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'Out Of Gas' grasps greatness by making Mal gasp for life

By Jeff Jensen
Updated April 18, 2011 at 03:21 AM EDT
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“Out of Gas” was one of my favorite episodes of Firefly. It’s also an episode about which I have very little to say, and even less today given that I am mentally fogged-in from a head cold. It wasn’t episode full of prickly ideas and themes to be wallowed in and rassled with like a Mudder in Jaynestown – though that isn’t to say that “Out of Gas” wasn’t full of high-octane drama to think about and feel. The absorbing hour had mortally wounded Mal flashing on different sets of memories – snapshot recollections of purchasing Serenity and recruiting his crew; the more linear, continuous story chronicling the lead-up to his present predicament — during a bloody, oxygen-deprived trudge to the engine room in a desperate bid to save himself and the vessel that had become more than just vehicle for him, but an expression of a still-burning idealism that the war couldn’t totally extinguish. I enjoyed the poetically fluid flashback structure (that’s right: “fluidly poetic.” I said it. I meant it!) created by writer Tim Minear that evoked other classic examples of unconventional storytelling in The Joss Whedon Family of Shows, my personal faves being “The Body” from Buffy The Vampire Slayer and the chilly gem that awaits us at the end of the Firefly line, “Objects In Space.”

Maybe I have more to say about “Out of Gas” after all. But I can’t. Head cold. Ach! I can’t afford to go long today. I don’t even have the mental energy to concoct my usual post-opening preamble title/pull-quote sequence, like…

LIFE SUPPORT

“No,” said the little prince. “I am looking for friends. What does that mean–tame?” “It is an act too often neglected,” said the fox. “It means to establish ties… Men have forgotten this truth. … But you must not forget it. You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.”The Little Prince

+++

SALESMAN: Tell you what, you buy this ship, treat her proper,

she’ll be with ya for the rest of your life.

+++

MAL: You’re all going to be here when I wake up?

BOOK: We’ll be here.

MAL: Good.

ARRGGHH! Stop being pretentious and ponderous! Just be expedient! Must … get … you … to … message boards…. ASAP… like … Mal… had … to … uuhhhhhhhh*…. get … part … to …. engine… room… quickly… before… expiringgggggg….

I loved the many bits of backstory revelation and trivia. That Wash once rocked a ‘stache and wore Tommy Bahama shirts. That Zoe hated future-husband Wash at first sight. That Jayne met Mal while sticking him up – and was bought to Mal’s side with the promise of a bigger room, all to himself. That Inara supported Unification, a beat that makes her combustible relationship with Browncoat Mal more than just opposites-attract blah blah blah. That Kaylee, that sweet little grease monkey, was never as sweet she appeared. (I also loved how Serenity’s original mechanic was some Brad Pitt-ish himbo.)

NEXT: The asterisk is explained. The reference to The Little Prince is not. Sorry.

I think many of these beats have much more resonance and depth watching “Out of Gas” in the show’s intended order of episodes. When Fox aired Firefly back in 2002, “Out of Gas” was followed by “Shindig” and “Safe.” For example, the intended order, there’s a natural progression of the Kaylee-Simon relationship, which reached a new level in “Out of Gas” during a lively and warm sequence in which an all-crew dinner turned into surprise birthday party for Tam, complete with a cake baked (out of meaty dinner leftovers — ugh) by Kaylee. Seen out-of-order, the growing intimacy between the pair was subverted and confused.

Some aspects of “Out of Gas” left me wanting. Shepherd Book continued to be written with a tin ear for true faith; his meager response to River’s ominous fatalism was insufficient. And Mal’s conflict with the space pirates that duped him in his moment of need and then shot him lacked a credible resolution. Those heavily armed rogues looked might tough and plenty capable of taking a wounded man with a single pistol, even if Mal got the drop on their top dog.

What I loved best was seeing and feeling Mal’s relationship with his ship, and more, to its crew and passengers. It was all about life support, wasn’t it? Captain Tightpants is the Good Shepherd we want our preachers and leaders to be – a strong soul, committed to helping souls of all stripes and sashes flourish. The episode opened with the voice of a used spacecraft salesman trying to sell Mel on a ship. We thought the huckster was talking about Serenity. But in the episode’s final moment, we saw that the salesman was pitching Mal on another boat altogether, hut that during then pitch, Mal was distracted – practically starstruck – by the sight of a certain dumpy old Firefly class vessel sitting lonely and but proud on a corner of the yard, calling out to be rehabbed and set free into the galaxy. The sight of Serenity spoke to Mal’s war-worn spirit. In its tired but unbroken frame, Mal saw hope for his future – a ticket to freedom, a haven for losers and outcasts like himself, a home.

Life Support.

It was enough to get me a little misty. But maybe it was the cold.

Out of gas. Now to bed. More wordiness next week.

@EWDocJensen

*My nose dripped a huge glob of snot onto my computer there. “Fluidly poetic” indeed.

Episode Recaps

Firefly (Flashback)

Nathan Fillion stars in Joss Whedon’s tragically short-lived space western. Join us in revisiting the complete run of the series
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