“War Stories” (season 1, episode 10; originally aired 12/6/2002)
Donna Bowman: All the best science fiction understands that genre trappings are not at the heart of the stories being told. Science fiction is about human relationships, just like all fiction, whether any recognizable humans appear in it or not. I’m impressed by the way “War Stories” embodies this truth. Despite the gory spectacle of Niska torturing our heroes, and the action beats of the space station shootout, the episode remains firmly focused on the way Wash perceives the unstable triangle of himself, his wife, and their captain. Another reason to love “War Stories,” of course, is that the proper noun in that last clause is “Wash.” It’s exhilarating to see that character and the inestimable Alan Tudyk getting a big showcase.
We last saw the sadistic gangster Niska getting bested by the Serenity crew in “The Train Job.” Now his minions have detected evidence of a Firefly-class vessel hiding on the other side of the planet from Niska’s space station, and even though he’s annoyed at being interrupted in the middle of carving up somebody who skimmed from his protection fund, he’s thrilled by the prospect of revenge on Mal Reynolds for tossing one of his employees into a spaceship engine. For their part, the Serenity crew came to this planet to convert some of their stolen medical supplies into cash, and Mal insists that they not try any funny stuff to cut out middlemen and try to make a bigger killing: “We got enemies enough as it is.”
But Wash grumbles that his scheme of going directly to doctors never made it to Mal’s ears, Zoe shutting it down while using the captain’s position as an excuse. And he’s fuming about the things Mal and Zoe share—the camaraderie of the trenches, the intimacy of dangerous missions—that he never can. So he rigs the shuttle so that Zoe can’t fly it, and substitutes himself on the trip to meet the buyers. Which would be a milk run if not for Niska’s commandos who kill the buyers and snatch Mal and Wash for a session of painful electric shocks.
Wash acts out his jealousy in a wonderfully backward way. Instead of trying to replace Mal in Zoe’s life, he tries to replace Zoe in Mal’s life! Envious of the “wacky stories with rib cages in them” that Zoe and Mal share, he could have come back with some inside jokes and meaningful memories stemming from their marriage bond. But since he “can’t stand the thought of something happening that will cause the two of you to come back with another thrilling tale of bonding and adventure,” he sends Zoe back to the ship and sets off to have his own adventure with the captain. One might question with which relationship he’s most concerned—his marriage, or his chain of command.
Both sides of the equation are satisfied with an impeccable comic touch. Zoe unhesitatingly chooses to save her husband rather than her captain (Niska is just gearing up for his Sophie’s-choice speech when she interrupts by pointing at Wash: “Him… I’m sorry, you were going to ask me to choose, you wanna finish?”). And Wash falls head over heels in love with Mal because of the captain’s “crazy” commitment to keep the pilot from breaking under torture by pressing the argument over Zoe between electric shocks. Niska’s devotion to the methods of Shan Yu (“Tie him up and hold him over the volcano's edge, and on that day, you will finally meet the man”) ends up revealing Mal to Wash instead of to the gangster—and Wash finally meets the Mal that earned Zoe’s undying loyalty under fire.
And that’s only the main plot! Elsewhere in this episode, Kaylee learns something new about River, Inara spends quality time with an unusual client, and questions arise about why there are so many apples in the galley. I might ask the same question of you, Noel: Why are there so many apples in this episode?
Noel Murray: Why are there so many apples in this episode? They, and the ribs in Zoe’s story, are symbolic of the Edenic innocence of… nah, I’m just yankin’ ya. The apples are there because fresh fruit is precious in this time and place—and “healthsome” to boot—and Jayne feels guilty, so he buys a crate for the galley, to alleviate his conscience a bit. It’s a simple as that.
There is something interesting going on in this episode though, in regard to gender roles. I can’t say that I’ve ever been that wild about the Inara subplot in this episode, which sees her entertaining a politician who turns out to be—gasp!—a woman. I don’t have a problem with the titillation factor there; I just find the scenes between Inara and The Councillor boring. That said, it does tie in with the rest of “War Stories,” given that the fluid sexuality of the 2500s—and the acceptance thereof—may go hand-in-hand with the willingness of men and women to take on different responsibilities than they generally do in our society. (“One cannot always be oneself in the company of men,” Inara admits to The Councillor.)
I could go further and say there’s a bit of thematic meaning to the Kaylee/River scenes you mention. At the start of the episode, Kaylee and River are running around like little girls, with Kaylee snatching an apple back that River stole from her, saying, “No power in the ’verse can stop me.” At the end of the episode, the ladies have gone to war alongside Zoe, Wash, Jayne, Book, and Simon, storming Niska’s skyplex to free Mal, and during the melee, River grabs Kaylee’s gun and shoots three guards dead with three shots—without even really looking. (“No power in the ’verse can stop me,” she smiles.) She’s taken on a new role: from skittish, silly kid to warrior-woman.
Obviously though this episode mainly means us to take the measure of Wash and Mal, as “men” in the traditional sense of the word. The plot of this episode kicks in after Wash says to Zoe, “What this marriage needs is one less husband,” and it ends with her feeding him what he calls “wife soup,” after he spearheads the big raid. In between he refers to himself as a “large, semi-muscular man,” and talks about how “there’s a certain motto… a creed among folks like us,” like he’s some kind of big damn hero. But Wash also pesters Mal on their trip like the dopey little brother that their mom has insisted has to tag along. “Are we gonna sing Army songs or somethin’?” he asks, like some kind of a smart-ass; and later, after saying that he’ll learn Zoe’s job as he goes, Wash whines, “So now I’m learning about carrying,” and then, “Now I’m learning about scary.” He’s a work in progress, our Wash, is all I’m saying, daring raid or not.
