Monday, March 28, 2011

Firefly: War Stories Review

Over the course of the past two months, Firefly has been an enjoyable, if uneven, treat. Its strengths clearly lie in its human characters and believable dialogue whereas, no less clearly, its weaknesses are in poor production values and an over-earnestness that occasionally borders on camp. It has been genuinely scary, funny, and touching over the course of the 9 episodes seen thus far. Even with this experience however, I was unprepared for how powerful the emotional core of War Stories is.

The episode focuses on the relationship between Wash and Zoe as they deal with some problems in their marriage. While Firefly has been justifiably commended in earlier reviews for selling the viewer on this unlikely pairing, War Stories is the first time we go deeper than the superficial humor of Zoe and Wash. Though their marital strife has not been foreshadowed in previous episodes, War Stories does an effortless job of setting up the conflict. We are lured into their private lives through, of all things, a pack of apples Jayne bought (presumably as a way to assuage his own guilt from the events of Ariel). The small touches (Wash not realizing that Zoe always carves her apples with a knife, anecdotes from Mal and Zoe's military past) subtly bring us to the bridge in the middle of a full-blown spousal argument that would otherwise have felt jarring.

Though written by series newcomer Cheryl Cain, War Stories feels like one of Whedon's own scripts in the way it leads the viewer into the heart of the narrative. Wash's jealousy of Mal's relationship with his wife feels justifiable and the solution of replacing Zoe with Wash for a job makes sense. Though Mal accepts the switch only because the mission is a milk-run, The Train Job's Niska (once again terrifyingly portrayed by Michael Fairman) kidnaps the pair, setting the stage for daring rescues and emotional catharsis.

While ostensibly focused on the marriage of Zoe and Wash, War Stories is just as much about Mal's relationship with the two of them. His shared torture with Wash brings to light several revelations, most important that Mal ordered Zoe not to marry Wash. While much of the more inflammatory dialogue is revealed to be an attempt by Mal to keep Wash alive, the kernels of truth peppered throughout make for some genuinely dramatic moments that overshadow even their physical plight in Niska's torture chamber.

As stirring as their shared captivity is however, the most breathtaking moment arrives with Zoe who has collected enough money from the crew to try and purchase their freedom. Niska agrees to part with only one of them, setting the stage for a ham-fisted reaffirmation of Zoe and Wash's relationship. Or rather, it would feel ham-fisted were it not paced so expertly. Before the viewer can even realize the 'which-one-will-you-choose' moment that is being set up, Zoe chooses Wash. The immediacy of her decision compounds the impact of it and the strength of their relationship. It is one of the most breathtakingly-moving moments in a show full of them and Cheryl Cain deserves special recognition for her script.

No look.
Unfortunately, after that moment the episode loses its bearings a little. Wash and Zoe (eventually aided by the rest of the crew) prepare a rescue operation which sees them running Rambo through Niska's space station. Though the cast does their best to sell the action, it comes off campy, draining the threat of Niska and any tension remaining about whether Mal will be saved. The continuing mystery surrounding what, exactly, River is capable of is compounded with her saving the day in a Neo-worthy bit of shooting. And, finally, there are a few nods to other questions surrounding Book's past.

I would have rather seen either a different tactic for saving the captain or the sacrifice of one of the crew in his rescue attempt to maintain the tension surrounding Niska. But, despite its limp to the finish line, so much of the episode is great that we can overlook the campy climax. In addition to the emotional impact involving Mal, Zoe, and Wash, there are also great bits of humor peppered throughout. Alan Tudyk turns in some spot-on lines as they're first captured and Wash's development over the course of the story (Rambo-routine notwithstanding) feels genuine. Nathan Fillion, as always, steals every scene he's in with either his wit or his courage (and not infrequently, the combination of both). And Gina Torres does a fine job foiling for, and arguing with, her husband.

While not the best episode yet, War Stories is a strong entry. It seems that Cheryl Cain had written a second episode that was never filmed thanks to the show's cancellation. More's the pity as War Stories suggests a competent writer with a great feel for Firefly's characters.

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