in interesting ways, switching to handheld for some scenes, and using zooms in a docu-realistic fashion. This approach is most prevalent in the opening scene where the crew is playing some kind of basketball-like game, with a lot of physical moves and not a lot of rules.
Donna: In my notes, I call it “spaceball,” so if it has a proper name in Firefly lore, I’m not sure I want to know it. The vertically oriented circular goal reminds me of the Mayan ball game. I guess we’ll never know if, like its model, spaceball is associated with ritual human sacrifice.
Noel: Anyway the style suits the action, and sets up the theme of the episode to boot. Remember what Simon says about all this, as he watches from above? Inara asks him who’s winning, and Dr. Tam answers, “I can’t tell. They don’t seem to be playing by any civilized rules that I know.”
- Just a reminder to clearly label spoilers in the comments for the sake of those watching the show for the first time. The true origin of the Reavers runs a little counter to the theme of “Bushwhacked,” but there’s no reason to give that away yet to the newcomers.
- Still waiting for Wash to get more than just a couple of good lines and a “Zoe better be okay!” moment in these early episodes. But at least when the Alliance tears through the ship, we get to see his dinosaur toys again.
- Mal orders his crew to take out all the cargo they swiped from the ghost ship and put it in plain sight, so that it won’t look like they’re trying to hide anything. When Commander Harken comments that this still “looks like an illegal salvage operation,” Mal deadpans, “It does? That’s discouraging.”
- From the “Quick-thinking Mal” department: When Harken mentions that he’s looking for “a brother and sister,” Mal immediately says, “no children on this boat,” which makes it sound like he legitimately has no idea what Harken is talking about.
- From the “Here’s where society is at in the early 2500s” department: Alongside the unfinished dinners in the ghost ship’s galley, there floats a single red balloon, which is somehow more disturbing than any Reaver. It’s as though society has kept balloons around this far into the future solely for the sake of breaking our gorram hearts.
- From the “You don’t pay Jayne Cobb to talk pretty” department: “I think that fellow we ran into did everyone on board, killed them all, then decided to take a swim through space, see how fast his blood would boil out of his ears.”
- Next week: “Shindig.”