By Jeff Jensen
Updated March 14, 2011 at 05:15 AM EDT
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“Bushwhacked” — the third episode of Firefly’s only, abbreviated season -– contained one of the late, lamented cult classic’s most haunting moments. With his rickety smuggler’s ship about to be boarded and searched by The Alliance, Mal decided to hide fugitive siblings Simon Tam and River from the authorities by sealing them up in spacesuits and stowing them outside. Simon – skeptical that mere “Mylar and glass” could protect him from the “nothing” of space – shuddered in fear. Incapable of even peeking at the infinite star-dotted expanse at his back, the buttoned-up doctor kept his eyes focused on Serenity’s steel hull like a quivering acrophobe terrified of looking down. Not so his sister. Gazing into the abyss, River’s face to lit up with rapt wonder. The “nothing” seemed to quiet the agonizing chaotic riot of her broken internal world. Noting her spacey-mystical bliss, Simon shivered some more and clung harder to Serenity’s battered iron.

Watching “Bushwhacked“ for the first time in years last night on Science Channel, I felt equal parts River and Simon – awestruck by Joss Whedon’s rich enterprise and its collection of winning, well-drawn characters; dismayed by the reminder that it never lasted long enough to fully explore its world, people and ideas. I wanted to watch, because I love this show; I wanted to look away, because to re-invest is to be pained anew by Firefly’s whatcouldabeen.

Of course, I didn’t really have a choice in the matter: Watching Firefly is part of my job for the next several weeks. (I’m cheerful about it! Sincerely!) And I found the episode riveting for at least one circumstantial reason: “Bushwhacked” possessed an unfortunate though rewarding timeliness, as the story implicitly asked us to reflect upon the question of our responsibility to someone else’s catastrophe. (BTW: Looking for ways to help Japan? Start here.)

This was the only episode of Firefly that dealt specifically with one of the show’s most capture-the-imagination bits of mythology: The Reavers, deviant and dehumanized nomads. According to Zoe, woe to those who cross their path: “If they take the ship, they’ll rape us to death, eat our flesh, and sew our skins into their clothing — and if we’re very very lucky, they’ll do it in that order.” The conventional wisdom about Reavers, at least at this point in the saga: They’re humans gone mad from having spent too much time lost in space. Those who know their Firefly stuff know there’s that these dead space bogeymen have a hushhush backstory. Those who don’t will have to rent the 2005 film Serenity to learn it.

In “Bushwhacked,” Team Whedon made the inspired choice of never showing the Reavers – unless you counted as Reaver the gone-psycho self-mutilating settler who survived their attack … because the Reavers forced him to play spectator to their debauched horrorshow. We were asked to consider that baring witness to Reavers at work could cause someone to become one of them – as a way of rationalizing unchecked evil; perhaps to cope with the inability to of rationalizing such a thing. If you were watching the episode for the first time last night, maybe you experienced it more as a tense, claustrophobic mystery-thriller. Will The Reavers show up? Are they lurking, planning an attack? Do The Reavers even really exist? Watching the episode again was a different kind of experience: A character study of people forced to consider or reconsider what it means to be “civilized.” The bushwhack in “Bushwhacked” was philosophical, not physical.

For the crew of Serenity, “civilized” was something of a dirty world. Definition: to be conformed to a culture that serves the interests of the imperiously controlling Alliance. Mal and co. might be characterized as hard-core Libertarians, either by nature or in response to the failed Browncoat revolt. The only laws they wished to live by — loyalty, mutual respect, cooperative survival, and friendship — were part of an unwritten but understood code. In the opening sequence, we saw the crew at play in the cargo bay, engaged in a possibly self-invented mash-up of basketball and rugby. (I got a Quidditch-without-the-magic vibe from it.) I usually don’t like it when fiction tries to imagine future sports; they usually feel forced and contrived. But watching “Bushwhacked” through the lens of knowing what was coming, the game worked as it was intended: A metaphor for the DIY principles of Serenity’s crew. Less important than the game itself was the watching of the game, as “Bushwhacked” was more interested in witness ethics. I was struck by River’s agitated reaction to Mal’s joyously unstructured sport – I couldn’t tell if she was energized or aggrieved by the spectacle or both. This exchange between Inara and Simon provided some (slightly too-on-the-nose) codex:

INARA: Who’s winning?

SIMON: I don’t know. They don’t seem to be playing by any civilized rules that I know of.

INARA: Well, we are pretty far from civilization.

