Tuesday night J and I watched War Stories and Trash.
I almost wish I hadn’t watched War Stories, not because it isn’t a great episode, it is. It’s brilliant, but I really didn’t enjoy watching Mal and Wash being tortured, even though I understand what most of the scenes were trying to achieve for the story. I did however enjoy watching Zoe being awesome and I love the development of Zoe and Wash’s relationship, the sort of thing you rarely ever see in television science fiction. I also love how the interaction between Kaylee and River is used to begin the unveiling of who River really is. Oh yes, and the apple is a really interesting metaphor for the theme of the episode, especially as it very neatly draws River into the mix and nicely frames the whole thing within a religious questioning on the knowledge of evil.
But, getting back to the torture …
Honestly, once would have been enough to adequately convey what the episode was trying to say about “war stories”, as the humorous retelling of horrific events. (Anyone who has ever listened to a group of cops sharing work stories knows how this goes). The first torture scene starts out funny, as if the torture is not be taken seriously, and although you realise the conversation between Mal and Wash is about Mal keeping Wash alive, it somehow doesn’t quite come off.
The later torture scenes with Mal are simply gratuitous. We already know how tough Mal is. However, the main problem with these scenes is Niska. His characterisation undermines what is happening, and not in a good way. He is a one dimensional racially stereotyped cliché. His Russian accent and persona are so clearly fake that there was no good reason to write him this way. Usually, when Firefly uses a genre trope it consciously designed to subvert and undermine audience expectations to tell a more interesting story. But Niska never gets past being a cartoon version of evil – Gargamel from the Smurfs has more depth and less predictability. This works against the more serious exploration of the episode’s darker themes.
I am also not sure about using torture as a catalyst for smoothing marital discord. The torture was serious enough to have had it’s own consequences within the script. It could still have served the purpose of helping Wash understand his wife better, but it shouldn’t have been its only purpose. I can understand that Mal’s stoic acceptance of putting the past into a humorous “war story” and moving on makes sense, since that is essentially his character. But Wash? No, I believe that the events for Wash would have changed him and reverberated somehow. There would have been an aftermath for Wash that was separate from its impacts on his relationships with Zoe and Mal.
Anyway, while this detracts slightly it does not derail an otherwise well-constructed and thematically thoughtful episode. I could write a lot about how the story, character relationships, action sequences and theme are developed and work to accentuate each other, an’ maybe one day I will.
Trash is great fun, if for no other reason than the return of the phenomenal Christina Hendricks as Saffron / Bridget / Yolanda the pathologically relentless con-artist. Watching Hendricks and Fillion play off each other is the episode’s highlight. I also love the floating city as a visual concept. I know the plot is silly, but it’s sort of perfect for the tone the episode is trying to achieve; from the opening shot of Mal sitting naked on a rock in the desert to the final shot of him smiling with satisfaction. It’s nice to see Mal genuinely happy – for once. And even Inara gets to be shiny – for once.