Firefly Review: War Stories

“No matter how ugly it gets, you two always come back. With the stories.

Cheryl Cain

War Stories is the *checks Wikipedia* tenth episode of Firefly, and, as the name suggests, it’s an episode at least partly about a particular kind of storytelling.

The story goes like this:

Wash is jealous of Mal’s relationship with Zoe: he feels threatened by the fact that the pair always return from their latest mission with a tale of camaraderie and merry slaughter, and by their long history, rooted in the war between the Alliance and the Good Guys. Accordingly, he demands to be taken on Mal’s next mission instead of Zoe, determined partly to keep Zoe and Mal apart and partly to experience a war story (geddit?) first hand.

Of course, this backfires horribly: Wash and Mal are kidnapped during the course of the mission (the sale of some of the medicine they stole in Ariel, I think) by Very Very Bad Man Niska, whom they pissed off in The Train Job by refusing to steal some other medicine from a struggling outpost. Niska proceeds to torture them ‘orribly, and the crew of Serenity is obviously required to Go and Rescue Them Heroically.

So. Part of what Joss Whedon is trying to do in War Stories, I think, is complicate our understanding of narratives of violence. The premise for the episode – Wash gets more than he bargained for when he insists on doing something whose reality he doesn’t fully understand – is obvious enough, as is his narrative punishment for his unfounded jealousy. It’s no accident that the episode occasionally makes for uncomfortable viewing, as Niska devises ever more ‘orrible torture methods: the point is not only “be careful what you wish for” (that old and much-told chestnut) but also something about the sanitisation of the war story, the too-comfortable position tales of second-hand violence occupy in today’s heroism-centred culture. War Stories seeks to estrange the war story, to restore to it the horror and the nastiness of real lived experience, which is bleached out by the ex post factum telling.

So far, so obvious: this is not a new point. What is new – or, at least, new in this kind of narrative – is the way Whedon handles the other third-hand cultural stereotype of the episode: the Triangle of Jealousy so familiar from endless soap operas. My favourite scene in the whole episode is the one in which Zoe, having collected all the money she can find, marches aboard Niska’s space station and demands her men back. Niska (being a Very Very Bad Man) claims that she’s only brought enough money for one of them, and makes her choose.

Here’s the thing: Niska, and the weight of Western cultural narrative behind him, is expecting Zoe to hesitate. He’s expecting her to blanch, to cry, to break down as she faces an Impossible Choice between two men she lurves romantically.

She doesn’t, because her choice is already made; was already made, in hindsight, from the moment she stepped onto Niska’s space station. She chooses Wash, even before Niska’s finished asking the question. It’s another wrongfooting move on Whedon’s part, and a more effective one because it’s genuinely unexpected, and yet, if we read it in the context of actual lived experience instead of through the lens of troped cultural narrative, it makes perfect sense: he’s her husband, he’s being tortured ‘orribly; how could we, or Niska, think that she would throw him away because of a bit of petty jealousy, a storyline that has lasted all of twenty minutes against four hundred minutes of relationship-building? Because stories (patriarchal stories; Zoe’s reaction to Niska’s attempt at psychological torture has, of course, feminist undertones) are powerful, and stories are also lies.

There are other bits of clever self-awareness like this one: in the inevitable firefight that ends the episode, Kaylee, engineer extraordinaire, finds herself unable to shoot anyone (heroes don’t have to be murderers), and when River hits three stormtroopers bad guys with her eyes closed, Kaylee is horrified (because shooting people is scary, not Matrix-awesome, you violence-addicted viewer). And when Mal comes face-to-face with his torturer, Zoe spouts the “this is something he has to do on his own” line, only to be contradicted by Mal himself: heroes need all the help they can get!

The issue with all of this, as I’m sure you’ve already spotted, is that the episode never actually manages to escape the idealised shadow of the cultural narrative it’s trying to subvert. The fact is that Firefly as a show inevitably revolves around the idea of camaraderie, of merry and inconsequential slaughter, of violence-made-desirable; which is only to say that Firefly is at its heart and incontrovertibly a war story. For all its shock value, the violence of War Stories is, actually, sanitised and strangely hermetic: even when Mal loses his ear all Simon needs to do is sew it back on. There are no consequences to any of this; having seen the next episode, it seems that Mal and Wash recover from their terrible experience physically and psychologically unscathed, and Zoe and Wash’s marriage is completely unchanged. It’s a story about the sanitisation of violence which itself sanitises that violence, a tale about how lived experience is attenuated by its own telling. Perhaps War Stories, on its own terms, can’t escape the war story; perhaps this, ultimately, is Whedon’s point.

What we have, in any case, is a smartly self-aware war story, more interested in motivation than the typical war story and certainly more entertaining. What I’m trying to say, I think, is that I enjoyed it (as I’ve enjoyed every Firefly episode), and that it’s more aware of its flaws than most other entries in the genre, but that that fact doesn’t, ultimately, balance out those flaws.

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