Mal loses an ear and Wash gets to be Zoe for a day in a 'Firefly' classic
Credit: Science/Fox

Of all the war stories told throughout the ages, The Fall of Man is certainly one of the oldest, and possibly still the most relevant, depending on your religious beliefs. Not a war story, you say? Then what to make of the punishments God gave Adam and Eve for their apple-eating betrayal? God not only booted his peeps out of Eden, but he made it clear that their lives would be full of strife – with Him, with the Earth, with each other, and between husband and wife. “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” So began mankind’s war of wills with his “Sky Bully” creator – and man’s tumultuous love/hate push-pull with woman. “War Stories” – the tenth episode in the too-brief Firefly set, and one of the very best – was a slyly coded retort to a tale that has shaped views of God, marriage and ourselves for thousands of years. No, the words “Adam” and “Eve” and “Eden” were ever used. But there was enmity between husband-and-wife helpmates Zoe and Wash, and there was a distancing loss of innocence for friends River and Kaylee. There was even a symbolic snake and many literal apples. The story cited an alleged maxim attributed to of the warrior-poet Shan (or Xiang) Yu that only extreme circumstances can reveal our true nature. “’Live with a man 40 years, share his house, his meals, speak on every subject. Then tie him up and hold him over the volcano’s edge. And on that day you will finally meet the man.’” Those who believe in The Fall will tell you we’re all born rotten or distanced from the divine thanks to the disobedience of those first people. But the gospel of Firefly (which may or may not believe in God; hard to say) would seem to teach that our spiritual condition is not inherited but cultivated -– by the management of our desires, by our response to evil, by the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves (truthful and otherwise), and any number of factors. “War Stories” seemed to argue that the only certain insight you can gain into a guy when you dangle him over a volcano is that… he doesn’t like being dangled over a volcano. Cause a man to suffer, as Mal suffered in “War Stories” – i.e. beat him and mutilate him and even murder him, and then bring him back to life just to do it all over again — and what stands revealed is one seriously pissed-off man with a seriously, psychotically strong survival instinct.

You might also see something else: The number of friends willing to die – and kill — for him.

“War Stories” found the crew of Serenity at a place of apparent peace and prosperity. In the previous episode, Mal and company had stolen meds from an Alliance hospital on Ariel. Since then, they had been selling the stuff on the black market and fetching a pretty penny for them. Jayne – nursing a guilty conscience (and licking his Mal-busted chops) for betraying River and Simon – had used some of his cut to atone for his shame by stocking the galley with a tree’s worth of apples, a heavenly treat in the final frontier of space.

ZOE: These really are the genuine article. I could get used to being rich.

But under the Edenesque surface, sinful desires stirred – and I’m not just talking about the lust that compelled Jayne to make repeated trips to his bunk after ogling Inara’s latest customer and imagining the implications. (More on that later.) Wash had a bug up his butt. He was bothered that Mal had vetoed his suggestion to sell the stolen meds directly to the customer instead of using a fence. Mal had nixed Wash’s proposal because being a principled rogue, the Han Solo wannabe wanted to be above-board in his underworld dealings. “Eliminating the middleman is never as simple as it sounds,” Mal said. “This quadrant, we play nice. Got enemies enough as it is.”

NEXT: Was Niska a parody of the devil or a snarky swipe at God? Both? Debate.

The irony of the matter was that Wash had used his own middleman to pitch his idea – Zoe, his wife and Mal’s number two. Zoe had presented her hubby’s plan, in private, but she didn’t defend it when Mal dismissed it outright. Worse, instead of telling Wash the truth about what happened, Zoe lied and told him she had neglected to pitch his idea at all. Wash accused Zoe of lacking the stones to stand up to her boss. (We would later learn from Mal that he couldn’t have been more wrong.) But more than anything, he felt burned. Zoe’s choice to support Mal’s policies instead of supporting her man tapped his insecurities as a man and his jealousy of Zoe’s long friendship with and loyalty to her Browncoat captain. The thought of them spending all that time together in trenches during the War of Unification, battling and bonding, and the fact that they still spent a lot of time together as Serenity’s primary field agents, having adventures and accumulating even more war stories… well, those thoughts didn’t exactly inspire Wash to pull a Jayne and “go to his bunk,” if you want what I mean. No, those thoughts tortured him. Filled him with an enmity toward his wife as hot as lava. Made him feel less of a man. During an argument with Zoe, Wash revealed himself to be full of bitterness and envy. But was he wrong?

WASH: What this marriage needs is one less husband. Right now, it’s kind of crowded.