Quickly, Serenity bumped into another metaphor for civilization when it literally ran over a corpse and happened upon a seemingly derelict vessel spinning in place – a short-range ship converted into a ferry for settlers who were looking to make a life in the outer rim, but instead found tragedy; a futuristic Mayflower rocked and rolled by terrorists; an aspiring society, cut down and capsized. The distressed vehicle presented a challenge to the Serenity philosophy. Like a certain pair of sci-fi smugglers who also cruised the universe in a delightfully dumpy swift boat, Mal’s crew lived life trying to avoid “imperial entanglements,” much less personal entanglements. Still, Book, the resident preacher (or “Shepherd” in the Firefly parlance), encouraged Mal to heed the lesson of The Good Samaritan. Mal blanched at the call to altruism… but he was willing to board the ship and salvage its valuables. And if along the way, they just happened upon a survivor or two or twenty that needed a helping hand, then yes, he would lend it.

I kinda wondered if Mal was actually moved by Book’s love-thy-neighbor appeal but had to find a way to sell it to his less sentimental, more jaundiced comrades. “Bushwhacked” continuously invited us to take the measure of Mal’s allegedly calloused heart, and kept us guessing at every turn. In a surprising show of sentiment, he permitted Book to issue last rites for the Reaver-ravaged dead (“I ain’t saying there’s any peace to be had, but if there is, those folks deserve a little bit of it”). But then he revealed to his inner circle of crew that the order was just a ploy to keep their frazzled passengers occupied while they dealt with the dangerous business of defusing a booby-trap left behind by the Reavers that threatened their ship. When the Alliance seized and boarded Serenity, he insisted on assisting Commander (Grand Moff?) Harken (a post-Melrose Place/pre-Desperate Househusband Doug Savant) track down the psycho-survivor that threatened their mutual safety… but I suspect he was really more concerned about making sure that Harken didn’t find the sibling fugitives he was illegally harboring. In the final moments, Mal and Jayne bitched bitterly after Harken allowed them their precious liberty but claimed the valuables they had pilfered from the Reaver-raided vessel:

JAYNE: You save his gorram life. And he still takes the cargo.

MAL: Had to. Couldn’t let us profit. Wouldn’t be “civilized.”

Mal was taking a swipe at Harken and a rigid code that puts law before grace, control over mercy. Ironic much? After all, Team Mal also lived by a code, one that also didn’t readily allow for acts of selfless decency. Mal’s pissy kiss-off betrayed the lie of his burnt Browncoat cynicism. For me, Mal’s Firefly story – sadly unfinished — was that of a faith-rattled guy trying to regain the courage to revive his beaten-down idealism, and in the process, inspire his makeshift family of desperate and disillusioned souls to do the same. Mal may have walked and talked like an existential superhero – Bernard Rieux with a Han Solo makeover — but at his core, I suspect there was more Book in him than Jayne. (PS: Yes, I do live to sneak references to The Plague into my pop culture blathering, no matter how forced or irrelevant.)

Not everything about “Bushwhacked” worked for me. I didn’t quite buy the slow burn on Mal’s dawning realization that Reavers had ransacked the settlers’ ship; I think he and his crew would have clicked into this possibility sooner. And I also don’t quite buy “the horror… the horror…” of the Reavers — at least, not in any non-metaphorical way. Said Mal: “They went out to the edge of the galaxy where there’s nothing and that’s what they became – nothing.” Poetic? Yes. Credible? I’m not sure the show even thought so. And indeed, the Serenity movie would subsequently reveal The Reavers ‘ true origins. I won’t spoil, but it’s less Tales of the Black Freighterand more A Clockwork Orange – and it trades in one debatable metaphor about the malleability of moral character for another.

Finally, a word about Book. There’s a lot about Firefly that has stuck with me, and there’s much that hasn’t. One of the things that I can’t recall with accuracy is Book’s arc. I look forward to tracking it anew – and seeing if it improves. This may sound like heresy, but I do think there a couple things Joss Whedon doesn’t always do well, and one of them is writing credible Men of Faith. This may have something to do with his stated position on “Sky Bullies” — and it’s possible my incredulity comes from knowing that stance. Regardless, I didn’t buy Book’s platitudinous brand of spirituality in “Bushwhacked,” from his Good Samaritan moralizing to his “how we deal with our dead is what makes us different from those that did this slaughter” blah blah blah. It rang hollow to me. I love Ron Glass, I really do. Yet while I don’t recall ever thinking that he was miscast in the part (he certainly had the voice and gravitas for it), my takeaway from “Bushwhacked” was that of an actor struggling to connect with his role and make it his own, as many actors do during the early episodes of a series. All to say: I’ll be scrutinizing Book’s Bookishness as we go.

Countdown to a message board full of furious posts from Whedonites and Book/Glass loyalists in…





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