Episode 9 marks a turning point for the series. The previous episodes have been somewhat hit and miss but so far, there’s only been one outright bad episode (Episode 5, which broke all the “rules” of consistent character). However, at best thus far, the series has been very… episodic. That is, a handful of the characters recurs but the events from the preceding episodes seem to have no effect on the upcoming ones.
But with Episode 9, that changes. The transition from Episode 9 to 10 starts off on a promising note. We see the events of Episode 9 actually affecting the events of Episode 10. This is a trend that continues as the story builds to a crescendo. That is an artistic tragedy because, as anyone who is familiar with the series’ history knows, the show was cancelled. Such an outcry resulted that the studio bigwigs decided to conclude Firefly with the movie Serenity (2005).
All of this is to say that during these next few episodes — before the series is tragically cut off mid-stream — we start to feel a sense of momentum from one to the next.
After the successful medical heist in Episode 9, the crew finds itself in an unaccustomed situation — they’ve become wealthy for a change. The ship is in good condition, and they needn’t worry about how they are going to travel from area to the next. They land on a nearby moon to complete their final drop off, the last crate of medicine. But then a character we haven’t seen since Episode 2 reemerges.
To refresh your memory, the crew was hired by a sadistic businessman named Adelai Niska to steal some goods. His money was returned to him because the crew refused to steal them—the reason being that said goods were actually badly needed medical supplies for the local mining town. Niska is not too happy that Captain Mal killed one of his henchmen, and he believes that the very fact Mal’s crew abandoned the mission has tarnished his notorious reputation.
Meanwhile, Wash and his wife, Zoë have a spat about Zoë being more concerned with following Mal’s orders than with paying attention to her husband’s needs. Wash concludes that the best thing he can do is to go on this final drop off with Mal, so he can better understand the captain and Zoë’s relationship. Mal is annoyed by this but acquiesces because the mission is supposed to be a simple drop off anyway. However, during the drop off, Niska’s men take Mal and Wash prisoner and begin torturing our heroes.
What happens next is probably one of the most telling and fascinating character moments in the show so far, falling only a little short of the final scene between Mal and Jayne in Episode 9. Mal begins to taunt Wash about his wife, saying he is a better man than Wash, and that Zoë deserves a man who is more like him.
All of this takes place while they are being electrocuted on some sort of futuristic pole which looks like something out of the Spanish Inquisition. At first, Mal appears cruel, but we soon realize that he is actually doing this to keep Wash alive and strong enough to endure their torture. It is a moment which encapsulates Mal’s entire character. He is a man who sometimes seems harsh but he is always putting his crew first. Wash has never seen combat before, and without this taunting from his captain and potential rival lover, he would not be able to find the motivation to endure Niska’s treatment.
While the two men are at the sadist’s mercy, Zoë and the crew put together a ransom for Mal and Wash. Recall that, for once, money is not an obstacle for them. Zoë goes to Niska’s space station to pay the ransom. Niska being the sadist that he is only allows her to choose one of them. Without hesitation, Zoë chooses her husband and they supposedly leave Mal to die.
What is interesting here is that the writers chose to make it somewhat ambiguous whether Zoë intends to return for Mal. That is an interesting choice but it does serve to show her loyalty to Wash. And it gives Wash the opportunity to step up because he is the one who insists that they go back for Mal. He recognizes that but for Mal’s cruel words, he would not have found the motivation to survive.
In the end, not only do Zoë and Wash return for Mal, but so does the rest of the crew. Since Mal has repeatedly shown that he will go out of his way to make sure they all come back from their missions in one piece, they decide to return the favor. It’s a great gunfight. Each character contributes to the rescue, and we even discover that Simon has managed to somewhat help his sister, using the brain scans he’d taken in the previous episode. Now that River is somewhat lucid, we see that she has some proficiency with guns… a lot of proficiency in fact. It seems that the “men with the blue hands” were doing more with her than just scrambling her brain.
Our episode ends with Mal returned alive and, after Mal and Zoë taunt Wash a little for his jealousy, they all fly off into the “sunset,” leading us right into Episode 11.
Here are my reflections on Episodes 1 through 9:
Firefly: Can science fiction reimagined as the Wild West work? I strongly recommend the original 2002–2003 series for its careful development of the culture that grows up around world-building (terraforming). Firefly is an impressive blend of the future and the past and, if Disney+ carries through with its threat of a remake, be sure to see the original.
Firefly Episode 2: When Captain Mal gets a pang of conscience… In the 2002 series, he decides to return stolen goods when he learns of the plight of those from whom they are stolen — with fearsome consequences. The mystery deepens around the mind manipulation that new crew member River has suffered but we get at least one clue.
Firefly Episode 3: Should some people be left to die? After the space crew rescues the survivor of a pirate attack, Captain Mal faces off against The Shepherd on whether God can save even that man. Mal knows something of what happens to victims of Reaver attacks and he is soon grimly proven right about the ways they change.
Firefly Episode 4: Mal ends up in a swordfight amid outer planets. It all starts when ship’s engineer Kaylee decides she wants to dress like a Southern belle… The blend of space adventure and Western shows signs of strain in this episode but it advances the relationship between Mal and the Ambassador.
Firefly Episode 5, Part 1: Brawls that don’t make sense, Part 1. In this episode, after the cattle are unloaded, characters act in an uncharacteristic way in order to create a plot crisis. The problem with characters acting out of role in order to drive the story is that the story begins to feel incoherent; the crisis doesn’t quite feel real.
Firefly Episode 5: Part 2 So River is now a witch? Simon and River are captured because a town on the planet lacks a doctor. But things take an occult turn… As I noted when looking at the first part, the characters’ behavior seems to defy their history but it does create plenty of action.
Firefly Episode 6: We Meet a Stagecoach — and a Vixen! Gary Varner: In this enjoyable episode, there is only one plot hole and it isn’t really significant. After foiling a crime, Mal finds himself wed to a local woman due to town custom. Usually, these plotlines are easy to guess… but this episode fooled me!
Firefly Episode 7: Jayne can’t live with himself as a hero. Jayne Cobb, otherwise dumb muscle, once helped many people — inadvertently — and is stuck with deadly consequences when the truth emerges. In this well-thought-out episode, the Firefly series examines the burden of being a bogus hero to those who desperately need something to believe in.
Firefly Episode 8: The Ship Breaks Down in Space. What next? Mal, expecting to suffocate alone on the ship while the other crew members escape, relives the life that brought him there. While the flashbacks were strong and well-acted, too many plot developments seem implausible. For example, why didn’t the ship have spare parts?
Firefly Episode 9: A Medical Heist — the best episode so far Simon, with access to medical equipment, diagnoses his erratic sister’s neurological issues — after she has unaccountably stabbed Jayne.
Jayne plots a dire revenge against the crew, leaving Captain Mal with a very difficult decision.