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Once again, we're tackling another show in TV Blend's weekly series "___'s Best Episode." Each week a different writer will pick out a different episode of a TV show and argue why it is definitively, absolutely the best thing the show ever did. Arguments will be started, tears may be shed, but we're here to start some conversations and make some arguments for really, really good TV. This week Steve makes a case for Firefly’s “Out of Gas,” which weaved a story that changed the course of the series. Read below, argue with us in the comments.
Firefly was one of television’s finest examples of an ensemble of characters driving a story one memorable moment at a time. Each second was packed with the love, loyalty, hilarity, and pain that one would assume is the life of a crew eking out a questionably honest living in space. This was all done in the show-don’t-tell style that is sorely missing from most stories littering the airwaves today.
It’s true that Fox screwed this show more than any other in memory, and it was with Firefly that the network cemented its reputation as a place where great ideas go to die an early death. The world has moved on since 2002, when Malcolm Reynolds and his misfit crew blazed a trail from Persephone to anywhere that paid enough to keep Serenity afloat. The series is astounding in that even the weakest episode has incredible story beats and moments that will live forever in the minds of those fortunate enough to have watched.
Life was cut short for the series, having only 14 episodes produced and the few that did air were shown out of order. It’s not too difficult to pick the greatest episode Firefly ever did, the problem is not picking every episode. You could easily choose “War Stories” for the perfect mix of Wash quips regarding his issues with the relationship between his wife and Mal, and the horror of what it means to be out doing the dirty jobs. The torture scene in this episode could stand as the example of what exactly people mean when they discuss Firefly’s brilliance, especially Zoe’s no hesitation response to Niska. There’s also the fan favorite “Jaynestown” to consider, but while that one is full of good moments it isn’t a perfect representation of the show.
Then you come across “Out of Gas.” It’s an episode of television so phenomenal I envy every person who is going to watch it for the first time. This is without a doubt the best that Firefly ever got, and here’s why.
“She won’t be winning any beauty contests any time soon, but she is solid. A ship like this, be with you ‘til the day you die.” – Captain Malcolm Reynolds
“Out of Gas” was a watershed moment for the series, and it established the characters in a way that had not been done before. Used by writer Tim Minear as a way to get the back story of the crew into the show since Fox had never aired “Serenity parts 1 and 2,” the episode would end up being the most important hour of television for the fledgling space opera.
It’s not pretentious to say that “Out of Gas” was important, because it was a story that introduced the audience for the first time to Serenity. The ship that Mal, Zoe, Wash, River, Book, et al fly on is the backbone of the show. It’s the backbone of their group, and up until this point we’ve listened to Kaylee defend the beat up old girl and Captain Reynolds show fierce loyalty to the ship and her crew. What we never had was our own connection, and it’s in the understanding of how an audience can be made to feel that bond with Serenity and her crew that Minear and director David Solomon tapped into the purest story that Firefly would share.
“Day is a vestigial mode of time measurement based on solar cycles, it’s not applicable. I didn’t get you anything.” – River Tam
Told with a three timeline structure it’d be easy for things to get convoluted, but the script moves smoothly between each timeframe with edits transitioning from Mal holding his hands up in the “now” time to he and Zoe being held at gunpoint by Jayne and some cohorts in the distant past. In fact the triple timeline makes the episode more poignant as you discover how Serenity formed her crew, and in a real sense the beating heart of the ship are those people who sit around a table laughing and enjoying an all protein cake for Simon’s birthday.
“Not as deceiving as a low down dirty deceiver.” – Jayne Cobb
Every character gets a little time to shine, a rarity for any ensemble show and Firefly often couldn’t fit everyone into an episode. The wayback flashbacks flesh out the history of most everyone on the ship, and the ship itself. You see Zoe and Mal exploring a run down ship that he feels has potential, but there’s no life in the old girl. “So, not running so much now?” Zoe asks about the wreck she’s just boarded for the first time. Wash is sporting full-on 70s moustache grandness accented with a loud Hawaiian shirt, and his future wife cannot stand him. Inara lays down some specific rules about the use of the word “whore” in regards to her profession, something we know Mal doesn’t adhere to. And Jayne joins the crew when he’s offered more money while robbing Mal and Zoe.
Interestingly enough it’s a little, somewhat funny, moment during Kaylee’s flashback sequence that changes a large dynamic on the show. We discover that Bester, a laidback hippie dude, was the original ship mechanic. Better yet Mal finds Bester banging a “prairie harpie” in the engine room that is revealed to be Kaylee. It’s hilarious to watch her outwit the mechanic and take his job, but the real revelation is that she is not an awe shucks innocent girl. This changes her relationship to Simon, who we’ve always thought she looked upon with reverence because he’s so handsome and fanciful. The truth is that she’s intimidated by the class difference; Kaylee has no problem rolling around the engine room with a guy. While she may be sweet, Kaylee is not meek.
“Sometimes a thing get broke, can’t be fixed.” – Kaylee Frye
The recent past timeline shows how far each crewmember has grown since they boarded Serenity. It also showcases something singularly wonderful about how Mal handles his crew, each one being treated in the manner required to do the job at hand. Whether it’s telling Wash (by throwing him against the wall of the infirmary) that he is not being asked to go to the bridge but being ordered, or warning Inara to rely on Jayne if trouble arrives but never let him take control, Malcolm Reynolds is a man who can read a situation and get the job done. But he also knows that sometimes things have progressed too far, and it’s time to survive as best you can. Even if it means sending away everyone you care about while you rest on hope of rescue.
“Everybody dies alone.” – Captain Malcolm Reynolds
And that brings us to the spine of the episode, Captain Malcolm Reynolds knowing that he’s failing his ship and the crew that he sent away in shuttles as he shuffles his way with a gunshot wound to try and fix the problem. The present timeline starts right after the recent flashback shows Mal getting shot by a gang that tries to rob Serenity. After getting the hijackers off the ship Mal stumbles about to replace/fix the part of the compression coil that’s gone all wonky. Nathan Fillion’s determined portrayal of the Captain who knows that he’s going to die alone, but desires most of all to save himself and the crew he sent away is inspired work. The drive to keep Serenity, and her heart, flying throughout the ‘verse pulses throughout this timeline; especially when we realize at the end that both shuttles returned to Serenity without being called back.
“You all gonna be here when I wake up?” – Captain Malcolm Reynolds
If you only watch “Out of Gas” you’ll be impressed with how wonderfully clever Firefly is and how truthful the relationships are. It’s not just a great episode of this show, but one of TV’s finest hours. But like any truly fantastic TV episode it’s the relationship to the entire series that elevates “Out of Gas” into that upper echelon of brilliance. Going back and watching previous episodes make you care so much more about what’s happening. “Out of Gas” is the defining moment in the series, and it culminates in Mal’s face as he first finds Serenity as the episode ends. Like Mal we’ve finally gotten a glimpse of the freedom and joy that lives within every character on the show, and we’re so much better for that knowledge. “