Touché. But then Wash did something ballsy/stupid. (Pick one.) Mal had set up with a meet with a black market middleman named Boiles to sell the last of Serenity’s illicit pharmaceuticals. Wash pulled a snakey move and hijacked the mission. Literally. The pilot reprogrammed the shuttle so Mal couldn’t make the run — not unless he took him instead of Zoe. Mal was pissed. So was Zoe. But they succumbed to his cunning power play, as Boiles was waiting and Mal didn’t have time to “unwind” this “knot of self-indulgent lunacy” (translated from Chinese, courtesy of the “War Stories” script written by Cheryl Cain and posted at Look at Wash defying the will of the Captain! Look at him pulling a Charlie Sheen and winning

And then look at Wash regret his wrong-headed revolt. He quickly learned that being Mal’s helpmate wasn’t “women’s work,” as really bad, totally backwards, brutishly insensitive and utterly unreconstructed men — a tribe to which I clearly do not belong – like to say. (To paraphrase Book: “I was being poetical.”) No, Wash realized that serving at the right hand of Mal was bruising, back-busting, and very, very scary work. First, there was the heavy-lifting of carrying the merchandise to the meet. Then, there was the gun-fighting when it all went south as a result of an ambush by old enemy. LOST-LIKE FLASHBACK SWOOSH TO: “The Train Job.” Mobster Adelai Niska had hired Mal and friends to steal some cargo, which turned out to be medicine intended for a colony afflicted with Bowden’s disease. Long story short, Mal welched on the deal and made an enemy out of Niska. And you did not want to be enemies with Niska, a sadistic godfather who cared as much about his reputation as he did about money.

Hardcore fans of the Whedonverse are perhaps familiar with the phrase “sky bully,” which according to the lore was coined by frequent Whedon collaborator Tim Minear and used by Joss himself as a term for God, or at least their specific Christian conception of God. (ADD AT 9:33 PST: For the record, Christians are a vast and varied bunch, marked by different perspectives on any number of theological matters. In fact, many might disagree with my characterization of certain ideas in this recap.) I can’t confirm the alleged facts of the previous sentence, but let’s pretend they’re all true. What, then, to make of Niska the Bully, who resided in a space station called the Skyplex? He took delight in inflicting pain upon Mal and Wash in his celestial torture chamber with any number of devices, though he saved his most horrifying instrument for Mal. It was a long black cord with diamond-shaped head that had toothy prongs that bit into the chest and injected a hard black toxin into the body. Which is to say, it was like a snake. And just like the snake of Genesis – responsible for introducing the corruption of sin that turned mankind from immortal to moral beings – Niska’s electric eel caused Mal to die. But Niska the sky bully was a powerful man – powerful enough to reverse the process, to bring Mal back to life… just so he could torture some more.

NEXT: The Harrowing of the Skyplex

If I was to try and square Whedon’s stated atheism with the metaphorical elements of Skyplex-dwelling Niska and his snake of death, I might say that Firefly was questioning the view of God and philosophy of human nature as expressed by the Biblical story of The Fall. But we move on…

To even more heretical possibilities! What was the purpose of Niska’s sadism? Was it mere vengeance for the train job? No. It was to create a legend; to make a myth. By rebelling against Niska, Mal had undermined Niska’s fearsome authority in the galaxy. To right this wrong, Niska the Awful Wannabe God needed to make an example out of Mal that would inspire fear and obedience. (Must. Resist. Provocative. Interpretation!) In his broken, Czech-inflected English, he explained:

NISKA: I hire you to do job. Job does not get done. You make lie of my reputation. I show you my reputation is no lie. Is truth.

What was most interesting about all this was how Mal and Wash ignored it. Indeed, throughout their torture, they never once acknowledged their suffering or Niska’s explanation for it, but rather engaged in a raging argument over Wash’s character. We remember the alleged wisdom of Shan Yu, the blah blah blah about being dangled over volcano exposes your true self. Here was Wash, being abused physically by Niska and emotionally by Mal, who let loose with emasculating comments like “I just don’t think you’re good enough for Zoe” and threatening to steal his wife away from him when they got back to the ship. Mal was merely articulating the insecurities of Wash’s heart, parroting the evil little voice inside Wash’s head, the devilish deceiver that told him he shouldn’t trust Zoe’s love and baited him into life-threatening jams like… well, like this one. I believed Mal when he said earlier in the episode that he didn’t want Zoe marrying Wash (shipboard romances tend to complicate things), but I didn’t believe for a moment that he was sincere about all the other dirty little nothings he spit into Wash’s ear during their torture. Mal was trying to distract Wash from his suffering, to push his buttons for the sake of firing his survival engines. Mal, then, was telling Wash lies. And Wash knew it, and took it, because he needed it. If there was one thing Wash learned about himself during his metaphorical dangle over the volcano, it was this: He had no business going on missions with Mal. I think he learned on other thing, too: He could trust Mal with his life – and with his wife.