But as mentioned, Mal’s “maleness” is under scrutiny here too. In addition to the Inara scenes, I’ve never much liked the scene in “War Stories” where Mal and Wash snipe at each other about Zoe while Niska is electrocuting them, because it goes on for a long time and is painful to watch. But the payoff for the scene is deeply moving. Mal’s baiting Wash to give him something else to focus on besides the pain of torture, and after Zoe buys Wash’s freedom, he tells her what Mal did, choking up a little. Zoe, of course, is not a bit surprised. She knows Mal’s a good dude; and he’s a practical dude, who knows what makes sense in a crisis. (When Zoe tells Jayne to let Mal fight his way free, saying it’s something he needs to do for himself, a panicked Mal says, “No! No it’s not!”)
The real question is: Which version of Manly Mal do we like best? The big brother who’s watching out for us? The rakish romantic who promises Inara that he’s over his sword-fighting phase? Or the suburban TV dad who snaps at River and Kaylee, “One of you is gonna fall and die and I’m not cleanin’ it up!”?
DB: There’s at least one more Mal: The terrifying and violent force of nature who growls “You wanna meet the real me now?” before taking his revenge on Niska. I agree with you that the torture is lengthy and difficult to watch, but I’d argue that it’s necessary to give sufficient weight and consequence to the marital and quasi-marital spats. Niska admits that Mal is a remarkable person, but doesn’t have any clue how remarkable, because he’s never met (and would never have imagined the existence of) a person who prioritizes principle over self-preservation. Usually we see that kind of person in heroic or self-sacrificial settings, and we’ve been there with Mal in previous episodes. But here we witness it in extremis: What happens to that person when their slimy, oily opposite is at their mercy, and when the anger of being misjudged and taken advantage of has had a chance to boil over?
We had a discussion in the comments last week about this same phenomenon, asking whether Mal really intended to blow Jayne out the airlock. I confess that I never thought he did, that he was hoping to hear something that could trigger mercy. But here we are looking at the “real Mal,” unrelenting in his murderous anger, and the cause seems similar (if far, far slimier), making me rethink that assessment. I hadn’t thought it was particularly praiseworthy of Mal to be fed up with Jayne, no matter what the aggravating factors of personal and community betrayal. The question at this extreme, though, may not be what’s principled—it’s what one is pushed to.
That said, this bloodthirsty “real Mal” almost immediately ceases to conform to heroic-outlaw stereotypes when he welcomes Zoe’s intervention in his fight to the death with Niska’s torture master. A scene later, he’s admitting that he has “regrets” about not killing Niska, and we don’t know if they’re practical (Niska escaped) or principled (they didn’t pursue him). Fascinating character, this “real man.” Shan Yu’s dictum implies that underneath our layers of civilization, routine, history, and cognition, there is something simple: an animal fighting to survive. Niska says that he’s met the extraordinary man out of time that is Malcolm Reynolds, but expects to find something far more basic and real with one more layer of suffering. All the evidence we see, though, is that the real Mal has many facets, not just one; that he’s complex, not simple.
There’s another past comment of mine that I have to rethink: the one about Mal “playing captain.” The grim torture scenes could have been designed to illustrate that there’s no playacting about it. Yet fast-forward to the epilogue, and there’s another Mal making a show of taking Wash at his word by steeling himself to take Zoe to bed: “I know it’s a difficult mission, but you and I have to get it on.” And that brings us around full circle to our Zoe, who’s surely never been more kickass and charming than in this episode where she’s unfairly relegated to “other woman” status: “I understand. We have no choice. Take me, sir. Take me hard.”
- Simon chastises Book for being taken in by the “sadistic crap legitimized by florid prose” that is the philosophy of Shan Yu, but Book needles back by asking when Simon will be planning his next heist. (“I am thinking about growing a big black mustache,” Simon admits. “I’m a traditionalist.”) These two have a good chemistry. At the end of the episode, Simon is shaken up by the gunfight he took part in, saying, “I’ve never shot anyone before,” to which Book quips, “I’m fair sure you haven’t shot anyone yet.”
- Book takes part in the raid, even though the Bible has strict rules about killing. (“It is, however, somewhat fuzzier on the subject of kneecaps,” he says.)
- As is often the case, River’s babble has more meaning than it initially may seem. While recovering from vomiting, she mutters to Simon, “I walked with my feet, I heard with my ears… I function like I’m a girl.” Note the last line, in connection with the themes of this episode.
- Hey, Wash has been in a firefight. Well, in a fire. Well, he was fired. (From a frycook opportunity.)
- Looking at Mal’s severed ear, and told by Zoe that they’re going to get the Captain back, Jayne says, “What are we gonna do, clone him?”
- A lot of Chinese in this episode. That knocks it down maybe a half-peg.
- From the “Here’s where society is at in the early 2500s” department: According to Mal, “about 50 percent of the human race is middle-men, and they don’t take kindly to bein’ eliminated.”
- From the “You don’t pay Jayne Cobb to talk pretty” department: After The Councillor arrives, Jayne takes one look at her and Inara, and says, “I’ll be in my bunk.”