The matter was settled when Zoe showed up like Christ descending into hell to ransom the prisoners held by satanic Niska. Zoe had taken up a collection; everyone aboard Serenity forfeited their hospital job earnings to buy back their captain and their pilot. But Niska informed Zoe that she only had money enough for one man. He prepared to take delight in watching her struggle over an apparent Sophie’s Choice. But either Zoe wasn’t going to give the bastard the satisfaction – or it wasn’t much of choice. “Him,” she said decisively, pointing at her husband. Niska gave her a look that said Well played, Zoe, well played. But then he had to go and be a sore loser about it all by poking at Wash’s bruised ego and insisting the she received more for her money, as Wash wasn’t worth all of it. So he sliced off Mal’s ear and gave it to her as a refund. “I wouldn’t want the talk that Adelai Niska is a cheat,” he said. “Now we are ended.”

NEXT: No they weren’t. Not by a long shot.

Wash had been humbled – and he had been saved, by Mal as much as Zoe. And that deserved an in-kind response. And all of Serenity was on board for it – even selfish Jayne; even Shepherd Book; even do-no-harm Simon and innocents River and Kaylee. The heroic ‘Live Together, Die Alone’ humanism of it all was inspiring. And… familiar. The rescue mission culminated with Zoe, Wash and Jayne busting into Niska’s chamber to find Mal battling Niska’s chief torturer. Zoe told her men to stand down. “This is something the Captain needs to do for himself.” If what Zoe meant was that Mal needed to prove himself a better man by besting the torturer in battle and then sparing his life, she couldn’t have been more wrong. “No it’s not!” he shouted. (Hilarious.) Zoe was chastened. “Oh!” And then she and Wash and Jayne shot the torturer full of holes and sent him plummeting to his death all Emperor-in-Return of the Jedl like.

Meanwhile, Niska the snake slithered away…

Back aboard Serenity, Mal checked in with every member of the crew that stuck their neck out for him – but he didn’t thank them. It didn’t need to be said; his gratitude was palpable. Still, there was a notable lack of moral-of-the-story verbalizing that you’d expect from a story like this. There was no one paraphrasing Mal’s favorite sayings back at him, like: “Of course we came back for you. After all: You’re a member of this crew, right?” And there was no exchange of apologies between Zoe and Wash. Their reconciliation also went unspoken, cemented with the comic irony of Zoe cooking dinner for her husband following his hard day at work. Mal showed up and pretended to fulfill his mock-pledge of bedding Zoe so they could exorcise their alleged feelings for each other. Wash pulled his wife away. “We’ll be in our bunk,” he declared. The enmity between man and woman was over – but the heel-striking had just begun. So to speak. [Insert groan here.] (So to speak.)

Any-hoo, some other brief notes before turning things over to you guys:


Her client in this episode was a prominent politician – and a woman. I was struck by The Councilor’s motivation for seeking out Inara’s care and sensual touch. “I just need to relax with someone who’s making no demands on me.” Inara could relate. “I occasionally have the exact same need as you do,” she said, then added this whopper. “One cannot always be one’s self in the company of men.” The Councilor replied: “Never, actually.” I’d be curious to know if our female readers feel the same way about our culture. Regardless, it was a provocative note to sound in an episode filled with so much rich subtext about identity and human nature, gender roles and male/female enmity. Also, this: Per the blah blah blah of Shan Yu, it takes an act of extreme hostility to draw out and meet The Other as he or she truly is. But what about an act of intimacy? Isn’t that what a loving relationship is supposed to be about – a safe place to be yourself; a safe place to “meet” The Other?


In the beginning, they were running around Serenity, playing like children. Then River went and killed three men during the Battle of the Skyplex with almost supernatural efficiency. Three bullets. Three killshots. All without looking. Chilling. By the end, Kaylee – who faltered during the firefight – struggled to look River in the eye. “War Stories” seemed to say that there are worse ways to lose your innocence than inappropriate sexual activity – like, say, going to war. On another note: The debut of Terminatrix River seemed to clarify the mystery suggested by Simon in the opening act, where he speculated that The Academy was trying to do something very specific to River when they cut up her brain. Were the Hands of Blue trying to make her into a super-soldier?


The preacher revealed that he knew more than a little bit about war and being a warrior in his astute assessment of the Mal/Wash ambush site and his adeptness with weaponry. For me, “War Stories” was the first episode of Firefly in which Book was written and performed with a point of view about Book as a character, and not merely played as a mouthpiece for hollow platitudes or as a punching bag for everyone else’s cynicism and faithlessness. It was like Firefly finally figured him out. Looking forward to seeing – or rather, recalling – what more the show did with him in the few episodes remaining. Only four more episodes left before Firefly is over. Again.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go to my bunk.

The message board is yours.


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